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A TRL pandemic marathon story

By Janne Heinonen and Chelsea Warren

In late April, we ran the Virtual Eugene Marathon on Sauvie Island. In the before-times, this article might describe our training plans, our race strategies, our experience as first time marathoners (or first in a very long time). But these are pandemic times, and this marathon was so much more than a marathon. It was the culmination of all the good things that got us through the hard things this past year.

Our race marked one year since our original goal of the Eugene Marathon in 2020. The Champoeg 30k in March was one of the last normal things we did in 2020. Shortly thereafter, we were, like so many others, plunged into remote work while parenting kids plunged into remote school. We worried for family and friends who had lost jobs, were struggling with isolation or anxiety, or facing COVID-19 exposure in their front-line jobs. More than ever before, running was our pressure valve and our few moments alone each day. Running became necessary.

Saturday reprives
We revised our goal to a half marathon time trial. We combed through what was known about outdoor transmission and an informal running pod was born. With Kellie Houser and Carre Heineck, Saturday morning long runs became sacred.

Each Saturday morning, we ran together. We were outside, as ourselves – not as a mom, not as a nurse. We laughed, worried, and occasionally shed tears together. We ran our first time trial together. As the pandemic stretched into summer, we started setting goals together. We raced the TRL Summer Series and Stumptown XC together, mostly just to be together. We let go of the need to run a “real race” and instead focused on the journey of continuing to stay in motion with all the changing conditions week to week.

A long winter
As winter approached, we set our marathon goal. This was different than the previous virtual races – a stretch goal. This was Chelsea’s first marathon; Janne’s first in over 25 years, and the first with real preparation.

Our coaches, Rick Lovett (Chelsea) and Paul McRae (Janne) became our guides. They planned and pushed and reassured. They prepared us even when we didn’t understand why or where we were headed. They believed in us even when it felt impossible.

We are grateful for Rohit Grover, Jessica Dover, and so many other friends. They answered endless questions. They ran with us and reassured us. Rohit ran workouts instead of tapering for his own races, shared his training and nutrition plans and support vehicle logistics, and became our on-call marathon guru.

Saturday long run workouts were long and painful and exquisite. Kellie and Carre, preparing for their own separate race, joined each one, along with other friends. Carre and Janne did each workout side by side. On weekday workouts, we ran as fast as we could between parenting and grading and Zoom meetings. We wondered aloud if it was possible to ever feel energetic again.

We trained through cold and wind and rain and hail. And sunshine and the first spring flowers. Finally, race day approached. Our legs felt a little lighter. The pace felt a little easier. Our goals started to feel more possible.

Finally, race day
After a week of anxiety and planning, we arrived at Sauvie feeling ready. It was chilly and drizzly, a relief after a warm week.

The people are what made the day. Friends and family were eager to support and pace. Without support stations, we each had a support vehicle to provide fluids: Lauren Elgee for Chelsea, June and Jerry Boone (her parents) for Janne. Rick Lovett came out with his telltale cowbell. We thought our pacers would merely keep us company, but they let us through perfectly paced first and second halves. Our families were there at the finish.

All runners in this photo were vaccinated

Janne’s race: Sam Shiley precision paced me for the first half, joined by Carre 6 miles in for a full 20 miles; and Troy Bash and Larry and Max Merrifeld for a short time for their half race. Rohit Grover and Raghav Wusirika paced through a negative split second half, along with Erin Skourtes (for Eugene Half race). My goal was to run sub-7:00 pace with a total time close enough to 3:00 to try to break 3:00 in an in-person race. The second half was faster, but Paul’s belief that sub-3:00 was possible gave me the confidence to go with the faster pace. I felt great and waited for the pain and fatigue, which didn’t come until around 22 miles. I am so grateful for my training partners, Paul’s preparation, hydration support from my parents, and the amazing pacing that made this experience so positive. More than that, to be able to do this together with my amazing friends by my side means so much to me.

Chelsea’s race: The thought of running a virtual marathon at first seemed a bit overwhelming to me. With such a time and energy investment, you want to make sure it is worth it. I had never completed a marathon before, and at 37, I was starting to realize the years for a fast marathon are limited. I had attempted the Foot Traffic Flat Marathon 3 years ago, and dropped out after mile 18. At the time, my body was not able to handle the training and I did most of my long runs on a treadmill in order to manage family demands. I was working full time, commuting 2 hours a day, and nursing a kid. In 2020, with my kids a little older and my work transitioning to be remote, I was able to put the time and energy into training and was making drastic improvements in my running. With most running marathons being cancelled and going virtual, I was conflicted on what to do. I really wanted to run a marathon in 2021. Having Janne commit to the virtual experience was all I needed to move forward.

The race itself ran smoothly because of the great advice and support from Rick and teammates. My A goal was sub 2:50, but I knew I needed to let go of expectations and finish the race no matter what. Ben Flaata, Kellie Houser and Steve Short paced me through the first half. I came through the first part feeling confident, controlled, and was right on track with my target pace. Dan Bartosz and Darren Moore helped me maintain the pace during the second loop. My pacers helped carry water for me so I was properly hydrated throughout the race. I was worried about hitting the wall, but the even pacing and proper hydration helped prevent that from happening. Lauren Elgee and Rick cheered and provided water every 3-5 miles. I was deeply moved by the amount of support that we had on our special day. Crossing the finish line with close family, teammates, and Rick present, was a moment I will never forget.

The week after: the high, the low, reflection
We spent a few days feeling elated and grateful, followed by the agony of resting and recovery. But it gave us time to think and reflect. On our many walks that week, an important point became clear. Many of us feel a background guilt for spending time away from our jobs and families to run. Yet during our recovery week, we were less, not more productive; we were less, not more patient and generous. Running is a part of us, and running allows us to be our whole selves in other parts of our lives.

We can also see how running provided all of the factors that psychologists are now explaining that many people are lacking in the pandemic: a goal, a purpose, “flow” on a daily basis, structure to the day and the week. We are not languishing. We are stressed and overwhelmed and exhausted. But running helps us get through each day. The Virtual Summer Series, Virtual Stumptown, and homemade virtual races gave us goals and structure that otherwise would have stretched across an endless string of Zoom meetings. Most of all, being together with fellow Lizards for an inherently outdoor activity is a gift. We are grateful to be a part of this amazing community.

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