Wednesday, October 10, 2012


An interview with Rachel Ross about her 2:58 PR at the Chicago marathon

1. You recently achieved a long term goal of your first sub 3 hour marathon.  Chronicle the timeline and all of the prior attempts on your journey to this accomplishment.

I ran my first marathon at Honolulu in Dec. 2005 in 3:12. I had thought 3:30 was a reasonable goal, at the time. Since I qualified for Boston 2006, I figured I should run it. I ran 3:04 there. I definitely thought about sub-3 after that. But then, I got sucked into the Ironman vortex, where I remained for the next 4 years. I ran Honolulu a few times in there (3:12s, almost all of them) but didn't focus much on open marathons. I ran 3:18-3:23 in all of my Ironmans, I think.

Then in December 2010, my friends Stacky, KN, and I went to Vegas for the marathon. My friend Beth Walsh was just coming off a 3:10 marathon in the Kona Ironman, and I thought that translated to sub-3, easy, and told her to come. She did. So I went for it with her. We ran a 1:30 first half, an then I got tired. She went on to run 2:59. I ran 3:03. A little closer.

In 2011, Charisa told me I should employ the services of an excellent pacer named Dave Easa to help me break 3 hours at Honolulu. I knew who he was from high school, but since he was older and cooler, he'd never heard of me. I emailed and asked if he wanted to run with me anyway. He did. I went in a bit of an emotional wreck, and under-prepared. In spite of world-class pacing, I ran 3:08.  I signed up for Chicago because it's flat and considered fast, and I figured I need every little bit of help I can get.

2. How would you compare the Chicago course to various other courses you have raced?  Was there something special about the course which helped you achieve this goal?

The course was everything everyone said it would be. Flat, fast, lots to look at, great support. I don't think I would've run 2:58 on the Honolulu course yesterday. The cold weather made me want it done as fast as possible. The long straightaways let me focus on pace and nothing else. I always had people around me to use, either to follow, or pace off of, or make fun of in my head.

3. Comment on the weather and specifically what it feels like for a Hawaii girl to be in 40 degree temps.  You mentioned dressing like a Michelin Man for the start, did that work ok?

It worked! I wore the beanie until mile 16. People were cheering: "Go eskimo girl!" The only real problem was gloves. I bought Nike knit gloves at the expo. They soaked through when I grabbed water at the aid stations, my hands froze up, and I wasn't able to get shot bloks out of the bag after the 11 mile marker, so I think that's the last time I ate. That could have been a deal-breaker!

All in all, I think the cold weather was key to making the sub-3 day. I was uncomfortably cold a lot of the time. But I think that yields a better performance than uncomfortably warm. My body didn't have to work so hard to keep me from overheating, so it could work on running instead.

4. The Elite Development experience is much closer to first class than business class in terms of privileges.  Did having special treatment factor into your mindset or your performance in a substantial way?  How different was the elite development experience than VIP at Honolulu?

The Elite Development Tent made all the difference in my pre-race experience. Even dressed as the Michelin man, I would have been miserable waiting in the corral. I get so cold sometimes that no amount of clothing can make me ok.

As for the race - it took me a while to warm up my legs. I think that would've happened with or without the EDT. But I bet I started happier because of the EDT. And it's always good to start happy. I have never really taken advantage of the Honolulu VIP start, because the race starts so close to home. It starts at 5:00 am, and I try to arrive at 4:45. So I can't really compare the full experience. I'm pretty sure they don't heat the tent, though. Last year I tried to drop a sweater there, because I had access and a low bib, and a volunteer bit my head off, yelling that the bag drop was only for "real elites." So.

5. You shared this experience with KN, your long time friend and training partner who also co-blogs with you.  Describe how important her help was in achieving this goal, what she said specifically to help get you ready and how her calm early on contributed to your success.

KN is always a calm and happy presence. A shared goal seems less daunting. We were both chasing sub-3. Sometimes I felt stupid even stating such an ambitious goal, like some first time tennis player saying my goal for the day was to beat the Venus sister that's really a man at Wimbeldon. But there's safety (or confidence) in numbers. We worked out our training plan together, did long runs and speed work together, and all of that factored into Sunday's race. On race day, she helped me pre-race by joking around with me, chatting about nothing, and fashion-policing at the start.

She helped a ton in the early miles, using her GPS to keep us on pace. I might have blown it without her. I was bummed when we drifted apart during the race, but we have a deal - if one of us is feeling good, we go. There's no staying back to support each other in an A race, and that's what Chicago was.

6. You've completed Ironman and you've run sub 3, can you comprehend the difficulty of putting those two together?  If so, what form does that comprehension take in your mind?

Honestly, it suddenly sounds less insane to me! Maybe because Beth just did it and made it sound easy. I'm not saying I could do it (no way could I do it) but I think if one was really fit in the bike, and then had a good day out on the run course... Well, I get it.

7. What went through your head over that last, long, straight, 2-mile-long stretch?  Did you experience any doubt?

I knew I was slowing down, but I was confident the worst that would happen was 7 min/mile. I don't know why I thought that was worst-case scenario, I've certainly run slower in the last 2 miles of a marathon before. But I'd seen enough 6:39-6:44 splits to be pretty confident at that point. In fact, I think my confidence that I'd eek in under 3 improved with every mile that ticked off. I spent most of that last 2 miles trying to pass women (I think I got 5 or 6 in mile 26) and trying to hide from the headwind between men. My dad was standing at the 25 mile marker, and I can't remember what was said, but he didn't look like I was blowing it, so I took that as a good sign.

8. If you could have Ikaika at the finish line waiting for you with a big bear hug and the beverage of your choice but no extra clothes and you'd still have to walk back to the tent in your race gear, or you could have a volunteer hand you a full length down parka to warp yourself in as soon as you crossed the line, which would you choose?

Ikaika. I didn't even have to read the rest of the question.

9. You have discussed your sensitive stomach in the past, did this factor in on race day?  Did you have any moments of nausea during or after the race?

I usually start getting chills in the second half of a marathon, then wind up with horrible cramps and well, runner's trots, for 2-3 hours after a marathon. Even with preventative immodium pre- and in-race. I had none of it on Sunday. I had goosebumps from the cold the entire way, so maybe I didn't notice the chills. I met my parents and we bolted for their condo a few miles from the finish immediately, because I was that sure I'd be sick. And the sick just never came. I wonder if it was the cold. Now that I think about it, I didn't get sick after the 3:03 in Vegas. Or the 3:04 in Boston, and both were 40-50 degrees. It could simply be the cold, or it could be the changes I make to my nutrition when it's cold. I only drink water during the race. And I don't hit every aid station, just every other aid station. And this time, I didn't eat anything on the back half, because of my total hand malfunction.

10. You mention kicking Minnie's butt, but did you notice anyone else on the course who fired you up to beat them?  Of the many who you passed over the last 10k, did anyone other than Minnie stand out?  How much of this accomplishment was internal mental toughness as compared to competitive fire sparked from the outside?

The thing I love about marathons vs. triathlons is that I don't feel very competitive in marathons. I feel like most tri-girls are all about who they beat, which is part of why I don't go back to Kona every year. There's too much negativity. At marathons, I feel like it's a cameraderie. We are all out there racing ourselves, our brains, and the clock. I made it a goal to pass girls just to give myself something to think about other than "6:45, keep on it, 6:45." But I said something nice to each one I passed. One girl flew past me at the 26 mile mark, and I thought "WOW, she's amazing!" We spoke after and her last mile was sub-6. There was one heavy-breathing girl who tried to latch on at mile 19 or so, and I made a point of ditching her over
the next mile, just because she sounded so tired, and I was afraid listening to her would make me feel tired. I think most of this race was about battling my brain to reach my goal of sub 3h. Kicking Minnie Mouse's ass was just a bonus.

11. Describe how you felt going over that little carpeted bridge before the dip, underpass, and left turn at mile 22 or so.

I don't know what you're talking about. So maybe I felt ok? Is that where they were giving out beer? I remember thinking that all the guys running over to take cold beer in 40 degree weather were totally insane.

12. What did you eat the night before and what did you eat race morning?

I carbo-loaded for the first time ever. I cut carbs Mon - Fri (with the exception of Trader Joe's PB Cups), even though I hear that is out-dated science and unnecessary, and then on Saturday, I actually had breakfast (rare) of an english muffin and egg whites, I had a chicken sandwich and a scone at whole foods for lunch, and a cinnamon roll in mid-afternoon. By dinner time I felt like a whale, so I had some bites of my mom's spinach salad and my dad's pasta at a little Italian place in Hyde Park. Race morning, I woke up early to eat, so that I wouldn't have any weird blood sugar spikes/crashes going on by the start. I usually just have a venti soy latte pre-race, but this time I added a clif bar at 2.5 hours pre-race. I didn't eat anything in the two hours leading up to the race, and just sipped on water.

13. Would it have been helpful to have KN with you longer?  Or did it help your focus to be alone?

I love running with KN, and it would absolutely have helped and made the experience more rewarding to have her by my side the whole way. We rarely spoke in the miles we ran together, we were very focused, and I certainly didn't gain anything by being alone. It was ok, but not what I had hoped for for the day.

14. There is a turnaround at around mile 18 where you feel pretty far away from the start/finish.  It also starts to thin out at that point in the race.  Did your thoughts drift in any way as you made that turn?

18 - that's where that heavy-breathing girl showed up. She sounded like she was in the last 100m of a 5k. So my only thoughts were "ditch this chick" and also, "wow, we're kind of in the hood. I wouldn't want to be the last person on the course today."

15. Were you happy wearing shorts in 40 degree temps?  Would you have dressed any differently?  Thicker gloves?

Better gloves. But aside from that, I think everything else was just right.

16. Now that the dust has settled but the experience is still fresh, do you think this was simply a greater effort than the past or was it a combination of a strong effort, decent conditions, and a fast course?

It was a combination of things. I have worked harder than that in a race for a crappier result. I think I was stronger from my training. I think I was more determined than ever to run sub-3. And I think great conditions and a fast course were absolutely part of it. I recognized that I had the best possible build, the best possible conditions and course, and I'd pretty much told everyone I'd ever met plus a million strangers on the internet that I was out there to break 3. Although I reminded myself that there's no shame in going after something and failing, I also knew I'd be pretty ashamed had I failed.

17. Describe the halfway point cheer station, the crowd, the noise, and how it affected you making that right hand turn.

I saw my family right after that turn. I heard my aunt from that huge crowd, somehow, and was so happy to catch sight of them. I smiled and waved. I loved that right turn. I also knew based on the split that sub-3 was possible, but I wouldn't let myself get excited yet. Too much can happen on the back half. No one told me that it's uphill
right there, but that really felt like a climb up and over the bridge, to me. I checked the split after that little climb and saw 6:44 again, and got a little more optmistic.

18. Did you think of any of your kids during the race?  Any specific thoughts you'd be willing to share?  Or was this more of a personal experience during which you retreated into your own head?

You know, I should really say yes. And that I do it for my kids. But no, endurance sports are so selfish, and my kids think all moms run marathons and have no idea that my time goal is any different than anyone elses, really, so it's not like they're especially invested. I thought of them, yes, a few times, and wondered what they were doing on Kauai today, and thought that they'd be excited if I broke 3. I called them after, and Sky and Henry forgot I had a race and didn't ask my time when I told them I'd just run the marathon. Wyatt, though, my middle kid, he asked and was excited about my time.

19. Is there an individual athlete who motivated you in a specific way over the past 6 months?  Please don't say Lance Armstrong :p

I heart Lance.

Do I have to pick just one? I have a bunch:

  • Katherine, who went after the goal with me. I know she really believed I could do it, and I wanted to live up to that.
  • Brigitte, who is after the same goal but couldn't make the Chicago trip, who also really believed I could do it and who offered up lots of great, positive thinking guidance. She's also tough as nails, that one, and carried me through a lot of miles.
  • Beth, because if she can do it off the bike, I sure as hell should be able to do it in an open marathon.
  • Ikaika, because he is a world champion paddler who knew my every training workout, my every meal, my every fear, and how my brain works more than anyone else, and he absolutely believed I could do it. He texted me the night before, as I lay there not sleeping, from Molokai. "You ate awesome and I love you and am proud of you no matter what. Plus you're super hot." He made me laugh when I needed to stop worrying, and he reminded me not to stress out, that in the end, sub-3 or not, life would be fine. (I think he meant "are awesome" but I could have ate awesome too).

20. Now that it is settling in, do you feel this result is repeatable?  Do you feel a desire to keep pushing the limit of your marathon PR?  Do you have a satisfaction that allows you to focus on other goals, perhaps triathlon again or different distance PR's?

Yes, I feel it's repeatable, but I don't know if I could improve upon it. And no, I don't feel a major desire. I bet I will later, though. I already know what I'd tweak to try to do it a little faster.  I had in my head that I'd race for the sub-3 at Chicago, then go to NYC and just cruise it and enjoy the race and sights. I feel satisfied enough to do that. If it's under 40 degrees in NYC, I will sleep in instead.

21. What is your favorite part of Chicago?  What did you do for fun after the race?

Hanging with my family. My parents are there, and we spent the whole time together. I also have aunts and uncles and cousins etc. in Chicago. Even though I never lived there, it's our family's home. After the race I took a bath for fun, then laid around on the floor and watched football with my dad and the dogs. I don't even understand football, but my brain was fried enough to lie there and pretend. By the next day, my mom and I were shopping downtown again.

22. How do your legs feel after this effort as compared to previous ones. Does a PR mean a trashed body or does the elation from the PR eliminate some of the muscle soreness?

I'm slightly sore, but not like I have been in the past. Weird, isn't it? Maybe it was the elation. Who knows. I feel fine today and will run this evening.

23. How will you build on this confidence with your upcoming performance at the underpants run?  Do you plan to do anything differently this year based on this recent performance? 

I intend to run the Upderpants Run tomorrow slightly fatter than last year. Unfortunately. And I think the team bikini is shiny, this time. Whether or not there's a skull on the crotch is TBD.


  1. What does it mean by "Venus sister that's really a man at Wimbeldon"?

    1. I assume RR is describing Serena Williams.

  2. Oops, should have said Venus' sister...

    Have Serena and Deion Sanders ever been seen in the same place at the same time?