The run that killed me.

The run that killed me.

A little over a month ago, during a perfect coffee date with my college roommates, I made a fairly bad decision.  Katie, one of my dearest friends, told me she qualified for the Boston marathon and planned to run the following year.  Now, this is particularly important because next year we all turn 40.  While she was talking I felt inspired, and being both high on caffeine and love, I decided, I too should try to qualify for Boston.

Just one day later I hit the google search hard to find a race with the farthest date away that could qualify me for Boston.  I found one on the 17th of September (the deadline for Boston) in Walker, MN.  That gave me just over 6 weeks to train – Lord help me. It was a trail race and boasted of beautiful scenery – how lovely.  Sounded good to me.  I signed up.  If only I knew.

Sara Jespersen fake-smilesThe following weeks became a grueling schedule that I wasn’t quite ready for.  I read as much as I could about marathoning because, although I’ve run them before, I’ve never run for a time.  I read about tricks and hacks so I could turn 6 weeks of training into a performance that would have needed more like 36 weeks.  My clients helped tremendously, one, who I am particularly fond of, Maria, rode her bike at 4am with me so I could have light, company, and water if I needed it.  Another, Emily, joined in on runs with endless support and offered special potions to cure what ailed me.  My dad biked my long weekend runs, he wanted to be sure I was safe (it’s really dark in the wee hours of the morning), and his presence alone made me work harder and train with more heart.  It was awesome, really awesome.

So, this weekend, my family traveled north 3.5 hours for the big race.  I was blissfully unaware of what lied ahead.  I was carb-loaded, fuel belt prepared, and feeling lethal with my game plan in tack.  The night before, in the hotel room, my family even practiced the water hand off, fuel refill, and electrolyte water timing.  I was actually running through the room, with ferocity and speed, so that when the time came we, team Jespersen, would nail it – comical now considering how it all played out (wish I was embellishing the story, but nope, we are that nerdy).

In the morning I did my typical pre-run prep.  Got up 3 hours before race time to eat, drink and pray for every runners very important “duty” to call pre-run.  Funny enough, when I got to the start, I met other runners in the bathroom who shared their very important “duty” stories with me – seriously, what’s wrong with us?  It was go time and the reality of the tiny size of this race really set in.   They counted down the start of the race with no microphone, no gun, no fanfare.  Just 4,3,2,1 go.  I started with a dozen guys…I felt amazing – one guy, en route, told me the final 1/2 mile hill to the finish line was brutal (I smiled inside, he didn’t know that I live for hills).  Each and every mile I felt like I was holding back, trying to keep my pace no faster than 8 minute mile because I wanted to leave fuel in the tank…good advice everyone shared…start slow.  Check.  The first 6 or 7 miles were hilly, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  Then came an unexpected turn.  An arrow pointing down to a ditch that said (to mile 7)…what?

So, I smiled to myself and ran into the ditch and up a fairly steep hill into the woods.  That’s when the race got real.  Now, I’m from northern MN and am no stranger to 4 wheeler trails, but this was a rollercoaster through the woods.  The trail was marked with bright orange paint on any obstacle, so I got busy dodging mud puddles, tree stumps, and high stepping through protruding roots.  Impossible foot angles and nerve zingers in my heels became a constant reminders of the unsteady terrain.  From the moment I entered the woods, I saw no one.  Running alone can be both cathartic and challenging.  On this day, it was challenging. There were some mud bogs I couldn’t get around, so I had no choice but to sludge through.  My shoes were wet, my quads were on fire, and I felt every ounce of the 10 mile trail.  There were a few minutes I felt my toenails fall off – at least I thought they fell off.  Found out later I just had blisters on every toe, 2 on some, and that feeling was just them popping along the way – lovely.  Turns out flailing down hills stubbing toes on roots and turning your ankle a handful of times does add up.  If you ever watched the episode of Friends where Pheobe runs, you can then picture what I looked like on every downhill.


I knew my pace slowed significantly in the woods. I just kept telling myself that when I got back out to the road I could make up time.  When I got to a clearing my hope peaked, until just 1 mile later, I had to turn back up a daunting, but breathtaking, hill into the woods, that’s when my body said no, and the mind game began.  Marathons, after all, are mind games.  In all my life, I can’t remember wanting to cry during a workout of any kind…until that mile.  Adding insult to injury, my mapmyrun was perfectly synched at mile one, but slowly my miles didn’t add up to the course miles, and when the mapmyrun lady told me I’d run 20, the course mile markers told me I just passed 19.  Worst. Mind. Trick. Ever.  I pulled some pep talks from the depths of my soul to get me through the climbs.  Why don’t they give marathons a degree of difficulty?  Seriously, this was a mix of tough mudder, meets ski hill, meets marathon, meets Avatar.  No wonder there were so few of us at the start line.


My family, champion supporters, were ever hopeful and encouraging along the whole route.  I knew, however, the moment I missed my qualifying time. My husband, who has been so supportive, Nater, looked a little grim and said, “Do you want to know what you need to do?”  I said, “nope” – I didn’t want to face the reality.  The thought of all that hard work…and no qualifying…it was too much to accept in the moment.  Not long after that my phone died at mile 22.75 (really mile 21ish), and the last thing I heard through my headphones was 3 hours 5 minutes.  That meant I had 35 minutes for 5.2 miles.  Now I’m not very mathy, but the basic numbers were clear enough, I wouldn’t make it.  I could barely move.  My heart broke a little, but I really couldn’t have given more…I was whipped.  At least I had a dirt road for the last few miles.  I quickly regretted my initial thought of ending on a hill being simple.  Humble. Pie.

I finished, trying desperately to sprint alongside my uber cheerful youngest daughter running and shouting over and over, “You Can Do It!!” (my favorite mantra).  God bless her, I hoped I wouldn’t vomit on her.  I finished and promptly fell into the grass trying to catch my breath. I was 8th overall.  First for females.  Sounds impressive, but not really if you consider how few people actually did the race.  I now know why…wish I would have got the memo!  I missed qualifying for the famous Boston marathon, but I will never forget the challenge.  It was gorgeous, rigorous, and painfully awesome.

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