LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 017, February 2020
By Ashley Higginson and Liam Boylan-Pett
Photo by Randy Riksen
Just past the 3-mile mark of the Grand Rapids Marathon on October 20, 2019, I started to annoy my wife.
I blame G.P.S.
The first two miles of the run had gone to plan. We had a goal of running sub-6-minute-15-second pace for the entirety of the race, and we had run the first two miles through flat streets on an overcast morning in Grand Rapids in 11 minutes, 30 seconds. Our G.P.S. watches, however, were telling a different story.
According to Garmin, we had run 11 minutes, 20 seconds for two miles. We ran the next mile in 6 minutes, 18 seconds, according to the watch. About 10 seconds later when we crossed the real 3-mile mark, we had officially fallen behind pace—even if only slightly.
I was about to tell her we needed to pick up the pace, but she spoke first. “It’s too fast,” she said. “We have been under six-fifteen for each mile.”
Apparently her watch was even further off than mine.
“Ashley,” I said, attempting to be as calm as possible, “the G.P.S. is wrong. We actually have to speed up.”
“Well shit,” she thought, wishing I was wrong.
I had heard of other couples fighting on runs. Fighting about pace, fighting about where to go, fighting about how far. But we went for runs all the time and never got mad at each other.
Until the Asbury Park Half Marathon in April of 2019.
You see, he has a bouncier stride than me. And as we were running along the boardwalk at 6-minute pace on a windy day, I just couldn’t stand how easy it looked for him. And I really couldn’t stand him half-stepping me.
“I know you’re trying to help,” I said between breaths somewhere between Mile 7 and 8, “but you’ve got to stop pushing the pace, Liam. I’m dying.”
He still inched in front of me and attempted to pick up the pace a few more times, but I could tell he at least tried to slow. And then, because some other guy had been running on our heels from Mile 6 to 11, annoying me even more than my half-stepper, I picked up the pace the final two miles. We dropped him and ran 1 hour, 19 minutes, 33 seconds. It was just over 6-minute pace. I felt horrible and couldn’t imagine running twice the distance.
But for some reason that was the day I decided I was going to attempt to run the Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying time.
So I shouldn’t have been that surprised when he was pushing the pace in Grand Rapids six months later.
We had prepared for a moment like this. Ashley’s watch could not take splits manually, so we knew mine was the one we were going to pay the most attention to. And we also knew that I had a proclivity to half-stepping after the Asbury Park near blow-up—I had almost told Ashley that maybe my help wasn’t worth it for her, then, but realized how unnecessary that would have been in the middle of a 13.1-mile run—so I was working on keeping pace.
We had been working on the pace and my “half-stepping” since Ashley decided she really wanted to give 2 hours, 45 minutes a shot.
To me, it was a no-brainer she was going to do it. This was a woman who had made a world championship team in the steeplechase and finished second in the U.S. in the event two times. She had done all that while in law school at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey. I had seen her run a Michigan workout in New Brunswick, hammering the tempo section as snow pelted across the road. Meanwhile, I considered hiding in the port-a-potty, but after the workout, she was jumping into her car, changing into real-world clothes, and going to night classes before coming home to hang out with me at our place in Clinton, New Jersey. Then she would study some more.
Now she was a lawyer, and while she was working billable hours that seemed unfair, I was confident she could run a pace of 6 minutes, 17 seconds per mile for a marathon—she had run nearly two miles over hurdles in just over 5 minute pace, why wouldn’t she be able to do this? And, we decided, despite the half-marathon situation in Asbury Park, why wouldn’t I run it with her?
She asked my brother, Will—who coaches a slew of amateur marathoners and road racers and was a coach at Columbia University and N.Y.U. before entering the corporate world—to put together a training plan, and in late June began training for a marathon. That was about the time we decided to move halfway across the country to Michigan, where Ashley would be starting a new job.
Not ideal for marathon training, I guess.
But we ran nearly every step together starting that August once we arrived in Lansing for our new lives. Running on farm roads at sunrise, we would take turns leading reps as we ran 8 x Mile, 2 x 4-Mile tempo, or 20 x 400 meters. We talked about whether she could run under the qualifying time. She doubted it many times, questioning if all the training was worth it, but I think deep down she knew it was a real possibility. And we would talk about that time in Asbury Park when I was pushing the pace the wrong way. How, this time, I needed to stay on Ashley’s shoulder or just to her side if we were going to make it a full marathon without pissing one another off. We talked about how I was going to be the one watching the time and making sure we were on pace. We talked about how we were going to hit as many 6 minute, 15 second miles as possible, that way we would have a small cushion if the last few miles got bad.
After four miles of racing in Grand Rapids, I reminded Ashley she didn’t need to look at her watch. I had it under control, I told her.
After falling slightly behind pace through four miles, we ran the fifth mile in 6 minutes, 5 seconds. Then we hit the sixth in 6 minutes, 9 seconds and the seventh in 6 minutes, 7 seconds.
We were probably going too fast now, but I kept my mouth shut.
Everyone told me that it was going to feel easy through the half marathon. My coach, my husband, my friends. They all said the first half of the race goes by in a blur. How I will need to hold myself back. Sure, I had doubts that I could run sub-2 hours, 45 minutes, but I was at least confident that I was in pretty good shape. So, I really did think the first half marathon was going to be fun.
When Liam told me we were too slow at three miles, I started to wonder why we were even there.
This whole thing started because I saw friends and former competitors qualifying for the Trials. I had competed in the steeplechase in 2012 and 2016, but this was a different type of goal. This was a way for me to look at running in a new way. I wasn’t doing it to make an Olympic Team, I was doing it to prove to myself I could still set a goal and achieve it. Even though it was different, some of the old stresses and injuries came back, too.
Ever since I had stopped running competitively, my Achilles, my hip, and my lower back had always been on the verge of injury. Training for this marathon was a fine line between injuring myself and running enough. Since moving to Michigan, we had not missed a run or a workout, but I woke up every morning with creaky ankles and aching legs. I didn’t have time for the little things. I would do planks while we watched Netflix. Notably, our dog, Dunks, would bring balls over and jump on me to make the core work even more difficult—but that was about it. And we didn’t have time for too many miles, either. I maxed out at 65 per week.
I was in good shape, though. During one of my 20-mile runs, Liam and I ran 10 x 1-mile with 1-minute rest at slightly over 6-minute pace. I also learned how to suffer. One Saturday, we ran for 3 hours. Rain spit down on us when we started, but 2 hours later, it was sticky and humid, and the sun was burning as we ran over hilly dirt roads. We stopped at a party store (that’s what they call convenience stores in Michigan, weird, right?), and begged for a Gatorade, saying we’d be back in an hour to pay them back with interest. The store manager didn’t believe us and instead gave us a styrofoam cup filled with lukewarm water that she might have filled using the hose outside. Suffice to say, we finished the last hour slowly and, it turns out, not all Midwesterners are nice.
But all of that was supposed to make the first half marathon feel good.
Instead, I was in “the shoes”—I was apparently the only person in the world who didn’t like them, but wore them because it seemed stupid not to—and I could feel a blister forming almost immediately. (I had worn them for a short tempo, and didn’t particularly like them then, either.) My achilles was tight. Plus, I knew I should have peed one last time before the race started.
Instead of an easy “half” to kick off this marathon, I was having one full of doubts.
But we kept hitting the splits. I stopped looking at my watch and Liam and I ran side by side. We picked up a guy who said he was trying to run 2 hours, 46 minutes. We told him we were running faster than that, but he stuck with us.
I didn’t feel good—honestly, I didn’t feel very good at all. Yet, we hit the half marathon in 1 hour, 21 minutes, 33 seconds. It was right in that 81- to 82-minute goal we had.
It was the first time I started believing we could do it.
Once we hit the half, I was sure she was going to do it. Ashley hadn’t said to slow or speed up since I told her the horrible news that we were going too slowly 4 miles into the race. We were chugging along. We even had a racing partner joining us.
I didn’t mind him being there, even if he was letting us break the wind for him. He was well under his goal pace so we weren’t going to make him lead. Plus, he was another positive voice. He was echoing us as Ashley and I kept reaffirming to ourselves that we did, indeed, “have it.”
That is, until he started talking about the out-and-back from Mile 16 to Mile 22.
We had never run the course. This was my first marathon. I was worried about the last 6 miles more than I thought I would be.
And this guy was saying how awful the stretch from 16 to 22 was going to be.
“Just be ready,” he said shortly after the half-marathon mark. “It’s a crowned road and it’s quiet and it’s really hard to stay on pace.”
“It looked pretty flat,” Liam said.
“It is,” he said, “but the crown of the road is steep and the pavement isn’t great.”
“Well that sucks,” Liam said.
I agreed, silently.
The thing about marathons, is that they kind of suck from Mile 16 on no matter what. So, when the guy running with us told us the stretch along the river was awful, I wasn’t too worried.
The thing about people, is that sometimes you can disagree completely with them. Because the stretch from Mile 16 to Mile 22 at the Grand Rapids Marathon—an out-and-back along a river park that was flat and cool—was my favorite part of the race. Only a week earlier, Eliud Kipchoge had run on a perfect, tree-lined street in Austria. There was no crowd, but this was honestly as close to that as we were going to get in West Michigan.
The guy was full of it. Liam would compare it to Kipchoge’s course, and he was way off in doing that, but the flat stretch along the river was nice. I kept not looking at my watch and at each mile Liam would tell me we were fine. We hit 20 miles and were 20 seconds ahead of 6-minute-15-second pace, which was one minute ahead of the qualifying time.
Shortly after 20, the Crowned Road Guy started to drop. We were slowing, but only slightly.
It was after 20 that I stopped noticing the aches and pains. I simply wanted to finish.
I asked Liam to lead and I turned off my brain. I looked at his back and wouldn’t let him get away from me.
The miles trickled by. We finished 22, then 23, and as we ran along a bike path on a big open field during the 24th mile, I asked how we were doing on time.
“We’re going to do it,” he said.
I actually believed him.
My favorite part was the final 2 miles. It took three months of training and 24 miles of running, but Ashley finally knew she was going to do it. She knew she was going to qualify for her third Olympic Trials.
She didn’t let herself get too excited with two miles to go, but then she asked how much time we had with 1 mile to go.
“You have seven minutes,” I said.
“We’re going to do it,” she said for the first time. Immediately thereafter, she said “do not speed up.”
With less than a mile to go, I was finally able to relax.
Yes, every part of my body hurt. Yes, there was still one percent of me that thought my legs might stop working altogether. But I knew I could do it.
We saw Liam’s dad with about 400 meters to go. He snapped some photos and shouted, “You got this.” Honestly, I had been looking for Liam’s dad since mile 6, but the course got confusing for him and it was just great to see him then.
I picked it up the last quarter mile, making sure that 2-hour-45-minute mark on the clock wasn’t anywhere in sight. Liam let me pull away, even though he later joked that he might not have had the move I did.
I finished in 2 hours, 43 minutes, 45 seconds.
We hugged. I cried. I was so happy to be done.
I spoke with a few reporters. We walk-jogged to the parking garage where we had parked, changed into some dry clothes and sent texts and made calls to let everyone know I had qualified. Then we drove and met Liam’s dad at the Trader Joe’s in Grand Rapids, because there isn’t one in Mid-Michigan. And they sell really good, cheap wine.
It was a good morning.
I have probably written it before, but the finish line of a marathon is one of my favorite places in the world. It is filled with emotion—mostly joy. Even if you did not quite achieve your goal, you at least finished 26.2 miles, which is no easy task no matter the pace.
The finish line in Grand Rapids was the same that day. I finished three seconds behind Ashley but might have been hurting more than her. She spoke with reporters and said how excited she was. We had two finish-line emotions: Joy that she had done it, relief that she had done it.
We wore our tin-foil blankets to the car and called my brother, Ashley’s parents, and texted many others. We met my dad for a beer on the way home, picked up our dog at my mom’s, then met some friends for burgers and another beer.
Finally, after a long day, once we were back in our apartment, I said to Ashley, “I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is you have to run another marathon. The good news is you don’t have to do it with me.”
This Olympic Trials is different. In 2012, I had just graduated college and was taking a year to clean up some “unfinished business” on the track. I came in fourth place in the steeplechase—some say, the worst place. The place where you try on an Olympic ring, “just in case.” The alternate. Yet, I was young and naive and happy to be a part of it all. Next time, if there was a next time, would be better.
In 2012, I will never forget my training partner (who became my sister in law) saying, “You come back here and you think it will all be easier and it is just harder.” Boy, was she right.
In 2016, I was a person to watch. I had been in the conversation for five years now, made a few teams. Further, I was in the best shape of my life. After graduating law school, I focused all my efforts on punching a ticket to Rio—and the 2016 trials punched me right back. I faded in the last push and lost contact with the leaders. And, in the best shape of my life, I quit. I went to work and started to clock some billable hours.
For fifteen years, I dedicated my life to running—to achieving all that I could out of my body. In 2016, I pushed that aside as I started down a new path. The path where you get married, bill 40 to 60 hours in a week, get a dog, and move to Michigan.
Running calls you back, though. My third Olympic Trials is going to be different, but it is going to be mine. In many ways, it is the one I am proudest of all, because it took the humility to push aside the pride of who I was in the pursuit of who I am becoming.
So, here I am again—with an additional 24-and-a-half-ish miles to run.