By Alyssa (Kulik) Bloomquist
I started running my freshman year at Mauldin High School. Honestly, I didn't have much of an interest, but my parents made me join our school's cross country team. On day one, I struggled just to keep up and not get lost on the roads, but I slowly worked my way up onto our varsity team. By my junior and senior years, I had captured both team and individual championships in cross country, and a few individual titles in the mile and two-mile on the track.
I have Coach Delmer Howell to thank for that success, and for sparking the confidence for me to see that I was capable of running faster than I thought. I went on to compete on the cross country and track teams at Clemson University. I was a little burnt out and unmotivated my freshman year, but then got a new distance coach, Coach Brad Herbster. He was the second coach to show me that I was capable of so much more. By my junior year, he coached me to the NCAA championships and an All-American finish. Then during my senior year, I won the ACC championships in the 3,000m m steeplechase with an Olympic Trials qualifying time, as well as another All-American finish at NCAAs.
At this point, I had grown to love running and the sports of Cross Country and Track. I felt on top of the world after a good race or even a good workout. I competed at the 2012 Olympic Trials, and had a wonderful time, even though I did not make the team (which wasn't something I was in the running for; I mainly went for the experience). Once that summer of 2012 passed, I was on my own. I was a college graduate in the best shape of her life, but no coach, no team, and no races on my agenda. I felt a bit of sadness without the sport that had been such a huge part of my life for so many years. I started graduate school at the University of South Carolina and continued to run, but I wasn't training anymore.
While I was in graduate school, I decided to try something new and signed up for the Savannah Rock 'n' Roll marathon. I had no idea what I was doing, but I mostly "trained" with regular runs and extra-long runs on the weekends. I didn't do any intervals or speed workouts. I ended up winning that race with a 2:53, which at the time I was very happy with. Over the years that followed, I ran a few more marathons (Memphis, Boston, NYC) with similar times. My running was fairly stagnant, but I had a busy life and was content with that.
Then, in the winter of 2017, I got pregnant with my daughter. I was extremely excited but also wasn't prepared for the changes my body was going through and ended up with a stress fracture in my ankle from trying to run too much during my pregnancy. I had to wear a boot for my whole third trimester and was pretty bitter that I couldn't run. My daughter was born in September 2018, and once I recovered from both childbirth and my stress fracture, it had been 3 or 4 months since I last ran. I remember the first time I went out to try and run, I went extremely slow and only ran one mile. My ankle was tender, I was tired, and I felt extremely discouraged that I would never be able to run like I used to. But my ankle began to feel stronger, and I slowly went from one single mile to 1.5, to 2, to 2.5, and so on. After a few weeks, I was back to running eight miles a day. A few of my running friends even encouraged me to join them at the track once a week for speed work. I slowly started making my postpartum "comeback," and it felt good.
By four months postpartum, I raced a 5K and got a new personal best. At 5.5 months postpartum, I ran a personal best in the half marathon, and at 7 months postpartum, I ran a personal best in the 10K. I realized that my "comeback" had gotten me into better shape than before! Some of my running friends encouraged me to try another marathon and go for the Olympic trials qualifying time, which is 2:45:00.
I thought it would be a good idea to run another marathon, since my last one had been three years prior, and I knew that at the very least I would probably run another personal best. I signed up for the marathon that I started with: Savannah Rock 'n' Roll. I began to train with much more intent than I had for previous marathons, and as the race drew near, I felt extremely ready and fit. However, at the same time, I started to doubt myself. To hit a 2:45, I'd have to shave seven minutes off my personal best, and I started to worry that I had set too lofty of a goal. My husband kept reminding me that it would be ok either way, but my mind was made up: I HAD to do this.
Marathon week arrived, and my stomach was in knots. I made sure to do everything right. I went to bed early each night. I ate pasta for dinner 3 nights in a row. I passed up desserts. I hydrated. I planned out nutrition to take during the race, and water stops to take. I calculated the pace I needed to hit. Then, on marathon morning, my husband and I walked to the start line from our hotel. I gave his hand one last squeeze before taking my place on the start line and then took off.
I knew that in order to hit 2:45, I needed to run an average of 6:17 pace per mile. I decided to shoot for 6:15 pace to allow myself some cushion. I fell into a rhythm, and right on pace for the first 3 miles or so alongside another woman. She began to pick it up, but I was afraid of going out too fast, so I let her go ahead of me and held myself back from trying to get competitive so early in the race. By mile 8, I caught back up to her and passed her. Another woman (a half marathoner) started pacing with me through the split-off point at mile 11.5.
I remember passing the half marathon point at roughly 1:21 (I can't remember exactly), but I felt encouraged that I was on pace to break 2:45. I kept worrying about the miles up ahead, and knew that miles 18-20 would be the make it or break it point for me. In my previous marathons, I had always "hit the wall" sometime between miles 18-20. I would become so exhausted that I would slow down significantly (around a minute or more per mile). Once I hit the wall, my only goal would become to finish, no matter how ugly it was. But this time around, mile 18 came, and I felt good. In fact, my pace was dropping from 6:15, to closer to 6:00. Mile 20 came. I could feel my hamstrings starting to burn, but it wasn't an 'I can't go any faster burn,' it was an 'I'm working hard and feeling strong,' burn. I made it through mile 20 and began to realize that I was going to do it. My pace was staying consistent around 6:00 -ish, and around miles 21-22 I passed a man going up a slight incline. I was heading back toward the heart of downtown Savannah, the crowds were getting bigger, and even though the miles seemed to drag on,
I finally hit mile 26. I remember the biker guiding the race was branching away and said, "I'll let you go through the chute and finish on your own...you've run a great race." I could make out the finish in the distance and heard the crowd roaring in my ears. As I got closer and closer I started to laugh and cry at the same time from both relief that I was finally finishing, and joy that I was reaching my goal. I ran through the tape with a final time of 2:41:24, well below my goal time and with a comeback story that I had never expected to tell.