The last mile of the race, my approach to the finish line, and the next 10 minutes rank pretty high on the euphoric scale. In so many ways I have my wife, family, and friends to thank for the support on the road to reaching my goal of finishing my first marathon under four hours.
The mundane race details follow.
I wasn’t the first racer through the doors to the packet pickup but I came pretty early Friday afternoon to pick up my bib, parking pass & shirt. #102. 2013 was the fourth year of the Tobacco Trail Marathon. I am not sure if they have put any emphasis on the ‘railroad’ nature of the American Tobacco Trail, but this year both the shirt (a black tech tee!) and the finisher medal prominently featured a locomotive. So yeah, the perfect theme for this train enthusiast.
Call it superstition but I didn’t want to spend too much time looking at my race swag since I felt like I had merely paid for it, but not yet earned it. Specifically, my problems with my left knee still weighed heavily in my mind.
Per my Run Less, Run Faster plan I actually did get in one last tempo run on Friday. Between some building pre-race energy, my newly acquired IT Band… band, and a regular regimen of ibuprofen (the latter two courtesy of my new Physical Therapist’s advice) I only suffered a few bad steps that I was able to run through, and maintained my pace. A light five miler is a lot different than a 26 mile slog through.
Saturday, One Sleep ‘Till Race Day:
I spent Saturday trying to rest as much as possible. Ironically trying to rest was something of an active pursuit on Saturday, since we were celebrating Noah’s fourth birthday with a party at Marbles Children’s Museum. He seemed to have a fun time running around the museum and playing with his friends; I tried to sit down as much as I could while still having fun.
I think the majority of the week’s carb-loading was junk food, although I did the classic pre-race dinner and threw together a simple pasta meal for dinner.
Somehow I succeeded in getting to bed by around 9. Key factors were probably setting my alarm earlier & earlier during the week and avoiding caffeine after noon.
Sunday, Race Day:
4 am, pre-race Breakfast. Pot of coffee, yogurt & luna bar. I took my time getting ready, but didn’t have much thinking to do- I had already laid out everything the night before. Out the door around 5:45, planned to arrive on site at 6.
As they say, the race director did a perfect job setting the thermostat for race day. It didn’t really get much colder than 50 degrees F overnight; I barely needed my throw-away sweatshirt to feel warm. I arrived at the parking lot with no problems; I didn’t want to fool with the busing system that seemed to suffer some problems in the past.
Taking some pre-race advice from various podcasts I immediately got in line for the port-a-potties. Didn’t totally feel it was necessary, but it was a good idea to go while the lines were shorter. It still surprised me to see how long the lines got.
Eventually, around 6:45, the director called the racers to the starting chute on Brooks Park Lane. I found my way to the 4:00 pacer, upon which I discovered my Garmin was dead. Instantly I realized I would have no real-time data during my run- pacing, distance, heart-rate: no soup for you! I considered going back to the car to grab my phone and stick it into my pocket to keep up with Strava, but it seemed like I didn’t have enough time.
Whether it was my race nerves or the actual passage of time, the remaining minutes between my garmin fail and the race start flew by. I struck up a conversation with another runner before the starting horn; we were both first-timers planning to run sub-four. She had done a few half-marathons last year; I felt a little silly admitting I just jumped straight to the full marathon.
Evidently the race started pretty close to 7:00 am on the dot. Standing alongside the 4 hour pacer it took about 1-2 minutes for us to actually reach the start/finish line even though we weren’t that far away (perhaps 25-50 yards or so). Instinctively I started dodging and weaving in traffic to stay with the pacer, and left my new acquaintance to her own devices- which turned out to be a conversation with a Meredith religion teacher. Race traffic remained heavy on Morrisville Parkway, but the marathon/half-marathon split did a good job of cutting down on the race traffic. The half-marathon route turned south on the American Tobacco Trail while the marathoners turned north onto the trail (a right turn for us) for a ~10 mile leg. [Race Map for the curious]
Without my garmin I had to base my pacing on a.) the pace runner or b.) virtually nothing. And so for no good reason at all, I decided b.). I guess I wanted to put some distance between me and the pacer’s crowd, so I latched onto a few runners that seemed to be going at a reasonable pace ahead of the pacer. This leg of the race, between Morrisville Parkway and Scott King Road, would be my fastest, for better or worse. I reached the turnaround and the 8.27 mile split in 1:15:09, running at about a 9:05/mile pace overall. In reality my pace had picked up from 9:20 to 8:54 minutes/mile between the first 3.44 mile split and the 8.27 mile split.
The second and third quarters of the race were my slowest, and the 6 miles southbound on the trail between Scott King Road and Morrisville Parkway were unquestionably the hardest from a mental standpoint. I felt slower, I started to dwell on my left knee/IT Band, and started to ponder walk/run breaks. There were a few tender steps where I wondered how many additional steps I could jog, but as the race wore on my IT Band didn’t really get in the way. It ‘barked’ a few times, but each time I was able to run through the bursts of pain. Apart from feeling slower and focusing on my knee, I lost track of the kids I was using for pacing and felt like several other folks had come out from nowhere and passed me. [Reality check aside: I rarely actually took the time to look behind my shoulder to spot the pace group, or for any other reason. Thus just about anyone who didn’t approach singing or bantering naturally seemed to “come out from nowhere.”]
On that leg, or for the rest of the race for that matter, I never stopped to take a walk break, and the 4 hour pacer never caught up with me. Both of these victories were practically so tangible in my mind that I pictured wearing them as badges of pride.
Eventually I reached Morrisville Parkway and the southern leg of the race where the marathoners joined with the half-marathoners. In practice this meant the white bibs (i.e. marathon bibs) continued jogging south on the right side of the trail, while the remaining green bibs (i.e. half-marathoner bibs) jogged & walked on the opposite side. Admittedly, this was a big pick-me-up. I knew my half-marathon split time was under 2 hours and Morrisville Parkway was another mile or so past the half-marathon split. Thus I knew that I had ‘beaten’ every half-marathoner that jogged or walked past on their way back. Petty or not, I felt better and my spirits rose.
The roots of another mental victory lie squarely in my training. In as many words “better this than that.” I specifically recalled an earlier 15 mile long run in the snow on the same section of the trail. This time I didn’t have soggy shoes and didn’t have to spend half of my time jumping over or running through puddles. Reflecting on that run I felt lighter, and my spirits climbed further.
When I reached the end of the southern leg around Olive Chapel Road and mile 18.5, I was still ahead of the 4 hour pacer. During my training runs I settled on a fueling strategy of gel every 4 miles and water at every stop. 2/3 of the way through the race I was still on pace for a sub-four finish, and I felt like my fueling strategy was successful. I will also admit I broke the golden rule of racing and tried S-Caps for the first time during the race. Even though it wasn’t too sunny or warm, I figured one S-Cap every 10 miles would be appropriate. (During a long run in 65 degree weather I hit the wall at mile 15, probably in large part due to electrolyte loss.) Fortunately, the S-Caps seemed to be doing their job and didn’t get in the way. Although I wasn’t out of the woods yet (literally or figuratively), by mile 20 I was humming along, and started to feel like I could turn things up a notch.
My pace for the last ¼ of the race was 9:00 minutes/mile, which was my original goal pace, and 15 seconds/mile faster than my pace for the middle ½ of the race. I started picking out runners in front of me to pass, and slowly reeled folks in. I gave a smile and a nod to the beer station (IIRC around mile 22), but decided to keep trucking.
As I approached the Morrisville Parkway junction I heard Katie and kids cheering and my spirits rose further. I hoped a big wave would suffice, and turned right onto the road and the last 2.5 miles of the race. I was cruising and felt like I was still passing folks. I can’t admit it was a complete sprint in the last 5k; exhaustion and a slow half-marathoner briefly held me up when I turned onto Green Level Church rd.
That didn’t last long. Approaching the coned-off open road past Green Hope Church Rd. I knew I had a strong finishing kick and I took off. Uphill, downhill, it don’t matter. I was moving. I could hear the finish line calling, I could see it up ahead… and I had more than a minute to spare to beat four hours on the clock.
Three hours fifty-eight minutes fifty-three seconds by the clock. About a minute faster by the chip-time. I did it! For a solid two or three minutes I walked in a daze, laughing (and nearly crying) at my achievement. This was the culmination of a year of dieting and exercising, of losing 65 pounds and setting a better example for my family.
I celebrated with hugs, pictures, and chocolate-milk. And an ice bath. (Not pictured.)
Reflecting on the race and my training there is little I would change. I think I was well served by the Run Less, Run Faster plan. At different points I suffered a common running injury, IT Band syndrome, in both knees. Perhaps I should have spent less time with my original Physical Therapist, and moved on to a more athletic-minded one, like the one I am now using. With my Garmin failing I wish I had brought along my phone to at least get a Strava record of my race- I am bummed about not having the race data- or the achievement. My fueling strategy worked for this weather; in a hotter race I may consider bringing along my own water. I will probably do more to dial in my taper nutrition too.