I stood at the starting line near downtown Columbus (Indiana) beneath lines of trees on either side of the street. The mass of runners (2500+) had begun filling in behind me, packing the single corral from the gate all the way to the line. Everywhere I looked I saw familiar faces; some with names I knew, others just familiar.
I was well rested, and ready. I had gone to bed early and woken up in my own bed in the morning for an almost hometown marathon. I had actually tapered for two weeks, and peaked at 130 total miles of running during a 9 day stretch three weeks before. I ate my usual pre-race bowl of corn flakes at 4:00 am on the dot. I took one Starbucks expresso shot exactly an hour before the race start. The temperature was cool and the skies were clear. I counted mentally each variable that had been set with a value in my favor.
I felt the firmer lift under my feet of a fresh but familiar shoe. I am "shoe-perstitious" to a fault. My 6th pair of the out of production Nike Lunaracer 2 flats had arrived from eBay just two days before. Originally a shoe with four different colors, these days I have no choice but to accept a women's size pink.
|Family Portrait: Lunaracer 2 - #'s 1-5|
While the crowd of runners chattered, I gave a final fist bump to my pal Ethan who was himself running the half marathon. I spotted Joe, another runner I had just met recently at a 5K from the "Quaff On" team. After a quick exchange with Joe and a few other nearby runners we quickly determined our goals were similar. We could all run together at an even pace of 6:30 per mile, hopefully followed by an under 2:55 finish.
|Race Start - more photos at The Republic Photos|
The starter's gun fired, and I began to run. My stride felt effortless. I cruised with Joe, even backing off a little when a glance at my Garmin showed 6:15 per mile. We ran through a red covered bridge over the river. The paved running path was flat and wound with only gentle turns. The early morning sun still hadn't risen above the tree-line so all was shaded and cool. The first mile came at 6:23. The next at 6:27. Before I knew it I heard the chirp of my Garmin and the third mile split was an exact 6:30.
Time and miles passed so easily that I can't even remember what the miles felt like. I talked with Joe and enjoyed my first trip around the city streets of his small town. Two african runners passed by quickly behind a volunteer on a bike. We were bewildered but surmised that they had arrived late for the race.
I ran the first 13 miles comfortably with Joe in a small pack that continued to grow. As I reached the half marathon split my watch read 1:26:01. I felt elated and comfortable. This was going to be my day.
I had only sipped a little water so far. I try to drink well on the run, but I just fail to get more than a small swallow while keeping my stride long and cadence quick. As I neared the next table of water I knew I should probably take a gel as well. I couldn't stay with the pack, drink water and take a gel all at once. So I slowed down and reached into my tiny waist pack for a gel, meanwhile watching the group gain on me. I sucked the blueberry flavored syrup from the wrapper and finished the entire cup of water, not wasting a single drop. The slowdown seemed worth it as I felt confident that my fueling would pay off. I increased my pace and gradually closed in on the group.
I wanted to stay comfortable and not make a costly surge so after gaining a close visual I just kept my distance and ran comfortably in solitude. As I ran from winding neighborhoods to wide open and long stretches of road I noticed I was only following Joe and one other runner. They had fallen from some of the others. They had also had clearly slowed just slightly and so had I (6:45 - 6:50 per mile pace). As I reached the 18th mile I walked for just a few seconds to finish another gel and drink a full cup of water. I began to feel fatigue but still kept the pace at around 6:50 per mile.
Can I still run a 46 minute 10k?
I looked at my watch, I had only a 10k left to run. I noticed large patches of sweat enveloping my shorts. Sweat streamed down my body into my shoes and my singlet alternately flopped against or stuck to my back. The cool day had suddenly become quite hot and there wasn't any shade to be found on the long, open and straight roads. I began to ponder the pain that was to come. I hoped to feel a boost from the gel I had recently consumed, but I didn't. I worked out the pacing math again. I knew I could just keep an even pace and run a 2:55. I realized I could even relax and still easily finish in under 3 hours. I kept calculating options, splits, and paces in my mind.
As I turned from the long open road into a neighborhood I shortened my stride and quickened my cadence. A friendly couple on a shady street even shot me with their garden hose. I dumped the next cup of water I came across directly onto my head. I was getting hot and tired, but my pace stayed consistent. I felt strongly there was no way I was going to miss my secondary goal of running under 3 hours. I just had to run under 7:30 per mile.
At 24 miles I slowed and walked while eating another gel. I felt nauseous. I didn't want another gel but I needed a miraculous energy boost. There was no miracle. My pace had fallen to a 7:30. I felt the pull of a cramping left hamstring when I began to run. I grabbed my hamstring and felt a knot like a golf ball. I stretched it while pushing it back in a power walk. Then the right hamstring cramped. As the suburban families gathered on lawns watched and cheered I was engaged in my own struggle against a physiological response I am convinced no-one fully understands.
I heard voices talking about inadequate hydration. I heard others proclaiming salt the savior of the cramped athlete. I thought of pacing errors and going out too hard. I thought of redlining core temperatures within the muscle. I thought of Tim Noakes and the "Lore of Running". I thought of Alex Hutchinson and his "Sweat Science" column. None of the advice I had ever heard mattered. It was me against the cramp. I ran again and the hamstring cramps returned. I struggled to stretch each back out and tried to keep a quick but short cadence. I would will them away.
It was at mile 25 that I knew my quest for at least under 3 hours had failed. A pace nearing 9 minutes per mile was too slow. I could throw myself into an under 6 minute mile and still make it to the elusive 2:59:59. I was a long way from the beginning of the perfect marathon day and had lost my will. I lengthened my short strides and leaned into an exaggerated forward position to pick up some speed when I saw the finish line.
3:03:30 - 13th Overall
It was my best marathon so far, but that wasn't much consolation to my defeated optimism at the finish. I was just glad the suffering was over. This was my fourth road marathon that I had intended to run in under three hours, and for the fourth time I had failed.
I found out later the lead runners hailing from far away had been guided off course by the lead bike volunteer. The mid-race flyby of 5 minute per mile runners giving chase was logical after all. At least I didn't have someone else's error to blame for my near miss, nor was I racing for my paycheck.
I don't think I've run a "great" road marathon. I've only run road marathons that "aren't as bad". Still, I got closer to my current goal and the real wall happened a little later than usual. Running at my goal pace had felt easy for most of the race. My fourth road marathon was still an improvement over all that had come before. That crazy old swimmer lady had to try five times before she made it from Florida to Cuba.
It looks like I'll be racing another one soon.