March 21, 2010
The last couple of weeks have been very strange. I’ve been extremely busy and yet I’ve also had the strangest feeling of sleepwalking through my life. I was genuinely surprised to turn up at the airport for my conference trip to Louisville and to discover that yes, indeed there was an actual plane reservation waiting for me. I was was also quite surprised to discover that the Shamrock marathon was indeed still taking place as planned at Virginia Beach on March 21st. I was also surprised and not a little chagrined to discover that it seemed as if I was supposed to be running in it.
My weird mental state notwithstanding, I found that I was surprisingly organized for this race. I’d had to pack all my stuff before I left for Louisville, so that Mary could pick me up from BWI on the Saturday and we could head south straight away. Yet not only had I managed to pack all my race essentials (top and shorts, fuel belt, nutrition, etc.) I had also packed all the bonus extras that go into ensuring your marathon will be as pleasurable (OK, not exactly the best choice of words) as possible: lots of body glide, chamois butter (for places where body glide is never enough), surgical tape for nipple protection, scissors to cut the tape, toenail clippers. . .I was amazed at my forethought.
Didn’t get a lot of sleep on Friday night (I had to get up at 4:30 to get to the airport) and on Saturday night it wasn’t much better. After going to bed early (about 9:30), I slept like a log for a little over five hours, then woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. Then it was up at 4:30 (again) to get dressed and have a bite to eat; rather than face a 2 mile walk to the race site we had decided to drive partway down before they closed the roads. This worked out pretty well, actually, as we ended up parking only about three blocks away from the race site.
I was ice cold. . .and not in a good way
Regardless of what happened during the actual race, it was nice to be a part of a no-holds-barred team effort again. How Ed got the team a position inside the warming tent is a mystery but I was sure glad that he did, because at 6am it was brisk outside, to say the least! An awful lot of my fellow Zers looked about as awake as I felt, which is to say, not very. But soon the Team Z celebration box came out and people began to suit up with tiaras, angel wings, etc. Mary donned her by now traditional grass skirt and soon the half-marathoners were heading off to the start.
After a trip to the nearby portaloos I finally woke up. It might have had something to do with the stiff breeze that was blowing, but probably had more to do with a rather shocking encounter with a toilet seat that seemed to have been blasted with liquid nitrogen. Whereas time had seemed to drag before, it now accelerated, and before I knew it we were packing up all the Team Z stuff inside and carrying it out to the designated Team Z party location. The sun was up, but it was still nothing that you’d call tropical. Alexis had come exceptionally well prepared with nothing less than an entire roll of plastic trash bags: I wasn’t the only one to be extremely grateful for the added layer of protection against the wind as we made our way to the starting line. I was able to say hi to my friend Chelle who was running her first ever Marathon, and then promptly lost everyone I knew as I merged into the crowd.
As usual before a big event I felt keen but also relaxed. If things were going to go wrong, they would; if things were going to go well, they would: no point in worrying about any of it at that point! The horn sounded and two minutes of constipated shuffling later and I was crossing the start line.
The first ten miles or so of this race were just great. Everyone is always very jovial and happy at the start of a marathon. After all that training, it is a relief just to be getting on with it. After about two and a half miles someone caught up with me from behind and asked me how long I’d been a member of Team Z. Her name was Robbin and she said that she was one of the original group that had started the Team. She was really good company and we ran together for the next 6 miles or so talking about races we’d done, the team, etc. Near the turn around I saw some of the other Zers coming back–Iwan, Ilhan, Alexis, all looking strong.
I was damn hot. . .and not in a good way
Around mile 8 or so it was starting to get noticeably warmer. Robbin dropped back and we wished each other luck as the route turned into an army base. Near the water stop a bunch of cadets? trainees? formed a long line, chanting marching cadences and high-fiving everyone. I thought that come the end of the morning they would all need some military-grade hand sanitizer but their presence was a real lift.
Everything seemed to be going pretty well. Until, it wasn’t.
Somewhere between mile 10 and 12 it started to get harder to maintain the pace. Well, duh, it’s a marathon, I hear you say. Except that in training runs I’ve typically been able to maintain a pretty consistent pace through 14 or 16, depending. My stomach was starting to feel really heavy, as if I couldn’t force any more nutrition into it. I’ve been using shot blocks in training, a mix of lightly caffeinated and high electrolyte ones, and the only thing I did differently here was that I didn’t take anything for about the first 20 minutes, to allow my stomach to settle down from all the pre-race jitters and early race excitement. Obviously, this was something of a dilemma. Mile 11 is damn early in a marathon to be having these kinds of issues; in my last marathon the stomach difficulties didn’t really start until mile 18 or thereabouts, which is where you’d typically expect it to happen.
This, then, was a predicament. I couldn’t run an entire marathon without additional nutrition, and I knew I was going to need the electrolytes in particular as it was now starting to feel quite warm. So I tried to compromise by slowing the rate at which I was taking in nutrition (instead of 2 shot blocks about every 10 minutes, I took two every 20). That seemed to deal with the stomach heaviness, but clearly I wasn’t taking in as much as I would probably need.
The long stretch through town was pretty dull, enlivened only by the sight of the half marathoners coming back, already being passed by the marathon leaders. It was great to see a bunch of Zers, including Misha and Debbie looking strong.
The Comfort of Strangers
We began the climb up to Fort Storey. The elevation gain here was only 60 or so feet, but it was visually deceptive and seemed much steeper; it felt like the first couple of miles out of Pierce Mill. People were starting to walk in substantial numbers here; I liked being in amongst the pine trees, but it was definitely getting a lot warmer. Up ahead I saw one of my mates from the PRR group, Nancy; she had already finished the half, got herself up there somehow, and was waiting for a friend. But she dropped into step and ran with me for about a mile, offering great words of encouragement. I really appreciated her help at that point because the doubts were starting to set in. But I adopted a more conservative strategy at this point, deliberately walking the water stops, and making sure that I was taking in plenty of water.
We turned the corner into the fort, and then discovered that while 60 feet feels like scaling the Andes when you are going up it, it feels like nothing at all when you are coming down. There was one point, I think it was around 18 or 19 when I felt my entire stomach heave and I abruptly started walking, convinced that I was going to throw up. I’d been trading the lead back and forth with another guy who passed me at that point with a “Way to go Team Z.” After walking for a bit I caught him back up, just as we reached the 20 mile mark.
Him: So, you ready to run a 10K?
Me: Do I have a choice?
Him: Well I guess that’s the question. You could bail out here.
Me: There is no way this is not getting done.
Him: That’s what I wanted to hear.
This is one of the things I really like not just marathons but about multisport events in general. I’ve experienced the same thing a lot in duathlons (arguably, I think it happens more often there, because duathletes know that they are the freaks and misfits of the multisport world). Random, encouraging encounters with strangers, who take themselves out of their own suffering long enough to give you a lift. It is something I’ve always tried to pass on. Eventually I left the guy behind, but not before learning that this was the third time he’d run Shamrock, which he called a deceptively easy marathon.
I really liked the stretch through Fort Storey. I thought the lighthouses were really cool (since living in Maine as a kid I’ve always liked lighthouses) and the views of the ocean were amazing. There was one point where there was an entire train of container ships that were passing by; optically they appeared a lot closer than they probably were, and it was a majestic sight.
Then it was back into the town. Again, the scenery wasn’t that great, but by that point it didn’t matter since I was in “survive to the finish mode” and the fact that we were going through residential neighborhoods meant that there were plenty of people out and cheering.
Finishing like a winner. . ..even when you aren’t
Mile 25 was pretty slow, over 11 minute pace. However, when I got to the mile marker I was determined to pick it up for the final mile, to see what I had left. My personal motto is never to cross the line looking as if you were defeated, however bad the race. So I kicked in the afterburners, and soon was passing people left and right. I ran right through the final water stop, looked down at my watch and saw that I was running at an 8:40 pace! The final turn onto the boardwalk was great, but also agonizing: the finish line never seemed to get any closer. Finally, I heard the Team Z horns, saw Mary and other Zers, and after high-fiving Mary in passing I concentrated on passing as many people as possible on the way to the line.
Final time: 4:25:20.
Almost 6 minutes slower than Marine Corps.
Here are the geeky details.
Zone 2: 131-140; Zone 3: 141-152; Zone 4: 153-163.
Leah met me in the finish chute and put an arm around me to keep me upright as I collected all the nutrition and swag. One thing I love about my DeSoto shorts is that they have all these side pockets; by the time I got to the end of the chute I had a water bottle jammed into one side and a banana in the other.
Walking across the sand was not fun, but I finally made it to the Team Z tent without any serious damage to and innocent bystanders. Although I desperately wanted to sit down I resisted it with every ounce of willpower I had left. I learned a really valuable lesson from Marine Corps where they force you to keep moving; that really helps. The entire Team Z zone was a paradoxical combination of exhausted energy. On the one hand there was a long line of people stretched out along the sand berm, comatose in the sun: it looked like the aftermath of a machine-gun massacre. On the other hand the massage tables were in full swing, people were excitedly talking about their races, and there was a steady stream of racers arriving.
Mary eventually showed up and greeted me with “Is that a banana in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?” I finally felt well enough to grab the beer and stew, and then we went back to the finish chute to watch more Zers finish, including Doug, which was a real thrill (even though this wasn’t his first marathon, he’s been out of the marathoning business for so long that he had definitely regained his marathon virginity).
So. . .what to make of all this then?
Well, on the one hand this was yet another “disappointing” marathon result for me. What do I mean by disappointing? Every piece of data from my training and from my performance in shorter races tells me that I should be able to run faster than this. A LOT faster than this. In my mind I’ve been chasing the 4 hour mark, but that is now seeming completely out of reach for me.
And yet, there was absolutely nothing surprising about this race for me. I’m not all that disappointed, to be honest, because I expected this. In fact, I expected it to be much worse. I was genuinely shocked at my time at the end; I’d had my watch set to only show pace, and distance data, not my HR or overall time (because I find that both those get inside my head and freak me out). I had thought that I would end up well over 4:30.
It is pretty clear that that there were three major factors at work here:
- All the missed training;
- The heat;
- My mental state
My hat is off to all my team-mates who achieved PRs for their half and full. But I know a lot of people didn’t have as good a race as they expected. We all missed a lot of training this winter; unless you have easy access to a treadmill there were a lot of short runs that went by the wayside. Getting the long runs in is important, but so is overall run volume and I was really missing that.
Obviously it was unseasonably warm on the day (the guy I ran with through Fort Storey said that in the past few years it has actually been pretty damn cold). At the best of times I am not a hot weather athlete. Most people would say they aren’t, but one thing that I know about myself is that I really thrive in cold, nay freezing, temperatures; the colder the better. Some of my best race results have been in conditions that were cold enough to make you weep. But I know from the Richmond duathlon nationals last year that abrupt changes in seasonal temperature in particular really do a number on my system and I suspect a lot of people suffered from that.
However, the big thing here was my mental state. This wasn’t an A-race for me; not even a B race (and when you are talking about a marathon as a C race you realize you have entered an whole new world of crazy). My off-season focus has been my swimming, and I’ve tried to make as many of those workouts as possible even as I’ve been less inclined to move heaven and earth to get the runs in. But there has been the additional mental craziness recently, as you know if you’ve been reading this blog. I know that there was a certain point in the race, around that time where my stomach began to act up, that I had to make a conscious decision how hard I was going to fight for this, and the decision was “not very.” Under a best-case scenario I might have been able to sneak a PR by a few seconds by absolutely burying myself, but given the training factor and the heat even a supreme effort might only have got me a couple of minutes. So I settled back into a pace I thought I could comfortably maintain.
Enough whining. . .what am I taking away from this race?
Despite the overall result, there were a lot of things I’m pleased about, and several things to ponder:
- For the first time ever I experienced absolutely no blistering or chafing of any kind. My feet were sore from the pounding, and I may lose a couple of toenails eventually, but this is nothing in comparison with the last two marathons. Making the shoe switch really seems to have worked.
- For the first time ever I experienced no cramping. One brief bout of nausea, yes, and the stomach heaviness. But this was a long way from the stabbing pains that literally stopped me in my track several times during Richmond and Marine Corps. Swimming and the at-home core workouts seem to be paying off here.
- At the moments in previous marathons where I’ve felt absolutely shit-wrecked and wretched–typically around the 18-20 mark–I actually didn’t feel that bad. I wasn’t chipper by any means, but I what I realized in retrospect that I didn’t hit that particular wall. What did happen, however, was that I hit the wall much, much earlier in this race, around 10-12. That, oddly enough, was the gut-check time for me. And who hits the wall at mile 12 of a marathon (unless they are running it without any training, etc.)?
- I felt that I stayed mentally tough. Things weren’t going my way, but I didn’t panic, I worked it out, I adjusted my expectations, my strategy and my effort on the fly and held it all together with enough left in the tank for a stylish (well, ok, that may be stretching it) finish.
- When things began to go tits up one thing I did was convert my race immediately into an Ironman simulation. I asked myself, “Well, OK, this sucks, but what would you do if you were experiencing this in the marathon at Wisconsin?” That helped me think through the whole thing logically rather than panicking or becoming despondent.
- I did enjoy the race overall. Except for the stretch through the neighborhood, there was plenty to look at, lots of support, and the organization was awesome overall.
- I still haven’t got the nutrition dialed in. I did nothing different in this race from my previous long runs, yet it didn’t work. So think I may need to think a bit more about the rate at which I’m taking in nutrition. This clearly wasn’t working for a pace that was faster than in training. And even with my reduced nutrition intake I never felt as if I “bonked” on this race. So it may be that I can actually get by with a little less nutrition than I think I’ve been needing. More experiments are in order.
- I’m a little troubled by my HR at the very beginning of the race. Based on my long runs, I’d actually calculated that something like a 9:45-9:50 pace would keep me in zone 2 for at least the first 4 miles or so. I’d actually tried this out on our last Team Z taper run and it had worked well. Maybe it was just the heat.
- There were a few basics I didn’t pay attention to. Being away from home meant on the days prior to the marathon meant that my nutrition was not ideal. Oddly enough, despite repeatedly going out to dinner, etc., I think I might have under-eaten. I also wasn’t really thinking about the heat, and I should have been upping my salt intake. I slept really well the week before–except for the last two nights before. And I think I should have loaded up with more water prior to the race, and taken a pre-race gel which I usually do, but completely forgot about this time. All little things, but evidence of where my head was (or rather, wasn’t).
So, lots to think about. But I’m pretty pleased to have done it, and even more pleased to have done it with so many friends. Whatever my own experience was, in this case, meant so much less than seeing people achieving something that had once thought they would never do. That’s what this is really all about.