Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Boston Marathon - A dream 5 years in the making

On October 17, 2004, I ran my first marathon - the Wichita Marathon. It was a truly awesome experience that I will never forget. My time was just over 3:57, but I wasn't overly concerned (to the good or the bad). After all, I had finished what I thought was never possible - a marathon - and I lived to tell about it. And I had finished it any a time that I was proud of. I was exhausted, but I had been bitten by the marathon bug.

Fast forward now some five-plus years. In April 2010, I would run my first Boston Marathon, a dream of mine since approximately 3 hours and 58 minutes after starting the Wichita marathon in 2004. It was a dream that I thought would never come to fruition. From my first marathon I would have to improve my time by over 47 minutes just to qualify (as a male under 35 years of age, I had to run under 3:10 to qualify even to enter). Never did I think I could improve as a runner that drastically. But at last, on March 15, 2009 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I broke the 3:10 barrier (3:09:44) to finally qualify for Boston. To Boston I would go!

With a goal of this nature comes great nervousness. Sure, I had qualified to run Boston, and I had even improved on my time since March 2009 (I ran the New York City Marathon in 3:00:14). Sure, I had now run 49 previous marathons. But something as historic as "Boston" I had never run. I was as nervous as I was in 2004 before my first Wichita Marathon.

But in Boston I was, and running I would do. The evening prior was a nervous evening. I stressed about what I would eat, how much I could sleep, what to drink and how to nurse the sore hip that had seemingly crippled my running throughout the week. As fate goes, following my Eisenhower Marathon last weekend, I had developed some significant inflammation in my right hip. Throughout the week it had taken my runs to a standstill at times. I could never quite loosen it up, and the pain at times was throbbing. While it had progressively improved throughout the week with a heavy dosage of anti-inflammatories, I could tell that the underlying issue was only being masked. Would the hip give me trouble and ruin my plans for a great Boston?

Speaking of plans, my goal for Boston was a big one. As I mentioned, I nearly broke 3 hours in New York City this past November. But nearly breaking 3 hours and breaking 3 hours is a very different thing. Either you are a sub-3 hour marathon or or you are not, or so I felt. 14 seconds might as well be 14 days. So at Boston I wanted to right that wrong and actually break 3 hours. But my ultimate goal was a bit loftier. I had a glimmer of hope of a 2:55 marathon. At least that was the plan, to try for the 2:55 in the first half of the course that tends to be faster, and try to hold it through the hillier second half. If I should fade in the last half, I would have a cushion for a sub-3 hour finish.

The morning of the race I awoke at 5:30 a.m., in time to shower, prepare and head the 3/4 mile to the bus loading area for the long ride to rural Hopkinton, Massachusetts. The ride was a long one, nearly an hour, but I chatted with some interesting folks from across the county. When we arrived at the small school near town, we crowded into some open fields, and waited. And waited.

The race would begin at 10:00 a.m.. I was set in the second of twenty-six corals. If I may digress for a moment. And I do so with all humility. The Boston Marathon is historic. It is also exclusive. It is reserved for the few lucky percent at the front of each age group. I knew I was in rare company. And that is a big deal. But it is also intimidating. As I have shared before, I still haven't developed the mental confidence to consider myself in such rare company. I top this general intimidation with having to walk past about 25,000 other runners (of the 26,000 in the race) to find my way to my starting area near the front. It is beyond intimidating to take your place at the front of such an historic and exclusive event.

The gun sounded and I was off. Those unfamiliar with this course should know that the first 4 miles are notoriously fast. First, they are progressively downhill (not all downhill, as they are rolling, but eventually lose altitude). Second, they are loud with excitement, so the adrenaline pumps and pushes you faster. I felt both, and went out strong with a 6:20-6:30 pace over those first miles (with the exception of a short pit stop). The pace was well within my goal 2:55 pace but I knew the later miles would take that back. It felt fast, but it felt great, almost effortless, as I cruised down the hills. I maintained solid running form, which is critical on steep downhills, and I did so with no hip pain.

Miles 5-12 flatten a bit on overall elevation change, but continue to roll. I maintained my sub 6:40 miles through mile 9. We would pass through Ashland (were the race originally started before the standard distance or 26.2 miles was establish) and Framingham. Both towns came out in enormous support.

And then mile 10 hit. As I had mentioned, I had struggled with my hip throughout the week. At about mile 10, it was back with a vengeance. Despite popping two Alieve early that morning, and a few Tylenol about 2 hours ago, the pain was throbbing. It became incredibly painful to lift my leg as necessary for a 6:30 pace. I was suffering physically and mentally. Could I even finish with this pain? What should I do? By mile 11 I had popped two more Tylenol (probably shouldn't have done that) and had found a medical tent for some Bengay. While it cost me 30 seconds or so for that stop, I was back on pace, and the pain was beginning to subside.

Mile 12 came quite quickly, and with Mile 12 comes the famous ladies of Wellesly College. The Wellesly College girls are crazy loud, and as tradition requires, will kiss any runner passing by. While this was an interesting proposition, surprisingly few in the sub-3 hour pace group stopped (we all took ourselves way too serious, and barely had a word to say to each other after we passed the first 10 miles or so). It was very encouraging, however. And it made me forget about my hip for a while.

Mile 13 came, and I hit the half-marathon point in 1:27:33, dead on for a 2:55 marathon. My hip was improving, but I knew I would have that to work against, and I knew the second half of the course is notoriously hard. So although on pace for 2:55, my real strategy was to maintain a sub 3 hour marathon, and to give as little time back as I could.

At about this time, something else weird happened. I lost myself. I'm not exactly sure of the cause. I knew I was pushing hard (for those of you familiar with heart rate, I was already well into the red zone, averaging over 90% of my maximum heart rate from about mile 11 on through the end of the race, with later mileage at the 95% in higher range). I know the pain from my hip was causing me to hyper-focus on the race as to forget about that pain. And I know I was a bit in a zone pushing through the mileage. But the end result is that I remember very little about the last half of the course.

At mile 16, the notorious Newton hills begin. These are a series of four fairly rough hills back-to-back-to-back-to-back, the forth of which is called "Heartbreak Hill." While they are steep, they are long and unforgiving. At mile 16, the first began, which summits with a false flat and then right back up to finish the hill. A brief reprieve downhill, and then back up the second hill at mile 17. The course then rolls down to mile 19 (still holding a 6:50 or so pace) and back up, flattening (i.e., rolling) until the last big climb of Heartbreak Hill at mile 21.

I maintained pace (6:50 to 7:00), but my legs were about to give by the end of the last hill. At last, we would have the last 5 miles that again lose 250 feet, but continue to roll. I was still on pace for a sub-3 hour marathon, but I had little time to give back. My pace was slowing, as to prevent cramping, but I continued to push on. Unfortunately, even though the course is progressively down those last miles, the course is rolling and you can never quite get in a good stride.

By mile 24, the course is at its lowest elevation, with rolling hills into the finish. My legs were shot, slowing me to 7:00-7:15 miles at 95%+ heart rate. Each hill proved more difficult. Nonetheless, I maintained a close eye on my watch, calculating at each mile the number of minutes and the pace to maintain to meet my goal. I had little room to spare, but couldn't pick up the pace for fear of leg cramps.

At the 25 mile point, I knew I could make 3 hours, unless a heavy cramp hit. I maintained a conservative pace (7:15) down a few downhills, and pushed up the final hill (up an underpass). I knew I had a half-mile or so to go, but until I turned the final corner onto Boylston Street, I just didn't quite know how close I was.

With 1/3 mile to go, I take a hard left onto Boylston. I can see the finish and I awaken. Seriously, that is the first moment in the past 2 hours that I really vividly recall anything. I see crowds lining the street eight people deep (too many people to find my wife and son cheering me on). I do a final check of my watch and know I can make it. My legs feel fresh, and I push on to the finish. Final time 2:59:22. I made it!

Proudly, I finished 1253 overall, and 886 in my division (Men under 39 years old). Very happy with that result. 50th marathon, first Boston and first time under 3 hours. It was a success.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Eisenhower marathon

I love to run marathons. I love big marathons and I love small marathons. Marathons long distances away and those close by. I love marathons that are well planned and I love marathons that are run on a whim. While the former describes next week's Boston Marathon, the later describes this weekends Eisenhower Marathon.

A few months ago, I began looking at this year's marathon schedule. In February, I ran the Psychowyco RunTotoRun 50k, and had a few other marathons on the list, completed with my first Boston Marathon experience to be run on April 19th. Well, when I really started looking at my schedule, I came to realize that I was approaching 50 career marathons (yes, I'm counting only "official" marathons, but I'm also including all ultramarathons, as those races are at least a marathon long). I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to have my first Boston Marathon be career marathon #50?" Yes.

Well, as great of an idea as that was, I hadn't really planned on how to transition from the PsychoWyco (marathon #48) and Boston (marathon #50). I had a few potential races, but none of them panned out (either out-of-town or too far away). As my date with Boston approached, I needed a race. The Eisenhower Marathon fit the bill.

I signed up about two weeks ago, but until the night before the race I never looked at the location, the course, the time, or any other details about the race. From a planning perspective, it was very unplanned. And I was under prepared as a result (not unprepared training wise, just under prepared mentally and logistically).

The night before the race, my wife, child and I (along with my wife's friend from Wichita) traveled to Manhattan for a "girls weekend." As great as that sounded, I was happy to leave the friend's house at 5:00 a.m. to head to Abilene, Kansas for the 7 a.m. race start.

I arrived at around 6:00 a.m. for packet pickup. I took a few minutes to stretch (something I should have considered in the days prior), and to grab a quick drink. I also had a few minutes to consider pacing strategies for the day. Knowing Boston was the following weekend, I didn't want to run too hard, especially since it was forecasted to be a 70+ degree day. I also didn't want to go too slow, as a faster paced run would help get my legs geared up for next weekend's race. I settled on a 8:00 min/mile strategy, or a 3:30 marathon for the day.

At 7:00 a.m., I was off. I settled into a pace early on, and said hello to a few friends. By mile 1 I had settled into pace next to a fellow-Wichitan ultra runner named Adam. I've run with Adam on a few other occasions, but hadn't seen him in a while. We found ourselves chatting for miles, and running in good company. Neither of us were (at the time) particularly concerned with the pace, so we just cruised through the first 13.1 miles very casually in about 1:47.

At around the turn-around (out-and-back course), I realized that we were well under Adam's PR (Personal Record) pace for a marathon (Adam too has run nearly 50 marathons). While he wasn't too concerned at that moment, it sort of gave me a good goal for the days run. We didn't discuss the PR, as that would surely jinx him, so we just pushed on.

Unexplainably, we found that I pace had quickened from the first half 8:15 pace to about 7:45 pace. As the miles ticked by, I was becoming more sure of a PR for Adam. We were well under his previous PR pace and could have slowed considerably over the last 6 miles. Instead, I began to realize that breaking 3:30 was within reach. It would be very much pushing it, but if we could make good time over the last 5 or 6 miles we might just make it. We pushed on, around a park, and then to the final 2 1/2 mile home stretch into town.

At about mile 24, I consulted the watch for an elapsed time check. 3:30 seemed to be out of reach. We would have to average under 7:30's, and then push very hard over the last .2 miles. I just didn't think we could make it, but we kept the pace strong just in case. At 1 mile to go, I realized that we still had a chance. Adam was well into the red zone, and cared about nothing more than finishing (I've been there, I know the feeling). It would be my job to push him on. I took the challenge, and so did he. We pushed on, clicking the last mile off in under 7:15. With under .2 miles to go, I took a quick look at the watch and realized that we had exactly 60 seconds to make it to the finish line, which was in sight. I pushed Adam on, and he held in for a 3:29:58 finish (chip time). I had started a few seconds back, so I finished in 3:30:02, good enough for 3rd place in my age group. I suppose that is close enough to my 3:30 goal.

Great job, Adam!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Back to it.

It has been a while since I last blogged. 2008 was quite a year for me, both running and blogging about running (running a marathon a week, and then daily blogging), and by the end of the year something had to crack. Fortunately for my running, the blogging was the one to go (I did complete the "marathon" a week, for a total of 54 marathons for the year).

I think I am ready to get back to it (more than a year later!).

This past weekend, I participated in the Easter Sun Run 10k. Though not always the case on organized runs, I intended to treat this run as a “race” and really challenge myself for a good finish time. Although I haven’t really be training for a hard effort, I have been able to put in some quality miles lately. The morning began beautifully with 40 degree temperatures and low wind. I was feeling up to the challenge.

As the race start approached, I headed to the front of starting area, trying to position myself as to not fight the congestion of the tight course (i.e., sidewalks) and the large starting field. I am one who gets very nervous playing with the big dogs (i.e, positioning myself in front of all other runners), as I’m not one who takes myself too seriously with running (maybe it’s a confidence issues as I don’t picture myself as one of the fast guys, maybe it’s that I’m not too sure of my abilities to finish in my goal times). As we stood there, the race director instructed all those intending to run sub 6:30 miles to cross the starting tape, to ensure that they were in fact segregated in front of the rest of the pack. While this did include me, I really struggled to cross the tape and show myself as one of the 25 or so individuals who had a goal of 40 minutes or less. I bit the bullet and crossed. I felt very out of place, although I knew deep down that I am good enough to hang with some of these folks.

On the gun, the race began. The first quarter mile is always well above pace, as the field spreads out and positions are established. I settled in with about 20 or so in front of me, at a 6:15 min/mile or so pace. This course, unlike most races I run, was marked in kilometers and not miles, so time checks were given much more frequently. As I approached the first “k”, I felt confident that I was right in my grove at a sub 39 minute pace.

I continued on. At 2 and 3 k I maintained a solid 6:10-6:15 min/mile pace. By kilometer 4, I was beginning to feel the pace and question my strategy, as my heart rate was already above 180 (my theoretical maximum heart rate based on age is only 190, so I am clearly in the red zone with nearly 4 miles to go). I decided it didn’t matter – who cares if I crash and burn, I wanted to give a sub 39 minute 10k a shot.

I hit the 5k mark in 19:07, a new 5k PR for me! This was a real pick-me-up, although I had hoped to be at that mark in just under 19:00. I continued on, knowing that every 4 minutes or so I was a kilometer closer to finishing.

By 6k, I was really struggling. I was pushing my limits, and my body was rejecting it. I didn’t let it affect my pace, but it was painful. At 7k, I was still on pace, only slowing a little from my first 5k pace. At 8k, I began trying to catch the runner in front of me by 15 seconds or so. I picked away at that deficit one second at a time, until about 200 meters to go when I finally caught him. The charge proved too much for me, and he took me by 2 seconds at the finish, but I’m glad he was there to encourage me to try and catch him. 38:35.

In the end, it was still a beautiful morning. I discovered that I finished 2nd in my age group, and 18th overall (around 750 participants). I set a PR by nearly 1:25, and really felt great doing it.