I think I'm starting to get spoiled.
This past Nov. 1, I got my introduction to marathoning in New York City, which offers the world's largest marathon (43,659 participants) and is the one Runner's World anointed "Most Fun" in its January 2010 issue. I got in via the lottery; general odds of winning a spot that way are 1 in 6. Official time: 3:49:55.
Then on Saturday, I ran my second 26.2-miler here in Charlotte. None of the aches and pains that had been nagging me the past three weeks gave me any trouble. The weather -- which according to the earliest forecasts looked like it was going to be miserable -- turned out to be almost perfect for running: close to 30 at the start, just above 40 at the finish. I got pacing help from one of the fastest runners in the city. And by some sort of miracle, the only wall I hit was made of plywood and covered with paint ... I slapped it with my hand and laughed while passing through it. (More on this in a minute.) Official time: 3:42:32.
I know my friends, and I know my readers, and I know there were definitely people who questioned the wisdom of me running the first two marathons of my life within less than six weeks. Most experts, in fact, advise runners to space marathons six months apart.
When I aggravated my right knee during a 20-mile training run three weeks ago, I started questioning the wisdom of it, too. I had a blowout with about 5 miles to go during Run For Your Life's second-half-of-Thunder-Road course preview, but I kept running because I didn't want to walk from NoDa all the way back to the Dowd YMCA. I paid for this by suffering from IT band pain for two weeks. I've had sporadic IT problems in the past, so I knew how to treat it: foam roller, ice, rest. But then a little more than a week out my Achilles started aching, which was new for me.
Ironically, neither issue returned after I took that ChiRunning workshop last Saturday -- although I hedged my bets and told people this week not to be surprised if I decided to play it safe and drop out of the race. After all, 26.2 miles is a punishing distance that can both expose old injuries and create new ones. You could be fine for 20, then the dam could break at 20.01.
Injury flare-ups, in fact, are as unpredictable as weather forecasts. We were getting some bad ones early on. And bad weather forecasts are a mini-public relations nightmare for race directors, because race directors (naturally) want to provide the best experience possible for runners, and runners (naturally) are obsessed with what the weather will be like during a race they've spent months training for.
I'll admit that I got a little caught up in this by posting status updates on Facebook along the lines of "Is that a snowflake I see on the 10-day forecast?" But part of my mission, especially on Facebook, is to get local runners talking about things that are on their minds -- and the weather forecast for Thunder Road was definitely on their minds. It was on their minds when we were looking at a "wintry mix" eight days out, when we were looking at sleet and freezing rain six days out, when we were looking at light rain four days out, when we were looking at just clouds two days out, and when -- miraculously -- we were looking at a bit of sun the day before. It was gonna be a cold one, no question, but by Friday night there was also no question that the rain would miss us entirely.
As luck would have it, one of the great things about the way Thunder Road is set up is that you can stay warm inside the convention center up until just before the race. It also may be one of the not-so-great things: At 7:45 a.m., with five minutes to go, hundreds of runners flooded out onto College Street to find ... that it was pretty much impossible to get into the starting corral. This was not, however, the convention center's fault. Fault lies with whoever decided to space the pace teams about 20 feet apart, so that the 4:00 pacer was really only about 100 feet back from the starting line. I think if the pacers for 3:00, 3:15, 3:30, 3:45, 4:00, etc., had each been spaced about 50 feet apart, getting into the corral would have been much less stressful. Instead, you had 4,400 marathoners and half-marathoners basing how far back they wanted to be on a ridiculous formula. You had what amounted to a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
Anyway, the chaos prevented me from hooking up with a friend I was hoping to run with for awhile who was trying to pace some of her friends to a 3:45. But that was pretty much the only thing that went wrong all day.
The key for me was locking in on an even pace. In New York, I went out 9:04, 7:51, 8:20, 8:09, 8:12, 8:07 for the first six miles. Way too fast; a rookie mistake. The first six in Charlotte? 8:35, 8:30, 8:31, 8:41, 8:25, 8:32. In fact, the first 23 miles I ran Saturday were within 12 seconds of my target pace of 8:30. The last three miles? 8:13, 8:13, 7:28. The last point-two? 7:14. (In New York, I "closed out" the final three miles in 10:25, 9:28, 9:40.)
Another telling statistic: I did the first half of New York in 1:48:55, the second half in 2:01:00. I did the first half of Thunder Road in 1:53:23, the second half in 1:49:09. The result: a PR by almost 7.5 minutes, and a negative split half-to-half of more than four minutes.
As Montell Jordan once said: This is how we do it.
We also do it, here in Charlotte, with a fantastic course that offers many challenging hills but not too many challenging hills. We do it with a huge amount of participation from off-duty police officers, and some truly remarkable volunteer support. We do it with crowds that entertain us but don't overwhelm us, allowing us to feed off them sporadically as opposed to constantly (which may have led to my crash in New York). It's easier to remember the oddball in Myers Park with the paddle on which he'd written "Smile if you want to be spanked"; the marching band under the I-277 underpass near Mile 16, right before Bank of America Stadium; the man on stilts wearing a Santa hat on Cedar Street; the massive plywood "Wall" with the cutout doorway right before Mile 21 in NoDa, which would have been the highlight of the race ... if not for the absolutely euphoric pack of rowdy revelers around Mile 24 in Plaza Midwood, who were boozing it up before noon and cheering for you like they knew you.
And in my case, I did it with solid support from Caitlin Chrisman, who in November offered to run the last 10 miles with me. Caitlin works for one of the big banks, but in her spare time helps lead the Charlotte Running Club and does things like blaze through half-marathons in 1:20:28 (she was the third overall female with that time at the OBX half last month). She jumped onto the course across Mint Street from BofA Stadium with a smile and a pocketful of gels, and she kept me distracted from any fatigue I might have been feeling with conversation that ranged from mutual running friends to my blog to random stuff like the Christmas photo card she and her boyfriend had made. The miles flew by for me, even though to her it probably felt like we were crawling.
Still, shortly after we passed the party animals at Mile 24, we both remarked that we'd been passing a lot of people, that no one had passed us in awhile, and that shoot, we should have been counting how many runners we'd gone by. I was feeling great, all things considered. So as we came up on Mile 25, I told Caitlin I was going to pick up the pace. "Cool," she said. "I'll start counting." Over the next seven-plus minutes, I overtook more than 30 people -- including, in the final few hundred yards, the friend who I'd failed to connect with at the starting line.
To me, it was a symbol of how everything had come together, at least this time. The weather. The injuries healing up. The more-conservative early-going. The even pace. Someone to talk to for more than an hour. Avoiding the wall (well, except that plywood one). I know I won't always get this lucky, but ... well, I know I won't always get this lucky.
So I'll just say, in closing: I was worried that the New York City Marathon, with all its grandeur, might have spoiled me. That other races might have a tough time living up to it in my mind. At the end of the day, though, Charlotte's Thunder Road Marathon -- in very different ways -- was an experience every bit as satisfying. I loved it.
See y'all back here next December.