Monday, March 22, 2010

Shamrock 26.2 was no day at the beach

They say you learn something every time you run a marathon. I've only run three, but I've done them all within less than five months, so for me, the lessons have come at me -- relatively speaking -- rather fast and furious.

In New York, I learned not to go out too fast. At Thunder Road, I learned that if there's fuel left in the tank, don't wait till Mile 25 to start using it. And on Sunday at the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, I learned ... well, I learned a bunch of stuff.

I wasn't terribly well-trained for this one. I got in close to the recommended number of 20- to 22-mile long runs, but otherwise didn't follow a formalized plan. I probably ran my long runs too fast. I had one good month of speedwork (in January), but then slacked off. I swam once a week, but otherwise did no cross-training or core exercises. My IT band gave me problems off and on.

At the same time, I was relaxed and having much more fun than I did while training for New York. Relaxed, having fun ... and feeling confident. Maybe too confident. I PR'd in Charlotte in December, coasting to a 3:42 on a hilly course. Using a pretty unscientific formula, I went into this one with a goal of 3:33 -- halfway between my NYC time and my required BQ time. Fueled by some encouraging long runs and friends' lofty predictions, I actually believed a sub-3:30 was possible.

When the 3:40 pace group cruised past me around 21.5 miles into the race late Sunday morning as I walked along the side of Atlantic Avenue, I was starting to wonder whether a finish under four hours was even realistic.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I picked Shamrock because it is billed as being flat and fast, and after two marathons on rolling courses, I was excited about the change of pace. My buddy Allen Strickland was planning to attempt to qualify for Boston there, and I knew several other people from Charlotte who were making the six-hour drive -- including Mike Ham, a guy from my running group who had done the race twice before.

I'd heard about the coastal winds, which were stiff but not overpowering for parts of the morning. And I'd heard about the mind-numbing boredom of the middle of the second 13.1. What I wasn't ready for was the heat.

Heat's a relative term, of course. In July or August, 70 degrees is probably a reasonable temperature in which to run a marathon. For me, 70 is a problem after weeks/months of doing long runs in 30- and 40-degree weather. It's not a problem for everybody -- plenty of people, including my friend Meghan Fillnow, had great races Sunday. She trained all winter in Charlotte and PR'd by a minute Sunday, placing sixth in the women's race with a 3:04. Allen missed a BQ, but ran a 3:26 and PR'd by eight minutes.

So did the heat cause my big bonk? I think that was part of it. A little over a year ago, I bonked in the Corporate Cup HALF-marathon at Mile 11 because it happened to be unseasonably warm. (Worth noting: The mercury rose enough Sunday that a friend of a friend, Elizabeth Goldman of Falls Church, Va. -- another heat-sensitive runner -- dropped out just past the halfway point.)

The bigger factor, though, is that I had a game plan and I didn't stick to it. Like I said, my goal was 3:33 and I believed that on a good day, I could go sub-3:30. The strategy was to run an 8:07 pace (which would get me to 3:33) for 16 miles, then start picking up the pace. In the six weeks leading up to this race, I had set a 5K PR and a half-marathon PR on negative splits; if you've bagged races that way, you know how good that feels, and I figured following the outline would lead to marathon bliss Sunday.

Unfortunately, it was over almost as soon as it started. A few minutes before the gun went off at 8 a.m., I was standing in the corral with Allen Strickland; Mike Ham; another friend, Dexter Pepperman, part of the Run For Your Life-Dilworth crew; and two runners Dexter knew from Charlotte, Mary Dare Mayeux and Joel Thomas. Joel, like Allen, was shooting for 3:20:59 or less, so I had no interest in running with them. I'd told both Mike and Dexter about my strategy, and they were cool with hanging for awhile. Mary Dare, it turns out, was also shooting for 3:33. Seemed like a perfect person to keep an eye on.

Then the gun went off and my plan went out the window. Not immediately -- as we headed south down Atlantic Avenue, which runs parallel to the beach and is lined with souvenir shops and tourist-trap restaurants and towering hotels, the river of 2,600-plus runners was thick enough that we clicked off Mile 1 at 8:14. It was in the next mile that I made what could have been a fatal mistake: I continued to be social.

There are pros and cons to running with others, for sure. The upside is it makes the miles go by faster. The downside is that if your goals aren't the same, someone's plan is ultimately going to be disrupted. Mike was hoping to PR, and his is 3:17. He was going out slow to keep me company, but he wasn't going slow enough. Dexter, I don't know what his goal was. He'd left Charlotte at around 10:45 Saturday night and was running this on one hour's sleep; he may well have been delirious. (He's run more than 20 marathons and is headed to Boston next month, so I think it was a "fun" run/loong training run for him.) But he was sticking with Mary Dare ... and she seemed to be pushing the pace well below 8:07.

When I race, I rely on my Garmin to pace me. I don't try to catch mile splits, but instead set the watch up with a goal time and distance. In this case, I'd set it to 3:33 and input the distance as 26.4 miles, figuring I'd miss my share of tangents even though Shamrock isn't a turn-heavy course. So what the Garmin does, then, if you put it on the right screen, is show you exactly how far ahead or behind the pace you are, in feet. I wanted to be within 50 or 100 feet of the target. Instead, by Mile 2, I was a good 200 feet ahead.

Dexter and I chatted for a few minutes, then Mike rejoined me as we crossed the Rudee Bridge -- which at 40-feet high marked the only steep climb on the course. (We crossed it at about the 2.5-mile mark and then once more at around Mile 10.) When I caught the third mile-split -- 7:42 -- I told Mike I had to back off. Meanwhile, Dexter had rejoined Mary Dare and they were putting some distance between Mike and me. Despite the fact that the pace felt like a cakewalk, I was smart enough to know I was getting myself into a bad situation. I just wasn't smart enough to get out of it. Sporadically, I would tell Mike he didn't have to wait for me; what I should have done is just let him go.

Mile 4 was 7:55. We were headed down General Booth Boulevard toward a turnaround just beyond the 5.5-mile mark, and shortly after the 4.5-mile mark, we could see the frontrunners chugging back up toward us. We saw Justin Breland of the Charlotte Running Club cruising in a pack toward his 2:55 (18th overall), and then Meghan Fillnow charging up looking strong. Todd Joefreda of Rock Hill, another good runner (he ran a 3:10). Allen and Joel. Mile 5 was 8:02. I saw Dexter and Mary Dare coming back up the course shortly before I hit the turnaround; didn't see them again. Mike was starting to inch ahead, and he waited for a few seconds as I hit the turnaround ... then indicated he was going to take off. I was relieved.

Mile 6: 7:55. On the way back up, I ran by several people I knew who were heading down: Observer business editor Patrick Scott, who was running his first 26.2 and is training for an Ironman in August;
another first-timer, Tom Patania of Fort Mill, who had awakened that morning with the stomach flu; and my Run For Your Life pals Jes Douglas and Alice Watson. Then the course veered right, onto South Birdneck Road, and Mile 7 clicked off at 8:06. The good news is that this was more like it. The bad news is that I was now 350 or 400 feet ahead of pace, the effort level felt low, and I was blowing another chance to save my race. What I should have done is slow down and try to ease back toward that 50- to 100-feet-off-pace range. Instead, I got greedy (apologies to Mark Hadley, who warned me!), and I banked the time.

It didn't help that at 7.5 miles or so we entered a very cool stretch of the course: Camp Pendleton State Military Reservation, where several men and women in uniform were lined up clapping and reaching out to slap hands with runners. That was a highlight, exchanging fives with a line of eight or 10 soldiers right before the Mile 8 marker. I didn't speed up, but I also didn't slow down -- too energized by the patriotism. Mile 8: 8:02.

Mile 9 was 7:50. We crossed the bridge again and made the turn toward the boardwalk. Mile 10: 8:00. At this point it's almost an hour and 20 minutes into the race; it's about 9:20 a.m. It's about 60 degrees, and the sun is hanging there over the Atlantic Ocean off to our right. This is when I first started to feel hot; prior to this point, I hadn't much cared about the water stops, although I had been taking a couple of gulps at every one. The wind was also more noticeable here than it had been in the early going. But the boardwalk was sprinkled with a good number of family members who were waiting for their runners -- including my own wife and daughter, who I also saw at Mile 1 -- which was energizing. And the sight and the sound of the ocean was remarkable. NYC offers enormous crowds, Thunder Road is a great hometown race, but running a marathon next to the sea ... it's amazing. Mile 11: 7:52.

I was still feeling good, but I was still banking time. Overestimating my preparedness, underestimating the rising mercury. After a mile and a half or so along the boardwalk, we took a left and headed one block over back onto Atlantic Avenue, where we started the long march northward. Mile 12: 8:10.

Not long after getting back onto Atlantic, I saw Dexter's wife, Elisha, cheering along the roadside, and then my friend Beth Michels (also of Run For Your Life) and Ryan Danner; all three of them had driven up from Charlotte overnight to lend support. A minute or two later, a young woman named Rebekah pulled up next to me from behind and asked me what I was shooting for. I said 3:33. She told me she was shooting for a 3:40. I told her she was way ahead of pace. Just as I was getting ready to settle into what I figured would be a nice chat, Meghan Fillnow's twin sister Kelly hopped onto the course and began running with me. I introduced the two, but after a couple minutes, Rebekah drifted back (smart girl), and Kelly and I pulled away. I crossed the halfway mark at 1:45:58.

Kelly is a superstar. She'd finished running the half-marathon earlier in the morning, placing as the 10th overall woman in 1:23; in her first Ironman, last fall, she completed the 140.6 miles in 10 hours 14 minutes and qualified for Kona. She was hitching a ride up to Mile 16, where she'd be able to meet Meghan after she made the long loop at the top of the course (the course split off of Atlantic at Mile 16, then rejoined it between Miles 22 and 23). She kept telling me how great I was looking, she asked me how I was feeling. I told her I was enjoying the shade of the hotels but was worried about how hot I was getting. She told me to make sure to pour water on my head to cool off at water stops in addition to drinking. I told her I heard the back half of the course was boring. She told me to just count my steps. "Focus about 30 feet ahead of you. Not too far off in the distance, not at the ground." She told me about funny signs along the road for runners. Miles 13-16: 8:04, 8:02, 8:00, 8:01. I don't think I looked at my watch at all for that stretch. If you ever need pacing help, call Kelly Fillnow.

Right before Mile 16, the course heads inland along Shore Drive which is a tree-lined road just shy of three miles long. It is a steady and very gradual climb, but it's a climb, and it just seemed to last forever. People were starting to die in this section. There was a little shade, but not much, and the fact that you could see so far off into the distance was mind-erasing. I started counting -- not steps, but breaths. One for every exhale. I'd count to 200 and then start over again. (I remembered my friend Caitlin Chrisman had mentioned this number recently in lieu of a mantra.) Mile 17: 8:11. The wheels were coming off.

Those signs Kelly had mentioned? They were probably funny to her, because her mind was fresh at that point in the half (Miles 3 to 6 for her). But they were driving me crazy. Not angry, just ... crazy. I was trying to stay sane with the counting and the eyes-30-feet-ahead thing, and every time I looked at the signs they seemed to be about the lighthouse or about the hill we were on. It really was not a bad hill, but I thought the signs were making it seem worse. I also wanted water. At around the 17.5-mile mark, there was a water stop, and I took my biggest drink yet.

Onward up the "hill." Mile 18: 8:27. We finally got off Shore Drive right before Mile 19, and were back on Atlantic Avenue, at the very top of the course. Mile 19: 8:27. Another water stop, another big drink.

But despite the water and the GUs I'd been taking religiously every five miles, somewhere around the 19.5-mile mark, the tank went empty. Anyone who's hit the wall in a marathon knows the feeling, and it's a strange one. It's not that the desire to walk is overwhelming; it's that you literally cannot run anymore. You just stop. It's not a decision, it's a necessity. The body has used up all of its stored glycogen, and there's no energy left to draw from. The worst part is that this happened at absolutely the loneliest part of the course. Zero crowd support up top. Very little interesting to look at. Just several hundred yards from the ocean. No cover from the sun or wind. Brutal. I was able to regroup enough to start jogging. Not long after, my new friend Rebekah said hello as she passed me like I was standing still.

Mile 20: 8:57. I saw Rebekah several more times; she seemed to be cramping up, so while she was stretching, I'd shuffle past her. Then she'd get going again and pass me. We exchanged smiles and pleasantries every time, but neither of us were feeling great. She offered to run for a little while with me at one point, but I couldn't keep up with her for more than about 10 seconds. Mile 21 was 8:59. Then a few minutes later -- right near the Cape Henry Lighthouse that had been foreshadowed on those signs -- my left calf twinged, followed almost immediately by some movement in my right calf. Three more steps, and they locked up. Stop. Stretch. Walk. Walk faster because you think that, well, faster walking is better than slower walking. Before long, Rebekah was out of sight and I wouldn't see her again.

At this point in a collapse, the mind goes to two places: First, it's to mathematics. You start telling yourself you can still make X goal even if you can just do 9-minute miles till the end. Here's what my finish time would be. No, that's not going to happen. OK, 10-minute miles. What's that? And then, when you realize you are really on empty, I'm still almost five miles away. The average person can walk one mile in about 18 minutes. Five times 18 is ... And mathematics evaporates and misery sets in. This is about the point when the 3:40 pace group passed me. It was a small group. Runners were bonking all over the place out here.

Misery -- it really is the only way to describe it. Five miles out. Feeling completely gassed. Mustering up the strength to start shuffling, then 400 meters later the calves are cramping again. Mile 22: 9:59.

I did get a boost out of seeing a friendly face in Beth Michels again at the split (back where the course reconnected at Miles 16/22.7ish). She was waiting for Jes Douglas and Alice Watson to come back around, and cheerfully jogged along with me to the Mile 23 marker, filling me in on how everyone else was looking. Mile 23: 10:30.

I won't bore you with the last 3.2 except to say it involved a lot more walking and a lot more cramping. At 25.5, I saw my wife and daughter again; I polished off a Sprite they'd been drinking then had them jog along with me for a couple hundred yards before I made the final turn off of Atlantic and back onto the boardwalk. The finish line was a sight for sore eyes.

Anyway, I told you there were going to be a bunch of morals to this story. Several of the little ones you probably picked up along the way. But here are three key ones:

No. 1: Flat doesn't always mean fast. I ran seven minutes faster three months ago on a much hillier course here in Charlotte. They say hills help keep your mind active, and they definitely mix up the muscle groups used in your legs, instead of forcing you to lean on the same ones the whole time like a flat course does.

No. 2: There are many different ways to run a marathon. One way is as a team, as a social endeavor (Jes Douglas and Alice Watson did this successfully Sunday, starting and finishing together). Another way is in pursuit of a specific goal. Don't try to run both types of marathon at the same time unless you've really, really done a great job at picking a partner. I should have stuck with my plan.

No. 3 -- and this by far was the most important lesson of the day: Respect the distance, respect the distance, respect the distance. I did a half-marathon two weeks ago in 1:36; I completed a 22-mile training run last month in 2:54. You can do some extrapolating and say "Oh, you can run a 3:33, sure" ... but there is never any way to tell for sure how your body will respond to that distance on a given day. Twenty-six point two miles is a very, very, very long distance. I didn't respect it. Could I have run a 3:33 under other conditions, using my original plan of attak? Maybe. But I practically took my goal for granted, and was too focused on the variables that might get me to a better time. I should have taken into account the variables that might make things worse for me. Like the weather. 3:33 was a good goal, a realistic goal. But it would have been a 9.5-minute PR and I should have been happy with that.

All this said, I am 100 percent OK with the outcome. What's the saying? Without struggle there is no progress. I love the fact that the marathon is such a unique challenge, one that requires so much strategy, so much strength and focus, so much inner fortitude, so much knowledge in the form of these lessons you learn every time out. To me this is not a failure. I just completed my third marathon in less than five months; that's an overwhelming success.

Besides, it would be wrong to whine about a 3:49:14. It's a perfectly respectable time. Will I do better in my next marathon? I won't even venture a guess. But I can guarantee you that whatever happens, I'll learn a few things from the experience.


Anonymous said...

I had a less than stellar marathon outcome this weekend as well; I think you did a great job of summing up what you think happened in your race without discounting that you still ended up with a solid time. congratulations! I wish my "wheels falling off" time was as good as yours :D

Chaz said...

Virtually every marathoner has at least one bonk story... They suck, but ultimately serve as a learning experience. Now you've had yours...

Anonymous said...

So what did these signs say?

Matt W said...

In last December's Thunder Road - my first and only marathon so far - I decided to hang with the 3:30 pace group as long as I could. This worked pretty well as I didn't have to think about my pace much. They dropped me at just after the mile 19 water stop. I can definitely relate to the overwhelming urge to walk. My urge was to lie down and beg a NoDa spectator for a lift to the finish.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it just takes time to build that strength. Patience, patience. Everything will click when its supposed to. That's what makes that distance so interesting. You have accomplished a ton.

A. Mayes

mrn said...

theoden, great recap and commendable effort. i was telling jordan after his harder-than-expected marathon sunday that he probably learned more from that experience than from the races that had gone smoothly. the same is true for you. you've got a lot of racing ahead of you, and this will just be a small bump in the road. keep your head up!

jayholder8k said...

Great recap...I didn't get bored at all. I could feel the wall in the way you described it. I once theorized it hurt more than child birth, and a woman has birthed three children and run marathons agreed. Ya know, it's funny. The one time I bonked in a marathon was on a beach too. I think you're right about the value of changing terrain. Awesome effort, and lots learned!

Anonymous said...

So let me get this right. You admit you weren't in proper shape for are a 3:42 marathoner and you tried to run a 3:30 marathon. Of course you were going to bonk.

What happens in marathon training is that your body learns to use fat for energy instead of carbs. It can take over two years to build up to that for 20+ miles. I can run 22 miles on a hilly course without taking in any carbs at 3:10 pace...but it took two years to build up to that. Just be patient and keep your training up and you'll get there.

Carol said...

You did a great job! I agree the heat was a strong factor. I ran at 12:00 on Saturday in Charlotte and had forgotten everything I learned last summer. There is a product called Elete which is an electrolyte replacement you mix with water. It works great in hot weather. It's available at running stores and at

Thomas said...

Oh,the dreaded bonk – it happens to me just going to get water in the middle of the night.

...but seriously - despite all the things that went haywire I think you ended up with a very good time - you held strong, finished the race and were only 16 minutes off the mark. Not bad at all. Maybe if it was cooler, your faster than planned pace over the first eleven or so miles, wouldn't have been a factor and you would have gotten in bonk-free.

Ah, but next time you'll be ready - with more focused training, you'll stick to your pace strategy and perhaps you'll be better acclimated to the temps.

Have fun out there...


Anonymous said...

I have bonked and felt just as you described...thanks for bringing back the pleasant memories. :)

Jeff said...

Great recap. I guess i was about 7 minutes behind you finishing my first marathon at 3:56. We had a similar situation, intending to run 8:45s but felt so good we didn't clock over 8:40 til mile 18. By then it was too late for my partner. I stayed with him, walking off and on til 22 taking off just as the 4:00 passed me. Got in front of them and just kept my distance to make my sub 4:00 goal.
A great race though, first of many i hope. Great job.