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.
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.
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.