About eight weeks ago, I decided to run a secret marathon. Sunday, I ran it. And I think I can safely say that keeping the secret was almost as hard as actually running the race. Anyway, here's my story:
Having made such a big deal on this very blog about my first three marathons, and having experienced a setback in the third (I finished 16 minutes slower than I'd hoped to at Shamrock in March), I came up with a theory: Maybe all the advice, the expectations, the critiquing of my training habits -- maybe even all the support -- were messing with my head. So this actually began as an experiment. What, I wondered, would happen if I signed up for a marathon and didn't tell anybody about it?
Shortly after Shamrock, I learned that my old college friend and roommate Doug Pollock was doing the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon as his first full. Seemed perfect: a race on the other side of the country, off the grid, so to speak; the promise of pretty good weather; enough time to train; and a solid excuse to reconnect with a buddy I hadn't seen in years, to boot. I told Doug I'd keep an eye on flights and see if I could nail a cheap fare. He responded by dipping into his huge well of miles (he travels regularly for work) to book my airfare.
Hiding a marathon from running friends is actually much, much more difficult to pull off than you'd think. I do a fair amount of workouts by myself, but I also have a few regular running buddies and do long runs when I can with a group in University City on Saturdays. And as you all know, there's one topic of conversation that comes up 100 out of 100 times when you run with friends: races. "So, are you training for anything right now?" It's like talking about the weather.
Needless to say, I've had to tell hundreds of white lies over the last couple months.
Before I put my plan into motion, I actually did confide in a few people that I was on the lookout for a stealth marathon. But after I signed up for San Diego, I decided to go completely dark. It just seemed like telling even a select few would defeat the purpose, undermine the whole concept. There were certainly people here in Charlotte who I clued in -- my wife, my parents, a neighbor, a family friend -- but I kept it from anyone with a significant connection to the running community here.
If you were paying close enough attention, it wasn't impossible to figure out. Hiding long training runs is pretty difficult (especially from that UCity running group). When people would ask why I was going so long, I told them I was just trying to keep my options open in case I could find a spring marathon. I was skipping local races I normally would have done, in favor of those long runs. Some of the speedwork I was posting on Facebook was probably a little suspicious. Then, in the past two weeks, my mileage dropped off. (Taper, anyone?) Another giveaway may have been my joining the San Diego Marathon group on Facebook, a move I forgot to remove from my News Feed...
The race itself
It was cloudy for the start, in the low 60s. First part of the race went great. I was right around 8:26-8:27 pace for the first four miles. The course passed some notable San Diego landmarks in the first six or seven miles, including the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the USS Midway aircraft carrier on Harbor Drive, and what to me -- as a baseball fan -- is one of the coolest stretches of the four marathons I've done: a pass through Petco Park, where the Padres play. We ran behind the scoreboard along the backside of the stadium, and got a thrilling up-close view of the field. Average pace for Miles 4-8 was about 8:12.
There was a big climb midway through the first half of the race that I wasn't expecting (gotta study those elevation charts more closely beforehand) -- about 250 feet of ascent between Miles 7 and 10.5. Another surprise wrinkle: Right before Mile 9, you hit Highway 163 heading away from downtown, and the race becomes another animal. The first thing you notice is the camber of the road, which is significant; it's like you're running up a hill and along the side of a hill at the same time. The second thing you notice is a thick stream of runners on an overpass above, crossing right to left, then heading parallel -- until they merge onto the same highway with you.
Now, if the level of coordination was such that organizers had gotten evenly paced full and half marathoners together here, it wouldn't have been a huge deal. But as it was, this was a major design flaw. Remember, this was not a small race, with some 30,000 runners in all. So after the merge, it was complete chaos, with plodders everywhere, and lots of three- and four-across sets of Team In Training groups obstructing straight lines. The only half-marathoner pace sign I spotted had a "2:30" imprinted on it, but this was a couple-few miles after the merge; I think the first wave I weaved through was on about a 3-hour pace. Of course, one silver lining here was that all this climbing led to a peak, and after the peak, there was a valley -- 200 feet of glorious drop in a single mile, between 10.5 and 11.5. Not surprisingly, that's when I clocked my fastest mile of the race (7:59).
We didn't permanently ditch the halfers till about Mile 14, but I felt pretty locked in at this point. I kept clicking off miles in the 8:12 range.
I don't remember exactly when the sun burned off the marine layer. But I can tell you exactly when I started feeling it. Just after Mile 17, we hit Mission Bay, and by then it was close to 70 degrees and brilliantly sunny. For the first few miles on the biking/walking path, there were smatterings of trees. Way more sun than shade, but a couple seconds of shade every couple hundred feet or so. To make matters worse, once you hit the bay, you could see a long stream of runners on the other side of it, and from that vantage point -- especially given that fatigue is setting in -- it seemed as though they were a thousand miles away. It was spirit-crushing, and because of the layout, you had this view for a loooong time. Then at Mile 21 you get out onto Fiesta Island and begin a 4.7-mile stretch during which there is absolutely no cover from the sun.
It's this lack of shade that's the killer. I know 70 sounds pretty good to those of you who've been running in Charlotte when it's 90. But I've run in 90-degree Charlotte heat, too. I know it's brutal. The rub is that Charlotte also has a ton of trees. And you don't normally run 26.2 on hot days in Charlotte. I am telling you, running on Fiesta Island, without any relief from the sun in sight, that late in a marathon -- we might as well have been trotting across the Arizona desert. At one point, I briefly considered throwing myself into the bay.
So Fiesta Island turned into a bit of a death march. I walked a few times, though I have enough experience with bonking now that I tend to walk pretty fast and can more quickly summon the will to start jogging again. Slowest mile was 24 (10:22), but when you consider that includes some walking, it could have been worse.
What kept me going late:
- Definitely the Otter Pop that the co-eds were handing out at Mile 20. I told Doug afterward that it was the best Otter Pop I've ever had in my entire life, and I was not kidding.
- Two or three salt packets, which I firmly believe warded off muscle cramps.
- Sponges dipped in ice water. Heavenly. The first two I squeezed off on my head; the second two I tucked into the collar of my shirt. I am absolutely positive I would have walked less if I'd done what I did with the first two what I did with the second two.
- Boisterous high school cheerleading teams on Fiesta Island. In fact, various packs of cheerleaders were scattered along the entire course, and although I've never run Boston, I thought immediately of the Wellesley girls when I heard deafening screams more than a minute before actually passing each throng.
- I know this could come off as cliche, but thinking about my friend Melanie, who just last week began chemotherapy treatments, and my wife Amanda, a cancer survivor. Like I said, there were a ton of Team In Training runners out there, a ton of "beat cancer" messages and "in memory of" shirts. It puts things in perspective.
The final analysis
Well, it was an interesting experiment. I can't say I took great joy in misleading running friends and acquaintances, and at times, I had to physically restrain myself from spilling my plan to closer pals. So in a way, it was just as stressful as everyone knowing, there was just as much mental noise, and it clearly had no discernible effect on my performance. But I've gotta admit: It was kind of fun taking a different approach, and it was kind of fun just seeing if I could pull it off. Quite honestly, I don't think everyone could hold their ground -- and who doesn't like a good personal challenge?
Really, though, I was drawn from the beginning to the essence of the idea, and I think I got out of it what I wanted: a marathon that I was running for myself, on my own terms, without any input or great expectations. I'd do it again.
When? Ha. Yeah right, nice try.