The moral of this story is simple: When all else fails, run a downhill marathon.
I mean, there are other reasons to explain why I was finally able to break out of the 3:40s rut with a 15-minute 59-second PR at the Ridge to Bridge Marathon on Saturday morning. I had lots of good race experience in a short span (it was my fifth 26.2 in a year's time). I used a new type of training program that treated me exceptionally well. The weather in the Pisgah National Forest was cold and crisp, just the way I like it. And I ended up, fortuitously, becoming a pacer for a first-timer; we pushed each other through almost the entire race -- in different ways.
So in a sense, it was the perfect storm for me. In the eye of it? One of the most serene, beautiful racecourses of any distance that I've ever set foot on, notable for late-season fall colors as far as the eye can see ... and a staggering 2,661 feet of total elevation loss.
Two-thousand six-hundred sixty-one feet is more than half a mile. To put this figure in perspective, that's 83 percent taller than the roof of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in downtown Chicago. Two of the most talked-about downhill marathons in the U.S. -- Tucson and St. George, in Utah -- don't drop as steeply, at "just" 2,200 feet and 2,563 feet, respectively.
Although it wasn't quite like falling off a cliff, Miles 6 through 14 are pretty much one continuous downhill (with a couple of unexpected rises), and the last four ...... actually, before I get to the finish, I should start at the beginning.
One year ago this weekend, I ran my first marathon -- the New York City Marathon -- on a nice cold day. I went out a little too fast, bonked in the Bronx and struggled through Central Park to a 3:49:55. Six weeks later -- on a nice cold day -- I never hit the wall and cruised to a 3:42:32 at Thunder Road. Confidence was high when I did the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach in March, but another too-fast start plus sun, heat and wind led to a big collapse and a 3:49:14. And then in June I struggled to a 3:43:54 in San Diego as the sun roasted me and thousands of other runners on Mission Bay and Fiesta Island.
I was learning things every time out, though. About pre-race meals. About staying relaxed in the early miles. About pacing strategies. When and how I need to take GUs. Hydration strategies. Running the tangents. Pain management. (I also learned that I'm not -- and never will be -- a warm-weather marathoner.)
For those first four marathons, I used some variation of the same training plan, one that had me running five days a week. For Ridge to Bridge, I adopted a program that had me running just four days a week. The difference, slightly oversimplified: When you run 50 miles a week divided five ways, with a long run of 18, your other four runs are eight miles each; when you run 50 in a week over four days, with a long run of 20, your other three runs are 10 miles each.
During my toughest week, I did 14 on Monday, a 12-mile tempo on Wednesday, 13 on Thursday, and 20 on Saturday. The benefits in my mind, then, are that a) the extra rest day allowed my muscles more healing, and b) the consistently longer runs during the week increased my overall endurance. Bonus: Unlike my other training cycles, I had no bouts with IT band syndrome or muscle strains or foot tenderness.
So ...... when my wife and daughter and I arrived at the Quality Inn in Morganton Friday evening, I was feeling as physically and mentally ready as was possible.
The Ridge to Bridge Marathon is a small race that's capped at just 300 runners, a field dwarfed by many local 5Ks. It's held almost literally in the middle of nowhere. Morganton isn't the middle of nowhere; it's a city of about 17,000 in Burke County, 75 miles northwest of Charlotte. But the Quality Inn, which served as the race hotel, is 40 minutes from the start in Jonas Ridge (population less than 1,300) and 30 minutes from the finish at Brown Mountain Beach (population less than 130, I'd guess). Both of those places qualify as the middle of nowhere in my book.
A few minutes after I walked into the hotel lobby -- about the size of my living room -- I ran into Alice Watson, Bobby Aswell, Todd Hartung and Chad Randolph, the Charlotte-area runners I was planning to carpool with up to the start the next morning. With my room keys I was given two Otis Spunkmeyer oatmeal raisin cookies, which I gave to my wife and daughter. (I'd eaten a plate of pasta and several slices of lunchmeat at home before we left Charlotte.)
At packet pickup down the hall, I was greeted by race director David Lee in a room maybe the size of my garage. No expo, no lines, just a handful of friendly volunteers, and a goody bag that included a long-sleeved tech tee and a pair of gloves with "Ridge to Bridge Marathon" stamped on them.
Lights out shortly after 10 p.m. (and 1.5 Michelob Ultras), and following a typically bad night's sleep, I crawled out of bed just before 5 a.m. After dressing, I ate one and a half bagels with strawberry cream cheese that I'd brought from home. (I should note that the hotel, in a nice touch, was providing a "breakfast medley bag" free to racers that had a muffin, a cereal bar, a banana and OJ.) When I stepped out the door at 6:10, it was just above freezing, and as I made my way around the building to the front, I noticed the windows and windshields of cars in the parking lot were frosted over. I wasn't going to have to worry about overheating today.
On the ride to Jonas Ridge, I chatted with Chad, Bobby, Todd and Alice about their respective goals and got an overview of the course from Bobby, who had run it in 3:05 in 2009 (with the swine flu!). Chad's wife Laurie and young son James were also good company. It was dark out for the entire 25-mile trip up NC-181, but the headlights of Chad's Honda Odyssey generally shone on a steep incline and my ears popped routinely.
We pulled into the staging area just before 7 a.m., still under dark (but perfectly clear) skies. The staging area is -- appropriately -- a shuttered gas station/general store owned by Marathon Oil. Several cars were idling in the lot, and there weren't any lines at the six portapotties, so most of us jumped out and used them ... then jumped straight back into the warm van, as the outdoor air temp was 30 degrees. When we saw the lights of the three coach buses, which were carrying a couple hundred runners who had parked at the finish, we hit the facilities again to beat the lines that would form a few minutes later.
Said hello to too many Charlotte-area runners to name between 7:30 and 8, but shortly before heading for the starting line, a young guy named Troy (I'd learn later his last name is Lee) introduced himself as being from Charlotte. He was running his first-ever marathon -- he'd written "Marathon Virgin" on the back of his singlet -- and didn't have a watch, so was hoping to tag along with someone shooting for 3:30.
To be honest, I was not super-excited about the prospect of having company, initially. I like running with friends, but I also enjoy solitude on runs, and marathons have typically been solitary experiences for me. Still, there was no point in being rude, so I lined up with Troy after shaking hands with some friends and acquaintances, and at 8:01 a.m., some 3,800 feet above sea level, 265+ runners set off down Mortimer Road.
I had preprogrammed my Garmin to pace me at 8-minute miles, which would bring me in at 3:30 (which would be a significant PR). My strategy was to keep myself in check early on, something I've had trouble doing in the past, then to keep myself from going too crazy on the long, swift plunge between Miles 6 and 14. Hopefully, I'd be able to keep on pace but not creep too far under it -- on such steep descents, that would mean I'd be hitting my pace but throttling back on the effort level. The aim was to put myself in a position to bring home the last 10K strong.
The short story is, it worked. Splendidly. Not just as well as I had hoped, but better. The long story:
Roughly four of the first 5.5 miles -- before the big long drop -- are on asphalt, and can best be described as rolling. There's a good descent around Mile 3, but this section is an out-and-back, so we had to come back up it in Mile 5. Most of Mile 4 is on an unpaved stretch of road that nearly touches the Blue Ridge Parkway before U-turning.
I was just trying to get comfortable in the first 30-40 minutes. There were plenty of people around Troy and me for the first few miles, some good-naturedly picking on me because I'm a "celebrity" and many remarking on Troy's "Marathon Virgin" status. I learned that he has previously done just two half-marathons, although his PR is 1:30, four minutes faster than mine. I also learned that his longest long run was 18 miles, and I immediately formulated the opinion that he was going to hit the wall -- like so many of us do. I kept that to myself, figuring I was probably a 50/50 bet to join him.
The scenery was breathtaking. The leaves were a little past their peak but still beautiful, and the quiet, peaceful roads provided an absolutely spectacular setting for 26.2. Fan support was non-existent, which is a drawback, but the vistas helped keep the mind active.
Miles 1 through 5 clicked off at 8:10, 8:02, 7:54, 8:01 and 7:55. Right on target. (At left: Mark Hinson of Charlotte, Troy, and myself. Photo by Jinnie Austin.)
At 5.5, we hung a left onto -- well, I don't know if the road even has a name. It's about nine miles, is wide enough for 1.5 cars, has dozens of blind curves, many switchbacks, no guardrails. It's basically a trail, albeit groomed so there are no roots or significant rocks. Some of the gravel was larger than pebble sized, but most of it was in the middle of the "road," so if you stayed to either side, it was like running on hard-packed dirt.
A side note: I'd originally planned to run R2B in a pair of lightweight trail shoes. But because most of my training is done in 7-ounce Saucony Fastwitch 4s, the 9.8-ounce Adidas AdiZero XTs consistently felt heavy-ish. I ran slower than I'd hoped in them at a 30K in September, and after a horrible tempo run in them three days out, I decided to take my chances and go with the Fastwitch. I had run one other marathon in these -- San Diego -- and finished with an achy left foot. After R2B, I had no foot pain at all.
The Fastwitch is a very light and very fast shoe. The trouble with the Fastwitch -- and I knew this could be an issue going in -- is that the soles are very soft, so if you step on small, sharp rocks, you'll feel it. Also, the soles occasionally grab onto pebbles; when this happens, it feels like there's a rock inside your shoe. (I in fact lost about 10 seconds around Mile 4 when I had to stop to dig out a pebble.)
On the unpaved section, it tended to be difficult to hit the tangents a) because Troy didn't seem to be focusing on them and I didn't want to constantly be running over him (we had so much time out there that in hindsight, I should have coached him on doing so), b) the road was open to traffic, and although there was very little on this stretch, when it came, if you were stuck on the outside of a turn, you had to take it that way, and c) it meant going across the middle and risking stepping on a sharp rock or picking up a pebble with my soles. I should say, though, that that early stone was the one and only that got lodged. (I should also say I wound up with just 26.21 on the Garmin in the end.)
The little bits of congestion that there were up top thinned quickly on the trail section. It was at this point that, despite my best pre-race efforts, I started to feel like I needed a pee break. But I ignored it at first, while Troy and I chewed the scenery and bantered with runners who passed by. We commented about the leaves and the view and how easy the pace felt and how much our quads would hurt later. The next few miles went by in 8:10, 7:49 and 7:54 as I tried to keep the brakes on. Many other runners did not, and I hoped that we'd see them later.
Around Mile 9, I finally decided to pull over. Troy said he'd hold the pace we were doing and I said I'd catch up. The first place I chose was occupied by a small camping party; the second did the job. It took a few minutes to run down Troy, and shortly after we hit one of the very few inclines in this stretch of the race. An unexpected surprise, but I suppose it was a nice break for the quads. Water stops were hardly plentiful -- maybe one every 2.5 miles -- but there was still a chill in the air and zero direct sunlight underneath the forest canopy. 7:51, 7:55, 7:55, 7:48, 7:52. Down, down, down, down, down. There were no timing clocks on the course, but I had us hitting the half at 1:44:05.
At the bottom of the unpaved section, about 14.5 miles in, we hit Edgemont Road and banked left for another little out-and-back of about one mile (so two total -- one out, one back). This was an asphalt stretch, and I was surprised by how hard it felt and how relatively fatigued my legs suddenly felt with the change in terrain. We went through the tiny town of Edgemont and I saw Chad and friends Joel Thomas and Mark Ippolito -- who were on their way to BQs -- coming back toward us. I wondered if I'd see them again before the finish line. Miles 14-16: 8:06, 7:52, 7:46.
Shortly thereafter, Troy and I were again on unpaved road, a little wider, a little dustier, a little less shaded, and with gentle rolls (no serious climbs, though). A few more vehicles here, but most were race fans and we never felt at risk. The sun was getting a little warmer, but it was still only in the mid-40s probably. Mile 17 was 7:51. Around Mile 18, we left Edgemont Road and turned onto Brown Mountain Beach Road, which would carry us along a rolling river with some rapids and smaller waterfalls. Very picturesque and pleasant, it was either on our left or our right for the rest of the journey. We crossed it four times if I'm remembering correctly. (As we ran onto the first one, I somewhat lamely joked to Troy, "'Ridge to Bridge,' right? This is the bridge. Can we be done??") Mile 18: 7:46.
At this point, I knew things were going well. I felt in control. I had been fueling well -- GUs at the start, at Mile 5, at Mile 10, at Mile 15 -- and drinking enough but not too much. My breathing was good, my legs felt (reasonably) good, I was still clicking off sub-8 miles and didn't feel like I was losing steam at all. There was no impending sense of doom, as I'd felt in San Diego and in Virginia Beach. Mile 19 was the fastest of the day so far -- 7:41 -- but I knew that anything could happen in the next hour.
Troy had fallen pretty quiet. I'd congratulated him when we hit 18 and he was officially into his longest run ever. We were steadily running people down, maybe a couple per mile. But I was getting worried about him, so I tried to be as encouraging as possible. "You're doing awesome, man. Let's just keep picking people off." When we hit the Mile 20 marker, I decided to start counting the people we were passing to myself. There weren't many out there, but it gave me something to do.
10K left. I felt good. 45-50 minutes to go. My legs were tired, but I could run tired. What I couldn't run through was The Wall -- when general fatigue takes over and energy-wise you're completely tapped out and the will to run evaporates. You can usually feel it coming. I didn't feel it coming. Troy did, I think, but I kept coaxing him. "Just hang on, man, you're running great. I can't believe this is your first!" 7:48, 7:44, 8:02.
With 3.2 to go we began a gradual descent that would take us all the way home. After a couple hundred meters, I said, "Just a 5K now..." He said he was thirsty and wondered if there was a water stop coming up. I said, "I don't know, but in 25 minutes you'll be able to drink as much as you want." 7:54, 7:45, 7:48. We were cranking. We came around a bend and although we could see just smatterings of a crowd, Troy must have known he was going to make it -- he held at his fist and I punched it and said, "Dude, awesome job."
And then we heard the beeping of finishers crossing the timing pad. I knew from reviews that we would briefly go out beyond where the finish was and come back, and we couldn't see the 26 sign yet, but it was in the bag at this point. I couldn't believe how fresh I felt. In the next second, though, Troy said, "I'm cramping up," and suddenly, he was gone. I'd gotten him about 25.7 miles of the way there. I felt terrible for him. At the same time, I suspected the race wouldn't be a total disaster for him. When you bonk or cramp at Mile 20, you feel despair. When you bonk or cramp at 25.7, with the finish line literally in sight, you'll be across in nine more minutes or less even if you have to walk it in, barring a real injury.
I dipped down into the parking lot of Brown Mountain Beach Resort and headed away from the finish, briefly, as I made a lap around it. Mile 26 clicked off at 7:39 (fastest of the day). I was about to sprint it in but stayed on pace when I got the faintest suspicion my own cramp was bubbling up. It didn't, thankfully, and I crossed the line just behind a guy I wasn't quite able to chase down. He would have been my 12th victim since the Mile 20 marker; only one person passed Troy and I.
My official time: 3:26:33 (7:53 average pace), 55th out of 265 finishers, with a negative split -- I ran the second half in 1:42:28. And my legs felt relatively good. One of the first people to congratulate me was Josh Baker of Valdese, who won in 2:40:06 (he also was doing his first marathon). About three minutes later, Troy crossed in 3:29:31. He looked both disappointed about the fact that he had cramped up, and overjoyed by the fact that he had done so well in his 26.2 debut. He also looked very thirsty.
There was plenty to drink, but even better, there was PLENTY to eat. A seemingly endless supply of Papa John's pizza, along with BBQ and burgers with all the fixings, and other assorted treats. I downed a bottle of water, then a Mountain Dew -- even though I normally do not drink soda -- then a slice of pizza, then a burger with slaw, then another slice of pizza. I mingled with other runners (too many to name, although congrats again to the winner, Josh; the aforementioned BQers; and sisters Jill Brashear and Jana Spencer, two other Charlotte runners who qualified for Boston Saturday).
But mostly I beamed with pride over my 16-minute PR, over the fact that I finally had busted out of the 3:40s rut I'd been stuck in for the past year. And I was thrilled to have pulled Troy along for as far as I did. Earlier today, he sent me a note that made me feel almost as good as the PR: "Could not have done that run without you. Thanks for being a great motivator. There were so many times after Mile 20 that I wanted to call it quits."
Up top I alluded to the fact that Troy pushed me as much as I pushed him, just in a different way. It's true. After my initial reluctance, I gradually got fired up by the prospect of pacing him to a solid time. There was never a moment when I wanted to throw in the towel, but I really wonder whether I might have slowed down if not for him. Even though he might have been struggling late, he was for the most part right in step with me, and sometimes even half a step ahead. I didn't want to let him down ... but I also didn't want him to beat me. (I figured that we'd cross the line together.)
I wanted to show him that I could do exactly what I was encouraging him to do. Stay in check early, maintain focus, pick people off late, finish strong. I did it. He basically did, too.
With a little help from a lotta downhill.
Not quite sure why I don't have a photo of Troy and me post-race, but here's one of me with newly minted Boston qualifier Mark Ippolito afterward. Photo by Chad Randolph.