Monday, May 9, 2011

New River had ups and downs. Mostly ups.

Just over a mile into the New River Marathon on Saturday, I hit a wall.

Then I hit another one at Mile 5, and another one at Mile 13, and another at Mile 16, and another at Mile 17.

I guess this is what I get for signing up for a marathon that runs through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

To give you some sense of the hills that confronted me and the approximately 200 other brave souls that tackled the course this past weekend...

...OK, so you've heard of (or run up) the Boston Marathon's legendary Heartbreak Hill before, right? Set between the 20 and 21 mile marks, it is the last and most difficult of the four famed "Newton hills." Heartbreak rises 88 feet over four-tenths of a mile.

The first of the climbs at New River comes 1.3 miles in. The ascent lasts a mile and is 308 feet. The second of the hills starts at Mile 5 and goes up 122 feet over seven-tenths of a mile. Hill No. 3 is 12.9 miles in and climbs 187 feet over seven-tenths of a mile.

But it's the final two hills -- mountains, actually -- that are the real doozies. The first starts just after Mile 16 and features a 174-foot ascent (more than twice as much elevation gain as Heartbreak) over about 320 meters (less than half the length of Heartbreak). The second climb, at Mile 17, is virtually identical. In one section, there is a 16.1 percent grade.

Boston has Heartbreak Hill, but this was Bodybreak Hill. Mindbreak Hill. Soulbreak Hill.

Of course, all of this is information I could have pulled right off the NRM website months before I actually ran the race. And I mean, it's not like I didn't look at the elevation profile before signing up, or after signing up, or the day before the race. But looking at spikes and dips on a graph and turning a corner to find a strip of road that seems to disappear up into the clouds are two very different experiences.

Anyway, I'll spare you the typical details about the ride up, what I had to eat the night before, packet pickup, pre-race prep, etc., except to say that the place my buddy Shawn Matthews and I stayed in was adjacent to a complex that could have stood in for Camp Crystal Lake from the "Friday the 13th" movies. And our room? It had no TV, no phone, no fridge, and no indoor plumbing. (OK, I'm joking about that last part.)

The only thing worth noting about the 35-minute drive to the start Saturday morning is that I tried and failed several times to get my Garmin to power up. But to make a long story short, my friend Emily Knudson came up to me right before the start and offered me hers. I set it up to pace me to a 3:30. I'm laughing thinking about that now (spoiler alert: I ran a 3:46).

So if you're reading this, you're almost certainly a runner, and if you're a runner, you're almost certainly competitive.

Not competitive in the sense that you are fast and you train with Jordan Kinley or Caitlin Chrisman or any of the other local elite runners whose names you routinely see at the top of the results after a big Charlotte race.

What I mean, rather, is that you have a competitive streak. Whether you run 4-1/2-minute miles or 14-1/2-minute miles, you have a strong desire to be more successful (i.e. faster) than others. You enter races, and more often than not, you are trying to set PRs.

Run enough races and you will tend to see the same faces -- or the same backsides, at least -- during them. Similarly able runners who you'll run by, or who will run by you, or who will run next to you. Runners who you use as targets. Runners who you want to beat.

For me, one of those runners is a young woman named Jinnie Austin.

The first time we met, at the Corporate Cup Half Marathon in 2010, we actually ran together and chatted for awhile, but she faded in the late going and finished in 1:40 to my 1:36. A couple months later I beat her by 9 seconds in a 5K. Then the tide started turning. She beat me by more than half a minute at a 5K in August, and by 12 seconds during a 15K in the fall.

So when we bumped into each other at the starting line on Saturday, I added another goal to the list for the race: Don't let Jinnie beat me. It's funny -- it wasn't so much "I have to beat her," it really was, "I don't want her to beat me." Does that make sense?

It was nothing personal; it's just, she's a very good runner, and beating her would feel like an accomplishment.

She said she was sort of shooting for 3:40... I told her I was sort of shooting for 3:30. Then the gun went off. She was about 15 or 20 meters ahead of me for the first few minutes, then I caught her and we made small talk until we hit the first hill.

This was no small hill, as I mentioned. Before the race, most of the focus was on the big elevation spikes in the second half of the course. No one had mentioned this one -- and they should have. It included several switchbacks and blind curves, so one of the worst things about not being ready for it was I had no idea it was A MILE LONG.

I left Jinnie behind maybe halfway up it, and wouldn't see her again for 2-1/2 hours.

Every time the next section came into view, after rounding a corner or cresting a steep rise, I'd mutter a "Are you kidding me??" (with maybe an obscenity or two added in there for effect).

Then we hit the top and plunged straight back down, 246 feet down over just seven-tenths of a mile according to the elevation map. So three miles in and already my calves, hamstrings and quads were complaining mightily.

I knew this was not going to be a 3:30 kind of a day.

Still, with the exception of the brief but aggressive climb at Mile 5, most of the first half really was amazingly flat. For me, though, it had become a psychological battle of sorts. That first mountain had sapped my legs a bit, but because it also had surprised me so much, it had me constantly fearing what might be around the next corner.

The course was designed, loosely, as a figure-eight. It traverses some beautiful sections of the Blue Ridge, the New River Valley, and winds through a picturesque landscape of farms and forests. As you might imagine, it's in the middle of nowhere. At Mile 11, we looped back past the start/finish (hosted by the family-owned Riverside Restaurant), and the size of the crowd here -- maybe 100 people cheered as we ran through -- was about 25 times the size of the second-largest crowd I saw along the course that day.

This being a small race, I was pretty much passing no one and pretty much no one was passing me. Every half-hour or so I'd glance back fully expecting to see Jinnie not far back; but if she was there, she was in a blind spot.

Then around Mile 12, I ran into Jinnie's husband, Stan, a 3:03 marathoner who I figured would be good for a Top 10 and maybe even a Top 5 finish. I was surprised to see him heading in the opposite direction. As we passed each other I asked him, basically, "What's going on?" and that he replied, basically, "I'm done." We didn't get much off other than that, and as I continue on of course now all I can think of is "These hills that are coming up must be killers." I'd later find he dropped out because of stomach issues, but at the time I had scared myself into thinking he had had hill issues.

And then I had hill issues.

Suffice it to say, between the time we started climbing at Mile 13 and the zenith of the course just after 17, I walked several times for several minutes at a stretch. Not because I had hit the wall in the glycogen depletion sense, but more in the these-hills-are-so-steep-I-can-walk--them-as-fast-as-I-could-run-them sense.

I'll never forget this: I was walking up the last quarter of a long stretch of paved road in Mile 15 that seemed to go forever. Near the top, I saw the 16th mile marker on the side of the road, just before the course hung a right. I got to it, made the turn, and immediately was faced with a dirt road that would have benefited from a ladder (or an escalator, at least). I kept walking.

It got so steep in sections that I almost lost my balance. And had I fallen backward, I probably would have rolled all the way back down to the bottom. One guy plodded past me, but -- although I kept expecting Jinnie to pass me -- no one else made a move anywhere in this section.

The quad-pummeling began again after cresting the mountaintop at 17.4 miles in. Gravity did most of the work for the next three miles, although I was still way off my goal pace. By this point, I was just hoping to come in under 3:50 and avoid setting a personal worst.

Shortly after the 19th mile marker, right in the middle of yet another hill, a Jeep came down the road toward me and slowed. It was Stan. He told me I was on the last hill, and it was all flat the rest of the way (I was hopeful but skeptical). I basically replied "Thank GOD," and that I felt like toast. I think I asked if he'd seen Jinnie, thinking that maybe I missed her pass me. He said, "Nope, but here she comes."

It wasn't long after that that Jinnie passed me.

I tried to stay with her. But I was struggling. It was now nearing 11 o'clock, and the sun was feeling warm. Miles 20-26 seemed like they weren't shaded at all. Aid stations had been set up every two miles, on the even numbers. Because of the heat, that wasn't enough. Two miles is a loong way that late in a marathon, a looong way when you're thirsty.

Fortunately, I was able to stay not too far behind Jinnie. And the best part about staying with her was also the best part about Stan dropping out of the race: He had come prepared with bottled water and cups, and parked his Jeep in front of the marker at 21 to hand out water to Jinnie, to me, and to several other runners; he did it again at 23.

The water saved me. After the drink at 23, I ran with Jinnie for a bit; we talked about what hurt and not much else. In hindsight, I wish I could have been more encouraging to her, but I was just trying to hold it together. She got ahead again as I walked through the aid station at 24, but I caught back up to her fairly quickly. I could tell she was fading fast as we neared Mile 25.

And then she was gone.

I pulled in at 3:46:43.

I am really very proud of the fact that I never bonked in the race, that I was able to cling to about a 9-minute pace in the last four miles of a marathon that was both brutally hilly and warmer than I would have preferred down the stretch.

Jinnie came in at 3:47:55, finishing second in her age group and was the fifth woman overall. This seems like a good time to reveal some important information about her that I've been withholding: She has been having a pretty painful hip flexor issue over the past few weeks and hadn't done much running leading up to race day. Oh, and this was her first marathon -- so she doesn't have near the experience I do with marathon pacing and marathon-pain management.

In other words, as gutsy as I think my performance was Saturday, hers was 10 times gutsier.

Frankly, it was the misfortunes of Stan and Jinnie Austin saved me on Saturday. If Stan hadn't been having issues that forced him to drop, I would have completely wilted late in the race, and it would have turned into a death march. If Jinnie had been healthy and fully trained, she would have left me in the first half-mile and gone on to beat me by 5 minutes in this one, maybe more. The mere presence of someone I consider a (friendly) rival helped to push me through the final miles.

In other words, I could have skipped all of this race recap business and gone straight to the punchlines: The New River Marathon is super-hilly, and I owe the Austins dinner.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

The splits from my -- er, Emily Knudson's -- Garmin, for those who care about such things:

Mile 1: 7:49
Mile 2: 8:27
Mile 3: 8:09
Mile 4: 7:46
Mile 5: 8:01
Mile 6: 8:38
Mile 7: 8:13
Mile 8: 8:12
Mile 9: 8:03
Mile 10: 8:04
Mile 11: 7:59
Mile 12: 8:00
Mile 13: 8:25
Mile 14: 9:05
Mile 15: 8:58
Mile 16: 9:54
Mile 17: 10:58
Mile 18: 9:53
Mile 19: 8:23
Mile 20: 8:13
Mile 21: 8:41
Mile 22: 8:44
Mile 23: 8:55
Mile 24: 9:05
Mile 25: 8:55
Mile 26: 8:55
Last 0.2: 8:22


Paul said...

As usual a well written race report. That mile 17 split just looks brutal. How are the legs feeling today? hope your recovery goes quickly


Anonymous said...

Great depiction of the race! I was bib 214 so we probably ran next to each other during the event. It was by far the most difficult marathon I have entered and I don't think the race website really eluded to how difficult a challenge it was going to be for the runners there on Saturday. I agree, the course was beautiful and one couldn't ask for a nicer running environment. And I also agree that mile 16 was one of the most difficult moments of the race (if not my life). When I hung that sharp right turn onto the dirt path there were two guys sitting there in chairs (I believe they were an EMS crew). One of them spoke up and said something to the effect, "This is going to hurt". And it did. One section became so steep that I do believe it would have been faster to walk it rather than run it. But I was just afraid that I would never start running again if I resorted to walking. Aside from the hills, I thought it was an awesome race for the diehard marathon runner. The mere fact one could finish this race I believe was such an accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Just curious - how does this compare to Grandfather Mountain? I'm thinking it has more elevation change, but not quite as steep. I think I'll avoid both. I can recommend Illinois for flat. Total elev. of 85 feet.

Bradley said...

Great depiction of the marathon! This was my second marathon (bib#151)and I feel it was a great experience if nothing else. I also was hoping for a 3:30 but was unable to make a negative split work out with the mountains on the back side of the run! I would also like to extend a special thanks to Stan (I don't know Stan but I greatly appreciate his consideration)as I remember around mile 23 a Jeep pulled past me, the guy got out, popped the hatch, and offered me a cup of water that I gladly accepted. Though I was wearing a six bottle Fuel Belt, towards mile 20 I was running dry and started hitting the water stations and refilling some bottles. Without the help of the volunteers and Stan I would have struggled the last couple of miles. As you stated, this was a beautiful run that I enjoyed mostly because of the roughly 200 runners running it along with me. This also reinforced my plan to never run another marathon without carrying my own hydration (a lesson learned from my first marathon-OBX 2010). Thanks for the recap of the run because apparently I blacked out around mile 1 and remember very little from that point to the finish!

Anonymous said...

Great outline of the course! I just ran this race yesterday and loved it. I agree that between miles 13 and 20 are extremely taxing. Anybody preparing for this marathon needs to do hill training. The New River Marathon hills are very unforgiving. I think I would run this one again, but I would definitely do more hill training next time. If anyone is interested, you can see my review here: