I didn't really come very close to qualifying for the Boston Marathon today.
I mean, I wasn't way off. Missing by 3.5 minutes is much closer than missing by 35 minutes ... but it's still 3.5 minutes. It's not 3.5 seconds.
You might ask me (and some have): "Are you disappointed?" And the answer is: Maybe a little bit. Mostly, in truth, because I wanted so badly to hit the mark to honor my coach, who has been molding me and pushing me and prodding me as an athlete for the past several months.
But don't ask me whether I'm disappointed. Ask me whether I am totally and utterly psyched. And the answer is: absolutely. Positively.
Almost exactly two years ago, I ran a 3:49 in my first marathon. My progression since has been 3:42, 3:49, 3:43, 3:26, 3:28, 3:20, 3:46. So this is a huge, earth-shattering breakthrough for me -- a 7-minute marathon PR and a full 13 minutes faster than my time on the same course one year ago.
I ran a 3:13:26 at the Ridge to Bridge Marathon this morning, and here -- in lieu of a more traditional race report -- are the things that stand out to me about after this experience.
1. 26.2 miles is a loooong #$&@ing way. I usually manage to forget this fact about 24-48 hours after I run a marathon; there's no other way to explain why I keep signing up for these things. I got to Mile 18 today and my head almost fell off of my body when a quick check of the math revealed that I still was going to have to run for another hour at my then-current pace. The early miles fly by like they're nothing, but I would describe the perceived distance between Miles 22 and 23 to be about six miles. It's just a long race.
2. A downhill marathon does not mean an "easy" marathon. I picked this race -- which starts in the tiny town of Jonas Ridge and drops down into the Pisgah National Forest before winding its way to Brown Mountain Beach Resort -- because as many of you know it features almost 3,000 feet of descent. Here's the thing: The bulk of the downhill is set between Miles 6 and 13.5. There are two significant uphills within that stretch. The five-plus miles that precede the downhill are wildly rolling. The final 12 or 13 miles are often flat, but have several gradual inclines. The truth of the matter is, the first half of Ridge to Bridge is quite easy. I think my 13.1 split was 1:34-something, and I could have gone faster. On its own, the second half can best be described as easy to moderate. The challenge, though, is managing the three parts of the course so that they all balance each other out and produce a solid time. It's all about tactics. If you hit the first section too hard, you'll pay for it later. If you hit the downhill too hard, you'll pay for it later. If you are too conservative in either spot ... you might pay for it later. People who've never done Ridge to Bridge can easily look at the elevation chart and go, "Well, I could run a huge PR there, too." And they might. They might also crash every bit as hard as I saw many runners crashing out there today. It's fast if you run it correctly. But ask any R2B vet, and I guarantee you they'll say the course is far tougher than it appears to be on paper.
3. I had a game plan, I went for it, I just came up a little short. So my strategy was to go out slowly, warm up through the rolling hills without getting down to goal pace, then hit the downhill section hard -- without killing it. At the bottom, I planned to try to maintain at or just below goal pace through 23, then I had built a gradual slowdown through the last 3.2 that would still get me to 3:09:30. Everything went according to plan until late in the game. Rolling section up top: 7:46, 7:34, 7:23, 7:27, 7:25, 7:28. Downhill section: 6:58, 6:59, 7:01, 7:12, 6:57, 7:05, 7:10, 7:01. Bottom section: 7:24, 7:15, 7:13, 7:14... Between 18 and 19, I felt a ripple through my right calf muscle that had me backing off just slightly. At this point, I felt like I was still in good shape. 7:23 for Mile 19. And then things started to slowly unravel. The pounding from the downhill was taking its toll, although aerobically I felt good and I still had energy (i.e. I wasn't feeling a bonk coming on). 7:46 for Mile 20. I tried to push through and managed one more halfway-decent mile -- 7:28 for No. 21 -- but then my calf seized up in Mile 22, so I had to back off and clicked an 8:04. The rest is history, or, if you need numbers, 7:53, 8:14, 8:11. About 50 yards from the finish, my hamstring locked up completely and I had to stop to rub it out, but I pulled it together enough to run it in without looking wobbly.
4. When the margin for error is small, one false move can cost you. I knew I'd be cutting it close. I was in shape for a sub-3:10 attempt. I was not in shape for a sub-3:05 attempt. So it wasn't a case where I could shoot for the moon and then just land among the stars if I missed. Everything had to go perfectly. And one thing didn't. For some reason I can't explain, I took only water at aid stations through 18 miles. When I got the first hints of cramping, I knew immediately that I should have been taking some Gatorade throughout the morning. I'm no sports medicine doctor, but I do know that the most common belief is that we will experience muscle cramps if we run low on electrolytes. I was low on electrolytes. I think I was suffering enough in the late-going that I still likely would have missed my mark; by my unscientific estimates, the cramps cost me a minute or two tops. We'll never know.
5. I toughed it out, though, and I got my toughness from Kelly Fillnow. I think a year ago, I would have bagged the race at Mile 22 and figured out a way to salvage a 3:20 by taking some walk breaks and coming up with excuses in my head. Instead, I busted my rear end to try to stay on task as much as possible because my coach said to me the day before: "You can endure so much more pain than you think you can." I wanted to test the theory. She also told me to use mantras to focus myself, and I did, and they worked. On the downhill, it was "Lean into it; don't brake. Lean into it; don't brake." In the final miles, it was "Stay within yourself. Stay within yourself." I am proud that I was able to manage the cramps as best I could by slightly changing my cadence and leg lift, applying just enough gas to keep me moving at an OK clip without rising into the red zone and locking up a muscle. I knew I was not going to hit my goal by Mile 23, which in the past would provided me with an excuse to give up. Instead, I kept hammering as hard as I could hammer. It hurt. But I discovered that Kelly is right: I can take a lot more than I thought I could.
6. It's great to have a goal, but it's even more gratifying to have great people to help you work toward it. I mentioned this on Facebook, but I am just so thankful to have had the love and support of my wife and daughter through an intense training period, and to have had Kelly there to push me. I self-"coached" myself to a 3:20 in March 2011, just 16 months after my 3:49 debut. But I knew going from 3:20 to 3:10 -- a mark that fewer than 1 in 12 marathoners will ever get to -- was going to take more motivation and effort than I was used to. It's kind of like what they say about losing weight: "The last 10 pounds are the hardest." Anyway, as many of you know, Kelly kicked my butt this summer. I ran more quality miles than ever, did more workouts and speedwork than ever, more core, more strength, more swimming. I got through the training plan without a single injury, without a single injury scare. So this run was for her, and for my wife and daughter.
7. You've gotta celebrate the small victories. A Boston qualifying time, of course, was the big goal (sub-3:10 for me). But there are still plenty of positive takeaways, not the least of which is the substantial PR. Perhaps the statistic that makes me smile the most: Nineteen of my mile split times today were faster than my fastest split in the same marathon last year. Oh, and I finished 24th overall out of more than 300 runners. Also, if you look at my result another way, it shows that I missed a BQ by just six seconds per mile -- which makes it sound like I came a lot closer than I actually did!
8. Ridge to Bridge is an amazing event. Mind-blowingly good. This is a small race that gets all the big things right. Exceptional organization. A beautiful and challenging course, one that can bring you a big PR if you play your cards right. Pristine weather both times I've run it, with amazing fall colors and breathtaking vistas. The best post-race food spread I've ever tasted. Halloween candy and throwaway gloves in your welcome bag. Heated luxury coach buses to take you to the start (you can sit in them right up till a few minutes before the gun goes off). It attracts the friendliest runners you can possibly imagine. There's acold river to soak your legs in at the finish. A race director who knows you by name. A truck that brings discarded clothing to the finish area so you can get it back if you wanted it. Great volunteers. Nice medals. Marathon experiences do not get any better.
So that's it. No. 9 is in the books. Marathon No. 10 is two weeks from Sunday. I'll write again, after New York...