Monday, March 21, 2011

For me, a smoking time at Tobacco Road

Ask running pundits how often you should run a marathon, and you'll get a response along the lines of this one (from Runner's World contributor Jenny Hadfield):

"Runners who want to race a strong marathon and improve performance and speed should focus on no more than two marathons a year. Running many more than that is pretty hard on the body and mind, increases your risk for injury and slower times are usually the end result. Two per year allows for a full training and recovery cycle to optimize performance and reduce injuries. This is why you don't see the elite runners racing more than two marathons in a year."

I can only surmise that her advice is good and sound. She's got a master's in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and coach, and has authored books on running. I'm a moron who three years ago probably couldn't have run a 9-minute mile without collapsing onto the asphalt.

This isn't a "So THERE!" moment, but for those keeping score at home: On Sunday morning I ran my eighth marathon (Tobacco Road in Cary, N.C.) in less than a year and a half; since running a 3:43 in San Diego last June, I have lopped about 22 minutes off my best time; I've had no injuries to speak of; I don't feel like I'm suffering from burnout.

Well, OK -- I guess it is a So THERE! moment.

Again, though, I have no leg to stand on. I'm no expert. I just a doofus who signs up for stuff and then goes out and runs. Maybe I could be even faster and stronger and more efficient if I was running 26.2 once every six months instead of once every two. Maybe I'm doing long-term damage to my body that I won't know about till I need to get both knees replaced when I'm 55.

It's an interesting topic, though. I have a friend, Todd Hartung, who's going after all 50 states and runs a marathon roughly once a month. His philosophy is that sometimes runners set challenging goals for the one or two marathons they do a year, stress out over the training mightily, then agonize if they have a bad race. He would never recommend his regimen to others, but he does believe that the more marathons you run, the less mentally stressful they become. Plus, you don't put all your eggs in one basket. In other words, if he has a bad race, he can easily put it behind him a few weeks later -- as opposed to letting it roll around in his head for the next year.

Now, I fully understand that not everyone can afford to run a ton of marathons, and that not everyone wants to. But my point is simply that I was able to view Tobacco Road on Sunday as "just another marathon" -- and I was able to crush it.

Didn't train particularly hard for this one. Did a couple of 20-milers late last month in anticipation of doing a marathon in late March, but didn't actually sign up for the race until two weeks ago. Didn't even look at a course map beforehand.

I ran a 3:26 in October and a 3:28 in December, then ran a 50k in January. It was just time for another one.

My BQ time, for a few more months, is 3:15:59 or faster. Though I figured that that was still out of reach for me, I decided a week out that maybe I'd try to run Boston pace (7:28 per mile) until the wheels fell off, simply as a fitness test. And this is the whole reason why I used all those words up above as a setup: It was just another marathon. There was nothing at stake. I didn't spend a lot of time or money on this race, and if I had to take a DNF, I wasn't going to get all worked up about it.

Anyway, forgive the anticlimactic nature of what I'm about to say, but for the most part I bailed on this idea in the starting corral. Instead, I just gave myself one simple directive: Be aggressive, B-E aggressive. Last two marathons, I ran conservatively and finished with gas in the tank. This time, I hoped to cross the line with nothing left.

The Tobacco Road Marathon is now two years old, and experienced fairly significant growth in its second year thanks to good word of mouth (including high marks here). Numbers for Sunday's full weren't too far below numbers for Charlotte's Thunder Road Marathon, which is now in its seventh year. (1,292 ran Charlotte in December; 1,052 ran Cary this past weekend.)

It's easy to see why it's popular: The course is flat, is mostly on the forgiving packed dirt and finely crushed gravel of American Tobacco Trail, and for many miles follows a dead-straight/turn-free path. (Another interesting fact: Nineteen runners broke three hours at Thunder Road, 28 were under 3:00 at Tobacco Road.)

If you clicked on the link in the previous paragraph and looked at the course for the full, you also can see that it doubles back on itself twice. This is cool because if you have friends running it -- and I had several -- you could exchange high-fives and "good job!" comments with them multiple times along the way. This is for obvious reasons both motivating and fun.

Weather on Sunday was perfect. 40s at the start, 50s at the finish. The entire trail is lined with trees, so save for the last couple miles, wind and sun were virtually non-issues. The only problem with the 20+ miles of trail is that it's pleasant and serene, it's also pretty boring. A road crossing every few miles with a small but vocal throng of supporters. Otherwise, a bazillion trees, and not much more. Sometimes it seemed like you could see a mile down the trail (although, wouldn't you know it, the mile marker always seemed to be just around a slight bend).

Really the only thing to look at was other runners. So that's what I did. And for the first three miles, leading from the USA Baseball National Training Complex to the trail, I looked at the back of Jonathan Savage's head. He was pace leader for the 3:30 group, and he'd announced beforehand that he planned to take his charges through the half at a 7:53 average pace, slowing at that point to 8:00. I figured three 7:53 miles would be a good warmup, so I tucked in with his group. (Runner congestion was so heavy for the first three miles anyway that I didn't have much trouble holding myself back.)

Less than a mile and a half in we started needing to dodge a lot of folks walking the half marathon (they'd started 15 minutes earlier); fortunately, the halfers and full marathoners went in opposite directions at the trail head. Right after the split, I surged past Jonathan and never looked back.

I wish I had some exciting things to say about the next 20 miles, but it was really just a long series of dime-store race "tactics" to help me break up the monotony of the scenery and terrain: I'd find a runner, sit right on their shoulder for maybe 400-800 meters, then move past them to focus on the next runner. I did this dozens of times, and only got passed by a few people. (The most memorable was a Galloway run-walk dude who passed me probably close to a dozen times. I commend anyone for running any marathon in any fashion, but between you and me I found it mildly annoying to overtake/be overtaken by the same person repeatedly and methodically.)

The fun part, as I said, was seeing many of my friends twice along the way. Kelly Fillnow (she was the women's winner!), Mo Campbell (she broke 3 hours for the first time!), Bobby Aswell, Kathy Rink, Troy Eisenberger, Bobby Grigg, Jamie Dodge, Peter Balletta, and Mark Ulrich (who was a huge personal help to me this weekend -- he picked up my packet since I missed the expo, and saved me an hour-plus of tedium by shuttling me to and from the satellite parking lot pre- and post-race).

Beginning shortly after the first turnaround at Mile 8, I spent the next couple hours alternating between confidence and concern. A few of my splits were in the 7:28 (i.e. BQ range), so I fleetingly wondered if I should go for it. I also worried at Miles 11 and 12 when I started feeling the first very-mild pangs of fatigue.

After seven marathons, I've generally found that if I don't hit the wall around Mile 20, I'm not going to. I have no scientific proof that this follows any logic whatsoever and I would never try to convince you that this will hold true for you. But personally, I was really antsy to get to 20 so I could see how I felt. I came through the half at 1:39:38. That was the split I was looking for. My friend Brian Sammons qualified for Boston by going 1:40 for the first half and then 1:35 for the second.

The confidence returned. And then it started fading again. So I refocused on my energy on locking onto a runner ahead of me, easing onto his or her shoulder, hanging there for a couple minutes, then overtaking them. Around Mile 16, I keyed in on an older woman who was wearing a bright Cowtown Marathon finisher tee and looked strong, and she was slowly picking people off, so I hitched a ride with her through the second turnaround. Finally passed her as we went up a long, gradual incline near Mile 21.

My goal was to not get passed in the final 6.2 miles. At this point I was satisfied I was going to avoid a bonk, and was feeling tired but OK as we moved back onto surface streets just after Mile 23. There was a little roll to this final section, and there were some turns to negotiate. The sun was also giving off some heat. A bit of a breeze now, too. Nothing killer at all, but after so much peace on the trail, it inserted a degree of difficulty.

This is the point where you start to break the marathon up into smaller increments in your head. Mile 24 = I've just gotta go eight times around the track plus the point-two. Cowtown Marathon woman comes surging past me. And now it's one foot in front of the other time. I'm also -- and I know others out there use the same "trick" -- thinking about friends and family who've battled cancer and people suffering great tragedies (like the Japanese tsunami victims right now). Thinking that what they've had to deal with is real pain, that this is child's play. In other words, Suck It Up.

Mile 24 was 7:57, and though it was my slowest mile of the day, I'm happy because I've run several marathons where my average pace wasn't that fast.

I keep my Garmin on the Virtual Partner screen, which tells me how far or behind my hoped-for pace I am, so as I neared the final turn into the parking lot of the baseball complex, I honestly was not at all sure what numbers I was going to see on the clock. I knew I had a big PR, but sensed I could be flirting with the teens -- so there was a twinge of disappointment when I came around and the display read 3:20 and rising. But that disappointment disappeared almost as quickly as it had come.

3:20:43. This was a six-minute PR. This was 29 minutes faster than the first marathon I ran, in November of 2009. This was an aggressive move on my part after a couple races where I wanted to run smooth and steady and finish feeling strong.

This, to me, was a clear sign that I can run a bunch of marathons a year, and get away with it. So there.

If splits interest you, here they are:

Mile 1: 8:03
Mile 2: 7:35
Mile 3: 7:53
Mile 4: 7:24
Mile 5: 7:34
Mile 6: 7:27
Mile 7: 7:28
Mile 8: 7:42
Mile 9: 7:39
Mile 10: 7:17
Mile 11: 7:31
Mile 12: 7:38
Mile 13: 7:37
Mile 14: 7:27
Mile 15: 7:36
Mile 16: 7:30
Mile 17: 7:36
Mile 18: 7:31
Mile 19: 7:40
Mile 20: 7:32
Mile 21: 7:30
Mile 22: 7:32
Mile 23: 7:38
Mile 24: 7:57
Mile 25: 7:47
Mile 26: 7:53
Homestretch: 7:43