I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “easy” races versus “hard” races, and I’ve come to a conclusion: “Easy” is a relative term.
It’s easy, for instance, to say that the Chicago Marathon is “easier” than the San Francisco Marathon, since Chicago is so flat and San Francisco is so hilly. It’s also easy to say the Ridge to Bridge Marathon – which I ran on Saturday, for the third time in as many years – is “easier” than Chicago, since there’s a big drop in elevation at R2B and Chicago is merely flat.
What’s not easy, pretty much any way you slice it, is running a marathon.
I’ve now run 12. I’ve run them up and down mountains (R2B, New River), I’ve run them next to oceans (Virginia Beach, San Diego), I’ve run them in cities (NYC, Charlotte’s Thunder Road), I’ve run them in the woods (Tobacco Road). None of them has been easy. All of them have been run under different circumstances.
The circumstances I faced on Saturday were … let’s see … covering an event for the newspaper Friday night, not going to bed till 12:30 a.m., not getting to sleep till 1:30 a.m., waking up at 4:30 a.m., driving 100 miles to get to the start. And there was a bigger issue, too. I’d spent more than five months training for a half iron triathlon, then less than five weeks trying to get ready for Ridge to Bridge.
Here’s the thing, though, and there’s no way around this one: Marathons don’t care about your excuses. They don’t care if you slept badly, or had the wrong meal, or didn’t get in enough good long runs, or that it’s too windy or too sunny or too rainy.
They just don’t. When I got to the starting line last weekend, it was just me and whatever fitness I had. Nothing more, nothing less.
I’d run 3:26 here in 2010, 3:13 here in 2011. I knew sub-3:13 was a fantasy, so the goal simply was to fall somewhere in between those two marks. I honest to goodness had no pacing plan whatsoever. I would basically run on feel.
Ridge to Bridge is billed as a downhill marathon, but as I’ve said in previous reports about this race, the course is more challenging than it sounds. You start on an asphalt road about a pitching wedge away from an appropriately named Marathon gas station in Jonas Ridge, N.C. (elevation: 3,800 feet, give or take), with the first 5.5 miles described as rolling at best and frustratingly hilly at worst.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a downhill marathon?” is a commonly overheard refrain during this leg of the race.
My first six splits were 7:52, 7:38, 7:34, 7:39, 7:45 and 7:44. I still was trying to get settled. I knew the downhill miles would be fast, but I also knew I had only run 20 miles once since March, and I believe I stopped to rest three times during that particular long run earlier this month. So every time I tried to visualize Miles 20 through 26.2 in my head, I just saw fog and a giant question mark.
The downhill miles were about what I expected, I guess – 7:13, 7:16, 7:09, 7:19, 7:06, 7:12, 7:21, 7:12 – and here I would just like to note once again for the record that there are three uphill portions of the “downhill” section – and one is particularly lengthy (this has unpleasantly surprised many a first-timer). Because I had been somewhat conservative up top, I managed to pass a bunch of people going down, which always feels good.
Shortly after Mile 14, you reach the end of the forest service road and the course flattens out. This is the point at which this marathon stops being a downhill marathon and starts to exploit any of your weaknesses, starts to toy with any of your insecurities, starts to present itself as a potential dream-crusher.
Immediately after coming off the forest service road, you do a roughly one-mile out-and-back (turnaround is at about 15.5 miles in), during which you get a chance to see where you are in relation to others in your wheelhouse.
I went 7:26 then 7:26 in this section. I saw my friends Chuck Player and Rob Ducsay were a fair bit ahead of me, cruising to what they hoped would be about a 3:10; I saw my friends Ed Morse and Joel Thomas – both of whom have run sub-3:20 here – a little ways behind me, Ed maybe on 3:25 pace and Joel maybe around 3:30; I saw my friends Wen Norvell and Erin Osetek, also probably in the 3:30 range.
Faces tell you almost nothing at this point. It’s Mile 15, Mile 16. You’re not typically going to see many cracks in the foundation yet.
If you’re the foundation, though, you can certainly feel them forming. And for me, they were coming on in the form of calf cramps. I was able to stave them off for several progressively slower miles (7:31 for Mile 17, 7:44, 7:43, 8:02, 7:56 for Mile 21). I struggled past Chuck, who was walking. I struggled past Rob, who was walking.
In the 22nd mile, it became less of a cramping issue for me and more of a I-wasn’t-totally-ready-for-this-was-I? issue. 8:19. 8:29 for Mile 23. By 24, I was the one walking, as a few others struggled past me.
Anyway, I’ve done a lot of marathons in a relatively short period of time, and I do realize that even if you’re done, physically, you can convince your mind to tell your body to run. It’s basic math. Even a fast walk is 16 or so minutes a mile … while a slow run (in my case) is 9:00ish. A full bottle of water is worth running for. A Mountain is worth running for. Pizza? Worth running for.
I did what I could to stay moving: I walked for about 2 minutes after passing the Mile 23 marker, then jogged. 9:38. Walked for about 2 minutes after passing the Mile 25 marker, then jogged. 9:27. Walked for maybe just a minute in the final mile. 9:09.
Unfortunately, the calf cramps came back with a vengeance in the final 500 yards or so, making for an ugly finish. It’s always fun when you stop dead in your tracks in front of a crowd of people 100 feet from the finish line of a marathon, and one of them shouts, “Come on, don’t stop, you are almost there!” … as an unseen force twists your muscle fibers into a painful pretzel. “I’m cramping, guys – I’d run if I could.” At the same time, I’m reminding myself that marathons don’t care about my excuses, and neither do these people.
Anyway, keep an eye out for my finish-line photos sometime in the near future. They will probably look like they belong in some sort of anti-marathon PSA.
Finish time: 3:23:32. I’ll take it! Within the range of what I wanted to do. Third-best marathon time ever, despite the fade in the last 10K. Satisfactory, time-wise. Hard-fought, mostly.
Which brings us back to “easy” races versus “hard” races.
It’s easy to look at someone like my friend Mike Schreder – who ran a 3:47 at Myrtle Beach last February and then PR’d by 16 minutes Saturday – and say, Well of course he PR’d by 16 minutes. He ran downhill for 9 miles! Or Erin Osetek and Wen Norvell, who both BQ’d by several minutes Saturday after coming up short in several other attempts.
Then you look at Ed Morse, a four-time Boston Marathoner, who finished in 3:31 after running 3:17 here last year. Or Joel Thomas, who ran a 3:17 at R2B in 2010 but dropped out at Mile 20 Saturday. You could argue that they were both undertrained – and in fact, both had admitted to being just that going in.
But how about Chuck Player? 3:23 here last year. In better shape this year. 3:42 Saturday.
Rob Ducsay: 3:19 last fall at Savannah. Very tough hombre, fearless runner. 3:42 Saturday.
I’m not trying to pick on these guys. I’m just trying to underscore the fact that “easy” is relative. In fact, I’d like to think that all four of them – and pretty much anyone else who ran it this weekend, fast or slow – would join me in saying, “If you think Ridge to Bridge is so easy, you’re welcome to give it a shot and let me know how easy you think it is.”
All this is not to say there aren’t races that are clearly more difficult than others. Times are inevitably going to be much slower at, say, the Pike’s Peak Marathon than they are at something like Ridge to Bridge. And yes, if you run Ridge to Bridge exactly right, you can bring home a substantial PR.
But in almost every other way, Ridge to Bridge like any other 26.2-mile race. You have to be in peak physical shape. You can’t go out too fast. You need to fuel and hydrate consistently and properly. You must to find a way to dig deep starting at Mile 18, even deeper at 20, then all the way into your soul at Mile 23.
And really, the way I see it is this: If a marathon were truly easy, would any of us who call ourselves marathoners truly be interested in running it?
Monday, October 29, 2012
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “easy” races versus “hard” races, and I’ve come to a conclusion: “Easy” is a relative term.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
When I first decided to tackle the half iron distance, last winter, I was pretty set on Ironman 70.3 Augusta.
For a few reasons. 1. It was an official Ironman event, and there's of course an element of cachet (or at least the perception of one) that goes along with competing in WTC events. 2. Several friends have done it, so plenty of intel on the course was readily available. 3. Several friends were doing it again this year. 4. The swim is aided by a current that has become legendary. ("You can drop an empty potato chip bag into the water at the start and it will cross the finish line in 30 minutes" is one of the whoppers I'd heard.)
But I kept balking at the $275 price tag; plus, the race was eight months away, and ... oh, come on, I know I'm not the only commitment-phobe out there.
Anyway, as I waffled, FS Series -- the company behind the great Tobacco Road Marathon in Cary -- announced in the spring that it would host a brand-new half iron distance race, set for Sept. 23. After a bit of back and forth with myself and some advice from knowledgeable triathlete friends, I took the gamble, opting for a race that would be lucky to draw 250 participants (whereas Augusta brings in 2,500).
For a few reasons. 1. The FS race was cheaper. Way cheaper. Entry fee was announced as $100 (which was only $20 more than the last sprint I did). 2. It was at Jordan Lake, west of Cary, so it'd be a shorter drive from Charlotte. 3. It happened to fall on my birthday.
No. 3 sealed the deal.
Training started in April. As many of you know, my coach is Kelly Fillnow, who -- as many of you know -- I think is one of the most amazing friends, mentors and role models anyone could possibly hope to have. I won't spend more time trying to convince you of that; I'll just say she laid out a six-month training plan that inspired me, pushed me to (and beyond) my physical limits, and ultimately got me to race day feeling wonderfully fit and injury-free. It's a gift to have her in my corner.
Speaking of gifts, I received them in many forms on my 39th birthday this past Sunday, during the inaugural Finish Strong Half Iron Triathlon at Jordan Lake.
Gift No. 2: On race morning, organizers announced the swim would be wetsuit-legal. I'm a weak swimmer, so I reacted to the news as if -- well, as if it were my birthday. Which it was. I suspect a little creative thermometer-ing was going on out there on the lake that morning. A few days earlier, the water temp had been hovering around 81. Sunday morning, it checked in at 75. I was always taught, though, that when you receive a gift, you don't ask questions -- you just say "Thank you."
Gift No. 3: The swim was short. Very short. Like "Are-we-doing-a-half-iron-here-or-are-we-doing-an-Olympic??" short. Like 0.88 miles (per my Garmin) instead of the advertised 1.2. I came out of the water in under 30 minutes, which is much faster than I swam at Over the Mountain and Stumpy Creek (both international-distance races) earlier this year. I think this may have bothered some people. Not me. I mean, if you bust up your 5K PR, then notice everybody's watch is reading "3.01," is it really a PR? I say no. But I also say you ran the same race as everyone else; everyone had the same "advantage," just has everyone has the same "disadvantage" when a course is long, or hilly, or muddy, or whatever. In this case, frankly, I was more than happy to save myself 8 to 9 extra minutes swallowing lake water.
Gift No. 4: A Zipp wheelset, on loan from Inside Out Sports' Charlotte location. Not only do the Zipps make my Cervelo P2 look about five times cooler than it does with the stock wheels, I honestly felt like they helped me stay locked in during the flat, fast early miles. On Highway 64 around Mile 5, I looked down at my Garmin and saw I was holding a 30+ mph pace. Average pace for Miles 5-20: 21 mph. At the Jetton Park sprint last spring, I averaged 21.3 mph for 12 miles. Even if it was merely a psychological edge I got out of the borrowed wheels, I'll take it. I owe a debt of gratitude to the good folks at Inside Out Sports.
Gift No. 5: A natural ability when it comes to transitions. My chip time for T1 was 2:15, but my actual T1 time was 1:15. (I checked with others and indeed there was a discrepancy with the clocks that resulted in the official results subtracting 1 minute from our swim time and adding 1 minute to our T1 time.) That's 1:15 to strip out of the wetsuit, get ready to ride, and get out of transition. The transistion area was small, granted -- but that's still fast. T2? 38 seconds. I don't practice these things. Ever. I think it's just a matter of a smart layout, my brain working very well very quickly, and Pam cooking spray.
Gift No. 6: Coke. Kelly told me to look for it on the run course. I found it. I took a sip of it at three aid stations, and it was like drinking liquid nirvana.
Gift No. 7: Seeing my family at the halfway point of the run. My wife Amanda and my 11-year-old daughter Joie have been so massively supportive throughout all of my silly athletic pursuits over the past few years, and seeing them as I completed the first of the two out-and-backs was a big boost. I had to wave off a volunteer who shouted that I was going the wrong way so I could give Joie a low-five as Amanda snapped this great pic.
Gift No. 8: A downhill finish. The benefit of a double out-and-back run course is that after one pass, you know where every up and down is. That's the disadvantage, though, as well, since psychologically you have to ward off bad thoughts about the ups. And there were lots of rolls. As a result, there were a lot of people walking, especially on their second lap. I was determined not to be one of them. One of the main things that kept me going was I knew the last mile and a half was on a decline; all I had to do was get back to the top of that last hill, and -- as the sweetest cliche in endurance racing goes -- "it's all downhill from here." In the end, my last two miles were basically run at the same pace as my first two. Not sure I could have pulled that off without the gift of gravity.
Gift No. 9: A birthday balloon. About 150 yards from the finish line, former Charlotte resident and all-around good guy Thomas Eggar (who led a great cheerleading squad that also included girlfriend Michelle Hazelton and his daughter) handed me a birthday balloon that I grabbed without really thinking. Check it out in my finish photo:
(Note: Thomas and Michelle were there to support Charlotte's Carolyn Maye, who also completed the race and also celebrated her birthday Sunday! She's just a liitttle bit younger than me, though...)
Gift No. 10: A good friend to share a beer with post-race. Shawn Matthews did his first triathlon in May. He completed his first half iron triathlon just over four months later, finishing only a short time after me. Though our schedules don't allow us to train together very often, he's been a great motivator and someone who's brought a terrific sense of humor to a sport that often takes itself way too seriously. We didn't have a bottle opener on the trip so I bought a six-pack of (twist-off capped) Yuengling at Harris Teeter the night before. It's the best-tasting beer I've had in months, and must have looked pretty darn good to others: A woman waiting in line at the food truck who saw it in my hand offered me $20 to go get another one out of our cooler.
There are some other gifts worth mentioning. The volunteers were amazing, and if I had the money and resources to track them all down and give them all a beer, $20, plus a free pair of running shoes, I would. Eight to 10 hours of donated time, with very little thanks expected? Amazing. They're humongously selfless people who did a great job. FS Series also deserves big kudos. The staff was friendly, efficient, organized, conscientious and seemed to offer goodies you might not expect even from a more-expensive event -- shirt, medal, visor (cool), socks (nice), free lunch (burgers, fries, etc.), plus all the other amenities that come standard at a professionally run triathlon. Yeah, the swim was short. When everything else goes so right, though, it's easy to overlook 515 meters of lake.
Of course, the greatest gift is being able to do this at all. In a note to Kelly last week, I included this as a key goal:
"Have fun. It's my first 70.3. Whether I do dozens more or never do another one in my life, I'll always remember it. I want those memories to be good! "Great" would be even better! I asked Meghan [training partner Meghan Fillnow, Kelly's sister] while we were riding the other day for some tips, and one of the things she said was to take the ability to do this as a gift. I think that's great advice. That's why we do this! I'm not doing this for fame or fortune, so I hope I can enjoy every moment tomorrow. Or at least most of them!"
I figured I'd be claiming this race as the hardest thing I've ever done to this point ... but looking back ... I'm not sure it was. I think part of it is the fact that Kelly had me so well-prepared. Equally important, though, was my attitude: Have fun. Create great memories. Enjoy every moment. View the ability to do this is a gift.
Done, done, done and done. I had a very happy birthday.
OFFICIAL FINISH TIME: 5:24:21.
Rank: 42nd out of 151, 40th out of 110 men, 12th in the 35-39M age group.
Place: 87th overall (out of 151), 61st male (out of 110), 15th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 0.88 miles.
Place: 23rd overall (out of 151), 18th male (out of 110), 6th age group (out of 23).
Place: 50th overall (out of 151), 47th male (out of 110), 13th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 56.07 miles.
Average speed (per Garmin): 18.7 mph.
Average speed (per chip): 18.6 mph.
Place: 14th overall (out of 151), 13th male (out of 110), 6th age group (out of 23).
Place: 42nd overall (out of 151), 40th male (out of 110), 12th age group (out of 23).
Distance (per Garmin): 13.09.
Average pace (per Garmin): 8:35/mile.
Average pace (per chip): 8:35/mile.