Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tobacco Road: Sometimes when you lose, you win

On paper, I had the slowest, worst marathon of my life Sunday in Cary.

4:05:49. Slower by about 16 minutes than my first marathon, New York City, back in 2009. Slower by almost an hour than my ninth marathon, Ridge to Bridge, last October. Slower than I ever thought I'd run a marathon that I wasn't pacing.

And despite the fact that I started out racing the Tobacco Road Marathon -- really racing -- and didn't come anywhere near the time that I thought I might be capable of, it was also one of the most gratifying races I've run, on a few different levels.

This is not a lie that I'm telling you just to make myself feel better. This is the honest truth. I think part of it is I've now run so many marathons in a short period of time (13 in 2-1/2 years) that a) I know I don't need to prove to myself or anyone else that I can run one, and b) I know not every race is going to go very well, much less perfectly.

All signs pointed to an iffy outcome. My training leading up to the race had been marginal at best. No long runs, no speedwork, just a lot of fun runs -- both solo and with friends -- as work and family stuff consumed me during January, February and the first half of March.

The forecast was for like 80-85 percent humidity and morning temps in the high 50s to low 60s. My average marathon time in cold, dry weather is in the 3:20s; my average marathon time in warm or humid weather is in the 3:40s.

So a few days before the race, I made the decision to run without my Garmin, and to try to just turn in the best run that I could while still having fun.

Before I get into the race recap part of this -- and the race recap part will be relatively brief -- let me clear up a misconception: I am not obsessed with, nor would I call myself eager to, run the Boston Marathon. I think about it once every couple of weeks, maybe, and even then it's just sort of a passing thought.

I trained last year to hit that time because it gave me something to do, missed it by a little less than four minutes, and moved on with my life. I respect the accomplishment and think it'd be nice to qualify someday. I am in awe of and am so happy for friends who worked their asses off for that goal, and achieved it. But I'm in no rush and figure I'll probably get there when I'm 45 and run it once.

This probably sounds like a likely story, something that of course someone who isn't capable of qualifying would say, but it really is true. I run because I love to run. I set goals to make things interesting.

But I also think new experiences make things interesting, which is why I decided to "run naked" (i.e. without my watch). I have to admit that while dreams of Boston have never consumed me, I've always been a slave to the watch. I'm a guy who as a kid would spend three hours organizing his huge baseball card collection according to the most inane statistic. I suck at math, but I'm fascinated by numbers.

So ditching the watch was a big deal for me.

And yet when I got to the starting line on Sunday, I wasn't fighting off the shakes and I wasn't pawing absent-mindedly at my wrist. I really felt relaxed, and loose, and ... free. When the gun went off, I just ran.

I ran whatever pace I was running, and I felt absolutely no stress about the fact that I had no idea what pace I was running. As we wound our way out of the baseball stadium complex where the start and finish were situated, I just ran.

I ran past the 3:30 group at around the 1-mile mark, the first indication whatsoever of how fast I was going. About 2.5 miles into the course, we turned right, onto the trail section of the course. A younger guy sauntered up alongside me and asked what time I was shooting for. "You know, I'm really not sure," I replied. I explained the watch situation, then said, "Last year I ran a 3:20 here. I guess it'd be nice to do that again, but this humidity..." My sweaty singlet was already clinging to my chest. And then, quickly, I said, "But don't tell me what pace we're running!" He kind of laughed, and chatted at me for a bit. I just ran.

I ran what felt like a pretty consistent pace, although even just four miles in, I didn't feel like this was going to be my day. The younger guy was also still chatting, but he was dropping a lot of F-bombs, and although I am far from a prude, it was getting a little annoying. I was just here to run, not hang out with Tony Soprano.

Eventually, he said he needed to back, and -- a bit relieved -- I just ran.

I have to tell you, despite the discomfort of running in humidity like that, I just felt so connected to the trail. As addicted as I am to that stupid watch, when you leave it at home, it changes you. You don't worry or wonder about your splits because there's no point. You just run. I just ran.

Tobacco Road is done on a course that doubles back on itself twice; there's a U-turn between Miles 8 and 9 and another between Miles 18 and 19. As a result, you get to see friends (and rivals) a couple times, to say "Hey man," or "Looking strong, keep it up," or just to get a read on where they're at in relation to you.

Based on the several friends I saw before and after hitting the first turnaround, I felt like I was probably about where I needed to be -- a couple/few minutes behind a buddy shooting for sub-3:15, a couple/few minutes ahead of the 3:30 pace group, several minutes ahead of several friends trying for times in the 3:30-4:00 range. So I just kept running.

By about the halfway point, after a couple of long, slight-but-steady inclines, I had determined that this wasn't going to be my best day. Between 14 and 15, we passed the point where you could cut back onto the asphalt and jog the 2.5 miles back to the baseball stadium. But I figured I was still probably somewhere in the 3:20-3:25 range, since the 3:30 pace group hadn't passed me. I just ran.

About Mile 16, the lack of fitness and the humidity started to catch up with me. Fatigue was setting in. As I came up on the second turnaround, I saw my 3:15 friend was still looking strong, and when I hit it, I suspected that either he was getting strong or I was getting weaker (or both) -- that he was now about five minutes ahead of me. As I came back toward the "slower" folks, I saw the 3:30 pace group was gaining on me. Probably only three or four minutes behind. "Just running" was becoming harder.

Around Mile 20, G.I. issues manifested themselves swiftly and profoundly. Horrifyingly, we were in a forest mini-canyon of sorts, so there was nowhere to go. It took about five or six minutes of painful running to reach a place where I could take care of the problem, and I lost several minutes while doing it. Back on the trail, I didn't need visual proof to know that the 3:30 group had dropped me.

At this point, I was probably nearing dehydration, between the sweat and the other problems. Or maybe not. But I was brutally thirsty. So when I hit the aid station at Mile 21, I had a full cup of Gatorade, my first full cup of liquid of the day. Then I had another. Then another. Then another. It tasted so good. Two cups in I knew I would be sloshing if I kept running. Four cups in ... and it was over. After that fourth full cup, I said to myself, "You know what? I don't really wanna run anymore."

I was at total peace, too. I grabbed another cup of fluids, and eased back behind the tables. Just started watching. For a minute, I debated looking for a ride. (There'd been a sign right before the tables that denoted this as a "Dropout Point" and that a shuttle could take you back if you couldn't finish.) I wasn't sure anyone would want me in their car at this point, though. I was drenched in sweat.

I saw a couple of friends go by and didn't draw attention to myself. It wasn't embarrassment; it was more I didn't want my stopping to in any way get in their heads. I didn't want them to think, He stopped ... I want to stop.

But I knew my friend Diane would be coming through eventually (she was shooting for 4:00 and had seemed to be fading a little when I saw her approaching the second turnaround), and I had come to the conclusion that the way to make the best of this day would be to help someone else get through those last five, grueling miles -- the toughest miles of any marathon.

About 20 to 25 minutes after I stopped (although it could have been more, it could have been less -- remember, no watch), I saw her approaching the water station. She seemed to be struggling at this point, and I could tell I'd be fine running with her, despite my current state.

As she stopped for water, I came up on her from behind and tapped her on the shoulder. "Hey!" I said. She looked confused. After I explained what happened with my race, I told her I was going to run her in. She continued to look confused. But we started running.

The next five miles were a slog for both of us. I could have gone faster, but I was thrilled to be running 9- or 10-minute miles. My guess is she might have wanted to go slower, that she would have been thrilled with 11- or 12-minute miles. A couple times, she said, "You can go ahead, I don't want to keep you." I was like, "Diane! I'm not running for time anymore! Stop it! My job now is to get you home." (It'd be easy to say, as a casual observer, that she was just trying to get rid of me. But I've known Diane -- a multi-time Boston qualifier -- for years. When she told me later that she was happy that I kept her company, I am sure she's telling the truth.)

I told lame jokes and tried to do as much of the talking as possible, offering encouragement and optimism, particularly over the last two miles. We crossed the line at exactly the same time, shared a high-five, and immediately ran into our mutual friend, Mark, the 3:15 guy ... who had broken 3:15 and qualified for Boston for the first time.

We all hugged and exchanged high-fives, then posed for a race photographer together before heading over to inhale pizza and grab some free beer. We ran into a couple of other friends, Laura (who'd done the half) and Emily (who'd also struggled through the full). We swapped stories and laughed and griped about the weather.

It was a great way to cool down: With friends and happy talk about running. Only one of us had PR'd, but none of us were discouraged. I was actually thrilled with the way running watch-less had made me feel spiritually, and I'm excited to try it again when I'm in shape and the weather is better. I had been there to support a friend when she was hurting. I ran 26.2 miles on Sunday. I just happened to take a little break at Mile 21.

Charles Swindoll once wrote, "The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. ... I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it."

I would tend to agree.


Anonymous said...

Good story. Nice that you did not quit.

Marshall Ellis said...

Hi Theoden -

Kudos for shedding the watch and just running. It's an under- appreciated concept that more runners need to embrace.

Although I appreciate the utility of heart rate monitors and the like, when my heart rate monitor crapped out last year after several years of meticulously planning and charting every step of every workout, I decided to go back to old school running. No more HR monitor, no more time in or out of the sanctified zones, no more training diaries. Just run, and sort it out based on perceived effort. Gotta say, it's a lot more fun that way. In fact, I'm seriously considering tossing my HR altogether.

Good work - keep running, and keep enjoying it.

David Haas said...

I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could email me?

finian said...

You ran the 50k in 4.18 at the Charlotte Ultra which is also open for 2013.