Monday, October 29, 2012

R2B, easy as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 ... 22-23-24-25-26-.2

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?


Anonymous said...

Well put. I ran this weekend and had a similar experience although ended up with a much slower time. Thanks for the write up.

Ashley said...

I could not agree with you more on your assessment of the race! It was my first R2B and 3rd marathon overall...VERY surprised at how tough it is and reminded that you should always respect the distance!

Anonymous said...

That is good story to relate. Is it possible that not taking a
pee stop can cause cramping? I had similar experience at Myrtle Beach after running for 4 hrs, ran through the cramps, but had to have an IV after the race to recover. Maybe the waste water builds up to cause these cramps
in a long race for old guys like me?