Marathoning is crazy. I think it’s about experience as much as it about skill. You (should) carry what you learn from one race to the next. You run and learn; test and re-test. Every race is an opportunity to test your training, taper, and pre-race and in-race diet. Reflecting back on a race is important for me to identify areas to improve. I’m not the fastest out there, nor the slowest. For me, it’s about racing from one race to the next. I don’t race individuals as much as I race myself.
I’ve spent some significant time in the hurt to find my right recipe of taper, pacing, and diet. I’ve bonked and bonked hard. Prior races have left me sick for days. The important thing is that you learn. Chalking up a ‘less than ideal’ performance (cramps, bonking, etc) without learning the ‘why’ is a missed opportunity to improve.
My race week begins 7 days from the gun going off. A pre-race regiment of descending race pace intervals helps me with “deadness” of a do-nothing taper. I carefully plan my diet leading up to the race, too. I’ve learned that not planning in this realm has left me running from bathroom to bathroom.
Fast forward to race morning.
3 AM: Wake up to chow down on half of a bagel with peanut butter and gulp down some gatorade. Slip back into bed 10 minutes later. I find that my digestive system needs roughly 4 hours of digestion (previous experience and numerous failed attempts).
5 AM: What literally felt like 4 minutes was 2 hours. I would say we were lucky enough to book the Wyndham, which was the hotel sponsor for the marathon, but the hotel was terrible. The dial-up speed internet, broken desk chair, dead bathroom light, and lack of housekeeping was slightly off set by the proximity to the start and finish lines. Normal pre-race was underway. My wife and I went through checklists: body-gliding (a verb?) every seam that touched skin, BandAids were applied, a few bathroom breaks, nutrition, and a run down of mental checklists of how to handle the race, particularly mile 11-12 (read on).
6:30 AM: Our first and, luckily, only snafu of the race came 30 minutes prior to the gun. My wife and I walked to the mouths of each corral and talked a bit. I asked “Did you turn your watch on yet?” Dun.. Dun.. Dun.. her watch was dead. Big shout out again to Wyndham hotel, there terrible outlets we believe fried her watch. I told her to stay put. With now 25 minutes to the start, I ran back to the hotel and tried to jump start it with the charger. When that failed I frantically hit buttons to attempt a hard/soft reset. Nothing was working. Truthfully, I didn’t have a plan at that point. Before hustling back down to where I left her, I grabbed an old school watch.. pretty much told me the time (which was not set from day light savings yet) and had a running timer. No lap buttons, nor a second count for anything over 1 hour. After donning the watch and meeting up with my wife I gave her my Garmin, gave her a 30 second tutorial, and sent her into her corral.
6:45 AM: Weeding my way to the start of the A corral I began to sort through my options. I came up with a plan of resetting my watch every 3 miles and figuring I need to come in around 19:45 to hold pace. “Sure. Let’s go with that.” I typically don’t talk too much waiting for the start, but, for whatever reason, said hello to the guy next to me and asked about his plans. Wouldn’t you believe it? Kurt was looking to run a 2:55–same as me! Change of plan: Follow Kurt. Any experienced racer can tell you this can be tricky.. most runners overestimate their abilities and are terrible at pacing… like it or not, it was my only option.
7:00 AM: Bang. The plan was to keep Kurt in check. I knew what he wanted to run and I, unfortunately for him, kept asking him how we were doing. My plan was to keep him in honest and by doing so, keep me on pace (selfish much?)
Mile 1: Impossible to pace on feel.. adrenaline masks any “feel” for speed. We clicked through at 6:50/mile. I’m happy giving a few seconds early… most click through 20-30 seconds too fast.
Mile 2: 6:24/mile. Whoops.
Mile 3-10: It took me about 3 miles to get a feel for our speed. My constant “check-ins” with Kurt help me feel our pace and make it easy to settle into. Weirdly, it took me until mile 6 until my legs felt good… I was a little nervous as I felt sluggish until then. The course has roughly a half mile of flat. Every up is followed by a down. Within the first 10 miles you cross over 3 bridges, each with some decent climb and descent. I was conservative on the ups and controlled on the downs. It was fairly uneventful.
Mile 11-12: After a sharp decline of our 4th bridge the real test began. Mile 11-12 began a steep and long climb (I would estimate 8ish percent). It strung us out. I dropped the pace to a 8+ minute mile and kept in control. Celia and I drove the course the day before, luckily, and planned for this hill. From here on out I was running with 1-2 people or alone until crossing the finish line.
Mile 12-20: Really uneventful. I felt good the whole time, but didn’t push. I knew I had a long, steep, descent at mile 23 and wanted to save some juice to carve a minute or so out of my race. Unfortunately, I dropped Kurt on the big hill of mile 11 and was running blind. My watch was over an hour, which meant no seconds were being count, and I was just tired enough to not want to reset it every few miles to start a realistic mile count. I continued to run based on feel and hoped for the best, knowing I would get an update at the halfway mark.
Mile 13.1: 1:28:XX – Just what I expected. From Mile 12-20 didn’t have an ounce of flat. For every up there was a down, some gradual, some steep. I knew I would lose a good chunk of time on the climb at mile 11, but again, I was hoping to pick it up at the end.
Mile 20: In previous races this is where I started to feel, for lack of a better term, like crap. Surprisingly, though, my legs felt great. I had my wind and, at this point, was fighting the mental battle. Thoughts of stopping started to creep in, but were fairly easily subdued. From mile 13-20 I knew I was holding pace and figured I would come in under 3 hours if I stayed with my given effort (mistake #1! This lead to me being content).. I had no idea of my mile pace, but figured I was fairly close to 6:45. (Actual average 6:48).
Mile 23: This was what I was waiting for–a significant, long, downhill to regain time lost at mile 11. It was one of those, just steep enough to teeter on being controlled and somersaulting downwards. Unfortunately, being 23 miles in, it translates to “pain”. The whole race I was waiting for this opportunity… but I didn’t push. Sure, I was running faster, but not where I wanted to be. I became content with what I was doing. My subconscious was telling me, “Run Faster you idiot,” but my body was saying “eh, good enough.”
Mile 23-Finish: The remainder of the race was uneventful. It hurt, but not as much as it could. I crossed in 2:57:50, an 8 second PR.
I chickened out completely. I finished “comfortably”. It disappointments me in retrospect to know that I went soft mentally. At mile 20 I had enough to push, to make it hurt. I could have pushed and withdrew from the bank I’ve been placing deposits in all season, but I didn’t. I crossed, walked to my hotel, showered, and went back out to cheer on my wife.
In retrospect, I’m happy with my ability to pace blind and strictly on feel. I’ve paced blindly a few times during training due to a dead battery, but never thought I would need it on race day. I’ve learned a few lessons from Pittsburgh.
1: If your battery is dead, go for your run anyways.. you never know when you’ll need to go ‘old school’.
2: Being content on effort will suck in retrospect.
3: If you don’t hurt walking back to the hotel, you didn’t try hard enough.
4: Find a new hotel
5: Bring a back up watch that has a ‘lap’ button.
Thank you for everyone’s support during this race. Pittsburgh is a fantastic race and well run. The crowd support and aid stations are fantastic (including the Grey Hound Aid Station–crazy dogs!). Don’t let anyone spook you on the hills. For every up, there is a down. With the correct pacing and training, you can still do well.
I won’t become content at the next one! Bring on NYC!