Monday, February 14, 2011

RE: Boston Qualifier Race Report -- Redding Marathon

I'm embarrassed to say that I'm way behind on the race-reports.
Despite it being the off season, I've done a 25k, a Marathon and two
Half-Marathons this year -- without writing a single race report.
Mostly, I've been racing to get in shape, resulting in a few near
podium misses and a half-marathon PR, but I really haven't had a
riveting race, with the exception of my Boston qualifying race at the
Redding Marathon. So here's that report:

Redding Marathon, January 16, 2011 -- Redding, CA

After a half-hearted effort at the Angel Island 25k where I watched
James Duff set another (yawn) course record. I decided to ratchet up
my training by running the Redding Marathon the following week. Not
having done a single long run with the exception of the Angel Island
race, I was basically relying on my fitness from Ironman Cozumel, 6
weeks prior to get me through this training day.

When I took the USA Triathlon coaching class last October, they didn't
specifically forbid running a marathon to get in shape, so why not, I
figured.

I sat in the warm, comfy bus that had brought us to the start line.
Looking out the window, the competition looked cold as they did their
various warm up maneuvers.

All the types were in attendance. Dude packing 5 hours of hydration
and fuel was here -- wearing a huge water belt, a fuel belt with about
a dozen gleaming silver Gu packets and, of course, a camelback
hydration system -- as backup.

Minimalist runner was here too. Three threads from indecent exposure,
this guy was going topless in 45 degree weather.

But the guy who really caught my attention was Ultra guy. Dirty trail
shoes, worn black shorts and black tank top on a guy who looked eerily
like Jesus, except that he wore shorts and had really hairy legs.
Dude muttered to himself as he walked around the start area with his
eyes closed and his hands in the prayer position.

The fact that he wasn't slamming into people made it appear he had
tapped into some divine radar system. He might be tough to beat.

Representing Tri-guys across the land, I wore compression socks,
compression shorts, gloves, ear warmers and an Ironman hat. I exited
the bus a few minutes before the start, warmed up and started to get
antsy.

I told myself to start slowly.

Myself didn't listen.

At "Go!" I started running 6:15 miles for the first 3 miles down to
the Shasta Dam. And for those who don't know my marathon history,
yes, 6:15 miles at the start of a marathon is damn fast. I'd be lucky
to run 7:30's at the halfway mark and I've been known to struggle to a
10 minute mile at the end of more than one marathon.

In short, I've bonked every marathon I've ever run. And every one of
them started pretty much like this one -- gloriously optimistic.

But you can't fault my optimism. Being undertrained, underfueled and
un-tapered never hurt anyone in the first 3 miles and I felt great.

This was a spectacular day on a beautiful rural course that winds
across the dam and down along a wide river. So, after sprinting the
first few miles, I gradually became distracted by the beauty of the
scenery and settled into a steady 7:30 pace. I had a couple minutes
in my pocket from the initial downhill, so why not see if I could hold
it together enough to run a sub-3:30 and qualify for Boston while I'm
out here, I figured.

By the 6 mile mark, I was feeling great and running somewhere among
the top 10 to 20 runners, maybe in contention for an age group podium
spot. But this was silly-talk. In my long history of sucking at
marathons, I'd experienced that inevitable collapse from feeling great
to weeping-walker enough to know that any thought about glory at this
point was just the adrenaline talking.

So I focused instead on my mantra: "Relax, high turn-over, spin the
legs" I thought.

Of course, that's the cycling mantra. But since it was working, I
stuck with it.

At about the 8 mile mark a group of about half-a-dozen runners went by
me, leading me to wonder whether I had slowed. But I hadn't, they
were just picking it up.

My eyeball test told me that at least 2 of the guys in that pack were
in my age group. I wasn't going to see those guys again, I figured.

But at least I still had that Boston Qualifying goal in sight. Sub
3:30 just seemed achievable somehow. I had once run a 3:29 a couple
years ago when I wasn't this fit. But I had actually trained for that
run.

By the half-way mark, my watch showed 1:37 and change. I was on pace
to run 3:15, well under even the 3 hour 21 minute 40-44 age group
Boston Qualifying standard that I had missed repeatedly. It sure
would be nice to get that monkey off my back, I allowed myself to
dream.

Of course, that's when the age-anonymous Jesus with the hairy legs passed me.

Still, I checked the Garmin and saw that I was holding a decent pace.
It was starting to get annoying that I was getting passed when I
hadn't begun slowing down. These people didn't even have the decency
to wait for me to bonk.

By mile 17, I was still holding a 7:30 pace, but I had started
fighting a bit of that inevitable marathon fatigue that starts filling
your legs with cement. Somehow, though, I was able to relax my stride
and fight through a 5 mile out-and-back from mile 17 to 22 without
completely shelling myself. And miracle of miracles, with the
exception of a single 8 minute mile over a couple rollers, I managed
to hang onto most of my speed.

A loop in the course allowed me to spot Laura at mile 22, when she was
at mile 17. We walked an aid station together and chatted for a
couple seconds, refreshing me mentally. And buoyed by Laura's smile
and positive words about my greatness, I took off, pledging to finish
the last 4 miles as fast as I could manage.

"As fast as I could manage", didn't, as it turns out, involve me running faster.

But it did hurt a lot more. Which allowed me to hang onto a 7:40 pace
until mile 24, where I was shocked to find myself passing three guys
who dropped me at mile 8. And one or two of them looked my age.

Thrilled by this development, I searched for more pain. And sure
enough I found it, screaming through mile 25 incrementally faster than
mile 24. This "acceleration" caught 3 more runners, including Jesus,
who graciously gave me a prayer/bow as I dropped him a mile from the
finish.

The finish line was on a bridge across a wide river, and I could see
it just ahead. I could also see another runner about 100 yards in
front of me, looking over his shoulder checking to see if I was going
to make him sprint for it.

I was.

Passing so many people late in the marathon had me feeling invincible.
I thought of the the finish line at Ironman Cozumel and knew I had I
more in reserve. There would be no walking today.

The guy ahead of me looked like he might be in my age group, and
judging by the way he picked up the pace a quarter mile from the
finishing bridge, he definitely thought I was in his. He had
something left, but momentum was on my side and I thought I might
have just enough to catch him.

400 yards from the finish, I started my kick just as I looked at my Garmin.

"25.2", it said.

That's interesting, I thought. We were no more than a quarter mile
from the finish line, yet, according to my Garmin, we were a full mile
from finishing.

In an instant, I did the math, and, like Einstein discovering the
theory of relativity, I concluded that there must be an out-and-back
in the space-time continuum. In other words, the race organizers were
pure evil. But at least I had uncovered their sinister plot.

"Mr. Sprinting For The Finish" was too panicked to figure out that we
weren't there yet and ran flat out, spending huge amounts of energy.

I backed off my sprint and angled away from the bridge towards the
only alternative path where the course might turn.

Sure enough, the race-organizers stood just a few yards shy of the
bridge, blocking The Sprinter's access and directing him down a dirt
road 180 degrees from the finish line.

If I hadn't been busy gloating about being so smart, I would have felt
sympathy.

As my competitor stumbled around trying to gather himself, I cut a
chunk out of his lead. Within a minute, I was on his heels, listening
to his labored breathing as he tried to recover from his premature
sprint.

He fought to keep any part of him ahead of me. You had to hand it to
the guy. He wasn't short on determination.

Unfortunately for him, he was the only one of us two who had just run
a 400 yard sprint 25 miles into a marathon. As we ran stride for
stride, it gave me confidence to hear him panting like an overheated
Labrador. We both knew that his only chance was to somehow recover
and then outsprint me at the finish.

But I had come too far to make that mistake. Not being a particularly
confident sprinter, I pushed the pace up a little at a time and
listened for my buddy to hyperventilate. When he sounded like he was
about to swallow his left lung, I went. Hard.

A quarter mile from the finish, I was in full flight, opening a 30
yard gap. Once I had the gap, I found myself doing a sprint that felt
like it should have been faster, but topped out at not-very-fast. As
I ran the last couple hundred yards across the finishing bridge, I
fully expected my buddy to put on a burst and chase me down, but
somehow my insanely slow sprint to the finish was about 3 seconds too
much for him.

A small, but appreciative crowd cheered us home.

My new buddy, Eric, and I hugged and congratulated each other on a
hard fought finish. It turns out the sprint was not for an age group
podium spot, however. Eric was in the 25-29 age group. Even better.
Not only did we look the same age, I beat a guy 20 years younger than
me.

I finished on the podium, in 3rd place, in the 45-49 age group and
10th overall with a 3:20:43 finishing time.

As it turned out, the competition over the last mile pushed me to
finish in a time that would have qualified me for Boston in the 40-44
age group. Take that, Boston.

And no, I'm not going to race the Boston Marathon. Marathons hurt too
much. Give me an Ironman any day.

Next real race: Puerto Rico 70.3 and then IM St. George. Let me know
if you're interested in doing a little training.