From the “better late than never” department, my report from Grandma’s Marathon is hot off the press. Really, I have a good excuse. I started a new job in a new industry the Monday after the race, so I was drowning in a sea of new information, new co-workers, new everything. Then we accidentally bought a house in August, which took tons of time. Then it took forever to get internet in our new house (gotta love cable company monopolies). Anyway, excuses aside, here’s my report. Hope you enjoy!
Race morning, June 22 – My iPhone alarm(s) wakes me up at around 5am. A dense fog from Lake Superior has engulfed the little town of Duluth. I eat a Clif Bar and a banana and sip a little water a couple of hours before the race. The weather is going to be perfect – 50F at the start line and holding steady or dropping a degree by mid-morning. Jason and I head down to catch the bus for the start line of the race. Being a point-to-point course, a key part of the race organization is busing many of the 6,000 or so participants 26.2 miles from Duluth to the start line. We make it to the start line, which, like most marathon start lines, is intensely calm and full of long lines to the porta-johns.
As we line up for the race I squeeze my way to the front as I always do – not because I’m going to run with those guys (not a chance), but just to avoid the initial congestion and the added stress of spending the first mile jostling about waiting for the ranks to spread out. I position myself just in front of the 3:05 pace leader, knowing that I’ll have to watch them run past me in a few minutes.
I’m going to have to let them pass me because this time I have a well-defined plan, unlike any of my previous 3 marathons. If anyone asked, my goal was to attain the much sought after “BQ” (Boston qualifier), which is 3:10 for my age group. However, the game plan I’ve built will take me under 3:05 – so, faster than the group I’m going to let pass – but will do so running negative splits. Roughly, my plan is to start out at about a 7:10/mi pace and work my way down 5 seconds at every race-designated split. The splits are arbitrarily set and are different at most marathons – they’re those timing strips you run across that send texts to your loved ones letting them know you aren’t in a medical tent (or worse) somewhere between miles 10 and 15. The most important thing for me is having a plan, and the race splits give me preset markers and actually have a certain logic to them, even if I have to force that logic onto them. The splits, and my thinking about them, are as follows:
10k – I can easily hold 7:10 for 10k. This forces me to rein it in from the gun and put away nearly a quarter of the race comfortably, not worrying about going out too fast.
13.1 – 7:05/mi – I’ll be halfway done, and I should still have lots left in the tank. If I’m feeling a little tired, I have the option to not make the next pace jump and still be in a position to go sub 3:10.
16.2 – 7:00/mi – This time I’m adjusting after 5k – a lot sooner than the previous adjustments. But at this point I’m definitely going to be aware of the distance I’ve already run, so I’ll have a good sense of whether I can take more or if I need to hang tight at 7s and try to hold on…and I even have a little wiggle room if I start to fade at the end.
19.3 – 6:55/mi – Another adjustment after 5k. Similar logic to previous split. Also, if I am still feeling good at this point, I want to be making adjustments faster because there isn’t much more to go. Holding back in the first half is important, but we’re getting really close to “empty the tank” territory here, and playing it safe makes less and less sense.
23.1 – 6:50/mi – Okay, longer than 5k this time, but we’re using these markers, so let’s keep it simple and keep using them. Besides, this late in the game the plan matters less – if I’m feeling great, I’m going all out. If not, good chance I’m fighting to hold onto 3:10.
25 – 6:45/mi – Last check point. Smoke ’em if ya got ’em.
26.2 – 6:40/mi – The pace now is just a proxy for “destroy your legs”.
Because I’m a geek and do everything in Excel, here’s the chart of my race plan:
Enough with the set up, on to the race…
I start out right on plan, adjusting it slightly to say that my pre-determined target pace is really just the upper end of a 5 second range (so if 7:10 is what my plan calls for, I’m now saying 7:05-7:10…can’t resist some urge to overachieve). I watch as the 3:05 pace group cruises past me in the first mile. I’m feeling incredible, ticking of 7:08s like I’m on a lazy recovery run. Pretty soon I can’t even see the 3:05 group. Everything in me wants to not let them out of my sight, to know they’re within reach…but I stick to my plan. The mist is just as thick as at the start. I was looking forward to seeing Lake Superior, but it just wasn’t meant to be – visibility is maybe 100 feet out onto the water, but that’s it. Still, it’s a perfect race environment – 50 degrees, a cooling and sun-obscuring mist, a calm and quiet run between the granite shoreline of the greatest of the Great Lakes and the white pines of Minnesota.
10k down, time to turn it up a slight notch. Finally. Surely I can jump up 10 seconds instead of the planned 5 – I feel invincible!…But no, that’s how I felt in Birmingham in February, when I ended up shuffling the last 8 miles at an 11:00/mi pace. Getting down to business, I settle in and enjoy the pace, again ticking of miles with a feeling of little effort.
Before I know it, I’m at the halfway point. As I near the aid stations at 13.1, the speakers are blaring “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba, and a gigantic (probably idiotic) smile spreads across my face. There’s a band called Chumbawamba, for crying out loud, and they have a song called Tubthumping – how is that not amusing? Better still, the song features a lovely female voice repeating the refrain “Pissing the night away,” a line that seems to have nothing to do with anything. But although there are these reasons for being amused, I’m smiling mostly because I feel so ridiculously good, and, by golly, it’s a catchy feel good kinda tune. Damn right they’re never gonna keep me down! Time to turn it up to 7:00!
The next 5k I’m really fighting the urge to let loose. I’m over halfway done and I feel like I’ve got a marathon of pent up energy still waiting to bust out of my legs. I decide to compromise. “Stick to your plan, Andy, through mile 19.3. If you can hold it through that point, all bets are off.” Giving myself that out, while at the same time retaining some discipline at this point in the race puts me in a pretty comfortable mental state. After all, 12 miles is still a long way to go, and it would be really easy to waste your legs with 3 or 4 stupid fast miles too early.
By 16.2 I’m starting to see “BQ” waiting for me at the finish line. I’m right on plan, still feeling great, and even if I falter I can back off to somewhere around 7:15s and still make it. I put the last 5k away in 21:36 without any difficulty, and I’ve got one more 5k before I’m allowing myself to go off plan. Granted, I’ve started to feel the miles some. That “easy recovery run” feel from the first 10k has been replaced by a “comfortably hard, glad I’m past the halfway point” feel.
16.2 to 19.3 is routine – I get the miles done at the targeted pace, taking down that 5k in about 21:28. The possibility of a gruesome bonk is still there, but any bonk’s interference with a BQ is becoming less and less menacing with each step. More importantly (in the moment, anyway), I’ve held up my end of the bargain I made with myself back at around mile 14 – I’ve been disciplined, I’ve got fuel in the tank, and damned if I’m gonna show up at that finish line feeling like I left anything out there! Still, going into a dead sprint isn’t exactly what’s called for with 7 miles to run, so I start shooting for somewhere in the 6:40s – in other words, not a whole lot more aggressive than plan, but with the potential to bank another 30-60 seconds over the course of 7 miles.
So here I am, having run 19.3 miles of a marathon, on pace to beat 3:05 probably by a couple of minutes, having not seen the 3:05 pace group in about 18 miles…when up ahead, I spy the bouncing sign of a pace leader. At my current pace I catch them pretty quickly, and pretty soon I can see the “3:05” on the bouncing sign. I overtake them at mile 20, and, man, it feels really good. I’m not gonna lie – cruising past them, it’s hard to not feel a little exhilarated looking into the (much thinned-out) group and seeing a number of them hanging on for dear life. As I pass them, I hear the leader call out, “Okay, at this point we’re doing great and we’ve banked about a minute.” I silently thank him for his timely affirmation, then leave them behind.
The last 10k definitely is not easy. I’m not going all out, but I’m pushing at a pace that I believe I can hold for the final 6 miles, staying between about 6:35-6:45. During this time I recall a couple of workouts that I did in training. It’s the first time I’ve called on the memory of a workout to give me the confidence that I could do what I was shooting for. The most important was a 22-miler I did three weeks out from the race. It consisted of 2mi easy warm up, followed by 4mi at threshold pace (about 6:26 at the time), followed by 10mi easy (about 8s), followed by 2 x 2mi @ 6:26 with 2:00 rest in between, followed by 2mi cool down. The first part of the workout teaches you to hold a steady pace on tired legs, because 4 miles at T pace, while it doesn’t kill you, definitely gets you tired. After teaching you to go long and steady (10mi) on tired legs, it teaches you to turn it up and finish strong on even tired-er legs. The 4 threshold miles done 16 miles into a long run were critical. They gave me the confidence that I can hold onto good running form and settle into a tougher pace – even if I’m slogging it out by the end – on tired legs. I’m sure this workout had physiological benefit, but the psychological benefit is palpable in these final miles today.
As I enter Duluth, I know I have a BQ, and I know I’m sub-3:05. By this time I’m tired. Running negative splits, as I had, means that I’ve been passed by almost nobody since the first couple of miles. One guy, probably late 40s, passes me in the last mile or two. He’s the only guy I remember passing me, and he’s cranking! I know because my last two miles are at 6:38, 6:46, and then 6:18 pace for the last .2 miles. When you see that it’s hard not to just be excited for the guy. Rounding the final curve, I come neck and neck with a guy in front of me. It’s always fun to sprint it out with someone at the end. He feels me come up on him and he turns it up. I turn it up and stay with him, trying to turn it up another notch to pass. When I do that, he finds the next gear…and I don’t. I pretty much always have a kick in me, but today it simply isn’t there. I think that’s the first time that’s happened.
But as I cross the line I’m pretty pleased that I hadn’t found that sprint at the end, because it meant that I had raced smart and had burned it all up on the course. After all, if you’ve got a kick for 100 meters, could you have kicked for 200? 400? Could you have sacrificed that final kick for an extra second or two per mile in the final 6-10 miles? I ran the race I trained and planned to race, and by God’s grace it worked out right and I was frankly pumped that I found nothing when I went for that higher gear at the end.
Looking down at my Garmin, it reads 3:02:20. BQ, baby. And BQ with enough margin to virtually guarantee a spot at Boston. My official time comes back at 3:02:18, and my splits are amazingly close to plan. Finally, after a couple of very frustrating marathons, I’ve had a race that is consistent with my training. Now it’s time to eat some good food, drink some good beer, and bask in the incredible feeling of accomplishing what I’d set out to do.
Here’s a table of the actual race results – remarkably close to plan!