2013 was the year I dipped my toes into triathlon. I can’t point to one specific thing that triggered my interest, but a confluence of books, articles, podcasts and personal interests led me, over the past 18 months, to begin exploring longer endurance events. The interest eventually tipped over into action and led to a plan. I wasn’t quite crazy or naive enough (not to mention having enough free time) to jump right into the Iron distance events. Maybe blind madness works for some, but I’m a man that likes a plan. Testing myself against 140 is the summit and ultimate goal, this year’s marathon was part of that long term plan, but first I’d start with some sprint distance triathlons and try to figure out this new sport.
There was a point in the race at about mile 24 where the crowds thinned and we were running by a small pocket park that fronted the Merrimack River. Gravel paths weaved around low shrubbery and birch trees, all of it offering a nice view of the riverside foliage and the city of Lowell beyond it. It seemed like a nice place to spend some time. You know what else it had? Benches. Smooth slats of wood, warmed by the sun that promised solid support for some very tired legs. It was a tantalizing siren. The skinny guy in the blue singlet, that I had been following for over twenty miles, veered right, sat on the first bench he passed and closed his eyes. He didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon.
I didn’t blame him one bit.
Being a first time marathoner, if there was one thing I was naive about it was those last three miles. Holy hell. Nothing in training can really replicate the fatigue, both physical and mental, of those final miles. If it did, I’m not sure how many people would keep signing up.
But first, let’s start at the beginning.
I stocked up on sleep in the days leading up to Sunday, but actually didn’t find it too hard to sleep the night before. My only regret was that I missed the Red Sox clinching win, but I’m sure, even with the sleep stockpile, I would have been regretting staying up when that alarm hit at 4:30 a.m.
I had packed my gear bag the night before so the morning was more about making sure I stuck to my routines and took in the proper nutrition: 1 cup of coffee, rice cereal with honey and almond butter and then water. I brought my pre-workout drink in the car.
I did not repeat the mistake of the last month’s harried half marathon start. We arrived at the race well before the sun and had plenty of time to get oriented. We actually might have been a bit too early. Parking in one of the garages suggested in the race information, but not the one directly opposite the course, we were left on the empty, downtown streets with little direction of where to go. We weren’t the only ones either. Small packs of other people in spandex and running shoes were also wandering the pre-dawn streets. Eventually, with some trial and error, we worked our way over to the race start, but a few prominent signs would have been helpful.
Thankfully, they opened the first floor of the high school as a staging area because it was still quite chilly. I wish they had opened the locker rooms too, as the bathroom lines,even this early, quickly grew lengthy.
The bag check was quick and easy. Maybe too easy as my tag ended up getting ripped off causing some confusion in retrieving my bag later at the finish area. While the start and finish were in the approximate same area, it wasn’t exactly the same, so volunteers were taking bags and tossing them into a U-haul before driving them over to the finish.
After the bathroom line and bag check, the sun had come up and I ran through my warm-up. Plenty of space (but little grass if you wanted to lie down to stretch) to warm up and jog around the starting line. Soon enough it was time to line up and go. The race was self-seeding, no corrals, but there was plenty of space and little jostling or pushing for position.
One oddity to note that I’ve never experienced before in a race occurred right at the start. It was noted that the roads were not closed, but I did not expect a police van with siren blaring to come driving straight into the crowd about 400 yards into the race when both the full and half marathon were together and blanketing both sides of the road. I hope it was important.
The marathon was essentially two big loops with little spurs at the start and end to get you back to the Tsongas arena area where the race started and ended. It was just as flat (and for some, not me, as fast) as advertised.
If I had any complaints about the race, it would be on the outward half of the loop. It was very congested (with the roads open they coned off the shoulder and a little extra for us). They also rather inexplicably placed these low directional signs for the marathon/half marathon split right in the middle of the course causing many folks to hurdle, swerve or crash into them. Finally, the road itself in this area was very chewed up (pot holes, cracks, uneven pavement) which caused a couple close calls on turned ankles. It all didn’t make for easy running. Once the field thinned, it was less problematic on the second loop, but still less than ideal.
Fortunately, things improved on the back half. The commercial district, scrub grass and railroad tracks fell away and we had mostly new pavement and foliage-laced river views to carry us along until we hit the mass of spectators at the next bridge and the turn for the start of the next loop.
I had an average day overall. I never really felt terrible (last couple miles excluded) but never really felt great either. On a few of my long runs I’ve found that sweet zone where clicking over a 7:40 mile after mile just feels so easy. Never felt that on Sunday. I had hoped to keep things in cruise control, slowly lowering the pace, until mile 20 before I really started to dig in and concentrate, but I felt myself laboring probably by mile 15 and was never really able to put in a kick at the end. I didn’t totally falter either. Using the 3:30 pace group as a guide, I kept pretty even splits throughout the race.
On the nutrition side, I think I could have done better. I used two gels, ate one date and one Clif block, about half the food I was carrying. The aid stations were perfectly spaced about every mile and half to two miles and had water and Gatorade at every stop. I think I only skipped one and usually took Gatorade over the water. I think those extra calories gave me just enough to finish. The one fail moment during the race was my salt/electrolyte pills getting stuck in the container. I was able to get two out, but two remained jammed no matter what I tried. I missed that extra salt in those last miles.
One other thing that really messed with my mind, even though I knew it would happen, was the ‘extra’ running you do during the marathon. A certified course is measured so that the absolute minimum you can run is the race distance. Most entrants will run more, sometimes significantly more. I tried to be careful and keep to the side, but I still ended up running 26.4 and trust me when my watch hit 26.2, my body really, really, really wanted to be done.
The Results – Local Class all the way!
As I mentioned above, it was a solid day. I executed most of my plan and though I couldn’t finish quite as strong as I would have liked, my steady splits over that distance, especially for a debut, were a sort of achievement in and of itself. Or so I tell myself. My fastest mile was 7:41 (mile 24 at that!) and my slowest was 8:03 (my only mile over 8 minutes and I blame my fussing with getting my dates unwrapped from the pesky Saran wrap). You can see me start to push (as much as I was able) and drop the pace to the low 7:40s at mile 23 and I wish I could have held that through the end but mile 26 included a diabolical section of banked, curved road that had my feet screaming and sapped whatever little energy I had saved for the end.
I did run a slightly positive split by 1:40 but can’t work up the energy to chastise myself too much for that.
You’ll also notice this race gives you an ‘age grade’, something I haven’t seen before, but is apparently more common in Europe. It’s supposed to normalize the results across age and gender to better allow runners to compare against each other (like people that run these things really need another competitive stat!). I received a 60.98%. The 60-70% range rates as ‘Local Class.’ I’ll take it!
Call me superficial, but if the race itself is well run and organized (and even for charity) but they stiff you on the post-race refreshments, it’s a negative in my book. This race did not skimp. Rarely has something tasted so good as the salted vegetable soup I had at the finish line. They were also fully stocked with bananas, water, protein bars, PB&Js, soup and soda. There might have been more, but at that point I really just wanted to find a bench.
A special thanks to my support crew: Chelle, Cecilia and Dad. I really needed those high-fives at mile 23 and I really, really needed the support back to the car!
This race is advertised as for runners, by runners and it’s an apt description. There’s very little fluff that you might find with more for-profit races (the expo was practically non-existent), but what’s left is really what matters.
- Low stress pre-race & post-race environment
- Traffic wasn’t bad pre or post race
- Second half the course was scenic and the loop allowed spectators to see runners twice with little effort
- Well stocked finish area
The only complaint I have is what I mentioned above about the roads, congestion and rather hum-drum scenery of the first part of the race.
If you are looking to post a PR or pick up a BQ, then this is probably your best opportunity in New England. Its very flat with only a few gentle rollers. The pace groups are great and it attracts a fast field if you are looking to follow some feet.
Other than the first race of the season being snowed out, my horrible weather streak in 2012 has mostly flipped and produced some really great days in this year. I’m sure this dooms next month’s marathon, but for this half marathon, the weather was cool, dry, bright and sunny.
Woke up on time (always a source of stress and wildly imaginative scenarios where I miss the race) and had my coffee (gotta get things moving) with my Chrissie Wellington breakfast: a bowl of rice cereal with a little salt, a dollop of honey and a spoonful of almond butter.
I mixed up some Vega pre-workout energizer to sip in the car then double-checked my (now clear for security) race bag: nutrition (2 dates, a gel and some lemon-lime Clif blocks), watch and some extra clothes and I was ready to go.
After a wrong turn (very unlike me, I was carpooling with a friend that was racing and just to chatting, also sort of unlike me), we made it to race site and were greeted by a long line of taillights. I have to say it was sort of unexpected. The race was being held outside a horce racing track, so there was ample, ample parking, but due to restrictions or poor traffic logistics things backed up pretty severely.
By the time we parked, there was less than a half hour until the race start time (and still many, many cars in line). One thing we did not have to stress about was rest rooms. Usually a good chunk of pre-race planning is timing your last port-a-potty trip. Thankfully, between the race track facilities and ample portable stalls, there were very short lines all around. Yay!
If the race directors stepped up with the toilets, they fell down with the bag check. With less than ten minutes until the race the line was still probably a hundred deep waiting for the two or three volunteers (I couldn’t even see that far) to rack everyone’s bag. This should be the last thing a runner needs to stress about. Boo! I ended up jogging back to my car and hurriedly running back to the start.
Despite all the lines and parking woes, the race started on time. I do appreciate a prompt race director. There is nothing worse than being all warmed up and stuck in the corrals.
The first three to four miles wind through the working class East Boston neighborhood that surrounds the race track and for the early hour there were quite a few people hanging out by their front doors cheering us on. My only complaint was the pavement in parts wasn’t great and you really had to watch your step.
I managed to avoid rabbiting out too fast, in my mile splits you can see where I start to throttle back to keep things in check. I settled in and let the pack mostly flow around me until I found a group going my speed.
The middle of the course is run right along the ocean by Revere Beach. New pavement, closed roads, the ocean on one side, interesting beach shops and restaurants on the other made this a really nice part of the run. There were a few live bands along the route, as well as some DJs in case the scenery wasn’t enough.
Once we reached the first turnaround and the halfway mark, I was still feeling good and I started to let my speed naturally creep up. There were aid stations about every two miles and I was taking liquids at each one, even just a mouthful, alternating between Gatorade and water.
At the second turnaround as we started to leave the beach and loop back through the neighborhoods toward the track, I let go of the watch and just ran as hard as I could. Unlike past races were I faded quite badly or had my IBTs tighten up to the point were I was almost limping home, I finished strong, really strong, passing a lot of people, beating my prediction and grabbing a new PR.
In retrospect, maybe I was a little too conservative in the first part of the race. Next time, I think I might try to lower my overall average mile time a bit and smooth out the overall splits. Still, it’s hard to complain about setting a PR. I ran the race I planned: rehearse for the marathon, stay on pace early, finish strong. The second half of my run was 2:33 faster than the first half and each 5k reflected the plan to pace than build to a finish (23:33, 23:49 (checking my pace on purpose), 23:06, 21:38). Hard to really complain too much.
They had the medals being handed out, finisher photos and water in the chute. The rest of the snacks and drinks were inside the track. The spread was a little thin for such a large event. Bananas, oranges, strawberries(?), more water, and Oreos.
There was also a large beer garden and live band (maybe this is where the money went), however the beer garden didn’t open until 10:30 while most of the 13.1 racers (the 5k was done) were finishing between 9 and 9:30. A long time to hang around. I saw a lot of people trying to give away beer tickets.
– nicely designed tech shirt (so many race shirts are ugly)
– an abundance of bathrooms
– well run race itself, plenty of aid stations
– nice middle section by the water
– a little expensive (though this seems to be the growing norm)
– pre/post race logistics could be improved
The James Joyce Ramble is a 10k (about 6.25 miles for you non-metric fans) road race held in Dedham, Massachusetts, a town roughly fifteen miles south of Boston. It’s a race with some history (this year was the 30th running) that attracts a wide and diverse field that typically numbers around two thousand. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve ran it. The unique aspect of this race is that the course is lined with costumed performers reading from Joyce. Really. It adds a little bit of a surreal atmosphere. It’s also the only race I know of that starts with a gong.
The race itself starts at the Endicott estate, which is a large, mostly open area surrounding an estate house on a residential street. It’s actually a great space for post-race festivities, but can get a bit cramped and bottle-necked if you are one of the two thousand registering on race day pickup or trying to find a parking spot. There are options to pick up the Friday and Saturday before (the race is on Sunday), both on-site and off. If you can swing it, I’d recommend that approach rather than on race day. You don’t want to wait in line for your bib/chip then go right back into a line for the port-o-pots (there’s always lines).
I opted to register (avoiding the ‘convenience’ charge of registering online) in person and pick up on the Friday prior to the race at an off-site shopping mall. This had worked well for me in past years, but this time it sort of backfired. This year the race was also serving as the US 10K Masters Championship and it must have swelled the field and resources a bit. By the time I made it over to register after work, they had run out of timing chips. I was able to register, but had to swap my temporary bib for a chipped bib on race day sort of defeating the whole point of pre-race registering and avoiding any leg draining race day lines.
The leisurely 11 a.m. start makes fueling on race day less of a challenge than the early morning races. I ate a typical breakfast. A bowl of cereal with coconut milk and an English muffin with almond butter at 7 along with a cup of coffee. Driving to the race I had a banana and sipped some water. Ten minutes before the start I ate 2 dates. That was it. You don’t need to stress too much on a 10k with nutrition just make sure the tanks are topped off. My typically strategy is not to get cute and just do what has worked in the past on regular weekend training days.
As mentioned above, the residential area start can make parking a challenge. This year, it appeared some of the surrounding business on the closest commercial strip were also patrolling their lots to keep runners from parking there. If you can get there early, there are limited on-site spots otherwise be prepared to hunt down one of the limited spots nearby and walk a bit, just the thing you want to do before a 10k!
Luckily, the bib swap ended up being a non-factor as they had plenty of volunteers to register and help runners.
Despite numerous port-of-potties, that were strategically laid out around the edge of the estate, lines were still long, but not unbearable. I’ve seen much, much worse.
Weather this year was warm for the end of April in the Northeast with temps around 70, bright sun and some humidity. Not awful, sounds nice actually, but not ideal for most folks coming off four months of snow and ice. Two weeks after the marathon bombing there was also a noticeably increased police and security presence.
This is not an easy course. Just looking at the elevation map might not make it look like much, but don’t be fooled. While most of the first half is downhill, the second half is decidedly uphill with two steep rollers back-to-back right past the halfway mark that really take a bite out of your legs. If that wasn’t punishment enough the final half mile to the finish is a lung-crushing, gradual climb, as well.
The other thing worth mentioning is that the residential street start makes for a cramped and slow start. If you plan on trying to run fast it’s worth moving over to the start line early and staking out a spot near the front and left side of the street.
Knowing that those twin hills were looming, my plan was to go out conservatively, let the tight pack at the start pace me a bit, attack those hills and hang on for that uphill finish. In terms of nutrition, I had one more date that I carried in case I needed a boost of sugar (didn’t need it) and with water stops almost every mile, I took it as needed (I think I hit three of the stops).
My plan to go out easy and reverse split the last half of the race didn’t really materialize, but not in a totally bad way. My mile splits were remarkably even for a shorter, hilly race. I’ve seen some big swings in past splits. I think the weather also had an effect. One downside to the late morning start was the noon day sun. Most of the race offers little sustained shade and it takes a toll running on the hot asphalt especially early in the year. So overall, while I didn’t quite execute my plan (or hit a PR for this race), I was happy with my results given the course and the conditions.
159 84/394 M2039 44:25 43:56 7:05 Mike Donohue (2013)
163 80/444 M2039 43:38 43:33 7:01 Michael Donohue (2012)
217 97/362 M2039 46:51 46:17 7:27 Michael Donohue (2010)
(Ack! I think I’ve blocked the 2010 race from my memory. Can’t remember what happened.)
One place this race really shines is the after party. The large green space finally pays dividends as runners and spectators are able to spread out, enjoy live music, free (good) beer (Harpoon), quality snacks (from Whole Foods) and a pasta buffet. It’s a nice family friend atmosphere that invites you to linger and hang out with fellow runners.
This is a race I plan to continue running for many years in the future. It’s a well-organized race with a challenging course, early in the season that really gut checks where you are in your training. To top it off, the post-race food, beer garden and family friendly atmosphere makes it a good race to bring the whole family. Definitely recommended to any Northeast runner.
The Half Marathon needs a better name. It sounds like a cop-out, doesn’t it? Oh, you couldn’t do a full marathon, huh? Opted for the halfsie? By the end of 13.1 miles this past Sunday, I was quite ready to take any abuse, any insult, just to be done. I staggered across the line, legs like dead wood, chest heaving, eyes zeroed in on that finish line with a zombie-like stare. Sounds like fun, right? Why would I possibly subject myself to this? Good question.
In the days leading up to the Providence Rock N Roll Half Marathon, I asked myself this question a lot and came up with two reasons. I blame my co-worker and Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. The co-worker because he innocently handed me the book and McDougall for writing a very convincing and very entertaining book that certainly made distance running seem fun and romantic. Before I go further, let me say I’m not a barefoot acolyte. I do own a pair of minimalist trail shoes and I did make a conscious decision to change my stride this year to more of a mid-foot strike to ease the burden on my knees, but please don’t attack me with do’s or don’ts of barefoot running. My advice? If you’re running without pain (or little pain) there is probably little reason to change. If you find yourself bogged down with injuries or returning to running from a long layoff, you might give the arguments in the book some thought.
The second reason was more esoteric and tangential. I play basketball once a week with a group of like minded, competitive guys. We recently switched leagues from the open league to the over-35 one. Seems rather banal, and definitely a good decision given how the 20 year-olds were buzzing by us like we were playing in cement shoes, but I think it triggered some sort of urge to still prove I could compete. Even if I was only proving it to myself. Like I said, esoteric, but better than buying a Corvette or something, right?
I wasn’t starting from scratch. I was pretty fit and had a solid base of 15-20 miles a week of recreational running. Still, I knew I needed a plan for a half marathon. Sure, I could probably wing it and complete it, but being a type A personality, I had goals and ambitions of running it well. There are numerous plans out there on the Internet for free. Pretty much a plan for every type of runner, I think. I choose Hal Higdon’s Intermediate plan for a couple reasons. First, it wasn’t overly complex. A lot of plans had days (or multiple days) dedicated to speed workouts or splits or intervals or tempo runs. Undoubtedly that would probably help, but I the more I searched the more I realized I wanted less of a plan and more of a road map on how to ramp up to sufficient miles without risking injury. Second, I have a full-time job, a toddler and lot of other demands on my time. Higdon’s plan was flexible. It allowed for me to slot in my weekly basketball game as cross-training and for flip-flopping training days when necessary.
With the training now in the rear view mirror, I can say Higdon’s plan was successful and the right one for me.
Let me also pass along a few tips on the physiology of long training runs. I did come to welcome these runs (proves how short term my memory is) each weekend, at least until mile 9 or so, and definitely came to recognize a certain pattern:
Mile 0 – 3: This is a good pace. Nice and easy. I can do this all day.
Mile 4 – 7: Damn! I am flying. Half marathon? Screw that, I’m going for the full monty.
Mile 8 – 11: Where did these elves and their little knives come from? Why are they jabbing me in the knees, ankles and hips? Aw, gawd, it hurts!
Mile 12 – 13: Mental boot camp. Your numb lower body is on autopilot. A death-march to the finish.
Two final things, having a time goal did help me. It gave me a tangible measuring stick to track my training progress. Second, I always thought the idea of a mantra was kind of silly, but in those last three or four miles when your mind is a blank slate of pain, they do help bring a kind of focused determination to finishing.
When & Where?
On further reflection, picking New England in August for my first attempt, was pure folly. If I had to do it again, I’d aim for September or October. Hot and humid were not just a possibility (despite the 7 am start), but a probability. Not a lot I could do about it. I had trained through August, sometimes timing longer runs at midday to acclimatize a bit. The one thing I didn’t count on? The rain.
Well, I did finish, but Sunday August 7th in Providence was a monsoon. And that is barely exaggerating. Fifteen to twenty mile an hour winds with driving rains for a good three quarters of the race. It did build a sense of solidarity among the five thousands that turned out, but man it was less than ideal, especially for a maiden voyage. Despite a fifteen minute delay at the start, leaving us packed and shuffling in the corral, the race was otherwise well organized on all fronts. They could have used more post-race shelter for runners, but I can’t fault them for not anticipating the storm. I would have liked to see them put the gear bags under tarps or something as finishing and picking up your soaked gear was a downer. The on-course stations, timing, and post-race recovery spread was good.
I made it around the course a few minutes under my goal time and despite some pacing issues (like an eager beaver I went out waaay too fast) will definitely be running another half again in the future. My last piece of advice? Reward yourself. Running 13 miles is nothing to sneeze at. Take a few days off recover and reward yourself. Me? I spent the next day lounging, stuffing my gut with BBQ and cupcakes.