This is the second year in a row I braced myself and signed up for a road race in February. And for the second year in a row, snow derailed the race. Last year, we had a snowstorm raging the day of the race and it was ultimately (and wisely) canceled. This year, we had a snowstorm the day (and night) before the race and, while it wasn’t canceled, it was significantly altered. The Old Fashioned Ten Miler turned into the Old Fashioned Sorta Five Miler. Still, the opportunities to race in January and February are pretty slim in New England and you have to take what you can get.
One year ago this week, I took the plunge back into the water. Sure, I’d taken the requisite swim lessons as a child and, twenty-five years later, I could stay afloat if my yacht capsized and hack together a stroke for a short distance if shark fin appeared on the horizon, but, despite my run fitness, one pathetic pool session was all I needed to tell me I was not ready to string together the laps necessary to train for even a sprint triathlon event.
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.
With my ‘A’ race for the year now more than a month past, I feel firmly entrenched in the off-season. I’ve taken some time off, recovered from the marathon and now returned to working out most days. I’ve set up the trainer in the basement, dusted off the treadmill and I’m making early morning trips to the pool. The long, slow process of building up an aerobic triathlon base for 2014 has begun, but before we jump ahead, I wanted to give a quick review of the plan I used to prep and run my first marathon.
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.
I do not taper well. After almost 10 years of marriage, we have a lot of unwritten rules that keep the household ship off the shoals. One rule, high on the list, is that I need to exercise almost daily. If I don’t, I get restless, irritable, and cranky. I’m a 70 year old man that was charged a nickel too much for his coffee. I’m a 10 month old that can’t dropped her bottle. Suddenly there are three little kids to deal with in the house. It can make tapering for big races a challenging and fraught time.
The fact that I at least recognize this psychosis is a step in the right direction and I’m trying hard this year not to let it throw me off stride (ahem). Having two little kid and a nutty puppy certainly gives me plenty of distractions to keep my occupied, but I was relieved when I woke up this morning and started to feel excited for the race this morning. It was like emerging from a fog.
In retrospect it was probably more than just the taper this time. After three 40 and 50 mile weeks in a row, I hit the 2 week slow down and taper sore and very relieved. And very burned out. If (okay, let’s not kid ourselves, when) I do this again, I think I’ll cut the training time back from 20 weeks to 16 weeks.
The problem was that as the recovery week moved into the taper week, I still just felt mostly relief at not having to put the running shoes on every day and little to no excitement for the upcoming marathon. It was a weird blue period, that thankfully seems to be lifting.
The other thing I’m trying to do this year is shift my focus during the taper off the drastic reduction in activity and toward a better mental race prep. Over 26 miles, a strong mental game is likely to be just as important as strong legs.
As a writer, I’m very familiar with self-doubt and I’m hoping this kinship will pay off. There is a point in writing any story, short or novel length, where you become absolute sure that what you are writing is all worthless drivel and a complete waste of time. At this point I almost welcome the feeling. Personally, I know it means I’m almost done and if I push through, the feeling will (mostly) pass.
From all that I’ve read and watched, I think I can expect something similar in the marathon, probably around mile 18 – 20. During a couple long runs, I definitely hit a point where my legs were concrete pillars, my lungs were suddenly heaving and taking another step felt like running in cement. I’d like to avoid that on Sunday, but if not, I want to be mentally ready to beat back those feelings rather than indulge them.
I’ve also come to terms with the fact that there is no perfect race. Despite all the long runs, short runs, intervals, strides and stretching, you can’t prepare for it all. A marathon is a long race and I’ve spent much of this week going through various scenarios in my mind and having a plan or a response for each high or low I hit.
Being on a primarily plant based diet, this is actually proving to be one of the harder pieces of race week. You’d think I might enjoy the respite from greens and whole foods, but, starting yesterday, trying to cram in all these carbs (oatmeal with brown sugar and honey, white bread, Gatorade, bagels, white rice, gummy candy) has led to some rather wild swings in energy.
And you know what, I still don’t think I’m hitting the ideal number my coach is recommending. Based on my weight, I should be consuming over 500 grams of carbs each day leading up to the race. If you’re not recoiling, you should be. That is a massive number. But I’ve stuck with his plan so far, so to question it now would be a little self-defeating. Gotta embrace it. Excuse me, I’ve got to eat another bagel.
The race is the Bay State Marathon in Lowell, MA, about an hour north/northwest of Boston. The course runs through downtown Lowell and a neighboring town and mostly hugs the Merrimack River.
I’ve scouted the course (thank you Google street view) and made sure I’ve read through the athlete guide so I don’t have any surprises race morning. Anything to reduce the race day stress.
This race is a big BQ qualifier (no, I’m not attempting to qualify, it’s flattering you ask) and is flat (really flat) and, hopefully for me, fast. The total gain is less than 200 feet over the duration of the race. No complaints there.
The one thing I am definitely changing from a few weeks ago, is to be almost obnoxiously early. I definitely felt a little sluggish in the half-marathon by skipping the pre-race warm-up routines that I’ve been doing during this whole training set. I do not want to miss those on Sunday.
Given how well the half-marathon rehearsal went, I’m going to largely stick with the same plan for race morning nutrition. One cup of coffee, white rice cereal with honey and almond butter then water on the drive to the race before sipping on a pre-run energy drink and maybe some Amrita bar depending on how I’m feeling. It worked for the half and worked during my weekly long runs. I’m not deviating now.
During the run, I plan to carry some dates, four gels and a pack of lemon-lime Clif shots in my race belt. I’m going to try to get 100 calories an hour. The race has aid stations every 1.5 miles or so with water and Gatorade and I can supplement my own gels with race gels at mile 7 or 17.
After practically bathing in Purell and being terrified of falling off a curb and twisting my ankle, I’ve managed to get through the last two weeks injury free. I’m still nursing a mild case of plantar fasciitis (self-diagnosed), but it actually bothers me more when I’m walking and going about my day than when I’m running. I hope that remains the case on Sunday. It will definitely be something I’m going to have rehab in the off-season, but there’s nothing I can do other than continue to ice, stretch and roll it until the race. Overall, I fell about as healthy as I could be after 20 weeks of hard training.
I know I need to go out very conservatively. For the first five miles I want to put a floor on my pace of no faster than 8:00. I know from a couple tough long runs that burning those matches with a 7:40 mile early will just kill you on the back half. The plan would then be to slowly (are you listening Mike, slowly!) ease into the race pace with the next ten miles between 7:50 and 7:55 and try to hold onto that good, I-can-keep-this-up-forever feeling for as long as possible. If I can hit 20 miles still hitting 7:50s, I plan to loosen up and just run the last six as fast I as I possible can.
In short, do the first third with my watch, the second third by feel and the last third with heart.
Finally, the weather, something completely out of my control, but something I’ve been compulsively checking six times a day anyway. Right now, it looks good, high of 59 and partly cloudy. Perfect marathon weather.
2. Finish without walking
3. Finish in under 3:30
4. Run my own race
5. Finish strong
6. Smile/Have fun