October 26, 2009

Race Report: On the Road for Education Marathon

The alarms went off, and I immediately headed over to the window. It was very dark, but that wasn’t the real reason I couldn’t see: it was foggy as heck! I could barely see five feet away from the window, and I peered through the glass, trying to figure out if it was raining. Though the cars in the parking lot were wet, it seemed like it had stopped raining. I hoped it would stay that way.

I got dressed and headed down to the hotel breakfast bar, where I brought my own whole wheat bagel for toasting along with some crunchy organic peanut butter – yum. I’ve recently changed up my eating strategy for marathons, preferring to eat about 300 calories for breakfast and then use only one or two 100-calorie gels during, as opposed to my old strategy of a mini Lara Bar (~120 cals) for breakfast and then four or five gels during. Same number of calories; just different timing. However, getitng to eat a more substantial breakfast satisfies me more than getting the same calories through a little silver packet, which I tend to discount.

Heading out to the car, I realized it was chilly, but it wasn’t that cold out. My outfit would probably be fine – as long as it truly wasn’t going to rain anymore. We got to the school and had a while to hang out before the next (and last) shuttle bus, so I spent the time milling around, calling Boyfriend to say good morning, and checking out the pictures on the walls of the school. I found it interesting that there didn’t seem to be any girls’ sports teams – instead, each of the boys’ teams’ pictures just had a random girl or two stuck in the middle. How sad!

I waited till near the end to board the shuttle bus that was loading near the front of the school, and found when I got on that there were no seats left. The bus driver encouraged us to push toward the back to make room for others to stand. Then, as more runners came on, he started turning them away, telling them that there was another bus pulling up right behind him. So why was I standing? Those of us standing tried to make our way to the front of the bus to get off and take the next one, but before we could do so, he closed the doors and started driving. Okay, standing it is! I hoped that the ride wouldn’t be long.

We arrived at Music Man Square, which had been prominently mentioned and talked up in the course description. However, it wasn’t overhyped at all – it was really awesome! It was basically an indoor plaza that had been decorated to look like an old-fashioned outdoor street (like in The Music Man). There was a cobblestoned street down the center, and each of the storefronts had an awning over it… it felt like being on Main Street at Disney World. What a neat place to wait for a race!

I chatted with a few other 50 Staters for a bit. They were easy to find, as is often the case with small races where it’s just locals and 50 Staters who are trying to fit a state into their schedule. Gradually, people started heading out to the start, but I held off as long as possible to avoid the cold for just a bit longer. However, when it was five minutes to the start, I couldn’t wait anymore – it was time to go.

I walked outside to find a very small starting line with several dozen people lined up next to it. A truck stood literally next to the starting line, and I just took my sweats off, stuffed them in the bag, and handed it off – no lines, no walking miles from the line of trucks to the start, just easy. Small races are so nice logistically! After a (simple, nice, and not off-key) rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by a young soprano, the race began.

I found it odd that while there was chip timing, there was no mat at the start. The entry fee and the field were small enough that I didn’t think chip timing was really necessary, but it always confuses me when they have chip timing but only use it at the end. I settled into a nice, even pace, enjoying the crisp fall air. It was perfect weather for marathoning, and I was happy with my skirt/long sleeved t-shirt decision, which made me utterly comfortable.

We ran through some residential streets, and then turned onto a dirt road that led us through some type of office park, running on sidewalks bordered by grassy areas and small ponds. There was a little bit of up and down, but nothing to really be concerned about. From there, we did a short connecting segment on a paved road with farmland around, and finally turned onto a dirt road that took us all the way out to mile 10.

I made the mistake of calling Boyfriend while I ran, and we ended up getting to an argument, which totally, totally sucked. There is nothing worse than running a marathon when you’re unhappy, because there’s nothing to distract you from it and you just have to keep going no matter how upset you are. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the marathon is much more a test of mental endurance than physical endurance. If you’re straining your mental capacity with unhappy thoughts and arguments, it just becomes an impossible task. Though we ultimately dropped the subject and agreed to discuss once I was home, the argument took its toll on me and really slowed down my time and energy.

On the dirt road, the fog was still so thick and the field so spread out that I could barely see anyone around me. There was one person in orange who seemed to be about 5 seconds ahead of me, and I could hear some people in the distance behind me, but I was mostly by myself. I listened to Taylor Swift on my iPod while I ran – my latest favorite for alternately helping me relax and settle into the miles as well as pep me up and spur me on.

Glancing at my Garmin around mile 7, I realized I had a problem: though I had started it properly, I had inadvertently stopped it a few seconds later, probably when I went to lock the bezel so I wouldn’t hit it accidentally. There were no clocks on the course, so I had no idea of my time other than looking at the clock on my cell phone and assuming that the race had started promptly at 8 AM. When I approached mile 8, I tried to reconcile that mile marker with the mileage on my Garmin, and determined that I should add a little over 6 miles to whatever it said on my watch. It was a good thing I wasn’t going for a PR, because it would have been really hard to keep track of my pacing with such faulty data.

Around mile 11, we turned back onto a paved road, this one taking us out of the farmland and back into a more residential (though still nowhere near suburban) area. Shortly thereafter, I met up with a Maniac I had met a few weeks earlier, and we took a quick walk break and chatted for a bit until we got to the next water stop. I asked him what pace he was aiming for, and he replied that he wanted to do 4:45. Uh oh! Was that really what I was on pace for? I was hoping to do somewhere under 4:15, and I knew that I had been slow in the first half, but I hoped I wasn’t that slow. I knew this was supposed to be a flat, fast course, and I wanted to come in with a time that reflected it.

As we approached the halfway point, we started coming into a very suburban area, and saw a few people who had come out on their lawns and porches to watch. One of them made a comment that now forever sticks in my mind as the classic example of someone trying to be nice and encouraging but really just not helping at all: the guy called, “Awww, looks like they save the prettiest for last!” I appreciated the initial compliment, but last? LAST?! I was most certainly not in last place (at least, I didn’t think so), and I didn’t want to hear that apparently so many women were ahead of me.

I pushed his backhanded compliment out of my mind, and made it to a parking lot where a family had gathered to cheer for the runners. (They told me I was looking good and made no mention of my place in the race). A few blocks further, we turned off the roads and onto a trail that I knew would comprise the major out-and-back section of the race.

It was pretty, and exactly the kind of trail I like to run on: quiet, secluded, but not technical at all. The path was cleared enough that I didn’t need to worry about tripping on something or hitting a branch, so I got to just run and enjoy the beauty of nature. Funny, I never thought I’d be saying that phrase – growing up, I was always a “creature comforts” kind of girl, preferring to sit in my house than go up to our lake in the Adirondacks where I might get (gasp) bitten by a mosquito. But now, particularly living in the concrete jungle of New York, I’m starting to appreciate how nice it is to just see nature all around you and be alone.

Not that I was entirely alone, of course. Because this was an out-and-back, there were runners passing me in the other direction every so often (I said hi to John as he went by about a mile in). Plus, with my new faster pace, I was overtaking and passing runners going in the same direction as me. I was fortunate that the trail was wide enough to do this easily.

The trail section turned out to be not a straight out-and-back, but a lollipop design (meaning out, then loop, then back along the “stick” part). By the time I reached the loop, there wasn’t anyone that I could see in front of me. However, as we went through kind of a field area, I didn’t see any markings or heavily trodden footprints, and I started to wonder if I was on the right track. I glanced back and saw other runners about a few hundred yards behind me, which was reassuring (I was not going to get lost in the middle of nowhere!), but I hoped I wasn’t leading them astray by having missed a turn or something. Fortunately, just as I started to worry, I caught sight of another marking, and the trail took a turn back in the general direction of the “stick” portion.

On the return leg, I was disappointed to find that I wasn’t passing nearly as many people going “out” as had passed me going “back.” Maybe that spectator was right, and I was one of the slowest? I found it hard to believe that, because I felt like I was maintaining a good pace, but it was hard to tell thanks to my incorrect Garmin. I know I could have calculated my pace manually (and it would have given me something to think about and with which to distract myself), but I didn’t really care that much, and I preferred to just let my thoughts drift. Sometimes I find it hard to get into that state where I don’t have anything to think about and I don’t care, so I wanted to enjoy it while I had it.

Out of the trail, I headed across the road (thank you, helpful volunteer!) and onto a dirt road that bordered a creek. I wondered if this was the same road I had been on very early in the race (around mile 1 or 2), but I didn’t remember the course map enough to be sure. There were a few little ups and downs as I went along the road, and it was nice to have the steep short inclines to help me pick up the pace a bit.

From there, it was back to the main roads (well, as “main” as they get in Mason City, Iowa), and then through a park. While the organizers had been excellent about getting a volunteer or policeman to be at every intersection, there was a road through the park that was unmanned – presumably because it was through a park and the cars were supposed to watch for pedestrians anyway. However, as I crossed the park drive, a car decided not to stop and nearly hit me. What the heck? I’m out here at mile 20 and you won’t stop for me? I was really annoyed, particularly since, as I said, it was a park and the driver should have been cautious even if there wasn’t a race going on.

The last few miles took us on a lot of twists and turns through neighborhoods. I had no idea where I was, or from which way I was going to be approaching the finish (you guessed it – as usual, I hadn’t really studied the course map). There were a few familiar sights along the way, and I would recognize a store here or there that I had passed at some point either driving from the airport or between the hotel and the school, but I really had no clue where I was until I got to mile 26 and finally saw the finish ahead. Because my Garmin wasn’t working, I had only the mile markers to rely on for how much I had left to go, and it was then that I realized how much that sucked. There is nothing worse than running and running and not seeing a mile marker and just wondering when the heck you are going to be done! This course was very well-marked, but I can’t imagine if I didn’t have a Garmin on some of the courses I’ve run, that are missing mile markers.

With the sun coming out, I was happy to be reaching the finish, and hoped that I had done a good time (thanks to the messed up Garmin, I really didn’t know). Approaching mile 26, there was a woman ahead of me, and though she put up a good fight, I managed to pass her and head down the finish chute all by myself. Both John and Catherine had already finished, so they were cheering my name, as was my friend Gary, who is super speedy (he came in third place overall!). The announcer called out my name as I came through the grassy chute and across the finish line, which was adorned with bales of hay (I love it!). “What was my time?” I asked John, panting. “Just about 4:10 – great job!” he replied. I was really pleasantly surpriesd – even after all that chatting on the phone and going slowly in the first half, I had come in with a pretty fast time.

The finish tent had a great assortment of food, and I opted for the somewhat-healthy-but-somewhat-indulgent choice of apple slices with caramel dipping sauce – yum! John and I headed back to the hotel to get showered and changed, while Catherine opted to stay at the school and use the showers there in order to save time. When I went to change and shower, I discovered that my legs were streaked with dirt and mud – one of the hazards of doing a trail run, I suppose. I felt great though!

When we stopped back at the school to pick up Catherine, I had one last duty to complete. A few weeks ago, Boyfriend had surprised me with a gift of a little stuffed animal – a dog he named “Spot” who wore a shirt that said “someone in New York loves me.” Boyfriend explained that I was to take it to all my marathons, and that way I’d have someone to cuddle with when he wasn’t there. Awww! However, I decided to one-up Boyfriend by explaining that Spot got jealous of my medals and wanted to earn one himself. Thanks to the generosity of the announcer at the finish line (and the fact that Spot “finished” slowly enough to not have any other runners around), I was able to snap this pic:

Spot’s first marathon! Combined with a great time on my part, and it was truly a day to celebrate 🙂

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:11:02
Pace: 9:34
Overall place: 64/105
Gender place: 15/27
Age group place: 5/6

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