October 12, 2009

Race Report: Steamtown Marathon

When I heard my alarm go off at 5 AM this morning, I was still exhausted, and I couldn’t shake the sense that I had some kind of nightmare and was still feeling pent up over it. I got myself together and was ready to go by 5:30, and we headed out into the dark and cold morning toward the race start.

The race director had provided a sheet of directions from all the different areas that had hotels – pretty impressive! We followed them and had no problems getting to the buses to the start, where I said goodbye to my mom and boarded. Upon boarding the big yellow school bus, I saw my friend and fellow Marathon Maniac Jackie in the fourth row, and there was a seat next to her with only one person in it, so I snagged the other. We chatted for a bit, and she explained that she had planned to take the week off from marathons but decided midway through the week to sign up for Steamtown for the heck of it. Excellent!

Still feeling exhausted, I excused myself to pull out my neck pillow and try to sleep for the 45 minute drive to the start. I’ve done this for a few other races with long drives to the start (Deseret Morning News and Mesa Falls), with good results, but people on this bus were not getting the hint from the dark bus and were yakking away. Normally a drone doesn’t keep me from sleeping, but the guy behind me had a voice that for some reason was very piercing, and I just could not block it out. I probably dozed off somewhere in there, but I was sleeping very lightly and it definitely wasn’t quality rest.

We deboarded the buses and found an extremely cold dark morning waiting for us.. but tons of high school students merrily handing out bottled water and coffee, while a group of cheerleaders tried to pep us up. Cool! We were ushered into the high school, and followed the well-marked halls past two gyms and a cafeteria, all of which had been opened up as hang out spots for runners to congregate. I headed for the main office, where I could do the last minute packet pickup, and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no line whatsoever and I got to walk right up and get my packet. Sweet!

Next, I hit up the bathroom, which didn’t have too long of a line just yet. There was a woman a few spots behind me in line who was wearing a 2009 Wineglass Marathon t-shirt from the week before, so I inquired as to whether she was a Maniac. She was confused, which surprised me – usually if people are running back-to-back marathons, they at least know about the Maniacs even if they haven’t joiend up. I explained, and she told me that no, she wasn’t a Maniac and nhadn’t even run Wineglass. She signed up for Wineglass but then decided to do Steamtown instead, but had a friend pick up the shirt for her. Though I didn’t say anything more, I was really annoyed – I think it’s so inappropriate to wear a shirt for a race you didn’t run. If you really don’t want to throw it away, at least save it for wearing around the house or as an undershirt or something.

I did, however, get annoyed enough to stop being so social. Instead, I called Boyfriend while I waited in line, and debated the merits of trying to get a fast time instead of taking it easy because I was in the midst of such a long streak of marathons. We started talking about all of this in the context of the holy grail of marathon times: the BQ (Boston Qualifier). He told me that I need to just do what felt good – but added that if I managed to do it, he’d give me a massage when I got back. Well, there’s some extra motivation!

I headed into the nearest gym, and not seeing anyone I knew, I snagged a spot in the middle and settled down to read the book I brought with me (The Help by Katherine Stockton – it’s amazing and I’d highly recommend it so far). Before long, I was joined by my new friend Gary, who I had met the day before at packet pickup but who had run Maine and New Hampshire the previous weekend. We chatted for a bit, and then I spotted a group of Maniacs over in the corner, so we joined up with them for discussion and some group photos. Several people had run either Baltimore or Hartford the day before, so I felt kind of bad for “only” running one marathon this weekend. How funny is that?

With five minutes to 7, people started heading out into the cold, and I debated for a bit what to wear – long sleeve shirt or just a tee? Sweatpants or just a skirt? I ultimately decided to throw on the long sleeved technical shirt under my Dunder Mifflin t-shirt, checked the rest of my stuff and joined the crowd outside. I was just in time for the Star Spangled Banner, which was one of the worst renditions I’d ever heard. It was a male and a female voice singing in unison, and they both kept going off-key as they stretched for notes they had trouble hitting after starting way too high. I spent the song not thinking about my country, but trying to decide whether it was worse than the half marathon I did in Rhode Island where the singer forgot the words. Verdict: Steamtown was worse. Fortunately, I didn’t have much time to dwell as the gun went off and the race started.

We started on a nice downhill, but it was pretty gradual and I felt very comfortable running it. I said hello to some Maniacs, but because I was wearing my Dunder Mifflin shirt instead of my Maniac jersey, it took a bit of explaining to clarify that I too was a Maniac – I just wasn’t wearing my singlet. Instead, I had opted to wear a shirt I had bought online that replicated the 5K shirts from the race episode of “The Office.” Speaking of the Dunder Mifflin shirt (the text on which read “Michael Scott’s Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure”), I was shocked to see that almost no one recognized it; in fact, a few people asked if I was from Scranton, assuming it was an actual race shirt from a local 5K. In the whole race, only one person recognized my shirt. How is it possible that no one watches The Office?! I’m perplexed.

The first few miles passed by quickly as we ran through the residential areas. It reminded me a lot of the suburb of Binghamton, NY, where my mom grew up. Ironically, my grandmother grew up in Scranton, so my mom had come here a lot in her childhood. It was just kind of a small all-American town, with slightly older and smaller houses than I was used to seeing. Almost every house had an American flag either hanging from the porch or on a flagpole erected in the front yard, which I thought was kind of funny.

I noted that it really wasn’t pure downhill at all. When I heard all the talk about Steamtown being really fast and downhill, and all the cautionary tales to avoid going out too fast and trashing your quads, I assumed that it would be a course kind of like Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City. Steamtown, however, was not very steep downhill and had a lot of little rolling uphills that kept my legs from getting hurt despite the fast pace. Having heard how fast the course was, I was aiming for a new PR of 3:50, and my plan was to try for that in the first half and then see how I felt for the second half. I’ve been running a lot of negative splits in races lately, and I hoped that I might even be able to do that again and come in faster. I set my iPod to play all my music by the aptly-named Taylor Swift – it was her music that got me to a PR in Alaska, and I hoped that it would work again.

Around mile 5, I started running with a guy who introduced himself as Jim, and knew my friend and fellow Marathon Maniac Monica. Jim had run over 100 marathons, and is featured in the book about the NYC marathon that I read last year. Unfortunately, though Jim asked if I had read the book (and I said yes), he assumed I remembered him from it and didn’t tell me his whole story (which I didn’t). I gathered from what he said to others that he had run every single NYC Marathon since its inception, but unfortunately, I couldn’t glean more of the story than that. After we ran and talked for a while, Jim asked if he could give me a critique of my running form, and I quickly said yes. He said that I must be watching the Kenyans too much, because my form is very much like them: I stand straight as an arrow, and I keep my arms close to my chest and high up (“like a boxer ready to jab”). He suggested that I might have less tension in my arms if I lowered my forearms to be below my elbows, which he said is more standard. I tried his way for a while (probably 5 miles or so), but I found it really difficult to make the adjustment, and not even any more comfortable than the other way. I guess I just like to keep my hands close to my chest? One of these days I’d like to get a coach to give me a real running form analysis though, as I appreciated Jim’s advice and was glad I experimented with it.

At mile 8, I saw some porta potties, and I stopped to use them and also take my first gel before reaching the aid station next to the bathrooms. I had been keeping a good pace so far, and I wasn’t desperate for the bathroom, so I hoped that later if I did manage to get a PR, I wouldn’t be regretting the extra 60 seconds I took there. Every second counts!

As I kept running, I found the exhaustion really catching up to me. I hadn’t been feeling in tip top shape even when I first started running, but coming into mile 10, I was now really tired. I felt at mile 10 like I normally feel coming into the last few miles of a marathon – meaning, I was getting pretty spent. I was right on pace for a 1:55 half though, and I wanted to keep pushing, so I just went for it, and came to the halfway point just under 1:55.

Now the question: should I keep pushing it and try for a PR? Or should I let up a bit due to my exhaustion and just settle for a fairly good time but not my best? Well, as I just saw in an episode of “Community” (not the best of the new fall shows, but for some reason I’m still watching it), “seize the day!” It’s so rare for me to really go for it with a marathon, and I wanted to see how far I could push myself. At the worst, I’d get too tired and would have to walk the rest of the course, but with no travel-related constraints on my finish time, I didn’t care. Besides, I usually find the 13 mile mark to not really seem like the halfway point, because I divide the race into two parts of 10 miles plus an additional 6.2. Therefore, 13 miles was already a third of the way to the end of the second section, and I knew that if I could just make it to mile 20, I should be able to hang on until the end. Onward I pushed!

Around mile 16, we left the streets and headed onto a trail. It was really nice – soft dirt that felt good on the feet, but surprisingly no puddles (as I’ve often seen in races with a trail component). The day was still cool, but if it had been sunny, the shade would also have been a nice bonus. Now I just had to hang on for four more miles until the 20 mile mark.

I was really struggling, but as I gave myself a quick evaluation, I realized that it wasn’t my leg muscles or my lungs or anything really specific – I was just generally wiped out. Everyone around me was still going pretty strong, so I tried to just keep up as best as I could. I just needed to hang on…

Around mile 19, I was still struggling, and making all kinds of weird grimacing faces – definitely not my usual MO of playing it cool and making it look to everyone else like I wasn’t really struggling. About 100 yards ahead of me, a guy tripped and fell flat on his face, lying prone on the concrete. There was a group of spectators standing just a few feet away, and they watched him go down – but then just stood there! I was appalled, but not yet close enough to do anything, so I just kept running and hollered “Go HELP him!” at the volunteers. Coming out of their stupor, they headed over to do just that, when he got up and said that he was fine and resumed running. A moment later, though, another runner gave me a dirty look for yelling at the spectators, and said nastily, “Why didn’t YOU help him?” I immediately felt awful. I was a bit behind him (which is the main reason why I hadn’t stopped yet), and I was exhausted and worn out (which is why I yelled), but he was right. I should have ignored my time and just sprinted up to help him, as I’ve frequently done in the past when I’ve seen another runner having problems. I continued to brood over it for a bit, and it didn’t make the miles go by any easier.

Finally I reached mile 20, and the spectators there were quick to tell us that we were almost done. Well, not quite, but I appreciated the sentiment. For me, the 20 mile mark is the almost done point: you only have 10k to go, and with that short of a distance, you know you’re not going to quit now! We headed through another trail section (much shorter than the first), and then were back in the neighborhoods, drawing closer to the finish. I was watching my time carefully and trying to push it as much as possible – this was not the time to hold back, and I knew that every second counted.

I distracted myself from my exhaustion by setting a plan for what was to come. I had a few things on my agenda (besides just running the darn race): I needed to call my mom and give her about 30 minutes notice of my finish, I wanted to change my playlist to my “Marathon Power Songs” so I could finish to those, and most importantly, I needed to take a jello shot at mile 24 😉 I also knew there was a big hill coming up in mile 23, so I decided that would be the ideal time to take a little walk break, call my mom, and change my playlist, particularly if there was a water stop nearby.

I was so exhausted, really giving it everything I had. Now I see what people mean when they say marathons are hard work! Haha. I focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping up my pace. There were a lot of little rollers, but I tried to just keep my eyes on the people ahead of me, and I found that I was actually running a faster pace than most of the people around me. Despite feeling so tired and sluggish, I passed a lot of people in those last few miles, and most of them encouraged me with some form of “wow, great pace” as I went by. I’ll say this for my marathoning streak: it definitely helps you in those later miles, where most people are running miles 20-26 as an unfamiliar distance, but for me, it’s old hat. I know exactly what to expect and my body is quite used to it, even if it gets tired and starts to protest.

Mile 23 took us under a highway overpass, and I prayed fervently that there would be jello shots on the other side. I saw a group of spectators and I got pretty hopeful, but no dice. Didn’t they know that they were spectating in the critical “Michael Scott Jello Shot Station” position? Boo. I wanted to say something as a joke (like, “where are the jello shots?!” in a mock angry tone), but given the fact that my t-shirt still wasn’t getting recognized by people, I figured no one would get the joke and I’d probably just come off as crazy.

Shortly after the 23 mile mark, we hit a short uphill that I decided to powerwalk – I figured it would cost me less energy than trying to soldier up it at a run, and it would give me a chance to call my mom and warn her of my pending finish. In addition to leaving her a super fast voicemail, I also switched my playlist, and now was running along to Britney Spears’ “Stronger.” Yes, I was indeed stronger than yesterday – I was three miles from the finish at a faster time than I had ever been before!

Mile 24 had a huge cheering crowd, and I gratefully accepted a cup of Gatorade from an unofficial station as I took a quick walk break on another hill. We went through the crowds and the music (this seemed to be the college area, with frathouses blasting songs out their doors), and all of a sudden, we saw what the race director had hinted at in his pre-race e-mails. All proceeds from the race were going to benefit a local nursing home, and he said that at mile 24 we’d get a nice thank you that reminds us why we give. Sure enough, we got two thank yous: all the residents had been brought out to the street in their wheelchairs to watch the race while their aides cheered us on, and also, we had a glorious downhill that bolstered our spirits. To further improve my mood, my iPod happened to start playing Heather Small’s “Proud” at this point (“What have you done today to make you feel proud”), which fit perfectly with the reminder of the charity we were supporting. My throat started swelling up and my eyes got watery – perfect timing for a runner’s high to make me feel great.

With mile 24 past us, we had about 20 minutes of running left, and it was “go time.” Now was the chance to hold nothing back and give it everything I had. I started setting my sights on the people ahead of me, determined to pass first one person and then the next. Just after mile 25, the local hash house harriers had set up a beer stop, and believe it or not, I actually passed on it (I know, unheard of for me). I knew I was going to PR, and I didn’t want there to be even an additional 10 seconds added for beer.

We turned the corner from the beer stop with about a half mile left in the race, but instead of getting pumped, my heart sunk. What on earth was a big-ass hill doing this late in the race? I approached it still running, and tried my best to power up it, but it was no use – despite gritting my teeth and contorting my face in all kinds of ways in an attempt to muscle my way up, I was just too tired, and I dropped to a walk. Darn it! There were some spectators on the hill who tried to bolster our spirits and get us to run, but for me, I just couldn’t do it. My only hope was to save enough energy to really sprint as soon as I got to the top.

Well, I didn’t quite sprint, but I did get some speed, and now I could see the finish ahead (thankfully, at the end of a gentle sloping downhill). There wasn’t really anyone right ahead of me to catch, so I focused on just a solid, fast stride… and with more effort, I focused on getting my face to look normal and relaxed instead of tortured and horrific. The spectators were starting to become a crowd instead of a lone person here and there, and just before I got into the real chute, I heard Jackie’s husband cheering me on! Energized, I picked it up even more, and began scanning the crowd eagerly for my mom. Had my call worked? She often gets distracted talking to people at the finish line, and I was praying fervently that she would get to see me finish at what I knew was going to be a PR time.

The crowds were cheering, and I was loving it. Finally, I was running a race where I had given it my all, and I was so proud. I wasn’t half-assing this race, and I finally felt deserving of their applause at the finish, so I waved to the crowd like an Olympian doing their victory lap after winning the gold. Just after doing this, I saw and heard my mom cheering and aiming her camera at me, and she actually got a few shots in. Go, mom! This was my best job running, and her best job spectating 🙂

With the finish line just a few hundred yards ahead, I really kicked it up into a sprint. I heard the announcer saying my name and hometown over the loudspeaker, and I pumped my arm in the air with a “woo!” in celebration. Thank you, Steamtown, for this glorious day and this well-run race, and thank you so much for acknowledging me at the finish.

I crossed the line with 3:54 on the clock – already a PR from my former 3:57, but a few more minutes would be taken off once the chip time results came out. I called Boyfriend to tell him of my amazing feat, and mistakenly blurted out, “I did it!” Having discussed both a possibility of a PR and a BQ earlier, I now regretted my words – was he going to assume that I BQed, deflating me when I’d have to tell him that actually I “only” PRed? Lucky for me, I have myself an amazing boyfriend, and he said exactly the right thing, “Oh my gosh, you got a PR? That’s FANTASTIC!” I was so happy as I eagerly told him the highlights, and I reminded him that I was expecting that massage later 🙂

I then called my mom as I waited in line for the food tent, and we agreed to meet at the fence right where the food tent line funnelled out into the crowd. Meanwhile, I availed myself of tasty treats: yogurt, fruit, Krispy Kreme donuts, pierogies, minestrone soup… this was a great spread! I collected my “winnings” (as I like to think of the post-race food) and met up with my mom, where we then got to sit on a park bench and eat and discuss the race. Though I had a few bites of some of the junk food, I managed to be mostly good, and didn’t gorge myself too much.

Overall, a very successful race, and a course I’d highly recommend for a small-race feel and top-notch organization. My only regret is that I wasn’t better rested in order to really capitalize on the nice course/weather and go for a BQ… but there’s always next year!

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 3:52:30
Pace: 8:55
Overall place: 881/1569
Gender place: 219/543
Age group place: 23/40

12 thoughts on “Race Report: Steamtown Marathon”

  1. OMG I love the dunder mifflin shirt. I’m shocked only 1 person recognized it. That’s so sad. I seriously might have to get one for my next race. GREAT JOB ON THE PR….whooo whoooo!!

  2. I am SHOCKED that only 1 person recognized your shirt! What is wrong with people?! That was the best episode ever!

    Also, congrats on the PR, girl! You definitely have a BQ in you–you totally rock!! 🙂

  3. NICE WORK! PRs are awesome.

    So, I’ll admit, I totally didn’t put Steamtown and Scranton together. BUT, I would have put together the Dunder Mifflin 5K …. to cure rabies tshirt. 🙂 The best part of that episode was how they hired a stripper to hand out the HUGE check to Michael. Classic.

    This race just may be on my ‘list of races to do!’

  4. Very nice race report. I’m running Steamtown this year. It’s my first official marathon after having done 3 ultras. Thanks for the descriptions on where there are hills and what landmarks to look for. And congrats on your PR.

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