June 1, 2010

Race Report: Vermont City Marathon

The first thing I felt when I woke up was nervous… had it been a terrible idea to eat all that fried food and then drink beer for dinner? The answer was, surprisingly, no – I was a bit dehydrated from the alcohol, but other than that was totally fine. Yay!

I tried to be very quiet while getting myself together so as not to wake up our roommate, Sara, but as it got closer to time to leave, my mom and I started wondering if we should make her. She was doing the last leg of the relay, so didn’t need to be up super early, but she had originally set her alarm for the same time as us and then turned it off, so I was afraid she had done so inadvertently. Luckily, a few minutes before we were going to leave, she woke up and chatted with us for a while so we didn’t have to worry.

It was a pretty painless drive to the start, despite the traffic backup, but we had plenty of time so I didn’t need to worry about being late. From the parking lot we had to walk up Battery Hill that would provide the biggest challenge (and from my experience, the most fun!) of the race. I was surprised to see a handcyclist laboriously making his way up the course, presumably as some kind of warmup. It seemed like he should save his energy for when he’d HAVE to ascend it during the race, no? I have no idea how warm ups for handcyclists go though…

Once we arrived at the park, we quickly found the tent for the Albany Running Exchange and I got to catch up with some old friends. One of the neatest for me was seeing my friend Meaghan’s dad, Ken. Ken was a dancer who used to perform in the Albany Berkshire Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, which I did every year in various roles (everything from polchinelle to soldier to Clara!). Also, Meaghan and I did an Equity production of A Christmas Carol together, and Ken was often our driver when we carpooled for rehearsals and performances. It was so cool to have someone from my artsy-not-sporty days see me in my new habitat! I absolutely cannot wait for my high school reunion to show off my accomplishments.

I headed over to the grandstand to try to introduce myself to the announcer, Tim, since we had been e-mailing back and forth for a while about my history with the VCM and my 50 state quest. There had been music playing so I figured it would be a good chance… but of course, right when I got there, the music ended and he started broadcasting the show. Bummer! I hung around for a few minutes, hoping he would take a break for some more music, but no luck, and it was soon time to head for the start.

When I arrived at the start, my co-pacer Nathan was already there and lined up with his sign. I was psyched to get to run with him – though he was no stranger to marathons, this was his first time pacing. I love teaching/coaching/all that good stuff, so it was neat that not only would I get to help runners reach their goals, I would also get to help someone else learn how to do that and spread the love!

There were a ton of people lined up in my area and it was hard to tell who was “in my group” and who was just setting themselves up to run at about that pace. Plus, I kept getting distracted by seeing friends (my friend Mary, who I’ve roomed with for several marathons; Steve and Paula, founders of the 50 states club; to name just a few of the marathon friends around me) and seeing people who I had e-mailed back and forth with before the race about my pacing strategy. There was even someone I had paced last year who wanted to say thanks! With all of those people to chat with, I never got time to make a big announcement to everyone in the nearby vicinity about how we’d be running this race, but I figured I’d do it after the crowd thinned out.

Though I started trying to get satellites on my Garmin about 5 minutes before the race began, I could not seem to get a signal – all the way up until the race actually started! I was panicking. My Garmin is a critical tool as a pacer, and while I used to know how to do this, lately I can’t figure out how to get it to start timing before it’s located the satellites. Luckily, we had a few minutes between when the race started and when we actually crossed the line, and just as we started to move forward it finally got a full signal. Whew!

Crossing the start line was a really neat experience. I’ve been pretty efficient in how I’ve done my marathons, in terms of not repeating either races or states, but VCM is the one exception. This was my third year running it, and it was so neat to think back on the last two years and how far I’ve come since then. Just two years ago, I was wearing my “I’ll run for ice cream” shirt and wondering if I could possibly get through 26.2 miles… and here I was today, promising not only to make it through but to help others do it in a specific time! So neat.

The course was really crowded through the first mile, but I assured the runners around me that like any race, it would thin out eventually. Little did I know that this year I was totally wrong! It ended up being super crowded for the whole race, which really sucked when you were in the final miles and still having to bob and weave if you wanted to pass. As a pacer, it’s especially frustrating – I have to keep my assigned pace, but I also can’t go ducking in and out of runners with a whole group behind me. It also made me feel bad because I know how much it sucks when it’s a crowded race and then you have a big clump of a pace group contributing to the congestion… but what can you do.

The first few miles took us through some neighborhoods where I saw some familiar sights – there are always people in this section beating on pots and pans as if they’re drums, which is kind of funny. From there, we headed down Church Street (a beautiful brick pedestrian-only street with cute little shops and restaurants along it) and back through the start area, where a bunch of Albany Running Exchange spectators gave me a special cheer. Next, we headed backwards across the start line (Tim the announcer gave my pace group a special shout out) and off to the Connector – probably one of the worst parts of the race.

The Connector (also known as the Ethan Allen Highway) is this long, boring stretch of a highway that the course designer unfortunately chose for an out-and-back. It’s totally unshaded, so on a sunny day, you absolutely bake out there, but we were saved from that because it was still cloudy. Unfortunately, the other downside of the Connector is that it’s heavily cambred (meaning the road leans to one side). My first year, I ended up with some pretty massive IT band problems from the cambre, and last year I used my foam roller like crazy to prevent that. This year, being aware of the road, I could feel my hips tensing up a bit from the cambre, but there was nothing I could do about it. Instead, I just made sure to warn my pace group about the pain this road could inflict, and urged them to roll out their IT bands after the race to prevent injuries. After my Olathe Marathon, I was able to advise them that you don’t need a fancy foam roller… an empty beer bottle works wonders as a makeshift Stick (and provides double duty treatment because you get to drink the beer first!).

The one nice thing about the Connector is you get to see pretty much all the other runners on the long out-and-back stretch. Shortly after we got on the Connector, we saw the winners coming back, and then it was just a constant stream of people. I ran into my friend Larry (so excited he’s going to be in Minneapolis with me for my big finish!) and a whole slew of Maniacs besides. Getting to see other runners definitely made the time pass faster, and before I knew it, we were back almost to the start of the Connector for a long, slight uphill back to the start.

This time as we passed the start area, I was keeping a keen eye out for my mom… but to no avail. Where could she be? We rounded the turn from the start to Church Street, and I was happy to again have some friends from the Albany Running Exchange yelling my name. As we came up to Church Street, it occurred to me that I’d probably see my mom here: this right turn onto Church was where she had waited the last two years. We approached the turn and I looked at every face in the crowd… but nothing. Darn it! Where could she be? I hoped she hadn’t gotten lost trying to meet up with my friend Kelli instead of being out watching.

Still, the antics on Church Street made me smile. There were tons of spectators lining the streets, dozens of others eating at the outdoor cafe, and even a few crazily-dressed drag queens to cheer us on. The music was blaring, and I was pleasantly surprised to find it was Train’s “Hey Soul Sister,” a song that my ex introduced me to and described his vision of a music video all about hanging out with friends at an outdoor party in the summer. It still brings back happy memories and made me feel like it was the perfect day for a run. (I really ought to put that song into one of my marathon playlists). So it happened that I was in a great mood when I suddenly spied Kelli and my mom about halfway down Church Street, cheering my name and smiling huge. Woo hoo! Now that was the way to get me pumped to continue with the race 🙂

We turned off Church Street and headed downhill into what I think of as the “warehouse district” (though I have no idea if Burlingtonians actually call it that). We had some fun bands along the way to cheer us on, including one who just kept playing the same two lines over and over: “Run awayyyyyyy… ruuuuuuuuuun away!” Believe me, we were trying 🙂

While the crowds hadn’t thinned out nearly as much as I was expecting at this point, I did the take the opportunity of the long, flat road and the few spectators to start rallying my group. I let them know that we were just about to mile 10, and that we’d soon be heading through some neighborhoods with spectators, and that there was a Gu stop coming up. It was really neat to actually know the course and be able to tell everyone exactly what to expect – not just from maps or descriptions, but because I had run it before! I love coming back every year for this particular race.

We rounded the corner into the neighborhoods and I was surprised to see that the Gu wasn’t at the same turn where it was last year. I hoped it wasn’t going to be missing entirely! I was carrying some with me, but only enough for myself – when I’m pacing, I usually like to pick up extra to carry around and give out to struggling runners. Fortunately, I found it a few turns later, along with oranges, bananas, and a whole mess of orange and banana peels littering the road. “Watch your footing, everyone!” I yelled. My spill in New Jersey has made me hypersensitive to avoid falling!

We went up a very minor little bump in the road (but in this case, it’s probably considered an uphill!) and then had a nice cresting downhill into another neighborhood for a quick loop. Memories kept coming back to me with every step – here, I remembered the house that had a huge bedsheet-sized banner that read “Go Laura” two years ago, and how I got so psyched and kept pointing to my shirt and yelling at the owners “my name is Laura, too!”

There was another quick downhill to go into the final neighborhood in this part of the course, and I pointed it out to Nathan – we saw runners about a mile ahead of us who were heading back up it. However, I reminded him that it was only about 45 seconds from bottom to top, so it wouldn’t be too hard to get everyone to push themselves up it. As we circled the neighborhood before reaching it, I saw a house just being built and I thought, “wow, that will be neat to come back next year and see it all done!” I just love the idea of having a tradition like this, and I’m psyched to continue it in future years.

We charged up the hill without a problem, and I kept reminding people that mile 13 was just a hundred yards or so from the top of it. If you were a relay runner, that meant you’d be finishing the race at 13.1; if you were a full marathoner, mile 13 would be the point at which we’d slow it down for the second half. A little something for everyone to look forward to!

I was surprised to see the relay exchange point had been moved. Was it not a dead even split anymore between the first and the second half of the course? I knew the course itself hadn’t changed, so I didn’t understand why the relay exchange point was now about 0.05 sooner than the hill where it had been last year. I know it used to make the full marathoners run through a narrower chute, so I imagine it was changed for logistical reasons, but I liked the setup before with all the relayers lined up on the hill to cheer you on.

We headed into the twisting paths that would lead us along the lakefront and back to the Battery, and I warned my runners to try to stay to one side and allow people to pass. This part of the course is basically only wide enough for two or three people to run side by side, and knowing how congested a big pace group can make things, I wanted to be sure we were being respectful to other runners.

About 1/2 mile later, as we were crossing a bridge, we came upon a runner who seemed to be injured – there was already a small group of people around her and she was holding her head in pain. I noted what mile we were at and asked if they needed medical, but someone said they were already on their way. With nothing I could do, I just kept running with my group, glad that there was already an alarm out and I wouldn’t have to leave my group to sprint up for help. Sure enough, a hundred yards further we saw an EMT racing down the path, with another one not far behind with a bunch of medical supplies. However, it made me think – they really ought to give the pacers some sort of hotline number we can call. I always carry my cell phone with me when I’m running, and it would be nice to be able to get help via phone in a situation like this. I wonder if any race does that? In today’s digital age, it seems like it would be a good idea.

By mile 14, we could hear the drummers in the distance. So exciting! I pointed it out to my pace group, and also started trying to get them pumped for the big ascent. I reminded them that it was only two minutes of running – basically just like doing an interval on the treadmill or the elliptical. One person in my group piped up that she was a spinning instructor and that you can do anything for a minute or two. Exactly the attitude you need! I told my group that they really didn’t need to stress about the hill too much – once we were at the top, there were no more hills in the race to worry about and it would be just flat, flat, flat to the finish (I didn’t yet point out that flat courses suck though!).

While I could swear that we had heard the drummers from a mile away, as we got to the last hundred yards or so before turning onto The Battery, i didn’t hear them. What happened? But then we turned onto the road and there they were – drumming their hearts out and giving us big smiles to boot. I flashed them a proud grin right back, and with my sign held high, proceeded to lead my group to the top. Just after the drummers, I saw my mom and Kelli again cheering for me… and then Kelli started sprinting up the road right in line with us! I couldn’t believe it. Not only was she keeping pace with us while on the spectator side of the fence (and so she had to dodge people all along the way), but knowing Kelli, she was probably doing it in high heels to boot. She just kept cheering for me as we went, and my mouth was hanging open in shock and glee. I wanted to cheer right back at her! What a great friend.

We reached the top of the hill and turned into the park, and I gave a HUGE cheer and congratulations for my group. We had made it past the Assault on Battery! Now we just needed to hang in there for the last ten (flat) miles of the race… piece of cake. I urged them to take a rest – we were going to slow it down for a bit now to give everyone a chance to catch their breath and also get some water and Gatorade from the aid station that was in the park.

We came out of the park just past the starting line and now headed out for the second time along the road that leads to the Connector – but this time we’d fork left before getting there. The Burlingtonians were out in full force now, cheering us on from their front porches, and my group got a lot of applause. But soon the course quieted – there were still spectators every so often, but not as concentrated as when we were in town. Since I had never really formally introduced myself to the group, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to do so.

“All right, everyone, now that the crowd has thinned out, we have our group all set. Thanks to that awesome ascent up the hill, we’re now about 30 seconds ahead, but we’re going to stick with aiming for 10:30/mile to get us to the finish right on time. We’ve gotten through all the hills in the race – so now it’s just a matter of hanging in there until the finish. My name’s Laura, and I want to let you know that if you’re a first timer and are feeling a little bit unsure, I was in your shoes two years ago. This was my first marathon and I was feeling just like you, proud of what I had done so far but unsure if I could make it to the end. Well, stick with the group and you will make it. Though I have to warn you of one thing: I’m all smiles right now, but if you make it to mile 24 with me and then try to drop back, I will NOT let that happen. So enjoy hanging out with me now, but if you don’t want to finish in 4:30, you only have about 8 miles to get rid of me! Now remember, if you have any questions or problems, you can let me or my co-pacer Nathan know and we’ll do our best to help. Thanks for coming out to run with us today!”

When I was done with my little speech, everyone cheered, and then someone said, “and thank YOU for pacing us!” A cheer went up for that, and another runner said that I was “really inspirational.” That made me feel great, but I pointed out that they were the ones doing all the work – I can yell and I can encourage, but only you can make your legs do the running! Still, I felt great.

From here on, I took a more active role in pacing. Instead of just running along at my assigned pace, I tried to keep some commentary going at least every minute or two. I pointed out the grassy median between the sidewalk and the road that could provide a softer surface for anyone’s feet who were really killing them. At every mile marker, I started ticking off how much we had left to go. And most importantly, I kept reminding them that they were awesome and were totally going to hit their 4:30 goals!

We turned into the neighborhood loop that would bring us to mile 18, and I let everyone know that there would be a lot of little kids handing out drinks and snacks in this area. We were lucky that it wasn’t too hot, but some of the residents had still set up sprinklers for us to run through, which were greatly appreciated by many of the runners. Plenty of spectators in general – I particularly enjoyed the guy who yelled “I don’t know what that number 4:30 on your sign means, but you are awesome!” 🙂

About halfway through the loop, I turned around to see exactly how many people were in my group, and it seemed like there were about 30 of us. Wow! I told everyone that we were getting into “wall” zone – meaning the point at which your body starts to shut down and you think you can’t go any further. I reminded that they could go further and make it to the end, and told everyone that since we had such a big group and I couldn’t watch everyone, they should introduce themselves to the person next to them, and then take responsibility for making sure that person didn’t drop back. I reminded everyone that it’s a lot harder to quit when you have someone urging you on so that you’re too embarrassed to stop! 🙂

We continued along and soon were at one of my favorite parts in the course – running underneath a giant American flag that had been strung over the streets. From there, we turned out of that neighborhood and were back on the main road for just a short little stint until we headed into the wooded park in which we’d get a Gu/candy/water stop. When we turned into the park, I knew we were almost done – or at least, almost to the long and monotonous bike path that would take us home to the finish. I alerted my runners that there would be Gu and some sort of snacks ahead, and they weren’t disappointed – this year it was Oreo cookies and pretzels. I grabbed some Gu for myself, and told everyone to eat quickly, because if they timed it right, there was a water stop just around the corner where they could wash it down.

We came into the clearing where the water stop would be, but I was dismayed to see that the garage band that’s been playing in the bandshell there for the last two years was nowhere to be found. Bummer! It seemed in general like there were fewer spectators and musical groups out than in past years, and this particular spot was a especially big disappointment, because the setup made it seem like it was a group the race organizers had hired instead of just some townspeople out to help. I hope they bring that back next year!

We went through a very short trail that led us back into the neighborhoods, and there were a lot of spectators tailgating and cheering for our group when we first came out. We continued running, making our way to the final downhill that would curve around and lead us to the bike path. Since the garage band had been missing in that clearing, I was afraid to get everyone excited for the concert band that was usually under a tent right along that downhill, but they turned out to be there in full force (though because of how quickly we tend to zip down that short but steep hill, we didn’t get to hear much of them).

I told my runners that we had just done the last downhill of the course, and now there was just a VERY little uphill (like, 3 feet of elevation gain over 10 steps of running) and then pure, flat ground the whole way. However, Nathan and I cautioned the runners that the flat course would not be kind to their leg muscles. When you run on a flat course, you’re using the same muscles with every step, whereas when you run on a rolling course, you get to change up your muscles and prevent them from getting as tired with every step. Nathan demonstrated how to pick up your knees in a marching fashion for a few steps, just to loosen the limbs, and I encouraged everyone to consciously do a short distance with a much longer stride, so your hips wouldn’t tighten and lock up as they endure the repetitive motion of “the marathon shuffle” (when you’re just trying to get through the end of the race and you can barely put one foot in front of the other).

Right after we got on the bike path, I opted to have our little “music mile,” in which I play “Stand” by Rascal Flatts on my phone. The lyrics for that are just so wonderful and inspiring, and I love to share them with other runners while going through the tough part of the course. I’ve never gotten quite as great of a reaction as when I did that in the National Marathon in DC, but I like to think that just because that group was more vocal about what they liked and didn’t like, and that other pace groups where I’ve done that have been equally grateful but just didn’t say it. Unfortunately, I had timed this poorly – just as we were coming to my favorite line of the song (“every time you get up and get back in the race, one more small piece of you starts to fall into place”), we came upon a hippie group playing their banjos. Yuck! (I mean, thanks for coming out to support!)

At mile 23, I reminded everyone that we only had about a 5K to go – “and we’ve all run 5Ks before!” I encouraged anyone who felt that they had some extra energy to try picking up the pace, but to let me know before they went ahead, and their safeguard would be that I’d pick them up if they started fading and I passed them. No one really took me up on that offer, though, and I sympathized. While the Vermont course is flat, I actually consider it one of the more difficult races just because of that – the last section along the bikepath just seems unbearably long, and my legs and feet were hurting much more than usual. I also warned my group that in just one mile, it was make-it-or-break-it time: anyone who was with me at mile 24 MUST finish in 4:30.

We got to mile 24, and I sent my group on ahead, assuring them that they could do this from here on. In fact, if they pushed the pace even by a few seconds or so, they’d actually finish under 4:30, because Nathan and I were right on pace. Meanwhile, Nathan and I positioned ourselves behind the last runner (whereas before we had been at the front of the pack). We were still running exactly on pace, but now we were going to make sure no one fell off. Finding ourselves pretty much alone (wow, go original 4:30 group for really rising to the challenge!), we now started picking up other runners we saw along the way. I yelled back to those behind me my standard cry of “if you can hear my voice, you can hit 4:30!”, and then also started looking for new runners who were walking or otherwise falling off the pace.

My strategy for dealing with runners who are giving up goes like this: ask them their name, so you can yell it out as necessary (both for encouragement and to call them out if they start slacking). Tell them that as the 4:30 pacer, you are not letting them finish behind you. It’s the rules of the race that they have to finish either with you or ahead of you. This strategy worked beautifully in Vermont – I ended up with another group of about 10-15 runners, all of whom were too scared of my wrath if they started walking and getting behind 🙂 I also made sure to just keep pointing out how close they were, telling them how many times I had slacked off just a little bit and then found out that just 10 seconds would have made the difference between hitting my time goals and being disappointed that I hadn’t given it everything I had. I urged everyone to just put everything out on the table: you can eat/sleep/drink/whatever when you’re done (and chances are your family and friends will pamper you hand and foot if you ask!), but you only have these last 15 minutes to give it everything you have and know that you finished in the best time you could possibly do.

As we came into the last half mile, I started pushing again: this time, trying to get my new group to go ahead and finish strong. Again, all of them did! I felt like the best pacer in the world. I saw my mom and Kelli near the front of the crowds in the park, and then I saw my friends from the Albany Running Exchanged cheering for just a little beyond there. Now it was just Nathan and I, coming into the orange-gated chute through the crowds and to the finish with our sign held high and big smiles on our faces.

The final stretch was LONG – I saw the 26 mile mark when we were already weaving our way through the crowds, and I was surprised. I thought it had been back a bit further. They warn you that the last stretch through the crowds seems long, but I think that’s just poor planning of the course – they really ought to have the race start a few hundred yards back so that mile 26 can be as you come into the chute.

Nathan and I continued picking up additional runners as we went through, mostly sending them on ahead and reminding them that they only had a minute or two left to push it. Again, we were highly successful with this strategy, and I was thrilled. As the finish line came within sight, my watch just clicked over to 4:30, and I knew we’d be making it with the 15 second window I had set for myself as a goal. In that very last stretch, we came upon a relay runner who seemed to be taking her time, so Nathan and I started yelling at her to push it and go for the finish – it was right there! In the end, she picked it up just enough to finish in front of Nathan and I, and we finished side by side – 10 seconds from our goal pace. Woo hoo!

After crossing the finish line, I saw a lot of the runners who had been with us along the way, and many of them came up to thank us. One guy was crying at the side of the corral to his wife, and then came up to us with tears still in his eyes, thanking us profusely and telling me that I was the reason he had managed to miraculously break 4:30! I was SO proud – not just because of that comment, but because I knew I had done an outstanding job. That was probably the best job of pacing I have ever done.

The only disappointment? They had run out of water and ice cream at the finish. I couldn’t believe it! The day hadn’t been that hot, so I didn’t understand how they hadn’t planned for enough water (in fact, it was cooler than anticipated, so they would have been really screwed if it were hot). However, you all know me, and I was way more upset about the lack of ice cream! Not only because I was craving ice cream like crazy, but also because of this stupid fact: Ben & Jerry’s was the sponsor, and they were supposed to be providing free ice cream as well as a booth on the far side of the park where you could buy ice cream. Somehow, they managed to run out of ice cream to give away… but still had plenty to sell. Go figure! Nathan later told me that he went up to the paid booth, demanding his free ice cream as a runner, and they said that once the free ice cream was gone, it was gone. Ridiculous! I really hope they remedy that problem next year, but I thought it really made Ben & Jerry’s look like a greedy company to handle it that way.

Overall, while I was totally thrilled with the job I did as a pacer, I was pretty disappointed with the race logistics this year. Overcrowded course, fewer spectators than usual, no water or ice cream at the finish, and a generally overcrowded and poorly organized finish festival that made me get out of there as quickly as possible instead of sticking around to cheer on the other runners. But will I still go back next year? You bet – I wouldn’t miss this tradition for the world.

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:30:11
Pace/mile: 10:18
Overall place: 1792/2697
Gender place: 662/1193
Age group place: 98/149


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