October 11, 2010

Race Report: Hartford Marathon

I woke up fairly easily when my alarm went off, but as I got ready, I couldn’t shake the fog from my brain. Darn it – had I become a coffee addict? I normally don’t drink coffee before a race, and anyway, I was far too lazy to fire up the in-room coffee pot, so I went without… but vowed that I would stop at a Starbucks if I saw one between the hotel and the start.

While we had problems the day before with finding parking downtown, the race organizers had specified a garage near the start that was free IF you carpooled. Worked out well for us – there were two of us in the car! When we pulled up to the lot, though, the attendant tried to charge us $5. We showed her the flyer that said it was free, so she gave us a pass and let us go in. However, what my mom discovered later when she left after the 5K was that the pass meant nothing – you pay on the way out of a race, and because the ignorant woman hadn’t stamped our pass, we couldn’t get the free parking! That sucked – if the garage was going to offer it, they really ought to train their employees to give it out. At least it was only $5 – I’ve seen races charge as much as $20 for parking.

We headed into the park that housed the start and finish of the race, and almost immediately ran into a group of Maniacs, which included my good friend Jackie. After a few quick pics, we all dispersed for the races.

On our way to the start, my mom and I spied a Dunkin Donuts truck that seemed to have a window open for samples. There was no line at all because they had temporarily run out of samples, but we could see a guy inside pouring cups and putting them on a tray – it seemed that samples were imminent! We lined up right next to the truck, taking advantage of the fact that no one else had our foresight, and were rewarded with mini cups of pumpkin spice latte. Score! I worried for a split second about what the milk in the coffee would do to my stomach during the race, but the tantalizing smell was too much to resist – down the hatch it went!

We followed the crowds, but once we reached the marathon start, we had to separate – although the marathon and half marathon started together, the 5K started a block away. I was disappointed not to be there for my mom’s start, but we snapped a pic with my cameraphone to commemmorate the occasion – mom’s first 5K!

Because I was only getting to the start about 5 minutes before the race, the crowds were already dense. I could see pace signs, but there were no corrals at all so it was just a matter of fighting my way through to where I wanted to be. After a few minutes of “excuse me,” I gave up and headed for the side of the road, which had plenty of spectators but was much more clear. Of course, this meant that I had to do exactly what I did two years ago: look for a gap in the metal barriers and then slip through. But when I did so, I came upon my friends Larry, Diane, and a whole bunch of other Maniacs! Fun :)We chatted for a bit, with everyone mentioning how they hadn’t seen me in a while. I explained that now I was just taking it easy, and only running the races I really wanted to run. Diane said she was doing the same thing now that she had finished her 50 states, and said that she was actually taking it easy today and “only” doing the half marathon. Of course, she was following it up with the full marathon the next day. Once a Maniac, always a Maniac!

As I waited for the race to start, I noticed a reporter and cameraman just to my right – they were taking footage of the marathon start for the local news. Later in the day, I received a message from my friend Rick, who lives in Hartford and whom I had run with for several miles two years ago. While he wasn’t running the marathon this year, he was watching it on TV, and he excitedly posted on my wall that he had seen me on TV checking my Garmin at the start! Too funny.

When the gun went off, I had about a minute before I crossed the line, and then it was time to play the ever-popular game of “bob and weave” through the crowd. One of my biggest complaints about the Hartford Marathon is that for a race of this size, they need to have some kind of corral system – the start is always just way too disorganized and you get walkers and slower joggers all mixed in, making it difficult to run fast. For a while, I stuck to the roads, but when I saw we had a long straightaway with no turns (and therefore I wasn’t cutting the course short), I jumped onto the sidewalk in order to run at my own pace instead of having to avoid the people in front of me. When I finally did get onto the sidewalk, though, it was for a short uphill climb – a point where I probably would have run at a slower speed anyway. But since I now had the advantage of being able to run fast, I sucked it up and kept a nice clip going, pulling an 8 minute mile and getting my heart rate to rise a good bit. Fine with me – I need to burn some extra calories.

As we approached the bridge out of Hartford, the course split – half marathoners going right and full marathoners going left. Ah – peace and room to run! We headed over a short overpass that had been at the end of the course last year, and I fondly remembered the DJ blasting club music at the top. This year there was another DJ up there, but his music wasn’t quite as memorable, probably because it was so early still in the race. To explain the course changes, the original course was a long out-and-back (let’s call that the A section) followed by a short loop as you returnd to the city (B section). This year, they had swapped the course, so while you covered exactly the same ground, you were now doing B and then A. I had worried that it would be disconcerting for me, having done the race before, because I’d see the landmarks I remembered from the end of the race and feel like I should be almost done. However, it worked out well – the B loop was short enough that my body knew it still had a long way to go, and in the latter half of the course, it was a pleasant surprise to finish the A section and get to go straight for the finish instead of having to do another loop.

The B loop was fairly uneventful, but I made a few friends along the way (especially in the 3:50 pace group, whom I ran with for a few minutes and chatted about my 50 states experience). Around mile 4, while going along the river, my phone started beeping at me with a text message – my mom had finished her 5K in 32:19! A minute or so later, my mom called me to tell me how she did, and I made sure to say as loudly as possible how proud I was of her, hoping that someone else would hear and say congratulations, but most people were pretty busy trying to get the short but steep hill at that point. Speaking of self-involved: at the mile 3 water stop, some idiot who didn’t want to finish their cup of Gatorade threw the whole thing at me, with the cup hitting me in the chest and then dumping the sticky liquid all over me. Yuck! Have some caution and consideration, people!

At mile 7, we were given gels at an aid station, and while it was a bit earlier than I normally took them (I typically aim for ~10 and ~19), I decided just to have one early. Tasty! And just what I needed to psych myself up to cross the bridge and prepare for the long out-and-back section.

Before we hit the out-and-back, we did a little loop around the base of the bridge, right across from my hotel. This was where my mom was going to try to see me, but we had our doubts about whether that would work, since a lot of the bridges would be closed and it might be tough for her to get back over to that side in such a short time between the end of her race and when I’d get there. When I was around mile 8.5, my mom started calling, and I picked it up to tell her that she was probably going to miss me… when I saw her standing about 100 feet down the road! I hung up and instead yelled out for her, congratulating her on finishing her first 5K, and she gave me a big hug before sending me on my way. I had a feeling of deja vu, as she was standing right by an underpass where she had surprised me two years ago. That’s our special spot!

The sun started to really shine as we headed through an industrial area and then to the long out-and-back – I hoped it wasn’t going to be too hot. Around mile 10, I started chatting with the guy next to me about where we might start to see the leaders on their way back to the finish – my guess was somewhere between miles 13 and 14. He asked why I wasn’t up there, and this started a running joke (as in, continuous joke, though I suppose the literal sense makes sense too) about how I was fast enough to be a leader but was employing my master strategy: hang back in the middle of the pack, then pull 2 minute miles for the second half of the race and come out of nowhere to beat them all. “It puts the sport into the game by coming from behind.” If only!

We passed some great cheering groups as we got onto the out-and-back, and I gratefully accepted plenty of Gatorade from the aid stations, realizing it was going to be pretty sunny and warm. Fortunately, for most of the out-and-back, there was plenty of shade, so we didn’t get hot.

Around mile 13, sure enough, we saw the leaders coming back. I led the cheering in my area for probably the first 20 or so runners, which included the first woman – yay. One thing I found surprising though was that there didn’t seem to be any kind of lead pack – all of the first 10 or so runners were at least a minute apart. That struck me as a bit unusual. I didn’t have time to dwell, though, as I saw my friend Peter in the distance! I later found he finished in a super speedy 3:04 – pretty amazing, since he had done the Maine Marathon in 3:06 the week before.

I reached the halfway point around 1:55, which meant I was on track to do a sub-4 hour marathon if I kept it up. Sounds like a challenge! I liked the course structure of the out-and-back being in these later miles, as it gave me lots more milestones to look forward to: mile 13, halfway point; mile 17, out-and-back turnaround; mile 22, halfway back; etc.

Of course, the highlight came when I saw a big Dos Equiis tent on someone’s lawn, and a whole crowd of people tailgating underneath. I yelled over, “save a beer for me on the way back!” and they all laughed and agreed. I reached the turnaround and headed back, but couldn’t seem to find the tent again. Had I missed it already? Just as I was about to give up, there it was on the right! I sped up to get to it, knowing I’d get a rest once I stopped, and called out, “Hi! Where’s my beer?” Most of the revelers looked surprised or confused, but one astute guy was like “that’s right, she wants a beer!” He turned to the guy sitting on the cooler and told him to get up so he could get me a drink.

With the rest of the party looking amazed, and one guy wanting to take a pic for me, I chugged the Bud Light (not my favorite, but it would do) as I fielded questions about whether I ran these often (um, yes), whether I drink beer during all of them (some of them), and how the heck I do it (too long to answer). Conscious of the clock, I dashed off shortly after finishing, calling out the URL of my blog over my shoulder in hopes that we might stay in touch (hey, are you guys reading?). When I reached the next mile marker and my Garmin went off, showing my pace for that mile: 8:41. So despite stopping for and chugging a beer, I had actually managed to run that mile at a pretty fast pace! Just another little anecdote to prove that beer = awesome.

And now I was into my favorite miles of the race: where I’m still feeling strong, but the people around me are dying. It’s not a case of schadenfreude (in fact, I encourage everyone I pass); what I love about miles 20-26 are that I get to pass a lot of people and just feel like I’m on top of the world, all while enjoying the cries of spectators playing “one of these things is not like the other” and commenting on how strong I still look, particularly compared to the bedraggled runners they’re used to seeing at this point in the race. I ran back into my friend from earlier, with whom I had discussed my strategy to run 2 minute miles and come from behind to win the race. I let him know that “I’ve decided to let someone else win, for a change,” but passed along the good news that if we could keep just a 10 minute pace (totally doable since we had been doing just under 9:00 the whole way so far), we’d totally break 4. That was a stat I had been calculating since the 20 mile mark, and I found it very reassuring. A sub-4 marathon is still one of my faster times, so it was great to know that I was in easy reach of that as long as nothing drastic happened.

At mile 24, I started feeling like I was so close. I called my mom to give her a 5 minute estimated finish window (pretty generous, since with only a few miles to go, I probably could have predicted within a one or two minute window), and then focused on enjoying the run and not having any regrets when I was done. I was smiling at all the spectators, basking in the sun, and generally just having a great day. However, I knew we were still on the wrong side of the river – another more hill still to climb before I would hit the finish.I really hate having a bridge in the last mile or two, because the long and steady incline can be really draining. However, I reminded myself that the last mile of the Kentucky Derby Marathon had a bridge, and that’s where I set my PR – it was doable, if I gritted my teeth and just dug into it. Of course, gritting my teeth for me only happens in the metaphorical sense – from the photographer’s standpoint, I still looked like I was out for an easy run without a care in the world! (Okay, I kind of also look like I might be on drugs, but that’s just my silly/happy mood from the power songs playlist I had put on for the finish).

But once we reached the end of the bridge, it wasn’t quite over. The one downside of switching the A and B parts of the course around were that we now had a big hill to climb from the base of the bridge to Main Street, where we’d then have a gentle downhill to the finish (last year, that big hill occurred around mile 15 – much more doable). But with my eye on my watch, I knew I was about to get a fantastic time, and again, I wanted no regrets when I finished. It also helped to know that there was a gentle downhill coming up – that would be great for catching my breath in the last 1/2 mile.As I came down that final slope, the crowds were out in force, cheering us on from either side of the road. Just after crossing the 26 mile mark, I saw my friend Jackie’s husband Pons, who yelled my name and tried to snap a picture of me coming in for a finish (but no such luck). However, the finish of the Hartford Marathon is not to be underestimated – you get that gradual slope down, tons of crowds, and then you go through a beautiful stone arch and see the finish line ahead, with potted mums lining the lanes and spectators pressed up against the barriers, screaming for you. I saw my mom waving her “youngest female 50 state marathoner” sign, and was also rewarded by the announcer calling out my name and hometown as I crossed the line. 3:55 – over 28 minutes off the last time I ran the course!

After catching up with my mom and my friend Peter (who rocked out the marathon with an incredible 3:04 – even more impressive since he had run 3:06 in Maine just a week before), it was now time for my whole reason for doing this race: the food. We headed for the food tent, my mom having avoided it after her 5K so she could enjoy it with me when I finished. Unfortunately, while it was a decent spread, it was nothing like the 2008 food tent 🙁 I was sad not to see the truffled macaroni and cheese, but contented myself with a dish of apple crisp (yum!), some blueberry pomegranate yogurt (super sugary, but delicious nonetheless), a cup of soup, and some fruit. More than enough to sate me after the race!But the beer tent was unimpressive – while they were serving Harpoon beer (which I enjoy), the line was way too long, and I really didn’t feel like waiting around. Instead, my mom and I headed to the hotel for a quick shower, and then hit up a local bar. We first aimed for one downtown that had been recommended by friends, but after finally finding a place to park among the dismal parking prospects, we were rewarded for our efforts with a sign on the door indicating that the pub was closed due to an electrical fire. Bummer!

Instead, we headed for the aptly-named “Plan B Burger Bar,” in West Hartford. We had to drive through a rather suspect part of town in order to get there, but it was so so worth it to find a fabulous beer list and some of the best burgers I’ve ever had.

But lest I turn this into a glowing recommendation, caveat emptor: the service there was absolutely terrible. Our waitress knew absolutely nothing about beer, first reading out the beer list by telling me the name of the brewery but not which particular beer they were serving (um, useless). After a bottle of the Hooker Blonde (meh, boring), I decided to try out Flight 2… which arrived on my table with no explanation as to which beer was which.

I had to wait about 10 minutes before I could flag her down to ask, and only then did I realize they had brought me Flight 1, the wrong flight. The waitress seemed confused as to why this wasn’t okay with me – clearly to her, beer is beer, and the type shouldn’t matter. But I didn’t want flight 1; I wanted to sample the beers in flight 2, many of which I had never tried. Finally, I got my new flight, which had an IPA on each end, and it was another five minutes before the waitress came back and told me that the bartender had poured it backwards, and that I should reverse the order of the names of the beers she had told me. Wow, what a mess! You would think that in a specialty craft beer bar, they would train their waitstaff to know something about beer.Despite the incompetence of our waitress, nothing could put a damper on my high spirits – with good beer in my tummy, a great run to burn off that tummy, and my mom’s wonderful 5K accomplishment to celebrate, it had been a great day.

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 3:55:06
Pace/mile: 8:58
Overall place: 722/2236
Gender place: 177/831
Age group place: 34/154


13 thoughts on “Race Report: Hartford Marathon”

  1. Very interesting summation of another great race! You keep getting stronger and stronger, the times keep coming down, and the pictures add a whole bunch to the telling of the tale. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  2. I ran Hartford too (my first marathon). I gave you a shout out when I was on the ‘back’ and you were coming up to the turn, but you appeared to be in music mode so I don’t think you heard me. I think I said something really clever like ‘All right Laura’. The guys I was running with asked who you were and I shared your story. They were impressed!

  3. Great job, Laura! You look so happy when you run … it’s so fun to see. 🙂 Also, you are getting closer and closer to a BQ time… do I sense you doing that race again in your near future?!

    Congrats to your mom on her first 5k!

  4. Ah… I guess I have this to look forward to next year? I’m only doing the 1/2 though. I enjoyed reading your story about it and will keep it in mind for sure.

  5. Hello, Laura congratulaions on a great run. Just one question, from the site of the marathon, the course should have change with all the hills in the first 5 miles from your report it did not seem that way and the same climb was there in the end, can you tell me a little more about the course.

  6. Hi Dawn – not sure why the elevation chart wouldn’t show a hill, as there is definitely one going back onto the bridge. When you come down off the bridge, there is also one final hill as you go from the base of the bridge back up to the main area of town. Perhaps other readers who have run this can comment?

  7. Thanks Laura thats exactly how it was when I ran it in 2009. I thought this was the big change they were talking about. Thank you I hope in the near future we run a marathon together. I’ll be back in 2011 it was pretty hard not running a marathon this year but I had to take a break. You are amazing!! and an inspiration and I so admire you.

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