June 1, 2012

Race Report: Vermont City Marathon

Going into the weekend, I was really excited. While I had a few “obligations” (working the expo booth, doing an hour-long talk on my marathon journey, and of course running the marathon), it was all stuff I was excited to do. Plus, I had plenty of downtime to catch up on sleep, drink beer, eat my favorite pizza, and hang out with my mom, whom I hadn’t seen in a while. This was exactly what I needed to start blowing my self bubble back up! Maybe the key to balance is just taking more weekends like this, and/or actually using some of my vacation time – I found out last week that I’m about to start losing mine since I’ve only taken two days in the last year. Oops! I think I have found the reason for my burnout ๐Ÿ™‚

But two nights before the race was set up to be perfect. I got 11.5 hours of sleep on Friday night (though even after all that sleep, had to be woken by my alarm on Saturday morning – I have so much sleep debt right now!), grabbed a bagel at Panera, and then made the 3 hour drive to Burlington with my mom. On the way, I intended to write my Colfax Marathon report and also practice my presentation that I’d be doing at the expo that afternoon – but ended up skipping the race report in favor of catching up with my mom (it had been a month since we’d last seen each other in person!), and hurriedly went through my presentation. When I arrived at the expo, I was not nearly as rehearsed and prepared as I would have liked, but there was nothing I could do except wing it.

I arrived at the expo with just enough time to get my bib and have some Stonyfield Farms Greek yogurt before my assigned slot to work at the pacer booth. I headed down to the booth to meet two of my copacers who had already been working for an hour (because of my expo speech at 4pm, I had been assigned 2-4pm instead of the conventional 1-3pm or 3pm-5pm that most pacers had). We chatted about the course, the weather (not a trivial small talk topic at a late May marathon!), and of course, all things running. In between, we signed runners up for pace groups and told them everything we knew about the course. I got especially excited to meet a few blog readers who thought I would be there and stopped by to say hello (PS – kudos to you all for figuring out that I’d be there even though I never bothered to update my upcoming races page until last week.)

After my pacer shift, it was speech time! I headed into the seminar room and found quite a crowd was there to hear me talk, which was really cool. (I had been nervous beforehand that no one would want to come, particularly since I had just spoken last year.) In the end, though, it went even better than last year (or so my mom told me after), and I had a lot of fun. I really hope I get to come back and do it again in 2013!

And now, for the best part of the day – my mom and I headed to American Flatbread for our now-traditional pre-race meal of pizza and beer. American Flatbread is in my top two favorite pizza places in the country (second only to Cambridge1 in Boston, which I am lucky enough to get to go to next weekend!), and they usually have an awesome selection of draft beers as well. Saturday was no exception – they had a great lineup of beers, none of which I had ever had, but all of which were delicious. Furthermore, we decided to try this fabulous concoction:

And that’s where I discovered that I am a sucker for good herbed sausage. Near the end of my time in Charlottesville, I became obsessed with this hole in the wall creperie, The Flat, that had an incredible sausage-spinach-feta crepe that I would put as one of the top 10 foods I’ve ever eaten… and this pizza would probably also go into that top 10. It was covered in fresh herbs, which tasted amazing, and the crust was perfect. Hooray for carb loading!

My mom and I headed back to our hotel around 7:30pm, and I marveled at how early it was. What a fabulous night’s sleep I was going to get! Wrong – after watching a TV show for a little bit, I found myself wide awake. We turned the lights out, I put my sleep mask on, and I literally lay there for over an hour stressing about various things before finally giving up and grabbing a book (These Girls, by Sarah Pekkanen, which was totally awesome). I kept putting the book down and trying to sleep, but reluctantly picking it back up when I realized I wasn’t tired. What the heck?? I was glad I got a great night’s sleep on Friday, since I knew that was what mattered for the race, but I was bummed that I couldn’t get another good night’s sleep too. I need some catch up!

I finally hit the hay at 12:30am, which meant that my 6am alarm clock rang way too early. But when I’m pacing, I have no choice – time to get up and at ’em! I pulled on my designated pacer’s uniform (which was pretty darn cute – black and yellow like a bumblebee) and we headed down to the start. It was only when we were halfway there that I realized I had forgotten to grab a Powerbar for breakfast… empty stomach marathon it would be! (Though I had so much pizza/beer the night before that I was more than covered.)

All of the pacers were supposed to meet at our designated spot at 7am in order to meet up, get our signs, and take a team picture. However, a lot of pacers were very late, leaving me to wonder when I’d have a chance to hit the portapotty. At 7:30, I finally gave up and left to get in the portapotty line – if I missed the pic, I missed the pic, but it was more important that I be ready to pace. Fortunately, KBVCM is usually pretty awesome with logistics – and they had tons of portapotties so I was back pretty quickly and had time to make the group shot.

As soon as the pic was taken, we headed out – all taking various routes through theย crowd to reach the corrals at the start. It was neat to look over everyone’s heads and see the pace signs flying high and fanning out, like worker bees out to get the job done! (Okay, so maybe the yellow and black of the women’s uniforms was putting too many thoughts of bees in my mind). I made it to my usual spot (which happens to be next to a streetcorner – why yes, I do have a regular corner!) and quickly found a pack of runners clustering around me. Some were those that I had met the day before at the expo, some were brand new, and one was a very familiar face – Kristen, whom I had paced at the New Jersey Marathon in 2011, was planning to run 4:45 but then saw me and decided to bump it up and join my group. She told everyone around that when she saw me, she had to run with me because I make marathoning so fun! That gave me an amazing feeling to start the race, and I hoped I could live up to her claims.

The other pacer, Jen, and I didn’t end up standing very close to each other – while we had chatted briefly beforehand, we didn’t discuss pace plans or any other logistics. I usually start out pacing marathons with an announcement to the group to introduce myself (and my co-pacer, if I have one), explain the pacing strategy, and encourage questions. However, since Jen and I hadn’t touched base, and because the crowds were so loud for the first 1.5 miles, there wasn’t really a good time to do that – so I simply told the plan to anyone who asked. I always try to pace Vermont about the same way – 10:30 warmup pace for the first 2 miles, 10:10 pace for the next 11 miles, and 10:25 pace for miles 14-24, and 10:30 pace for the final 2.2 miles. This puts me at the halfway point in 2:13:10, which is pretty close to even splits but still frontloading just a tiny bit. With so many people doing the half marathon relay (and the resulting spectators at mile 12 yelling “only 1 mile to go!”), I like to give my full marathoners the comfort that at the halfway point, they get to slow it down a little bit – plus, the second half of the course is always much hotter.

Since Jen was behind me where I couldn’t see her, I focused on just setting what I thought was the right pace – but due to more crowding than usual in the first few miles, I found oursevles about 45 seconds behind when we hit the out and back highway connector at mile 4. This is another reason I like doing the first half a little faster – we didn’t need to dramatically speed up to fix it; we could just chip away a little at a time and maybe do another mile or two in the second half at a 10:10 pace to make up the difference. In the meantime, I told my group that we were “doing great” – which we were.

The 5 mile out and back on the connector is always tough, both mentally and physically. It’s long, it’s boring, it’s sunny, and the road is cambered pretty severely, which gave me some IT band issues the first time I ran it. I reminded my group to make sure to roll out their IT bands after their race (“with a foam roller… or a wine or beer bottle for extra therapy”), and we plugged along. I was proud that I figured out the timing just about right for the hill at the end, correctly estimating the distance from bottom to top so that I could count it down (“60 seconds to go… just 30 more seconds, don’t give up now!”), and we reached the top still as one big group. Onward!

We flew through the relay station and passed the start line again – this time with no announcers because they were scrambling down to the finish line. It always amazes me how fast the winners can finish a race! But we weren’t lacking for crowd support, and we soon headed back to Church Street to say hi to our favorite drag queens (yes, there are always drag queens out on Church Street cheering on the runners – this year they dressed as cheerleaders, which was extra fun) and then hit the beautiful downhill that would lead us to mile 10. Dou-ble di-gits! (Clap, clap, clap clap clap.)

Once at the bottom, I joked with my group about the musician that I knew was coming up – a guy who plays the guitar and sings only two words, over and over: “Run away… run away, run away!” Because he’s mic’ed, you can hear him for several minutes, and by the end of it, “run away” is exactly what I want to do! This time, I confused him with another musician, and joked to my group that apparently this year he had learned a new song… until we went a mile further and I found my old friend still singing “Run away!” So we did.

Next up: the Gu station at mile 11.1. I had been counting down the miles until this stop by popular request, but when we arrived, there was no Gu to be found! I was really disappointed, but at the same time, forgiving – out of all the years I’ve run VCM, this was the first year I’d seen them run out of Gu where it was promised. Instead, I chomped down on one of the gels I had in my fuel belt, and gave one more away to another runner. I was glad no one else asked for one, as I only had one left and I wanted to keep it in case of emergency later in the race! I hoped that the Gu station at mile 18 would be more fully stocked.

We headed down into a neighborhood and then got our first glimpse of Lake Champlain as we circled around to come back – and of course, I made the requisite joke about wanting to jump in and go for a swim to cool off. Sometimes I feel like it must be so lame to run with me multiple times because I reuse a lot of the same jokes year after year. But with any luck, people in the 4:30 group one year are getting faster and moving up to the 4:15 group the next year? At least I hope so!

Just one baby hill to take us up to the halfway point, so here I turned my attention to the few half marathon relay runners around. While the hill at 12.9 is steep, it’s also very short (~45 seconds bottom to top), so I tried to encourage people not to give up when they were just a few minutes from finishing their race. The narrow path is not ideal for passing, but I saw a few half marathoners pick it up to head left for the relay exchange point – yay! And with that, the full marathoners were on our own. Thumbs up!

We headed down the bike path, and now I started psyching everyone up. The best mile of the race was coming up – the Assault on Battery! What terrified me before my first Vermont City Marathon has now become my favorite part of the whole race. It’s a big long hill (452 steps), yes, but the Taiko drummers at the bottom provide an incredible pounding bass, and the crowds cheering all along the barriers give me so much energy – I end up feeling like I’m at the Olympics! My first year, I ended up charging up the Battery like it was a downhill, and while I haven’t been able to do that since (as a pacer, it wouldn’t be fair to my group), I always get a major boost of energy and excitement. I would put it as one of my favorite parts of any marathon, period.

This year, though, while I spent the two miles leading up to it getting everyone pumped… it was a crazy letdown. The crowds were not nearly as big as any other year I’ve done it, and a lot of them were just… standing there. I understand that it’s tiring to clap for runners (not being sarcastic – I have done it for races before and understand that it gets old), but it’s frustrating to have people who at least made the effort to be out there, and then just stand there staring at you. No fun! I felt bad that I had psyched up my runners for something that wasn’t all that great in the end, and I hope the real spirit of the Battery comes back next year. (On the plus side, the Taiko drummers were amazing as always – thank you, drummers!)

We reached the top, and I reminded all the runners around me not to walk yet – there was a water station less than a minute away, so better to wait until then. Luckily, this aid station did not disappoint – it was right where it was supposed to be, and the volunteers congratulated us on completing the hill as they gave us our water/Gatorade. Thank you, volunteers!

We turned out of the park and past the start one more time – now we’d head on a long out-and-back disguised with some small side loops through various neighborhoods before turning onto the bike path for a gloriously flat journey to the finish. From here on out, no more real hills (just a few tiny bumps in the road)… but a lot of sun, particularly on the main road straightaway. Fortunately, tons of residents had come out to set up their own makeshift water stations as well as sprinklers, making it at least a bit more bearable!

When we turned into the neighborhood at mile 18, I got kind of quiet. I never ended up writing a race report last year (partially because I was embarrassed and partially because time got away on me), but last year, I passed out in the heat here and had to be taken to the medical tent. I didn’t get to finish pacing the race and I felt absolutely horrible about letting down my group. I found out that another pacer had gone down around the same point – but they cut the course in order to rejoin their group at mile 23 in order to at least help pace them for the final miles (of course not accepting a medal or official finish time), and I wished I had thought of that. This year, I was worried – it was somewhat hot again. Would I pass out? I felt great, but something about that spot still scared me.

But when I got past the telephone pole where I had slumped down the year before, I started to breathe a little easier. I felt very strong and was still doing a great job of motivating my group – no passing out this year! I enjoyed another shot of Gu at the mile 18 aid station (yes, this one still had Gu!), and then we headed through one final neighborhood to cross the 20 mile mark. I spotted my brothers’ good friend Megan on the way and cheered her on as I ran by. I still had a sizable group around me; now I just had to navigate the final few miles to 21 before we’d turn onto the bike path and have a nice straight shot to the finish.

Getting on the bike path represented the absolute last hill we’d face in the race – and this one almost can’t be termed a hill, because it’s literally 5 seconds of uphill running that’s like the equivalent of running up half a flight of stairs. From here on, the trick would be not succumbing to the plethora of water stations – one per mile – that would slow us to a walk and make it hard to keep the pace. The heat was on!

The final miles on the bike path are flat, but also a little bit boring – so this is where I generally try to keep the energy up with motivational talk about how short a distance we still have to go. I reminded people that the beer stop was at mile 25 (yippee!), and also talked about how they’d come this far and they’d really regret it if they threw all their hard work away and didn’t push it in the last few miles. I felt bad that I wasn’t quite as peppy as usual, but it’s a fine line to walk between energizing people and annoying those around you, so I tried to keep it reasonable.

I ended up getting a few people in my group to go on ahead, but the group was really disintegrating every time we hit a water stop. By mile 23, it wasn’t so much a group as me running on pace and trying to pep up whoever was around me, whether they were part of “the 4:30 group” or not. Checking my watch, I found that I was running dead even splits for these final miles – but I knew that even keeping the same pace was tough given the heat and the mental challenge. I wished I had banked just a little more time in the first half, so that we could slow it down now, but it was too late now – just had to keep going.

We hit the mile 25 mark and I was very disappointed to find that for the first time in my years running VCM, there was no beer stop. (I later found out that the police had shut it down – seriously ridiculous!) Bummed out just a bit, I pressed on – there was only ten minutes of running left, and I wanted to encourage as many people as I could. I tried to focus other runners’ attention on how many minutes were left in the race, since it’s very easy to remind yourself that you just need to keep going for 7 more minutes (or whatever), and I found a few runners responding positively to that.

Finally, I passed by the big rock that marked the entrance to the park – and the fences of cheering crowds awaited me. My mom was front and center by the Albany Running Exchange tent, holding a sign she had made especially for this race: “Vermont – First Marathon, 71st Marathon – Go Laura!” I loved it ๐Ÿ™‚ Seeing her and my friends with Albany Running Exchange made me so excited, and I wished I could sprint to the finish – but I had a job to do. Checking my watch, I realized I was basically exactly on pace for 4:30, so I kept turning around and running backwards, reminding those around me that if they could hear my voice, they could break 4:30… they just had to finish in front of me. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t slow down to help them do that!)

I headed past the beer tent to the second to last turn, and was surprised not to see a 26th mile marker – that is usually my favorite part of a course. But I quickly had bigger fish to fry – my pacing sign, which had been wobbling like crazy the whole race, was blown apart by the wind and fell onto the course. Yikes! I knew I was close enough that it didn’t matter, but I wanted to finish holding my sign – so I took a few seconds to stop, go back, and retrieve it. I tried in vain to reassemble it while I was running, but ultimately gave up – I would just have to finish holding the stick in one hand and the sign in the other. Still proud!

As I came down the finish chute, my broken sign didn’t stop the announcer from recognizing me, and I was thrilled when he called out my name. He pointed out that Vermont had been my first marathon several years ago, and said that I “now run more marathons than anyone in the world!” Hmm, not quite ๐Ÿ™‚ I was a little embarrassed by that gaffe (the same way I am when people say I’m the youngest person to run a marathon in all 50 states when I was actually only the youngest woman), but there wasn’t much I could do except smile and keep heading across the finish line. And when I reached down to check my watch, I found that I really had something to smile about – I had finished in 4:30:06! That’s pretty perfect pacing, if I do say so myself ๐Ÿ™‚

Post-race, I met up with my mom, and also finally had the chance to meet Emily at the beer tent, despite missing her at the race the past several years. And after that? A shower followed by another trip to American Flatbread with my mom – I just couldn’t resist ๐Ÿ™‚

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:30:07
Pace: 10:18
Overall place: 1546/2421
Gender place: 577/1085
Age group place: 156/233

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6 thoughts on “Race Report: Vermont City Marathon”

  1. Man! Really upset I didn’t get to meet you. What a great recap. One day I hope to be able to be in that 4:30 pacer group. I ran my first marathon last year and came in at 5:41. This year was 5:15 while being woefully undertrained and only a long run of 14 miles. I’m getting there. You are an inspiration.

  2. Between you and Emily’s race reports, I am not convinced to sign up for this race next year!

    I’ve always heard such great things about it and I’ve been trying to decide on a Spring marathon for next year.

    Are you running NYC?

  3. Nai – will definitely be running 4:30 again next year! Hope to run with you one of these years ๐Ÿ™‚

    Steph – HIGHLY recommend it. We’ll discuss tomorrow ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks, Melissa and J!

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