November 20, 2012

Race Report: Fort Worth Marathon

This is a delayed race report; I ran the Fort Worth Marathon on November 11.

I spent the day before the marathon taking a killer Flywheel class, doing some calisthenics in my hotel room, drinking beer and watching a football game. Not exactly the traditional race preparation, but then, I wasn’t going for traditional. However, I did make it to bed nice and early (9pm), so when I woke up at 5:30am the next morning, I actually felt pretty good!

The race was supposed to start at 7:30am and packet pickup was going on until 7am, so I figured leaving at 6am would give me plenty of time. Well, not quite. I had planned to stop by the hotel lounge on my way out the door for coffee and a bagel, but they were running late and hadn’t brought out the coffee or food by the time I left at 6:05. Instead, I hoped that I’d find someplace along the way – a Starbucks coffee and everything bagel with cream cheese would sure taste good!

The drive took a bit longer than I had expected, though, and I didn’t see any convenient food places open along the way – not even in downtown Fort Worth. I now planned to skip breakfast (and just chow down on an emergency granola bar from my purse), but when I pulled up to the parking lot, I realized that I had neglected to heed the race organizers’ pre-race email instructing us to bring cash for parking, as the stadium facility staff had warned them that they were charging $5 per car. When I realized this, I turned around and headed back to the downtown area. If I hurried, I could find a coffee shop and an ATM in one fell swoop.

I found an open Corner Bakery Cafe that had both coffee and an ATM, but not liking the bagel selection, I decided to forego that. (Picky, picky!) Granola bar it would be! To compensate, I gave myself permission to dump as much sugar as I wanted into my coffee. You know, for fuel! (I usually don’t add any sugar.)

When I got back to the race start, the line to get into the official lots was crazy long and seemed to barely be moving. Despite now having cash to pay for parking, I chose to follow the other rogue cars that were parking on a side street. There didn’t seem to be any signs indicating that this was illegal parking, so I just went with it and hoped I wouldn’t get a ticket – that would definitely negate any savings on the parking cost! My primary motivation wasn’t saving the $5, though; I just wanted to get to the race and not miss the start.

Arriving at the stadium, I found the bib pickup to be very quick and easy – while there was a 20 or so person line for the half marathon, there were only 2 people in front of me for the full. However, when I got my bag, I realized something I hadn’t considered: since they were giving out the t-shirts beforehand, I’d need to either head back to my car, or else check a bag. I normally hate checking a bag for a race, since it just adds a lot of unnecessary time at the end to find the bag check, wait in line, etc. However, this race seemed small enough that it shouldn’t be a big deal – so after pulling my bib out of the bag, it went right back over the counter (the same people were handling bag check and packet pickup). I was ready to run!

At the start, the announcer was encouraging runners to pick up plastic bags the race organizers had procured from a local dry cleaners. You could stuff the bag in a pocket and then pull it out and put it over you when it rained! I have done this in races before with large garbage bags, but I thought getting bags from a dry cleaner was a good idea and definitely one to keep in mind. For no particular reason, though, I decided not to get a bag. While the sky looked dark and ominous, I didn’t feel like dealing with it, and just hoped I wouldn’t get too wet.

Pretty quickly, the marathoners were called to the start – the half marathon would be starting 30 minutes later. I spent some time messing around with my Garmin, since some buttons seemed to have gotten pressed in my suitcase and it was set to show some weird metrics instead of the default of total time, distance, current pace that I have never before learned how to change. (I know, I might as well not even have a Garmin, but I got it back in 2008 before there were smartphone GPS apps.) Thanks to a friendly fellow marathoner, I got it figured out – and then we were off.

We headed up and over a random hill placed in the middle of the otherwise flat landscape, and experienced runners told me this hill sucked a lot when we came back to it at the finish. I took a mental note to push myself, since hearing tales of friends running the Marine Corps Marathon a few weeks earlier reminded me of how mad I was at myself after walking the end-of-race hill there. When a hill is that close to the finish, you just need to suck it up and go for it!

But for now, it was the start – and we headed down the hill and along a pretty park path. It reminded me a lot of the Hills and Heels and Him Half Marathon course, which made me wonder: are all Dallas-area races out-and-backs on paved pathways next to rivers? So far, I’m two for two on that. No complaints here, though, at least not this early in the race. While the sky was gray, it was still some pretty scenery as we leapfrogged one way over the river and then back to the other side. With a good country playlist on, I was in the zone and having a blast!

I chatted with a few other runners in the early miles, including a guy who was a 50 State clubber and had run the race before. I always prefer hearing about what to expect from people who have done a lot of marathons rather than just a few – otherwise, you don’t know what their baseline is and whether to trust their advice. In this case, the guy warned me that the course was really boring until mile 10, but then we’d do one quick hill and find ourselves in a neighborhood for the final three miles (before turning back and heading to the start). It was starting to get pretty windy along the river where we were currently running, so I looked forward to getting into a neighborhood where there would hopefully be a bit less wind.

The first few miles passed quickly, and I decided I rather liked the straight out-and-back format. It made it very doable to break the race up into four quarters, since halfway to the turnaround was only 6.5 miles. I reached this point rather quickly and found myself highly amused by an inappropriately awesome spectator sign: “It’s hard and long, now do it fast! (TWSS)” It made me actually laugh out loud, but by the time it had registered, I was too far past it to snap a picture. I planned to instead get a pic on the way back, but that particular group was gone by then. Bummer!

Around mile 9 we came to the end of the river trail, and I was glad. While I love running along a river and was in a really positive and upbeat mood (thanks in part to some great comments from awesome Twitter followers!), the scenery was honestly exactly the same from mile 2-8, with almost no variation at all. Also, while the flat course was nice, I knew it would be wreaking havoc on my muscles if I didn’t get to change it up and do some hills. Come on, mile 10!

To get across the river, we took a ramp all the way down to the riverbank and then took a low footpath across a dam. On the descent to the river, I found this pavement warning hilarious:

“Don’t drown”? Glad they warned me away because I obviously otherwise would have tried!

The ascent up to the other river bank was steep but short, and we were rewarded with an aid station at the top. Just four more miles to the turnaround! (And I hoped that the turnaround might have Gu or some sort of food, since no aid station had provided anything but Gatorade and water so far. Feeeeeeeeed me!)

Unfortunately, I was dismayed to discover that while we were in the neighborhoods now, the winds really hadn’t calmed down much at all. The whole run so far, I had been going directly into a headwind, which felt like it was slowing me down significantly. I didn’t care about my finish time, but it was frustrating to not have the running be quite as easy as I would have liked. Since the neighborhoods weren’t providing much respite, I just hoped that the wind would stay going the same direction so it would be a tailwind on the return trip. Negative split? Maybe!

The last three miles of the course, though, were quite pretty – we turned from the main neighborhood roads onto another park trail that ran through the woods. It was only about 8 feet across, so there was enough room to pass (even with runners coming the other direction), but you still got to feel like you were in the middle of the woods, which is always peaceful. This section also had a few ups and downs – nothing I would classify as remotely hilly, but at least my muscles got a break from the pancake-flat course that had been giving them a pounding.

Just before I reached the turnaround, my best friend called with a question about a recipe for homemade vodka sauce (for pasta). We chatted for a while, and then he finally got around to asking, “so, what are you up to today?” “Running a marathon,” I replied. “Oh, when is it?” he asked. “Right now – I’m at mile 16.” Ha! We both had a good laugh over that one, though I pointed out that he should know me well enough to hav eguessed that might be what I was up to 🙂 We talked for a few minutes more, and then I told him I’d rather focus on running for a bit and then catch up later. I have to say, though, it’s so nice to be able to chat with a friend when you’re doing a small race far from home! Kind of like having a training buddy right there with you.

It’s worth noting that for this race, the organizers actually do not plan or staff any of the water stations; each one is organized by whatever local volunteers decide to take it upon themselves to set one up. As a result, some stations were definitely better prepared than others. I came out of the neighborhood and passed the mile 17 water station that I had passed at mile 9 on the outbound. This time, though, they were out of cups. Not good! Volunteers improvised and I held out my cupped hands while they poured jugs of water into them. Better than nothing, and I suppose I’d rather have them run out of cups than of water!

I crossed back over the dam and now found myself back on the river path. Nine miles left! I was starting to get tired, probably due to my lack of fuel along the way. Since I hadn’t originally planned on staying in Dallas for the weekend, I had to ask BF to go to my apartment and pack for me. I gave him instructions on exactly what to bring (“the pink Athleta tank top that is on the right side of the third drawer from the top of my tall dresser”), but when I had asked him to bring my fuel belt, I hadn’t thought to ask him to check for gels in it. Turns out, there was only one! I thought I would be safe if I ate that and then picked up whatever food they offered along the course, but in this case, there just wasn’t anything except water and Gatorade. This lack of fuel meant that whether the wind turned around or not, I was still probably going to positive split the race.

Unfortunately, with the ever-darkening sky, a positive split was the last thing I wanted. It was clearly going to start pouring any minute, and I hoped that I could get as close to the finish as possible before that happened. Running in one mile of rain? Not too bad. Running in 10 miles of rain? A lot less fun!

I tried to push the pace as much as possible to get to the end faster, but almost exactly at mile 20 my time ran out and the rain started to fall. Nuts! At this point, though, I comforted myself with the fact that I only had an hour of running in the rain and then I’d be done – and could hop into my warm car and head back to my hotel for a hot shower and brunch with BF. With my phone tucked into my shirt in an attempt to keep it dry, I had little else to focus on except heading for that finish line. The rain quickly soaked my feet and brought on some very nasty blisters (some of which, two weeks later, I still have!), but otherwise it wasn’t too bad. Finisher rewards, here I come!

In the final miles, I passed a lot of runners who were doing the 20 mile training run option. (They had turned around at mile 10 instead of 13.1, so those at my pace were way ahead.) I have to say, it makes no sense to me that someone would sign up and pay for a course on which to do 20 miles. Why not just run the extra 6.2 and knock out a marathon? Even if you are training for a marathon, it’s not a bad idea to let your legs get the practice in, and you can always go at a slower pace than your race day effort. So confusing to me, but I cheered them on anyway as I ran by!

For the final few miles, the rain actually stopped, and the cool weather was quite pleasant for running. I crossed over the two bridges and soon had just one mile to go. Yippee! I focused on trying to improve my turnover so that I’d make it to the finish as quickly as possible. And when that pesky little hill came at the end, I put my head down and charged up it. Take that, Marine Corps Marathon! (Since I thought MCM was a lousy race and don’t plan to do it again, that’s about the best I can do at fixing my mistake in walking the final hill there.)

Flying down the hill, it was just a quick quarter mile back through the parking lot and to the stadium, where the “Start” banner had magically been changed to a “Finish” line. I checked my watch and saw that I could just barely squeak in with a 4:16 finish if I stayed strong, so with a big smile on my face, I sprinted into the finish. Marathon complete!

The announcer had been silent when I crossed the line (though I appreciated the crowds cheering me on!), but a minute or so later, he announced all the racers who had come in while he was taking a bathroom break (or whatever he was doing). When he called my name, he also gave an extra special shout out to me for coming all the way from New York! I guess they don’t get many non-locals for this one, which made sense with the no-frills approach.

But whether the aid stations were organized or not, the biggest thing I appreciate in a race is the post-race food and drink. Let me tell you, I think Fort Worth Marathon is up there in my top five food-and-drink races! After collecting my medal, I headed into the stadium to find some good Rahr craft beer AND a make-your-own fajitas station. Score! I loaded my soft tortilla up with grilled chicken, salsa, lettuce, tomato, and lots of cilantro, and then grabbed my Rahr Black Lager and chowed down. Despite it not being my favorite race while I was running, it was a great finish!

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:16:55
Pace: 9:47/mile
Overall place: 99/320
Gender place: 26/135
Age group place: 4/12


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