November 30, 2012

Race Report: Northern Central Rail Trail Marathon

Just one more race report to write and then I can get back to posting about whatever. As least until this weekend’s race, that is…

On Friday, after stuffing myself at my second Thanksgiving dinner in a week, I flew from Pittsburgh to Baltimore. Things were already off to a decidedly bad start when I pulled up the airline’s mobile app on my layover in Cleveland and discovered that I had two boarding passes… because I had booked (and paid for) two tickets on the same flights. Oops! As best as I can tell, I booked the first flight, didn’t remove that task from my to-do list, and then booked it again the next day without remembering that I had already booked. The ticket wasn’t too expensive ($95), but it still sucked to lose that through a dumb mistake like double booking. Bummer!

I arrived in Baltimore around 8pm on Friday night, not at all hungry but completely exhausted. However, with a marathon coming up the next day, I knew that skipping dinner would be a bad idea. Luckily, I found an Indian restaurant pretty close to my hotel for takeout. Unluckily, the food turned out to be kind of oily and not all that good. In further bad luck, after going to the hotel I thought I booked, they didn’t have my reservation. Turns out I had screwed that up, too, and actually booked a different hotel a few miles away. Easily remedied, but not a particularly auspicious night before the race!

I got to bed as early as I could, but still woke up pretty tired at 6am for the race. Since I had eaten a big dinner the night before when I wasn’t hungry, I really wasn’t hungry for breakfast – so I opted for a piece of toast (white bread), some cream cheese, and coffee with milk and sugar. By the time I got to the race start, though, I was wishing I had eaten a little more. Two years ago, I used to eat very light breakfasts before running marathons (a piece of toast or a packet of oatmeal); lately I’m used to something much more substantial (a full bagel and cream cheese, or a Belgian waffle, or a massive bowl of tricked-out oatmeal). I was hungry! Luckily, this small race came fully stocked, so I munched on half a banana while I waited in the gym. Note to friends who always run big races: this is what you’re missing out on!

As per the race director’s instructions, I had parked at a strip mall a few miles away from the start and then taken a shuttle bus to the start. We had been warned numerous times that there was no parking at the elementary school that served as the race start/finish, and that we needed to be there by 7:30am for the last shuttle at 7:45am (race started at 8:30am). After getting up early to follow those instructions, I was really annoyed to ride the shuttle to the start and see a few dozen cars parked on the side of the road by the school, despite the “we will ticket and tow” signs prominently displayed. It always drives me nuts when I follow the rules and other people get away with breaking them! (And I checked after the race – no ticketing or towing that I could see.)

Fortunately, waiting in the school, other runners put me in a better mood. People were very friendly as we sat around waiting for the race start, and I also took advantage of some of the extra time to get inspired by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s Running With the Mind of Meditation. I thought reminding myself to run in a meditative state might take me away from my exhaustion (to focus on other things) and get me done faster 🙂

Another thing I love about small marathons? The fact that I could hang out in the nice warm school until two minutes to race time and not have to spend a single second waiting in the cold. As I was walking out the door of the school, I heard the race start; by the time I actually walked over there, I was all set to just head across the line. I was definitely near the back of the pack, but hey – that just meant more people to pass, right? (Famous last words.)

The first mile or so of the course was rolling hills, but with an emphasis on the downhill. (Since this was an out-and-back, though, that meant we’d be going mostly uphill for the last mile of the race.) I weaved my way through the runners to finish the first mile in 8:50. Not a bad pace, and it felt pretty comfortable, but I knew I would definitely not be sustaining it – I didn’t have the energy to push it at all. Whatever my “run easy” pace was would be what I ran, and I wouldn’t have downhills from here on out to speed that up.

I usually listen to music while I run, and have several playlists that are only for marathons/running. Today, though, I decided to do something completely different. Since I knew I wasn’t running for time (and in fact, if I had been able to make a game time decision instead of planning in advance, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to run at all), I decided to use the 4.5 hours I’d be out there to do something productive – like listening to the Greatist podcasts that were backlogged in my Google Reader. As other runners chatted to their friends around me, I realized that listening to a podcast also had the advantage of stimulating my brain and making me feel like I was engaged in a conversation… except I didn’t have to expend any energy saying a word. Score one for this lazy and tired runner!

Yes, my eyes were pretty much half-closed in every picture. At least I didn’t fall asleep running.

I spent the first 8 or so miles just listening to those podcasts and zoning out. As I remembered from my last attempt at this race in 2009, the course was a very flat rail trail. It had just the slightest of uphills on the outbound, and the opposite slightest of downhills on the return (until that final mile of rollers). It was pretty much straight, too – while the trail curved a little bit (especially when it crossed a paved road and continued on the other side), there were absolutely no turns at all to worry about from miles 2-24. Easy breezy! Or at least, it would have been if I were well-rested.

While the setting was incredibly different from the Fort Worth Marathon that I had run two weeks earlier, it was another flat out-and-back, so mentally, the course was very similar. I’ve realized that I actually like out-and-back courses: you get to see all the other runners and say hi to any friends, and it’s really easy to break up the course into manageable chunks. 6.5 miles of running doesn’t take that long, but when you get to that point in an out-and-back course, you know you are halfway to the turnaround. Somehow “halfway to the turnaround” feels like a lot more distance to me than “a quarter of the way done”! It can also be really nice to know what you’re in for on the second half of the course – where the hills are, where the porta potties are, where the aid stations are, and exactly what kind of provisions each aid station has.

Speaking of provisions – by mile 10 (5k to the turnaround!), I was starting to get really hungry. I had gels in my pockets, but the race organizers had asked us to make absolutely sure not to throw any trash on the ground. Instead, we would need to carry it until the next aid station. Since I didn’t want to get my hands all sticky carrying the used gel packets (and since gels go better with water/Gatorade anyway), I decided to hold out for the next aid station. In the meantime, my stomach was growling like crazy. It was so loud that not only could I hear it over my podcast and footfalls, but a runner near me heard it and laughed. “11 miles makes you pretty hungry, huh?” Oops. Yeah, I guess it does.

Luckily for me, the next aid station had not just water and Gatorade, but also DUNKIN DONUTS! Oh boy. I happily broke off half of a pink-frosted-with-sprinkles donut to munch as I ran… and polished it off way too quickly, wishing I had grabbed the whole thing instead. Yummy yummy in my tummy! Who says that runners eat healthy food? I need to figure out a way to make donuts portable instead of the not-so-exciting-but-way-more-practical gels I usually eat mid-race.

But that donut also marked the halfway point of the race, which I had in reached in 2:09. Really not a bad time considering how exhausted I was, and I thought that a 4:30 finish (the arbitrary goal I had set when I woke up that morning and realized how tired I was) would be doable. And it was a good thing! Since the race started so late (8:30am), and I had to drive about 45 minutes back to the airport afterward, and my flight was at 3pm, finishing any later than 1pm would put me at risk of missing my flight home. And all I wanted was to get back to my bed as soon as possible!

I don’t know if it was the donut, the slight downhill, or something else, but around mile 14/15, I started feeling a lot more energized. In addition to feeling better, my pace picked up slightly – and I was now running 9:15/mile pretty easily. Perhaps I could negative split this race? Or maybe even finish in 4:20? That’d be fun! And of course, the best thing of all about running faster – you finish sooner! On a day when I wasn’t really thrilled to be running, that was good motivation.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I never know how I’m going to feel on race day, but it’s often the days when I don’t love life and still push it that I am proud. I signed up for this race thinking it was going to be an incredible experience (as it was a few years ago), and that I would run a fast time and maybe PR. It’s a flat course through some pretty woods, and the out-and-back nature allows you to see and cheer for your fellow runners. Unfortunately, I woke up just not in the mood to run a marathon – and that wasn’t really something I had any control over. But what I could control was that I stuck with it and tried to make the best of it.

And now, after a sugar rush and the realization that I was more than halfway done, I was having a pretty decent time! I smiled at everyone coming the opposite direction (as Ericka recently noted, that’s an easy way to get a boost!) and I started doing a lot of math to set some more aggressive finishing goals. If I could hold a 10 minute pace, I would finish in 4:20 – which I’d be pretty happy with achieving.

Unfortunately, as quickly as I had gotten into a good mood, I got a yucky stomachache that made me really uncomfortable. I thought a porta potty stop might help, but there wouldn’t be any for a few more miles, so for now, I had to just run through it. Within another mile, I felt fine; but the next mile, I was back to feeling gross. Darn it! Early on in my marathon journey, I used to have to avoid dairy for 24 hours before the race, and I also took a pre-race Immodium as backup. However, after I had done enough marathons, my stomach seemed to get more comfortable, and I took pride in the fact that I could eat just about anything the night before a race and still be fine. (Fueled by beer? Fueled by sushi? Either/or; just bring on the carbs!) Unfortunately, it seemed like that superpower had left me; now, the oily channa masala I ate for dinner was now coming back to haunt me. Note to self: no more Indian food the night before a race; it slowed me down in my 60K last weekend too!

Sometimes when I get GI issues like this, it helps to loosen my fuel belt or perhaps sip water. This time, though, I was not wearing a fuel belt, having stuffed what I needed into my pockets instead. In fact, nothign at all was really constricting my waist. (Yay Athleta – thanks for the great gear!) But when an aid station came along at mile 18 that boasted a portapotty, I decided to duck into it. I’d be much more comfortable for the rest of the run if I used the facilities before continuing!

Sure enough, when I started running again, I felt a thousand times better, and was able to pick up the pace a bit as a result. But the bad news was that I had lost a bit of time. Without many miles left to make it up, I didn’t think I’d be able to hit 4:20 anymore (unless I could pick up the pace to 8:30/mile… not happening!). I now set my sights on finishing under 4:25 – that would still provide a bit of a challenge, but it was much more doable.

I think that’s one thing a lot of marathoners forget. When the day isn’t perfect and unexpected conditions arise, you can’t blindly go after whatever goals you originally set… but you can’t give up either. If you had asked me a week before this race what my expected finish time was, I thought I would try to PR and break 3:48. Based on my 3:55 performance the last time I ran this, I thought that would be pretty doable. But here I was more than 30 minutes slower – and I wasn’t beating myself up for it. Some days it’s just not your day, and I think it’s important to remember that and try, try again.

With my new goal in mind, the last 8 miles weren’t too tough at all – I had something to push for, and that goal was totally doable. With 5K to go, I switched from podcasts to music, and that helped put some pep back in my step. I also started prepping myself for the last mile, which I knew would be almost all uphill. Maybe I was 30 minutes slower than how I ran this course two years before, but one thing I could do better than the last time was crush the final uphills (whereas the last time I regretted walking them). No walking for me this time – I was going for it!

Despite the freezing cold wind making me shiver, I pushed as hard as I could to get up those hills. With “you feel like a candle in a hurricane” coming through my headphones (thank you, Rascal Flatts!), I actually began picking up the pace and passing some of my fellow runners! I made sure to say “good job” or “keep it up” to each person I passed, but let me tell you, I was darn proud to be passing them this late in the race 🙂 When I later got the race results back, I saw that most people who finished around the same time as me had gotten to the halfway split about 10 minutes faster. On the other hand, I had run basically dead even splits (excluding my bathroom stop). Not bad at all, especially considering that uphill climb for the last mile!

Finally, I passed the 26 mile mark – and then I really picked it up a notch. I had less than two minutes left, and I wanted to do my absolute best for those last two minutes. For this final stretch, there were small groups of spectators along the side of the road, but instead of trying to smile or look like I was having a good time, I tried to just focus on getting to the end as fast as possible. And when I crossed the finish line and saw my watch? 4:24 – I had broken my 4:25 goal!

After the race, I couldn’t help but continue to reflect on my two very different experiences running the same race. One year I ran it in 3:54, my second-fastest marathon at the time (out of 33 marathons). This year, when I was in much better shape, I ran it about 30 minutes slower, and it clocked in as my 50th-fastest marathon (out of 80 marathons). It just goes to show that there are so many external factors that go into a race time, far beyond your training or conditioning. I always tell my friends that if they aren’t satisfied with their marathon times, they should run another one – and this just makes me believe that even more strongly!

After driving back to Baltimore and flying home, I have to admit, I briefly considered heading to the gym. (Don’t worry, I didn’t.) Perhaps I had more left to give after all! Despite having run 26.2 that morning, I felt like it was just a regular Saturday instead of a marathon day… like I had done a medium-distance run. Perhaps my 60K the week before has broken me in for longer distances?

Well, I’ll soon find out – I’ve signed up for the Madhattan this Saturday, a 32 mile race for charity that circles the island of Manhattan. Ultra #3, here I come!

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:24:05
Pace: 10:05/mile
Overall place: 268/400
Age group place: 11/12


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