June 7, 2013

Race Report: Vermont City Marathon

Yesterday happened to be National Running Day, and today is the third anniversary of the day I broke the world record, so I think it’s an especially fitting day for me to finally post this year’s Vermont City Marathon race report. On May 25 2008, the Vermont City Marathon was my first marathon. I was terrified going into the race – would I be able to finish? – and got through it by “running to the ice cream,” as it said on the signs that my family and friends made. But that day turned out to be more than just about the completion of the goal. It got me hooked on a sport that I never would have believed that I could do, and showed me just how powerful the human mind can be relative to the comparatively-weak muscles that most people believe are the most important thing to train. I now go back to Vermont every year on Memorial Day weekend to serve as a pace team leader for the 4:30 group, sharing that lesson of mind over matter with other runners. This year’s race was fantastic as usual – here’s my report.

Although I usually carb load for the Vermont City Marathon at American Flatbread (aka the best pizza I’ve ever had anywhere in the country), this time, a group of us decided to go for some more traditional spaghetti. Fiona, Steph, Shaya, my mom and I all headed for Bove’s. The food wasn’t quite as delicious as the hype around it being featured on the Food Network would make you think, but it had a great atmosphere (cozy, divey, and packed with marathon runners), extremely large portions, and insanely cheap prices. We’d take it!

Wine from Bove's
This big glass of wine cost just $3.75! We definitely weren’t in NYC πŸ™‚

But the conversation at dinner kept coming back to the same thing – how was the weather going to be for the race the next day? I had just done a miserably rainy race the week before in Ogden, but it seemed that I was carrying a rain cloud with me wherever I went, because it was supposed to be quite cold and pouring rain all day. Exactly the opposite of all the sunny and hot Vermont City Marathons of years past! This time, I had packed a few warmer things to wear, but I still wasn’t thrilled about the idea of shivering in the rain. Furthermore, as a pace team leader, I knew I would have to be upbeat and cheery throughout. The rain had gotten me down the week before, and I was under a lot of pressure not to let that happen in Vermont!

I headed to bed super early, in a bad mood about the impending race but at least happy to get a good night’s sleep for the first time in a while. While the rain was pounding hard on the windows when I went to bed, I definitely slept like a log – because apparently my mom got up in the middle of the night to turn off an errant phone alarm, and I didn’t even stir! That’s not like me at all – while I’m not necessarily a light sleeper, things like alarms usually wake me up right away. And apparently a good night’s sleep is all it takes to improve my mood – because I bounded out of bed a completely changed woman. It was going to be a great race day!

I headed off to the start garbed in an Athleta tank top, my pacing tank top and a waterproof jacket over the top, and a pair of brand new Reebok capris. Who says you have to try stuff out before a race? Either way, my racing outfit was a lot better than the week before, when I had shivered through the Ogden Marathon. I had also thoroughly wrapped my phone in a Ziplock bag, to prevent it from getting wet. Since I wasn’t going to be listening to music while pacing and therefore wouldn’t have headphones snaking out, I knew that my phone would be secure and safe from the rain too πŸ™‚

Normally, when my mom and I arrive to park at the start, the $5-per-car parking lot is packed. This year, though, not only was the lot empty, but there was free street parking still available. I realized pretty quickly that everyone was trying to wait till the last minute to get to the start (to avoid being out in the rain and the cold). As a pacer, though, I needed to be there at 7am to collect my sign and also line up for our pace team photo. Bummer! I ended up even more annoyed when I got to our designated meeting place and we didn’t get the signs or take the photo until 7:30am, because other pacers were checking bags, using the bathroom, etc. That was really frustrating – there is nothing I hate more than an artificial deadline. Aren’t we all grownups and able to arrive somewhere on time or suffer the consequences? Despite being out in the cold/rain, though, I was still in a surprisingly good mood. I wore my rain coat right up until a few minutes before the start, which helped keep my body temp up, and my mom stood with me and shared her umbrella, so I didn’t get too wet either. I looked totally ridiculous standing in the crowd of runners not looking like a runner myself (aside from my pacer sign that I was sticking out from under the umbrella), but I was at least totally comfortable. Gotta start the race right!

Pre Race
Co-pacer Jen looked a heck of a lot less ridiculous than I did

Although the course was exactly the same as years past, the starting chute had changed so we were lined up on a side street instead of down the main road. It really didn’t matter, but it did feel very different, and I felt like I couldn’t hear as much from the announcers and didn’t get quite as hyped up? Or maybe that was the umbrella blocking the sound! Either way, the start was a little bit more anticlimactic than in years past. I was just excited to have a great co-pacer with me. While last year Jen and I had kind of done our own thing, this time we coordinated right from the start, and we ended up running the whole race together.

The first few miles started out pretty much the same as always – making friends with the runners around us, letting people know our pace plan (this year I planned to go for dead even splits – no banking time at all), and generally keeping the chatter up. I was so happy about the way Jen and I tag-teamed off each other to keep the crowds inspired – she’d yell “one mile mark right up ahead!” and then I’d yell “woo hoo we’re right on pace!” I was planning to clock splits based on the time when we hit each mile marker (4:30 finish would be 10:18 per mile), while Jen was estimating that by not running tangents we’d finish around 26.5 on our Garmins and so was looking for 10:10 splits based on Garmin miles. At first I was worried we’d get confused, but it actually ended up working out just about perfectly that we had different ways to measure the miles – and since we were next to each other and in constant communication, we were able to strike a good balance between the two.

By the time we were headed for our first pass on Church Street (~mile 2.5), I had all but forgotten the rain. The crowds were still out cheering (albeit from under umbrellas), and even the drag queens didn’t miss their chance to dress up and cheer us on. Thanks, guys! Meanwhile, the outfit I picked turned out to be just perfect, temperature-wise, and the jacket was keeping me comfortably dry. I was especially in love with my new Reebok capris that I had gotten from their upcoming fall line – they were so soft, but also totally comfortable and absolutely chafe-proof. Perhaps I should run in capris more often instead of skirts? As far as other less technical “rain gear,” Jen and I debated ditching our trash bags, but decided to keep them for a few miles more in case the rain picked back up. It was turning out to be a pretty nice day for a run!


We passed the announcer’s tent, getting a nice cheer from them as we went by, and then headed out toward the Ethan Allen Highway. In past years, this long unshaded out-and-back has been kind of a pain with the sun. This year, though, it wasΒ perfect – no sun, surprisingly little wind, and a great chance to see all my friends ahead coming back the other way! They all looked strong and I hoped they would be able to keep the pace and PR. As for our group, we were almost exactly on pace – we had picked up an extra 30 seconds in the first few miles (meaning we were ahead), but I figured we’d most likely drop it when we got to the Assault on Battery and slowed down for that monster hill – and then we’d be exactly on track. Either way, with 18 miles still to go, there was plenty of time to adjust back and be a bit slower!

Jen and I took turns motivating and cheering as we headed up the slight hill at mile 8, and it passed by faster than in past years. (Mentally, that is – I don’t think we actually took it fast.) With that over, the next long hill to look forward to would be the Battery – and then that would be the last real hill of the race. In the meantime, we headed back to Church Street and down a big hill for the southern loop. I was a little concerned about my knee – the Runner’s Knee injury I sustained during Ogden was still plaguing me a bit, and I honestly probably shouldn’t have been running on it – but since this was the only big downhill of the race, it seemed to be okay. Nothing a little more rest wouldn’t fix after my last two marathons of the season were over!

We turned onto First Street and soon reached mile 10. Dou-ble di-gits! (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.) While there were tons of spectators out, I was a little saddened to see that my favorite musician was not there. Every other year, he’s been there crooning “Run, run, run awayyyyyyyy”, over and over and over until I literally do want to “run, run, run away.” This year, he was replaced by a band playing “Sweet Caroline” – so I hid my disappointment by shouting the “ba ba bas” as loud as I could. Gotta have my musical fun somehow!

From there, we headed to our first gel station at mile 11 – and I was so psyched for the fuel. I had opted not to pack any gels of my own, since I knew the course was well-supplied and I didn’t really have any pockets. I gratefully picked up a vanilla Gu, as well as an orange slice from the unofficial aid station just beyond the gels. After a short neighborhood loop passing Lake Champlain, we cruised up a very short little baby hill (“only about 30 seconds from bottom to top!” we reminded our group), down the quick bike path through the woods, and burst out into the clearing where the halfway point of the race lay. Looking at my watch, I was pleased to see that we had timed it just about perfectly – crossing in 2:14:40. Almost dead even on 2:15! Jen and I felt confident that we’d lose the extra 20 seconds in the second half of the race.

Following the bike path along the water turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought – the wind was whipping in our faces, and everyone tried to avoid the ankle-deep puddles on the already-narrow path. Going single-file, we didn’t do a ton of talking for a few miles. But almost before we knew it, mile 15 was upon us – the start of the Assault on Battery!

I had been telling my group over and over how magical I find that hill to be, but I was a little worried when I didn’t hear the Taiko drummers in the distance long before I approached, like I usually do. Had they not come out because of the rain? Never – turns out that they were still there in full force; they had just put plastic bags over the drums to keep them from getting wet, and the bags muffled the sound a bit. They still beat a great rhythm for us to go up the hill, but unfortunately, I just wasn’t feeling this part of the race quite as much as in years past. I kept a smile on my face and a steady pace, but I honestly struggled a bit more with this hill than I usually do – getting super winded at the top. I was so glad to have my co-pacer there to keep pushing the pace for that quarter mile ascent!

When we reached the top, we hit the aid station almost immediately, and I grabbed a cup of Skittles for some extra sugar to recover. But ew, they were soaking wet and pretty gross! I ended up tossing the candy aside and having Gatorade instead. In the end, I subsisted the entire race on just that one gel from mile 11 and some Gatorade – a bit less than I normally eat, but surprisingly okay.

Mile 16 marked the final slog away from the finish line – and it was around here that it finally stopped raining and even started to get a wee bit sunny. Was this going to be a hot race after all? Nah – it ended up getting a bit misty later, but no worse weather than that. We had really lucked out with much better conditions that we had predicted the night before! Jen and I kept rallying our group, chatting with different runners at different points, and I was especially impressed by a guy about my age who was running his first marathon – in a big baggy cotton sweatshirt. That couldn’t have been comfortable with the rain early on! But he was getting through it like a trooper, and I was glad he was sticking with it.

In general, I was really happy with what a big group we had all through the final miles. Normally we start with a very tight-knit group that starts to dwindle as the miles progress, but this time around, we had a huge group around us at all times (apologies to those behind us!), so even though I didn’t know everyone’s names like I normally do, the energy level was high. Again, I was just so thrilled with how Jen and I were able to tag team off each other. It is such a pleasure to run a race with a great co-pacer!

Just after mile 18, we headed out of the neighborhood for good – and then it was on to tiny little Leddy Park, where I knew more snacks awaited us. I told everyone to expect candy and Oreo cookies (as per usual), but this year, there were only gels and orange slices at the aid station. I chose another orange slice but skipped the gel – I was still feeling pretty good, and decided that I preferred not to waste my calories on something like a boring gel pack. Post-race pizza, bring it on!

After crossing a parking lot, we came to a short “trail” section (trail in quotes because it was so short that I almost feel like I can’t call it that). We had about 100 feet to go through the woods before bursting back out into a neighborhood, and I could have guessed ahead of time that the dirt trail was going to be muddy as all heck. However, here is where the incredible organization of the Vermont City Marathon shows just how wonderful they are: they had volunteers every few feet along that stretch with rakes, scraping over the footprints to smooth out the course and keep it in good running conditions! In all the marathons I have run, I’ve never seen that tactic used, but it workedΒ beautifully – we all had a smooth, solid surface for our footfalls, and I didn’t worry about tripping or slipping one bit. Well done, VCM! (Foreshadowing: if only they could have done the same at the finish…)

One final neighborhood stretch took us to mile 20, and then it was quickly onto mile 21 for a short but steep downhill and then the final turnaround. Four miles to the finish! Looking at our watches, Jen and I realized that instead of losing the 20 seconds we had earned in the first half, we had actually done the last 9 miles about 5 seconds fast each – so we were now a full 60 seconds ahead of where we wanted to be. It may sound like nothing, but we’re both pretty big perfectionists about our finish time, so we tried to slow down about 10 seconds per mile on the final stretch. That seemed like a reasonable amount to still be even pacing (not a drastic slowdown), but also help us to achieve our pace team goal. And all the runners around us were glad to get a little bit of a break when their legs were screaming at the end of the race!

The final miles didn’t go by easily (my dumb knee was acting up after the mile 22 downhill), but I had fun introducing myself to runners on the bike path who seemed to be on the verge of giving up – and then convincing them to join our group and stick with us. “4:30, coming through!” Jen kept yelling to the spectators, inducing a round of cheers, and it definitely seemed to help the tired runners to feel like they were part of a larger group and therefore couldn’t just drop back because they were tired. Thanks to VCM’s awesome bibs that featured people’s names in big block print, I also took to calling out the names of those we passed and inviting them to come run with us. It worked a lot of the time, and I was thrilled to see our group growing instead of shrinking.

It was mile 25 that turned out to be the most weather-impacted of the entire race – despite the fact that it had long since stopped raining. The road that we finally turned onto from the bike path turned out to be a tiny bit flooded, and Team in Training coaches we saw kept warning us to move either let or right to avoid the worst of the puddles. It was definitely still possible to keep our feet dry, though we did weave a bit of a zigzag pattern in our attempts to do so πŸ™‚

Finally, we reached the grassy finish chute, basking in the crowd’s applause as we approached mile 26. Although I used to hate that the VCM course design weaves you through crowds for so long (nearly a half mile) when you’re expecting the finish to be right there, I have grown to love it. There are so many races where I’m just exhausted from mile 25 to 26, going kind of slowly, and though I pick it up when I get to mile marker 26, I often realize I could have sped up sooner. Here, the crowds are cheering you on for that entire difficult part. And I always think it must be so much fun to be a spectator right at the 26 mile mark, to see the runners’ eyes light up as they realize just how close they are!

Although the finish chute had started out grass (so comfy to run on in the nice weather!), the final 0.1 miles turned out to be pure mud by the time we got there – yikes! Since we were a few seconds faster than we hoped to be anyway, we were able to daintily pick our way through the mud without any slips or falls – I shudder to think how gross it would have been if we had actually fallen.

But as we approached the actual finish line, I was really not pleased to hear how the announcer called us out to the crowd: “And here comes the 4:30 pacers… well, they are only a little bit behind!” I immediately realized that he thought we were late because of the clock time (4:32), whereas we had started two minutes after the starting gun and therefore were actually a bit early. Jen and I both bobbed our pace signs at him and pointed at our watches, but he didn’t correct his mistake – which was kind of a letdown. I don’t want to be called out in front of hundreds of people for failing when actually, I had done a near-perfect job!

And near-perfect it was: our final finish time was 4:29:21, or 39 seconds early (1.5 seconds per mile). I would have liked to be a bit closer, but general pacing guidelines say that you should finish within 60 seconds of your target time without going over, so we had done just that. Three cheers for a fantastic finish on a not-so-auspicious race day!

Pace Team Finish

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 4:29:21
Pace: 10:17
Overall place: 1795/2608
Gender place:728/1212
Age group place: 182/273


8 thoughts on “Race Report: Vermont City Marathon”

  1. Congrats on a great pacing race, and anniversary of your record as well! VCM is on my bucket list (I’ll use that as my ‘VT race’ for 50 states πŸ™‚ )

    I love that your group was growing and you were able to help people who wanted to give up! I love when races put names on bibs, it makes it more fun for runners and spectators!

    Awesome job pacing right on time, less than a minute off, close enough by my standards!

    1. I usually look happy but they also usually seem to catch me mid step so it looks like I’m barely walking πŸ™‚

  2. Bove’s is my go to pre-race dinner in Burlington – it’s not the greatest Italian food but like you said the price is right and you don’t get much pre-race carby than Bove’s πŸ™‚

    Congrats on your amazing pacing! My step brother’s girlfriend finished right around 4:30 (i think she was 4;28 or 4:18?) πŸ™‚ I can’t decide if i want to do VCM again as my 5th marathon – it’s such an amazing race.

    Also, fun fact, the boys track coach when i was in high school was one of those taiko drummers for many years – he used to bring his drums out to our home track meets and play them during the 800m race πŸ™‚

    1. Oh that would be AMAZING to have Taiko drummers at every race! They are amazing and really help me to push myself πŸ™‚

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