August 21, 2013

Race Report: Chasing the Unicorn Marathon

Although I alluded to it slightly in my Friday post, I wasn’t completely up front about exactly how nervous I was about my Saturday marathon. I was terrified. I drove to New Jersey mid-afternoon on Saturday (although the race was in Pennsylvania, it was literally 2 miles from the border and my hotel was actually in New Jersey by the Trenton airport) and had originally planned for a quiet night of catching up on reading, TV, and blogs, since I thought that might help calm my nerves. But after it took me forever to find the race start/packet pickup (it was un-GPS-able and I ended up a few miles away several times before I finally found it), I got a late start to dinner and didn’t get home until 9:30pm – which meant just a chapter of reading before I was yawning so much that it was time for lights out.

Unfortunately, I got a terrible night’s sleep. I woke up multiple times through the night, with different dreams each time. But every time I woke up, I worried about what was really on my mind: what if I didn’t finish the marathon before the time limit? This marathon was intended to be a race for those hoping to qualify for Boston, and so had a faster cutoff time than any marathon I’ve done yet – 4:40. The instructions to runners indicated that this was a strict time limit (though who knows; I’ve seen race directors call it a strict time limit but then extend the finishing time for a few stragglers). Ordinarily, 4:40 wouldn’t have been anything for me to worry about. But I hadn’t run a marathon in 2.5 months (since San Diego), and since then, hadn’t even done one double digit distance run. I ran the 15K/9.3 mile Boilermaker in July, and in the past week I had run four times (but all super short runs of 6 miles or fewer) – so that meant that in 2.5 months, I had only run a total of 25.3 miles, or less than I was about to try to run in one race. Plus, all those short runs in the last week had been around a 10 minute pace – and I needed to average 10:42/mile for 26.2 miles in order to make the cutoff. Yikes!

I knew it was a very stupid thing I was doing, trying to run such long distance on such little training, but when I first started planning my fall marathon schedule, I knew that at some point I was going to have to bite the bullet and get my legs back up to marathon distance. If I didn’t do Chasing the Unicorn, I would have to tack on another marathon in September – and I’m already planning to run three marathons that month (the 8th, 22nd, and 29th). While I could add the Abebe Bikila Day International Peace Marathon on the 14th, I thought it would be a worse idea to do my first marathon of the season immediately launching into weekly marathons. Chasing the Unicorn would give me a full three weeks off before Bozeman on September 8th, and then I would get another week off before launching into marathons four weeks in a row. There was a bit of room for error if I didn’t finish Chasing the Unicorn, but I definitely thought it was a good idea to at least attempt to finish.

I woke up on race morning feeling exhausted. I don’t think it was my constant wakeups the night before the race (as I’ve discussed many times, it’s your sleep two nights before the race that matters) as much as it was that I had accidentally woken up a bit earlier than I would have liked on Saturday morning, that I was running a general sleep deficit from the entire last week, and that honestly, I was scared. My mood didn’t improve when I got outside to the hotel parking lot and discovered that it was raining – and we had been warned that the course could be pretty muddy/slick if there was rain. Already nervous about meeting the 4:40 cutoff (10:42/mile pace), I was not pleased that my pace might be slowed further by mud and the dangers of slipping and falling.

But on the way to the race, I managed to psych myself up. I reminded myself of just how much fun I had in Nashville when I ran the Country Music Marathon this spring. It was pouring for that entire race, and yet I was loving the rain and splashing through it like a little kid on a playground. It was entirely up to me to decide what sort of mood I was going to be in for this race, and I wanted it to be a good one. I tried to focus on how lucky I was to be kicking off my fall marathon season and coming back from an injury, and how peaceful it would be to run alongside a river and catch up on podcasts. (Currently obsessed with the new-to-me Lifehacker podcast, which I had listened to nonstop for the two-hour-in-traffic drive from NYC to New Jersey.)

Remembering how I killed my phone running in the rain in Nashville, I realized that I didn’t have (and really needed) a plastic bag to protect it from the rain. While my car in Dallas usually has a few bags and other miscellaneous items, my New York rental car was completely empty. I asked one guy in the parking lot if he might have a grocery bag, and after looking, he didn’t, but the woman next to his car overheard and asked if a sandwich bag would do. Even better! I gratefully accepted and the bag kept my phone perfectly safe for the duration of the race.

I headed over to the pavilion just in time to catch the last sentence of the race director’s briefing (oops), but asked a nice woman with a Marathon Maniac shirt on what I had missed. We chatted for a bit, and I confessed that I wasn’t there to qualify for Boston but just to get back to marathons after a 2.5 month hiatus. I admitted how scared I was about missing the time limit, but Allie reassured me that I’d be fine. I wasn’t so sure, but I was glad she was so nice!

I walked the hundred feet over to the starting line, but then changed my mind and veered off to the porta potties. The race was only five minutes from starting, but with a bank of four porta potties and only about six runners waiting for them (total, in one line that funneled to all of them), I had no problem at all. Hooray for small races and small crowds! My GPS also didn’t have any trouble picking up a signal, which was a nice change from the many times I’ve stood in a crowd of hundreds and it’s taken several annoying moments for my Garmin to connect to a satellite. Meanwhile, at Chasing the Unicorn, there were only about a hundred runners, and we were released in three groups of about thirty people every thirty seconds. I love small races like this!

I honestly wasn’t sure what corral I was in (I hadn’t realized it was printed on the little tag at the bottom of my bib, which I had tucked up under the bib), but I had a sneaking suspicion that my corral was the very last one, since I had estimated my projected time as 4:30 and the race had a cutoff time of 4:40. Bingo! It really didn’t matter very much, though – there was only about 75 seconds of time between the very first and the very last runner, and a chip mat was set up to keep it from hurting your time. In general, I found this marathon to be superbly organized; the wave start for such a small group was just one example of how they paid attention to the details to help everyone do their best.

When I took off, I surprisingly found myself near the front of the (last wave) pack. We headed out on a paved road through the park, turning just a minute later to follow along the road on which I had driven in, and then turning one minute after that onto a river towpath. That was just about it for the paved part of this course! It was now a straight out and back on the towpath for 6.5 miles, then a turnaround to take us back to the start, rinse, and repeat. While several of my friends expressed concerns about the monotony of such a course, I actually found it to be the perfect distance, mentally. In comparison, the old New Jersey Marathon course used to be a double loop (of 13.1 miles), and it was tough to have the “checkpoint” be thirteen whole miles in – that’s a lot to repeat! But on this course, 6.55 miles from the start to the turnaround was a very manageable distance in that it never seemed terribly far away – and when I hit the first turnaround, I could just think “only once more back here and then I’m done!”

The waves had worked well to space out the runners such that the towpath never felt crowded. At the very beginning, there were definitely runners just ahead of me and just behind me (and I was hot on the heels of Allie, the nice woman from the start, for the first 2.5 miles or so). Although it was raining, the rain wasn’t falling terribly hard, and the trees helped to protect us a bit from the drops. I had put on some old Jillian Michaels playlists to listen to as I ran, and they helped to distract me from running and my pace to instead focus on learning something. Hooray for podcasts!

Chasing the Unicorn - Mile 1

When I did look at my Garmin as it beeped for each mile, I saw that the miles were flying by a lot faster than I had anticipated. 8:09 first mile, 8:22 second mile… and all I was shooting for was an average mile time of under 10:42 to hit the cutoff. But the knowledge that I hadn’t run anything other than short distances for 2.5 months made me think that perhaps this wasn’t such a bad strategy. I figured that my legs were probably going to cramp up and poop out at some point in the later miles, so banking time would definitely help that.

I often do mental pacing math while I run, whether I’m pacing someone or not. Sure, a Garmin shows your “current” pace per mile, but I find that the “current” pace is wildly inaccurate, and I really only trust it for total time and for the mile splits. Since I knew that I had to break 4:40 and that 4:40 was a 10:42 pace, I started tallying up how far under each mile I was, and adding that to my bank. So at mile 2, I was thinking, “if I can keep a 10:42 pace for the rest of the race, I’ll finish at 4:40 minus 4.5 minutes or 4:35:30.” Call me a total math nerd, but those kinds of calculations help take my mind off the long journey ahead 🙂

Luckily, I soon discovered that in this race, I didn’t need to take my mind off anything. It was beautiful, and I was really thrilled to be out for a run! While I hadn’t woken up in a great mood, I had managed to transform my attitude just by consciously focusing on the positive. I was getting to do a marathon even though I had been injured for so long; I was getting to run along a river, which always makes me feel at peace; I was getting uninterrupted time to listen to podcasts I was behind on. Tallying up that mental gratitude log made me forget all the bad stuff and just made me so happy!

I passed the first water station, walking through it to make sure I could drink plenty of Gatorade, and then picked up the pace again. A few women passed me in that time (perhaps because of the unique goal of qualifying for Boston, my slower start wave was all women + 1 guy, and I didn’t see him around), but I really didn’t mind. And over the next mile or two, I ended up passing them back. While I’ve done marathons where I made my goal “to never walk a step,” walking through aid stations can actually help you achieve a better time than if you ran through each one, and this was a good example of that.

Almost before I knew it, I was at mile 4 – which meant just 2.5 miles till the turnaround. That hadn’t been bad at all! The mile markers were bright yellow and very prominent, so I could generally spot them almost a minute ahead of time on the almost totally straight and flat path. But just after mile 4 came a mile marker with something extra: just beyond it was a small hill (basically a four foot incline over twenty feet of distance) that went down as quickly as it went up. But the sign had warned runners that this hill was not the only one in the race! What else was coming? I reassured myself that no matter what it was, there were only 2.5 miles to the turnaround – so even if that last 2.5 miles had some hills, that was still a small portion of the race compared to the 4 miles I had already covered and would repeat three more times.

The path got a bit narrow at mile 5, which was also when I started seeing some of the lead runners making their way back. I love getting to cheer for my fellow runners on out-and-backs! I wished a hearty “good job” or “nice work” to the first dozen or so people that passed, and then as more and more people started coming, I switched to a simple grin and head nod of acknowledgement. Another short blip of a hill lay ahead – but this one simply went up to a paved surface where a kind volunteer pointed me around the corner.

Weird aside: we had been told that there were points in the race that we’d have to take our headphones off, but that they were clearly marked. Well, here was a sign that said “headphones out,” but before I could even read the sign and process the instruction, literally six feet later was a sign that said “headphones in.” I was all for complying with race instructions, but did I really need to take my headphones out for 0.2 seconds for something? That was probably the only thing about the race that wasn’t perfectly organized – I later figured out that the “headphones in” sign was probably supposed to be facing the other way so you’d have your headphones off for the whole paved section and then see it on the way back, which would make a lot more sense.

For now, I turned the corner around a bed and breakfast, and saw that this little paved stretch of road was only about a tenth of a mile – and before reaching the end, there were volunteers handing me gels (delicious Honey Stingers, which I much preferred to the standard Gu/Clif gels), Gatorade, and water. There was also a chip mat at the turnaround point, which was nice and also kind of unexpected for such a small race. I’ve done huge races that don’t bother to have chip mats anywhere but the start and end, and I thought it was nice that this was there not only to verify that we hadn’t cut the course short, but also to provide us with split data after the race. (And in case you care, my 6.55 mile split was 56:49, or an 8:40 average pace. Sweet!)

And with that – I was headed back to the start! That first 6.55 had gone by a lot faster than I had ever expected, and my legs were still feeling surprisingly fast, strong, and sure. It seemed easy from here – just head back to the start, then back to where I was once more, and then a quick jaunt home. Despite how well the first quarter of the race had gone, I still wasn’t completely confident that I’d make it in before the time limit, but I was happy to be banking so much time. Running had come back to me so naturally, and I hoped that my legs would last feeling this great for the whole marathon.

The way back to the start was fairly uneventful, although I was carefully checking my watch when I hit 9.3 miles to see how my time compared to the Boilermaker 15K that I had run in July. While there I had set a new 15K PR for myself with a time of 1:22:01, here I had managed to cover 15K in 1:21:xx (can’t remember the exact seconds)! In fairness, this calculation of 15K was based on Garmin distance (and I probably ran an extra tenth of a mile or two in the actual race), and the course was a lot easier than the hot and hilly Boilermaker, but I was still really impressed with myself for coming anywhere close to that pace.

Mile 10 was my slowest so far, and my first to clock in over nine minutes per mile – at 9:22. I chalked that up to the combo of starting to get fatigued and also stopping for water/Gatorade in that stretch. My mile 10 split was still well under 1:30, which I was pretty pleased with, and around that time, I was treated to a great segment on my current Jillian Michaels podcast (I was already on my 3rd of the race – hooray for Pocket Casts’ 1.3x speed!). This particular segment explained, in detail,  how to have perfect running form, and almost served as a live exercise segment in how she talked you through each body part and the position it should be in. It was a good reminder for me to check in with my neck and shoulders, and I was really happy to find when I check in that they weren’t tense or sore at all. In fact, they felt pretty relaxed and comfy! DAY FIVE!

I did, however, notice that I swing my hands a bit higher than Jillian’s instructions (which are right on the money as far as proper form). Technically, your hands should swing right at hip level, so that your elbows form perfect 90 degree angles. My hands, however, swung just a bit higher, so that my elbows form around 75-80 degree angles. When I tried it that way, though, it just didn’t feel as comfortable (and in fact, caused me to tense up a bit!) – so I went back to them being just a tiny bit higher. Probably better to just do what’s comfortable for my body’s biomechanics than listen to generic instructions…

My next few miles were back under a nine minute pace, and almost before I knew it, I was turning back onto the paved road leaving the towpath and heading back to the start. Looking at my Garmin, I realized that I was still well under two hours for the first half. In fact, my half marathon split time was 1:55:57! If I negative split the race, I’d be within striking distance of my PR – but while I was feeling pretty darn fantastic, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to push that hard on my first marathon of the season, especially being so untrained. It was enough that I was out there running at all!

But covering the half in 1:55 did give me a lot more confidence that I would finish the race under the cutoff. In fact, having walked a half marathon in 2008 to finish in three hours, I knew that I could practically walk the whole rest of the race and still come close to the cutoff! I didn’t want to do that now, though – I was really enjoying the run and was now curious to see how fast I could go while still saying relaxed and not pushing it too hard. Could it be possible that I’d finish in 4:00 or 4:10??

While my friend from the start, Allie, had been about a minute behind me when I crossed the halfway mark, I was just one mile into the second out-and-back when she passed me going steadily faster – and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the race (aside for turnarounds, of course). She was cooking! Meanwhile, my own pace was starting to wander into the nine minute range instead of being steadily sub-9… but I was fine with that. The rain had long since cleared up, and while it was a bit overcast rather than a bright sunny day, I was actually totally fine with that – it meant that it was perfectly cool and much nicer weather than I ever would have expected for an August marathon.

Chasing the Unicorn - Mile 14

Unfortunately, just ahead was a runner who wasn’t having as great of a day – she was lying flat on her back, and the race director was kneeling next to her trying to comfort her until help could arrive. I mostly just tried to run by and stay out of their way, since it seemed under control, but then at the last minute realized that I really ought to offer to help – so I asked if I needed to send anyone? The race director said no, but that a car was on the way and I should watch out. Sure enough, just as I crested that hill (this time adorned with a sign that said “Heartbreak Hill” with a “Not Boston” logo – cute!), I saw the cart coming up the other side – so I flattened myself against the trees and let it pass. I hoped the girl would be okay!

It was only a few more miles from there to the turnaround, and I munched on some ProBar Strawberry Energy Chews that I had picked up a few months earlier at the Blend retreat. While my legs didn’t seem sore, my body overall was a bit weaker/more tired than it had been early in the race, and I hoped that a blood sugar pick-me-up might help. I usually eat about 300 calories of snacks during a marathon (~100 calories per hour, plus an undetermined amount of Gatorade whenever available), but I ended up having an extra snack this race by dividing my ProBar chews up and snacking on them all along instead of glomming them down on the hour (which is when I normally eat). They were actually really tasty and a good consistency; I’d recommend them.

Approaching the turnaround, despite having just finished those ProBar Chews, I grabbed a gel packet – the more fuel at this point, the better. I was still playing math games with myself to calculate what my finish time would be – figuring out the high end (4:30 if I walked the whole way), the low end (3:50 if I could go back down to an 8:30/mile pace), and the most realistic (3:57 if I held a steady 9:30/mile pace). As the final miles ticked by (around a 9:20 pace), my predicted finish time got more and more accurate, until I was approaching mile 23 around 3:28. Even a 10:00/mile pace would have me finishing sub-4 as long as I kicked it in the final 0.2! I couldn’t believe that I had been so worried about finishing in the 4:40 time limit and was now about to actually complete a sub-4 marathon. (Post-race, I calculated that it was my 13th fastest out of my 93 marathons – I’ll start including that stat at the bottom of my race reports now because it’s kind of fun to see the comparison!)

With only three miles to go, I switched from podcasts to music – choosing my favorite power songs to give me an extra boost. I started with Fun’s “Some Nights,” which always makes me think back to running the Rehoboth Beach Marathon with Steph and Ericka. Steph and I ran together that whole race, but Ericka had been on her own until we bumped into each other on the final tree-lined trail. To give us all a little boost, I played “Some Nights” out the speaker of my phone, and we all ended up running a blazingly fast pace while it played. Something about the beat always gets me running faster and stronger, and I loved getting to kick it with my friends! Whenever I play that song now, I think of that moment and it makes me feel really strong and happy. This day was no exception. I was pseudo-drumming to the beat with my hands, and the sun came out at just the right moment to send a chill of excitement through me. I was so giddy and so proud of myself for doing so well on a day that honestly could have totally sucked, and I actually starting getting teary eyed –albeit with a huge, absurd grin on my face.

Runners' High
Pretty much the most unattractive photo ever, this is me trying to capture my giddiness during my runners’ high.

When the song finished, I switched to my other favorite Fun running song, “Carry On,” and it definitely kept my runner’s high going strong. “May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, and carry on!” I was sure “carrying on” with this race despite a complete lack of preparation, and I was going to finish it strong.

I hit the 25.1 mile mark (they used the same markers for both laps so the second half was 0.1 instead of on the mile) with a sub-3;50 time showing on my watch, and that was when I knew for sure that I was going to go sub-4. I was so excited! Knowing that I was sub-4, which is a pretty fast time for me, further encouraged me to go as fast as possible and shave off as many seconds as I could. I ended up doing the last mile in just 8 minutes – a far cry from the “at some point I’ll be walking a 15 minute pace” strategy I had planned on using while in the first few miles of the race. And when I hit the paved road and turned the corner to get to the final mile, I gave it everything I had with a huge grin on my face to boot 🙂

Chasing the Unicorn - Finish

After getting across the finish line and checking my watch at the end, I was even more thrilled – 3:56 and change! What a spectacular return to my fall racing season. I’m not usually one to brag about my finish times, but this one felt so awesome and I promptly uploaded it to Instagram to share the news 🙂

Chasing The Unicorn Garmin
Note that the 8:09 at the bottom is the final mile split, not my average pace throughout.

While I had a pretty big blood blister on the arch of my right foot, my legs and feet seemed otherwise completely unscathed. And my back/neck felt better than ever! (A physical therapy appointment on Tuesday further confirmed that I am a complete freak of nature and running seems to vastly improve my muscle/spine issues.) I’m back to marathoning and ready to hit the fall season running!


Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 3:56:44
Pace: 9:02
Overall place: 73/98
Gender place: 32/45
Rank: 11th fastest marathon of 93 run


15 thoughts on “Race Report: Chasing the Unicorn Marathon”

  1. Enjoyed your report very much. You added some more detailed pictures which is a plus and adds to it.
    I have always wanted to stay with big crowded marathons to get me to the finish but you have given me pause and i may try a small marathon sometime.
    if you keep writing these , I will keep reading,running and being inspired!

  2. What a great way to return to marathon running. Funny how the legs seem to have a mind of their own 🙂 Small races are fun. I’m surprised that it could be so small for a marathon though. Sounds like fun though. And good job on turning the emotions of the day around. Thinking positively and just enjoying your surroundings and the run itself, way to go! Congrats on your awesome finish 🙂

  3. So great, love your detailed reports Laura! I always have dreams about marathons when they are coming close — I had one the other day about my fall marathon. SO funny how that happens. I am shocked you went 2 months without running that much! No doubt your body enjoyed the recovery…looking forward to hearing about the race season. Come to Richmond! 🙂

  4. I find it interesting to read about the experiences and preferences of other people. So much diversity and universality in just one specie. In particular, I marveled how all runners perform and understand the simple head nod and/or head nod and smile. How is it, without any real education on the topic, that we can all have the same desire to connect to our fellow runners and react the same to a fellow runners interactions?
    Another particular, I was a little impressed that you actually had a preference for those Stingers. While they were not bad when I tried them, and my stomach could palate them well, the honey flavor in them seemed very sharp; sharp enough I am not sure if I they would be my top three choices. Again, I am always amazed by the commonalities and differences in human actions and interactions.

  5. AWESOME job! I am so impressed that you were able to do this AND do so well on little training. That is quite inspiring 🙂

    I do pacing math during races too… especially if I’m on target to having a great race… if it’s a bad race, then I try to avoid doing the math as much as possible, even if it is a good way to pass some time.

    I have an 80-minute run scheduled for tonight and I’ve been dreading it. But I’m changing my scenery, heading to the Katy Trail, and will take your less and get more excited about it, so hopefully it won’t be a agonizing run!

  6. Wow. I am so impressed! You really are a freak of nature! I don’t know how you weren’t crazy sore after not running long runs in a few months and then killing that marathon! Awesome!

  7. walking through aid stations can actually help you achieve a better time than if you ran through each one

    I’ve found that this has helped me feel stronger and more prepared to run. I haven’t done longer than a 10K (yet), but the first race I did this on (a 5K), I PR’ed, and I felt a lot better overall.

  8. I loved your race recap Laura! I’m looking at the race for 2016, and your recap gave me a great flavour of what to expect. Small races really are a treat.

    1. You did a FABULOUS job – that was one of the best-organized marathons I’ve ever run!! Thank you for putting it together 🙂

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