I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Race Report: Wisconsin Marathon

Alternate Titles for this Blog:
“Orange Shoes = the Winged Feet of Mercury!”
or: “I love Wisconsin in May!”
or: “My Girlfriend Gave Me 15 Minutes for Christmas!”
or: “If I Were a Woman, I’d be Going to BOSTON, Now!”

But the best one really is just this:


No if ands or buts, I destroyed that course yesterday morning. Destroyed it. I have never felt that good for that long in any race I’ve ever run. And I slashed, eliminated, lopped, chopped, and supercalifragified 15 MINUTES off of my previous Personal Best. Even when I set my previous PR in Madison last year, I had to work in some strategic walk breaks in the final miles. Not yesterday in Kenosha. I averaged just under 8:30 pace for the first 22 miles and even though miles 25 & 26 were my slowest of the day at 9:17 and 9:11, I finished strong, and never walked. Not only did I smash my old PR (3:59:09), I broke what I have long considered my pie-in-the-sky dream time of 3:45.

Everything just seemed to come together yesterday. The weather was kind of perfect. It started out in the high 40s and never got over 58. The sun was out all morning, but there was plenty of shade on most of the course, and there was a cooling breeze coming in from the west throughout.

It seems that my training and race schedule, haphazard though it was at times, was an unqualified success. I was responsible with my mileage build up. I didn’t push myself to run long or hard on days when I didn’t feel it. I worked on the theory that it was wiser to cut miles when in doubt. Better to get to race day a little under-trained but fresh, rather than doing all the miles I’d laid out and waking up marathon morning with weary legs. And I ran no other marathons or ultras in the months leading up to Kenosha. So, no extra tolls taken.

I didn’t think about it much before the race, but yesterday was my 7th road marathon (out of 18 marathons or ultras, overall), but it was the first one since my “debut” marathon in Chicago back in 2006 that wasn’t run either in extreme heat, or preceded by other, recent marathons. It was about dang time, you know what I’m saying?

The other major factor? As Spike Lee famously said: It’s gotta be the shoes! It was my first marathon in racing flats. The same flats that Laura bought me for Christmas. The same flats in which I ran a new 5K PR just last weekend. I don’t know any scientific way to quantify the effect that switching from trainers to flyweight shoes had on my race, but I can tell you they just felt good. From the very start, they felt good. I clocked the first mile in 8:26. That made me nervous, because it was a lot faster than the pace I’d projected for myself. I’ve gone out fast a couple of times before and then bonked big time later in the race. I tried to dial back my pace for the second mile and instead clocked a nearly identical 8:27. Again, I tried to lay off my pace in the third mile. This time I succeeded in slowing down, but only to 8:33.

At that point I had a big decision to make. Based on my pre-race projections, I was running too fast, but the pace felt effortless. The weather was ideal. The flat course would present no “heart-breaking” hills at any point in the morning. More than that, my 5K results from the previous weekend had suggested marathon results even speedier than my current pace.

On the other hand, in every other road marathon I have run, the early miles have passed with light legs and lofty hopes, only to end with 10 kilometers that, at best, felt like I was only barely hanging on, and at worst, resembled a death-march to the finish line.

Well, if you don’t already know this about me, I’ll tell you now: at heart, I am an optimist, and, for better or for worse, I like to dream big. So, the decision wasn’t very difficult. I would keep aiming for that 8:30 pace and see how long I could hold it. My race was 3 hours old before I finally slipped off.

The course wasn’t terribly extraordinary, but I found I enjoyed it quite a bit. Kenosha isn’t a very big city, but it has a modest-sized city center. We started out east of downtown in Harbor Park, which juts out into Lake Michigan. Most of our first mile was run in a great big circle which brought us all the way around the park and underneath the Start Line banner a second time. This granted us the perk of getting to run past all our friends and family twice without them having to move.

After that, the course was set up with two out-and-back sections, first to the north, then to the south. Both halves hugged near to the lakefront the whole way. The event included a half-marathon distance as well as the full, with all runners sharing the same course. At the 12-mile point, the half-marathoners would make a U-turn and head toward their finish, while the marathoners would continue onward to points south. The total field was capped at 2000 runners. 1209 runners finished the half, and 529 finished the marathon. Even before I knew that, it was a sure bet that the field would be thinning out quite a bit after 12 miles.

The route was billed as flat and gentle, and it was. There were, in fact, a number of rolling hills in the first half, as we wound our way through and around the numerous parks that dot the lakefront on the north side of Kenosha, but none were steep, none were taxing, and all were merely a polite variation on a level repetition.

The southern half of the marathon was completely flat. Pancake. Like the surface of a lake on a calm afternoon. It was also run mostly on a rural route road with few houses and even fewer curious residents – a far less interesting place to be than those nice parks on the north end. Personally, I was fine. It didn’t bother me. But it’s not hard for me to imagine that some of the less experienced marathoners out there, who were maybe suffering through those final miles, would have really hated that long stretch down and back on Lakeshore Drive.

I risked another significant decision before the race. With all the thought and planning about my shoes and the weight I could shed by wearing the comps instead of my heavier trainers, it began to seem like a silly idea to then go and carry my water bottle during the race. It would be filled and refilled with 16 ounces of fluid that I would be carrying in my hand for all 26 miles. The race organizers promised repeatedly that aid stations would never be placed farther than 2 miles apart anywhere on the course and all would be stocked with both water and Heed sports drink. One wants to believe such promises, but hey, a marathon is a huge event to plan for, stuff goes wrong, and I’ve experienced aid station problems and unfulfilled promises at races new and old, alike.

So, I’ve never run a marathon or ultra without carrying my own bottle or hydration pack, but the goal of shedding excess equipment weight seemed like a worthy one this time. All I carried on my person during the race were 5 gel packs in the pockets of my RaceReady shorts. I planned to suck one down every 5 or 6 miles. With those, I’d be good with just a little water here and there. The event, however, didn’t let me down at all. The aid stations came and went with regularity, and I never felt like I was stuck for too long between them. Plus, each was fully stocked with water and Heed. Everything was so well organized. Even the mile markers themselves were easy to see and properly placed on the course.

Laura and I drove up to Kenosha early on race morning with her bike attached to the back of the car. She used it to ride up and down the course all morning and managed to plant herself in at least 8 or 9 different spots to see me come by and give encouragement. The small town, rural route and low number of runners and spectators made it easy for her to do this; she often biked up and down the actual race route beside the runners to get from place to place. So I ask you, which is better: 2 million strangers screaming at you for 26 miles, or getting to see one of your loved ones over and over again during the race?

It was so much fun to be feeling so good for so long into the race that I unleashed one of my trail runner habits and actually dared to speak to a number of the other runners while we ran. It’s telling, I guess, that the only person I encountered who was up for a real chat was a fellow trail-ultra guy. I found him because he was talking to another runner about the Winter Rock Cut Trail Series that I also did two seasons ago. I don’t remember that we ever introduced ourselves, but in my mind, I assigned him the name “Bob”. Imagine my surprise when I looked up his bib number after the race and discovered that his name really was Bob! Bob and I hung together for about half an hour, from miles 4 to 7. Then he slowed going over a hill and didn’t catch back up again. (I found, later, that he finished his race in a little over 4 hours.)

After that, I made a point of speaking to 3 or 4 other runners, either as we paced each other, or as I moved slowly past them. To a person, they each ignored me entirely, barely even turning their head to glance at me. (Ah, road racers.) So, I resigned myself, instead, to the brief exchanges offered by the spectators who were scattered around the course. Much to my surprise, even when I didn’t initiate contact with a “Good Morning!,” I frequently heard – and I do mean frequently – “Hey, man, nice shoes!” Have I mentioned that my magical, new racing comps are bright orange? I think all of Kenosha noticed. “Love the orange shoes!” “I like your shoes!” One guy even followed up admiringly with, “Now, that’s quite a fashion statement.” I started to wonder if maybe the local sports team had bright orange and blue as their team colors, but that didn’t seem very likely. The compliments never stopped coming. On the sections of the course that we repeated, people remembered me and my shoes from the first pass around and then called out to me again. At one point, I turned to a runner nearby and said, “They keep telling me this like I chose the color myself!” (For those of you that don’t know, running shoe companies rarely offer multiple color options for a shoe style. Each model gets one color, like it or not.) I guess, added to my customary all-black racing attire, the orange shoes did stand out quite a bit. I’m too self-conscious to write my name on my shirt for people to call back to me during a race, but I admit, the attention my shoes got was kind of fun.

I was continuously astonished at just how fleet & fresh I felt all the way through the 22-mile mark. The second time I saw Laura was around mile 8.5, which was close to 1/3rd of the way through the race. To that point, I had been running just over an 8:30 per mile pace, and everything still felt effortless. I voiced to her, then, what I already knew: “It’s gonna be a good day!”

I decided that was a good time to slide the pace back up a notch. For miles 9 to 16 I averaged, roughly, 8:20 per mile, including my best split of the whole day, an 8:09 for mile 14.

Miles 17 to 21 were all on the southern-most section of the course, with the big u-turn at the bottom coming right before the 19-mile marker. I did the whole of this section while pacing, pretty consistently, alongside a couple of ladies who must have been in a running group together. I talked to them some, but, even though they were not unfriendly, one of them had a set of ear buds in and the other didn’t have much to say back to me. They did talk to each other a bit, and also to a number of other women who they knew and passed on the course. I gathered that it was a group women, aged over-40, who all were hoping to qualify for Boston. Some of them might have been new to the marathon, but none of them were novice runners. I was still feeling pretty good, but it helped me a lot to be able to tag along with that duo for a while. The three of us cruised along at an 8:35 pace for that 5 mile stretch.

After 21 miles, I finally started to drop off a bit, though not in a horrible way. I had come through 20 miles in 2:49:02. It is a remarkable thing to me that in all 6 of my previous road marathons, no matter how I started, or how I finished, every time I’ve come through 20 miles within about 2 minutes of 3 hours flat (the one exception being the Chicago Steam Bath of 2007). So, coming through 20 in only 2:49 was a pretty big deal. It meant that for the rest of the race, my pace could drop all the way to 11 minutes per mile and still I would finish with a new PR – and yes, of course I was doing all that math in my head on the spot.

However, if I actually blew up that badly in the final stages, it would have been a major disappointment after starting out with 20 stellar miles. No, my sights were already set on a much faster time than just a simple PR. I had passed the half-way mark at roughly 1:50:45. That would have doubled to a 3:41 finish, but my legs were telling me that a negative split wasn’t going to happen. (How crazy, though, that a sub-3:40 could even be in my head after 20 miles?) But a 3:50? Totally doable. I had already declared, earlier in the week, that a sub-3:50 would equal an excellent day’s work for me. More than that, though, if I could just manage to keep my per-mile pace below 9 minutes for the final 10K, I thought I could break 3:45. (!)

Once I realized that, I quit doing math altogether. I just didn’t need to anymore. No matter what happened in the end of the race, I was going to set a huge PR, so the math and the worry were simply unnecessary. Besides, when I started thinking about it too much at that 20-mile point, I started to cry, which made my throat swell and breathing became noticeably more difficult. Not so good.

All of this was such new territory for me. The final 10K has eaten me up so many times before. At Chicago ’07 it was the heat, and in Atlanta that same year, it was the heat and the hills. Both were devastating and seemed as though they would never end. At NYC in ’07 and Chicago in both ’06 and ’08, I had passed 20 miles on pace for or in reach of a sub-4-hr finish, only to watch in frustration as my legs failed to push me forward fast enough to keep up with the rapidly spinning time clock, until my goal ultimately eluded me in the end each time. Even in Madison last year, when I PR’d and finally did go sub-4, the final 6 miles were an agonizing, constant negotiation between exhaustion and math, and I was never sure I was going to succeed until the final yards before the finish line. (At which point, I was promptly rewarded with a bought of dizziness and nausea that didn’t pass for 30 minutes after the race.)

What a glorious pleasure it was then, yesterday, to be able to turn off all of these concerns and just run. All I had to focus on was my turnover rate, the next mile marker, and my sturdy will to push onward.

Nevertheless, I did continue to hit the splits on my watch. I crossed Mile 22 in 8:52. Mile 23 was 9:03 – the first split all day to be slower than 9 minutes. I rebounded for the 24th mile with an 8:43. It was the last 2 miles that finally, truly felt hard. My legs were heavy. My mouth was feeling dry. With the turns in the course through the neighborhoods near downtown, there were several stretches when I couldn’t see a single other runner ahead of me on the road. When I did creep up on someone else, I tried to hook onto them and use them to pull forward.

Mile 25 was the slowest of the day, a 9:17. So close, but still another long jaunt up 3rd Avenue, and I still couldn’t see the finish area. I needed to keep pushing. We finally made the last signifigant turn on the course onto 56th Street and back into Harbor Park. At last, I could see the 26-mile marker and what would be the finish line area. I didn’t have much kick in me, but I gave it everything I had left. I crossed 26 in 9:11, but I also saw that my total time lapsed was only 3:42:52. There was no longer any doubt. I charged through the final 385 yards, fighting off the tears at my accomplishment and brought home my sub-3:45. Laura snapped a couple of pictures as I came in, and then ran over to greet me just past the finish line. Hugs and tears all around.

I’ve had two nights to drink it in now, and I’m still buzzing. It’s been a while since I’ve had a running week as good as this past one. All of 2008 was one running let-down after another. My sub-4 at the Madison Marathon was very much the exception, not the rule, as I logged slow races, missed goal times and even posted my first-ever DNF (because of a knee that I injured when I fell on it during a training run). Now, in just a seven day stretch, I’ve cut 30 seconds off my 5K PR, and 15 minutes off my marathon. And in neither race did I feel like I ran as hard as I absolutely could have. I might have pushed harder; I might have set even loftier goals and attained them. If I improved my training, did better stretching, worked to improve my core strength, I know I could run even faster.

It’s so good to feel like I'm still discovering more potential, more reward. I worried at the end of last year that running had become a bit of a drudge. Now I feel vindicated for the little changes I made, and suddenly running is completely fun again.


David Ray said...

That's an awesome PR! Congrats and looking forward to detail.

David Ray said...

Excellent report!! Congrats again on a great race!

GTI said...

Thanks, David!
You know, I talked to my parents down in Georgia yesterday, and they say it's already getting warm and humid down there. I think I'm actually looking forward to summer weather after the long, cold winter here up north.

Chris said...

Well done! I knew you had a PR in you. Keep striving for even lower PRs in the future. Isn't it nice to feel good about running again? I'm turning that corner too. Running is actually fun again. I hope my racing will go well too. You've motivated me to stay positive and keep optimistic about achieving my goals.

GTI said...

Thanks, Chris! Yeah, who knew? A health dose of moderation being the catalyst? I don't think "moderation" comes standard in the Ultra Runner Dictionary. But maybe it's working out for both of us. I'm going to looking for you next 10K race report!

704 Studio said...

Excellent! So fast, and love those shoes! I may have to get a pair myself. I bought NB cross country spikes after reading one of your blog posts, now I may need to get some orange shoes :)

I'm looking forward to see how you do in ultras this year. With all of your training and experience, you are going to be hard to catch!