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.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Race Report: Wisconsin Marathon 2010

A happy accident happened to me this morning on my way to run the Wisconsin Marathon. The drive to Kenosha takes a little more than an hour, so I decided to catch up on my NPR podcasts, specifically, an episode of RadioLab. They like to look at common everyday questions about the elements of life and being human and examine them in a scientific way. (It’s just an amazing show.) The episode was titled “Limits”.

The first segment was an interview with a woman named Julie, who, once upon a time, decided to go and run the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. She was a P.E. major in college, and happened to see Ironman coverage on TV the year before. She was a surfer and thought it would be a cool excuse to take a trip to Kona, do some surfing, run the Triathlon and then use the experience to write her thesis.


As the interview unfolded, I realized that it sounded a little familiar to me. It seemed like I’d heard it somewhere before. I listened carefully as Julie explained that she had trained for the event, but admitted that it was never “serious” training. She didn’t really worry about it until the gun went off and everything actually began. Still, she finished the 2.4 mile swim well enough, and had a strong 112 miles on the bike – so strong in fact, that as she transitioned to the marathon, she was in second place. More than that, the woman in first was dealing with an achilles injury and, about 8 miles into the run, Julie passed her and moved into 1st place among the women.

Now, I was sure I knew this story. “Julie” was JULIE MOSS. The interview hadn’t included any dates, and made it sound as though the events were recent. No, this was Julie Moss at the Ironman World Championships in 1982. The event was only 4 years old at that point, and it was still very much a fringe event. ABC’s World Wide of Sports had picked up coverage the year before, and that’s when Julie had seen it on TV. They were back again, covering the ‘82 race, and once Julie moved into 1st place, she was front and center on National Television.

Moss explained that after she found herself in the lead, something inside her changed. A competitive drive that she had never felt before emerged with force, and she became determined to win the race. She had a 20-minute lead on the girl in 2nd place, and was constantly aware of that woman’s imminent approach. She drove herself relentlessly forward.

But 1982 was also the wee early days of sports nutrition science, and Julie’s body began to fail her in the late miles of the marathon. 400 meters from the finish line, still in first place, but with her challenger closing fast, she began to lose control of her legs and collapsed. She rose but fell again. She pushed herself up with her arms, walked, found a trot and swaggered, then fell yet again. She staggered like a drunkard, bobbing up and down off the pavement until she was 50 feet from the finish line when she fell a final time and could not push herself back up. The crowd was mad with excitement, imploring her to continue. They and she could see the finish line waiting, so close yet out of reach.

Around the edges of the throng of people surrounding Julie, Kathleen McCartney bounced past, crossed the finish line and won the race. She didn’t even know she had won until race officials drop a medal and a lei around her neck and told her so. And in the background, 20 feet behind, on the wrong side of the line, Julie Moss had pulled herself onto her elbows – because her legs could no longer function – and began to crawl.

That’s how she finished the race, just behind Kathleen McCartney, in 2nd place. But she finished. And the whole thing was broadcast on National Television.

In the RadioLab interview, Julie says that she saw the feet of her competitor run past her as she lay on the ground in front of the finish line. Her legs had stopped working, but there was nothing wrong with her mind. She was completely lucid. She says her very first thought was to just quit; “F it,” she says in the interview. And then something else in her mind spoke: “Get Up.” Get Up. You Can Crawl. Whatever it took, she was going to finish.

That’s just about the last thing I listened to before I turned off the car to get out and go run my own marathon. I didn’t suffer on Saturday in Kenosha the way that Julie Moss did that day in Kona, but that RadioLab show did make a difference in my race.

The 2009 Wisconsin Marathon was a smashing success for me. I felt strong that whole morning, held my speed until late in the race, and ran a 3:44, chopping 15 minutes off my previous best marathon time.

This year, I was eager for more. I was sure I could do as well as last year, had a goal of lowering that PR by any little amount, and had a dream goal of running a 3:3Anything. An 8:20 overall mile pace would get me that dream goal with a little room to spare, so I planned to start out at that speed and hold it for as long as I could. If I slipped off in the later miles, it would still give me an excellent jump on just lowering my PR, and even if I missed that, I could still have a very respectable race.

Conditions for the 2010 race were a little different from last year. The start temp in ’09 was 45 degrees, and got up to 58 before the end of the race, with a light breeze. This year we started at 62, the heat creeped upwards to 68 or 69, and the wind blew in hard from the Southwest at 12mph for much of the second half. Nothing nearly so bad as, say, Chicago in ’07 or ’08, but not ideal, to be sure.

The early miles went well. I felt free and easy and I was hitting my 8:20s or just below with little trouble. The feeling never lasts, but after the first 30 minutes, I felt like I could run 8:20s forever and ever.

Kenosha’s a small town, but there were a fair number of locals and friends of runners out on the street corners to watch and cheer. It really is a nice little race, and runs through a lovely little town with plenty of lake views on the course. The route twists and turns through the neighborhoods a good bit early on, until finally settling into a basic out-and-back on the north end, and another on the southern 2nd half.

It was easy to recall the race route from the year before. At 3 Miles, we ran past what would also be the 12-Mile marker and the Half-Marathon final turn around sign. One of the guys nearby me playfully called out to his buddies, “What!? That’s it? Time to head to the finish line already?!” and then looped around and took a few false strides towards the Park.

After 4 Miles a guy inched up behind me, breathing loud and heavy. I found it rather distracting, and had to move over and slow down so that he would run away from me. I kept thinking, even if he was only in the Half, it was way to early to be breathing that hard.

Just as last year, I opted not to carry my own water bottle, choosing instead to depend on the course aid stations. No matter what type of portable hydrations system I use, carrying that much extra weight affects my gate and therefore my pace. My personal experience with this is undeniable. Instead, I was wearing my RaceReady shorts and had gel packs stuffed in the pockets. I sucked down the first one of these at 6 miles, as we ran back through the heart of town headed north.

I caught my first sight of all the race leaders on the north end out-and-back near mile 7.5. I forgot to check the bib color of the first runner, but he was really truckin’ it back down to town. I assumed he must have been running the Half. Other men and, finally, women popped up behind him, but it was a long time before I saw the first female marathoner. She was less than a mile in front of me when she streamed by. (The first woman finished in 3:26:16, and the second place woman was 5 seconds after her.) Shortly after that, I made it to the northern turn-around myself, and headed south. I would spend the next 11 miles running into the teeth of a stiff wind.

The only trouble I had early on, was a tight, achy muscle group in the strangest of places: my left shoulder. The area connecting my left pectoral to my shoulder joint just wouldn’t loosen up. If I lifted my arm up and rotated my elbow in the air, the pain went away immediately, but as soon as I dropped back down into my normal running motion, the demon instantly returned. It started up in the first couple of miles, and plagued me the entire morning.

This is an obvious thing to say, but experience affects your perspective so much. 26.2 Miles isn’t the uber-massive, intimidating distance that it once seemed to be. I still remember 2006, when I was training for my first marathon, how intimidating those first 10 and 12-mile training runs were. I’m not sure I would have made it through those without Abby, my training partner that summer.

Now, 22 marathons and ultras later, the first 20 miles go by and then the real effort begins. I’ve always heard that miles 1 through 20 are the “first half” of a marathon, the last 10K is the second half. That really is true, and the last 3 or 4 marathons have all been like that for me. The first 10 miles, I’m biding my time, the next 10, I’m finding out how I truly feel that day – how are my time splits looking, where are my strengths, where are the weaknesses in my legs, my form, my mind. Then I really check in with the race clock at the 20-mile mark, and set my goals for the last 10K, crunching numbers, dividing miles into minutes, trying to estimate what I’ve got left and what I can do.

In 2007 at the NYC Marathon, when I was still trying to break 4 hours for the first time, I crossed Mile 20 in exactly 3 hours. I did my quick math and knew I just needed to do 9:30 miles ‘til the end to break 4 hours – and settled for less when my legs would no longer respond in the last 4 miles. I watched my splits slip further and further beyond the 9:30s that I needed, and settled for a 4:03.

The opposite happened 6 months later at the Madison Marathon, when I crossed 20 in 2:59, and clocked an averaged pace of exactly 9:40 for the final 10K to finally break 4 Hours with a 3:59 finish.

Despite my persistent shoulder cramp, the first 10 miles on Saturday were smooth and easy, but the second 10 miles proved to be a little more work. The north loop brought us back through downtown Kenosha before all the Half-Marathoners peeled off at the 12-Mile mark to head toward the finish line. I got to 13 Miles and, roughly, the halfway point (which was unmarked this year) in 1:49, one minute ahead of last year’s pace.

The long out-and-back on the second half of the course is not the most interesting place to run. It reaches down to the southern outskirts of Kenosha, a secluded residential area along Lake Michigan. While heading south, the course detours off of that main road onto even more secluded county roads, dotted with homes. Some of those roads are still dirt and gravel surfaces. After the final turnaround, the course is a straight shot back up along the lake roads to the finish line.

None of this bothers me much. I’m not a runner who is motivated much by the scenery. What did start to creep in on me was the rising thermometer. It still wasn’t “hot”, but it also wasn’t comfortably cool anymore, either. The southern headwinds, which had gained strength past mile 14, at least offered a little relief from the warm, humid air. Regardless, my split times started to slide up into the 8:30 range.

I got into a polite conversation with a couple guys in the 17th mile, but they were slowing down a bit, and my next split was an 8:45. I had to decide if I was going to relent or push on. I pushed. I left the guys behind and concentrated on my leg turnover. I dropped my next split down to an 8:39, but my effort felt harder than that. So, not the greatest sign.

It was a relief to get to that last major turnaround just before Mile 19 and head north again. I was on the homestretch and the wind was at my back, but that didn’t get much rebound and my split at mile 20 was 8:48. So, there I was at the “halfway” point, facing a moment of truth. The race clock was at 2:48:39. I did my mental math. I knew a sub-3:40 was out. That would require 8:15 miles through to the end, and that wasn’t going to happen. However, if I could keep putting out 8:50s I would cross the line with a 3:43 and a new PR. My legs were heavy, but I clutched my optimism.

I did alright the next two miles, with an 8:53 and then a 9:06, but adding 13 seconds from one mile to the next was cause for concern. And the truth was the life in my legs was gone. I felt as though I was plodding down the pavement in cement blocks. The sun was beating down on me. I was genuinely surprised to see that the splits were as “fast” as they were. I began to worry about how much longer I could hang on.

The next two miles got tougher. I split with a 9:21 and then a 9:25, and the mile markers weren’t getting any closer together, and I knew my PR would have to wait for another day. I could really feel the warmth of the day by that point, too. I was still without a water bottle, and I began to regret the 2-mile distance between aid stations on the last 6 miles of the course (a small improvement I might lobby for in future versions of the race). My sense of time began to stretch, and so did my splits. Several runners who I hadn’t seen in miles caught and passed me. I could do nothing but let them go and keep plodding forward.

And it was at that point when, yes, my mind cast back to that RadioLab segment with Julie Moss. I had two voices in my own head, too, the one saying, “just walk, relax, it doesn’t matter,” and the other – the stronger one – saying, “NO, you have to keep running.” The episode had gone on to analyze those reserves of energy that Moss had drawn on, with detailed research about the body’s tendency to lie to your mind about how much is actually left in the tank. Turns out the body tends to be very conservative on those estimates, and that lie is then communicated as pain, or variations thereof. My body was trying to tell me it was stiff and tight and exhausted. I decided not to believe the lie. I chose to believe in myself instead. I kept going. I know I wasn’t moving very fast, but I kept running.

Finally, as I approached the last aid station at Mile 25, I allowed my self to walk the length of the water tables. I was shocked at how my legs felt when I hit the brakes. My walking gate was FAR wobblier than I could have expected. Each foot plant was stiff and uncertain. As I poured water cups over my head, and sipped down servings of Gatorade, I had brief doubts that I would be able to force my legs back into a running pace again. Luckily I was wrong.

My math skills were getting fuzzy, but my watch read 3:35, and I figured I still had to run for maybe 11 more minutes. A 3:46 finish didn’t sound awful. Just a few minutes later, I thought it would have to be more like a 3:47. I decided I could live with a 3:47. I can’t explain why, but 3:48 just sounded kind of awful in my head. I don’t know, 7s are skinny and lucky. 8s are fat and crazy.

The clock was at 3:45:50 when I crossed 26 miles. I could see the finish line around the bend in the park ahead of me. I was going to have to push as hard as I still could to come in with a 7. What I had left wasn’t a whole lot, but I threw it out there and tossed myself across the finish line at 3:47:54. My second fastest marathon ever, and just 3 minutes off my PR. Not too bad. I’ll take it.

Considering the extra heat, I have to feel like this year’s 3:47 is comparable to last year’s 3:44, but I don’t think that alone accounts for all 3 of those minutes. I put a lot more miles on my legs this spring than last year as well, all in preparation for the 100-Miler in San Diego in 6 weeks. The miles took a different toll, and my basic speed peaked and was sharpest about 6 weeks before the marathon – too soon. I still have a lot of things to learn about how my body responds to training.

It’s worth your time to listen to that RadioLab show. Both the Episode and the Series are just phenomenal. The Julie Moss segment is from the episode titled “Limits”, and you can listen to, or download the Podcast for free HERE. (You can also subscribe for free on iTunes.)
After you've heard "Limits", I recomend you listen to the episode titled "Stochasticity" next. If you're not hooked on RadioLab after that, there might be something wrong with you.

You can watch a video recap of Julie Moss’ 1982 Ironman finish on YouTube HERE. (Just ignore the cheesy, low-rent background music.)

And finally this is a print interview with Julie before the 2003 Ironman, the 25th anniversary of the event. She went back to run it again for the first time since the 1980s and reflects on the overall experience in a little more detail than in the RadioLab segment. That link is HERE.

As for the original broadcast of the Moss’ Ironman finish in 1982? It was a phenomenon. People watching the broadcast called their friends and insisted that they turn on their TVs because they “had to see this.” Julie was instantly famous and so, too, was the Ironman. After Julie’s brutal finish on Wide World of Sport in 1982, applications for the event began to skyrocket so much that a qualifying system had to be put in place for the athletes. That’s right: Watching Julie Moss suffer on National TV made people want to do the race more.

Just further proof that I’m not the only one.