Windy, rainy, and cold, those were the weather conditions during the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon on October 2, 2011 at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. This being my second marathon, I had, at the very least, experienced what running 26.2 miles was – although no two marathons are ever the same. I had a strategy, one that I included as part of my training, particularly during the three 20 mile long training runs leading up to this race. I followed a three month training program and the prescribed rest period prior to race day. I carb loaded and hydrated appropriately. In short, I was as ready as I was going to be. My planned pace was 9:42 minutes per mile (min/mi), which would have brought me in at 4 hours 14 minutes 8 seconds (4:14:08) and I believed I could complete the race around that time. However, I also knew that a marathon just isn’t that predictable. Nonetheless I fully expected to completed the race in under 4:30:00.
I never heard the starting pistol, I only knew the race had begun as the pack began to shuffle toward the starting line. At mile one, I was a little surprised to see my pace was 10:04 as I didn't think I was going that slow, but I assumed that this perception had to do with still being in a somewhat dense pack of runners. I also figured that as I warmed up my pace would pick up and I’d settle into my pace. My pace slowly picked up a few seconds with each passing mile, at mile four my pace was 9:50 and my average pace was 9:54.
Learning how to pace yourself during a marathon is key to finishing a marathon successfully. In the beginning of a race, you’re still fresh and have a lot of energy, which is one of the reasons I’ve had a tendency to start out too fast in fast races – it didn’t feel like I was going as fast as I was. The consequence, of course, is you have less energy towards the end of the race – in my case, my pace at the latter end of past races have been much slower than my planned race pace. Lessons learned, my pace was a big focus of my training and I was fully aware of it during the race. It was around mile four that it started to dawn on me that I was running at what felt like a comfortable pace, but where was that energy that I thought I’d have to rein in? I was a little concerned and I didn’t really know what to do about it. I thought that maybe the humidity had more of an impact than I anticipated despite the ideal temperature; or perhaps the cooler weather combined with the taper just required a longer warm up period. I even considered that all of this was mental, that maybe at some subconscious level I wasn’t as confident about my planned pace as I thought I was, that maybe I was holding back in fear of burning out as I did during my first marathon.
I made a decision: I prepared for this, I found my times, I found my pace, I rested prior to the race, the temperature was right, this is what all the training over the summer was a for, I needed to go for it – I was going to stick to my plan and get on pace. So I picked up my pace a bit to make up time, but I was going to do this gradually and attempt to maintain what I felt was the upper range of a comfortable pace. My average pace continued to get closer to my planned pace as each mile passed. At the 10 mile point my pace was 9:31 (thanks to a nice downgrade) and my average pace was 9:46. I was feeling good and I was close enough to my planned pace that I felt I could slow things down a bit.
When I ran my first marathon I carried some water with me. This was mostly due to the fact that I had carried water when I trained and that I was still somewhat inexperienced when it came to racing. The downside to carrying water is the extra weight of both the water and whatever device you’re using to carry it. What I’ve found during my races was that water stations are generally located every 2 to 2.5 miles along a race route and I really don’t need to carry extra water with me. I did not memorize where the water stations were located along the route, but I knew the spacing was consistent with that of my previous races. At mile 9 I grabbed a half cup of water and continued on. At around mile 11 I was ready for more water and was looking ahead to see where it was. The marathoners and half marathoners split off from each other shortly after mile 11, so I assumed that the next drink station was moved past the break to prevent confusion as we split off. Mile 12 came and when with no water station in sight as did mile 13, needless to say, I was getting highly annoyed. Not only did I need water for hydration, but I also needed water to consume electrolytes and fuel, these were essential to my race strategy. My average pace at miles 11, 12, and 13 were 9:47, 9:46, and 9:47, respectively. The drink station finally appeared at 13.5 miles, for the first time during the race I stopped so I could drink down two cups and fuel. I found out later that the volunteers for the water station at mile 11 and 24 never showed up. My pace started to slip after this: My average pace at miles 14, 15, and 16 were 9:48, 9:49, and 9:51, respectively. I also started to feel some pain in my left knee, which I later identified as an IT band issue. And to top things off, the drink station that was suppose to be at 16.2 miles wasn’t there either. I stopped at around 16.4 mile to stretch out my left knee. I’ve not experience an IT band issue before. I suspect the cause was a predominance of right pitching roads (chamber), which in some cases was rather severe.
Since I didn’t memorize where the drink stations were located, I didn’t immediately realize another one was missing, but it became apparent soon enough. I asked a volunteer where the next drink station was, to which he replied he didn’t know. This was ridiculous, did I somehow miss a water station? Finally, at 18.2 miles a water station: I stopped, I drank, I consumed. Oh, and they had portapotties, I …..
My splits for miles 16, 17, and 18 were 10:19, 10:56, and 10:19 min/mi, respectively. My pit stop at 18.2 miles resulted in a 19 mile split of 11:34. And accordingly, my average pace continued to slip: my average pace for miles 17, 18, 19, and 20 were 9:55, 9:56 10:01, and 10:03 min/mi, respectively. At 20.2 miles I stopped at the water station and drank down two more cups of water and took in electrolytes. At some point my feet were starting to feel tired.
During my first 20 mile training run I had discovered that by taking off my Vibram Fivefingers (V5Fs) to complete the last several miles barefoot, both my feet and body began to feel reinvigorated. I did this again on my two subsequent 20 mile runs, each time a little further from the end. I didn’t plan on actually using this little trick of mine during this race, though it was always an option, I just didn’t think would need to come race day.
When my feet started to feel tired I started thinking about taking the V5Fs off, but the question was when. I didn’t want to take them off too soon – although in hindsight this might have been the better choice. At around 21.2 miles I stopped and took off the V5Fs and used the laces to tie them around my waist. This seemed to have an immediate effect on how I felt overall, but at this point the damage had been done, my splits for miles 21, 22, 23, and 24 were 12:32, 12:01, 11:56, and 11:47 min/mi respectively, which left me with an average pace of 10:23 min/mi at mile 24. Since the mile 11 and 24 water station volunteers never showed up, my last water station was at 22.2 mile, yet again, since I didn’t know where they were located, I didn’t know this was my last drink until the finish. Strangely enough, when another drink station just didn’t appear, I think I had just accepted that the organizers of this race just didn’t have their act together. But it wasn’t until I saw a runner in front of almost get hit by a car somewhere between miles 24 and 25 that this race official became the worst organized race I had participated in. This was not just a poor choice by a random driver, there was a serious traffic issue here, yet there were no traffic controls in place.
I’m not entirely sure what happened between miles 25 and 26 as my split was 14:03 minutes. I had to stop and stretch out my left knee again and I came along another runner that was also having problems with her left knee. She would try running for a bit, then walk, then run, etc. She said she didn’t know what was going on as she never had this kind of issue before. Sound familiar? Well it seemed to support my chamber theory, which I shared with her. My first thought was to run with her, which I started to do, but she started to walk again. I left her with some words of encouragement and continued on to the finish line. As I got closer to the finish line, that little bit of energy that I just didn’t think I had left kicked in and I came in strong. I finished in 4:42:00.
Of course I would have preferred to have come in under 4:30:00 as I had fully expected to, but after crossing the finish line it really just didn’t seem all that important. I felt a ran a good race and I got through some unexpected challenges. Not only was my finish time a significant improvement over my first marathon, but I just ran a better race overall. As with my first marathon, I come away from my second a little wiser. As I said, no two marathons are the same, but each marathon I complete gives me a little more experience and that will help me get through those little unknowns more successfully in future marathons. While the course and conditions were not ideal, several people qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time – these runners, btw, were not first time marathoners.
Oh, and that girl with the IT band issue I had run with earlier, she finished despite being in extreme pain the whole way. I cheered her in as she approached the finish line, once she crossed, she came right up to me and gave me a big hug, it caught me off guard, but I completely understood it, it was that camaraderie that comes from shared experience. Being apart of someone else's marathon experience, however brief, was, in itself, an amazing experience. In my mind, she is the epitome of what running is all about, it is about exceeding what you believed you were capable of, about going on when there's nothing left and yet somehow you do, it's about heart. I don't remember who crossed the finish line first that day, but I'll never forget girl who finished on nothing but heart.