A bit long I know, but at least all my thoughts are recorded...
My moment had finally arrived. It was delayed about 6 months thanks to my failures back in May. This time around, I was more prepared and more confident than ever. I had planned to run a sub-2:50 marathon, though how far under depended completely on how I felt early in the race. I hit a 2:44:53 in a very, very evenly paced effort. Now for the details....
The NCR Trail Marathon, in its 21st year is a small local marathon put on by the Baltimore Road Runners Club. The majority of it takes place on the NCR Trail, a bike path made of crushed stone/gravel. The trail itself is completely flat with sporadic road crossings and is completely surrounded by trees. Not in so many words, it is a runner's paradise. The course started about 2 miles off the trail at Sparks Elementary School, adding some 4 miles total of rolling hills on the road sections.
It was a cold and windy day. Temperatures were about 35 at the start (9AM) and probably didn't break 40 by the time I finished. There was also a stiff, cold wind around 10-15mph with some nasty gusts up to about 30mph. For the most part, it blew across the trail so there was little head wind. Nonetheless, the weather did play a significant part.
I lined up at the front and knew I had a shot at the top 5, maybe even a win if the cards fell correctly. I was most concerned with "running my own race" and would run with whomever had a compatible pace. I took a pair of throw away gloves to keep my hands warm for a little while. Along with shorts, a t-shirt, and 2 sports beans packets, I was certainly lightly dressed.
After the gun went off, 2 packs quickly formed. 4 runners (none of whom I recognized) made up the lead pack. Approximately 7 of us formed a chase pack. I knew at least one runner in my pack, and was confident in the early pace. After some rolling hills on Belfast and York Roads we hit our first mile...
Mile 1: 5:47
After some debate amongst the other runners, we concluded that mile marker was off. There was no way we just ran that split. I think it was closer to 6:00-6:05. So we continued. I already had to make an early decision. The lead pack was still within striking distance, but was slowly pulling away. I could stay back and hold my current pace or surge up and make an attempt to run with them. If this was anything but my 10th marathon, I may have given in to my pride and went after the leaders. However, the pace I was running felt right, and I knew I was right where I needed to be. So I let them go. After turning onto Sparks road, running downhill, over a bridge, and onto the trail, we hit mile 2:
Mile 2: 6:03
I also don't think this mile marker was correct. I felt fine and just decided to keep running at the current pace and the mile markers would work themselves out. This is part of the way I run, based on feel. Times are just feedback (and mile splits aren't always accurate!). Our group of 7 slowly started to bleed people and we shrunk to 6. It's a bit rough, but in a race, if you can't keep up, you get left behind.
One runner in our group decided to push forward to catch that lead pack which continued to pull away. I resisted the urge to follow. He had said early that he wanted to run a 2:45. I knew we were essentially on that pace and that he was either going to have the race of his life or completely explode. The next few miles were rather uneventful.
Mile 3-6: 6:22, 6:20, 6:18, 6:16
Our group of 5 jostled for position most of the way and we ended up taking turns at the lead to help block the wind for each other. No one ever really planned this, it just kind of happened. At least 2 people in the group were interested in pushing the pace, but we never really pushed harder, we just kept our rather consistent splits. Eventually, one of the other runners tried to pull away. Once again, I controlled myself and held back. It paid off. Forging on alone this early in a marathon, especially with the nasty wind is not a good idea. That runner eventually dropped back and then dropped out of the picture entirely. The group was down to 4.
After we passed mile 6 and the water stop at Monkton, I made my only mistake of the entire race. To this point, my hands were warm and almost sweating. I decided to ditch my throw away gloves. I've run in colder weather without gloves and my hands had been fine. Since they were already warm, I figured all would be good. However, I failed to account for the wind which did a number on my hands, but more of that to come later. Our remaining group of 4 continued to run a nice even pace:
Mile 7-8: 6:17; 6:18
After Mile 8, we had hit a total of 3 water stops. I took water from all and had consumed 2/3 of one of my sports beans bags. I was right on as far as hydration. The more sporadic water stops actually worked to my favor, since I knew I could just take water from each instead of debating each time. Unfortunately, I spilled the remaining 1/3rd of my first bag of sports beans. My hands had starting getting colder, and the fast pace made it difficult to close the bag. I didn't panic though, even 2 bags is almost too much for me at this point.
Mile 9-12: 6:17; 6:18; 6:24; 6:20
The even pace continued, but trouble was brewing with our group of 4. One of the runners kept trying to push the pace but each time backed off. I could tell he wasn't going to hold on much longer. One of the other runners also seemed to just be along for the ride and wasn't going to hold on much longer. The 3rd runner in our group however, seemed quite comfortable with the pace and I knew he was there to stay. We had decided early on to run together as long as we could, and so far neither of us disappointed.
Over these miles we had slowly started to reel in the runner who broke away from us at Mile 2. Though he had caught the lead pack, he couldn't hold the pace and had been bleeding time for most of the race. It took a long, long time for us to catch him. You can at times see almost 3/4 of a mile ahead on the trail. Combine that with his pace (only a couple seconds slower) and it took a while to cover the ground. As we got closer, my ally got impatient and pushed the pace to catch and pass him.
That move completely splintered our pack. I stayed where I was at first, but after the smoke cleared decided to pull him back in. He had not sped up much, and my pace had actually slackened to over 6:20. So I strode back up to run alongside him, and he was certainly happy I did. To this point, I was feeling decent, perhaps just a little tired. I really wasn't thinking about the rest of the race, just reaching the turnaround.
Mile 13-14: 6:21; 6:14
After the turnaround, I felt much better. Unfortunately, my left hand was now completely frozen and was stuck in it's "running position," making a lightly cupped "C." I actually dropped a water cup because I couldn't clench my fingers around the cup. Thankfully after the turnaround, with my right hand, I got the cup. I had already stopped taking sports beans because I sensed trouble in my digestive track. This would also be the last water I consumed for the rest of the race. Good thing too, my hands were almost worthless at that point.
Since the course was out and back, we started running by the rest of the pack and received a lot of cheers and feedback on our positions. I told my running ally not to get too caught up in it, because we still had a long way to go. It was only his 2nd marathon, and after finding out it was my 10th, he listened, so we did our best to hold back. Of course, young hot shots are only so good at not giving into their pride...
Mile 15-17: 6:12; 6:21; 6:14
My stomach distress was slowly getting worse. My hands were frozen solid and my feet started to hurt, probably because of the cold. I refused to give in, telling myself that all my hard work is not going down the drain now. Miles 16-22 are the toughest part of the race for me. I just tried to focus as best I could at getting through the gauntlet. Thankfully, mercifully, we passed the water stop manned by Back on My Feet. I received one of the most enthusiastic cheers ever, at nearly the height of my distress.
After passing the water stop, I fully committed all my willpower to maintain my pace and will away my stomach distress. I got dangerously close to blowing chunks but a lot of yelling under my breath (and not panicking) fixed everything. Ceasing all water and carb intake helped a lot too. I bled a little time while fighting my failure of a digestive system, but overall, I was happy with the pace. At this point, I had lost my running ally. The pace was just too much for him.
Mile 18-24: 6:22; 6:24; 6:25; 6:21; 6:34; 5:55; 6:11
I don't really believe the 6:34 and 5:55. My pace was quite consistent through both of those miles. The median split is around 6:15, which I think is more believable based on how I felt. I had pulled myself away from the brink of disaster. Everything beyond mile 20 was made possible by my high mileage training. All those long runs where I held on at the end of high weeks, and all those times I ran when it really, really, REALLY sucked was paying off. Though my feet were absolutely killing me, the pace kept getting harder to hold, and my hands were worthless, I was not giving in.
After mile 24 I turned off onto Glencoe road to leave the trail and return to the school. I knew 4 hills stood in my way, and the first one was going to suck, royally.
Mile 25: 6:19
The crest of that first hill was mile 25. Somehow, I held pace. Though my quads weren't jumping for joy before the hill, they were now very, very upset with me. Soreness started to set in and I really started to feel tired. A quick downhill followed, then some flat running and a turn onto York road. With that, another uphill. Though not as big as the last, it took out almost everything I had left.
None of these hills were very impressive, but to be at the end of a marathon, after having run mostly on downhill and flat terrain was just cruel. I then turned onto Belfast road for the final push. The road was still open to traffic and there was no shoulder.
I knew exactly where I was thanks to my advanced scouting, but it still sucked to dodge cars and the side of the road. I started wondering whether I would die from exhaustion or from being run over by a car. I could barely make sense of my surroundings at this point, but somehow, kept out of the way of the cars.
We hit not one but two more uphills. By the second, I was completely toast. My quads were finished. Every step I took was 1000x more painful than the last. I could literally feel my muscles accumulating micro tears.
Mile 26: 6:34
I have never cried during a race, nor thought to, but at that moment, I fully understood why some people do break down. Finally, finally, FINALLY I saw the final turn off to the finish line. Making the last turn killed my quads even more. How they weren't already dead is beyond me. Those last 30 seconds of running were a blur. I remember looking at the clock, seeing I would finish under 2:45, then feeling relieved after crossing the line without falling over.
I was immediately given a lot of assistance by people in the finish chute. I'm sure I looked positively awful, because I barely had to say anything, and next I knew, I had my space blanket and medal, and someone had removed my timing chip.
I still have no idea how I ran that last 0.2 miles. But I did and finished in record time, a 24 minute PR, and a 5th place finish. I had to walk another 0.25 miles in the cold before going inside. It took a full 30 minutes before I regained use of my hands. As I write this now many hours later though, a lot of the soreness has gone away.
My half marathon split was a 1:22:01, my second half was done in 1:22:52. That is as close to even as you can get. Clearly, I picked the right pace early, held on for dear life at the end, and ran well.
I think I've earned at least a little time off/recovery time before ramping up again for Boston!!