Monday, October 29, 2007

Race report: Marine Corps Marathon

It's long, it's painful, but here it is. My race report for marathon No. 2.

The start: Mile 1 to 5 through Rosslyn and into Georgetown

By the time we got under way, we were lined up really close to the front. I think we crossed the starting line about 30 seconds after 8 a.m. As a result, we quickly got into pace and did not have a lot of runners to dodge or weave ourselves around. There were surprisingly a lot of people watching the start near the Arlington Cemetery. I knew that R. was making her way near the start so I kept an eye on her while trying to maintain close contact with the pacer. In this, as all races, the first part is just a mass start, big crowds of varying paces. You get a hard time figuring out if you're going out too fast or if some are just pushing you too fast.

At the very end of the first mile, in Rossyln, Virginia, we encountered a hill. Not a small one but a fairly steep incline. It was the first of several. Just as I nearing, I saw a girl with a fluorescent jacket. It was R. and I waved at her and saw her try to take a picture. I was happy to have seen her and was hoping I'd see her at a few other spots we'd preplanned.

I hit the first mile in 7:19, faster than the 7:37 pace we should have been doing for a 3:20 marathon. We ran the second in 7:22 (incline followed by a decline) and the next on pace. I quite enjoyed this part of the run as it was through very nice neighbourhoods and hilly areas that were kinda fun to run through. It's always a good test to throw hills at runners, but to throw it at the beginning of a mostly flat marathon was really odd. The fourth mile had a fantastic downhill in which we all coasted. Jack, our pacer, who we later nicknamed "Captain Jack", told us to take care of our quads and did some mentions of Boston hills. By this time, we had hit the first water station which I did not hit because I had my 10 ounce Gatorade bottle with me. I drank from it throughout the first two miles.

I was feeling good. The running was smooth. This was easy and time to get into relaxed running, which I was managing despite the altering terrain.

5 mile split: 37:45 (3:20 pace was 38:08.43)

5 mile to 10 miles: From Georgetown to the District.

The end of the 5 miles saw us climb a hill and cross a bridge into Georgetown, where we had massive crowds of college kids and other supporters yelling their brains out. It was so much fun at this and other points during the race. This area had lots of hills again, but I was killing time keeping up with the pacers. I was starting to familiarize myself with the runners who were keeping up with him. It turns out there were about 12 of us consistently following him, so our little group of 3:20 pacers formed a tight little pack among the bigger group of runners we were passing or being passed. I was keeping to the right of the group because I like to keep to the right and I also told R. I'd be on the right hand so she could spot me.

We hit mile 6 at 7:38, on pace, and mile 7 at 7:07, really fast but assisted by the hills. Mile 8 was done in 7:21 and I already knew that this pacer was going to push it throughout the race. No one in my group really asked him why he was going fast, only that we were doing different pacing because of the hills. This is my one complaint about pacers. They are runners who pace runs that are slower than their personal bests so obviously they have better LTs. We, on the other hand, have a narrower band. And so while they push the pace by 10 or 15 seconds, we don't have that type of fitness.

I knew this but also knew that I had created a buffer for myself. That my fitness and my races told me I should be able to handle a 3:20 or even faster. Plus, I knew the benefits of running with groups and I'll tell you that's one major area of anxiety that I'd like to do away with during a race.

By mile 9, we were on the way back to complete Georgetown and head toward the Kennedy Center and the Mall. We were now running alongside marathoners who were 3 miles behind us and it was a massive crowd. We saw the other pace groups and it felt good to be with the 3:20 group -- we were running strong. There were no pretenders in our group. We were running hard, smooth and with purpose (which meant little conversation).

I had by this time ditched my bottled and had made sure to grab Powerade at all the stops. I'd grab cups, pinch, take a good sip, and keep on running until I drained most of it. It was something I did smartly until the end. The water stations at these big marathons are chaos. Runners didn't really take the water then sway into the middle.. Instead, we were like drunkened dancers, bouncing and weaving out of each others' way, no partners, just trying to avoid each other. Meanwhile, our pacer stayed in the middle, grabbed a drink and powered on. We always managed to catch up to Captain Jack but it took a little effort.

10 mile split: 1:14:56 (3:20 pace was 1:16:16)

10 miles to 15 miles: And into the Mall we go

Oranges. I think I read about it in another blog last year that they have oranges. I was happy to see them so I grabbed two slices and stuffed one into my mouth. I thought about chewing them to get the juice, then spitting them, but I decided that food is good to get into the system. I had taken a gel at the hour mark and I had two more in store. I also had some beans, and six shot blox that I was saving for the end.

I saw R. soon after on a curve near the Lincoln memorial. We traded a nice high-five and I caught up to the group. I would have to say that miles 11 to 13 were the most fun of the marathon. The crowd was loud and having fun and I was soaking it up. I didn't do any high fives but I was enjoying the moment. And it was nice to hear the "go 3:20 pace group!" cheers throughout the race. We did mile 11 in 7:21, mile 12 in 7:17 and mile 13 in 7:24. Clearly, our pacer had no intention of slowing down to pace even in these flat miles. I wasn't complaining but I also wasn't heartened by people who said "we just did a 7:30 mile". Yikes. So much for 7:37s.

We hit the half marathon mark in 1:38:02 which was almost two minutes faster than the planned 1:40. Time in the bank, the pacer would say later. Time that I would pay for later, I thought at one point.

Mile 13 and 14 were still in the Mall and heading toward the Tidal Basin. I was expecting R. at some point and I finally spotted her a lot farther into the race than I'd expected.

We said hi, I smiled, and she snapped the only picture she was able to get of me. It also turned to to be the last time I saw her until after the race. Mile 15 was done in a fast 7:21 (and they followed miles of 7:24 and 7:31). We were simply putting a lot of banked time away. This would be the pace I'd go for if I were aiming for a 3:15 but our pacer showed no intention of wanting to hit his splits. I'd hear him say from time to time "we've got two minutes in the bank!"

15 miles: 1:52:17 (1:54:25.30)

15 miles to 18 miles: The Park and back

I really wasn't looking forward to miles 16 to 19 as they were to be run in the East Potomac Park. I had been there twice, the first time accompanying R. to the swimming pool on a super hot day in July. The second time on my last 20 miler three weeks ago. It was a super humid and warm day (the day before the Chicago marathon's heat wave). But this time, it was sunny, it was cool and I had a group to run with so it went smooth. Our group had thinned at this point and there were fewer runners in general within sight. In fact, our group was now running like a pack, devouring people in our sights. It was quite the experience to be part of a strong formation of runners. We were tightly together in the windy bits and although we spread out during the water breaks, we stayed together.

18 miles: 2:14:43 (3:20 pace: 02:17:18)

18 miles to 22 miles: The Wall, the Bridge and a Crystal City

We hit the 18 mile mark with almost 2 minutes, 30 seconds of banked time. On the way back out of Haines point at mile 18, Captain Jack relayed some funny story that I really didn't catch. Others did and they laughed. I just concentrated on the other runners' forms. We got some jelly beans and continued to chug along.

I remember the bridge leading towards the final six miles. People were starting to walk. We'd run as a pack and start really passing people. I really made an effort to keep with the group. We reached the 20 mile mark and I didn't feel like I hit the wall yet. Jack said "It's just a 50 minute 10K to go, a nice lazy Sunday run". We laughed but we all knew it was the farthest thing from a lazy weekend run. It was about to get tough.

There were no water stations for the bridge so I started to chew on the Clif shot blox. I had one set out per mile and I chewed and let it sit in my mouth while I sucked on the sugar. I think I should have just ingested it. I had also taken my second gel at the 17 mile mark. As it turns out, I "forgot" to take the third. Not a good idea, I don't think.

Still, the miles were going well: I did 18 in 7:27, 19 in 7:29, 20 in 7:25, 21 in 7:21 and 22 in 7:26. I was now two miles past the unofficial start of The Wall and I had not hit it yet. It was a good sign but I also felt myself really tiring and losing a bit of concentration.

I hate out and backs because it really makes you feel like you have a long distance to go. At the Crystal City out and back (miles 21 to 23) I could see the sub 3 hour marathoners and the 3:10s running. It wasn't a massive group. The wind started to really pick up and it was a chilly one. I grabbed a sponge they were handing out and it only managed to make my hand a bit colder.

22 miles: 2:44:54 (3:20 pace 2:47:49)

22 miles to 26.2 miles: The long trek home

We hit the 22 mile mark a full three minutes ahead of schedule. This was good to have banked time but I had run the majority of this race faster than planned pace. When I look back at the first 22 miles, only one was at pace and one was 1 second slower. All 20 others were faster, some by 10 to 20 seconds faster.

Mile 23 was another decent one at 7:28. At this point, I was just trying to picture another 5K run but the wind and cold temperatures were (again, like last year) getting to me. Mile 24 saw two things happen. First, I lost my pace group. They were just going a little bit faster and I didn't make the effort to catch up and match their pace. I didn't totally slow down, but it wasn't looking good. I did mile 24 in about 7:48, which isn't totally bad as it was only the second mile slower than planned pace.

Then it happened. I hit a wall. Not a massive one at first, but I was hitting it. Mile 25 saw me run by the Pentagon and it's a very lonely stretch. It's also the area of the start of the race so it's kinda disheartening to see it while you are cold, tired and all alone. I took my first walk break of the entire marathon at mile 25. Just like in the last marathon, a walk break broke me, but not entirely. My Garmin is kinda off for the total distance, but it shows mile 25 at 8:47, which is a minute off my pace. It's actually not a bad pace at all but given I was training for a consistent 7:37 mile pace, it felt very slow.

The last mile was tough tough tough. I had to walk once in a while. I felt what I felt a year ago: my heart seemed to be racing, my legs were cramping (a lot of it due to my taking walk breaks) and I was a little dizzy and even a bit disorientated at one point or the other. My mind told my body to go. My head said, "you've run 770 miles in this training, you can go one mile more" but my body could only give me a slow run followed by a few steps of walking. I hit the turnaround in the last bit and I accidentally hit the curb and found myself staggering a step to the left. I must have looked like I was drunk. A Marine asked if I needed assistance. I said I was okay, just a little bit thirsty.

I was checking my watch throughout the last mile. I saw the time ticking away and my biggest fear was totally blitzing my time. I really wanted to improve from last year's time. I had to. I was reassured that I could make a strong showing but my mind wasn't really doing good math for me so I had no real clue of what to expect for a final time.

Runners going past me were very encouraging, running strong while telling me I could do it, that I can pick it up. Trust me, it helps, every last encouragement. I did a slow jog and tried my hardest not to walk. The final hill is a test of strength of any runner in the middle of a race. At the end of a marathon, it's a cruel cruel thing. But you see the finish arches and by god, any runner worth his or her salt would find nothing but speed. So after one 5 second walk break, and getting the encouragement from the sidelines, I ran and picked it up.

It was not the shuffle of a humiliating end to a strong strong marathon, but one of a proud runner who had worked as hard as he could, trained as hard as he could and as I neared the finish, I put up both arms. I had deserved this moment and I was going to cherish it.

Post marathon march
I got my medal and was a little unsteady because of my legs and was dehydrated and weak. A Marine kindly walked with me for about 50 metres. Another two or three asked me ("Sir," they said) if I was okay. I nodded them and thanked them. They did a truely fantastic job in organizing this and I was grateful. They handed me a bag, I filled it up with goodies, I slow walked up a hill, cramped one leg, then walked slowly to the UPS truck to grab my bag. A Marine saw my hat and said "where are you from?!" I said "Toronto". He said, "I'm from North Bay, and I'm going home soon" All I could say was "It's good to see you."

At this point, I was close to tears. It all hit home. I had trained for so long and I didn't have my emotional moment until 15 minutes after the finish. I collected my finisher's coin, walked a little more and decided to plop myself down and phoned R. to come get me. I also phone blogged some thoughts. You can hear the pain/joy/exhaustion in my voice.

After reflecting, today, I picked up the Washington Post and saw two pages, one for top men, the other for top women. I was surprised to see that they printed first first thousand or so for both genders, which meant I got to see my name in print.

You have no idea what little spark of joy that it caused in me and it brought me to this. I'm no elite athlete, nor am I the fastest runner. But I worked hard and through that training, I've achieved far more than I ever thought I ever could. I set a personal best yesterday of more than 10 minutes (last year's 3:35:15 v. Sunday's 3:24:23). Nothing to be disappointed with. I'm very happy with the result.

I've learned so much this marathon and the training cycle. It showed me that the proper training can get you very far. Being prepared for the unprepared takes a tough outlook and I've yet to steel my nerves and head for this distance. Last year, the Wall hit me at mile 20. This year, I smashed through 20 but it got me at mile 25. Next time, perhaps, I be prepared to scale it, and keep on running. Yes, there will be a next time. I'm in this marathoning business for good.

Chip time: 3:24:23
Place overall: 895/20667 (96.5 percentile)
Place gender: 787/12610 (93.7 percentile)
Place division: 137/1900 (92.7 percentile)
Pace: 7:47 miles

Next, more analysis and post race thoughts


Anonymous said...

Nice job Kenny. Proud of you! When your phone went right to voicemail last night I thought something bad happened. Clearly that wasn't the case. Yuo did awesome. Again, way to go buddy! -Frankie.

Sonia said...

what a great race report! CONGRATULATION on your smashing PB!

Those pacers start way too fast but you did a great job at holding in to him.

I really felt like I was there with you. The wall is brutal and even with 1 mile to go, this is the hardest mile you can ever run. I'm happy your got your final result despite hitting the wall. What a great job that rewards an awesome summer of training.

Marky Mark said...

Congratulations not only on a great race but on a gripping narrative! I think there's a book in journaling the full training cycle and race day experience.

Ryan said...


What an oustanding race and huge step forward in your running. I was excited as I read through the entire report. The emotions you described are why we run. The bravery you showed while fighting through the final mile defines you as a person. Awesome PR - great progress - and an excellent personal victory. Do you think you would have walled at 25 if the pacer hadn't pulled you ahead of your goal pace? (I doubt it - damn pacers).

Arcane said...

Excellent race report! Thrilling to read and nice formatting. I guess that's why you're in journalism.

I couldn't agree with you more about the pacers. 10 s a mile faster may not seem like a lot to them but it's the difference between night and day for someone that is aiming to run at the edge of their current ability. You would have gotten it for sure if the pacer was on pace.

Enjoy the time off.

Anonymous said...

congratulations kenny!

very inspiring

jellypepper said...

hip hip hooray!
you're an inspiration to us all. now enjoy the rest, kick up your feet, and for goodness sake, have some fries or something with me, you deserve it.

Anonymous said...

Kenny - Let me add to the chorus of congrats. Great race report. Brought back a lot of memories of the race, especially that quad-burning downhill early. Yikes! Enjoy the PR and the downtime.

Darrell said...

Super race, definitely a testament to proper training. It was a beautiful day and tough race. Congrats on meeting your goals.

Triseverance said...

Awsome report Kenny, I really want to visit DC someday, and maybe even run a marathon. You inspire me.