Thursday, November 17, 2011

Richmond Marathon - Race Recap and the best finish line crossing ever!

The day dawned bright and clear. Beautiful blue sky. Up bright and early, ready to go. My oldest daughter was volunteering at the finish line, picking up my neighbor Jaideep for his first marathon, and a quick ride to downtown RVA to meet my MTT training buddies for pictures before heading to the corral.

Everything is running smoothly. Until... Jaideep forgot his Garmin. But we're almost downtown, and I've got to get #1 signed in for volunteering, and then the pictures, and then we've still got an hour before the start. Hmm.. what to do.. I don't want him to have a bad first marathon worrying about his pace and how he's doing.

Finish the drive to downtown. It's just 5 minutes. My sister-in-law drops me and #1 off.. We'll take care of what we need to do, she'll take Jaideep back for his Garmin. We work out a meeting place and how she can get him closest to the starting line, and the pictures aren't that important anyway. You can barely make anyone out, because there are so many people.

Jaideep at Mile 4.
Jaideep at Mile 16.  Still smiling!
#1 dropped off? Check! Meet my MTT buddies? Check! Pilot Phil and I had decided that we both wanted to shoot for a 4:00 marathon. Doable, right? Totally. Pacing set. We head up to the starting line. But we get separated. I call Jaideep. He's back and dropping off his bag at bag check. We huddle up ready to go. He'll run his own race. I'm faster, and he's had a few stumbles in the last few training runs. He'll do great, but no pressure to try to keep pace with me. But where's Phil? Gone. Ack! Time to go line up.

Inside the corral, I see Babz and Sean and Babz' husband. Oh, and there's big Tom. A bit of waving, a bit of hollering, and we're all assembled. Can't see Phil, but I've got a plan, and either I'll see him or I won't. The gun goes off, and we slowly head out over the starting line.

About 100 yards out of the gate, I see Phil. The back of his shirt is emblazoned with "Lemmings Unite! Follow me!" A brief burst of speed, and now my running planets are aligned. We laugh, we joke. We try to break the facade of serious running plastered across the faces of everyone near us. We're right on track. Maybe a little slow. But we know that we need 9's for 26.2 miles. No need to rush. At the beginning of Mile 3, we're about 40 seconds off pace. Phil starts to get antsy. We begin to push our speed up. Then Phil, the king of sacrificing his running pace to support others, breaks down. "I want that sub-4," he says softly. "Me too! But we can do it by sticking at 9's and pushing on the second half." 8:15 for mile 3. A bit too fast.. Slow it down to 8:30s.

Mile 6, we head towards River Road. People are still running silently next to us. "I'm looking for someone to follow who looks as good as I feel," I shout to Phil, as he runs beside me. Not a smirk.. not even a giggle from the intent runners beside us. Phil is running the sidelines giving high-5's to little kids. He dodges back in next to me and shares the love with an exploding fist bump. We will enjoy this run, because why else would we do it? We've both proven that we can run 26.2 miles. Nothing special about that. So let's enjoy it.

Phil and Sean!  This is why we run.  Because it's fun!
Phil still having fun at mile 25.
We fly down River Road. 7:59.22 We cruise through the party zone. We're running 8:20s for miles 8 and 9. Mile 10 is the first batch of hills. I'm already flagging, but Phil is looking strong. He cruises up the hill. I walk for 25 yards and still end up with 8:40 for the mile. Mile 11, Phil is a machine. He pulls away on the long uphill, and I let him go. I still manage an 8:40, but I know I can't keep it up for another 15.

Miles 12-14, I'm still okay. Hi Blair! Another quick run past the 2nd party zone, and I get a half-marathon PR. 1:54:27. I'm FLYING! I've just broken my previous half-marathon record by 5 minutes. From there, I slow down. I've got a bit of a cushion. And I can't keep up that insane pace.

At Mile 16, the push of the previous 15 miles begins to take its toll. I always get tired at Mile 16. Every race. Have to figure out how to push through it. I start to walk. A mysterious figure sidles in next to me. "How you feeling?" Ramage!!! Crap! Now I have to start running again. Sean is one of the MTT coaches, and got his first sub-4 marathon the previous month.  Sean was great, asking how things were, complimenting me on a strong start, and, most importantly, listening to me gripe about the lack of waterstops.  I mean, Mile 16 already.  Where is the freakin' Powerade!!!  I'm feeling a distinct lack of energy, despite downing a Gu at Mile 8 and another at Mile 14.  At Mile 18, when the Powerade finally comes into view, he drops back and heads to help more MTT-ers.
Mile 16.. the beginning of the downhill slide.

By Mile 18, I knew two things.  First, I should have probably stuck with the Brooks Adrenalines which I had at least run 30-40 miles in.  I'd been running a lot recently in some New Balance MT101 minimalist trail running shoes.  I loved them.  They were light, inexpensive, had helped make my shin splints and plantar fascitis disappear, and had the worn out soles to prove it.  They were also almost (at least it seemed like to me) flat.  A 9 mm drop from the heel to the toe.  Relatively little padding, particularly compared to the stability shoes like the Brooks Adrenalines, which I have sworn by for years.  Now though, the Adrenalines felt stiff.  My running form had changed, and I tended to heel strike more while wearing the Adrenalines.  In fact, after my 20 mile training run wearing the Adrenalines, I could have sworn I had bruised my heels.

Now I really wanted another pair of MT101s.  I had been logging hundreds of miles on them, and the soles evidenced every mile and the weird wear pattern caused by my goofy right foot.  So I tried to replace them 10 days before the race.  No go!  What, New Balance?  You're going to take away my new favorite shoe?  Favorite shoe, even though the first few runs completely hashed my pinky toe with massive blisters.  Favorite shoe, even though the soles wore out faster than I had hoped.

Instead, I picked up the New Balance Minimus MT20.  It's another trail running shoe.  It's got a Vibram sole and a very minimal upper.  But it's also even flatter. A 4 mm drop from heel to toe.  Even more like running barefoot.  But having experienced the sore calves caused by moving from the Adrenalines to the MT101s, I was nervous.  The 8 mile training run before the Marathon made me even more nervous.  The calves felt tense and a little strained.  I couldn't do a full 26 in those and be confident.

Off to the Internets!  Ahhh... super sale at the New Balance website.  MT101s for only $55!!!  You can't beat a deal like that.  Buy 2 pair!  Yikes, they won't arrive until Thursday and the Marathon is Saturday.  But they arrived, and I did a short run in them.  Feeling quick and confident.  Calves still a little sore from the 8 mile run, but that'll end quickly.  And off to race day.

By Mile 18, my pinky toe was hamburger.  I knew it.  I didn't have to take the shoe off to see.  I had dutifully bandaged it ahead of time, knowing that the shoe would rub.  My innovative lacing should have given me the necessarily wiggle room, and my previous pair had eventually settled down.  But this pair hadn't yet had time to adjust.  And so it hurt.  I didn't want to take off the shoes, because I knew that I wouldn't be able to put them back on.

The second thing I knew, was that because of that sore pinky toe, I had been running funny, and now my knee hurt.  The kind of pain which makes it difficult to run for long.  The kind where walking is easier, because it doesn't jar the knee quite so much.

Mile 18 was run at 10:43.  In the middle of Mile 19, I had been caught by Babz.  She wanted me to run up the Sportsbackers hill with her.  She had always run it with Phil or Brooke, but now it was me.  And so I ran.  Up to the top of the hill.  "Go on!" I said, feeling like I was shooing off the mustang who had been captured in the corral... Run your race, Babz.  You're strong and confident, and I'm gimpy.. I couldn't keep up, so no point in slowing her down.

Mile 20 I dropped even more time.  11 minutes, just struggling to keep on.  Trying to keep up with the 4 hour pace team.  And then they pulled away.  Brooke passed me a few minutes later.  First marathon, and she blazes past me to pull out a 4:03.

The next few miles were a struggle between walking and jogging.  Hi, Don.. Head of all that is MTT.  Am I okay?  My knee hurts.  No point in mentioning the toe.  Nothing he can really do about the knee.  But he runs with me for a bit, and then I send him off to help another MTT-er.  There's no question in my mind about finishing.  I can limp the rest of the way, but I'll still finish.  A sub-4 is no longer a possibility.  At 20 miles, I was at 3:03:30.  I needed to run 9 min/miles to finish at sub-4.  I was doing 12's.  Now my hope was to beat 4:15.  As long as I could keep up the pace, I could still finish strong.  A lot of the other runners with whom I had trained at various points throughout the season started to pass me.  Back at Mile 5, I had left them behind, streaking forward with Phil on his rampage to a sub-4.  And now, at Mile 23 and Mile 24, they slowly pulled ahead.  Stephanie, who I'd run with a few times in June and July, pulled ahead.  She was still running 10's.  Tonia, who had run the NY Marathon the week before, pulled ahead at Mile 24.

Finally, at the beginning of Mile 26, a blaze of MTT coaching glory.  Maggie, who I've known for years, who I met as she began her love affair with the glories of marathon running, and who had challenged me to run a marathon so many year ago, suddenly appeared.  I've run with Maggie all summer, into the fall.  In the rain, up hills, in the dark.  Maggie, who always pushes me to 8:20s and 8:40s, and who had probably already logged 20 miles that morning, came cruising up.  "Come on, Mike!  You stay 3 feet off my back.," she hollers, as I go stumbling after her.  Even slowing down to walk a few times during that last mile, I clocked 8:59.
Running fast at Mile 26, thanks to Maggie.

At the final turn, I look for my wife and 2 younger daughters.  No sign of them.  I couldn't wait though.  Perhaps they were closer to the finish.  Down the hill, feet moving in a blaze, hoping not to trip and fall flat on my face.  Oh no!  The clock above the finish line reads 4:15:50.  I struggle to pull ahead.  Must finish!

At 4:16:00, I cross the finish line.  I know I have some cushion, but not how much.  As I stumbled down that final stretch, I had seen my sister-in-law and my 2nd child over on the sidelines.  Now, I looked for #1.  There she was.  Last year, after my 5:24 showing, she had hung the medal around my neck.  I wanted a repeat.  But she wasn't by the medals today.  So I hollered to her.  She skipped over, hung my medal around my neck and said "Good job, Daddy."

The next hour and half was spent limping along the sidelines cheering on my running buddies as they came down the final stretch.  I took great pride and happiness in their accomplishments, watching some of them join the club of marathoners for the first time, and others cross the finish line having overcome their personal race challenges of flu, pain, aches and nerves.

But race day wasn't quite over for me.  After crossing the finish line, I learned that my wife had to take the youngest to the doctor and couldn't make it down to to celebrate.  As I finally got home, I entered the front door to find the archway to the great room decorated with balloons and ribbon.  Atop the archway, my finish time was emblazoned on a piece of paper, and a streamer stretched across the gap.  And so I got to have a second finish line crossing, holding the hand of the sick 4 year old as she joined me in a tape-breaking trot through that streamer.

And that's what I may forever call "the best finish line crossing ever."

Running Richmond... the prologue.

Saturday was the culmination, in some respects, of over a year of training. True, the Sportsbackers Marathon Training Team was only some 20 weeks long. So the official training regimen began in June. But mentally, I had been preparing for this run since last year's 5:24 finish. So first some background, and then the race recap.

It is hard to imagine the changes which I have made since the last Richmond Marathon. Beginning almost immediately after the race (the following Monday night, in fact), I was determined to improve my time. I ran 5 miles that night, pushing to keep at a 10 min/mile pace. Not fast.. at least not as fast I would become, but a push for someone coming off a 5:24. I had caught the marathon fever, and a desire to lose the elements which were keeping me above a 5 hour finish.

20 lbs. came off between November 13 and January 1. Despite all the holiday temptations and my impending birthday celebration, I avoided and conquered and ran, and ran, and ran. And then, although I had only dreamed of it in passing, I signed up for the National Marathon in D.C. Suddenly I had a goal. Not just a vague "Next Year!", but a looming 6 weeks in the future goal. I had been increasing my mileage, thinking about doing a half marathon. But no!! Time to go for the gusto.

Prepared.. confident.. and weak. The hamstring injury, which I suffered on an 18-mile training run for the 2010 Richmond Marathon, and which almost kept me from running the race, had been allowed to lapse into relative painlessness. Occasional soreness in the belly of the hammie.. a bit of favoritism during the runs... and unwillingness to push on the hills.. all part of being a smart runner.. Right? Instead, the compensation was making me just a bit weaker... I had become faster. Running 9 minute miles easily... Occasionally a sub-9. But one day on the treadmill, back spasm. I seized.. I almost fell flat on my face. And just a month to go before National. Add to that the other stresses of life at the time, and it was all unfair!!! But no!! I'm in charge.. I've got a goal.. I've been doing my training.. I couldn't be more ready.. And so I saw a chiropractor, a triathlete.. an Ironman.. He knew what my motivation was.. I could run, he promised.. But I needed to do some more work.

National was a success, but also a disappointment. I had my minimum goal - to finish. My real goal - to finish in under 5 hours. And my secret dream goal - to finish in 4:30. I knew the dream goal was possible. I could run 9's. That wasn't hard. And 4:30 would let me run 10's. But I still had work to do. Cold.. not confident with the hamstring.. the fear of the back becoming wonky again.. and that mental wall which I hit 16 miles in.. in every race to date.

I got my sub-5 that day. 4:48.51. Not the 4:30 I was hoping for. From Mile 13, as all the half-marathoners went to party at the finish line, I was routed behind RFK Stadium. A leper.. one of THOSE people.. who can't quit when it's time. The only witnesses to my half-marathon finish were a timer, a water stop volunteer, and someone handing out Gu. From there, my race slowly fell apart. Back out along the same path I had already trod for the first half. Back behind the Capitol, onto Pennsylvania Avenue. And then my mental and physical wall. I get tired at 16 miles. And that's where the end begins. Too much walking from Mile 16 on. Cold and lonely, until a nice little pick-me-up for the last 6 miles as my beautiful wife ran beside me, encouraging me to continue despite spasming, cramping quads and calves. When I ran, I ran fast. But I couldn't run long.. 100-200 yards at 9:30's, and then slow walking. Even as I passed a gangster funeral in Anacostia and trampled up and down the rolling hills leading to the bridge over the freeway. The last half mile leading up a hill to the finish line. The clock said 5:05. Fortunately, the chip time was better. But I knew I had come nowhere near my dream goal.

But I knew that a new marathon.. MY marathon was coming up again. This time that 4:30 would be mine.