What follows will be a long-winded account of the greatest running moment of my life. I write these blogs really as a journal, one I'm happy to share with the few folks who are interested in the plight of a dedicated fellow runner. Since I have fond feelings for anyone who is willing to read this blog, I'll give you the news up front: I qualified for Boston at the 2009 Sugarloaf Marathon, with an official time of 3:17:42. Yes, I am elated. No, I can't sign up for Boston yet. No, I don't know whether I'll run a fall marathon. Yes, I'm looking forward to backing off a little bit and focusing on shorter distance races.
Now, feel free to stop reading. Here goes the long (and I mean LOOOOONG) version.
A FALSE START
I had hoped/planned to leave home at 3:30 p.m. on Friday for the 4-plus hour drive. Everything went well in terms of leaving the office, picking up my oldest daughter early from school, packing the car and saying good-bye to my wife and kids, as they set forth on their own Maine weekend adventure. Having debated about which route to follow, I chose the more conventional, less scenic path. I got out of town, and about 20 minutes from home, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a flat tire. I pulled over, saw that my right rear tire had a large slit in the tread, and unpacked the entire back in order to access the temporary spare.
Once I had the temp spare on and the car re-packed (with all the stuff in the back seats, and the flat in the back), I agonized about whether to forge onward and find a tire place en route, or head back into town to deal with it. I stopped at a service station about 5 miles ahead, and the guy was very nice in trying to help me. The older mechanic, James, seemed a natural when it came to barking forceful – if good-natured – orders at young Joe. After about a half-hour, they told me that the tire was trashed, and that they did not have that kind in stock. James sent me back to town. I tried to pay him for his time, but he refused. It was hot and they were working hard, so I left Joe with two bottles of Gatorade and thanked for their help.
I ended up back in town at a large tire place. They had me in and out in about an hour, and I was on the road again at around 5:45 p.m.
THE LONG ROAD TO “THE LOAF”
My friend Scott lent me his Garmin Nuvi, which was very nice of him. After seeing how bad traffic was going to be on the major roads, I decided to head north and meander my way towards Maine via more scenic country roads. The Garmin took my apparent fickleness in stride, “recalculating” again and again. I think I finally started to piss her off, though, since she blithely stated, “Better route available” several times. So much for judgment-free technology.
It was a gorgeous late spring evening, but as the sun descended over the mountains, the temperature dropped quickly. I listened to music, and to a few essays from an audiobook called, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. It was nice to have some time alone, and I thought about everything that’s going on in my life right now: marriage, kids, work, aging/ailing parents and – yes – running. I visualized the race, the beauty and the pain, the effort and the joy, the social and solitary aspects.
By 7:00 or so, I was hungry, and I pushed on a little longer until I found a good looking restaurant/tavern in Fryeburg, Maine. It was a bit of a “scene” in there, with a series of images which I’ll take away. The first was the rather preppy-looking fellow who stood outside for the entire time that I spoke to my virtual running friend Roger about running the race together. The preppy guy was wearing a pressed blue oxford shirt, khaki shorts and boat shoes. When I went in for dinner, he ended up back at the bar, where I noticed him sucking down pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon, not the usual boat-shoe-wearer's drink. Yup, turns out that the PBR “tall boy” was the most popular drink in the bar. I ate a mediocre plate of BBQ beef (which I rarely eat, but figured the extra iron couldn’t hurt). The cornbread, mashed sweet potatoes and beans were amazing though, so the carbs carried the day. Given my extra attention to hydration, I visited the men’s room, where there was a very provocative oil painting hanging above the urinal. Artistically, it was sort of an impressionist piece, but it was definitely meant to grab the urinator’s attention. I assure you that my subsequent two trips were absolutely essential, and had nothing to do with that painting. ;-) I finished my meal, and checked the distance from my location to Sugarloaf. My iPhone said I was over 100 miles away that it would take me several days to get there. Turns out I had it set to give “walking directions”.
I drove deeper into an unfamiliar part of Maine, and happened to be in a spectacular lake district as the sun set. The sky had a summer tone and texture, and the fact that many of the waterfront homes are as-yet empty gave me a serene feeling of being alone in the great unspoiled frontier. I gassed up and finally decided to follow the Garmin’s instructions to a T. It was a long and winding road in the dark, but at about 11:00 p.m., I rolled into the lobby of the Sugarloaf hotel, where an enthusiastic desk clerk greeted me warmly and told me how great everything was in this part of the world. I took the map she gave me and stumbled around in the dark until I found the condo which my friend Julie had so graciously lent me. It took me a couple trips up to the third floor unit to get all my stuff into the unit, and a little more fumbling in the dark until I found the light switches and settled in. I watched some mindless television, ate and drank some more, and read until I drifted off at about 12:30. My phone kept ringing and ringing, and it appears that my father either kept accidentally speed-dialing me, or was doing a drunk-dial kind of thing. I shut the phone off and went to bed.
The aim for Saturday was to be mellow. I tried to sleep in, but my body awoke by 6:00. I rolled around in the queen-sized bed on the top floor of the penthouse loft, watching the clouds in the sky. At 7:00, I got up and headed over to the hotel for breakfast. I was the only person in there, and the waitress all but sat down to join me. She was very chatty, with an interesting "edge" to her. She asked me whether someone actually would be pointing a gun at me in order to get me to run the marathon. We chatted about life in small-town Maine and raising kids, as she brought me a huge plate of french toast, two eggs, home fries, coffee and grapefruit juice. I ate and read the paper and started to visualize the race. A Canadian couple came in for a bite, and we talked about the race and our goals. I was wearing my Boston volunteer's jacket, so I had to explain that I had not run the race, but was trying to qualify.
After breakfast, I drove up to Eustis to find the starting line and drive the entire course. As one of the speakers would warn us later that evening, it's a bad idea to drive 26.2 miles, because it seems long even in a car. I had the "dang-this-is-far-and-I-can't-believe-I'm-going-to-run-it" sensation, but I also appreciated knowing what to expect, especially in terms of the hills and the twists the road took. Sugarloaf is a unique marathon in many respects, one of which is that it is a point-to-point course with no turns. Runners follow a single road through 4 or 5 Maine towns (not all of which are even incorporated), finishing in a hardware store parking lot in Kingfield.
Once I'd driven the full course, I returned to the condo, changed into running clothes, and drove to the 8-mile mark. I wanted to run the two hilliest miles just to get a sense of how challenging they would be. That first mile (Mile 9, technically) was supposedly the hardest of the course, and it wasn't that bad, even with a formidable headwind. The next mile was also uphill, but again nowhere near as tough as most of the hills I'd thrown into training. I turned around, ran one mile back down and walked the final mile to my car (I was trying not to overdo it).
Back at the condo, I stretched and showered and ate a big lunch. I drank water and Gatorade and then more water and some more Gatorade. I watched a great documentary on DVD about George McGovern's 1972 candidacy for President. When it was over, I went over to the Base Lodge to get my bib # (38) and race packet. The forecasted rain had begun.
It was a very mellow scene, though there were more people than I had expected. I chatted with a woman from Philadelphia who'd forgotten her gels. She and others seemed surprised that there was no Expo at this race. This year saw a big bump in registered runners, with almost 300 signed up. Still, an Expo would have been way too much effort for way too small a consumer base.
I went back to the condo, put my feet up and watched mindless television. There was nothing of interest to me, and I dozed off for a little while. I got up and went to the Pasta Dinner, where the room had started to swell with runners. I ended up at a table with other New Hampshire runners. One guy was running his 128th marathon. Unbelievable. Another was just getting back to running after a 5-year layoff while he and his wife started their family. He had the same goals as I did: to qualify for Boston with a 3:20 or better. I talked to two older guys, one a retired man from Oregon, who's traveling around running 6 or so marathons a year. He had long gray hair pulled into a ponytail and a slight pot belly. Another man from Camden, Maine had a wonderfully weathered face, but exuded youth and vigor. He shocked me when he said he's 74 years old. He came over for the 15K, and said he thinks he has 2 marathons left: a Boston qualifier and Boston itself. To think I could still be enjoying myself in this sport in 30 years is hard to imagine, but a wonderful thing to which I'll look forward.
I got back to the condo sometime after 7:00 and I watched some of the DVD of the original Frost-Nixon interview. It was the second time in one day that Richard Nixon graced me with his company, which was a bit odd. Perhaps the distraction was good. I puttered around, and laid out everything I could conceivably need on Sunday. I set two alarms. I made sure my new Garmin was fully charged. I set out my breakfast items, and programmed the coffee maker to brew a strong pot of french roast at 3:45 am. I flipped channels, and found live coverage of the Adidas Classic track meet on ESPN. I watched that for a while, glad to be rid of Nixon and to see top runners do their thing.
Then came the storm.
At about 8:45, as the windows seemed to be getting pelted with BBs and the entire unit literally shook from the high winds, I called my wife. I asked her to assure me that the mountain weather system would soon pass, and explained that within 15 minutes I was either going to go to bed, or would venture to the hotel bar and forget the friggin' marathon. I went up to bed, read for a while and fell asleep some time after 10:00, with the bed rattling against the wall as the condo feebly weathered the winds.
SUNDAY - PRE-RACE
Having got up to pee a couple of times during the night, I woke up at 3:13, but rolled over thinking I'd get up in 5 more minutes. I was shocked to hear the alarm and wondered who and where I was. I came to my senses as I smelled the coffee, and had breakfast: 2 bowls of Honey-Nut Cheerios, a Greek-style vanilla yogurt and a banana. I drank coffee, water and Gatorade. I mixed up 24 ounces of Accelerade, 12 each for before and after the race. It was still raining pretty hard, but nothing like the prior night's storm.
My body and I seemed to be getting along just fine in terms of "waste elimination" issues, and I felt that that boded well for the day. I taped my still-blistered toes, applied Body Glide any and everywhere, and started to get dressed. I opted for my usual Race Ready shorts, Craft triathlon-style singlet, arm warmers (go ahead, mock me, like I care), Gore-tex cap, thin tech gloves and one of the long-sleeve tech tees from the 40-miler. The big dilemma remained the socks, and at the last minute I decided to skip the new Wright socks which felt great, and went with some thin Smartwool socks, on the theory that if my feet got wet, the wool would still keep them warm. I had my Saucony Grid Tangent 3's with the new orthotics ready to go, but wore some slip on Keene's to keep my feet dry as long as possible.
I packed all kinds of extra stuff with me, and headed to the hotel lobby at around 5:25 to wait for the shuttle bus to the start. I ran into the Philadelphia woman, and gave her the extra gels I'd brought just in case I'd see her. She wanted to give me money, but I told her it was my deposit into the running karma bank. I had another productive bathroom stop.
About 5:45, we left. I sat next to a young woman who was running her first marathon. She seemed more nervous than excited, and we talked about training and pacing and how many people run great marathons despite having had colds in the days leading up to the race. We got to campground (it was still raining pretty steadily and about 47 degrees) at the start area, and all made a beeline for the 6 port-a-potties which they'd set up. Again, everything seemed A-ok in that department. I drank my 12 ounces of Accelerade, and then took one walk into the woods for a last relief. I changed into my running shoes, pared down my extra layers and played with my Garmin to make sure it was set properly. I milled about chatting with runners, and met a new FaceBook friend from Canada and connected with Roger, a multiple marathoning legend who paces races all over the country and who graciously offered to hang with me with a sub-3:20 goal. It was his 5th consecutive weekend running a marathon. He spoke with his wife, who was also running, and met me moments before the gun went off. Amazingly, the rain took a break just then.
The gun went off with no warning, and I was about 3 rows back from the very front. My pace band was based on elevation-based splits created by RWOL forumate Sunday20, a 2:40 marathoner and computer/data-crunching wizard. He had calculated each mile based on its elevation profile, and had me crossing the half-way point at 1:40:00, to finish with "even effort" at 3:16:24. I liked this approach, because a fade could comfortably exist within the zone between 3:16:24 and 3:20:59. Of course, I did not want to cut it that close.
By the end of the first mile, I was maybe 20 seconds behind the pace chart, but felt okay. The rain was coming and going, and the wind would swirl around, never blowing too hard in our faces for very long.
Soon, Roger and I settled into a comfortable pace, running between 7:30-7:36 per mile. We were joined by a tall, Native-American looking fellow from Denver, with a long, straight black braid swishing back and forth as he ran. He said he was hoping for a 3:30, and we tried to warn him gently that he was possibly heading out a bit fast. He stayed with us for a while. Roger told me he'd likely yap the whole time, but that I did not need to waster any energy replying. It was perfect, like running with a podcast, which is how I pass most of my training miles.
It also became evident that the mile markers were somewhat inconsistently placed. I let the auto-lap do its thing, and mostly paid attention to the "average pace" display for the lap I was currently in. The splits for the first five miles were as follows:
- 1 - 7:40
- 2 - 7:36
- 3 - 7:30
- 4 - 7:35
- 5 - 7:32
I was worried about getting behind, but reminded myself of RWOL Senior Master Jim2's sage advice about miles 1-10: If you're not worried about running too slow, then you're probably running too fast.
At around Mile 6, I asked Roger to hold my hat while I chucked the long-sleeved shirt. I was wet and risked getting cold, but I wanted to feel less encumbered. I took my first gel (a Gu Roctane) at around the 6th mile as well. I was drinking at about every other aid station, switching off between water and Gatorade.
Interesting side note: when I saw my split time at the Mile 6 marker I wondered how we'd made up 2 minutes in one mile. A woman standing by the sign said, it's about 0.4 miles early. WTH was THAT about? The road had more accurate mile markers spray-painted on the side, but I didn't want to run with my head down in search of them.
We were soon at Mile 8, and I settled into a steady, smooth rhythm. I switched the display from pace to heart-rate only, and watched as my HR tracked the climb. I was willing to let myself get to 172, but no higher, and topped out at around 170. The projection for Mile 9 was 8:47; I ran it in 8:07, and - just like that - I was back to within seconds of the projected splits. My memory is that Roger pulled away at this point, and I chatted very briefly with anyone in my vicinity. Mile 10 - the last major climb of the race - was supposed to be 8:10; I covered it in 7:55. At this point, I had my first inkling that this could really, truly be my day. The rain continued to come and go, and I put my gloves on and took them off as my hands required.
Splits from 6-10:
- 6 - 7:33
- 7 - 7:35
- 8 - 7:44
- 9 - 8:07
- 10 - 7:55
After about the 10.5-mile mark, one of the course's steepest downhills appeared. One guy had warned us that it would look a cliff, and had given some advice about how to approach it to save our quads from getting completely trashed. He suggested running as much of that part as possible on the gravelly shoulder. I followed that advice, darting back onto the asphalt when the gravel was too rugged or sloped too steeply.
We passed the main entrance to the Sugarloaf ski area at around mile 11.5, and there was the largest group of assembled "fans" which I'd seen to that point. I looked at the 8 or so stoic faces, buried under hooded rain jackets and umbrellas, and lifted my arms palms-up to get some reaction. They cheered and whistled and offered encouraging words; I smiled and said, "Was that so hard?"
The downhill miles continued (with some variation), but I was concerned about "over-running" them. This is where the formulaic mathematical calculations of the split chart had to yield to flesh-&-bone human reality. I simply felt that it would not be smart to try to stick to the projected splits, so instead it came out like this:
- 11 - 7:26
- 12 - 7:19 (took my second gel, Accelerade lime)
- 13 - 7:27
- 14 - 7:21
- 15 - 7:19
The mile markers were still a bit inconsistent, but the overall distance was pretty close. I had internalized Roger's earlier advice about keeping to the tangents; since there were no real turns, this meant hugging the center line when the road curved right and keeping a straight-ish line towards the fog line when the road turned left.
There was no half-marathon marker, but the projected time was to be 1:40:00 exactly, relying on the course profile to give me the negative split. On my watch, I crossed in about 1:39:55. Again, I felt good about not being ahead of that projection.
As each mile clicked by and I realized that I had my first real shot at qualifying for Boston and - more broadly - having a marathon go according to plan for once. I had a good-natured battle with myself to keep my pace and emotions in check. I only cared that the number in the "average pace" display be around 7:30. A couple seconds more or less did not matter. I felt some minor GI distress, so I drank only water until it passed.
Body parts started to speak up around Mile 18. My upper thighs/hip flexors were certainly feeling the work. I did some "butt-kicks" to stretch them out and shake things up. My left foot started to hurt, and I could feel a hotspot developing on my left arch, despite the half-tube of Body Glide which I had applied. I took inventory and realized that none of this was terrible. I also took solace in the fact that my calves - the culprits of cramping twice before - felt fine. I shook my arms out and tried to let my face relax, letting it sort of sway with my steps.
Somewhere before Mile 20, I got a black fly in my eye. It took me a few tries to get it out, and my vision blurred for a long moment. That soon passed, and I reached the 20-mile mark feeling "functional" for the first time in a marathon. As one of my co-workers had observed, that would put me in a very different mindset for the last 10K. The splits for this section:
- 16 - 7:08
- 17 - 7:14
- 18 - 7:24
- 19 - 7:22
- 20 - 7:38
I took my lest Roctane gel at 20, and figured I needed only one or two more drink stops. Here I started an internal dialogue about whether and when to try to push the pace. I did not appreciate at the time the miracle that it was to be in a position to be thinking about that at the 20-mile mark.
The memories of Chicago 2008 were in my mind, so I decided to stick to maintenance mode. The last 6 + miles roll, with the uphills almost a welcome relief after the miles of pounding. My left foot was becoming a greater and greater burden, as I could feel new blisters somehow forming under the band-aids. My legs were certainly tired, but they continued to work. I focused on exaggerating my arm swing just a little bit, having read that the legs have no choice but to follow.
A weird thing happened with my watch, in that the "low battery warning" came on, obscuring the elapsed time display. I stuck to the average pace number for guidance, and just decided to keep going by feel, despite this being completely uncharted racing territory for me.
I had passed a number of people in the previous 5 or so miles, but only passed a couple here. One of the guy's I'd had dinner with on Saturday (the one coming back to running after the layoff) and a very fit-looking woman about my age caught up to me. They had started to push it, and actually reigned it in when they realized there were still 5 or so miles to go. She was wearing dazzling white arm warmers, and we made that connection. She said - and it must have been ironic - that she wears them to keep her arm flab in check. Total compliment fishing, in my opinion. The guy was steady, but I could tell he was hurting. They stopped at every aid station, and would catch up to me a moment later.
Sometime around Mile 23, Roger came back to me, having slowed down just enough so that I could catch him. He was still fresh as a daisy, and told me I looked strong, upright, with great form. I stayed focus, and thought about how close I was to achieving what once seemed like an imposible dream.
I took my last swig of Gatorade at Mile 23, but then had a momentary scare after the 24-mile mark, when a very strong wave of dizziness came over me. It only lasted a couple of seconds, but I thought I was going to fall. I just sort of shook my head, trying to clear it like an Etch-a-Sketch and forged onward. Every left footstrike hurt, but it was nothing that prevented me from running. My New Hampshire friend was struggling, but our female cohort saw a ponytail up ahead and she left us to chase it down (which she did). I thought about going with her, but a cooler mind prevailed.
When I hit the Mile 25 marker, I stepped it up, just a bit. I figured that sub-3:20 was in the bag, and I was not about to risk it by doing something stupid.
Roger started saying that the finish was just up ahead, but I could not see the main drag of the town of Kingfield yet. I pushed it, sensing that I was going to make it, with time to spare.
With 0.2 to go, I heard I guy come up behind me like he'd been shot out of a cannon. He said, "Come with me!" as he blew by me. I started turning my legs over like it was a 5K finish, and the Garmin said I topped out at about 5:20 pace.
I veered right towards the inflatable finish arch, but the race clock was blocked. I finally saw "3:17" and some seconds and I threw myself across the line. I raised my arms - and in a primal scream reminiscent of Howard Dean in Iowa in 2004 - and yelled, "I'M GOING TO BOSTON!!!" People smiled but seemed to keep their distance. My watch said 3:17:41. Average heart rate was a surprisingly low 160, thanks in part to the downhills allowing for some cardiac recovery. I finished maxing out at about 171-172 for that final sprint.
Here are the splits for the final 10K (with weird overages where I pressed the lap button to coincide with the mile markers):
- 21 - 7:22
- 22 - 7:27
- 23 - 7:28
- 24 - 7:41 (+ 29 secs for 0.07 extra, so not sure where that belongs)
- 25 - 7:38 (+ an extra 4 secs)
- 26 - 7:26
- 0.2 - 1:25
I got a mylar blanket and walked over to get my gear and something to eat. I hugged Roger (who came in a few seconds behind me, by gracious design, of course). He bequeathed me his "Boston 26.2" cap. I will forever treasure the hat . . . and the memories. Crazy man that he is, he headed back up the course to meet his wife. He ran another 6+ miles for over 32 for the day. Incredible.
Roger's friend Dave (who ran a 3:01) gave me a ride back to the hotel. I had a goofy grin on my face that's still here.
It was a long ride home, and even before that, going up & down the 3 flights of stairs to load the car wasn't the most fun post-marathon task. I managed to get my time posted on Facebook (mobile and Internet was very spotty up there), and some nice text messages and comments came in from my running and other friends.
I stopped for lunch at a sports bar/restaurant in a restored old barn, and had fish-n-chips with lots of salt and malt vinegar.
I talked with my wife as they headed back from Maine, too. When I finally arrived home at around 5:15, she and the kids had set up helium balloons and a finish line across the top of the driveway, with a big sign that read, "YOU DID IT!" I got out of the car after honking my arrival, and waited until they came outside so that I could cross the line and break the tape on my own two feet. It was a great feeling to be home.
When I went to check the online results so I could get my official time, I was missing. After some e-mails back and forth, it turns out that I was listed with the walkers, and the timers had added an hour to my time. Problem solved, and my official time was 3:17:42.2.
LESSONS AND INSIGHTS
Why the 22+-minute improvement? Well, more mileage and consistent running for well over 2 years. When I strained my groin in January, I feared a major setback, but it was a mere bump in the road. While my mileage was far higher than ever before (multiple 60+-mile weeks and a peak of 72), I also built in more flexibility. Thanks to following Brad Hudson's philosophy, I never felt like a slave to the schedule. I backed off when necessary, either changing things around, or just adjusting a particular workout on the fly.
Cool temps on race day were also a blessing (despite the rain), though I had also potassium-loaded for about a week in an effort to help stave off cramps. Having dropped 4-5 pounds from the fall didn't hurt either.
Having failed at three prior marathons - yet never having quit - also strengthened my resolve. Having perservered through much worse than what I encountered on Sunday, I had much greater perspective about what the discomfort, pain and effort meant, in terms of what I could tolerate and for how long.
This was - simply stated - the race I'd been waiting for, but it did not just come to me. As several folks have opined, it was the training that made this day possible, not luck, or weather, or good hydration, or new shoes, or anything else (though all those things contributed). There is no way to fake a marathon. You've either put in the work, or you haven't. And - if you haven't - prepare to be exposed, whether it's at Mile 10, 13.1, 20 or even later.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS & THANKS
Yeah, yeah, I know this is not the Academy Awards, but I would like to thank some people, by name and/or description:
- My wife and kids, who despite not always "getting it", do understand how much this means to me and have expressed their joy for me
- My real-life friends Steve, Bill, Jim G. and the members of my running club, for their encouragement, understanding and keen interest in my quest
- The RWOL community, in particular "coachbr"and "A muse" for their always sage running-related advice, along with the regular posters to the "Sub-3:20" thread (Agile, Zab, GAT1977, NACN, TTM, SpiderPig, Dad4JCZ, FornoBravo, 262toBQ, Nick, lilsnoop, Justin), who've become a virtual family of like-minded folks who's performances inspire and confidence in my ability to reach this milestone helped me believe it myself; the good luck support thread (which has over a 100 posts) meant a lot, and I seriously thought about everyone's good wishes and expectations when the going got tough; sorry if I've forgotten anyone by name
- Roger M, who chose to share his joy for running and gift for pacing with me for much of Sunday; in a small race such as this, it was very comforting not to feel alone