Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Race Recap: The Rocket City Marathon

This was supposed to be the post where I described my latest marathon PR. It was supposed to be the time I got to write about finally getting to run a marathon all-out, when I wasn't trying to qualify for anything, just go as fast as I could on a very fast course. Rocket City is a well-run marathon with a fantastic history. Typically the weather is very cold for this race; it's been in the teens more than once. I wasn't worried about that -- I run well in cold weather.

Then the weather forecasts started coming out. I tracked them almost religiously. 8 days out from the race the forecast looked fairly good: A low of 43 and a high of 55, with a chance of showers. 7 days out the forecast was the same. Then things changed. 6 days out, the forecast high was 70 degrees.

That's good weather for a 400-meter dash, but not for a marathon. I made a graph to show how the forecast changed day after day:

As you can see, the forecast wasn't improving. The only major change was that the forecast low was getting higher -- which meant I'd hardly even have good weather at the start of the race, let alone the finish.

At the pre-race pasta dinner, Bobby Aswell and I got to hear Bill Rodgers talk about his experience running marathons. "The thing about the marathon distance," he said, "is that there is a lot of luck involved. I was really, really lucky."

The Rodgers luck was about to run out.

My plan for the race, under ideal conditions, was to run a 7:15 per mile pace, steady, for all 26.2 miles. If I could hang on, I'd set a new PR, 3:10, which would beat my previous record by more than 12 minutes.

On race morning the temperature was 62 degrees, with 93 percent humidity. The temperature would rise to about 68 by the finish of the race.

It still felt cool, and I'd be running into the wind, so I decided to give the race a go at my planned pace.

For the first few miles, this pace didn't seem too bad. The few hills on the course were easily handled, and the breeze was keeping me relatively cool. Here are my splits for Miles 1-6:

1. 7:27
2. 7:15
3. 7:15
4. 7:15
5. 7:18
6. 7:21

Then during Mile 7 we passed through a parking lot and under a tunnel. It was a little confusing and I missed the mile marker; I finally pressed the "lap" button at 1.09 miles and recorded 7:52 for the split -- still a 7:14 pace for the mile. I was flustered. And I was starting to feel worn out, just 7 miles in. Could I keep this up for another 19 miles? I doubted it. Then I realized I hadn't had a gel yet: I was supposed to be eating them every 4 miles. I quickly opened and consumed one, but that slowed me even more. I kept running.

8. 7:22
9. 7:30
10. 7:34
11. 7:25

We were now on a seemingly endless four-lane road, heading straight into the wind. It was much more of a struggle to maintain pace, and I was gradually slowing down. I had planned to drop my pace to 7:30 a mile if 7:15 seemed too difficult, but now even a 7:30 pace felt like a struggle.

12. 7:50
13. 7:48
14. 8:10

My backup-backup plan was to hit an 8-minute pace for the last half of the race. If I could do that, I'd still have a shot at a PR: My 7:22:55 was an average 7:42 pace, and I already had a lot of faster miles in the bank. Then we turned and started heading back north into town. What had been a headwind was now a tailwind, which meant that we could feel no wind at all. It was like running in a sauna. I started taking walk breaks. Then I started taking longer breaks.

15. 7:55
16. 9:29
17. 8:12
18. 8:34

Now, there was no backup plan. The plan was simply to finish. Another runner pulled up beside me and told me his day was ruined and he was just hoping to finish under 3:30. Not long after that, the 3:30 pace team passed us.

19. 9:04
20. 10:13
21. 11:15

Could it get any worse? Soon I was passed by the 3:35 pace team. I tried to stay with them for a while, then let them go.

22. 9:34
23. 9:15
24. 11:39

Finally the 3:40 pace team pulled up behind me. Surely I could stay with them, right? There was only one runner still in the group, a woman running her planned 3:40 pace, about 8:23 per mile. I resolved to stay with the pace team all the way to the finish, and somehow I did. The woman was running her first marathon, and it was amazing to see her pull it off as she had planned. I ran across the line just behind her, with an official chip time of 3:39:09, or not much better than I had done at Thunder Road for my "easy training run."

Here's the picture Bobby snapped of me just after I crossed the line:

I'd say this photo just about sums up the day.

And here's a photo of the two of us with our medals:

Don't we look lovely?

Bobby fared a little better than I did, finishing in 3:19 and just out of the age-group awards.

At the airport a woman saw the two of us waiting for our flight and correctly guessed that we had run the marathon. "Did you think the heat slowed you down?" She asked.

We assented, then learned that though she was the second overall woman, with a time of 2:52, she was still quite disappointed because she was shooting for a 2:46. No matter your pace, the marathon is still a very tough race. Not tough enough? Just try to run it a little bit faster, and it'll get plenty tough.

My race didn't go as planned, but if they always did, there wouldn't be much reason to run them, would there? Next marathon: Boston. Maybe I'll be able to do a little better there.

Details of Saturday's marathon are below.

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