Sunday, May 4th came for me at 5:30 AM. I awoke before the two alarms I had set went off, which was good because I managed to get up, dress, eat, and leave without waking the kids. And with only waking Suzanne briefly before she dozed back off to sleep. The four of us were sharing a hotel room at the Shilo Inn in Springfield, 3 miles north of the marathon start. I poured my Nature’s Path Optimum Slim cereal into the hotel bowl along with some milk and closed the bathroom door as I ate my race day breakfast (plus a banana) and finished getting dressed. Shoes -- check. Shirt, shorts, socks, hat -- check. Water bottle and belt -- check. Garmin GPS watch and heart rate strap -- check. Glide slathered on my chaff points (where my shorts hit the inside of my thighs) -- check. Race number, timing chip, and bag to check at the start -- check. Okay, say goodbye to Suzanne and time to go.
Suzanne and the kids weren’t planning on attending the start. So my plan was to go down to the lobby and try to tag along with other people going to the race. Or, if that didn’t work, call a cab. Fortunately, just before I was to call for a cab, three women wearing race numbers and marathon gear walked through the lobby. I asked them if they were headed to the marathon and if they had room for me and they said sure though they were running in the half. Even better, they were planning on stopping off at Starbucks on the way! So to thank them I paid for their drinks—I got a tall non-fat latte—and we drove off to Autzen stadium where the marathon was set to finish. From there, we caught a bus to the start.
While walking to the starting line, I noticed a bunch of runners heading into a building. I instantly followed into the law school building. Racing tip: It’s always preferable to use the bathrooms inside of a building instead of the porta-potties. Real bathrooms usually have less of a wait (in fact, there was no line), are warmer, and frankly a lot nicer than the porta-potties. Score!
After warming up for about a ¼ mile, I went back into the law school building and stretched, followed by one final potty break. I then proceeded to the bag dropoff just past the starting line and then got to the starting line (or as close as I could to it) with about 15 minutes until the scheduled start.
Thankfully, I ran into Peter (my brother) and his friend Gerry at the start. The start was pretty crowded; it was a single combined start for both the marathon and half marathon on a somewhat narrow street which made it worse. I was planning on trying to run with Krista from ChuckIt but could not locate her in the crowd so I lined up with Peter and Gerry and figured I’d be running most of the race alone. 10 minutes prior to the hour, I downed a Gu per my fuel and hydration plan. Eleven minutes later, the gun went off and the race had begun.
Compared to other shorter running events, the marathon is less of a race and more like a contest or battle. I say this because in most other races, the results are much more predictable. Take a 5K, for example. You pretty much know at the start that you will finish and even if you go out too fast (like I did at this year's resolution run in Seattle), you can always slow down and jog it in. Same goes for the 10K and even a half marathon. Not so for the marathon. Take my last two marathons, for example. In 2003, I was cruising at around 7:40 per mile for the first 17 or so miles and then quickly fell apart and hit the wall around mile 22. So in 2004, I decide to go out slower and I still managed to hit the wall around mile 22 or so.
Let’s face it. The marathon is a formidable opponent. Things may go as planned, or they just as easily (perhaps more easily) may not. You may do everything right and you still hit the wall or bonk. And how do you decide pace? Based on your half marathon or 10K time? Well that may work, but then again, it may not (it was a poor predictor for me in 2003 and 2004). The point I am trying to make is that as much as you can strategize, it isn’t a race. It’s a contest between you and the marathon. A battle of sorts to see if you have what it takes. And it had been 4 years since my last try.
No matter how many articles and blog posts I had read, no matter how many discussions with runner friends I had had, I still had no idea what was going to happen that day. A lot of effort had gone into getting me to the starting line on race day but that saying about “the best laid plans” was doubly true for a marathon. I hoped for a good race because I frankly didn’t know how (and I still don’t know) how many more marathons I had in me.
The race began at 7:00 AM next to Hayward field. My basic plan was this: run the first 13 miles at about 8:10 pace and the last 13 miles at 7:50 pace. This would give me a finishing time of 3:30. My Boston Marathon qualifying cutoff time was 3:35:59 so that gave me 6 minutes of slack time above my goal time. Most importantly, I was not to start out too fast. A little slower than 8:10 was okay but not faster; after all there was slack built into the plan and was determined not to bonk.
The gun went off at 7:01 AM. I ran most of the first mile with Peter and Gerry. I tried to relax as I chatted with Peter and Gerry and joked around. Mile 1 included the most significant hill in the race which went on for a couple of blocks. Nothing too bad for someone who trains in Seattle. Overall, the first mile went well at 8:31. The second mile included a significant down hill so the 7:53 time wasn’t anything to be concerned about. Around this time I came up upon two young women (in their early twenties) dressed identically with matching pink tops and shorts, white socks, the same shoes, and pink ribbons in their hair. I asked them if they were twins; they were not. I hung behind them for a little while but eventually let them go ahead as well as many other runners. I was determined to stick to my race pla, not theirs. Mile 3 clocked at 8:00, followed by 8:06, 8:01, and 7:59 for mile 6. Okay, I was running closer to 8:00 pace for those first few miles but that was no cause for concern. Just stay relaxed and it would work out.
For those interested, here is a map of the course.
For the first 7 miles we were running south of the University of Oregon (U of O) and then looping back through the U of O, through downtown, and then finally across the Willamette river. During mile 6 at around 50 minutes into the race I downed another Gu per my plan and finished the water in my bottle. Suzanne and the kids were supposed to be at or near the mile 7 water stop but I didn’t see them. The idea was that they would swap out my water bottle at miles 7 and 17. This would save me from having to stop at the water stops to drink and increase the quantity of water I could consume. So far the plan was working nicely since I was able to down the first bottle of water without having to stop once. Now where were they?
The Potty Stop
About this time I realized that I had to go to the bathroom again. Never mind the fact that I had used the bathroom at least 3 times prior to the start. There’s just something about gravity. Enough said. Anyway, at about 7.5 miles into the race I saw a unoccupied porta-potty on the right side of the road and made the executive decision to go now and be done with it rather than put it off until it after it became a crisis. Approximately two minutes later I was back running. Unfortunately, like the coach who cursed the fact that he or she used up their timeouts too early in the game, I would later question if the stop was necessary and whether I could have/should have did my business faster.
The other issue with the potty break was this: the Garmin GPS watch has this great feature called AutoStop which works like a charm during workouts to stop the clock when it has determined you have stopped. Unfortunately, the race organizers won’t take into consideration this fact when calculating your race time at the finish. In other words, I forgot to turn this wonderful feature off before race start so the watch stopped when I hunkered down in the port-potty which meant not only did I not know the actual clock time from the start but I also didn’t know how long I had stopped. I guessed 2 minutes.
So I jumped back on the course and noticed Gerry just in front of me. I caught up to Gerry and explained that I had made a potty stop. Funny thing is that we had just been talking about potty stops the night before when we were checking out the course. That’s the kind of thing that runners talk about in the nervous hours leading up to the start of a race. Since Gerry and I started together I was able to verify that my break took about 2 minutes. But at this point I also realized that my Garmin watch, as currently configured, didn’t report the elapsed seconds when the time went over 1 hour. Damn. If I had configured the watch correctly, this wouldn’t be a problem. The net effect of all this was that, for the remainder of the race, I would not know precisely the elapsed time of my effort. The best I could do was to take my time, sans seconds and add about 2 minutes to it. At this point, however, I was not terribly concerned because according to my race plan I still had 3 minutes of slack between my estimated finish time and the Boston cutoff.
Having someone to chat with as you run is a nice benefit for so many reasons, not the least of which it distracts you from thinking too much about your pace and the race. So I appreciated having Gerry to run with, even if it was the result of me taking a two minute break. The one danger, of course, with running with someone else is the temptation to adopt their race plan instead of yours. But for me, this was not the case, since I ran 8:04 (plus 2 minutes or so for the break) for mile 7, and 8:08 for mile 8. Just before mile 9, Suzanne, Anna, and Matthew appeared which I very much appreciated. Certainly, hearing your daughter yell “Go daddy, go!” is enough to lift your spirits. Anna and Matthew at this point were both trying to give me their water bottles but alas I only needed one at this time and grabbed Anna’s bottle first. (Later, after the race, I learned that Matthew was actually supposed to give me his bottle with Anna waiting until later in the race. Apparently, she got excited and offered me hers before Matthew had a chance and this caused some hurt feelings that Suzanne had to soothe for a number of minutes after I had disappeared.)
Shortly after seeing the family we crossed the river on the Autzen footbridge, Gerry and I said “goodbye” as he dropped back slightly (and ran “his” race). I turned on my ipod nano and settled back into focusing (or should I say obsessing) on the race. My mile 9 split was 8:05. After the bridge we took a right, heading east on a bike trail. Mile 10 was a bit faster at 7:55, followed by an 8:05 mile 11 as we headed onto the street. Despite slathering the glide on fairly thickly before the race, my legs were starting to chaff. So I stopped briefly to apply some Aqua Four before continuing. I also threw back another Gu at this point.
I clocked mile 12 at 8:14 and mile 13 at 8:03. At this point the course looped back and headed west and it was time, according to the race plan, to drop down to 7:50 pace. In reality, I was pretty close turning in splits of 7:55, 7:54, and another 7:54 for the next 3 miles. At mile 14 we crossed paths with the slower runners running the other way (for them it was mile 11). It took me a second to realize they were actually behind me and not in front of me before I continued on the trail. At mile 16, we passed the Autzen footbridge, which by the way, was only a few hundred yards south of the finish line at Autzen stadium. But I had another 10 miles to cover before I would get there.
The trail continued east along the bike path and the Willamette river. I was looking forward to seeing the family at Mc Menamins at mile 17. Assuming they made it there in time. While Suzanne is not the most geographically inclined person, I was counting on the Tom-Tom One GPS navigation system I bought for her for Christmas and my instructions to get her there. My only concern was that roadblocks to prevent motorists from running over runners might thwart her efforts. Alas, she and the kids were there right in front of Mc Menamins with my next water bottle, which Matthew proudly handed to me. After exchanging my empty for the full bottle, I stopped and hugged them all. A half second later, Suzanne shooed me away, reminding me that it was time to get running again. I posted an 8:03 for mile 17. Between mile 17 and 18 I choked down another Gu and about this time, I started to doubt whether I could continue at a 7:50ish pace. I ran a little slower than that but still managed to maintain a steady effort nonetheless and clocked 7:56, 8:04, and 8:06 for miles 18, 19, and 20, respectively. Just after mile 20, the course double-backed on itself before heading across the river on the Owosso Bridge. It was at this point that I saw Krista and managed to quickly blurt out “Krista” as she ran by. She silently nodded as she continued in the opposite direction probably about 2 minutes ahead of me. She looked in pain. About this time I started to worry if it was my turn to feel pain too and, dare I say, possibly hit the wall?
Shortly after that I crossed the river and much to my surprise saw Suzanne and the kids at the other end of the bridge at an unplanned stop. It was a great surprise; I yelled hi and plodded on as I heard a chorus of “Go Daddy, go”. My spirits were definitely lifted as I raised my arms over my head and looked back. Mile 21 was clocked in at 8:03. As I headed east on the bike trail along the river I stopped thinking about whether I was going to bonk (I decided I was probably not going to at this point) and started to do the math of where I was in relationship to my Boston cutoff. Only last week I had turned 50 and gained another precious 5 minutes. Surely, I could run a 3:35 marathon. Surely I could. My quick math based on my estimate of a 2 minute potty down time assured me that if I could average 8:20 or for the remaining miles I would still qualify. No problem, unless…
Only 5 Miles to Go
Only 5 miles to go but, of course, these were the miles that separated the runner from the whatever you call a non-runner. This is where it mattered. Everything up to this point was setting the stage for the final 5 miles. I was definitely feeling fatigued at this point and redoubled my efforts to maintain an 8:00 minute-ish pace for the remaining miles. Mile 22 clocked in at 8:00 but at mile 23 I slowed down to 8:16 and was starting to drag. At this point I was supposed to down another disgusting Gu but I have to say that between all the water I drank and the Gu’s I had eaten I was starting to feel full and visualized my stomach filled with a mixture of water and Gu sloshing around at around the 95% full line. Still I feared the bonk more than getting sick and I managed to down another Gu somewhere between mile 23 and 24. In grabbing the Gu, I managed to drop my ipod and a fellow runner picked it up and handed it to me. I thanked him, stopping briefly to reattach it to myself and continued.
For the most part, I was mostly passing other runners who were fading at this point. But occasionally, someone would pass me and I focused in on a woman who recently passed me trying to muster enough strength to tag along behind her. I managed to hang on for a bit but she obviously was running too fast for me so I let her go and continued to plod along at my pace, which for mile 24 had now slowed down to 8:33. My average heart rate at this point was averaging around 164, which meant that I was definitely working hard to maintain the pace. Only 3 miles to go.
Could I hang on at this pace or would I slow to a crawl. Damn another hill ahead. Hey I thought this course was supposed to be flat. Now, note that I live and train in Seattle, which is full of hills. While I can’t say I love hills or even like them, running in Seattle gets you pretty used to hills -- lots of them and lots of big hills at that. Hell, it’s the rare workout that avoids any hill in Seattle and here I was muttering to myself about a hill that probably ascended a whole 10 feet, which was a sign I was hurting. Just about this time, the sun began to appear as well. Till that time, it was cloudy and cool -- the perfect marathon weather. But like a vampire, at this point, I was fearing the daylight because the only thing worse than hanging on for dear life during he last 2 miles of a marathon, was hanging on for dear life during those last two miles while baking in the hot sun.
My pace continued to slow; I ran mile 25 in 9:07, which considering how terrible I was feeling, was amazing. However, I was thinking that 9:07 pace might just be too slow for me to make the Boston cutoff. Some quick calculations -- and believe me at this point my brain was not the best at calculating estimates -- and I came to the conclusion that it was going to be damn close but also that I didn’t care that much anymore. I was going to finish in as fast a time as I could but I wasn’t going to dwell on the Boston cutoff. In other words, I needed to concentrate on running. That’s all that really mattered at this point and, believe me, it was hard.
Around this point, I actually grabbed a cup of Gleukos, the official race water stop sports drink. I reasoned that it was too late for another Gu but maybe a shot of sports drink might help. I’m sure it didn’t do anything for me at this late stage but I drank it anyway. A half a mile or so after milepost 25, we crossed the river one last time and headed towards the finish line in the Autzen Stadium parking lot. As I approached the bridge, I knew it was a little less than a mile to go and I dug down deep inside of me to maintain my slightly slowed pace and not settle down to a 10 or 12 minute crawl or worse stop like I so very much wanted to. As had happened through the race, total strangers continued to cheer for me and this definitely helped. Thank you, anyone and everyone who cheered for me!
"Less than a mile to go" I told myself. "Time to give it all I had. Time to speed it up". But at the same time another part of me was saying "You still have almost a mile to go". So the glass was both half full and half empty at the same time. Speaking of empty, I was definitely running on fumes but the end was getting close and I managed to run mile 26 in 9:08 pace. Again, this was slower than I wanted to run but considering how bad my legs felt it was almost miraculous that I was able to maintain that very respectable pace.
Of course, as any long distance runner worth his or her salt will tell you, the marathon is not 26 miles long, it's 26.2 miles and I still had another 385 yards to go at this point, to be exact. At this point, I managed to speed up, clocking the last .2 miles in 8:12 pace. I ran by Suzanne and the kids (and lots of other folks) cheering for me during the final approach to the finish line. I surged even faster the last 50 yards or so and it was over. The official clock time said 3:36 something. But that was the unadjusted time; there was still a chance I came in under 3:36. As I stopped to let the race volunteer cut off my timing chip I have to say I was happy. I wasn't sure if I had made the Boston cutoff, but I also didn't really care that much. After all, it was over, and hadn't bonked.
After chowing down on some post race snacks, chatting with Krista (3:34, a person record (or PR)) and Gerry (3:37, a PR), and reuniting with the family, we watched for Peter to finish (he had a tough time with cramps; finishing in 4:07). At this point, I still didn't know my official time, so with trepidation I hobbled over to the official table and pointed to the number that was affixed to my shirt: #1011. The official plugged into his laptop and out popped a strip of paper from the printer that was about the size of a grocery store receipt. I had run 3:36:14. Wow. I missed qualifying for Boston by 15 seconds.
But despite failing to qualify for Boston, I did it. Here I was 50 years old and I managed to run a marathon, this time, without hitting the wall, and record a personal best (if one ignores the marathons I ran in high school). Not bad, if I don't say so myself.
(See pre-race post for description of events leading up to race day.)