This taper week I was reminiscing about my first run three years ago. I had lived in Michigan for 9 months. I was mountain biking a little, but I said that I would never do the crazy stuff tri Alaina does. I am not an athlete and never would be.
My first run was a "terrible beauty". Alaina invited me to run a mile with her and I reluctantly agreed. We went out at a 10 m/m pace and my heart gurgled from my chest to my throat and ejected some leftover tar from my smoking days. Getting to the first 1/2 mile point took forever.
Remember in Temple of Doom when Mola Ram rips the heart out of that dude's chest and sets it on fire? That was this first run. At the end of the road, just before the golf course (which now doesn't even constitute my warm up), my whole body was exhausted. I turned around and let her go on. I was both inwardly happy about the fact that I could run at all, and outwardly disappointed that I couldn't just go out and run 10 miles on day one. I haz the dum, right?
I'd like to say that each run got a whole lot easier, but they didn't. I ran at a 10-11 min/mi pace that was a whole-body sufferfest for 1-3 miles at a time. And this was for a long time. When I finally did start going faster, I got ITBS. But by that point, I knew I was in love with running, so I started my battle with that st00pid band. And eventually, I won.
Forward to 2011. I raced eleven events this year, four of them being half-Ironmans, and it was a breakthrough year. I set a PR in every distance I entered and won overall for the first time at a trail half-marathon. After my last Half-Ironman of the season, I dedicated my time solely back to my true passion. Running. I read Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning 12/70 plan and modified it down to 8 weeks, nailing nearly every training run, peaking with 2 x 70 mile weeks and a 22 mile long run with marathon pace worked in. My goal was a sub-3 hour marathon, which was a stretch goal considering that I should’ve been on a marathon-specific, 12-18 week plan for that.
During taper week, I cut my volume 50%, carb loaded for three days before the race, slept 8-10 hours a night, and didn’t have too many drinks. It was horrible. I was moody and irritable from breaking my happy habits, but knew I had to be in perfect form to reach sub-3. and a huge thanks to Alaina for putting up with my crap!
Come race day, I was ready to rip it. My plan was to run even splits, no matter what everyone around me was doing. A guy near me in Corral A had a wristband saying, “Relax, Breathe, Focus”. That became my mantra for the day. I needed to fuel perfectly, so I brought a small bottle of my training nutrition, GU brew. The harder part was disciplining my normal mentality of ‘rock and roll -- go out hard as hell and hold on.’
Just before the gun, American marathon record holder, Ryan Hall, came running out and joined the other elites, pumping up the runners in our corral along the way. Pretty cool. As I looked around, most of the guys near me had pace bands on with the time and miles on it, chatting with each other about their goals. I heard them say "sub-2:50, trying for 2:40", etc. It was a little daunting. As soon as the gun went off, swarms of people started absolutely killing the pace. I looked down at my watch, trying to hold back and saw 6:20s. Too fast, dial it back.
I quickly stopped caring about everyone else’s race -- this was my day. My Garmin was way off, perhaps because of the tunnels and the tall buildings, so I just hit lap at each mile marker and looked at the time. Might as well have been a $10 watch for all the good it did me. :D
The first 4 miles of most of my training runs feel like I'm aqua jogging with Wilford Brimley. This was no exception. Hips were tight, calves were sore, ankles twingy. Staying relaxed, I figured I’d settle into a groove after that. But I continued to struggle with turnover. Running at my goal pace took a concerted effort that I was having doubts about maintaining. Breathing was easy though, which calmed me and allowed my mind to settle. I've never done a big race like this with the insanely loud crowds cheering the entire time, so I soaked that up when I was feeling good, but mostly I focused on form and running at my own goal pace.
The energy from the aid station volunteers was amazing. Each neighborhood, from Chinatown to Little Italy, had dozens of volunteers from that area out on the course handing out Gatorade, water, bananas, and gels. I loved the sense of niche communities coming out together to form a whole Chicago.
Finally by mile 8 I started feeling strong. Maybe it just took that long to shake the taper rust off and warm up. From 8-12 there were some waves of crappy feeling as the 3:00 pace group passed me by, but I stuck to my ticking watch time, which kept showing me at 6:51 every mile, so I knew the pace group was going out too fast. Relax, breathe, focus. Run your own race.
Just after 13 I saw the early faders. You know, the ones who had been doing the big bad wolf impression in your ear back at mile 6. The clock showed 1:29:xx at 13.1, and everything was falling into place. These next 7 miles were my favorite, running through Greektown and Chinatown, where the neighborhoods look like Sesame Street and all the happiness makes you think Mr. Hooper and Big Bird are just around the next corner.
My rhythm was chamois butter smooth now, as I remembered all those mid-week 14-16 mile early morning runs that laid the foundation for this race. In fact, I brought my iPod but didn't listen to it once, and I'm one who LOVES listening to music on my runs. It was all about focus.
At mile 20 I really started thinking about the finish, but not in a 'someone please make it stop!' kind of way that I'm used to. My mind was like a flip book of running memories, flashing images of rainy runs, hot runs, trail runs, runs with Alaina, inspires from friends, and seeing my family at IMLP last year.
Note: 6.2 miles is a long way at the end of the marathon. Dozens of athletes around me saw their goals fade away in a pile of cramps and sore muscles. I know this because I've been there this year. Groin and hamstring cramps have slowed me late in races so I remembered to finish my salt sticks and take Gatorade and water at each aid station til the finish. By 22 it was time to see what was left in the tank. I picked the pace up a few secs per mile, still playing it conservatively because I feared cramps, which would lose me minutes rather than seconds.
And then the race was all before me. I was the one passing people. I was not fading. I was running strong to the end, though still within myself. A couple of people around me made their moves too so I paced off them until the bridge at mile 26. And for the last 1.2 miles I averaged 6:29/mi. All those trail runs lifted me up the bridge passing bunches of people. Then the track workouts kicked in as I gunned it down the final meters and saw the clock in its finals seconds of 2:58.
I wouldn't change a thing. I ran my race and followed my plan. Next time I can take a bigger pace risk in the last 6.2 miles but I needed to get this goal first.