Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pacing in the Rain -- The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon Race Report

State #33, Marathon #42, second marathon leading a pace group, and it was going to be a wet one. Possibly a wet one with thunder and lightning, no one knew for sure, but we all knew we were going to get rained on. The forecast had been unchanging in that regard for the ten days leading up to the race. I have led a pretty charmed running life, weather-wise. Out of 41 marathons, only three of them had any significant amount of rain -- St. George in 2008, and New Hampshire and Maine in 2011. I had begun to think that my presence at a marathon was a sort of charm protecting everyone in it from icky weather. Wrong! My streak is now broken.

I had two worries going into this run. One was the blister on the sole of my foot. I had run Boston in totally dead shoes, which left my legs and feet feeling like they had been beaten by boards for several days afterwards. So I bought new shoes, the same make and model I've been running in for years, no break-in time ever required, but I took them for a break-in run anyway, six miles. And I got a blister. A giant blister right in the center of the sole of my foot. That was a painful sucker that made working dogs really, really painful last week. Along about Wednesday, it dawned on me that the blister might cause a problem during the marathon. So I taped it up and hoped for the best. The other problem was this cold or maybe bronchitis by now, not sure which. I had it before Boston, I had it during Boston, I've had it since Boston, and I have it now as I'm sitting here typing this. Nothing terrible, just enough to annoy me and to make me not look forward to waking up every morning with a sore throat. I'd been hacking up gobs of green stuff for the week leading up to the marathon and wasn't sure what I would do with that stuff -- as in, where would I spit it? -- during the marathon. If there's a group of people following me, where does the spit go? I figured, worst case scenario I could spit into my shirt. It wouldn't be the first time.

This was a quick trip down to Louisville and back. One perk of being a pacer is that I get to stay in the host hotel, which in this case was the Galt House, a semi-fancy, historic hotel right on the Ohio River and walking distance to everything race-related -- expo, start line, finish line. (When I go to marathons by myself, I stay in Motel 6 or Red Roof.) I have actually stayed at the Galt House before, many years ago for a convention, but I remembered almost nothing about it. It's very nice. It is actually two towers, one on each side of the street, connected by a skyway with an atrium full of cool things like a giant enclosure full of canaries and a glass-topped bar with fish swimming under the glass. I checked in and as I was walking across the skyway to get to my room in the other tower, guess who I spotted lounging in a chair with a drink in his hand but John from my old running group in Tucson! John is a long-time pacer and I probably would not have ever become a pacer myself if not for him. I took my stuff up to my room and then walked over to the expo with John. The pre-race email had said that all the pacers were supposed to get to the pace team booth at the expo as soon as we could, to talk to runners and encourage them to join a pace group.

I think I get how pace teams are organized, sort of. I am pretty sure that sometimes a race will hire a "professional" pace team and other times they will designate a local person in charge of assembling a pace team (as opposed to using a pre-existing one). The first time I led a pace group, in Harrisburg, it was for an organized pace team, Marathon Pacing. The guy in charge of that group was very specific with how he wanted me to prepare for the marathon, when we were all meeting and where, what to do if we had a bad day and couldn't keep pace, et cetera. Pacers from Marathon Pacing lead pace groups at races all over the country. I heard about the chance to lead the pace group for this marathon in a Facebook group, and jumped on it right away because I needed Kentucky as a state and because it was easy logistics-wise, definitely the shortest drive of all the states I have left. Anyway, beyond the vague instruction to meet at the pace booth when I arrived in town, I really didn't have any other directives from this guy.

When I arrived at the expo, I got my number and my race shirt and also my pacer shirt. That was kind of cool -- a dark blue, almost purple, tech shirt with the marathon logo on the front in orange and the word PACER on the back in giant orange block letters. I liked the pacer shirt much better than the race shirt, which was the same blue as Ann Arbor and Lehigh, a color I definitely don't need more of in my running wardrobe. I also picked up the pace group sign. The last one was like a big laminated square with the goal time, 4:30, on one side and the pace, 10:18, on the other, and it had a really long stick. This one was more like a thick, heavy-duty, cardboard-like rectangle on a very short dowel. It was heavier than the other one, and the length of the dowel meant that whoever was holding the sign up had to hold their arm up high too, and therefore work harder. Several people made the observation that this sign, if used as a spanking paddle, would be able to deliver quite a satisfying crack.

One other new thing about pacing this marathon was that each group had two pace leaders. This was a tiny relief. I mean, I know I can do 4:30 with minimal or no trouble, but still... what if something went wrong? How nice to know if I had to make an unexpected stop, I had someone else to take over for me! Male pacers way, way outnumbered women, at least 5:1. This was fine with me. My co-pacer was named Jarrod and the first thing I noticed when he showed up at the booth was that he was hot, which was nice. I mean, he is married with children but still, any run is better in the company of a good-looking man.

Our pacer perks, in addition to free registration and free hotel, also included free pasta dinner. The pasta was good, nothing fancy, but unlimited, which was cool. I ate double helpings of chicken alfredo and four or five pieces of French bread. But the best part of this pasta dinner (except for the free booze, which I did not touch out of fear of causing problems the next day) was the Derby pie. It's kind of like a pecan pie with chocolate chips in it. I was only going to eat one or two little squares -- still haven't forgotten what happened when I ate that giant bread pudding before Rehoboth in December -- but then someone brought a plate of the squares to the table, and then John kept insisting that I eat more. So I ended up eating like nine or ten of them. Probably the equivalent of half a pie. I waddled out of that expo and up to my hotel room.

I had a roommate, and her stuff was in the room, but she wasn't. There was just a note saying she might be in late. Fine with me. I got everything ready for the next day and then had some whiskey with John. Whiskey is the only alcohol I actually enjoy the taste of. It was actually very peaceful sitting way high up in Galt House drinking whiskey and looking down at the Ohio River far below. Weather was gorgeous and I only wished it would be the same on race day.

We actually did get a little lucky with the weather in that it was not raining at the start line. I had come prepared with a trash bag but I didn't need it. This race starts and finishes downtown. It is a good-sized race, with 16,000 between the full and half. The full and half course are the same until the split between Mile Eight and Mile Nine. The start area was very crowded. Jarrod and I stood in our assigned corral, D, and took turns twirling the sign around and holding it up high. We had a pretty large and friendly group of people with us. Lots of first-timers, one of them a 16-year-old girl named Nicole. Her mom introduced her to us and told us that she also barrel-raced horses at home and this was her first marathon. I thought back to what I was doing at 16. Mostly reading, playing with my dogs, and wishing I could get a boyfriend and that I was more popular. I looked at Nicole and said, "You are going to have a very interesting life," and she and her mom both laughed. Jarrod and I did not really have a strategy. My strategy was keep an eye on my watch and confirm we're in the ballpark when I see the mile marker sign approaching. Jarrod had more experience than me as a pacer but did not seem to have any strong opinions about how things should be done. We decided randomly that we would switch off holding the pacer sign at 3-mile intervals. That would just be one more thing to make the miles go by faster, and finishing a marathon for me is all about breaking it into small chunks. Never, ever think of the full distance.

As we shuffled up to the start line with the crowd, both of us had our fingers poised on our GPS buttons. We pushed them at the same time as we crossed the start line mat. We heard them both beep as they started. But somehow, when we got to the first mile marker, mine was six seconds slower than his. At the second mile marker, mine was twelve seconds slower. Even more confusing, our distances were exactly the same. What the hell? We tried to figure out how to explain the difference. Distance variations are just a part of GPS. But the timer should have been exactly the same. We decided to go with his since the potential consequences of trusting mine if it was off were worse than the potential consequences of trusting his. Still, it was not a great way to start off a race. We had to spend our time having serious, important pacer conversations instead of being entertaining and encouraging for our group.

The course took us out of downtown and into a residential neighborhood full of trees (and how nice it was to see trees with leaves on them, instead of the dead sticks we still have here in Michigan!) and beautiful old houses. The rain held off until Mile Six and then it started to come down, a gentle, warm drizzle at first, not bad. We knew it was going to rain and were mostly relieved that we had been dry at the start line and for six miles of the race. We were also relieved that it was warm rain, still well over 60 degrees out, and not windy at all. Still, I was glad I had a baseball cap with a brim, because it was clear my rain-free marathon streak had come to an end. Those dark grey clouds were clearly here to stay.

This would be a good place to say that this was one of my favorite courses ever, in terms of being easy and comfortable to run. There were very slight, gradual rises and downslopes, but almost nothing that beat up your body. At the same time, the very slight changes in elevation worked different muscle groups so nothing got sore. The scenery was pleasant in a sort of dull way, with two exceptions. One was Iroquois Park, a 3-mile loop through a park between Mile Twelve and Mile Fifteen. Everyone talked about "the hill" in Iroquois Park, which appeared as a giant spike in the elevation profile. But that giant spike was only 200 feet of elevation gain. It was an easy climb after Boston and Atlanta. And the scenery was terrific. It was almost like a redwood forest even though the trees weren't redwoods. I felt like I was in a scene from prehistoric times, running through an ancient, misty fern forest, like I might see a pterodactyl soaring overhead or something. The park was something new to look at, somewhere to stretch out our legs, and a mental accomplishment to check off once we were done.

The other spectacular thing about this course is that it went through Churchill Downs. Not actually on the track, but all around it. There was a Jumbo Tron with giant Thoroughbreds galloping on it, and then there were actual Thoroughbreds out training on the track. We watched them through a curtain of falling rain. ACTUAL race horses with ACTUAL jockeys! I know I was not the only one whose inner horse-crazy girl was awakened briefly. Talk about a unique marathon feature! I may forget everything else about this marathon but I will never forget Churchill Downs.

After Churchill Downs, the marathon and half-marathon split. And, really, nothing much happened for the rest of the marathon. We stayed right on pace. (Well, almost right on. We had a cushion of about a minute.) We traded the sign every three miles. We walk-jogged through water stops. We had a big group and they kept saying very nice things about us. It rained steadily but not in a way that made us miserable. The course was pleasant, pleasant, pleasant. Hardly any spectators because of the rain, but we had plenty of company. We headed back towards downtown and the last four-mile loop we had to do before the finish. It headed into a grittier part of town -- older houses in not quite as good shape as the other neighborhoods, more cars up on blocks, some abandoned buildings that made me feel like I was back in Detroit -- in other words, the kind of neighborhood I would want to buy a house in if I lived in Louisville. Then, with about four miles to go, the rain changed from friendly to a downpour. It wasn't fun anymore. I was keenly aware that it would be physically possible for me to sprint for the finish and be there ten minutes faster than I would be if I stuck to pace. I grimly pushed that thought out of my head and encouraged the people in our group to go for it if they had anything left. Instead of going faster, we had to slow down and burn up our one-minute cushion. As we headed down the last stretch into town, we looked sadly at all the deserted bleachers that had been set up for spectators. The most pathetic sign we saw was one couple sitting on an otherwise deserted stand of bleachers. The last couple feet of the bleacher seats were under an overpass, and that's where this couple was sitting, bundled up in raingear but still wet, holding up a sign that said "Go Jenn!" Oh, rain, you suck.

We crossed the finish line at 4:29:33, pretty close to perfect. (Perfect would have been 4:29:30.) We didn't have any of our original group with us -- some had left us in the dust, others had fallen off the back. The medal was nice. It had a map of the city engraved on it with the marathon route highlighted. We didn't want to linger in the rain. We both had to get on the road as quickly as possible, so we found the guy in charge of pacers, returned the sign, picked up as much free food as we could carry, and slogged through the muddy field that was supposed to be the finish line festival and back to where our cars were parked.

Running in the rain will never be my favorite, but I do feel like more of a badass for doing it, so it is not entirely without merit. This was a very nice marathon, well-organized, just the right size, a really comfortable course, and of course an awesome run through Churchill Downs. It's a solid choice for Kentucky.

What's next? I don't know, nothing on my official calendar until Extraterrestrial Marathon in Nevada in August and then I-35 Challenge (back-to-back Kansas City, MO, and Des Moines in October), but we all know I won't go that long without a marathon. I'm thinking about maybe doing Med City in Rochester, MN, Memorial Day weekend. Still looking for a late-June, July, or maybe September marathon; any suggestions? With 17 states to go, I'm itching to get some more done.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Boston Marathon Race Report

I have been looking forward to this for such a long time! As soon as I surprise-BQ'd in Pocatello in September of last year, I went through the motions of debating with myself whether I should or should not do it. That was really kind of a waste of time because, come on, OF COURSE I was going to do it! It's Boston! I'd qualified twice in 35 marathons. I would do it or live with the regret afterwards.

After having finished the  Boston Marathon, still basking in the glow of being a Boston Marathon finisher again, still wearing my medal around town, I can say that no matter what, it's worth it. It's hugely expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, no help in my pursuit of 50 states, but still totally worth it. It's worth every sacrifice, it's worth giving up beer or desserts or whatever is keeping those extra 10 pounds on and keeping you those three or four minutes from getting the qualifying time you need, it's worth charging up your credit card, it's worth putting a strain on your relationship by being unavailable on the weekends because of hard training, it's worth pretty much whatever it takes to get you to the starting line in Hopkinton. That is my conclusion after running my second Boston.

We had decided to drive to Boston and then swing back home through New York, stopping at three different guide dog schools along the way. We stayed in a hotel in Framingham, which is one of the eight towns along the marathon course, kind of in the middle between Hopkinton and Boston. A lot of people stay right in the city and pay $400 a night for hotels but that is one place I'm definitely willing to compromise. I like having a car there and paying 1/4 of what a Boston hotel would cost. We drove from Michigan on Saturday and got into Hopkinton right around sunset, just in time to take pictures at the start line sign. There were quite a few other people doing the same thing, and suddenly it all became real, with the barricades set up and the cop stopping traffic so people could run out in the road and take their pictures on the start line. Hopkinton is a small, cute town that is probably really quiet 364 days out of the year, but the world spotlight is turned on it for that one day.

Up until the moment we got to Hopkinton, I hadn't really remembered much of what the start line or the course looked like. All I really remembered was cold, cold, cold, miserable cold. Clearly that was not going to be the case this year. The weather forecast was for sun. Actual temperature predictions were all over the place, from mid-50's to low 70's. I am a hot-weather runner but totally not acclimated to the heat at all due to the shitty spring the Midwest and Northeast have dealt with. For the past six weeks it's pretty much been 30's, rain, and grey skies. No heat and no sun whatsoever. Still, just knowing that I like the heat and do pretty well in it was a psychological boost. I was still prepared for a cold start with throwaway pants, sweatshirt, and gloves, but hopeful I wouldn't need them.

Sunday was the expo. We did a dry run for our travel plans the next day. We planned to park at one of the T stations with the most available parking on the Red Line, which is the one that runs the furthest south. We figured that made sense since we would be heading south to New York after the marathon. That actually worked well. We had no trouble with parking at the station, and it was an easy 1/2-hour ride into Boston.

Once we got into Boston, we joined the river of runners heading to the expo. This would be a good time to say that I have never seen such top-notch logistics at such a huge race (almost 30,000 runners). Bib pickup was smooth as can be. Long-sleeved blue tech shirt is beautiful. (I still cherish my yellow shirt from 2011 and wear it pretty regularly, pretty sure I will do the same with this one.) Expo is huge, lots of free food. I know I can't be the only one really excited about those Clif bars with a layer of nut butter in them! The good thing about a super-crowded expo is that you can go around several times and get tons of free samples and the people handing them out will never recognize you and be like, "Hey, you've taken 6 mini Builder Bars already! Get out of here!"

Oh yeah, the jacket. The Boston jacket is just okay as a jacket goes. Pockets are small, it's not waterproof, no hood, pretty flimsy, but still, I couldn't wait to buy the 2011 one five years ago; in fact, I've been wearing it this whole trip. (Even though I hardly ever wear it anywhere else, because it's only suitable for like a 5-degree temperature range, maybe 50-55, and I never wear it running because it doesn't breathe.) I wasn't crazy about the colors of this year's jacket (teal with white and salmon stripes), but neither did I think they were as hideous as most people seemed to think they were. I pretty much assumed I would buy it even though it's $110 because HOW ELSE WOULD OTHER RUNNERS KNOW I'M AN "ELITE AMATEUR"?!?! As soon as I got into the expo I went straight to the jackets and put one on and... meh. I was not excited at all about it. I realized at that moment that I had never really cared for the 2011 one as a jacket. I only loved it as a symbol of something that I had thought was unattainable. Now that I have qualified three times in the last year, and get a new age group this year and five more minutes of cushion added to my qualifying time, the jacket doesn't have the same symbolic value. I realized all this while standing there wearing it, and decided that I did not need it. Instead I bought two extra short-sleeved Boston shirts which I love for half the price of the jacket. I'm not saying I will never buy another jacket -- if next year's colors are spectacular, maybe I will -- but I have no regrets about passing on this one.

After the expo, we hung out in Boston Common for a while and then I met up with Joe P. from Tucson. It was so great to see him! I have been in Michigan for over three years now and it doesn't look like life is going to let me leave any time soon, but I still consider myself a Tucson runner and probably always will. I went back into the expo for round two of snacks. Joe bought the jacket and it looked way better on him than it did on me.

After that we headed back to the hotel for an early night. I was still up in the air about tomorrow's logistics: should I drive to Quincy Adams station with Will, take the train into Boston, and then take the official marathon bus to the start line (thereby spending an extra two hours of time getting from the hotel into Boston, and from Boston back to the start line, which was not that far from the hotel)? Or should I have Will drop me off at the start line? All race materials discourage the start line dropoff. It is preferred that all runners take the official bus from Boston. But finally I decided that if Hopkinton dropoff was offered as an option, that was totally the smarter thing to do. Even though I had nightmare visions in my head of that miles-long freeway backup at the Lehigh Valley Marathon a few years ago, which resulted in me getting to the start line after the marathon had already started, I decided that I was going to trust the marathon organizers and the total absence of any Internet discussion of transportation-to-the-start-line problems and just do it that way. And, of course, it worked fine. There was no problem getting to the runner drop-off point and plenty of people directing traffic so that everything flowed smoothly, just like every single other part of this whole event.

Will dropped me off in a parking lot and I got on a runners' shuttle for the start line. I sat next to a young guy from Costa Rica who told me that there were 40 or so runners there from Costa Rica and he hoped to get the second-fastest time of the 40 because there was one guy he knew was much faster than him. It was just another reminder that this marathon is a REALLY BIG DEAL! I got chills over and over again thinking of how big a deal it was and how lucky I was to participate in it while the bus made its way to the start line.

Finally we arrived at Hopkinton High School, which transforms into Athletes Village on Marathon Monday. You get off the bus and go with the crowd past security and down a hill into the Village. There's a guy up on a tower with a microphone repeating a loop of "Welcome to Athletes Village! Food, drinks, and bathrooms to the left and right! This is your big day! No one has to get up early next Saturday to run 18 miles! Your friends and family back home are all proud of you! They're all telling people they know someone running the Boston Marathon! Every runner wants to be here and you guys made it!" Et cetera, et cetera. There's a Jumbo Tron, there are news and police helicopters circling overhead, there are military guys in uniform standing in rows on top of all the buildings looking down at the crowds, there's unlimited bagels and bananas and Clif bars and coffee and Gatorade, and there are almost 30,000 runners spread out over two fields stretching, napping, eating, or standing in bathroom lines.

Let me just say that running in general keeps people humble. No matter how well you are capable of doing in isolated races, there are always more times when you get dropped from your pace group or your stomach betrays you or you can't get rid of the cramp or you walk in the last four miles of a scheduled 18-miler because you're cranky and sick of the snow flurries and headwind and would rather be back in bed. But Boston Marathon day is the day that everyone, and I mean absolutely every runner, is treated like a rock star or like an elite athlete, and gets their egos not just stroked but super-charged by the treatment. It's the one day where you can bask in the glow of your accomplishment and remind yourself that it really does still mean something to qualify for Boston. (Well, that's what happens in Athletes Village, anyway. BEFORE the heat and the hills.)

My Athletes Village experience was totally different than my first Athletes Village experience in 2011. For one thing, I wasn't nervous. Boston in 2011 was my 18th marathon and Boston in 2016 was my 41st marathon, so nerves at the start line of marathons, even Boston, pretty much don't happen anymore. For another, I wasn't putting any pressure on myself. In my dream world, I could qualify for Boston IN Boston. Since I just had that really good race on a really tough course in Atlanta, I knew that was a possibility. But if I couldn't do that, my second goal would be to be under four hours. I really thought I should be able to do that since in my last six marathons, I've only been over four hours once and that was in Harrisburg where I was a pacer, so it didn't really count. If I couldn't do that, I wanted to beat my time from 2011, which was 4:12. And if I couldn't do that, if I had a really bad day, I didn't really care; I would just take it as a victory lap and go slow, which is a lot of people's strategy from the start anyway. Finally, I wasn't freezing! Quite the opposite. It was downright hot in Athletes Village, with sun beating down and no real breeze. I had layers of throwaway clothes on but I dumped all of them in the first half hour. (Including, sadly, the sleeves that I thought I might need. Those sleeves have served me well in the past, but, oh well. I can buy new sleeves.) It's never a great feeling to be totally comfortable at the start line. You always want to be a little bit cold. Standing in the bathroom line, in full sun, I got warm enough that it occurred to me that I may want to put sunscreen on. I'm not in the habit of doing that -- I live in Michigan, where we don't have sun -- but when I could actually feel myself sizzling in the bathroom line, I decided it might be a good idea. So I went to the medical tent and lathered up with the free sunscreen.

The Boston Marathon has a wave start, with four waves each divided into eight corrals, all based on qualifying times. The wave start times are half an hour apart. Each one was called separately: "If you are wearing a RED number, it's time for you to leave Athletes Village! If you are not wearing a red number, it's not your turn yet!" From the bathroom line I watched the red numbers, the fastest of the fast, marching out of Athletes Village and out onto the street for the .7 mile walk to the start line. Once I was out of the bathroom, the white numbers were leaving. I was in the third wave and had a blue number, 19438. That means, I think, that 19,437 people had run a faster qualifying time than I did and that just under 10,000 had run a slower qualifying time than I did. When my wave was called, I joined all the other blue numbers heading down the residential street to the start line. All the residents were out on their front lawns cheering as we walked by. I was glad to be healthy, uninjured, and not so cold I couldn't enjoy every glorious second of the walk. We were being showered with attention, and not yet having to do anything to actually earn that attention, like run.

Once I got to my corral, the fourth out of eight in the third wave, I still had twenty minutes left to wait until the official start. The fun briefly ended there because it was WARM. There were hundreds of people in my corral all pressed together, and there was no shade and no breeze. I was sweating a little, but some people were pouring sweat and looking like they were going to succumb to heat stroke right there. I thought again how lucky it was that I was a hot weather runner. I love the heat; I feel like a machine running in high temps, I love to sweat, I love the salt crust, I love all of it. I knew I wasn't acclimated, but just the knowledge that I did well in the heat was a psychological boost. I felt really sorry for these people standing around me starting to look very desperate and like they might keel over right there.

Finally the gun went off. The first corral was released, then the second, then the third, then mine. We took off down the steep downhill that I remembered. Last time I remember feeling like every single person in my corral was faster than me and I had to race to keep up with all of them. This time I was in a much more appropriate group of runners, pace-wise, and everyone pretty much stayed together for the first few miles until the road widened enough for us to spread out. It has been a long, long time since I did a truly big urban marathon and I am not used to having to be careful about where I spit. There really was nowhere I could safely spit so I just spit into my shirt or else into the bandana I had wrapped around my hand.

The Boston Marathon course goes through eight towns on its way to Boylston Street: Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline, and Boston. There are big banners at each town line with the town name on them, and huge crowds of spectators waiting to welcome runners to the next town. The towns are spaced anywhere from two to five miles apart, which is a nice distance because it allows you to feel like you're always pretty close to getting to another one. My favorite aside from Boston is, of course, Wellesley, because that's where Wellesley College and the Scream Tunnel are. The Scream Tunnel is a quarter-mile or so stretch of Wellesley girls standing alongside the road and screaming. You can hear them from probably a half-mile away and it is LOUD. So loud I could hear it even over the music from my iPhone. I took my ear buds out because I wanted the full experience of the Scream Tunnel. Most of the girls hold signs saying "Kiss me..." along with the reason why you should kiss her. For example, "Kiss me, I'm from Texas." "Kiss me, I'm still a virgin." "Kiss me, I'm still drunk from last night." "Kiss me, I'm bicoastal." "Kiss me, I'm GAY!" (In big rainbow letters.) And my favorite: "Kiss me, then come inside with me and you can end this race right now." This would be a good time for me to say that I had made up my mind well in advance of coming to Boston that I was going to kiss one of the Wellesley girls. There are always plenty of girls out there who are willing to kiss girls and say so on their signs. I'm mostly straight, but I was totally willing to bend a little for the sake of having a very good Boston Marathon story. But as I came into the Scream Tunnel, I glanced at my watch and saw that I was on pace for a 1:45 half marathon time. That was the exact same time as I had at the half in Atlanta, which was surprising because I wasn't feeling nearly as good as I had been in Atlanta. Nevertheless, a half time of 1:45 would be a full time of 3:30, which meant that I could lose almost 15 minutes in the second half and still BQ. Regretfully, I decided that it was not worth losing the chance to BQ and I could always shove my tongue down a Wellesley girl's throat during some other Boston when my chance to BQ was long gone and I just needed a boost. (I did see guys taking full advantage of the offered kisses, though, grabbing one girl's face after another and giving all of them big smackers.)

The half-marathon timing mat was right past Wellesley. Sure enough, 1:45 on the dot. Exactly like Atlanta. The worst hills in the Boston Marathon are in the second half, but that was true for Atlanta too. A few miles after the half, we got to Newton, home of the infamous Newton Hills, of which I think there are four -- well, four major ones -- and Heartbreak Hill is the fourth. None of the hills are that bad on their own; they are bad because they come so late in the race and because a lot of people have trashed their legs by racing the downhills and are now finding themselves unable to power up the up hills. I was determined to run all of them. It helped that right before the first one, I saw Will! He had taken the T to Newton (along with practically every other spectator in Boston, according to him) and was standing there screaming my name and waving cowbells, and somehow I heard him over my music and over the general din of the crowd. I turned and waved and then I was already past, not slowing down. I never really slowed down the whole race -- I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn't be able to start again.

I ran all of the hills. They were bad but not terrible. I had slowed down some but not that much. I was warm and crusted with salt, but the closer I got to Boston, the cooler the breeze got, so cool that I didn't mind that it was a headwind. I was in much better shape than many of the runners I passed, who were starting to look like the walking dead. There were lots of people bent over on the side of the course; whether they were puking or stretching out cramps, I did not linger to see. I also saw more than one person down, as in so down that medical attention and stretchers were needed. I was passing a lot of white numbers and even a few red numbers -- people whose races definitely hadn't gone as planned. I am a terrible person, and seeing people suffering gives me more energy. Once I got up to the top of Heartbreak Hill, I knew the rest of the course was mostly either downhill or flat. Still, it's not like I was just cruising effortlessly. I was aware that it was warm (and very grateful for the people who stood outside with hoses and sprinklers for us to run through), and my legs and feet were sore because I was running on shoes that were totally dead. But I wasn't nauseous or cramping, and I had over an hour to do six miles when I got to the 20-mile mark.

The crowds got bigger as I got closer to Boston. Then, in the distance, like a mirage hanging up on the left side of the sky, I saw the giant Citgo sign. That sign means there's one mile to the finish. (Well, when you pass under it there's one mile to go, not when you first see it.) It takes forever to get to it and then suddenly I was under it and past it and it all got real... I WAS ABOUT TO FINISH THE BOSTON MARATHON!

There was nothing but screaming crowds for the whole last mile; if I had needed to puke, I would have had no choice but to do it in the street in front of a thousand people. I ran my last mile in just over 8:00 pace. Plenty of people were walking it in but not me, I was still running. I made my left turn on Boylston Street and saw the finish line tiny in the distance. Okay, only 3/10 of a mile away, but it felt so far! Still, I wanted to slow down time so that I could enjoy every sign, every screaming spectator, every feeling of this ultimate runner's high. (And at the same time I wanted to speed it up, because I wanted that medal and some food and to stop running, damnit!) I didn't have any cramping in my legs at all and was able to finish strong, for once.

I couldn't stop smiling as I wandered down Boylston Street with all the other runners once I had crossed the mat and stopped my Garmin. Everyone was smiling and congratulating each other (except for those poor people who were keeling over or puking). Me personally, I was hungry. I got my medal and my heat sheet and my food bag and then sucked down a huge bottle of chocolate milk, a banana, some chips, and a fruit cup. I so do not miss the days when I spent the first half-hour post-race trying not to puke! My finish time was 3:37:23, a minute and a half slower than Atlanta, but when I looked at the splits I saw that I had run 26.5, not 26.2, and my actual pace was the exact same as Atlanta -- 8:12. Not bad for me. I was in pretty good shape afterwards though definitely tired and sore. I met Will in our pre-arranged meeting spot and gimped across Boston Common to the T station, where I got to feel like a hero all over again wearing my medal and my heat sheet. After that was a half-hour T ride and then a 4-hour drive to Long Island, where we were spending the night. That part -- stiffening up in the car -- wasn't fun, but the part where I was standing in the hotel lobby and some guy asked if he could take a picture of my medal was fun!

I had been wondering in the days leading up to the marathon if I would do it again. It was hugely expensive, and takes place during the time of year when there are at least two other marathons that I really want to do, and is a tough course with notoriously iffy weather, but to be honest, my decision was made as soon as I walked to the starting line to take a picture on Saturday night. OF COURSE I will do it again, every year, as long as I'm able to qualify. Boston is totally unique among marathons. Chicago and New York are awesome too (and it's probably time I do those two again, some time soon; it's been 11 years this fall), but they are not the same as Boston. So I will be planning for a 2017 Boston and am glad I already qualified.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Beautiful Beast -- The Georgia Marathon Race Report

State #32, Marathon #40, and a surprise B.Q., how nice is that? And it's the second time it's happened in less than a year. I ran 15 marathons before I qualified on #16, and then I ran 18 more before I qualified again on #35, and now I qualified again. I have seen a lot of people get faster as they get older over the years, maybe I will be one of those. Wouldn't that be nice?

Anyway, the Georgia Marathon was not originally on my race calendar. I decided to do it three weeks ago. The decision was based on a combination of factors: unexpected tax refund, Southwest fare sale that actually included a destination I wanted to visit, and a daily worsening itch to do another marathon. Atlanta is one of the only large U.S. cities I haven't visited, although I do have a many-years-old memory of sprinting through their airport and being the closest to missing a connecting flight that I have ever been in my life.

The reviews on were unanimous in emphasizing the difficulty of the course. It was described as follows: "All reviews of this course warn about the hills and they do not exaggerate." "This is a great event but you need to be prepared for the HILLS!. They are tough!" "Every other mile had one of those hills you love to hate." "Make no mistake, however; this is a hilly, hilly beast. Believe everything you read about how hilly it is. This is NOT a PR course." "The course is challenging. Do not underestimate it. Study the map and elevation charts closely. the last four miles are unrelenting, full on punishment." Et cetera. So I knew what I was in for. I don't train on hills; we don't really have any where I run. I like them and much prefer them to a flat course with no change in elevation, but I am by no means used to them. So I wasn't expecting a good time at all. But I thought the course would be a great tune-up for Boston, and a reality check so that I would have a little more information on how I would handle the Boston hills.

I flew into Atlanta early on Saturday morning. I was staying with a new friend, Dennis -- a stranger I met on the Internet and never even talked to on the phone before accepting his invitation to stay at his place! Well, he's a Marathon Maniac so I figured he would be cool, and he totally was. He picked me up at the airport and we went to the expo. The shirt is cool -- long-sleeved grey tech shirt. The expo was surprisingly small for a big city marathon but at least had lots of free samples of real food. We snacked our way through it and then went out for my second breakfast at this great diner, The Silver Skillet. It's been there since 1967 and looks like it hasn't changed since then. Atlanta is beautiful! Flowers were blooming everywhere, and it was so nice to be in a real city again. Yes, yes, the traffic sucked. But I believe that traffic is the price you pay to live in civilization.

A couple more runners showed up at Dennis's house later. Marathon runners are kind of like Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in that if you throw a bunch of them together, even if no one knows anyone else, they can all be expected to get along immediately. It's not like putting a bunch of German shepherds who are unacquainted with one another in a pack, where you can't really predict what will happen but there will probably be at least a couple of minor fireworks in the beginning. I know that it is not possible for ALL members of any group of people to be cool and easygoing, but nevertheless it has always been my experience that all marathon runners are. I don't know why; I suspect it is because running long distances keeps you humble and makes you realize that you can't control everything, so you might as well just accept stuff and not worry about it too much.

We went out to dinner at a great Italian place. I was virtuous and only had salad pasta with chicken and did NOT have dessert even though I really wanted to. (I have not forgotten about the unpleasant experience at Rehoboth Beach, which I have concluded after much deliberation was caused by the bread pudding the night before.)

The next morning we were out the door at 5:30. We parked at the MARTA (train) station and took the train downtown where the race start line was. The course is a loop and finishes at the same place it starts, in Centennial Olympic Park. Temperature was low 40's and windy. It was chilly at the start but chilly at the start usually = comfortable during the race. I really don't like to be comfortable at the start because if I am I know that I will be hot later. The race started at 7:00 a.m. and it was dark for the first two or three miles. The course was hilly from the beginning and I swear there was not a flat part anywhere. It was constant up-and-down. But the good thing about it was that none of the hills, up or down, lasted very long, so I could always recover immediately. I sort of wondered what this constant up-and-down would do to my legs. It turned out, nothing. My legs felt so strong the whole way that I felt like they had springs inside them, or were operating like pistons outside of my control. What a great feeling. This is a course that could destroy legs and mine, untrained on hills as they are, handled it totally fine. Maybe elliptical + spin twice a week is a good way to go? It certainly looks that way!

The course went through all kinds of different neighborhoods, all of them full of beautiful houses. There must be ugly parts of Atlanta but they were not on display, possibly the first urban marathon I've ever done that doesn't include at least one stretch of ugly or an industrial area or something. And every neighborhood seemed to have its own beautiful park. Weather was ideal, a little windy but the wind direction always varied because of the number of turns. If we were faced with a headwind, we would soon turn in a different direction so it became a crosswind or a tailwind. And the scenery was so distracting and pretty that I really didn't mind the wind or the hills. At Mile 7 the half-marathoners split from the full. There were 1400-something runners in the full and I don't know how many in the half.

I judge urban marathons by really only one yardstick -- how comprehensive is the tour of the city they give you? Georgia Marathon gets an A+ here. The neighborhoods we went through, in order, were Five Points, Midtown, Little Five Points, Decatur, North Decatur, Druid Hills, and Virginia Highland. Some of the landmarks the course passed by or through were the MLK, Jr. National Historic Site, the Carter Center, Emory University, Piedmont Park, and Georgia Tech. I couldn't imagine a better Georgia experience, and am so glad I went for this one and didn't hold out for Savannah Rock and Roll.

I continued feeling great all throughout the course. My Garmin said 1:45 at the first half. I knew the bigger hills were in the second half, and they were. Almost all of Mile 17 was a long slog up a surprisingly steep residential road in Druid Hills, and then there was the infamous Mile 23 climb out of Piedmont Park up 12th Street. You exit the park and look up and up and up and can't believe you're going up there. Then once you get up, after a brief reprieve, the last two miles to the finish are another long grind uphill, though thankfully not as steep as the 12th Street one. But I am proud to say I ran the entire course, and passed people on all of the hills. In fact, I was pretty much passing people all the way through the second half. My time at 20 miles was 2:42, which meant I had almost an hour to run six miles if I wanted a BQ time. I DID want a BQ time, and I was feeling so good I decided to go for it, and push even harder as long as I could. I don't know how that was even possible -- maybe I just had a good day? -- but it is a great, great feeling to find your body able to do what you want it to do and have it feel, not quite effortless, but almost effortless. I remember that from my first BQ marathon too. It makes all the 3:30 a.m. alarm clocks and saying "No thanks" to dessert for the last year worth it. (Yeah, this last week was an exception but thankfully the cumulative effect of all the months before it won out, and I am now all kinds of motivated to eat clean in the month between now and Boston.) I felt like an Amazon warrior cruising up those hills and chicking guys right and left. I'm pretty sure I was smiling for some of my race pictures, which is rare! Especially the end ones where I totally knew I was going to qualify.

This marathon also has the best finish line announcer I have ever seen. He called out names and numbers and found cool things to say about almost every finisher, and he kept it up for hours. As I came into the finish line chute, which was downhill, I tried to sprint. He got all excited and started yelling, "There's a finish! There's a finish!" and then my calves spasmed, both of them at the same time, and I almost fell and had to slow down. Oh well. I finished with a time of 3:35:49, my third best time ever and good for a BQ, and picked up my medal (too big, barely able to fit in my display case), and then ate. Chocolate milk, a banana, pretzels, M&M's, a Kind bar, and a cup of mandarin oranges. There was plenty of food although it wasn't the buffet kind of finish line food that I have gotten spoiled with recently.

After everyone else finished, we stopped at Atlanta's gourmet donut shop (one strawberries-and-creme, one chocolate banana fritter), and then went out for post-race dinner at a taqueria once everyone had showered and put their feet up for a while. I had a chicken-stuffed avocado, an enchilada, beans and rice, and chips and salsa, and then a baklava sundae from another diner on the way back to the airport. The food was delicious but my stomach was an uncomfortable churning mess during my 2-hour flight back to Detroit. Oh well, it was worth it!

In summary, a great weekend: beautiful city, beautiful course, BQ, awesome new friend. I totally recommend the Georgia Marathon for 50-staters and for anyone who enjoys big urban races and hills.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Wrapping Up 2015 -- Rehoboth Beach Marathon

State #31, Marathon #39 -- a race I chose because I wanted the medal. Seriously, a random picture of that medal popped up on Facebook, and I was like, Ooooooooo, I want that. So I signed up.

After I signed up, I dug up a longtime running friend, who was actually a running friend of my brother's who I sort of inherited, Marty. I haven't seen him in at least four or five years, and been in only the most casual of contact, but I knew he'd moved to the East Coast and I knew he was doing 50 states, so when I told him I was doing Rehoboth Beach, he was up for doing it too. It is always better to share a room and cut down on expenses, that way there is more money available for more marathons! Plus, running friends are generally easy to get along with and cool to hang out with, a generalization that applies across all the different places I have lived and all the different running friends I've had. So that was another bonus.

Rehoboth Beach Marathon has a stellar reputation in the running community. The marathon has a super active Facebook page which the race organizers are on all the time, posting updates about the marathon, the sponsors, the weather, and everything else. This reputation plus the medal made it an easy choice for my Delaware marathon, but Rehoboth Beach itself is a little bit of a drive. To be precise, a 10-hour-plus drive from Michigan. I love driving, and gas is dirt cheap right now, so that was no problem. The only bad thing is that I ended up having to take Frieda with me.

Originally Will was going to watch the dogs, but then he changed jobs and had to be in California for work on race weekend. It's never hard to find someone to watch Duncan, but Frieda is more of a challenge due to her many and varied unsoundnesses of temperament. So I decided to bring her with me and have her stay in a kennel in Rehoboth Beach overnight. (Cheaper than boarding her in Michigan and having to pay for two or three nights, which again = more money for more marathons.) One thing that was immediately obvious was that she has become a horrible traveler. She was never great in the car because of her tendency to pace, pant, spin, and vocalize, which is why she always rides in a crate. She never settles down during the drive to and from work, but I figured surely she would settle down after an hour or so. Nope. She whined, panted, pawed at the crate, and turned around and around in circles almost the entire drive to Delaware. I stopped every two hours, walked her, played fetch with her, gave her water, and hoped she would settle down, but no. Every curve in the road, every passing semi, every application of brakes, every change in road surface was cause for escalation of her behavior. She was fine when the car wasn't moving; when I took naps in the car, she right away went to sleep in the crate. She is great in a crate in general. But she is AWFUL in a crate in a moving car. I blame Michigan roads with their shitty surfaces and bone-jarring potholes. But there was nothing I could do this time other than, finally, turn up the radio so loud I couldn't hear her, and not look in the mirror at her. I do not plan to repeat a lengthy road trip with Frieda ever again if at all possible, or if I have to, I will get drugs from the vet.

I had originally volunteered to lead an informal 4:15 pace group during a discussion about pace groups (which this race does not have) on the Facebook page, but I changed my mind as the time got closer. Partly because my reason for wanting to lead an unofficial pace group no longer existed (when I volunteered, I wanted to do it as practice for some day being a "real" pace group leader, but then I unexpectedly WAS a real pace group leader at the last minute in Harrisburg, and it was fine and now I know I can do it), but mostly because if I wasn't done with the race and back at the boarding kennel by noon, I would have to wait till 4:00 to pick Frieda up and start my drive back to Michigan. The race started at 7:00. a 4:15 pace group would have me finish at 11:15, and that would cut it a little too close for comfort. So I bailed on the pace group. (Note that I would not have bailed if I had made any kind of formal commitment at all, or was getting anything from leading a group, like a free race entry or anything. But since I wasn't, I felt justified.)

Rehoboth Beach is a super-cute beach town. I'm sure it is a madhouse in the summer, but in December, it was empty except for people who came for the race. Packet pickup (I can't call it an expo since there was only one vendor there) was right in town. The shirt is short-sleeved and neon green. This is the second Day-Glo race shirt I've gotten this year and I really hope it's a trend! Safety first, right? Anyway, after packet pickup, I went back to the hotel and read and napped while I waited for Marty. It was almost 9 by the time he got there and we went out for dinner. One of the local Italian restaurants had half-price pasta, and we got there so late that there was no wait at all. I treated myself to dessert, a giant, gorgeous, sinful bread pudding that was bigger than the really big piece of lasagna I had already eaten. Nevertheless, I ate the whole thing and could barely waddle back to the hotel afterwards.

The hotel was literally a block from the start line, which is a bandstand right on the beach. In the morning Marty went for a warmup jog while I went to Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. We strolled down to the start line at 6:50, ten minutes before the gun went off. I had a throwaway shirt with me and as I was messing around with it and with my ear buds, I almost dropped my glove, and thought to myself that I had better be careful not to lose it. Not a minute later, I went to put my gloves back on and, sure enough, I only had one in my hand. I walked back and forth over this tiny area of sidewalk that I had been standing on, right by the bandstand, and no glove. Well, that sucked! The only thing that made it okay was that it wasn't really THAT cold. Low 40's, but the sun was coming up, and weather was supposed to be good all day. I was even wearing shorts. I stuck my hand in my sleeve and decided to make the best of it.

The first mile was west through town, away from the beach, and then we turned back east towards the beach, then north into what I think was a state park but I don't remember the name. The running surface changed from road into crushed gravel, and the trail went through salt marsh and coastal plains with beautiful ocean views for a long time. Then it spit us onto a road for a short out-and-back, then back into town on the same trail. That was my least favorite part of the race even though it was pretty and the headwind that we had had on the "out" part was now a tail wind. I don't like out-and-backs in general, and this one had three of them, but at least the other two were shorter. This one was long, the wind was cold, and it felt like an "elastic trail", the kind that stretches out way longer than you know it actually is.

I had not checked my watch this whole time. I felt like I was running moderately hard but at a sustainable pace. We ran back into town. My stomach wasn't feeling great most of the morning, and I decided I would stop at the next porta-potty That was at Mile 18. I checked my watch and my time was 2:30, which meant I was running well. My legs felt okay and, once I had stopped for a bathroom break, so did my stomach. I thought maybe I could BQ again, no reason I couldn't!

After running through town, we turned onto the final out-and-back, a 2-something mile run down a trail and back. I passed Marty coming the other direction at about Mile 20, which was another good sign. He's really fast, I'm pretty sure always or almost always under 3:00, so for me to see him on course at all meant I was doing okay. Then suddenly it all fell apart, and my GI system went to hell. I literally had to stop four times between 20 and 24. And as soon as I got out of one stop, I started looking for the next. This has never happened to me in a marathon! I've never had to stop at all, even when I had to go on the start line. It was kind of dispiriting, but at the same time I still didn't feel even remotely like puking, just shitting myself, so it wasn't as bad as it could possibly be. I ran when I could and walked when I felt the worst. Also, in the middle of that mess, my ear buds died. They're supposed to have four hours of battery life but they only made it to 3:15. Okay, it was worth a try but I won't be using those again in a race.

I ended up finishing in 3:46:07. I could've done better, but that was still my 4th fastest time ever out of 39 marathons, so I'll take it. I felt fine once I stopped running, and went in search of food. This race is famous for its after-party inside a tent, with unlimited food of all kinds, but the line to get in was horrendous. I stood in it for about five minutes, during which it didn't move at all, and finally gave up and settled for Gatorade, which was the only thing available outside the tent. That was the only thing I didn't like about this whole event. It is totally unacceptable to not have food immediately available for marathon finishes, especially given the very high registration fee and the fact that it was chilly outside and you get cold really fast standing out in the cold wind. I walked back to the hotel. Marty had finished long ago and was in the shower. I wished I had time to take a hot shower, but I really didn't because I was paranoid about traffic congestion in town and not getting to the kennel in time to get Frieda out. I told Marty about my experience and he said, "Do you think it was the bread pudding last night?" Hmmm, possibly. I've always prided myself on my stomach of steel, but that bread pudding was truly monstrous. Maybe next time I'll stick to lasagna and save the bread pudding for AFTER the race.

Anyway, this was a nice last marathon of 2015, my biggest marathon year ever by far. I started out with slow-ish times (although all of those slower races also could be explained by things like muddy trail, excessive heat and humidity, running up a mountain, et cetera) but finished pretty strong:

Right now I only have five marathons on my calendar for next year: Mississippi/Mercedes (Birmingham) Marathon back-to-backs in February, Boston in April, and the I-35 Challenge (Kansas City/Des Moines back-to-backs in October). I'm sure I will add more even though I said I was going to cut back so that I could pay off my car and be debt-free. I can probably live with car payments if it means I get to keep running marathons!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Losing My Pacer Virginity -- Harrisburg Marathon Race Report

I have admired pacers always. I remember being at one of my very early marathons, maybe even the first one, Chicago, and seeing the group of people with the signs and thinking, "Ooooooooo, the pace team, this must be a real race." In later marathons I ran with pace groups sometimes, although I never stayed with them till the finish. I always either dropped back or else felt strong and went on ahead. (Okay, that second one only happened one time, but it did happen!) I remained wowed by pacers. They were like... maybe not running gods, exactly, but definitely the coolest runners there were. I mean, elite athletes are cool and everything, but they are always hidden in their own private tents pre-race and long-gone by the time I finish, not mingling with us normal people, and they are laser-focused on winning and training and not on socializing and having fun, which makes them less interesting to me as runners. Pacers, on the other hand, not only talk to regular runners, but enjoy it. Pacers welcome conversation and can always talk during a marathon even during the hard miles. They never look like they're having a hard time. They look like machines no matter where they are on the course. They don't need ear buds to run. They have the confidence to be like, "Yeah, I can totally predict how fast I'll run this race down to a few seconds, no big deal." And they can do it all while carrying a sign!

So, yes, always thought pacers were cool. Then came the Detroit Marathon a few weeks ago. I knew that my running friend John from Arizona has been a pacer for a while, but I hadn't seen him since I left Tucson. Well, he came to Detroit to be the 3:45 pacer (after being the 3:30 pacer in Chicago a week before, no big deal). I wasn't running, so I went out to be a spectator and cheer on the 3:45 group. He was right on with his time and somewhere that day I started thinking, I think I might be able to do this. I mean, I've run a lot of marathons and if I picked a time that was slower than any of my normal marathons, so I knew I could do it without too much difficulty, that should work, right?

I contacted the guy who runs John's pacing team, Marathon Pacing, and he said to send him an application. So I did, and didn't hear anything back, until last Tuesday when I got an email saying a pacer cancelled and could I pace Harrisburg on Sunday? I said sure, as long as it was a pace I knew I could do. He gave me the 4:30 group, which sounded perfect for my first time, and gave me some assignments involving track repeats and a stopwatch. I did the assignments. They went okay, so I headed out to Harrisburg on Saturday.

Harrisburg is an 8-hour drive from here. I don't think I have ever been there. First surprise -- it is a really cool city! It's on the banks of the Susquehanna River, which is a really, really beautiful river, and there are like six or seven bridges right in a row. Two of them go to this island called City Island, where there is a stadium and some other tourist attractions. The state capitol building is really grand, much more than I would have thought. The downtown is super walkable and looked like a really fun place to explore, if only I had had more time there. I barely had any time at all. We got there around 3:00 (we -- I forgot to mention that I picked up another pacer in Youngstown to carpool, someone I had never met before but I just assumed he would be cool because he was a pacer, and he was cool, so I was right), and went straight to the teeny tiny expo. The expo basically consisted of bib pick-up, one gear booth, and the pace team's table. There were like six of us at the table and never more than two other runners in the expo building at once. There were 700-something runners in the marathon but it was one of the smallest expos I've ever seen.

After the expo closed, we went back to the hotel. Another cool perk of being a pacer -- I don't have to pay for my own hotel! And it was the Hilton, vastly nicer than the Red Roof Inns and Motel 6's I usually stay at. I had another pacer as a roommate, and she was cool too. After we unpacked, we went out for the pacer dinner at a little Italian restaurant close to the hotel where I met all the other pacers. ALL of them were cool. There were some seriously accomplished runners in that group but you would never know it unless someone else in the group pointed out the accomplishments. No one bragged about themselves. I really believe this is because running is amazing for keeping you humble! (That's not the only thing it has in common with being a guide dog instructor.) No matter how good you are, there's always someone faster than you, and no matter how many things you win, there will always be a day where your body just won't let you do what you want to do even when you've done everything right. Hence, humility, and humility is a very valuable quality in a person.

After dinner we had a meeting back at the hotel, where they covered subjects like logistics of race morning, what to do if someone needs medical assistance and what to do if you're having a bad day and won't be able to finish on time. The other pacers gave me all kinds of information and advice. It was great to feel like part of a group of people who were laser-focused on DOING IT RIGHT. We were supposed to aim for 30 seconds under our predicted finish time, so for me, 4:29:30. Plus or minus ten seconds on either side of that was acceptable, but more than that was not desirable. This may not be a paid job (other than the waived entry fee, the hotel, and the dinner), but I took it just as seriously as if it was, and everyone else did too. I went to bed feeling prepared.

Race morning was sunny and 43 degrees, a great improvement over the forecast of 32 degrees. There was no McDonald's within walking distance so I made do with Dunkin Donuts instead. (I prefer McD's, but I'm flexible.) All of us walked over to the start line together. I was really excited and only a tiny bit nervous. The tiny bit nervous was just because of the unknown. Sure, it's always possible to have a bad day but I felt fine, no pain anywhere, I knew the course was flat, and we had perfect weather. so the odds were totally in my favor.

People started talking to me as soon as I lined up in my spot at the start line. There were a few first timers, several who had done anywhere from one to ten previous marathons, and one guy who was on #87. I was not nervous at all talking to these people; I was filled with confidence that I would be able to get the time I wanted, all I had to do was watch my watch. I had been told that when pacers miss their time it's usually because they have gotten distracted talking to their group and not been paying attention to their watch. I vowed that that was not going to happen to me. I had a stopwatch on my left wrist for mile splits (according to the mile markers, NOT according to my GPS miles) and my Garmin on my right wrist so I could check average pace and make sure I was in the ballpark all the time. I also had a chart with the goal mile times taped to my sign. So my plan was to check my Garmin every few seconds to check average pace (which should be 10:18 per mile), and when my Garmin beeped the mile, start looking for the mile marker (which would NOT be the same as the Garmin mile, because 99% of the time the GPS measures the course as long, or more than 26.2, like 26.4), and then try to adjust my pace to the mile marker so that my time when I got to the mile marker was as close as possible to the goal mile time taped to the sign.

What I found out during this experience was that all you have to do to do an adequate job of pacing is look at your watch all the time. I mean ALL THE TIME. I looked at my watch, seriously, probably every 10 seconds or so, throughout the entire 26.2 miles. I looked at the goal mile time taped to the sign probably five or six times each mile, in an attempt to memorize it and compare it to the time showing on my watch. Note that I said all you have to do to do an adequate job of pacing is look at your watch all the time. I would like to be excellent instead of just adequate, and to do that I will need to get better at running by feel and not just by watch. My mile times were all over the place. My first one was the fastest, 9:47, which is just the opposite of what it should be. The first couple should be slow, to let people warm up. (Not that this is an excuse, but the first two mile markers were missing. Seriously. I had been planning to adjust my pace when I saw the mile marker in the distance, but that didn't happen because the first two mile markers were just not there, and my Garmin beeped the mile with no sign of the mile marker anywhere.)

This course was a nice one for pacing because there were several out-and-backs where we got to see the other pace groups. Usually I don't know anyone in the marathons that I run, so it was nice to see familiar faces at predictable intervals. I had a great group for almost 18 miles. Everyone seemed to have picked the right group because they were breathing easy and able to keep conversation going. One of the things I had wondered about was how much are you supposed to talk to the people you're running with? The answer is, as much or as little as they want to talk. I was running a pace that was easy for me so I had plenty of breath for talking. There were several locals in the group and they enjoyed telling me about local history and, for some reason, stories about the river. They all liked to talk about the Susquehanna River and when it flooded and how you can see the high water marks and how when it's low, like it was on marathon day, you could practically wade across it. (I did in fact see a fisherman halfway across the river standing out there in hip waders.) Maybe we talked about the river so much because almost all of the course was alongside it. For once I never got tired of looking at the same scenery. Usually in a marathon I like a change of scenery no matter how beautiful the scenery is. Marathons like Tucson (Catalinas on your left, open desert on your right) and Lehigh (running through shady trees alongside a canal) have spectacular scenery but get boring after about 10 miles, but this one never did. Just take my word for it, the Susquehanna is a really pretty river. Or don't take my word for it; go run this marathon and see for yourself!

The leader passed us right around the half. That's always something to look forward to on courses with a lot of out and back. Not too long after him was the 3:15 pace group, and then all the rest like clockwork. The turnaround was between 17 and 18, and there, sadly, was where my group fragmented and most people dropped off the back. (Been there, done that. 17-18 is usually where I have fallen off the back of my pace group, when I've used them.)  Even though the "back" part was mostly flat or slightly downhill, and we had a tailwind, we were running straight into the sun, and there was a lot of sun. Air temp was around 50 but the direct sun made it feel a lot hotter. I discovered one cool thing about the pace sign -- it can be used as a sun visor. Seriously, I held it right in front of the sun and took care of that problem.

My group was gone by this point except for the guy who was running marathon #87. He still looked strong and I really thought he was going to finish with me. But his back started to bother him around Mile 22, and he had to drop back by Mile 24, so I was running by myself until I picked up a couple more people in the last mile. They wanted to finish with me but I had to slow down because I had something like 50 seconds to burn up in order to come in at 4:29:30. We passed the Mile 26 marker and I slowed to the slowest jog possible because I knew that the turn at the end of the block would put me in the finishers' chute and you really can't walk there. That second-to-last block was soooooooo slow. I seriously felt like time had slowed to a crawl. People were yelling, "Go! Go!" at me but I totally ignored them and kept my eyes glued to my watch and tried to guess how long it would take me to run that last block. It was really a bizarre last .2 miles. It felt totally wrong to hold back in the last blocks, especially when physically I felt better than fine from running at a pace so much slower than my normal one, but at the same time I really, really wanted to nail my time.

I never took my eyes off my watch as I ran up to and over the finish line -- 4:29:32. Pretty good! Even better, I felt fine, which is a good thing at a marathon that has finish line food like this one. Soup, mac-n-cheese, giant pretzels, I forget what all else now but it was good food, a total "buffet" finish line spread that I see more and more often now and therefore expect all the time. I ate a little then went back to the hotel for a quick shower before the long, long drive back.

This was Marathon #38, no new state but one of my favorite marathon experiences ever. I loved being a pacer and would want to do it again even without the perks of hotel and dinner. I hope to do enough of them that I can run more even miles in the future. I also should have known the course better so that when runners in my group were asking questions about it I could have answered them instead of relying on the local runners to answer them. But overall I did okay and can't wait to do it again. (I even bought a race photo for the first time since 2009... which says a lot.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Done With New England! Ocean State Rhode Race Marathon Report

Let me clear about one thing: marathon weekends are not vacations, even when there's only one marathon involved, and when there are two marathons involved, they are closer to work than they are to vacations. For me right now, they are incredibly long travel days topped off with a visit to the expo, checking into a crappy but affordable Motel 6, dragging myself out of bed before dawn the next morning, running the marathon, and then reversing the long travel day, usually sore and often nauseous and cranky too, in order to get back to Michigan in time to work again the next day. I refer to them as "hit it and quit it" trips.

New England is the first part of the country I can truly say I am done with. (I am so close to being able to say I'm done with the West... but because of Wyoming, I can't.) I capped it off with this Rhode Island marathon, whatever its actual name is. Seriously, I am confused. still refers to it as the Newport Marathon, which it used to be, but this year there was some problem with the race organizers not being able to get a permit for the part of the marathon that went through Newport. There was talk that it might be canceled, but instead they changed the course. Anyway, if you click on the Newport Marathon link on, it takes you to what looks to be a fully functioning webpage for the marathon, only it's not. The participant information packet referred to the race as the Ocean State Rhode Race Marathon. The medal says Ocean State Rhode Races Marathon, but the ribbon the medal is on says Narragansett Marathon (Narragansett was the town where the marathon started and ended.) The company that put it on, Eident Racing, refers to it on their website as the Narragansett Marathon. I am curious to see what the final name of the marathon will end up being. I have never seen so much ambiguity surrounding a marathon name!

Anyway, after the Hartford Marathon, we stayed in Hartford one more night, and got up early the next morning for the two-hour drive to Narragansett. (Hartford is a lot cheaper than Narragansett, which is a cute and expensive beach town, and the Narragansett race was a much smaller event and allowed race morning packet pickup.) The start and finish line were both right on the beach. It was a chilly morning but a beautiful sunrise. I really wasn't sore at all, and definitely did not feel like I had run a marathon the day before, but I also wasn't really excited about running another marathon. I was excited, though, that my Achilles didn't hurt at all and that my body felt pretty much okay, so I wasn't dragging myself to the start line heavy with dread like I was in Maine the last time I did back-to-backs five long years ago.

There were a few people wearing yesterday's Hartford Marathon T-shirt, and I was wrapped up in the heat sheet until the gun went off. I chatted briefly with all of the other Hartford runners during the first couple miles, but soon passed all of them. I wasn't feeling great, but I wasn't feeling terrible either.

I had been expecting ocean views the whole way. For the first three miles the road paralleled the coast, and then we turned off on a 4-mile loop through a neighborhood of fancy houses with ocean views. This was my favorite part of the course even though there were some hills. I was feeling good, not really sore at all. I talked to another Maniac who had done this double before and was doing it again to keep his sister company. Good for him. As for myself, I am becoming more obsessed with marathons than I ever have been, but I can say for sure that there is no way I would be doing back-to-backs if it wasn't getting me more states, no matter who else was doing them. I passed this guy and then passed a bunch more people and was running pretty much by myself for a while. The course headed away from the coast and spit us out on a main road. It was lined with trees and I couldn't see the ocean anymore. The weather was perfect, but the views were a little boring, especially because I knew this was the start of a long out-and-back so I would be looking at these views again on the way back. We had a slight tailwind and a slight downhill, which was all well and good for the moment but not so much when I thought about how those conditions would be reversed on the way back. Still, I counted my blessings because I wasn't nauseous or injured, just bored.

I got to the turnaround point around Mile 15 and began the slog back up the hill. (These were little baby hills, but still seemed plenty big.) Just past the Mile 17 marker, I hit a big hill and ran out of gas. I was tired, bored, knew there was no spectacular scenery to look forward to, had sore feet, and missed the cheering crowds of Hartford. I walked for quite a while but eventually managed to pick it up and jog slowly. Then I told myself I could walk for the first 1/10th of every mile as long as I ran, no matter how slowly, for the other 9/10th of it. In the end I ran almost the whole rest of the way, and even got back down to 8:30 pace after a while.

I started passing people who had walked the half-marathon at about Mile 23, and continued passing them all the way to the finish. Perhaps this says something unpleasant about my character, but in a race I always get a boost when I see someone feeling worse than I do. (Probably I should not admit this in print, but... I believe in honesty.) I enjoyed the feeling of flying past walkers, and it made me even faster. I knew I would be under four hours because I was at 3:45 when I passed the Mile 25 marker. From here it was a gentle downhill into the finish chute on the beach. I do not excel at finishing kicks -- I have walked into finishing chutes before -- but I was able to finish this one strong, with a time of 3:53:09, just a little over a minute faster than Hartford on tired legs and a course that was more challenging both mentally and physically. The race announcer said, "And here's Number 15, Christie Bane, a strong finish. This is someone who paced herself well!" And I had to laugh because I did NOT pace myself well -- no negative split here -- but still, I know I did well. My last back-to-back I finished in 4:22 the first day and 4:21 the second day, pretty close to half an hour slower than I was this weekend.

Conclusions reached this weekend:
*My body is used to marathons. I really don't feel like I did much, and I never got sick in either race.
*My obsession is growing. I want to be doing another marathon this weekend.
*I love other crazy marathon people.
*I am running really well right now.
*This one-marathon-a-month is good for me.
*Back-to-backs are not scary at all anymore.
*I'm pretty sure my brain manufactured that Achilles injury, since it did not bother me on either day and still is not bothering me now. (This is not the first time this has happened. See my race report on New Hampshire and Maine for another example. I also remember being barely able to walk to the start line at Missoula and Marine Corps only to be able to run without pain the whole way. It is just my brain trying to talk me out of doing crazy stuff like this.)

I just got the official race results and found that I got second in my age group (women 30-39), but because I didn't stick around, I didn't get my prize and don't even know what I won. I was 6th woman overall (out of 67) and I am pretty happy about that. I mean, I know this was a small race with not that many people running, but I am still willing to bet that none of those five women who beat me ran Hartford the day before!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hartford Marathon Race Report -- A Surprisingly Cool City, and a Surprisingly Great Marathon!

Connecticut: State #29, Marathon #36. Throughout the month between Pocatello and now, I wasn’t sure this marathon was going to happen at all (or the Rhode Island one tomorrow). I have been dealing with a constant, chronic, low-grade Achilles tendon problem, or maybe plantar fasciitis, or maybe both at the same time. I’ve been foam rolling, stretching, icing, taping, wearing a night splint… pretty much everything except resting the foot and going to a doctor. When I finish a day of training dogs, I am so sore I take the elevator from the second to the first floor, and I park myself on the couch as soon as I get home and don’t get up other than to hobble to the bathroom and to bed. But I had pretty much decided that if I could walk at all, I was going to at least do my Saturday marathon. If the foot blew up, I could skip Rhode Island with no shame at all. (There is no shame not starting; to me that is different than a DNF. Not that there is any shame in that either, I just have never had one in 75+ races, so I don’t want to start now.) So when I could still walk on Thursday, I knew I was heading east on Friday as planned.

One thing that made this marathon weekend extra special was that I was going to finally get to see Fidelco, the guide dog school in Bloomfield, Connecticut, that breeds and trains only German shepherds. I lived in New York and New Jersey for seven years, but somehow had never seen Fidelco. Will came with me this weekend for the road trip, and he contacted Fidelco to ask if we could stop by and see the place while we were in town. They said sure. Then they went a step further and invited us to their pre-marathon lunch. It turns out that “Team Fidelco” was one of the official race charities. I wish I knew that before; I totally would have joined Team Fidelco! It’s just that the intersection of my career with my marathon hobby is practically nonexistent, so it never would have occurred to me to think that the two had a connection. Anyway, everyone we met at Fidelco was very nice. And they have some beautiful shepherds. I have always thought they have the nicest-looking shepherds in the business (not to impugn any of the beautiful Seeing Eye, GEB, and Leader shepherds I know). We got to see their facility, have lunch with other GDMI’s, and play with a litter of shepherd puppies ready to go to their puppy raisers this weekend. Much appreciation to Fidelco for the warm welcome and the puppy fix!

This marathon had a good-sized expo right in the middle of downtown. I bought a new case for my iPhone that hopefully will actually fit and not migrate down my arm to my wrist even when it’s on the tightest setting, and also these great flip-flops with a big, gently cushioned arch support. Around the house I usually wear my 2011 Boston Marathon flip-flops, which are thin-soled and have as much cushioning as five-year-old flip-flops that see heavy use could be expected to have. I slipped these new ones on my feet and it was like I could hear my feet singing “Thank you!” They cost $40 but are probably worth it because I am not going to stop wearing flip-flops around the house and I’m sure that habit is not helping my foot problems. I put the new ones on at the expo and have not taken them off other than to actually run the marathon and sleep since then.

We stayed at Motel 6 because of the dogs. It is $50 a night for a reason. It is the kind of place where I don’t go anywhere, not even to the vending machine, without Frieda (the criminal element retreats from her like vampires from garlic), and after returning from a stay at this motel, I suspect I would fail a drug test even though I myself did not smoke anything. But, it is cheap and walking distance to lots of different restaurants, so for that I can put up with the unsavory environment.

The marathon had an 8:00 a.m. start, which was nice because it meant we got to sleep in. Marathon weather was perfect – 50 at the start, low 60’s at the finish, sunny with a light breeze. New England colors are spectacular this weekend – orange and red everywhere – and Hartford is really kind of a pretty city. I never thought it was, but then I never spent any time there either. They have an actual living downtown, and really nice parks along the Connecticut River. There were plenty of parking lots, garages, and street parking, all clearly labeled on the map they gave us, so finding parking was no problem at all. This is the biggest marathon I’ve done since Nashville, and I like big marathons. There is something about the energy of many thousands of runners coming together, especially in the heart of a big city like Hartford, that creates a spectacle just not present at Pocatellos and Grandfather Mountains and Deadwoods, not that I didn’t enjoy all of those, because I did.

Right before the gun went off, the race director announced there were people here today from 46 states, as well as three people finishing their 50 States quests here. I have always planned my 50th to be Honolulu, but Honolulu is a super popular final marathon for 50 Staters, and I kind of wish I had held out NYC or Chicago instead of doing them first. Or maybe I should finish in North Dakota or Oklahoma or some other random place instead of Hawaii? Something to think about.

Anyway, the gun went off and we started. My plan was to run at a pace that 1) didn’t hurt my feet, and 2) kept me breathing easy, so that I would have something left for tomorrow in Rhode Island. I planned this to be a 4½ -5 hour marathon. But within the first mile it was clear that my feet weren’t bothering me at all. I sped up a little but not much. A marathon is an entirely different experience when you run it completely unconcerned with your time – almost enjoyable. Miles ticked off without me really paying attention. The first couple miles were in the city itself, and heavy on screaming spectators, which was great. Then we went into one of the parks along the Connecticut River, also great. I passed one of the 50 State finishers. She was wearing a laminated tag that said “Finishing my 50th State today!” and everyone was congratulating her. I congratulated her too, and said, “I want to be you some day.” I do; I am becoming obsessed with the thought of how it’s going to feel to finish this crazy quest. This year I will have done eight marathons (and I’m not promising I won’t sneak in one more state before the end of the year, like maybe Rehoboth Beach in Delaware in December), twice as many as I’ve done any other year. It would actually be possible logistically to finish in Honolulu in December 2017, though I’m not sure if I can afford to do that or not.

A good chunk of this marathon is a long, long out-and-back through a residential area, something like nine miles total. I was dreading this part because I hate out-and-backs, but it turned out to be awesome. The area and houses were beautiful, and the community was totally into the race, with more spectators than I’ve seen in a long time, maybe more than I’ve seen at any race all year. Lots of them were having neighborhood yard parties, offering all kinds of food, et cetera. We had a headwind on the “out” part but it was barely noticeable because the course was so flat. Other than a few little climbs, like on-ramps and bridge approaches, this is a flat course, and I think it could easily be a BQ course.

On both the “out” and the “back” parts, I passed a lot of Maniacs coming the other direction. That was fun. I love being a Maniac and meeting other crazy Maniacs. I love it so much that I am taking the time to do laundry tonight just so I can wear my Maniac shirt again tomorrow.

I hit Mile 20 feeling great. In fact, the whole race I never had one moment of feeling bad. No pain, no nausea, no cramps, not hot, not cold, not even tired. At Mile 22 and Mile 24 I was still feeling strong. I hadn’t looked at my watch but knew I had passed the 4:00 pace group a while back. While some part of me thought, “Oops, I should have run this slower”, another part of me knew that I had not pushed myself at all the whole race. Considering that, and the flatness of the course, and the total absence of any pain, I think (hope) that I did not make any gross errors in judgment that would make me unable to finish the Ocean State Marathon tomorrow. I guess we will see tomorrow!

At Mile 25 we ran up and over the Founders Bridge back into the city. Downtown Hartford looked clean and sparkly in the clear fall air, and was a beautiful and motivating sight. I passed people right and left during the last two miles, and got down below 8:00 pace, still feeling good. I just couldn’t believe how good I felt. I have the feeling that in my race pictures, for once, there will be more pictures of me smiling than of me wearing my usual grimace of pain. We finished in Bushnell Park by running under the arch, which was a great finish and absolutely packed with spectators. I was handed not only a medal but also a heat sheet (which I haven’t gotten at any other marathon this year – I wonder why?) and a snack bag with a brownie, granola bar, pack of almond butter, and fruit cup. Then I walked through the athlete’s food tent, where I got a banana, a cup of chili, a piece of cheese, two pieces of pumpkin bread, a bottle of chocolate milk, and a cornbread pancake. I ate all of those things voraciously while icing my foot, even though I didn’t feel like I needed the ice. I was ravenously hungry and didn’t have a reason not to inhale the food since my stomach felt totally fine. Presumably, unlike that poor guy who finished at the same time as me and leaned over the ropes on the side and threw up an unbelievable amount. I just averted my eyes, kept walking, and focused on my accomplishment – 3:52, my second-best time this year, no injury, not even a moment of discomfort. Go me!

I am now in my motel room writing this and icing again although I still feel pretty good. I feel like I CAN run another marathon tomorrow, but that is not quite the same as saying I want to. I don’t want to. But I do want to check it off my list, and I do feel like I can finish it. We’ll see. Meanwhile, Hartford is a solid choice for Connecticut. I don’t think it would be possible to find a nicer marathon than this one in Connecticut, at least for people who like big crowds and urban marathons.