Sunday, October 22, 2017

4:45 is Easy, Right? Wrong. Baltimore Marathon Race Report

The Baltimore Marathon was my first marathon since July. My training had been pretty lackluster and my diet has been disastrous for months, but I wasn't really worried about anything because I was pacing this race. I was even less worried when I got moved from the 4:30 pace group to the 4:45 pace group. (Not because the pace group organizer knew about my mediocre fitness level or my daily junk food consumption, but because someone else dropped out of 4:45.) I knew Baltimore is known for its challenging hills, mostly because they appear so late in the race (miles 16 or so through about 23), but at that pace, I was not worried about hills.

Every pace group does things a little differently. In this pace group, for each goal time, there are 3 pacers. One of those is designated the lead pacer. The lead pacer is someone the pace group organizer knows well who has paced this race several times. The lead pacer is in charge of setting the pace. There is also a designated "Plan B" pacer, who will take over if the lead pacer can't continue for some reason. Because I was one of the (few) pacers new to this race -- most others are locals and had paced Baltimore for years -- I was the Plan C pacer, which to me meant that I was just going to get to cruise along behind the other two -- the rules explicitly said that I was not to get in front of the lead pacer. I was just there in case of emergency. Fine with me! I like pacing a lot, but I was in Baltimore to get another state done, and if I had an excuse to be slow and lazy, I was going to take it.

Weather for the race was predicted to be very sunny. There was a lot of discussion about this at the start line among the locals. They knew the course and were worried because not only would the uphill miles be a grind all by themselves, they would also be pretty exposed with not a lot of shade, and of course they would be warm since the race had an 8:00 a.m. start, which meant that the 4:45 pace group would finish at 12:45. I still wasn't worried. Temperature at the start line was perfect, and I was just a little chilly in short-sleeved shirt and shorts. I like running in the heat and was ready for  a warm day.

We had a pretty big group of people with us at the downtown start line, a nice mix of first-timers and experienced runners. Everyone was friendly and excited to be running. (I was notably not excited, although I professionally faked it pretty well for the people in my pace group. I also have not been excited at the start lines of my last several marathons. I actually think I am getting a little tired of running marathons. Well, six more and I don't ever have to do another one if I don't want to.)

The first three miles of the course went pretty steadily up, up, and up. It was never a steep grade, more of a tiresome slog. I was sucking wind at 10:45 pace, never a good sign. We went through several cool neighborhoods of row houses, where a lot of residents were lined up to cheer us on. At the top of the hill, we turned into the Baltimore Zoo and got some nice downhill. There were also some zoo employees standing on the side of the course holding birds. There was a raven, a kookaburra, and, coolest of all, a penguin. A live penguin is something I have never seen before in a marathon. There was also a guy holding an animal I could not identify. I would have guessed maybe porcupine, or hedgehog? One of the guys in our pace group said it was a lionhead-something. I still don't know what it was, but I was happy for the downhill, the shade, and the diversion the animals provided.

We ran out of the zoo but were still on a nice downhill in Druid Park. There was a guy in our group who had run every single Baltimore Marathon since the first one. He was a local and had an endless supply of trivia about the buildings we were passing. The second-in-command pacer was also a local, and he seemed to pass someone he knew about every other block. This was clearly going to be the kind of day where any distraction from how much I didn't want to be running was welcome.

After Druid Park, there was a short uphill to the Johns Hopkins campus. This is a famous university but I have never actually seen it because I have never once had a reason to go to Baltimore. This might be a good place to say that while there are definitely some cool neighborhoods in Baltimore, and the Baltimoreans running the race were all great, I am still not a fan of the city of Baltimore. Literally every single place I went other than the race course I felt like I had to be looking over my shoulder with every step. I am not used to feeling like I have to be on guard all the time anywhere. People have so much to say about how crummy Detroit is; well, I can say I have never felt the vague but present threat in Detroit that I felt in Baltimore. Maryland has a serious shortage of good marathons and Baltimore is really the only choice for Maryland if you want any kind of interesting race at all, but even though the race organization was impressive, I doubt I will ever go back to Baltimore unless I have to.

After Johns Hopkins, we had a long, gentle downhill run back downtown and onto my favorite part of the course, past Federal Hill and into a long out-and-back on the Key Highway along the waterfront. We ran past the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and we could see the Domino sugar plant across the water. I like urban industrial areas, and this stretch was fully satisfying in that regard. The turn-around was at the Under Armour Headquarters, where there was a big aid station complete with confetti cannon. Then it was back up to downtown again, and along the other side of the waterfront. (I never did learn the difference between the Outer Harbor and the Inner Harbor when I was there, although looking at the map I could take a pretty good guess.)

I had been running slightly behind the other two pacers this whole time, not even looking at my watch. I had two jobs: chat with the other people in the pace group, and stay behind the other pacers. They were talking to each other in low voices but I didn't really know what they were saying. Then gradually I became aware that Pacer B was telling Pacer A about which streets she could take to rejoin us later if she could. I realized that Pacer A was going to be leaving us. I didn't know why, but I did remember that we had been instructed that if we couldn't keep the pace for some reason, we had to be very discreet about it, fade to the side, and take off our pacer sign. Pacer A pulled off and Pacer B said to me, "It's us now, keep me honest," and just like that, I was Pacer B. Hmmmm, time to pay attention to my watch.

We ran through the cool, hip neighborhoods of Fells Point and Canton, and then took a left and headed uphill to Patterson Park. At Mile 16 the long climb began. I was not by any means feeling great, but I was feeling steady. It was really heating up. The temperatures weren't that high but the sun was intense. Luckily the humidity was low and there was a nice breeze coming off the water to make up for the lack of shade. Pacer B told me, "I'm not going to lie, this part is a bitch," and he wasn't lying. All we could see in front of us was a long climb in full sun.

We got a little break at Mile 19.5 when the course turned off the main road for a mile-long loop around Lake Montebello. Here we picked up another pacer from a faster pace group. Another rule of this pace group is that if you couldn't keep up with your own pace group, you not only had to take your pace sign off your back, but you also had to wait and catch up with the pace group behind you. This was to try to make the pace team look professional and not have someone wearing a pacer shirt coming in at, say, 4:52 when the goal times were 4:45 and 5:00. I don't remember which group this guy was from, but he ended up having to drop from our group too. Overall, it was just a rough day in Baltimore. I saw runner carnage everywhere -- people puking, people being taken off in ambulances, people sitting on the side of the course with their heads in the hands. It really wasn't that hot -- only low 70's -- but I think it was the combo of late-in-the-race hills plus full sun. I was drinking about three times what I usually drink on course, and by Mile 20 my stomach was full of liquids and sloshing around but I still felt terribly thirsty. This was a bad combination.

We finally made it around the lake and back onto the main road. We had a short but nasty out-and-back -- steep downhill, then steep uphill, then the reverse of that, then we had a grueling mile-long climb up 33rd Street (after which we had been promised mostly downhill for the last three miles). 33rd Street was awful. I barely made it. My stomach was a mess and I was grimly drafting off the other pacer, grateful that we had a couple minutes in the bank because I was pretty sure we were going to lose them here.

Finally we got to the top of the hill and got some downhill. I had felt okay up until now but suddenly my stomach was a real problem. I told the other pacer I might have to drop back. He told me to do what I had to do. I was trying to swallow my nausea back, and was doing okay until suddenly another ridiculously steep hill loomed up in front of us. That was it; I was done. I told him, "I'm out," and he wished me good luck and kept going. We had lost literally every single person in our group on 33rd Street, so we didn't even have to be discreet.

I stepped up onto the sidewalk and ripped my 4:45 tag off my back and threw it in a trash can. I walked for several minutes. My plan was to wait for the 5:00 group and finish with them. At least I would leave here with a state finished, even if I had to suffer the shame of not being able to finish in 4:45. Then I looked at my watch and my pace bracelet and saw that I had over four minutes to make it 2/10 of a mile to the next mile marker. I had no idea how we'd gotten so far ahead on such a grueling mile. I briefly felt bad for the people in our pace group, who we had probably screwed by going too fast up that hill. Then I saw the other pacer's bright green shirt not too far ahead and knew I could catch him since we were now at another downhill. I burped and felt better, and took off.

I caught up with him. Short story -- we finished. There were several nasty uphills in this "downhill finish," and most everyone was walking them. I did the same, falling behind the other pacer on the uphills and catching him on the downs. It was terrible pacing, but by now there was no one running with us so I didn't feel that bad. My stomach was still bad, but not urgently so. I knew I could make the 4:45 finish.

In fact, we ended up finishing in 4:44:27. We had to burn up a little time in the last quarter-mile by slowing almost to a walk. We really screwed up by having those couple extra minutes at the end -- it would have been smarter to use them on 33rd Street and slow down on that hill. This was my personal worst pacing performance yet even though my finishing time was reasonably accurate. (I wanted 4:44:30, but I guess I won't complain about 3 seconds.) It was a pretty terrible race performance too.

In summary, it was a good course in terms of showing off the city, but it was a TOUGH course. As I said, there really is no other good choice for Maryland if you're a 50-stater, but I'm glad I didn't set out with hopes of getting under 4:00 here. I don't know, maybe on a cooler day it would've been fine. Anyway, State #44 is done and I'm glad I don't have to go back to Maryland ever again. I'm looking forward to State #45, Mississippi, next month.