Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Winter Marathon in Albany

I didn't set out this winter planning to train for and run a road marathon, it just kinda happened.  Mostly because the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club hosted a series of races - free (or cheap), close to where I live and work, simple in format, and building up from a 15K in December to the marathon.  It just happened to overlap with a year with very little snow (ain't no complain' about that from this keyboard!) and a lot of winter running.  Great training, especially a good start for Vermont 100 training.

My most recent marathons were Pikes Peak in 2008, El Paso (slowly) to qualify for Pikes Peak, and in Paris in 2003.  My PR was set way back in 1998 in Austin when Kip and I trained for months with specific goals in mind (he to break 3 hours and me - without telling anyone - to qualify for Boston).  We both managed, barely!  And we had great fun running Boston the following year.

This race was way different ... I was running "for kicks" to see what I could do, with only the warm-up series races and some interval workouts as specific prep.  The vast difference was mirrored in my experience running from the IBM parking lot over to the UAlbany P.E. building an hour before the start.  I didn't see a single soul getting ready for the race - no start/finish line banners, no fencing, no loudspeakers, no huge crowds.  Well, there were a bunch of people INSIDE the building staying warm until 5 minutes before the start.  It took until I got in the door to be sure I was even in the right place on the right day  :)

And what a beautiful day it was - in the 30's, sun shining, just a slight wind to cool us off half the time and gently push us forward the other half.  I don't think I will ever have such good marathon conditions ever again in my life.  A "winter marathon" is a weather gamble, and this one paid off big time.

We did 5 loops around the state office complex next door.  One big "outer" loop of 4+ miles, and then 4 "inner/outer" loops of 5.5 miles each.  Two water stops per loop, one turnaround cone near the finish line, volunteers stopping traffic for us (thank you!), and several random bystanders holding little "Go !" signs.  It was so low-key it was almost hard to remember that it was a real marathon.  I liked it.

There was also a 3-person relay run concurrently, so with that and the multiple loops you couldn't be sure who was doing what and if someone passing someone else mattered for anything or not.  Well, except the front-runners, they were obviously awesome as they zoomed by and sped off around the next corner.  That was cool.  As for the rest of it, I was only interested in what I could accomplish, so that worked for me.

Question #1 was how I was feeling from the get-go.  I caught a coughing-type cold ~10 days earlier and it lingered way longer than I would have liked.  I never felt bad, but I did work from home several times to avoid talking (since I really couldn't).  Starting off in the first couple loops, I was so happy that my throat and breathing were fine.  I suspect my pace was slightly slower for the effort than I'm currently capable of, but I was doing 8-minute miles without exaggerated push, so I wasn't complaining either.

I was happy during the 3rd loop to pass the halfway mark in 1:46:13.  Out of the 13 half-marathons I've run (well, OK, 12 if you don't count the Pike's Peak Ascent), I've beat that time only 4 times.  Wow, that's surprising now that I think about it.  I was about 1 minute 45 seconds ahead of my PR race in 1998, and I was hoping to have gained some endurance from the ultra running to stay strong in the second half.

Question #2 was how my legs would hold up for that many miles of running on the road - I haven't done that in so long, and they were getting tired in the final miles of the 30K a month ago.  In the 4th loop it started taking effort to keep the turn-over going, and my pace dropped a bit, but I felt like I could do the work to keep it up a while longer.

I took 3 Gu's while running and never had any energy issues.  I drank a few swallows of Gatorade at each aid station and took one electrolyte tablet at mile 18.

Question #3 was whether those pesky leg cramps would pop up and bother me again.  Since last May, in every race where I have pushed hard for more than a couple hours, my calves and other muscles eventually decide to rebel.  This is still a new phenomenon to me, still haven't figured it out, but I'm still working on it.

So at the start of the last loop, when my calves tightened and threatened to seize up, I knew I had to find a temporary solution.  Anything to keep running, even if I couldn't run as fast as I would like.  It turned into a balancing act - what would help?  What would hurt?

I had been focusing all race on a good posture, standing up straight and tall, relaxing and thinking "posture, poise, and pace".  With the leg cramp challenge, I could no longer do that - the straighter I straightened, the more the muscles twitched.  I gave in to that and curled into a slight lean.  That added a couple more miles of running without having to walk.

Every muscle cramp made me wonder how long I could keep this up.  I tried to relax.  I tried to breathe.  Whenever I tried to run harder, my legs said definitively "no, do not do that" but they did allow me to continue running somewhere around 9-minute miles so I had to take it.  Math took over my brain, well, attempts at math kept me occupied even though they weren't successful.  I reached the 25-mile mark with 11.5 minutes to beat 3:40, and I thought I might be able to do it.

I believe in that electrolyte tablet!  I believe in that Gatorade!  I believe in my legs!  That's all I remember ... until I hit the final uphill, one last gasp of a battle of wills between me and my cramping calves.  That took for-frickin'-ever, then it was mostly downhill to the finish.  I don't remember much except turning the final corner and squinting to see the clock - plenty of seconds remaining in the 3:39 minute, hallelujah for not needing to sprint to the line.

Yeah.  Road marathons are tough.  Major kudos to anyone who can run them well.

Final time = 3:39:40, a PR by just over a minute, and a Boston qualifying time to boot!

A second amazing thing happened a few minutes later when I met John Geesler, ultra runner extraordinaire.  What a nice man who didn't mind me babbling over how excited I was to get to talk with him.  Thanks John!

All in all, quite a day.

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