Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Race Report: Twin Cities Marathon

Sometime right around the 10 mile marker, I passed the 3:45 pacing group and actually laughed out loud.

Everything was awesome. I felt strong and light, the day was truly flawless, and I was having a blast. I was high-fiving kids, bobbing my head to Billie Jean, pointing and laughing at signs that I liked. By far the most fun I'd had at a marathon.

I'd set out to maintain a minimum 8:45/mi pace - but I also set out to just go by feel and find a pace that worked. Often I'd find myself zipping along in the low 8's, or trotting happily at 8:20-something. When practical I'd slow back down, but if it felt good I'd just stay where I was. I was going to try and not overthink the day. I wasn't going to chase anything, but I wasn't going to just let it come to me, either. I guess I planned on trying to meet the race halfway.

I crossed the halfway mark at around 1:50 a full 5 minutes ahead of schedule, and on pace to finish 10 minutes ahead of my goal time of 3:50. I found the team shortly after that - my friends Susan, Mike, and Todd who have chased me around so many races, so many times, that they're experts at it. I shouted with a smile, "Can I hold it, or will I blow up?" and Todd yelled back "Pick it up and set it down!" I took in a gel - just as planned - and at the aid station walked while I drank some Powerade and water. So far everything was going precisely to plan. I was eating and drinking right on schedule, just as I had in training. I felt fast but not out of control. Most importantly I was really enjoying the day.

The morning was not just cool, but cold - low 40's to start the race. I kept my $5 Target sweats on until as close to the gun as I could, staying warm as long as possible. After I'd shed them, with just a few minutes to go, I heard my name shouted from the side of the starting corral. My friend Pete - who I haven't seen in years, since I moved to Madison and he moved to Denver - thought on a whim to find higher ground and see if he could find me (knowing from the blog what I'd be wearing and where I'd be lining up - awesome!). What a great way to start the day, with a quick chat with an old friend. I shook hands and a few minutes later, with cheers and applause, the game was on.

The first few miles of the Twin Cities marathon are, really, a total blur. You're downtown, the throng of people is so thick that when you look ahead you just see this moving, melding organism that covers the entire span of the street. It was easy to go fast in those first few miles - of course it was - so I was always mindful to back off, back off, back off. Friends are chatting, people are smiling, the streets are lined with spectators and families. It's noisy and busy and full and awesome. It wasn't until a few miles in, finally out of downtown and going around the chain of lakes, a few miles after I stopped to hug my mother standing on a corner cheering ("No hill for a climber!" - an old Dadism), where I took in the colors on the edges of a still lake, vapor slowly easing off the surface, the morning sunlight bright and blinding in the reflection, that I was able to pause internally for a second and observe - hey, you're back at it. Back in a big game. Having fun doing what you love. Fit enough for it. And so I gave thanks to whatever it is I feel compelled to articulate the words "thank you" to, for the opportunity to be running here with these thousands of other people and have a second like that all to myself, to see the sun low and rising like that, the color and spectacle and fanfare of it all. I think awesome is a word overused from its intended meaning (including most often by yours truly), but here it was just the right word.

Into mile 16 now, and I reviewed and adapted my original strategy. I'd wanted to treat miles 15-18 as kind of a final warm-up 5k, and then 18-21 as something more swift before a hillier climb to about mile 23.5. But I was still ticking comfortably along at around 8:20/mile or so, so I decided just to hold that pace to mile 18.

But by mile 17, I peeked into the hurt box.

And by mile 18 I'd thrown open the lid, jumped in, and slammed the door.

Two things kind of converged on me at the same time. The first is, I dramatically underestimated how hilly the course got at about mile 17-18. It starts what is really a slow, steady incline that, except when interrupted by an occasionally steeper section, doesn't really end until close to mile 24. My ability to deal with this incline was diminished by the second thing, which is that despite my planning and strategy and methodical efforts during the morning I was getting really dehydrated. So suddenly - and it was pretty sudden - my legs were just shredded. Of course I went out fast, and of course I was paying for some of that effort now, but that was to be expected. When you tank so quickly like that, though, it's a sure sign that either hydration or nutrition is off the mark.

This was the kind of dehydration that sneaks up on you though. It wasn't a hot day - the sun was bright and warm, but it was still just upper 40's, maybe a nice cool 50 degrees. My sweat rate wasn't high, and my heart rate was low. I was drinking about every 3 miles, consistent with my training. But it wasn't enough - and as I said to my friends after the race, it's like letting your car engine go without oil. Without water the muscles and tissue don't have enough of the right lubrication, and things start to freeze up. My legs started feeling in a constant state of just-about-to-cramp. By around mile 20/21, they felt totally alien - like I was having to forcefully use my hips in order to pull my legs along with me. I could actually feel my hamstring muscles jostle and bounce - at one time I reached back there to make sure something wasn't sticking to me, or that my race number wasn't somehow caught up in my shorts, or something to explain what a weird sensation I was having in my legs. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced before.

I didn't really know I was dehydrated, though - and that's usually how it is, isn't it. By the time you're thirsty, it's a little too late. Only after the race, sitting with my friends, was I shocked to see how white and chalky with salt my shirt was, to feel it on my face. Not enough water in my perspiration. I should've seen all the signs, of course, but it goes to show - I remain a lowly, consistently humbled student of this game. About the time you think you have some things figured out, some basic lessons come back to punch you in the face.

By mile 23 I was doing a combination death shuffle into power walk into light trot. With about 10k to go I'd done some math, and figured if I could just go with 9 minute miles I'd reach my goal of 3:50. With 5 miles to go the 3:45 pace group raced me by again. With 4 miles to go I was trying to work out how to break 4 hours. With 3 miles to go the math told me that goal was now also out of reach.

There's something in that moment that's pretty deeply disappointing, in the later miles of a race when you realize that what would be, on any normal day, a very pedestrian effort of, say, 10 minute miles is out of your grasp. When you know that what you have in front of you now isn't the specter of the extraordinary you'd hoped for, but now just a finish. And I don't mean to say that "just a finish" is any kind of meaningless goal - because it isn't, it isn't ever. But at this point I don't race "just to finish". I assume I'll finish, not because I'm over-confident, but because I'm a destination-driven person and part of that means setting goals ahead of just where the finish line lives. At this point I have other visions of grandeur in mind. And this one had slipped away.

The last half mile or so of the marathon is downhill, and awesome. My legs were screaming. I moved as fast as I was able. But I finished with a smile on my face - a real smile, a genuine smile, in 4:07:xx. It wasn't 3:50 - it wasn't even close. It wasn't under 4 hours - the benchmark that continues to elude me - and it wasn't even my fastest marathon ever of 4:02:xx. But I gave as good as I got this beautiful fall day, and that's the best I had in me. No regrets, and in teh grand scheme of life, nothing to be too disappointed in.

Bits & Pieces:
  • This just in: 26.2 miles is a long damn way.
  • If I was 5 minutes ahead of schedule halfway, and I finished almost 20 minutes behind schedule at the end, well then holy shit about the last half of that marathon, my friends. I hope the wheels didn't hit anybody when they came off!
  • Or in other words, sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear calls you a name, you incredulously ask, "what did you say?", and the bear says, "you heard me," before adding under its breath, "bitch", and then when you stand up to take it outside it swiftly ninja kicks you upside the head until you fall flat on your back, then kicks you in the nuts, spits on you when you're doubled over in agony, and kicks you once more in the ass just to embarrass you before it says, "what now, huh? what now?" and when all you can do is groan back a meaningless reply it says, "yeah, that's what I thought" before bending down to steal your wallet.
  • This is only my 3rd stand alone marathon, and only my 2nd one where I had any notions to do anything but finish (my first, in 2005, was well over 5 hours). If you count Ironman, it's my 5th marathon, but the standalone is such a different animal from an Ironman marathon that it doesn't even feel like the same race. In Ironman, you're really just trying to slow down least. The adrenaline factors have mostly worn off, and you're also in a much more solitary space - the thousands of other races have all long ago found their own space. In a stand alone, for the first 10 miles at least you're shoulder to shoulder. It's buzzing and bouncing and hectic. You're trying to go fast - so your expectations of yourself and your body are really completely different. But like Ironman, the opportunities to really get it right are kind of few and far between. You can't do a marathon every weekend (well, crazy people can, but I can't), so just as it took me a few years to really understand how I can race my best Olympic distance or Half Iron, for instance (not that I'm done learning, there, not by a long shot), it'll take me a few years for this distance too, I think. The difference is, I can do 5 or 6 Oly races in a summer if I want and really study the distance from every angle. With life and other race goals, and the physical tax the marathon takes, it's a long long time between opportunities with the marathon.
  • I am disappointed that I couldn't go faster, because I thought I would. I expected it. It was all but forgone in my mind that I'd at least break 4 hours. I felt ready for it, physically able. And, maybe I was. Or maybe I wasn't - I finished with slightly faster than a 9:30/mile pace, which is pretty consistent with what I was running my long runs in training. But I suspect had I managed my hydration better, it would have been a different day. I don't know if I could've held on for 3:50, but - well, who knows.
  • But when I say "disappointment", it requires some perspective. I'm long, long past having much of an ego in this game. I had one race, an Olympic distance race in 2005, I think, where I was bent out of shape about my performance after the race, and it was a particularly douchey way to behave. So it's not that I don't care - I do, I really really do (good Lord look how much I write about this stuff, isn't it obvious?), and I really want to achieve these goals that I believe are realistic, and that I work so hard towards, and I really do get disappointed when I can't or don't meet them, and that disappointment usually festers into something more productive over time - but, well, come on. Have you seen my wife? She's friggin' gorgeous. My daughter is - truly - the most amazing person I know, and at night time she wraps her hand around mine and we sing Sweet Baby James together. I have a very cool business. I have great friends who I laugh with and love. I have seen true despair before and friends, race results ain't it. I do this stuff because I love it. I love everything about it, including the notion of having to bust ass to attain these goals - and that sometimes, maybe just as often as not - I'll need a few shots at it. I love that it's me versus me everytime out, and everytime out I can learn something to apply to the next time. So "disappointed" is in perspective. Suffice to say I mean it when I say it was an amazing day and I had a great time and as much as my legs still feel like I got hit by a truck, I kind of wish I could go do it again this afternoon.
  • And suffice to say I will be back, chasing that elusive 4 hours, maybe 3:50.
  • Speaking of my legs, holy crap. I've never felt this awful after a race before, not ever, even Ironman. I could hardly move Sunday night. My hip flexors on both legs are just out of control. My quads and calves are killing me. Going up stairs hurts hard. I always know if it's been a nutrition or hydration thing, including workouts on my bike, if I'm just wiped out to uselessness after the race/workout. I was useless Sunday night, that's for sure.
  • I'm missing something, and I'm not sure what it is, and I hope to find some answers this offseason. My Ironman marathon got tough because I was having GI issues from hell, and I fell apart in this race because of dehydration. That's two races where I just couldn't hang in there when it got tough. It's pretty easy to run the first 16 miles of a marathon - the last 10 miles is your proof, and this race proved that I have more to prove. Whether it's better endurance, strength, more attention to basics like nutrition and hydration - I need to review everything. Pick it up, hold it in the light, see where it fits in with everything else. At this point I don't feel like it's physical weakness or inability that's holding me back.
  • I want to shout out to my friend Steve in a Speedo, who ran the 10 mile race in under 60 minutes - his holy grail this season. Also shouting out to my Pharmie, who raced the marathon, and Kritta, who raced in Milwaukee, and my friend Sara who did the 10 mile this weekend as well.
  • Seemed to be some tracking issues - a lot of people weren't receiving all or any of the text updates they should have been. The official results page also seems to be listing my chip time wrong, in the 4:11:xx area, when that's the gun time. So if you check official results, I promise I'm not manufacturing 4 extra minutes to make myself seem so much more awesome.
  • Special thanks to Mike and Susan and Todd for coming out and hauling me around for 26 miles, and to Pete for cheering me on as well. I love you guys. To everybody who was tracking me via text, or online, or who shouted out during the race (RVS - great to see you!), or offered support at twitter or facebook or email, thank you so much for your support. I can't even articulate how much it continues to mean to me.
  • I have a whole other post on spectating that I'm going to write.
  • So, what's next: Not totally sure. I'm going to rest up this week, and then just do cool stuff for the next few weeks. Ride my bike as long as the weather lets me, that kind of thing. Planning on a hard 5k on Thanksgiving morning, and spending my winter busting ass to get faster. By next spring I hope to have the fitness to make plans that include a spring half marathon, some Olympic distance triathlons next summer, and the big bright beacon on the horizon, a Half Iron in July - and you can bet I'll be ambitious with all of those. But for now, rest is the order of the day. Let my legs heal up so I can get back out there and start it all up again.


Derek said...

Great job. As someone whos went to hell and back myself its always a great accomplishment to get to the starting line, not to mention the finish.

Great blog.

Velma said...

Great report - I know you are not 100% happy, but you got it done. I make the hydration mistake on cold days all the time. It is so easy. You respect the distance - this will make you faster in the long run.

Alili said...

So many things to say and words escape me. Congratulations on the finish, let the sub-4 fuel your fire. IT is SO in you.

TxTriSkatemom said...

Your race reports give me a profound sense that you do this whole running/racing/LIVING thing the right way. You have your priorities in the right order, and that allows you to dive deep and embrace and understand and enjoy all the parts of this thing that we do, even when the wheels fall off or the bear comes knocking. It's all part of the adventure, and your writing just illustrates it so clearly. Thank you for this. You continue to be my inspiration - 3:50 finish or not! Congrats on a well-fought race.

(and the tracking didn't work for me at all - not one msg about you or Steve)

laura n said...

i feel pride for you. xoxo

Team Brazo said...

After following you on Sunday, it is always interesting to read the real deal. At 20 miles they had your estimated finish at 3:45 but I've been at the 20 mile mark a couple times and know it isn't really in my control anymore at that time.

I feel that a Marathon is "just" as hard as an IronMan - different game, but 4+ hrs on the pavement is a bit tough.

Now your ready for some fall cyclo-cross races!

richvans said...

I've met that bear. Your description is spot on and hilarious. I guess now you just say "NEXT" and make new mistakes.

Pharmie said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your race even though it kicked you in the teeth! A marathon is a beast of a race, and MTCM is definitely a hilly course at times. Rest up, friend. Can't wait to see what comes next!

Steve Stenzel said...

Nice work getting though that Chris! I heard SO many people say their wheels fell off around 18-20 - maybe something was in the air along the river....

Nice to briefly see you before your finish!!

Trisaratops said...

Okay, so first off, you are HILARIOUS. I seriously almost spit out some of my coffee when I read the whole bear encounter--priceless!

I know you're disappointed, but I think you have a fantastic attitude about this whole thing. I have no doubt you'll be back and will crush 4 hours. No. DOUBT. The marathon is quite an animal. And anytime you hit that finish line, it should be celebrated.

You MUST video you and D singing. I need to see that. :)

Iris said...

Do you ever take in saltsticks or endurolytes? Since discovering them, I rarely experience nausea or cramps anymore. Nice report.