Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Race Report: Marine Corps Marathon

Where does one begin when it has taken nearly 2 months to write a race report?  Well...to be honest, I've had the post written in my head since pretty much the race ended.  However, as you tell by the frequency of posts recently around here, it hasn't happened.  Until now, that is, because I need to move on from the race and nothing brings closure like getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper  a screen.

My build up to Marine Corps started just like every other marathon: full of hope and dreams of a PR.  I mean, I was just fresh off a 5k PR and training was going great, so why wouldn't that seem natural?  Fast forward my steady training through the summer until about September, when things suddenly changed.  No, it wasn't an injury or anything running related.  After months of discussing it, we finally put an offer down on a house that was quickly accepted.  More importantly, it meant we needed to pack up our stuff ASAP, so we could prep our current house for listing.  In a matter of 4 days, we essentially moved 75% of our stuff out of the house, thoroughly cleaned, repainted, prepped, etc everything.  It was a lot of work and took even more out of my physically.  I had no time, motivation or energy to run.  From the moment I woke to the moment I went to bed (sometimes way later than I would prefer), I was doing house work.  For those that know me, if I told you I had no motivation to run, you would wonder if someone stole my body and replaced it with a zombie.  That is NOT me and never has been.  But here I was, 4-6 weeks out from my goal race and I had no motivation or energy to train.  7 days went by without a run - not by choice, but dictated by how I could spend my time.  On top of it all was the need to take care of the Z man.  One of the things you learn as a parent especially, is that you lose your ability to be selfish in times of need.  Its easy when its just the two of you to say, "I'm leaving for 3 hrs to go do my long run".  Its much harder to do that when you have more to take care of and be responsible for.  When I had free time (if any existed during this period), it was spent with my family, not out on my own running.  I still got some training in, but less so than would be considered ideal given the timing in the training cycle. We all have priorities and for the first time in a while, running wasn't one of them.

Now to be honest, I was doing plenty of cross training during this time, including tons of stairs with heavy boxes, lots of core work painting and assorted house tasks, etc.  And life was pretty much like this up until 2 days before the race, when I drew a line in the sand and said I had to rest if I wanted any chance at the marathon.  In fact, I was more sore during this time than any other time I can recall from running.  Oh and closing on the new house was the Friday before the race, so life stress was totally at an all time low (that might be a slight understatement).  So this was my long way of saying, I didn't make it to the start line knowing that I did everything I could to run to my potential.  However, it doesn't mean I wouldn't try.  You see, I was in the fortunate position of having nothing to lose.  Since I ran my BQ in March and was already accepted into Boston, I honestly had nothing to lose by just going out to PR and seeing what happened.  I had good training leading up to it and a few years of consistent uninterrupted training to base everything off of.  Why not?  So I decided to go for 3:05 as a soft goal.

Race morning came like every other one, an early wake up, cramming some food in my still asleep body, and heading over to the race.  I parked in Rosslyn as I've always done when going to spectate, since I'm convinced it is no more walking than the other alternatives and you have a much easier pathway home with an easy walk to the car after you finish.  I was parked by about 6:15, ate a bit more, and then made my way toward the start with the masses in the dark.  Getting through security at Fort Myer was a breeze and I began walking toward the start line as the sun started to come up.  It was a bit warmer than forecast, even in the morning, and I knew the day might get a little toasty with the sun out, so I made sure to hydrate with some extra electrolytes in the sports drink I was sipping all morning.

About 45 minutes before the start, I went for a short jog with 2 x 1:00 pickups to race pace.  My legs felt great and I remained positive that I could still have a great day.  Either way, I'd rather run a marathon than move to a new house, so I saw the day as an opportunity to have fun, be out of the house, and see some friends.

I made my way toward to front of the start area, since Marine Corps doesn't regulate corrals, and found the 3:05 pacer so I'd know where his group was.  As the clock got closer to race start, the area filled in very quickly with what seemed like a lot of pretty fast people where I was standing.  A few moments before the gun was to go off, I overheard the pacer telling those around him that Mile 1 was going to be a mess and he'd be doing a lot of weaving, but not to worry about pace, since they'd catch up once things opened up a bit.  My approach was much in the same - I didn't want to fight the early crowds with too much weaving, so I'd run what I could and start slowly, then let the race come to me.

In my head, I had the race broken out into a number of distinct segments with individual goals to help me get through the race: Miles 1-4 (Start to Key Bridge), Miles 5-11 (Georgetown through Rock Creek Park), Miles 12-15 (Haines Point), Miles 16-20 (Along the Mall), Miles 21-22 (14th St Bridge), Miles 23-25 (Crystal City to Pentagon), Mile 26 (Rt 110 to Finish)

Miles 1-4
With the sound of the howitzer, we were off and running...except we weren't.  I think its about time "The People's Marathon" gets real about proper race seeding and either institutes a pre-race seeding system that they enforce, or require runners to qualify into some of the earlier corrals, because it is simply unacceptable to line up at the front of a marathon and walk or even run at a significantly slower pace than the rest of the field around you.  For the 1st half mile, I was boxed in, forced to weave, and running in the low to mid 8:xx range, which is not ideal when your goal pace is around 7:00/mi.  Unfortunately, this mean a lot of energy wasted with the stop and go tactics of weaving.  I ran goal pace when I had space, but more often found myself trying to avoid clipping feet with those around me running much slower.  It was frustrating, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I just patiently waited till I had openings and ran, with as little weaving as possible.  With some early downhill in the 1st mile, I still managed to come in at 7:05, but I know I wasted a whole lot of energy doing that, so it had me a bit worried.  The 3:05 pacer was long gone, having weaved his way in and out and all over the course in that 1st mile and I had no desire to do that, so I let them go.  The next 2 miles were pretty much uphill with the start of an extended downhill, so I gave myself the flexibility to slow down as needed, after the harder than planned first mile.  I saw folks flying up the hill, while I just climbed as easily as I could with as little effort as possible to make it to the top.  I made it up in 7:21, which was still faster than I had initially planned, but the legs felt good and breathing was very controlled, so I went with it.  After we crested the hill, I let my legs go and tried to keep from braking too hard on the downhills, causing more tension.  As saw a lot of my pace fall well into the 6:xx, which was expected, given the sharp downhills in this part of the course.  This is where I expected to get back onto pace from the earlier slow miles.  Mile 4 was 6:54 and I came through this segment averaging 7:07/mi, which was close to where I wanted to be by now.

Miles 5-11
As we made our way up hill to the Key Bridge and into Georgetown, I tried to get myself into a rhythm, but I simply couldn't.  My legs felt fine, breathing was still good, and I was on pace, but my thirst level was uncharacteristically high for this early in the race.  I'm not typically a thirsty person when running, so to be only 4-5 miles into the race and already looking for the next aid station was sign #1 that something was off.  Nevertheless, I cruised through the crowds in Georgetown, enjoyed the support, and made my way to Rock Creek Park, hitting Miles 5-6 in 7:09 and 7:10 respectively.

In my race prep, I saw this section of the course as the largest unknown.  I never had a chance to run it and when I always drove it, it seemed far more up hill than the race profile showed, which was more rolling, but more up on the way out and down on the way back.  I'd agree that there wasn't as much up as I initially felt and I was thankful we didn't have to do the climb up to Calvert St that they do for the RnR DC race - no thanks.  As I made my way gradually up the hill, I 1st spotted a fellow =PR= buddy who was working the aid station.  As I worked my way up the last part of the hill, I saw the 3:05 pacer coming back to the other way, probably 1:00 ahead, so not terribly far ahead and still within striking distance.  I moved up the out section a bit slower than goal, accounting for the hills in 7:17 for Miles 7 and 8, which included the start of the turnaround back.  As I made my way back downhill, I heard Jamie call me out and gave her a wave.

Passing the Kennedy Center just before Mile 10
I was enjoying heading back downhill now, as the early hills were over.  However, I still had that off feeling and it didn't seem to be going away.  By the time I hit Mile 8, I told myself to run to the halfway mark and see how everything feels before making any further decisions.  Miles 9-11, which brought the rest of the downhills and then on Rock Creek Parkway back into the crowds cruised through in 7:06, 7:01, 7:01.  For this section, I averaged 7:08/mi and was right on track.

Heading Toward Haines Point at Mile 11
Miles 12-15
As we entered Ohio Drive to start the Haines Point segment, I noticed my breathing starting to labor a bit.  While my legs were still feeling solid, the breathing concerned me.  We were now running into the full sun, with no shade to hide from it and I think my body was started to work a little harder than it should be.  I was with a small pack and was using them to shield some of the headwind coming off the Potomac, so I didn't want to fall off the group.

Small bridge crossing around Mile 12
 I stayed on and we made our way up toward my "reevaluation" spot.  I hit Miles 12 and 13 in 7:09 and 7:11 as we rounded the tip of Haines Point and crossed the 13.1 mat in 1:34:15 (7:11 avg), which was about 30s faster than I ran at Shamrock, though I remember feeling a heck of a lot better at this point during that race than I did now.  I was still on pace to PR, but far off 3:05 pace, and I knew I wasn't going to PR the way things were headed.  So I reevaluated and decided to run it in rather than race the rest.  I could tell my body wasn't going to fight at this pace for 13+ more miles and with everything else going on at home, I didn't need to end up in a medical tent.  So I kept clocking the miles while slowly easing off the gas, though I was hoping that headwind we were fighting heading out on Haines Point would be a tailwind on the way back.  Not so much - or at least I was hurting and didn't feel any benefit from it.  I knew I had more friends at Mile 15, and I didn't want to disappoint, so I at least held it together through there.  Miles 14-15 were 7:15, 7:13.  For this section, I averaged 7:12/mi, still on target for a solid day, but knowing that I was slowing.

Slowing a bit, but at least I got a good photo out of it!
Miles 16-20
If I had provide some advice to those running Marine Corps for the 1st time, it would be that this section is deceivingly hard.  I've run the Mall so many times over the years and never thought twice about the terrain, but 16 miles into a marathon, and every change seems to increase tenfold.  Heading out on Independence toward the Potomac is slightly downhill, but once you hit the turnaround, it was carnage city.
Heading out on Independence Ave and enjoying the downhill
Folks were cramping and the road slants up a bit as you near the Washington Monument.  I distinctly remember this being that point where my brain and body stopped working as one.  I had every intent on easing my running for the rest of the race toward my usual easy pace (7:45/mi), but that hill forced my brain to shutdown the rest of my body.

Who knew a small hill could cause so much pain?
 I clocked Miles 16-18 in 7:22, 7:35, 7:43 but I could start to feel my body shutting down now that my mind was clearly out of it.

Barely holding it together

Right between Miles 18 and 19 as we rounded the Capitol reflecting pool, my body showed its 1st protest in the form of a hamstring cramp.  I walked for a few short seconds before going to back to running, quickly found the next aid station and doubled up on some Gatorade to hopefully help the situation.

Running, but not for long

Unfortunately, during Miles 19-20 the cramp came back and hit me pretty good.  I happened to stop to stretch right by one of my other =PR= coaches who was standing shortly before Mile 20 and asked him for his phone to call Rebecca.  I knew she was tracking me and I didn't want her to worry, so I spoke for a bit to let her know that I was ok, but going to finish slower than planned.  In total after looking at my watch, I stopped for about 5 minutes, both to stretch and call Rebecca.  All goals were out the window anyways, so I just wanted to enjoy my time as a marathon participant.  I decided that I'd be there to support those around me and encourage everyone in the last 10k of the race.  As I headed onto the bridge, I spotted Jamie one more time.  For a second, I strongly considered coming over to chat, but remembered I was sort of in a race with a timer counting how long it will take to cross the finishline, so on I went.  Miles 19-20 were 8:07 and 12:16 (including my 4-5 min rest stop).

Miles 21-22
In not shocking news to anyone who has run the Army 10 Miler or Marine Corps, I hate the 14th St Bridge.  I really do.  There is nothing good about.  Even during the week, as it causes way too much traffic.  But for running, it harnesses the sun, is hilly, and offers no reprieve.  To make matters worse, there is no aid station from Mile 19 until you get into Crystal City at Mile 22.  Why can't they put one on that bridge?  Most races have aid stations every 1-1.5 miles that late in the race in larger marathons.  Seems odd to have 3 miles between them when most runners need the aid the most, but maybe that's just me, because all I wanted was more Gatorade, since I was forever thirsty and cramping.  Given my state this late in the race, I just kind of took my time and cheered folks on without much urgency.  If nothing else, I was getting my money's worth!  Even though I was having fun and cheering folks on, I'll also admit that the bridge took forever.  I was never so happy to see Crystal City and the next aid station in my life.  Miles 21-22 were 9:34, 9:48.

Miles 23-25
It was around this time that I started playing the mental math game and wondering if one of my running friends was near.  It was his goal to run sub-3:30, so I figured I'd spot him coming the other way on Crystal City as I made the turn back up.  I had been cheering on random strangers, but was hoping to find him, so I could help support him in his goal.  I saw the 3:25 pacer pass and then a little while longer saw the 3:35 pacer go by and still no sign.  Sadly, I continued on, hoping I had just missed him and that he was still on pace (I later found out he dropped at 15, so I'm glad I didn't stop everything to wait for him).  Meanwhile, the miles clicked along, the walking of those around me increased, and the carnage on the road was clear.  It was a warm, sunny day and taking its toll on everyone, including myself.  I was running along fine and then suddenly during Mile 25, the cramps came back, so I had to take a few more moments to stretch.  Miles 23-25 were 9:07, 8:23, 9:48.

Mile 26 - Finish
Leading up to the race, I had grand visions of using the slight downhill in the last mile to run one of my faster miles, before hitting the painfully steep last .2.  I still had plans to run that last mile, but my body had other plans.  It was done.  A long time ago.  But with all the Marines around, I ran up that darn hill through to the finish, because I had no excuse.  I was healthy.  It just wasn't my day.  So I ran - for myself, for others, for those who can't.

Nearing the finish

I crossed the finish line in 3:31, happy, proud, and appreciative of the sacrifices service men and women make to allow for us to enjoy life the way we do.

Happy to cross the finish line

I thanked each and every single person I could find.  While I didn't have the race I wanted, I made sure to show appreciation where it belongs - to those who don't complain about the mission they're assigned to.  They do what is asked of them every day.  On this day, it happened to be supporting a marathon, but on most other days, it isn't so easy.

Post-Race Thoughts
A number of friends have asked me if I know why I didn't have a great race and there is no single answer, but I've done my best to summarize it below if it wasn't clear above:

Stress is a variable that can manifest itself in many ways, most of which you may not ever know until it is too late.  With everything going on, my body may have been perfectly well suited to run a PR, but I can assure you, my stress levels were so high leading up to to the race, that I can't think of anything I could have done differently to change the outcome to a PR.  Could I started slower?  Sure, I could have run a conservative race and finished with a faster final time, but as I said from the start, I had nothing to lose, so why compromise?  Conditions on race day did not lend themselves to fast times, but I had no reason to back down.  It was sunny, 60F (warmer accounting for real feel), and windy.  While those are great conditions for watching a marathon, they are far from great for running in one.  It just wasn't my day, but I finished happy, healthy, and ready to run another day.

So that's the wrap on Marine Corps.  I apologize for the long wait, but these are the same thoughts I had in my head since the moment I crossed the finish line.  I can happily say that we have moved into our new house and are enjoying life, so there's a happy ending to the story.  Just sucks that it took this long to write down :) 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Race Report: Firecracker 5k

When I set out on my plan to get faster during the time between marathon training cycles, I didn't have a specific goal in mind, other than to change the focus of my training so I didn't get stale.  After the success in the last 5k, I sort of felt like I had already accomplished my goal.  I had logged about 6 weeks of decent training with a number of faster workouts.  Then I let things go a bit, between vacations and other stuff going on.  I still kept running mostly, but I just didn't have the urge to blast out faster workouts.  Then about 3 weeks ago, everything changed and my mind and body synched back up.  I reset, and was ready for more.  So with about 2 weeks of actual training, entered the Firecracker 5k on the 4th of July with the expectation of racing well, but still training through it, as I was not specifically training for it.  Given that the summer heat is in full force, racing well takes on a new definition.  In my eyes, racing well meant running as close to PR pace as possible if the conditions allowed.

I awoke race morning to pouring rain, which is not exactly the most favorite thing a runner wants to see.  It was in the upper 60s though, which would mean a decent temperature, so while the humidity was a bit high due to the rain (which went away about 45 minutes before the race started, it wasn't as hot as it could have been. 

I got to Reston Town Center about an hour before the race and set out for a 2.5 mi easy warm up.  People were just starting to flow in, so I just did my thing, finishing up with a few strides.  I ran into a few friends, chatted it up, and then hopped into the start area about 5 minutes before the gun was to go off.  Erin decided to join me for the 5k, so I found him and we lined up together about 8 rows back.  With 2200+ people, I knew it was a competitive field.  I also looked at the course a bit beforehand and knew it would be a bad idea to get swept out too fast during the first mile.

My race plan was pretty simple: Don't go out too fast in the first mile (rolling with more uphill), lock in goal effort in Mile 2 (rolling but mostly downhill), pick it up for Mile 3 (mostly uphill).  I knew this was the winning strategy for this course and if my fitness was there, I could run PR pace.

Before I could give myself a pep talk about how much I was about to hurt, the gun went off and we made our way onto the course!  I went out with the flow, which was a touch fast (5:30/mi), but once we hit the hill about 1/2 mi in, I slowed enough to save my legs and let my pace fall back a bit.  Once at the top of the hill, we started a nice downhill as we cruised toward Mile 1.  While I could see the marker in the distance, everyone's watch beeped a long ways before we got there, including mine with a 5:47.  When we actually crossed the marker, I was showing 6:08 on my watch, which I knew was not accurate and the marker had to be off. Nevertheless, I carried on through the downhill as we made our way up a short hill before turning right to an extended downhill for most of Mile 2.

I sort of put my legs in cruise control at this point and was running with a pack that was all staying together.  This was good as a pace setter, but I also think I let myself hold back too much.  I could have taken the downhills a bit faster, but I wanted to stay with the group, because we were about to hit a pretty windy section of the course where it would be beneficial to have a pack.  Once at the bottom of the hill, we turned right and into a pretty stiff headwind.  Though we never really got much rain from Hurricane Arthur, the whole area felt the increase in winds.  On sections of the course, there was a 15-20 mph wind, which happened to be right where we were.  I tucked in behind 4 others in front, which did a pretty good job of saving some energy.  We hit Mile 2 in 5:42, thanks in large part to the extended downhill.  Like I said, I might have been able to take an extra 5s off that split if I pushed harder, but I played it safe due to knowing the wind would be there.  My clock time at this point was 11:46, so I knew I was right on pace and the Mile 1 marker was off.  However, I could tell that I was still going to end up with a fair bit longer total distance run, given I was already about 16s off the race clock.

After hitting Mile 2, I slowly began the pick up the effort.  I told myself I had a choice - I could either be safe and hold my effort or be bold and go for it.  I already had a PR in my last 5k, so my mind started telling me that was good enough.  However, I chose to be bold and go for it, because I knew I had more in me.  The race would be over soon and I was already on PR pace.  Don't ever settle.  Go for it!

The start of the mile had a bit of a uphill grade and the pack I was with was starting to break apart.  Erin was still with me, but when I started to push, I pretty much dropped everyone I had been running with.  Shortly after, we hit a short but steep uphill curve, where I hit the gas hard and started passing more people.  Less than a quarter mile later, I made the final turn back into the town center for a long straightaway uphill to the finish.  I glanced down at my watch to see Mile 3 at 5:52 and total time was in the low 17:xx, so I hit it harder, passing more people and averaging 5:28/mi over the last bit.  I knew my final time wouldn't end with a 17:xx due to the extra distance, but I still had a PR in the bag.  Slowly, the finish line came into my closer sight and I crossed the line with a new  9s PR!

I don't look like I'm hurting as much as it felt like it did

Final Time: 18:26 (5:57/mi)
Garmin: 3.19 mi (5:47/mi)
Overall Place: 46/2138
Male Place: 41/926
Age Group: 5/122

Post Race
Shortly after crossing the finish line, Erin came through.  We chatted about the race and wanted to head out for our cool down.  But before we could even make it to the cool down, the finish line was streaming in with friends and other runners I coach.  After a few moments of chatting with people, we took off to get our cool down in.  Two miles later, we raced back over tot he finish area, because it was time for the kids race!  One of the great things =PR= does at big events is make sure to keep it family friendly.  Well there's no better way than to have a kids 100 yard fun run!  They split the kids into different age groupings, with Z being in the last group for the kids 3 and under.  It was so much fun to watch him and all the other kids get a chance to be just like mom and dad!  They even got their own bibs and medals!  Such a nice tough to an already great race.

Having had some time to reflect on the race, I'm thrilled to be able to PR a race in July.  I executed to my race plan as best I could.  While I think I could have eeked a couple more seconds out, I can't complain.  I really just need to make sure I race closer to 3.1 mi.  The best way to get free speed is to run the shortest distance on the course.  If I did that at this race, I might have been looking at something pretty close to sub18, which is right around where I feel my fitness is.

This last 5k concludes my faster training cycle and I will now be shifting more of my workouts toward the Fall racing season.  While I haven't signed up for a race yet, I know I'll be ready to race whichever one I end up running.

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