Monday, March 24, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Shamrock Marathon

For some races, you have the perfect training leading up to it, but the results don't speak for the quality of the training you did during that cycle.  For me, the last two marathons I had run, this was the case.  My training cycles were filled with breakthroughs and I entered the races with the confidence of knowing I was going to PR.  And while I did PR, I didn't have the race I wanted.  It's easy to blame weather on specific results, and to a certain extent, it played a factor, but you have to hold yourself accountable for the results you earn.  Going into this year's Shamrock marathon, I KNEW I had a better race in me, no matter what the weather threw us.  And I just wanted to get to race day to have an opportunity to prove it.

Pre-Race
Unlike previous years, we decided to head down to VA Beach on Friday, both to make it more of a vacation, as well as a less stressful drive.  Without the rush to get checked into the hotel, eat, get to expo, etc, it just made things more relaxing.  And relaxing is exactly what I wanted in the days before the race.  No reason to add excess stress on top of pre-race nerves!  The drive down was easy - just 3 hours.  Weather was chilly and windy, much as I expected race day to be, but that didn't stop a certain someone from getting his dig on.  I mean, if you're used to digging in a tiny sandbox and find a whole beach filled with the stuff, wouldn't you be excited too?
This is the largest sandbox ever!

By the time Saturday rolled around, much nicer weather found it's way in, and we were awakened to the sounds of race day, as the 8kers were making their way toward the start line.  We quickly got our stuff together and headed over to our favorite breakfast joint in VA Beach, Pocahontas, which also happened to be right on the course for the race.  We sat at a table that looked out at Atlantic Ave. so we could watch the runners come by.  It helped me get into my race mindset, while I continued to stuff myself with some wonderful gluten free french toast (ie lots of carbs).  Not too long after, I met up with a fellow =PR= runner I coach through our distance training program, and we went off for a short shakeout run.  Nothing fancy, but a quick easy mile, followed by 2 x 2:00 at marathon pace, then some more easy jogging.  Nothing more than a chance to spin the legs out a bit faster to create some muscle tension and get rid of some nerves.

After the run, we drove over to the expo to pick up my packet.  As is usual for Shamrock, there were very few lines if any.  Pickup is always a breeze, even when you go on the busiest day.  I didn't need anything at the expo, so we were in and out, even with a little exploring, in less than 30 minutes.
See, no lines!
The rest of Saturday was spent lounging at the beach.  With temps in the 70s, it was like a regular beach day.  People were out sunbathing, running along the boardwalk, and a certain someone was back digging in the sand.  It was nice to be outside and still stay off my feet.  Just spent my focus on the race, relaxing, and eating more carbs.
Family Beach Shot!
 Race Day
The sleep before race day is always interesting.  Sometimes I sleep incredibly well, other times I barely get any.  This was one of those cases where I WAS sleeping incredibly well...until a certain little one was so excited from his big day playing in the sand that he decided he wanted to go back out there at 1 AM.  Rebecca amused him for a bit, he ate a snack, then went back to bed.  Then got back up at 4:30 AM for good.  So that was that.  Not much sleep.  But if there was ever a testament to the saying that the sleep the night before a race doesn't matter, I'm pretty sure I've just verified it.

1 am snack time!

After killing about 3 or so hours by continuing to stuff my face with a bagel at 4:30 am (carbs) and sipping sports drink (more carbs), I followed it up with my actual go to race day breakfast of applesauce, protein powder, and a banana (more carbs).  I felt full, but with a solid 2 hours before race time, I knew I'd be in good shape by then.

At about 7:45, I made my way down toward the start for a short warm up.  Only a mile total of running, with 2 x 1:00 at marathon pace as pickups and then a few more strides closer to the actual race start.  I met up with some other =PR= runners, including Erin, who was my training partner this cycle for our long runs.  We met last year on the course at around Mile 2 and we formed the unofficial 3:10 pace group. We started training together this cycle when we both decided to sign up for Shamrock again.  Our plan was to stick together and at the very least, work through the winds ourselves if we couldn't recruit others to join us.  Our plan was broken into race segments:

  • Miles 1-5: Try to start out at 7:20/mi and then slowly progress, with 7:15/mi avg by Mile 5.
  • Miles 6-12: Pick up the pace a bit, hanging around 7:10/mi.
  • Miles 13-18: Goal pace time, sitting around 7:05/mi
  • Miles 19-23: Hold onto goal pace or anything under 7:10/mi
  • Miles 24-Finish: Anything under 7:15/mi
With that pacing plan, our simple goal was to break 3:10  We were right on pace to do it last year, but the nasty winds in the back half of the race shifted, leaving us with continued headwinds to fight with, which dropped us off goal pace.  We were determined to have a different result this year.  We knew the course, knew the conditions, and had a plan.  All we had to do was execute it.

Miles 1-5
Erin and I were lined up about 8 rows back from the front.  At exactly 8:30, the horn sounded and we were off.  As per usual, some people were flying down Atlantic Ave.  With a slight tailwind and race day nerves, we just let all those runners go and stuck to our plan.  We were running easy and just chatting it up like any other long run.  Shortly after the start, another =PR= runner Liz, who Erin runs with during the week, joined our group.  Her stated goal was 3:25 and I knew we were running a fair bit faster than that, but she seemed to look and sound comfortable running our pace, so I welcomed the company.  By the time we hit Mile 1, the three of us in our =PR= gear were racing down the road, chatting it up.  No stress, just smooth running, clocking 7:16 for our first mile.  A little fast, but I figured with the tailwind, it was close enough and we'd kept our effort super easy and would continue to for the early miles, so if that's what easy effort dealt, so be it.  I tried to not focus too much on the actual pace and just made sure I felt like I was out for an easy run and was seriously holding myself back.  If that feeling was confirmed, I was running the right way.  Pace was only a reflection of what that yielded me.  There would be plenty of time to work, but early in the marathon should not be one of them.
=PR= Representing!

The next few miles were pretty calm as we continued chatting.  Around Mile 3, a group of 5-6 runners were chatting away, so I struck up a conversation with a few of them about their plans on the day.  Turns out, they were all shooting for 3:05-3:10, so I figured we'd be running together for a while.  Just like last year, I explained our plan to see if they'd be interested in joining when we got to the boardwalk later in the race.  Without hesitation, they all agreed.  I assured them that they'd all get equal time to recover and rotate, unlike our experience last year. 

Shortly before Mile 5, we hit the same spot that causes issues for everyone every year - the Mile markers were off.  This being my 3rd time running the race, I knew they'd be off.  So when everyone's watch beeped around us and they all groaned when they saw how far Mile 5 was still away from us, I quickly assured them that this happens every year and not to panic.  Those who were hand timing their splits would have a really slow Mile 5 and a really fast Mile 6.  Not sure why they haven't fixed this yet after all these years, but it helps to know it, so you don't suddenly speed up or panic when your splits aren't where you want them to be.  So with the proper Mile 5, we came through in 7:13, averaging 7:13/mi over Miles 1-5, which was very close to our 7:15/mi goal - right where we wanted to be.

Miles 6-12
Shortly after, we hit the turnaround and made our way back up the road with a chance to see all the other runners pouring down the street.  It wasn't too long before I'd be hearing my name or shouting out to others.  Literally, every 15s or so, there'd be another person.  The runners we were with were joking if I was some celebrity.  With a lot of runners in our =PR= distance training program and others that I've coached in year's past, it was quite the contingent.  Once we made our way up the road a bit further, we turned off to head into Camp Pendleton.  And unlike last year, this year was packed with service people cheering us on.  I was thankful to have the support, as we did 3 years ago, but was careful not to make the same mistake I did then and speed up too much.  I joked to one of the runners with us that Erin would speed up through this section, and sure enough, as we ran threw it, he put a 10 yard lead on us.  We caught back up soon after, but the excitement of the streets being lined always gets the adrenaline pumping a little more.  Looking back on our splits through that section of the course, we ran 7:07/mi, which was about 3-4s faster than we ran the other portions.  Just goes to show that it does have an impact.
Coming off the Rudee Inlet Bridge

Before we knew it, we were heading out of the camp and back into the road to head over the Rudee Inlet bridge.  Some in our group charged the hill, but I took it as easy as I could and caught back up on the downhill.  Just trying to save every ounce of energy, as it was still early in the race.  We crossed Mile 10, which meant it was now time to head over to the boardwalk.  Our group assembled in four sets of two, lined behind each other line a pace line.  Each set of two would take 1-2 minutes out front, then fall back to the end to recover.  This seemed to work really well and we were picking runners up who were fighting solo along the way.  Group run tactics are the only way to battle these kinds of sections.  The boardwalk wasn't actually as bad as it has been, so the time flew by pretty quickly.  We actually threw down one of our faster splits on the day, running 7:04/mi at Mile 12 as we turned off the boardwalk and onto Atlantic.  By the time we hit Mile 12, we averaged 7:08/mi over Miles 6-12, which was right where our goal was.

Miles 13-18
Every year, this stretch of the course seems to be the most difficult, which it probably is in any marathon.  You've been working for a while, but you're only halfway there, with most of the actual work yet to be done and it only gets harder.  Running up Atlantic, I'd spot a few more =PR= runners that ran the half marathon and were out cheering.  Our pack was still full in tact, though I could tell a few were starting to fade as I could hear their breathing, which is never a good thing to hear only 13 miles into a marathon.  The bulk of our group continued to paceline it up Atlantic and onto Pacific.  It was right at the turn into Pacific that we crossed the 13.1 mark in 1:34:42 (same EXACT split as last year) and I saw Rebecca and Z waiting to cheer me on.  It gave me a sudden burst of energy and I mentally reset myself to keep my head down and run strong through this tough section.
The pack - and then there were four

The 4 miles up Pacific are some of the longer miles in the race.  No turns, an ever so slight uphill grade, and only your mind to bug you about how you're feeling.  Fortunately, I had the pack to amuse me and half marathon runners going the other direction to distract.  We cheered for the half marathoners and continued joking around, which was good, because it meant everyone still in our pack was feeling alright.  We were down to four now, as the others dropped off along the stretch up Atlantic/Pacific, and we made our turn onto the tree lined streets away from the winds.  It felt good to be running strong and even easier without the wind.  We were clocking miles between 7:05-7:10, so I wasn't too stressed about sitting at exactly 7:05 per our goal.  As long as the effort felt right and my legs were behaving, that's all I needed as confirmation that I was running the right pace.  We just keep plugging away, hitting Mile 18 in 7:07, averaging 7:08/mi through this section.

Miles 19-23
Now it was time to get down to work with the serious part of the race in front of us.  We were right on pace, but we just needed to hold it.  Mile 19 was my fastest mile on the day, 6:59/mi.  It wasn't my intent to run that fast, but that's what happened.  I quickly passed the mark where I cramped up and had to back away from our pack last year.  I gave it the finger and hoped it wouldn't happen this time, so maybe that's where the 6:59 came from?  Of course, it wasn't too long after that moment where I felt the ever present (for me) hamstring twinge.  I immediately backed off and thought my day might be done, but quickly shut that part of brain off and focused back on positive thoughts.  I told Erin to go ahead and he pulled a few steps ahead.  After a few moments, the tightness went away and I was back on his shoulder.  He looked back to see if I was there and gave him the thumbs up. 

We had now made the turn back toward the finish, but were slammed with some serious winds.  I think if you asked anyone where the worst wind was on the course, everyone would say Fort Story.  Maybe it was because it was later in the race, but it hurt.  Our pack had fallen off and it was just Erin and I.  We picked up a few others who were ahead of us fighting the winds solo, and got them to join in.  It became 5 of us, but I'm pretty sure Erin was the only one doing much of the work.  I was barely hanging on, as I was worried about pushing too hard with 5 miles still to go, so I just stayed at the back of the group and ran my own race.  Erin on the other hand seemed to be feeling strong.  At Mile 22, he dropped us with a sub-7 mile surge, that put a 50 yard gap between our group and him.  I could still see him up ahead, but I just wanted to keep my consistent running without risking further cramping.  I was still running around 7:10, so I knew if I could just hold pace, I'd come in easily under 3:10.  So despite the urge to bridge back up and run the rest together, I played it safe.

Stupid wind, go away
I was still with the new group through Fort Story, working our way through the wind, while Erin would occasionally glance back to check on me.  I was hoping he could just focus on his race and finishing strong and that I'd come in as best I could.  We finally exited Fort Story, and were treated with a slight tailwind to head down Pacific.  I was just clocking steady Miles.  Mile 23 was 7:08.  For that section, I averaged 7:08/mi, slightly slower than the 7:05 goal, but all things considered, I was right on average pace for where I wanted to be this late in the race.

Cruising down Pacific - almost there!
Miles 24-Finish
Once I entered Fort Story around Mile 20, I covered my watch with my arm sleeve.  I knew this part would get tough, but I didn't want a slow pace reading to influence my mindset.  I peaked down once during that section and saw 7:07, so I knew I was doing fine.  Once I exited Fort Story and had only a 5k to go, I took another peek at Mile 24 and saw a 7:07 mile and started playing the math game.  I basically figured out that I could run an 8:00/mi and still get in under 3:10.  Of course, I had no interest in doing that, but it was comforting to know.  I slowed a tad in Mile 25, possibly due to that knowledge, posting a 7:17, but still well within my goal range at that time.  I slowly began picking up the pace over the final bit after I could see the hotels located along the boardwalk in the distance getting closer. 

Mile 26 (on my watch) came through in 7:10 and I made the final turn toward the boardwalk, which meant a little over .3 mi of real running left to go.  The wind slapped me nearly backwards at that point, but once I faced the finish line in the distance, the wind was the least of my thoughts.  I just focused on picking up the pace and savoring the moment.  I saw a fellow =PR= runner sitting on a bench cheering me in, listened to others as they yelled my name off my bib, and tried to keep it together.  A few moments later, I heard the announcer say Erin's name as he crossed the finish line.  Only 24s later, I heard mine.  I did it!  I qualified for Boston!
Hells yea!
Erin and I both met each other after the finish and were in disbelief that we finally did it.  All the hard work.  For this moment.  We did it!  And we felt no more tired than after a hard long run!

Amazingly still able to celebrate!
 Standing around for a bit still in the finishers area, Rebecca came running over with Z and I couldn't wait to tell her that I qualified. 
I'm sure he'll appreciate this moment when he's older :)
 A few moments later, one of the girls in our original pack, Jen (in green in above photo), crossed the line in 3:09:54, right on goal for sub-3:10.  And a little bit later, Liz (the other =PR= runner with an original 3:25 goal) came in at 3:15.  It was a great day for everyone in our pack.  We worked together and everyone PR'd.  No better feeling than achieving your goal and seeing others do it at the same time!

I have a lot more to say about the race, my thoughts, etc. but I'll save that for another day.

Here are some of the final stats on the race, including my splits:

Time: 3:08:53
Pace: 7:12/mi (Garmin had me at 7:09/mi with extra weaving/running)
Overall Place: 84/2788
Age Group: 22/208


Monday, March 10, 2014

The Highs and Lows of Marathon Training

Its race week already and I can't believe it!  Time has simply flown by, as it often seems to do when you're focused on a daily routine of life, training, work, etc.  However, whenever you look back on the past training cycle, it's important to look at the whole picture.  I can't help but reflect on the highs and lows that accompany every marathon training cycle.  We all face them.  Even the professionals.  So for the ease of organization and reading, here is a quick list of the ones I've been able to reflect from my own training experiences:

The Highs
  • The Runners High:  That daily dose from getting in a run, whether its a quick shakeout or an epic long run.  Who doesn't love that hit of endorphins!
  • Being Part of the .5%: Marathon training is accomplishing something few others will ever achieve.  Its difficult, especially when you're immersed in the sub-culture of uber fit athletes, to realize just how many people don't work out.  Turns out, 99.5% of the population don't run marathons.  Clearly, you're not one of them.  Congrats!
  • Marathon fitness: There's something about being able to go out and crush 20+ miles on any given day that makes you feel super fit.  Now granted, many marathoners probably can't do 25 pushups so its a different kind of fitness, but you simply feel like you're on top of the world when you're out there going long. 
  • Food.  Lots of it.  When you're in the thick of training, you rarely think twice about that second serving of dinner or dessert.  Of course, once taper time hits, it all changes and that little devil on your shoulder is telling you to take another, while it takes all of your willpower to just say no.
The Lows
  •  Mental drain: There's no doubt that training for a marathon is a long process that requires consistency and patience.  Toward the end of training, no matter how dedicated you are, the training just gets old.  This doesn't happen every day or even every training cycle, and there are certainly tactics to beat this mindset, but we all suffer from it at some point.  The key is to just take things day by day and forget about the end result.  You'll get there.
  • Head Games: We all have them.  We try to ignore them.  But they exist.  Have you thought to yourself: "Can I really run THAT far or fast for that long?  How am I going to do that on race day!"  They can really get to you, especially with a string of bad runs during the training cycle.  Just keep going.  Those thoughts will fade.
  • Too much of a good thing: It's easy to get caught up in the training and feel invincible once you start hitting those big mileage weeks.  And often times, we just want to keep piling on more, especially if we are still feeling good, without adequate rest.  This usually results in injury or overtraining a few weeks down the road when the fatigue finally catches up to you.  If you have a plan, stick with it and don't try to overachieve.  More does not always equal better.
  • Paralysis of Analysis: How many times have you sat there and tried to figure out how many different ways you can achieve your goal time?  By negative, even, and/or positive splitting?  Run/walking? If it's hot, cold, or windy?  Maybe it's time to step away from the Excel spreadsheet model you've just created with every variable plotted out.
  • Taper crazies: Whether you like it or not, taper is part of the deal.  From 3 weeks to 10 days, it makes you a little bit nutty no matter how long you taper.  In the blink of an eye, you can be convinced you have a major injury, only to show up on race day and forget all about that random tightness in your hip. Here's a tip: those phantom pains aren't real.  It's all in your mind.
With all the highs and lows, its easy to get stuck on one side or the other.  Hopefully, you spend more time enjoying training than hating it, but not all training cycles are created equal. The important point is that neither side, good or bad, should determine what you do on race day.  If you did the work, then you prepared for the race.  It's as simple as that.  And as long as you know you are entering the race prepared (even if you're a little under trained), you should feel confident that you'll be able to execute on race day.

Some of the worst training cycle experiences have resulted in the best races.  At the end of the day, you'll most likely remember the positives, once all the negative stuff fades away into a distant memory.  So you might as well make the most of it, right?

Here's to hoping you are able to bring out the best in yourself on race day!  Go get it!
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