Friday, May 19, 2017

Race Report - 2017 Pittsburgh Marathon


I’ve imagined my “comeback” marathon a number of different ways in my head over the last two years since I raced Boston.  Another flat and fast race was usually the focus, with the idea of qualifying and returning to Boston.  Since my last post a year ago, I had triumphantly returned to racing, coming within 40s of my 10 miler PR.  This mentally got me back in the game.  Seeing that despite being a good 10-15 lbs heavier than my previous marathon weight, I was still able to run within striking distance of what I consider one of my better PRs.  So I restarted the dreaming process of this return in my head and spent the summer slowly building up the miles, with a focus on the longer endurance side.  However, comebacks rarely follow a straight line.

 

The Road to the Start Line

It was on a random Friday morning in late August, when I woke up at 4:45 am to get in a run before the little ones in the house were stirring, that even my first few steps out of bed felt off.  I had a strange soreness on the inside of my left calf/shin.  I figured it would loosen up after my warm up, so I did my usual routine, and was ready to start my run.  15 steps in, I could tell the pain was different.  After 30s, I stopped dead in my tracks in the pitch black morning and proceeded to do the walk of shame back home.  I know my body well enough to decipher good pain from bad and this was unlike other pain I had before.  It was very minor (maybe a 2 out of 10) but different, so I gave a call to the Dr that day for an appointment which would be a few days later.  I spent the next several days between my appointment searching my symptoms and came to one of two conclusions – it was either shin splints (which oddly enough I’ve never had) or the early onset of a stress fracture (which I’ve also never had).  At the Dr., we went through a series of tests which indicated it could likely be an early stress reaction, but the xrays came out clean, so we waited a few weeks before checking again.  My next appointment, nearly 3 weeks to the day, showed promise as I passed all the tests I could not complete at the original visit.  I got the approval to slowly restart running, so I began with 1:00 run/4:00 walk for 30 minutes and built from there.  It wasn’t until 6 weeks later in mid-October that I ran without any walk breaks, shortly followed by one hour of constant running.  I wanted to be patient and do it right, not force it and end up back at square one.  Most of my workouts were done on the bike during this time to attempt to maintain some fitness, so my first running workout wasn’t until November.  Slowly but surely, my running was returning, but I lost much of the running specific fitness I had gained over the summer due to the 2-3 months away from being able to effectively train.  In many ways it felt like I was starting over.

 

I decided to target a late April marathon with the idea of being able to get in 20 weeks of training -  longer than what I would typically do, but I needed the extra time to build up safely.  Training was going really well - I had been diligent about strength and mobility work, handling the training load without too much fatigue, and although it was difficult not to compare myself to my former marathon times, I was actually running workouts pretty close to where I was before I took my marathon break.  It was just as I was entering my peak weeks of training in late March that my hamstring felt a bit tight following a workout that I completed without issue the day before.  Playing it safe, I opted for a spin on the bike, rather than my usual run the day after.  During the bike and in the 24 hours following, I felt no hamstring tightness and thought I dodged a bullet by being smart.  Well that thought came crashing down during my run the next day, when I couldn’t go 30 minutes before pulling the plug due to it feeling progressively worse.  I immediately made a PT appointment and we agreed that I managed to suffer a minor hamstring strain.  While not significant, you can’t rush the recovery.  I spent 10 days not running (but cycling nearly every day), missing 3 key long runs while I was building back up to healthy running.  Within 3 weeks of the strain, I was back to adding in some marathon paced running, but only up to 14 miles total with 30 minutes at marathon pace.  I knew after the 10 days off and 3 missed key long runs that my goal race was not happening, but still held out hope I’d be able to run one somewhere.  I started looking for other races in early May before the weather turns too hot for good and settled on Pittsburgh for a number of reasons, the first of which was far from my initial reason for returning to marathoning.  Pittsburgh is a tough course, so my vision of qualifying for Boston again went out the door and it allowed me to focus on my true goal – to race a marathon from start to finish and feel good about the effort.  This meant less pressure to ramp my training up too fast, but it gave me the focus of completing the training to handle the tough course.  The second reason was because my friend Mark was already signed up, so rather than go to a random race by myself, I thought it would be more fun to have some company.  So the rest of my training went well – I managed to get in a 22 miler (all easy) and a 20 miler (with 8 miles near marathon effort), along with a couple of 8-mile marathon paced runs on rolling terrain to simulate the course as much as possible.  All good stuff, but mind you, much less marathon-specific work than I’ve typically prepared with prior to a race.  I still felt good about my training though, continued with hamstring therapy up until race week, and left for Pittsburgh confident that my body could handle the marathon.  What I wasn’t sure of, was how it would handle the Pittsburgh Course.

 

Pre-Race

Pittsburgh Elevation Profile
When considering my race strategy, I closely studied the course to determine the best way to tackle the course.  Mark and I also drove the 2nd half of the course the day before the race to get a better sense of things.  My sense after driving it was that the hills were legit, but the feared big climb wasn’t as long as I thought but still quite steep by any standard, much less in the middle of a marathon.  The rollers concerned me more actually, since they were later in the course and much longer.  In summary, the first 11 miles are relatively flat, followed by hills miles 12-23 (a few of which are 100+ ft climbs), then a steep downhill and flat for the last 2 miles.  I felt like I was in 3:10 pace going into the race, so I figured I would run that pace through Mile 11 and then run by effort the rest of the way.  I had planned to stick with the 3:10 pace group since they offered one in the hopes that I could just tag along and not have to spend too much mental energy early on trying to figure out if I was running the right pace.

 

Race morning came and we were welcomed to drying out conditions from the steady rains we had the day before.  I met Mark at my hotel since it was close to the start, where we hung out for a bit before making our way over to the corrals.  Logistics were super easy, so we waited until about 30 minutes before the race and hopped right into the corral area.  With about 20 minutes to go, I found a little bit of space in the fenced off corral and did a few warm up drills and strides before it got too crowded.  I should note that the half and full marathoners start the race together, so what is a 5,000 person marathon race is really a 20,000 person race including the half marathoners.  So as time got closer to the start, it filled in quite a bit even where I was standing near the 3:10 pacer since many half marathoners were running our pace.

 

Race Start

After what seemed like forever following the elite half marathoners who set off five minutes early, the announcer said one minute to go, and now it was our turn.  I split the race into sections with goals for each like I always do, which helps to mentally break it up into smaller goals.  It was essentially: Start – Mile 6 (Getting into the groove), Miles 7 – 11 (Locking in race effort), Miles 12 – 16 (Navigating the main hills), Miles 17-22 (Ride the rollers), 23 – Finish (Just keep moving).

 

Miles 1-6 – Getting into the grove

Mile 1 should always be the easiest mile of a marathon.  No matter the goal, it should feel pretty easy.  Since Pittsburgh starts half and full marathoners together, it was a bit more crowded than I’m used to.  I stuck by the pacer who did a good job of taking the tangent
 

line without getting caught up in weaving.  We had to navigate a few curbs that could have easily ruined someone’s day pretty early, but I stayed wide of those to avoid it.  After that brief turn, it was essentially straight for a mile before turning left and then left again to come back toward the city.  We then went up and over the first bridge of the day (David McCullough Bridge), which was short and gave plenty of downhill on the other side as we rounded a park area, before then going back uphill on the other side.  The rest of the miles along this section were largely flat running past the stadiums as we geared up for crossing the next bridge.  I averaged 7:10/mi through this section, which was right where I wanted to be.

 

Miles 7 – 11 – Locking in the effort

Shortly after Mile 6 we were starting the climb on the West End Bridge, which was also not a big climb, but a little larger than the previous bridge.  The short loop into the West End was welcoming and loud, with fans lining the street and music as we climbed up a short but steep hill, turned left, and headed downhill on the other side before exiting the crowds.  The next stretch was relatively quiet and rolling until we got to the Station Square area and the South Side.  A few more bumps in elevation along the way, but nothing like what is to come.  I just locked things in here and everything felt pretty good as we approached the Birmingham Bridge, averaging 7:08/mi through this section or about 5-6s/mi faster than the pace need to run a 3:10, factoring in a little bit of weaving.

 

Running solo back from the pace group
I should note that between Miles 6-8, that I felt the 3:10 pacer was running a tad harder than the early miles.  While the split times were all in the same ballpark as those we ran before, the effort to run the splits through this section was a bit higher due to more elevation change.  So instead of being 5-10s faster than 3:10 pace, the effort was the equivalent of 15-20s factoring in the relative grade of ups and downs.  For me that was too much too early in the race and I started to let them go.  Maybe that’s what he felt was needed to come in at 3:10, but I had to trust my gut.  They were never much further off in the distance, but I probably pulled back a few seconds a mile to maintain my effort.  With so much of the work in the race yet to come, I knew it was the right decision.  I liked the idea of having someone else set the pace, but not by banking too much time early on that it would take away from the rest of the race.  That wasn’t my race strategy.  The pacer did come in about 33s faster than 3:10 so pretty close to goal, but I don’t know how many of the pace group stayed on through to the finish.  Based on photos, it looks like only a handful, but that could be based on a million factors none of which have to do with the pacer.  I just felt like it was too fast for me, so I had to back off.

 

Miles 12 -16 – Navigating the Main Hills

Around the halfway mark
I found a couple runners just as we were approaching the entry to the Birmingham Bridge, so we grouped up.  After a few quick words, they seemed to be following a similar plan of giving up to about 30s/mi for the toughest section of the course and also felt the pace of the group was too “hot” so soon, so we ran the bridge together and as we came off the brief downhill exit, I mentally reset for the next 4 miles of hills.  The first mile of that being 200 ft of elevation gain - a .5 mi 130ft climb followed by a tiny .1 mi break, then into a .3 mi 70ft climb.  This was by far the largest climb I’ve tackled in a marathon race and I was surprised to survive it fairly well.  I came through both sections feeling a bit winded, but with plenty left.  I split 7:41 up the largest portion of that, while my next mile split 7:17 included some relief off the 2nd part of the climb.  But that rolled right into another double climb in the next mile for a total of 80 more feet of climbing – a small .3 mi 30ft climb, a short .1 mi break, then into a .4 mi 50ft climb.  I split that at 7:30 still feeling ok, knowing that I had a mile of more down than up before the last tough climb of this section.  I was confident with how I was feeling though, since I was back on pace through the next
Around Mile 16
mile of net downhill (7:08) and some loud cheers as we ran through Shadyside.  I knew Mile 16 was another tough one with a short steep climb and another second climb after a short break, so I put my head down, pumped the arms and churned away a 7:32 mile.  My legs started to feel it by now and I just didn’t have the turnover coming back as I crested the top that I had early, so I could tell the hills did their damage.  I averaged 7:22/mi through this section, which I was happy with since I was just under 3:10 pace, averaging about 7:15/mi cumulative.

 

Miles 17 – 23 – Ride the Rollers

I knew after cresting the previous hill that I had a bit of a break for the next few miles (17-19).  In my pacing plans, I was hoping to catch back on pace through this section before grinding up the last couple of bigger climbs, but I ran into a few problems.  First, my legs were starting to lose their pop, so I couldn’t really get back on pace.  I split 7:15 for Mile 17, but that was with 60+ft of elevation loss.  The other problem and reason why my pace
Making use of the downhill
wasn’t faster there was because the winds were really winding up at this point.  The stretch through Homewood was the toughest part for me because I was running by myself into a 15 mph headwind, gusting to 25 mph at times.  I turned my hat around because it almost blew off during one of the early gusts!  I would occasionally find someone to sit behind and draft, only to feel they were going too slow and pull to the side to pass.  Except when I pulled to the side, I realized I was running the same pace as they were when I thought they were running too slow because they were trying to fight the wind.  So I continued this fight for the next two miles (7:36, 7:39), knowing I might have been a bit closer to goal pace had it not been for the winds through this section.  But I still pressed on.  Everything felt ok – nothing was cramping and I still had good energy.  I was just grinding away the miles. 

 

Finally, I entered the next section I was mentally prepared for – the last significant climbs (Mile 20 and 23).  I was mentally ready to just put my head down and grind on up these suckers.  They weren’t steep, but Mile 20 was about 100 ft of gradual climbing (7:56 split) so it felt much longer than the other shorter climbs before.  Mile 21 was another longer downhill that I couldn’t take advantage of, because I lost another gear grinding up the previous hill.  I split 7:39 coming mostly downhill because I was starting to feel spasms and I didn’t want to push it.  This is where my slight undertraining came into play.  A few more solid long runs at marathon pace would have given some more strength to power through here, but I just had a lot of fatigue in my muscles.  I was still mentally and physically ok, but my marathon fitness was my limiter at this point.  Mile 22 was half up and half down (7:44), but I spent that whole mile thinking about Mile 23 because it was the last climb on the course (.8 mi with 85ft of gain).  So I finally got there and pushed with whatever I had left.  I noticed however, on the climb that my hamstrings were starting to spasm a bit, so I could tell I needed to keep things in check. It wasn’t much, but I crested the hill (8:04 split) and rejoiced with the fact that I didn’t have any more hills to worry about.  By this point, I had averaged 7:42/mi through this section and 7:21/mi cumulative which was still on pace for 3:12ish.  I knew I was going to give up some more time based on how I was running but thought I could at least hold things together as long as my legs would cooperate.

 

Mile 24 – Finish – Just Keep Moving

I think the mantra for anyone in the last few miles is always something along the lines of relentless
forward progress.  No matter how the race is going (even in my best races), this is the point where you truly have to will yourself to keep going.  Everything hurts and you’re on the verge of cramping, forcing you to lose more time.  So here I was with a steep downhill mile (160ft loss), but my legs couldn’t afford the pounding.  I moved down the steepest part as carefully as I could, while trying to let gravity do it’s magic.  That I squeaked a 7:40 mile is a testament to how steep the downhill was, because on any normal day I would imagine running at least a minute faster while still feeling like I was holding myself back.  But none of that mattered, because I had to deal with the cards I had, which was not much as this point.  One foot in front of the other.  I went to the distraction games – counting 100 steps, then starting over to do it again; finding a landmark and guessing how many steps it would take to get there; smiling and waving to any spectators and hoping for something to keep me going.  All of these things worked, but what didn’t work was my hamstrings at even the slightest rise in elevation.  These last 2 miles were as flat as any part of the course with maybe 5ft of elevation change each, but even those small undulations or when the headwinds kicked up, it caused my hamstring to spasm just enough due to the extra push.  So I kept going at whatever pace my body was letting me.  My only goal at this point was to finish the race happy and healthy.  If I was gunning for a specific time, I probably would have tried running harder, as that has worked for me in the past (ie New York City Marathon), but I had no reason.  I just wanted to enjoy these last bits of the race as I reflected on the fact that I battled a stress reaction and a strained hamstring – and here I am, running a hilly marathon in a pretty decent for me time.  So I enjoyed myself as best I could.  I was fortunate to be spotted by Mark’s family with about a mile to go and that really brightened up my spirits. 
Almost there!

I was now in the downtown area and knew that the finish line mysteriously appears after a final turn.  I kept hoping after each turn that would be it, but that seemed to carry on for a while.  Finally, I could hear the crowd getting louder and I knew this was it.  I made a final right, with a slight downhill roll into the finish line.  I crossed the finish line smiling as I heard my name announced, with a final time of 3:16:32.

 

Final Stats:

Time: 3:16:32

Overall: 189/3439

Age Group: 23/322

Pace: 7:29

 


Post Race Thoughts

I accomplished my primary goal of running a solid marathon after taking the last two years off.  Completing a marathon without major issue is an accomplishment regardless of the time on the clock.  That said, in hindsight I would have liked to come in a little faster than I finished (we always do!) and I have no doubt I gave up some time in the last 5k.  At Mile 20, I felt like I was going to finish in the 3:12-3:13 range, which is where I thought I’d be with 3:10 fitness factoring in these hills.  While the winds slowed me down some, taking my foot off the gas in the last 5k had the biggest impact on my time slipping a bit at the end.  If I was looking at a 3:15 for a BQ (still have a few more years), I’m sure I could have tried the run harder when it hurts approach toward the end, but that was not my goal today so I didn’t have the drive to push it over the line.  I’ve run 11 marathons, only 4 of which were faster than this, but none were as challenging of a course. 

After the race, I was able to walk back to my hotel, shower, drive 4 hours home, and be back in time to watch my little guy at his youth track workout.  I don’t recall ever being this mobile and in the few days after, there was some residual soreness but I was going up and down stairs no problem.  While I don’t have any specific running goals over the next few months, it is good to know that my body will be ready when it is time to get back to it. 

The Pittsburgh Marathon is a fantastic race – great spectators, lots of music along the course, lots of runners (at least first the 1st half, but I’m sure the some marathoners had plenty of folks to run with most of the way), and a course that weaves through so many different sections of the city.  I was also able to stay at a hotel less than .25 mi from the start, so I could chill inside until only 30 minutes to go.  You can’t do that at most races, especially those that are in cities.  I truly enjoyed this race, but it is challenging versus some of the faster courses out there.  However, if you aren’t pressed for the fastest possible time, I can’t recommend this race enough.
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