With a squelch and a splash, I was rudely awakened from my daydreaming. I had been here before, I realized. Only this time, instead of biking through icy rains in Canada, I was smack dab in the middle of a trail marathon – 15 miles in, to be precise – somewhere on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, just outside of Seattle, Washington. I realized, as I wiped my watch for the hundredth time that day, trying to make out my pace through the globules of water, that the end of the racing season was only 11.2 mere miles away – not much left now! After seven months of work, we were nearing the end of a very eventful year…
I found myself in this situation very similarly to how I usually find myself in end-of-the-season races – via some crazy idea I had at one time or another. I had gone out of my way to write down a thought on some piece of paper and placed it in a conspicuous place with no choice but to act on it. Back in 2017, I established a “goals board” in the garage, a place where I spend time training, sweating, planning, and relaxing, and one small, discreet piece of white paper said “Qualify for Boston.” I hadn’t given it much thought until March of this year.
Other than being a total runner’s checklist item, I hadn’t planned on committing to another marathon. I had done two, way back in 2011 and 2012, and found that it just wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Yes, it took a ton of time. Yes, I’m glad I did it. And yes, it was a huge accomplishment, but running was never my primary interest. It was only viewed as a means to an end for IRONMAN. This race was actually 100% commitment on the marathon train! Ugh.
As with any sport, business venture, or project, a well-established strategy is a good starting point – necessary even. However, as with all strategies, plans of attack, approaches, or methodologies, you have to be ready to abandon ship and go with the flow in the blink of an eye. Say, for instance, if a massive rain storm begins four hours before the gun goes off at a marathon :D Planning is important, but adaptability is critical!
And so the 26.2 mile journey began in the rain and ended in a downpour. I must say I was shocked how many people I could hear breathing heavily just a half mile in. They must have forgotten that this was a multi-hour event because it sounded like they were doing the 100 yard dash. Yikes.
There are a few things very unique about this race. A) it’s all on a hard-packed gravel trail. It was delicious not having to run on pavement for hours on end, crushing my knees and ankles and feet, but it was also a tad slower than nice, smooth blacktop. I do think, however, that in the rain, the gravel was a much safer option.
B) there is a giant, 2.3 mile tunnel that greets you about three minutes into the race. How cool! Headlamps are strongly recommended (should be required), and well-marked mileage signs guide you through the tunnel, with only the occasional water drippings splashing into your eye. A strange calm settled over the group for the duration of the tunnel. An eerie, alien-like bobbing of the headlights projected onto the tunnel walls. The rhythmic splash and plop of shoes trotting through dirt and water and grime. And finally, after what felt like an hour, the emergence into the blazing, glorious sunlight! Oh. Just kidding… the storm had actually gotten worse and was now coming down sideways. Whoohoo…
Through the remaining 23ish miles of the day, the coping strategy was twofold. One – follow the Marathon Math (see further below). Two, spend a great deal of time minimally dwelling on the present, but using an abundance of energy to focus on the past week of vacation. We had seen all kinds of friends and family, had a ton of delicious food, gotten to enjoy great local treats for pizza and ice cream and Hawaiian BBQ, and had watched six or seven movies, including one of my all-time favorites: Guardians of the Galaxy!
At the start of any endurance event, I find it critical to break the day up into digestible chunks. Breakfast several hours before the starting gun, a thorough warm-up, double checking my gear, and finally, starting and executing on my race plan for the day, quickly disposing of it (or amending) as the event demands.
Mile 0 – At the start of a day like today, I essentially divide the race into halves. A literal 13.1 split down the middle, with the emphasis on running faster in the second half. This is the highest level of plans, and simply a framework for getting it done. During the bus ride, the rain had really picked up so I quickly discarded my time goal and left it to a general approach of “run two excellent half marathons” – the rest will take care of itself.
Mile 1 – Perhaps the easiest checkpoint of the race. Run your first mile at a healthy and easy pace. Don’t go too hard, don’t get stuck behind people going too slow, and don’t go with the group who are burning all of their matches in the first half. (I passed 7 or 8 people in the last 5 miles of the day who had gone out of the gate like a bullet). Only 25.2 miles left!
For the initial 42 minutes, I count the miles up from zero until I hit the first 10k. As I’m keeping the legs flowing, I like to have a diversion doing the math, and pace calculations help keep me distracted yet attentive to the fairly draining task at hand.
Mile 6.2 – Second checkpoint reached, and you only have 20 miles to go! Maybe not “only,” but at this point you’ve chipped off your first 10k. 25% of the race is completed, and now is a good time to evaluate how you are feeling. I popped a salt pill and a strawberry Hüma gel for an extra mental and emotional boost, and set off to finish the first 13.1 miles. Not much more to do except keep counting.
Mile 10 is the next race checkpoint because you finally get into the double digits miles, and yet it’s still close enough to the 6.2 and 13.1 milestones to keep you on point. I kept focus on the remaining 3.1 miles in the first half of the day, maintained liquid nutrition (I didn’t eat anything solid the entire race), and reminded myself to keep 16.2 miles in the tank. A long day still awaited.
Mile 13.1 is a huge arrival point for a race like this. Halfway through, and in addition, the first sign of spectators on the course. It was nice seeing some enthusiastic fans come out to cheer on their runners, and gave a little bit of a mental kick just as the rain was really soaking into my bones and creating an overwhelming sense of weariness. It’s also a great point to take note of your perceived exertion, how much gas is left in the tank, and to make any tweaks as necessary. I was pretty much right on track, and actually had run my 4th fastest 13.1 ever at this point. Onwards!
After mile 13, the meat of the race really begins. The legs start to light up like a Christmas tree, mental fatigue (and especially doubt) begin to set in, and those calories become more and more important. And above all else, pacing absolutely must be 100% spot on.
For me, the next check-in is at Mile 16, for a few reasons. One, there are more or less 10 miles left in the race. Very similar to arriving at Mile 10, a double digit milestone is pretty important from a physical output perspective. It’s short, but not that short, especially if you’re trying to use up the remainder of your energy in the last 10k of a race. Two, by this point in the day, you’re going to absolutely feel how much you have left to give. Every little rut, puddle, and lurch will take its toll on your legs, and it’s important to manage both mental and physical fatigue.
Coming in blazing hot to Mile 17 does provide a bit of relief, since we just had a mental check-in only a mile ago. Mile 17 puts you in spitting range of the finish (first non-double digit remainder all day), and is right within an hour of being done completely. That should be enough to get a boost for the next 5k. Also, at this point in the race we ran across a bridge that said “7 ton weight limit.” Needless to say, that’s exactly how my legs felt – like I was carrying an elephant soaked by 14,000 pounds of rain.
Mile 20 – Running by this mileage sign means there is only one 10k left. A mere 25%. The legs are on fire and starting to ache, but there isn’t much you can do for them. This is a good chance to place your focus on something else, because you’re going to have to finish those miles one way or the other. Fortunately, the rain was still coming down, so overheating wasn’t an issue – the wet clothes just didn’t do much to benefit the super fun chafing that was occurring. Blech. I also used this as a last chance for pace calculations, and surprisingly found out I was on track. Not much left now, but still requiring of a solid and taxing effort.
Mile 22 – There are a scant 4.2 miles to the finish, but you aren’t out of the woods yet. I chug the electrolytes/calories any chance I got, and began to pass the other racers who hadn’t quite executed as well on their pacing, or who were just incredibly tired because 2.5 hours in the rain will drain anyone of a will to live (or run fast). From here until mile 25 it’s just a matter of getting through each quarter mile interval without tossing in the towel! I repeatedly count to ten many times between now and the end of the race. Just don’t stop moving the legs!
Mile 25 – The finish line is so close that you can almost taste it, but there are still about 7 minutes left. The last of your nutrition/liquids are likely gone by now, so it’s just you and your cooked legs trying to find motivation and the will to get across that finish line. In the grand scheme of things, long endurance events like this pass surprisingly quickly. Not in the moment, of course, but as I zipped by the mile 25 marker, I realized that I had been racing for 2.8 hours and hadn’t died yet. Each mile drags by, but the hours seem to have flown away. It’s a very odd side effect of racing long! At this point, the work is done – you just need to survive.
I cross into Mile 26, get yelled out by a volunteer to pick up the pace and make it in before 3:00 hits, and accelerate with whatever fumes are left. To much joy (and surprise), I tick across the line with 2 seconds left, making it an official 2:59:58, and icing my nearest competitor by a second, but more importantly my wife and stepson were there at the finish, hiding from the rain, super excited to greet me. What a day.
The last time I ran a marathon, without swimming and biking, was back in 2012, with my first coming in 2011 (first attempt) at 3:28:21. Seven years later, and with a hefty PR of over a minute-per-mile faster, I’d say it was a successful day! Funny, because it was more a battle of will than of physical accomplishment. Somehow I willed myself through the rainstorm, over that finish line, and through nine months of 2019. It’s good to be at the tail end!
Since March 31st, 2019, I ran 574.57 miles in preparation for this race, and several hearty triathlons along the way. I still have 236.68 to go until I break 1000 in a single year (the next goal), which I will resume next week when walking feels more natural. This was not a solo endeavor by any means. I’m very thankful both to my wife, and all the people I’ve run, trained, and sweat with over the years.
Anyways, that was a long recap…
The moral of the story is this: Plans are great, but the end results are driven by dedication, commitment, constant (hard) work, and sticking with a goal when the going gets tough. And always thank your support team. And never give up. Ever.