I decided somewhat late in the game to commit to running a spring marathon this year (March 22 to be exact – see this blog post). My training had only started about four weeks earlier, and I was having a hard time getting runs in between work and family commitments. However, I had personal, family-related reasons for running a race on Memorial Day weekend (read the story of why I ran my first marathon), and with only about 9 weeks to go until marathon day, I decided to go for it, and signed up for a rematch with the Vermont City Marathon (VCM).
One of the things I have going for me relating to this whole distance running thing is that my family is very supportive of my habit. My wife is also very active, and although she also runs, her big thing is yoga. Given that we have two small kids (ages 3 and 5), we have found ways to make time for each other to fit exercise into our busy schedules. Aside from the positive example it sets for the kids, my running and her yoga keep us both sane, and the positive benefits thus outweigh the scheduling inconveniences. I owe her (and the kids) a big “thank you” for putting up with dad’s crazy running habit, and though she has put her foot down regarding running an ultra marathon unless I plan to train at 4:30 in the morning (highly unlikely for me), she has been as supportive a partner as I could ever ask for.
As we did last year, we decided to turn marathon weekend into a family vacation. My wife and I have a secret love for Vermont, and could happily live in Burlington for the rest of our lives (you need to keep statements like this quiet if you live in New Hampshire like we do). We spent Saturday at Shelburne Farms, which is a cheese-making farm, but also has great activities for kids. It was a blast watching my son and daughter chase down and catch the chickens that were roaming around the barns (like the poor animal in the image to the right). The more I watch the kids, the more I realize how much running is just a natural part of the day for them, and the more I wonder when running ceases to be the normal mode of movement for most people??? We hit the pool after the farm, and naturally had pasta for dinner in preparation for the race. I went to bed early, and got some pretty decent sleep. For anyone thinking about the VCM, the Green Mountain Suites hotel in Burlington is a great spot if you have kids – big rooms, comfortable beds, very “green,” full kitchen, full breakfast buffet, a nice pool, and really close to the race expo.
Aside from family-related reasons, my second motivation for running the VCM is that one of my long-term goals is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. To do so, I currently need a 3:15:59 for my age category. For the 2009 VCM, I was able to put in about 12 weeks of training, but only twice exceeded 30 total miles in one week. With such a minimal training load for a marathon, I had realistic expectations going into the race, and was hoping at best for a modest improvement over last year’s time of 3:43:38. The realist in me told me that there was no way a BQ was going to happen in this particular race, so I planned to use it as a test. The first part of my plan was to correct mistakes from last year and see what would happen. With that in mind, I avoided racing in the week prior to the VCM, carbo-loaded and hydrated extensively in the days leading up to the marathon, and carried gels (I ate about six) and water with me during the race. The second element of the plan was to go out hard and feel out the pace that I would need to hold for a BQ. I prepared myself for the inevitable crash by telling myself not to worry and just to enjoy the ride. If I had to slow down or walk in the second half, so be it – not a big deal.
On the morning of the race, I got up around 5:45 and ate a bagel with cream cheese, a banana, and a carton of Muscle Milk (my preferred protein shake). I loaded up my gels into two gel bottles and diluted them with a bit of water (this worked great!), and had two cups of coffee. I drank water sparingly so as to avoid needing a pit stop during the race, and given my steady hydration the day before this was not a problem at all. I loaded the gel bottles and a water bottle into my waist pack and headed out to catch the shuttle to the starting line. All in all, I was feeling great.
On the bus to the start, I sat next to a young runner who told me he was shooting for a sub-3:00 finish time. Judging by his knee length basketball shorts, the fact that his recent half-marathon time was over 2 hours, and the fact that he had only been running for a few months, I tried to encourage him to go easy since I suspected he was setting himself up for a dramatic crash. I never did see him again, so I’m not sure how things turned out, but I really hope he did ok. As the bus neared the starting line, I began to notice raindrops on the window, and with the dark sky overhead, suspected that this was going to be a lot different than the blazing sun that persisted throughout the race last year. Sure enough, once I got off of the bus, the drizzle had started in earnest, and would not let up for another 2+ hours.
While walking to the starting line, I met another couple about my age who happened to live only about 20 minutes away from me in NH. They were running their first marathon, and were merely hoping to finish as best as they could given their training load. I wound up meeting up with them at the hotel again later in the day, and found out that the woman’s knee had locked up with about 5-6 miles to go, but she managed to make it to the finish line with her husband’s help before the official course closing. Meeting good people like this is part of the great experience of running a marathon.
The race itself started with a fairly steady rain coming down. It was cool, and the rain felt good, but I suspected I was in for some trouble in the foot department given the puddles that were fast forming on the street. I set out at around a 7:30 pace, and managed to hold a pace just under this for the first 14 or so miles. By that point, however, my feet and clothes were drenched, and every step was like running on a wet rag. My decision to wear lightweight racing shoes was nullified by the amount of water sloshing around in them, and it felt like each foot weighed a full pound. Other than the steady rain, the first half of the race was fairly uneventful. I felt good, my legs and feet were holding up, and I was cruising along at the pace I wanted. The one worry I had was that my heart rate seemed slightly elevated. It hovered in the low to mid 170’s, which is a bit higher than I would have liked, and let me know that I would probably not be able to keep the pace for the full 26.2.
As I suspected, my pace began to slow steadily after the halfway point, and the big hill at mile 15 once again caused me some trouble. I was able to make it to the top and continue running, but my pace never fell below 8:00 min/mile again. I was ok with this, and fully expected it to happen, and thus I didn’t let it get me down. As with last year, the final 10 miles were a struggle to keep putting one soaked foot in front of the other. My crash was not as dramatic (my first 9:00min/mile split this year was mile 19, last year was mile 16 – you can compare my splits from the two years in the Sportracks graphs recorded by my Garmin Forerunner 205 below), and mentally I was doing fine, but my legs were shot. My legs clearly were my weak link, and I’ve realized that to sustain the 7:28 pace needed for Boston, I have to increase training mileage – there’s no no way around it. I need to improve my endurance (and probably lose a few pounds in the process).
In the last 5-6 miles, the sky miraculously began to clear and the sun started to beat down. I struggled through a few walk breaks, but forced myself to keep going, and managed to pull out an 8:36 for mile 25 (don’t know where that came from – purely mental at that point). I passed my wife and kids on the home stretch to the finish, and the burst of energy that provided carried me through the finish line with a final time of 3:36:12. All things considered, I was happy with the result, and it was a new marathon PR by about 7:00.
After finding my family and eating some Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream (one of the perks of a Vermont marathon!), I finally decided to strip off my shoes and survey the damage. Surprisingly, they didn’t hurt much during the race, but once I stopped moving, I knew I was in trouble. Sure enough, both feet were severely blistered, and one of my big toes had a blister that covered almost half of its surface (you can view a picture of my mangled right foot if you dare). Clearly, running 26.2 miles in soaked shoes is not a wise idea. Despite the sorry state of my feet, it could have been worse. In watching some of the runners come in after me, there were a number of guys with blood streaming down their shirts from their nipples (presumably due to chafing against a wet shirt). I actually forgot to use the Bodyglide on mine, but somehow managed to avoid this most painful and gruesome occurrence.
They say that every marathon is a learning experience, and this I know to be true. In running the 2009 VCM I learned what I have to do to be ready for a realistic BQ attempt. I need to put in the work, increase my mileage, and strengthen my legs. Long distance endurance is what I lack, and if I can improve this, then a BQ may be attainable. I also learned that better hydration and fueling make for a much easier post-marathon recovery. My wife commented that I seemed in much better shape at the end of the race this year (feet excluded), and I genuinely attribute this to taking in a lot of gel during the race. Finally, I learned that I am committed to running marathons. Unlike last year, when simply finishing the marathon was something of an endpoint, this race for me was just another step in a much longer journey. I’m already formulating a marathon plan for this Fall (Hartford, Manchester, or both???), and I can’t wait to get back on the road (once my feet will allow me!).
To finish, I’d like to emphasize that what I have come to believe more strongly than ever over the past few days is that completing a marathon is a triumph of human endurance and the human spirit, and this last realization has absolutely nothing to do with my own running of the race. After my race ended, I had the opportunity to sit on the boardwalk next to Lake Champlain as my kids played on the rocks and in the water. The spot I took was right at the final turn toward the finish line, and I was able to watch almost every runner come in who had a finish time from 5:00 to just over 6:00 hours. I felt obligated to cheer each and every one of them around that turn, and what I witnessed in that hour really affected me deeply. I saw people crying as they turned the bend, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. I saw an older gentleman, probably 75-80 years old, bent sideways in pain as he approached the finish. I saw children running the final leg with their parents (and one woman with her dog leading her in). I saw couples holding hands, supporting each other as they struggled to make it. And finally, I saw people smiling as they listened to the cheers of encouragement. Six hours on the road, and people were still smiling – to me, that’s simply amazing, and it made me want to get back on my sorry feet and run with them to the finish. Every one of these people is now and always will be a marathoner.