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Race Report: Manchester City Marathon 2009

When I first signed up to run both the Hartford and Manchester City Marathons this Fall, I was under the mistaken impression that there would be four weeks between them. From past marathon experience, I knew that it takes me about that much time to fully recover from the 26.2 mile race effort, and even that was pushing it. It was with some surprise then, that I discovered after Hartford that the actual time between the races was only three weeks. With the realization that I was looking at a short recovery came a decision on my part to experiment in Manchester with the Galloway run/walk method. I didn’t think my legs would survive the Manchester hills if I tried to run straight through, but I was determined to run the race since it would be passing through the campus that I work at, and some of my students would be working the water stations at miles 19 and 21. The ability to run a marathon on my home turf was just too appealing to turn down. So I slogged through some long runs in the rain, and yes, even some snow, and found myself heading down to Manchester yesterday morning with little idea of what to expect.

Besides my familiarity with the course (I had also run the Manchester half-marathon twice, with a PR of 1:29:47 in 2008), I was also looking forward to meeting up with some of my local and on-line running friends. Unlike Hartford, where I met nobody that I really knew, Manchester would provide an opportunity to meet up with some new friends I had made through the Run-Net community (e.g., on Twitter, Dailymile, and this blog). Ultimately, the personal connections I had with this race made it the most enjoyable that I have run, despite the fact that I failed to meet my goal of a sub-3:30 time.

In addition to the Galloway run/walk method, I also was planning to try out a different fueling/hydration strategy. I ate a decent size breakfast of a bagel with cream cheese, a Muscle Milk shake, orange juice, and coffee about 3 hours before start time, and drank water until just about two hours before the start (I had hydrated immensely the day before and even once during the night). I then went without any food or water for the next 2 hours to prevent any kind of sugar rush that might spike my insulin and cause my blood sugar to crash early in the race (I’m not a nutritionist by any means, but I’m up for experimenting on myself so I figured what the heck). The purpose of avoiding water was to make sure my bladder was clear, thus helping to avoid any unwanted pit stops – I slugged back about 16 oz on my way to the start line with less than 10 minutes to go, and this worked out great since the water seems to have been put into use before it ever reached my bladder. As far as fueling, the plan was to go water only for about 8-10 miles, then start taking Gatorade at a few aid stations, as well as the Carb-Boom gel/water mixture that I had mixed into a disposable “gel flask” (really a travel shampoo bottle) I bought at Target (worked great!). The fueling plan seemed to work out well as I was mentally sharp the whole way (which is unlike Hartford, where I can still barely remember the second half of the race).

As I mentioned above, one of the things I was looking forward to for this race was meeting up with some other runners I had met on-line. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would manage this, but sure enough, after emerging from a hotel lobby I had been using to keep warm before the race, two guys approached me as I headed toward the start area. Turns out they were @IronManLongRunr and @luau from Twitter, and we had a nice conversation about the race to come. It wouldn’t be the last I’d see of them, as @luau and I traded places repeatedly for about the first 16 miles of the race (he ran it in Vibram Fivefinger KSO’s and finished in under 4 hrs!), and @IronManLongRunr and I got to chat and recover for a good while after the race. We all lined up near the front of the pack at the start (it’s still a relatively small marathon), I chatted briefly with the 3:30 pacer (Keith S.) who belongs to my local running club (which I have woefully neglected this year due to parenting commitments at the time of the weekly track workout), and with the gun went off at a pretty good clip.

My strategy was to try to run a low 7:00 pace and intersperse walk breaks at water stops and hilltops as needed in the first half, and then incorporate walk breaks after each mile in the second half. My enthusiasm once again got the better of me, and I ran straight through the first 4 miles at about a 7:10 pace (too fast!), and didn’t take my first break until the hilltop water stop at mile 5. Mile 6 was downhill, and I did a sub-7 mile into a short section on a trail through Livingston Park. As we emerged from the trail, we hit the park’s parking lot (see photo below), and I saw my students set up with a camera filming the runners as they passed. We had been planning a research project to tally foot-strikes for a few weeks, and it gave me a boost to see that they were out there early collecting the necessary footage (you’ll probably hear more about this on Runblogger in the coming weeks).

Picture of me passing through Livingston Park taken by @PeteinNH.

I think I took my first gel shot around mile 8, and @luau and I continued to leafrog one another straight through to the halfway point. I finished the first half in 1:36:08, which was faster than I ran the first half in Hartford, but the hills were already taking their toll, and I knew that the second half was going to be really hard. As we crossed the bridge over the Merrimack river, we entered the section of the course that I know extremely well, and every coming hill seemed to be taunting me from the opposite bank. Walk breaks became more frequent, and my traditional meeting with “the wall” came upon me shortly after crossing the Merrimack. Strangely, the wall was different this time – it wasn’t so much mental as it was physical. In Hartford, with the wall came a mental breakdown of monumental proportions, and at one point I had considered dropping out of the race (I didn’t, thankfully). In Manchester, I stayed alert and focused, but was aware that my legs were taking a vicious beating on the hills on short rest from Hartford, and that if I didn’t ease off I’d be in deep trouble, so ease up I did.  Below are my splits where you can see my steady decline:

I continued walking as needed, and at most rest stops took two cups of water, with Gatorade mixed in from time to time. Hydration was going well, and I never got the “sugar nausea” that has plagued me late in other races (I think avoiding sugar early on as suggested by @calebmasland helped a lot with this). My gels were going down well, as was the Gatorade, and I think this helped me to keep my blood sugar up. At the 18 mile marker, we hit a 0.75 mile uphill rise (see elevation profile below this paragraph), and I (and just about everyone around me it seemed) threw in the towel and walked most of it, resulting in a 10:38 split for mile 19. Amazingly the longish walk reinfused some energy into my legs, and I broke through the wall at the top of the hill and started to run again. At mile 19 we hit the first water stop that was staffed by students/XC runners from my college. Their enthusiasm was fantastic, and one of the women’s team runners who is currently taking my class caught up with me a bit after the stop and ran with me for awhile. I’m fortunate to teach a great group of students, and it was incredible having a running partner that I knew for at least a short stretch. The one thing I clearly remember her saying was something along the lines of “You’re a strange professor – you teach us all week, then just decide to run a marathon on the weekend.” Given that she’s a XC runner, I took it as a complement since she clearly knows why I do what I do. As we passed through my campus, I noticed the course had been re-routed a bit, and I ran by my research students again around mile 19.5. They had a huge cup of ice water waiting for me (I though they said it was vodka at first!), which was much needed at that point (the water, most definitely not the vodka).

I continued on as the 3:25 pacer caught up with me, and thought maybe I’d have enough left to still grab my sub-3:30 time goal. Mile 20 actually turned out to be just a tad over 8 minutes, which I’m proud of given how bad I’d felt just a mile before. I’m not sure if it was the walk break up the hill or the boost I got from running through campus, but I was able to put in about three miles of running after mile 19 with only water stop breaks built in. At mile 21 I passed the second student-staffed water stop, grabbed a Gatorade from another of my research students, and soldiered on. Around mile 23.5 I passed by the house of another Twitter acquaintance, @ernestoburden, and said a quick hi before heading down for the final river crossing.

It was at mile 24 that things began to really crumble. My legs were twitching strangely, and the slightest strange move brought me to the verge of massive cramping. I could feel cramps waiting in muscles that had never spoken up before, mostly my adductors and hip flexors, and at one point I though I might try to stop and stretch a bit (bad idea – the moment I tried to stretch I could feel the muscles ball up, so I scrapped that idea and plodded onward). There were lots of people doing the same as me at that point, and I felt no shame in running 10+ minute miles for the final 2. I reserved just enough energy to run the final stretch toward the finish-line, and was excited to see my neighbors standing next to it cheering me in (they had run the half).

My first though upon finishing was to head for the medical tent since I feared the cramps would kick in the moment I stopped. I knew I had to eat something first, so I grabbed a banana, only to find that the act of chewing was making my jaw muscles cramp. It was an odd feeling, and a bit scary (can you get lock-jaw from running???). It was at that point that I ran into Kevin P. from Dailymile, and we talked for a bit before I excused myself for fear of either cramping like mad or passing out in front of him. I needed to lie down, and I preferred to do so in view of either the medical or massage tent since my family couldn’t be there to meet me. I grabbed a Muscle Milk, ran into Matt T. from Dailymile very briefly, found a plot of grass next to the massage tent, and laid flat on my back for a good 5-10 minutes. The brief rest allowed my head to clear, and I managed to avoid the cramping that I had so feared. After rising from the dead, I spotted @IronManLongRunr walking by, and he sat down and chatted with me for a good long while. It’s amazing how much in common runner’s share, and though I’d never met him in person before, it was clear that we had a lot of common interests (extending to our shared background in biomechanics!). We saw @luau heading out while we were sitting there, and he told us that his quads locked up around mile 20, but he still finished in under 4 hours in his Vibram Fivefingers – a very impressive time if you ask me.

So it’s about time I put a stop to this rambling race report, but I have to say that this one was more about the people that surround me than it was about the race itself or my finishing time. I met up with some great people along the way, some who I know well, other’s whom I’d never met before. What we all share though, is that we’re runners, and we can understand each other and to some extent know each other on that level. Meeting friends from Twitter and Dailymile made the Run-Net community more real to me, and reinforced what an amazing thing the internet is. Far be it from distancing us from reality, it has actually allowed me to develop friendships with people whom I would never have otherwise known, and I guess that’s what keeps me writing posts like this. We’re all out there supporting each other as we do what we do, and for me, that’s what makes this sport so enjoyable. Now I just need to find out who I can catch up with at Disney in January!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

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