Sunday, January 11, 2015

Potomac River Run Marathon - November 2014

Potomac River Run Marathon -
Carderock, MD - November 2014
Like Augustana, I think I'll go to Boston!
After bad luck with my last two marathons, I decided to take one more shot at my dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon (which I had been trying to do since 2006) this fall.  To qualify, I would need to run at least 3:10, which is about 7:15/mile.  I signed up for the Potomac River Run Marathon, a small race which begins in Carderock, MD and is run entirely on the C&O Canal Towpath - a dirt/gravel/rock trail that runs all the way from Georgetown to Cumberland, MD.  It would be my 9th marathon. 

My training had gone extremely well the past two years, and I really felt like I was prepared to qualify each time.  But I caught a nasty cold the week before the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon, and ended up running a 3:15.  Then I caught another cold the week before the 2013 Philadelphia Marathon, AND the weather ended up being too warm and humid.  D'oh! I ran a 3:34 there, although I basically quit and just walked the final 3 miles. 
I knew I was in great shape each of the last 2 years, but all I needed was a little bit of good (or at least not bad) luck on the actual race day.  After Philly 2013, I honestly didn't know if I ever wanted to run another marathon.  They can be SOOOO FRUSTRATING! You train for so long - I followed 18 week training plans each time - and then everything depends on one day.  And if it ends up being too warm, or you get sick, then everything is wasted.  Too much depends on factors beyond your control.  The marathon also takes a long time to recover from and can limit other racing you might want to do.

I approached this marathon very casually and relaxed - at least mentally - compared to my previous two. I never even really admitted to myself that I was going to run it for sure until the day before the race. Most of my friends and family actually had no idea that I was even running a marathon.  Something my parents said to me the night before the 2013 Philadelphia Marathon really stuck with me.  I had caught a cold for the 2nd year in a row before a marathon and was pretty frustrated.  They basically said that maybe I need to "sneak up on the marathon."  While this might sound silly, it probably actually was exactly what I needed to do.  I had gotten so mentally worked up and put so much pressure on myself leading up to the previous two races, that I'm sure it contributed to me getting sick and not running well.  Maybe if I still did all the training, but then just showed up and ran without much fanfare, I would be better off.
I had a good talk with my friend, Scott, a couple weeks before this race too.  He was one of the few people who actually figured out that I was signed up for a marathon, even though I wouldn't actually admit I was running it yet.  I told him that I might still change my mind and run the half instead.  He basically told me to stop being crazy.  "It's all in your head. You've done all the training.  Don't stress yourself out. You are fit, you are ready. Just run. If you make it you make it, and if you don't you don't."  The last part of that really stuck with me.  "If you make it you make it, and if you don't you don't."  Yes, all I needed to do was just go out and run my best race!  So what if I didn't qualify for Boston?  The sun would keep rising in the east and setting in the west.  There would still be traffic in Fairfax County.  The media would keep covering the Kardashian family.  Life would go on. 
The past couple years, I was so afraid to fail that I was just mentally defeating myself before the races even began.  But this time - though I obviously wanted to qualify - I really adopted the mental approach of having a goal of just running my best race.  And not quitting like last year, no matter what.  And if my best was a 3:05, it was a 3:05.  And if my best was a 3:12, it was a 3:12.  But either way, I would run my best. It was very freeing and relaxing to approach the race this way.
So, mentally, I approached this race much differently.  But physically, I really didn't do much different than the previous two years.  I still followed the Pete Pfitzinger 18 week, up to 55 miles/week training plan from his book, Advanced Marathoning.  The plan had gotten me in fantastic shape each of the last two years, so why change now? 
Heading to the start line

I was very grateful to learn about this book from my friend, Tyler.  I stumbled across his running blog a couple years ago, and ended up meeting him at a race in North Carolina.  Before I met Tyler in 2012, I was already a pretty strong runner in everthing from 5k to half marathon.  But I honestly didn't know what I was doing when it came to the marathon.  I had run 6 marathons, but none faster than 3:34.  And my most recent one in 2011 had been a 3:55 disaster.  This seemed way off, given that when I entered my race times at almost every other distance into McMillan's Calculator, my marathon time usually projected out to the high 2s or low 3s.  My marathons clearly should have been much faster.  I learned a lot and got inspired from reading Tyler's blog and talking to him.  And that summer when I read the Advanced Marathoning book he recommended, everything finally clicked. It was finally time to get serious about marathon training!

So, my training was basically the same.  The only thing I did differently was pushed it a little harder on my long runs.  I actually ran the first long run of my 2014 training plan - a 12 miler - with Tyler and a couple other runners back in July.  We ran down in North Carolina the day after a race we had all done the day before.  My legs were still a little tired from the race and it was pretty hot and humid.  But we still ran hard and got in a great workout.  After this run I realized that I really needed to push my long runs harder if I was going to qualify for Boston.  The Pfitzinger plan recommends you run your long runs at 74% to 84% of your maximum heart rate, or a pace of 10 to 20% slower than your goal marathon pace.  Last year, I stuck to that, but the problem was that I usually stuck to the LOW end of it.  On many long runs, even though my pace was ok, my heart rate was basically at recovery rate the entire time.  So, this year I pushed it harder on my long runs, and got my heart rate up into the 150s more, which is closer to what it would be when I was actually racing the marathon.  I also focused on running hard at the end of my long runs to get used to running fast on tired legs. I would try to finish each long run with 2 or 3 marathon pace miles.  Leading up to the race this year, I had completed some really solid long runs.
The only other thing I did differently this year was focus on getting more rest and relaxing in the week or two leading up to the race, so as to avoid getting sick again.  I went to bed early each night no matter what, and didn't stress out as much about work and other stuff.  I even took a day off from work the week before the race to catch up on some rest.  I really felt good with all the extra rest. I should try going to bed early more often!
It worked, and finally, I arrived to a marathon start line in awesome shape, and not sick! Hooray! But what about the weather?  The weather, as it turned out, could not have been better!  It was low to mid 30s at the start of the race, and would only rise up to the high 30s or low 40s, even by the end.  There was low humidity, virtually no wind, and a cloud cover.  It was a marathoner's dream! Perfect weather! After running 3 previous marathons (Buffalo 2006, Lehigh Valley 2011, and Philly 2013)  in "too-hot" weather, I deserved it!
I'm glad I picked this course to run, too.  The C&O Canal Towpath is a dirt/rock trail, which might not sound very fast to most people.  But, for me, it was perfect because I had run almost every single one of my long runs on this trail for the past 4 years.  I had run here literally hundreds of times.  I knew exactly where every hill was, where every turn was, where every mile marker was, where every rock was.  I had raced three half-marathons and two 20ks on this trail.  For me, a race on this trail was basically a "home meet."  I knew that they also held a marathon on the trail every November and May, but had never seriously considered running it because it seemed "too small."  But, in the spirit of being more relaxed this time around, I thought, 'Why not just run a small, low-key marathon, on a trail that you run on all the time?'  It definitely helped.  I felt relaxed the whole race, and honestly didn't even feel like I was in a race much of the time. It felt like I was just out on another Sunday morning training run. 
So, I was not worried about the rocky running surface.  But what about hills?  The course is an out-and-back, which starts at Carderock Recreation Area in Maryland and slopes gradually downhill as you run towards DC, and (obviously) gradually uphill on the way back.  There is a marathon and a half-marathon.  So, if you are running the marathon, you just run the course twice - out and back, and then out and back again.  The only noticeable hills are at the canal locks, and even those are short.  The biggest hill - which is basically a series of 3 smaller, nearly consecutive hills - would come right around mile markers 12 and 25, just as you run under the I-495 overpass. The one at mile 25 would be especially challenging.  If I could conquer that hill in one piece and anywhere near my time goal, I knew I should be able to make it, as the final mile was almost entirely flat.
My wife and I got to the race only about an hour before it started.  Much better than the big marathons where you have to get there super-early and then stand on the start line, waiting forever.  With a smaller marathon like this, you don't have to worry about shuttles or bag checks.  You can just put stuff in your car and then walk back to it after the race because you can actually park right near the start line. There are also much shorter lines for bathrooms. Since this was a local race for me, it was also nice to not have to travel anywhere and be able to sleep in my own bed the night before. 
I put on my racing shoes to begin my warm-up.  I decided to wear my Adidas Adizero Adios shoes for this race.  I had worn them in every race distance from 5k to half-marathon, so I was pretty comfortable with them and they were broken in well.  They are built more for half-marathons and marathons, as they are a little heavier and sturdier than the flats you usually see in 5ks.  But the last few marathon world records were actually set wearing them (by people who were not me).  I had never worn those shoes in a marathon before, so it was a little bit of a gamble - but I figured it would be fine. 
Pete Pfitzinger writes about wearing racing flats in marathons in Advanced Marathoning.  He reccommends only doing it if you are planning on running under 2:40, weigh less than 160 pounds, have a history of being relatively injury free, and have good form.  I was not planning on breaking 2:40.  And at 165 lbs, I was slightly over the recommended weight.  But I do have good form and consequently haven't had too many injuries.  I have read several different articles which suggest several different % amounts of an advantage that racing flats give you.  But even a 1% advantage could be huge in a race as long as a marathon, and would translate into an easier road to my Boston Marathon qualification.  So, I decided to go for it! Just in case, I gave my wife my regular shoes to hang on to in case it was really bad and I needed to switch out during the race.  I did a very light warm-up before heading over to the start line.
Ready to run!
Even though it was perfect marathon weather, I still felt really cold as I was warming up!  This was only mid-November, so my body hadn't acclimated to tempeartures in the low 30s yet. I was wearing shorts no matter what, but I decided that I would start with a long sleeve shirt over my short sleeve race shirt, and just toss it a few miles into the race once I warmed up.  However, once I got to the start line, I didn't really feel that cold, so I gave my long sleeve shirt to my wife.  I did keep my gloves and hat though.  The start of the race is actually just off the main trail, and is sheltered pretty well by trees.  You make a right turn onto the trail about 20 feet after the start, which might sound strange.  But it actually is a smart setup because it keeps the race start/finish staging area off the main trail so it doesn't block other trail users - since it is not a closed course.  I felt good standing on the start line, but once I started running and made the turn onto the main trail, I was more exposed to the cold air and actually felt a little chilly at first. Oh well, I would just have to Let it Go.  The cold never bothered me anyway.  I felt fine soon enough though. I ended up tossing my hat around mile 5, and my gloves around mile 8. 
 Finally, after 18 weeks of training, the race began! One runner blasted off the start line and went way ahead of me and another guy was running just slightly ahead of me. I didn't really care about the competition in this race for several reasons. One reason is that my only goal was a time goal of breaking 3:10. I didn't care whether I finished first or last, as long as I broke 3:10 (although I would take first if I had the choice).

And we're off! 0.1 down, 26.1 to go.
Another reason is that I was literally not racing against all the people I was running with. The Potomac River Run Marathon is interesting because it is actually four races in one.  There is an 8 am heat and a 9 am heat of the race. I signed up for the 8 am heat a few months back, just to make sure I got the maximum amount of cold weather to run in. It ended up not mattering much, as the temperatures were cold all day and never even climbed out of the 30s, even for the 9 am starters.  In addition to two heats of the race, there are also two races in each heat - a marathon and a half marathon.  So, for all I knew, anyone ahead of me might just be running the half, meaning that I was not technically racing them. But even if not, I really didn't care who I beat or who beat me. 

I ran a solid 7:12 first mile. Right on pace! I wanted to average a 7:10 pace overall. One of the worst mistakes you can make in a marathon is running too fast too early, especially in the first mile. When I ran the Tallahassee Marathon in 2006, I got way too caught up in the excitement of the race and actually ran a 6:35 first mile. Needless to say, it didn't turn out well.  Marathons are so much different than other race distances.  5ks, for example, are about aggression and fearlessness, whereas the marathon is about patience and faith.  Being patient, holding back and running a reasonable pace, even when you feel you can do more. And having faith in your training, and that you can maintain your pace, and that you don't need to try to bank a bunch of time early in the race.
I stayed incredibly consistent over miles 2 through 6, as they were all between 7:05and 7:07 - within 2 seconds of each other!  That pace had really been locked into my brain during 18 weeks of training. This part of the course had a pleasant, gradual downhill grade. All downhill and flat.  Around mile 4, I passed the runner who had been just ahead of me. It turned out that he and the guy who blasted off from the start were both half marathoners. I was winning the marathon, although I didn't know it yet.
I was pleased with my pace, but also with my heart rate, which stayed in the mid 150s all the way to the turn around at the 6.55 mile mark. When I did the Philadelphia Marathon last year, my heart rate shot up into the 160s way earlier, and I was steadily into the 170s after the first half. By miles 20 and 21, I was into the 180s, and essentially finished.  So, I was off to a much better start this time.
I reached the turnaround point at mile 6.55, and started ascending back towards the start - where I would just turn around and do it again. My heart rate stayed in the very low 160s all the way back up, which was awesome! My body was definitely enjoying the cold temperatures and also not being sick. A little after mile 10, another half-marathoner - who was really sweaty and working very hard - passed me. He looked a little too proud of himself for passing me and I wanted to say, "Hey, nice job buddy...except that I am running twice as far as you, and I'm barely even trying right now, and if I wanted to I could run way faster and smoke you." But that, of course, would make me an insane person. So, I did not, and instead continued to run my race.
My fueling was going well, too. During a marathon, you should aim to consume 20-28 oz of fluid and 30-60 grams of carbs per hour. I wore my fuel belt, which was filled with 28 oz of Accelerate.  Accelerade is kind of like Gatorade, but with protein. It helps reduce muscle damage during workouts, speeds recovery, and increases endurance in workouts. I also carried a 16 oz bottle of Accelerade with me at the start of the race. I was finished with that bottle around mile 4, tossed it, and then used my Fuel Belt. They had water/Gatorade stops along the course too, but I think Accelerade is better, and I was also just used to it from all my training runs. 
My wife was also involved in my fueling plan for the race.  After the start, she would go down to a white house along the canal towpath, right around mile 2. On the way back, which would be mile 11- I would toss my Fuel Belt to her and grab another 16 oz bottle to carry. Then I would drink from that bottle for the 2 miles to the turnaround and the 2 miles back, which would give her time to fill the bottles on my Fuel Belt with more Accelerade.  When I passed by her again at mile 15, I could toss the bottle I was carrying and put my re-filled Fuel Belt back on, grab one more small 12 oz bottle from her, and then I would be all set with fuel for the rest of the race.
There were only two small problems with my plan. One problem was that there actually are multiple white houses along the canal towpath. Who knew?! Michelle stopped at one that was more around mile 1.5 instead of mile 2. So, she wasn't exactly where I expected, but close enough that it really wasn't a big deal. After I saw her the first time, she walked a little further down the trail to the one I was thinking of. 
I reached the half-marathon turnaround point in 1:33 - perfect! And even better, my heart rate was still in the low 160s and I had a nice 6.55 mile downhill and flat stretch ahead of me.  After the turnaround, I also noticed that the only 2 runners ahead of me had gone to the finish line, meaning that they were half marathoners, and I was indeed winning the full marathon! 
The second problem with my fueling strategy happened around mile 15. Michelle had found the other white house and was waiting with my Fuel Belt and additional bottle. Before the race, I thought about just stopping and putting on the belt and getting everything all set, rather than trying to rush and do it all on the run. I had already mentally calculated in that I would lose some time during this exchange anyway, so I wasn't too worried about it. The few seconds I would lose would be far better than the many minutes I would lose if I ran out of carbs and depleted my glycogen stores, or got dehydrated.
But I thought I would be fine, so I ended up trying to grab everything on the run. I got the belt first and wrapped it around my waist, and then took the additional 12 oz bottle from Michelle. The problem was that my shirt got stuck in between the velcro on the belt, and therefore the velcro didn't stick and the belt fell to the ground and the bottles fell out of it. Oh no! I ditched the 12 oz bottle, so I could focus on picking up the belt. I picked it up, and also managed to grab 3 of the 4 Fuel Belt bottles. I kept running and finally got the belt fastened and stuck the 3 bottles back in the belt as I ran.  I should have just stopped and got everything secured to begin with instead of trying to rush it!
This was unfortunate, but I actually stayed calm and didn't really worry about it. I was still feeling great. And I had 3 GU gel packs in the belt too. So, I had enough calories and carbs to get me through the remaining 11 miles. And I could use the actual race water stations to make sure I got enough fluids as well. Plus I was still running downhill for the next 4.5 miles. Nothing to worry about!  I still ended up running a 7:33 during that crazy mile - the 16th. So, even after all that, I only really lost about 15 seconds off my pace. No big deal.  And I ran a 7:08 17th mile, so I got right back on pace easily. 
I actually stayed really relaxed throughout this entire race. Like I said earlier, I didn't even feel like I was running a race for most of it. It just felt like another training run. I had two songs stuck in my head at various points of the race. One was I've Got All the Time in the World by Bahamas, which was from a phone commercial that was on TV all the time.  The other song was Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce.  The 1970s song was also in the X-Men movie, which I saw with my Dad back in June. There is a cool scene in the movie with Quicksilver, where they show time from his perspective. Everything slows down and allows him to cause all kinds of mischief.  Both songs are pretty easygoing and helped me stay relaxed and not panic throughout the race.   
I didn't wear an i-Pod during this race, although I thought about it.  I wear an i-Pod on most of my training runs, but rarely during races.  During training, I did most of my long runs on Sunday morning. I would frequently use the radio on my i-Pod to go to 94.7 and listen to some of their Acoustic Sunrise, which goes from 8 am-11 am, while I  was running on Sunday mornings.  Nice, relaxing music to run to. Since this race started at 8, I actually thought about wearing the i-Pod and just listening to Acoustic Sunrise the entire race, as it would last about as long as the race. I decided against it, as I wanted to stay focused on the task at hand.
I continued downhill, all the way to the final turnaround point at mile 19.65.  Only about 10 kilometers to the finish! And my heart rate was still only in the high 160s. This was amazing! I was in awesome shape, and finally getting the chance to show it in a marathon.  But this is where patience comes into the marathon. I knew better than to get too excited. I had been on pace to qualify for Boston in 2012 and 2013 up until about the 22nd or 23rd miles. Even though there was only 10k to go, this is the point where a majority of people's marathons tend to blow up as they hit the wall.  Disaster can strike at any time, and in many different ways.
Once I hit mile 20, I realized that I had several minutes banked and was in great shape time-wise.  I decided to play it conservative for a while and slow down into the 7:20s to conserve energy and ensure I reached the finish line in my goal time. It was tough to hold back at this point. I felt great. My heart rate was still low, and I could clearly do more and run a faster time.  But my goal was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It didn't matter whether I ran a 3:08 or a 3:05, my goal was to qualify. I had to keep telling myself this over the final 10k - to stay calm and hold back until maybe there was only a mile to go.
The strategy worked great! Even though I was running uphill, and over 20 miles into the race, my heart rate stayed in the high 160s and low 170s. I had plenty of room to play with, effort-wise. At this point, I could comfortably climb up into the higher 170s and even low 180s, slowly accumulate lactic acid, and still easily make it to the finish line - and in a speedy time to boot. Hold back! Hold back! All you are trying to do is qualify!
Heading into the 25th mile, which would be the toughest of the course, I was still feeling good, with heart rate in the low 170s.  There are several small hills along the 25th mile.  And the biggest hill on the course (which is actually a series of 3 hills) was just after the 25 mile marker.  I knew that once I reached the top of that hill, the final mile was flat and fast.  If I got to the top of that hill in good shape and on pace, nothing could stop me!
I actually felt energized as I approached the hill; ready to conquer this final challenge. I just focused on driving my arms to help me to the top.  I had run up this hill literally hundreds of times in training runs, and was not afraid.  I was tired when I reached the top, but also relieved because I knew that I could recover quickly on flat ground and that I only had 1 mile to go.  And with my heart rate still in the low 170s, I had all the energy in the world.  With only 1 mile to go, it was finally time for me to apply the Hulk Hogan leg drop to the marathon!
I really took off on the final mile.  Nothing could stop me now! This was the first point of the race when I truly knew I would make it and qualify for Boston. I knew I would make it; it was only a matter of how fast.  I was really tearing up the trail, blazing by runners in the 9 am heat along the way. I actually ended up running a 6:53 26th mile, which was my fastest split of the entire race, and my only sub-7 minute mile of the day!!  With about a third of a mile to go, I could see the finish line!  I heard my wife cheering LOUDLY for me, and finally saw her there with our dog, Dante, waving frantically.  She was super excited for me to finally qualify for the Boston Marathon! Once I passed the 26 mile mark, I dropped the hammer for the final 0.2, averaging a 5:25/mile pace to the finish. I finished 1st place overall in the 8 am heat of the marathon out of 76 runners in 3:07:59, and finally qualified for the Boston Marathon!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Potomac River Run Marathon, 2014 Race Results) 
I felt great coming through the finish line; like I could have just kept going all the way to 30 miles and it would have been no big deal.  I definitely could have easily knocked a few minutes off my race time if I were so inclined and hadn't run so conservatively. Here were my mile splits from the race:
1- 7:12 (148 average heart rate)
2- 7:06 (154)
3- 7:07 (154)
4- 7:07 (155)
5- 7:07 (156)
6- 7:05 (158)
7- 7:10 (160)
8- 7:03 (160)
9- 7:09 (160)
10- 7:08 (160)
11- 7:09 (160)
12- 7:15 (163)
13- 7:12 (162)
14- 7:16 (162)
15- 7:08 (161)
16- 7:33 (166)
17- 7:08 (165)
18- 7:13 (167)
19- 7:16 (167)
20- 7:23 (168)
21- 7:17 (168)
22- 7:18 (170)
23- 7:29 (170)
24- 7:26 (171)
25- 7:26 (173)
26- 6:53 (178)
Final 0.2- 5:25 pace (182)
TOTAL: 26.2 miles, 3:07:59, 7:10/mile pace, 164 average HR
I never even looked at my watch during the final mile.  I didn't care what my time was, I just wanted to run that last stretch as fast as I possibly could.  I also wanted to give myself as much  of a buffer for qualifying as possible.  One thing that not everyone knows about the Boston Marathon is that, as of a couple years ago, meeting your qualifying time doesn't mean that you automatically are accepted.  They accept runners based on how much you beat your qualifying time by.  For example, to actually be accepted into the 2015 race, you needed to beat your qualifying time by 1:02.
One other cool thing about this marathon was that I won it...sort of.  Six runners in the 9 am heat actually beat my time. But I was the winner of the 8 am heat of the marathon.  And my prize was a Timex GPS watch. Awesome! I already have a GPS watch, so I thought about selling it, as I saw it listed on Amazon for about $100.  But I knew I could never do that.  Imagine the conversation, and someone asking, "Hey, where did you get that watch from?"  "Oh, this?  I got it when I qualified for the Boston Marathon.  Oh yeah, and I won the marathon too."  Too good to pass up!
Watch me win this race
So, I finally did it!  I qualified for the Boston Marathon! It felt amazing to finally accomplish my dream after pursuing it relentlessly for the past 8 years.  What a relief!
Because the registration for the Boston Marathon is in September, the 2015 Boston Marathon was already full.  So, I technichally qualified for the April 2016 race, for which I will register in September 2015.  Some people asked if I was annoyed that I couldn't run the 2015 race, and would have to wait a year and a half to run Boston.  It doesn't bother me at all.  I would wait 100 years!  And it's actually kind of nice because it gives me some long term motivation to stay in shape.  I also like it because now I can focus on other race distances that I enjoy more - like the 5k - with no marathon looming ahead in 2015.  Then I can just start my marathon training through the winter of 2015-16 and be ready to run in Boston on Patriot's Day - April 18, 2016!  I don't care what my time is in the Boston Marathon.  I will high five every fan on the course, take pictures, stop to hug my family and friends along the way, stop and drink a Sam Adams 26.2 beer (if anyone is handing them out), and just fully enjoy the experience. 

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