Monday, October 20, 2008

Bay State Marathon


I ran a 2:49:19 (PR) for 35th place overall at the Bay State Marathon in Lowell, MA on Sunday. The race served as the USATF New England Grand Prix Marathon Championships.

I have been fitter than I was yesterday, and I have run races that were--according to the calculators--of higher quality, but I've never run so complete a race and come so close to doing absolutely everything I was capable of in any race at any distance. I don't know that there is anything I could have done to find one more second out on that course. That was everything.

*****

It has been a long and winding road to here. Sub-2:50 has been unfinished business since the spring of 2004, when it should have been a given for me. I'll spare you the details but suffice it to say that running, like life, is hard and it will humble you at times. From late summer of 2004 until early summer 2006 I did very little running and no racing--and the running I did barely registered as fitness jogging and was certainly did not resemble training. May of 2006 was rock bottom for me as I ran 6.5 miles for the entire month. Then I made the personal decision to be a runner again.

June of 2006 was when I ramped my mileage as quickly as I could from zero to 50 miles per week and then figured I keep doing that for a few months to let it soak in. In November of 2006, after a few 200 mile months strung together, I ran a half marathon in 1:25:31. My slowest ever. Humbling, but a start.

In March of 2007 I ran a half marathon in 1:23:33, a two-minute improvement from the previous November.

In November of 2007 I figured I'd try my first marathon in two-and-a-half years. I ran a 2:55:05 (PR) at Hartford.

March of this year I ran a 1:20:35 half marathon, three minutes faster than at the same race a year prior. It was on. In April I had a set back at the Boston Marathon when I came down with the flu (badly) a month before the marathon. I ran a disappointing 3:03:57. No worries, my half told me I was almost back.

After this year's Boston I took a few weeks to recover, as much from the flu as from the marathon itself, then set my sights on Bay State. I decided now was the time to take the next step in training. I took the month of May to ramp my mileage to 70 mpw and decided to try and do that all summer. I actually expected to do it for a few weeks and have to back off because I'd be too tired or worn out or something--but I never did. I just kept getting stronger. Somehow, magically, I just fit it all in with the rest of my life. Training in the summer is always easier than in the winter--it's light out in the morning, there's a lot less laundry, etc.--but still it just all had to work out. If I had to leave early for work to drive to Maine for a meeting, I just got up extra early and got my run in. If I had to be in New York for work, I just took my running gear. On vacation? No worries I just took my running gear. I got it done. All summer long. The summer of mikey. I ran some races along the way and those told me I was making progress. In August and September I started doing the longer long runs and the monster MP runs. I put down 335 miles in August and another 322 in September. I ran a 30k race. I ran a half marathon. Both in the pouring rain. I was a few years older this time around and I wasn't responding exactly the same way I had in 2004, but I could feel a deep-down fitness there. It had been a long, hard summer, but I was really, really fit. I started to get scared because it had all gone so well.

Finally, on Sunday, October 19th 2008, at 8:30 in the morning, I stood shivering in a crowd of my people on French Street in Lowell, Massachusetts with the rarest of rare opportunities in this life. A do-over. My chance, again, at 2:50.

*****

At the gun I was just relieved to be running. It was so cold--in the upper 30's--and quite windy. I just told myself that by mile 4 I'd be warm and to hang in--but I wanted to make sure I didn't use the cold as an excuse to go out too fast. These grand prix races always have a fast start and we were rolling along pretty good, but not out of control. I'd positioned myself about 4 rows from the line at the start and had a good crowd of 50-60 people in front of me stretching out to a point at the front of the lead pack with the police cruisers and motorcycles leading them. I focused on staying relaxed and kept my arms in tight to conserve heat. I hit the mile in 6:23, a tad faster than I wanted, but not too bad and it felt like a jog.

At near mile 3 the half marathoners took a right turn onto the Rourke Bridge. It didn't thin the crowd much though since the half marathon start was about 75 yards behind the marathon start and very few of them had passed me by this point, but at least now you knew who was who. Here is where I caught up to a guy in long red basketball shorts, a cotton crew-neck shirt, and court shoes, breathing like it was a 5k. He dropped out just past mile 4 and I saw him again on the 2nd loop at mile 14 or so standing in front of a convenience store looking like he was waiting for a ride. Weird. Anyhoo, I hit 5 miles at 32:05 (6:25 pace) feeling relaxed and easy. I was happy with that since I figured I needed to average right around 32:30 per 5 miles. I was ahead of schedule but not so much I needed to worry about going out too fast.

Mile 5 is also where you hit the only significant hills on the course. There are two smallish hills in a row which actually make a nice break. Despite its reputation, Bay State is not pancake flat--it runs up and down both banks of the Merrimack River, making in New England flat, which means gently rolling with a few small hills. There are a couple hills at miles 4-5 that you hit again at miles 14-15 plus the bridges. The rest of the course is very gently rolling. By this point the pack had stretched out and the race was settling in. I'm always happy to get that first 5 miles of a marathon out of the way--the jitters were gone and I was warmed up and feeling good, still relaxed and full of energy. I took my first gu around mile 6 when I saw a water stop coming up. The water stops at Bay State are each supported by a different high school and are very festive, loud and well supported. I think the Mile 6-7 and 16-17 ish water stop was the one with the girls in hula skirts.

Just before mile 8 you see the Tyngsborough Bridge, which you cross twice. I was still clicking off sub-6:30 miles with ease and feeling good. You can also see the mile markers for the 2nd loop so you get a sense of what you'll be seeing when the dark parts of the race start to set in. The pedestrian lane of the Tyngsborough Bridge is made of steel plates and you kind of bounce if you hit one in the middle. It was loud and kind of fun running over it. The water below looked really, really cold.

There were a few guys around me that I was alternating leading and following. We were working together pretty good and everyone was pretty relaxed at this point. I could see the eventual women's winner, Christy Carrara, up ahead about 2 or 300 meters. We went through 10 miles in 1:04:30 making that last 5 miles in 32:25 (6:29 pace) and still feeling really comfortable. We were heading toward the Rourke Bridge where we'd cross over and head up to the Tyngsborough Bridge again. The road here has a nice wide shoulder and for the most part there are just trees on the right between you and the river here. It's a nice road to run on.

At the water stop just before the Rourke Bridge, just past 12 miles, I moved ahead to make sure I'd get a clear shot at some water and downed my 2nd gu. I got through the water stop unscathed but had put a little gap between me and the pack I had been with. I debated taking my foot off the gas to let them catch back up but I was feeling good and didn't want to back off. There were targets up ahead who'd gone out too fast now so I wasn't too worried about spending a lot of time in no-man's land. On the Rourke Bridge I saw the great and powerful Eric : ) who yelled my name--I almost missed him I was so laser focused on my race but I think I yelled a "hi" and gave a wave.

I went through half in 1:24:40. I couldn't have nailed it more perfectly if I'd been paced by a robot. I was starting to feel the first inkling of fatigue in my legs but it was just a hint of it. Nothing to worry about. My right hamstring was tightening, but not really hurting.The next 5 miles or so to the Tyngsborough bridge flew by. I was catching people every few minutes now. Every time I caught up to someone, I'd see another target a few hundred yards up ahead and just lock my stare on their back. The wind was almost at our backs here, hitting me on the back of my right shoulder coming off the river, and it was pretty easy to lock in on my pace and just motor along, despite the fact I was definitely feeling some fatigue now. I hit 15 miles in 1:36:46 or 32:16 (6:28-) for miles 11-15.

The 2nd trip over the Tyngsborough Bridge at mile 18 was not as fun as the first, but it was still fun. I passed a guy in a blue CMS top on the bridge. I was getting pretty close to Christy Carrara now and figured I'd pass her in a mile or so. I hit the 30k mark in just under 2 hours, making it my 2nd fastest 30k ever.

I took my last gu at about mile 19 just before another of the awesome water stops. I'm always relieved to get rid of that last gu. I feel like now I can stop thinking and planning, and just race. Again on the really nice part of the course, somewhat shielded from the wind, I naturally picked it up a bit. Around here I think someone told me I was in 47th place, but I'm not sure. I caught Christy around (I think) 20-21 miles. She actually gave me a couple words of encouragement--I tried to do likewise but think I only managed a grunt and a thumbs-up or something. I'm not sure--memory starts to get hazy here. I hit the 20 mile mark in 2:08:36 so 31:49 (6:22 pace) for those 5 miles, my fastest it would turn out.We were lapping people here, which I hadn't really expected in a marathon. It made it hard to pick out targets up ahead because some of them were going really slow and were clearly not at the 20+ mile mark. At just before mile 23 you pass the Rourke Bridge and head straight toward downtown Lowell. The crowds were good here and I was starting to really need it. As the road turned toward the northeast the wind also was now right in our faces and blowing hard. It was getting really, really hard now but I felt strangely confident. I just didn't see myself falling apart. I was hurting, and my hamstring was starting to really worry me, but I felt like I could hold it together. Around here I saw RA'er MarkFive and he gave a big cheer for me--it REALLY helped (THANK YOU MARKFIVE!)

Math skills were out the window at this point but I felt like I was still on target. I felt like my stride was choppy and labored and I was really forcing turnover, but when I looked up ahead at some of the guys I was catching, they didn't look that bad. I was hurting badly but I figured they were hurting worse. So I figured if I was catching them I must look pretty good too. That's what I told myself anyway. The wind was pretty brutal.

I finally, mercifully, found mile 25 just before the big bend in the road at Umass Lowell. I hit it in 2:41:34 or 32:57 (6:36 pace) for miles 21-25, my slowest but also almost all into the teeth of that northeast wind. I felt like if I could just make that turn away from the wind, I'd be okay. I had a little over 8 minutes to run 1.2 miles and despite the fact I could not have calculated what pace that was if you put a gun to my head, it just felt like it was doable. I just put my head down and fought my body. At the one mile to go mark I had 7 minutes to make it. I felt 85% confident but you never know. My body was rapidly deteriorating.

When I could see the Aken Bridge just ahead and the ballpark on the other side of the river I started to actually kick, something I'm fairly sure I've never done in a marathon. I came across the bridge and the crowds got thick and loud. I so needed it. Half way around the outside of the stadium then 3/4 around the warning track I kept telling myself. That was it. I entered the stadium on the left field line and saw the 26 mile mark, glanced at my watch and saw it turn to 2:48 and kicked for my life. I turned left onto the warning track for that clockwise lap to the first base side. I heard Hudson screaming my name from the infield (he'd finished in 2:34 for 5th place) he could tell it was close. I abandoned all control and let the animal take over. At the final turn on the first base side I saw the clock and it still read 2:49:07 and I knew I'd done it. I charged for the line, heard my wife and kids screaming somewhere from my left and smashed through the imaginary plate glass window covering the finish line--I could have sworn I heard a crash when I went through.

I had done it.

After all that, it turns out all it took was the summer of mikey; just a few months of 70+ miles per week...oh and of course the other 8 years and probably 18,000 miles that came before it.

What's most satisfying about this result, though, is that I am not, primarily, a runner. I'm a dad and a husband and the sole breadwinner for a family of six. I'm an employee, a mentor, a trusted business adviser. I am an uncle, a brother and a son. I'm a neighbor, a friend and an interest leader. I'm a chauffer and a part-time third base coach. A homeowner and a laborer. I am all those things to all of those people. And to myself I am all of those things AND I'm a 2:49 marathoner. And in a way that I can't explain to you unless you've run several thousand miles in my shoes, that 2:49 makes all those other things just a little more precious.