Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Chicago Marathon

On my way home from the Chicago Marathon I read race recaps in the Chicago Sun-Times. A woman who lost her iPod at mile 6 was quoted as saying, “I was inside my own head the rest of the way—it wasn’t a nice place to be.” Without judging this woman, I think she misunderstands the marathon. In a crowded corral one of the principal pre-race challenges is keeping other people out of your head—something you have to do it if you want to run your race. On Sunday morning, just before the gun went off, I was trying to do this in and really struggling. I don’t think I had really found that center when the race began.

Many people say if you don’t feel like you’re going too slow in the first miles of the marathon, you’re going too fast. Well, the first several miles of Chicago I felt like I was running way too fast. Nothing was clicking—my mind and body weren’t in sync (see above). Mile 1 went by in 7:13, a slow start, but while my brain was saying, it’s alright, you’ll make up that lost time, my body was saying, you need to slow down because I don’t want to do this.
As we circled south into the loop I got in a 7:00 mile 2 but my stride didn’t feel any more natural. I was already feeling hot, though more clammy than sweaty, and we were still in the shade of the city’s skyscrapers. I’ll give myself until the 10k, I said, but if things still don’t feel right, I’m going to back off. Mile 3, the first in our long march northward, went by in 6:46. I could see the 3:00 pace group ahead but didn’t feel up to catching them. Mile 4, also a straight line up LaSalle, passed much the same in 6:45.

In mile 5 we finally made the turn into Lincoln Park, one of the few geographic features of the course I knew I would recognize. For me this was one of the toughest parts of the race. When I had visualized myself running Chicago in the weeks before, I felt great in Lincoln Park but in reality I felt sluggish. Even so, miles 5 and 6 were both close to 3 hour pace. I hit the 10k mark and asked myself if I wanted to back off. I decided I would keep going for it and reassess later on.

The course went further north than I anticipated, with mile 7 passing me by well before the turn around. As soon as we curved back south along Broadway the course opened up in my mind—I could picture its component parts. I told myself, I just need to make it until we turn west. There were lots of people out on the course cheering us on and blasting music making these miles some of the most fun, but also the least individually memorable.

By now I was looking at my watch every mile and thinking, if I slowed to 7:03, could I still PR? How far off of a 3:00 pace am I? Shortly after mile 12 we crossed back over the Chicago River. Now I was thinking about mile 13, where the family of the friend I'd had pasta with the night before was watching. I’ve got to look strong for them, I told myself. I didn’t see her family but I passed mile 13 with the course clock reading just over 1:30.

As the half clock came into view a lot of the doubt I’d been feeling slipped away. Just after 13.1 I passed St. Patrick’s, a Catholic church with pipers playing out front and crossed myself for good measure—I never did make it to mass that day. I no longer had any recollection of what the course was going to do, but about this point I had a revelation. The reason I felt so weird, so uncomfortable and disconnected, was that I was actually racing. My mind and body were working together, just not in a way I had experienced before.

With the half behind me I broke the remainder down into increments and set a goal for each one. If I can get to mile x at y pace, I thought, then I deal with what comes next. With this attitude, the miles flew by. I had my mind focused on getting to mile 20. I need to get to mile 20 by 2:20, I decided, because no matter what happens, I can do that last 10k in under 45 minutes—at some point the plan had become PR, not sub-3. Sure enough, I got to mile 20 in 2:17:59.

The sun was beating down and the crowds were sparse but neither of those things mattered. As mile 21 went by bringing me into Chinatown, I thought, you’ve only got 5 miles to go and almost 40 minutes to do them in! I managed to keep a pretty even pace, not sacrificing speed the way I had in New York the previous fall. Mile 22 went by in 7:01 and mile 23 in 7:04.

Mile 24 was tough; I did it in 7:10. At some point a spectator yelled, “You’re almost there!” I turned to a woman running next to me and said, “I hate it when they say that.” “Me too,” she managed back. I knew I was close, but in the final miles with the speed slowly draining from your body, distance is an abstract, an almost meaningless concept.

I set mile 25 as my next goal, then the “One Mile to Go” sign as the one after that. 1600 meters from the finish I heard a voice saying, “Come on, let’s do this.” It was the woman I had made the comment to a little while back. We picked it up. It really hurt, but I kept saying things like, “We’ve got this,” and knowing I had someone running beside me pushed me.

We finally turned right onto “Mount Roosevelt,” a small on-ramp that would not so much as trigger an extra heartbeat at the start of an easy run. People had told me it would be a tough climb, but thanks to my new-found running companion, I barely noticed the incline. We passed the “400m to go” sign and rounded the corner. With the finish line in sight, I gave it everything I had and crossed it in 3:01:44, a nearly 3 minute PR.

Moments later my new friend crossed the finish line and I thanked her for pushing me. She said, “I could see you had it in you.” For all the mental games I had played with myself during the race, here was someone I had never met who was able to see something that I couldn’t and who got me to give that extra 10%. I owe at least 30 seconds of my PR to her.

I've gone on for far too long here, so I’ll wrap things up by thanking all of you who, like that mystery woman, have been able to see things in me that I haven’t seen in myself and have helped me to succeed in ways that I never could have without your support. Thank you, and it has been a pleasure running “with” you.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Bay to Breakers

I flew into SFO the Thursday before the race so I could have some time to hang out in the Bay Area with my brother. We managed to take in an A’s game, tour the Berkeley campus, do a wine tasting, drink some beer with some folks from the Boston forum, and eat tons of good food.

My brother and I drove into San Francisco (we were staying in the East Bay) and parked at the same place we did last year. He wasn’t racing—he had a box of wine in his backpack—but I had a sub-seeded bib so we got to the start area by 6:30. After scoping out some excellent costumes by the port-o-potties, we parted ways. 

Getting to my corral was a lot harder than expected because the sub-seeded and A corrals have the same narrow entrance but I managed to fight my way forward. I was disappointed to see that no one was really throwing tortillas (a B2B tradition) in the front, but I had picked up some earlier so I caused a little mayhem with my cornmeal frisbees. They announced the start for the elite women, and before I knew it, it was time for the rest of us to race!

At 55,000 participants, B2B is bigger than all but one race I’ve done so the initial start was a little slow. We ran down Howard Street where there where spectators were slowly stumbling out of their apartments. They were most excited when they saw their first runner in drag! I ran mile 1 (mostly flat) in 6:22.

I hugged the turns as we zig-zagged onto Hayes Street before mile 2, still pretty flat, in 6:25. I felt like I was getting warmed up as we passed bars getting ready for more revelers. Unfortunately, the worst part of the race was coming up, the Hayes Street hill! It’s an 11.15% grade that lasts about 1/3 of a mile. Near the crest, I saw runners dressed as salmon (I remember them from last year), waiting for the larger crowds so they could run “upstream to spawn.” Mile 3 had slowed to 7:23!

Coming off the hill, you get a short spurt of downhill followed by a gradual incline, but you’re soon passing another park and more revelers. I managed to recover to a 6:38 for mile 4 but I could still feel the hill in my quads! At this point, we entered Golden Gate Park. I guess I did realize last year how much of the race was actually in the park. It’s beautiful, but there are far fewer spectators. At least there’s a lot more downhill!
Mile 5 went by in 6:25 and by Mile 6 I was pushing myself again, doing it in 6:09. Around this point, I passed the Bison padlock, but unlike last year, I didn’t see any roaming bison. As we neared the giant windmill, I did mile 7 in 6:13. We turned onto Great Highway, the final stretch right along the water and the wind really hit me. Nevermind, I gave it all I had and ran the final .46 at a 5:58 pace. 

I finished in 48:23, a 6:30 pace (13 seconds per mile slower than my half PR) but this race is much more about the experience than your finish time. What did I learn? 1) Bay to Breakers is much more fun in costume. 2) It’s much more fun when you “run” with people you know. 3) It’s much more fun when you pregame with something other than just Gatorade!

I hope to be back next year!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Boston Marathon

I had no trouble falling asleep on Sunday night—but I did have trouble staying asleep. Sometime around 2:30 I woke up and never fully went back to sleep again, yet somehow there was no nervousness, no tossing and turning, just calm. Finally at 5:30 my alarm went off and it was time to get ready. I had everything laid out the night before so by 5:55 I was out the door. I hopped the T at Hynes and the station agent was letting all the runners ride for free! Soon I was at the Common to catch a bus. By around 6:15, thanks to the enormous efficiency of race volunteers, I was on my way to Hopkinton.

I rode next a really nice guy from Houston who had also done Boston in 2010 and while I ate my usual bagel with peanut butter we chatted away. It definitely makes it a more fun experience to talk to new people.

A little before 7:30 we arrived at the Athlete's Village. I found the folks from the Boston Forum and sat with them to pass the time away. What a great group and what a difference talking to people made during the long wait. At 9:15 they called my coral so I head towards the baggage buses with a runner friend. He’s run Boston more than 10 times so it was great to pick his brain a bit before I lost him in the final port-o-john line. Since my throwaway clothes include a Packers hoodie, I got plenty of comments on the way to the corrals.

By the time I was in my corral, there were only about 15 minutes until the start…I waited with anticipation as they announce the elite field and before I knew it the gun was off! 

The First Half

As with my past two marathons, I used Greg Maclin's customized pace band for the race. I set 3:03:49 as my goal, a conservative one because I really wanted to have a good time.

My main focus was not to go out too fast—the first mile drops about 130 feet and you will pay for it later if go all out. The crowds kept me honest and clocked Mile 1 at 7:10.  Things stayed crowded, but by Mile 2 they had opened up enough that I clocked 6:52. Mile 3 was nearly the same at 6:53. By this point I think it had finally settled in that I was actually running Boston! Even though I did it the year it doesn’t take away from how amazing this experience really is! Mile 4, with its downhill ended up being my fastest at 6:46. Mile 5 went by in 7:01 and I could tell that my average pace was were I wanted it to be. I’ve heard a lot of people say that when things flatten out around Mile 6 if you’re not feeling fresh, you’re done for. Thankfully, I was feeling good and Mile 6 in 6:51. Mile 7 went by in 6:54 and I took my first gel of the race. Thanks to my race-ready shorts, I hadn’t lost any gels yet. Last year by this point I only had one left!

By this point, my mind had shifted to Wellesley—not just to the screaming girls, but also to the halfway point. With my eyes on the prize I ran Miles 8, 9, and 10 in 6:57, 6:56, and 7:02. Mile 11 is loads of fun because you run through Natick’s town center and there are tons of cheering spectators. It went by in 6:59.

Mile 12 was downhill but pretty uneventful in 6:54. After that, it was on to the famous Wellesley Scream Tunnel! I swear it was a lot louder this year. Needless to say, Mile 13 was not a slow one in 6:57. The race then entered the heart of Wellesley where there were tons of fans. I went through the half in 1:31:04 (one second ahead of what my pace band said), knowing that my A, B, and C time goals were all still very doable.

The Second Half

After the half, my thoughts shifted to the Newton Hills that start at Mile 16. My thought process went something like this: If you can make it to 16 feeling strong, then you can make it through the hills. They will suck, but they will take up 5 miles and by the time you are done you will be in the home stretch. As Mile 14 took me out of “downtown” Wellesley in 6:54 I passed cheering spectators and quaint cafes, almost wishing I had time to stop for a bite!  Mile 15 is mostly gentle uphill so I did it in 7:00. Mile 16 has one of the steepest downhills in the whole race and since it’s followed by the Newton Hills I tried not to kill my quads in 6:51. Finally I entered Newton and part way through Mile 17, the first climb began with the I-95 overpass (probably the least scenic part of the course). At this point, I could feel the heat and had started dumping water on myself at almost every stop. Through the rolling hills of Miles 17, 18, 19, and 20 7:08, 7:17, 7:00, and 7:15. Now it was time for Heartbreak Hill! I’ll be honest, last year I didn’t think Heartbreak Hill was that bad—this year, as I ran Mile 21 in 7:31, I though it may in fact lead to my own heartbreak. Thankfully there were tons of screaming BC students who helped pull me through. Mile 22 is a nice downhill break and I did in 6:48. Now I knew I just had to hold on through the final, relatively flat, miles. I forgot to hit the lap button so Miles 23 and 24 were 13:59 together. I could see the Citgo sign, taunting me! Finally after a short but steep-feeling uphill I past the Citgo sign and ran Mile 25 in 7:22. At this point it was clear that there was no gas left in the tank and the only way I was going to cross the finish line was through sheer willpower. As I passed the 1 Mile to Go sign, I told myself I wasn’t going to stop. I saw a couple other runners start to walk, or alternate between a walk and a shuffle and I knew that no matter what, I was going to keep running (if you can call what I doing running). I dipped under Mass Ave and made the “Right on Hereford” where there were hundreds of screaming onlookers. This was a slight uphill, but since I was staying a block away I knew to expect it. I turned “Left on Boylston” and could see the finish. If I’d had anything left this would have been time for a kick, but I settled for a slower pace down this final downhill stretch. I gave it a little extra umph when I heard people calling my name and crossed the finish in 3:04:37, a new PR by 77 seconds!

What I Learned

I definitely ran a much smarter race in Boston than in New York. I had some fast miles in there, but they were intentional and well thought-out. Ultimately I think it was more the downhills than anything else that got me in the end. Still, I was able to stay roughly on pace through Mile 24, much later than in NYC so I feel like I’m really growing as a runner. Hopefully by Chicago I’ll be ready for my sub-3!!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Race Report: 2011 St. Patty's Day Dash

This was my second year in a row running Seattle's annual St. Patrick's Day Dash with my uncle. This is probably the city's biggest (non-marathon) race with around 10,000 people overall (many opt for the non-competitive, non-timed, beer-filled waves). It's a blast with so many people out in green gear.

The course is basically an out and back, though it starts by the opera house and ends by the EMP. The first two miles are pretty much up-hill which makes the second half a lot faster. 

My uncle and I lined up together. He asked what pace I was aiming for and I said nothing too fast since I was still recovering from last weekend. We decided to aim for beating our time from last year and otherwise to just have fun.

The horn sounds and we took off. The race does a bit of a loop under the highway before turning onto the highway for most of the run. You get to see everyone running behind you as you loop back over. We hit the first mile in 6:11, last year's pace. Although I said I wanted to take the first half (the uphill) easy, I pushed us both, though I kept chatting away. We hit mile 2 at 6:28 and I knew the marker was off.

Just after mile 2, at the Aurora Bridge, is the turn around. This marks a long stretch of downhill so we started to really push it. We saw people dressed like Guinness cans, guys running in green briefs and nothing else, and folks in leprechaun gear going uphill as we flew down.

We hit mile 3 in 5:17 (I think this marker was correct, but mile 2 had been really off, throwing our splits out of wack). Since the race is 3.8 miles I knew we were almost done, but my legs were starting to tire out. I told my uncle he could go ahead if he wanted. He said, "You can't be that tired, you're still talking." I told him that was only because my legs weren't the ones making conversation.

He pulled ahead but I managed to keep close enough by surging with a runner who was trying to pass me. We made the final uphill turn to the start. This is where I would usually rely on my kick to pull me through, but it wasn't there. No complaints though, since I crossed the finish in 22:38, almost a minute faster than my time from last year. Better still, I averaged a 5:58 pace--my current 5k PR is a 6:02 pace!!!

My uncle beat me by 6 seconds, but next year I'll make sure he's not so lucky.