NOTE: See the really cool finishing picture near the end of the story.
When I ran my first marathon at St. George this year, I believed that a 4:30 time was doable for me, if everything fell into place. Although I was completely prepared, and the conditions were excellent, I came in at 4:42:21 by my watch time, the only disappointment of an otherwise thrilling experience.
In planning goals for the Tucson Marathon on December 7th, I wisely avoided being overly optimistic. As I'd often been reminded, attaching too much importance to a single day's performance is a short-sighted thing to do.
In addition, I was not nearly as pumped up for Tucson as I was for my first marathon. After only two weeks of recovery, I started again to put in big miles.
One feature I've recently finally added to my program is some outdoor running, now that the weather is cooler, and especially now that I've discovered a rather nice outdoor route that covers a loop of either c. 6.25 or 7.1 miles depending on how I run it. The course includes some reasonable hills, not killers, but challenging enough to do the job. After spending the last three years running almost entirely on an indoor track, this change has been a welcome enhancement to my training program.
To prepare, after ramping by increasing mileage for about three weeks, I ran two weeks back to back of about fifty miles each. My longest run was only 22 miles. After St. George I concluded that a three week taper was too long, so this time I experimented with a taper of only two weeks. It proved to be just right for me. By race day I was ripe for a good long run.
Meanwhile, during most of November, many other necessary and more important matters have occupied my attention in addition to running. One week away from the marathon I found myself viewing the upcoming race merely as something I had do the following weekend rather than as a focal point in a personal fitness program, and something to be excited about. In addition, I'd gained about four or five pounds since St. George in October. Ugh.
Saturday, December 6th finally arrived, the day before the race. I slept 9.5 hours the night before. We live in Phoenix, just a couple of hours away. So when we got up we were in no rush to get out of the house.
At this point I made the biggest mistake in my planning, failing to do something that I had made a point of never falling short on: I did not carefully go over my checklist of things to take with me one item at a time to be sure I really had everything. Instead I breezed through it making assumptions that later proved to be incorrect.
For one thing, I forgot to pack a razor. No big deal. I'm not dark or hairy, but I'm a guy who needs to shave twice in a day if I have to go out and look presentable in the evening. All it meant was I would look a little funky the next morning. Given what I was to encounter that day, this was the least of my problems.
However, I forgot to bring my DRS singlet with me, which was disappointing because it made me anonymous to any Dead Runners or Penguins who may have been present. Besides, I was counting on using it for protection. I brought a bright red long-sleeve CoolMax shirt, and was planning on pulling the singlet over it as a second layer for warmth. (Don't laugh!) I had nothing else except another long-sleeve cotton shirt with me, and have become unwilling to wear cotton when I expect to be either too hot or too cold.
Saturday was a cool but pleasant day. My wife Suzy and I enjoyed a leisurely drive to Tucson. We left our daughter at home this trip, even though she single-handedly constitutes a full 50% of my cheering squad, because she had a piano performance on Sunday afternoon and other obligations to tend to.
We were happy to find that our hotel had many runners staying at it. They provided an early continental breakfast on race day, and also arranged to have three of the shuttle buses come directly to the hotel to pick us up, an arrangement that we appreciated very much, because it meant that Suzy didn't have to get out of bed at 4:30 AM in order to get me to the shuttle and not be carless later on.
The expo at this race was a joke. Besides being outdoors, which was not such a bad thing, it was tiny, with only a few vendors selling the usual odds and ends. It was at the expo that I ran into the only person I know the whole weekend, namely Craig Davidson, who works at the local Runner's Den, and was down to run his 102nd marathon.
When I picked up my number and race packet I found that the stuff in it was pretty chintzy. Almost everything went straight into the trash. There was a sample copy of a running publication I've never seen that I might read. The T-shirt is nothing extraordinary. Of course, I like T-shirts with the word "marathon" prominently displayed on them. :-) They tend to draw comments: "Oh, do you run marathons?" "Yeah" I say casually, like it's no big deal. "Wow! Cool!" I smile inwardly. And I prefer T-shirts without advertising on the back. But at smaller races and sometimes even at bigger ones the ads are unavoidable.
Does anyone besides me find their dresser is now full of more T-shirts than he knows what to do with? When running more than four miles I will wear only CoolMax, even in training. So my stock of relatively unused shirts is starting to pile up.
After driving around town a while we finally settled on a restaurant to eat at: an Italian place called Cibaria on Oracle, just a couple of miles north of the race finish. At exactly 4:30 PM we were the first customers in the door. The food and service were outstanding. It has a good selection of unusual pasta selections on the menu. I would highly recommend this place to any runner looking for a good mid-priced pre-race meal. They brought me the biggest plate of pasta I've ever been served in a restaurant.
Afterward we headed to the hotel for a couple of hours of TV, reviewing the race packet stuff, and early bedtime.
My biggest concern this race, apart from my preparation, was the weather. I'd watched all week as the news became grimmer. By Saturday the report said that heavy rain and cold on Sunday was a near certainty.
I arose at 4:45 AM after sleeping only about four of the eight hours I spent in bed. About average for a pre-race night in a hotel. It thundered all through the night, so I knew the news would not be good when I stuck my head out. When I went down to breakfast, it was not raining, though everything was wet, and the temperature was not too bad. What I failed to account for was that I was standing some 2200 feet lower in elevation than the race start.
On the shuttle bus, though it was still dark out, I could see that we were rising through clouds and that the rain had begun again, though it was not yet pouring. We arrived at the start at exactly 6:30 AM, one hour before the start time. It was cold and drizzling steadily. I headed immediately to the portapotty line, hoping to lighten my load considerably, which fortunately happened. By the time I was done, it was time to bite the proverbial bullet, shedding my sweats and throwing the bag into the gear truck.
Remarkably, I was not terribly uncomfortable during the wait at the starting line. One thing that helped was wearing gloves, the $1.29 brown cotton gardening variety. My legs don't tend to get cold, but my hands do, and so does my upper body. Before the start I wished I had another layer, or better yet, a nylon jacket. I was hoping to find one at the expo, but no vendor had them. I put put one on my must-buy list.
The start was delayed by about four minutes. There was no horn or gun or anything audible to anyone at our end of the race. They probably just had some guy stand up and shout, "Go!"
Finally we were off. But this beginning was even more awkward than most, because immediately after the starting line, i.e., about ten feet after, there was a cattle crossing only partially covered by plywood. What a demonic trap! Runners would come up to it and suddenly have to hit the brakes in order to step carefully across it or else find a route across the plywood. This caused the surge from behind to start and halt in two or three waves by the time I got there, accompanied by various shouts of "Whoa!" Somehow I managed to hit the channel across the plywood and off I went.
At this race the exact location of the starting line was not marked in any way whatever that I was able to discern. There was no pole, no banner, no line on the road, nothing. So I wasn't at all sure when to press the start button on my wrist timer. My best guess is that I was within ten seconds of the real start when I did it. And it took me about 90 seconds to get to that point. You'd think they would splurge and buy a flagpole or something portable with which to mark the start. Because of the long distance to the starting line, almost every runner I know records both the official time and his real run time, as recorded by his timer watch.
It took no more than a couple of minutes for me to feel comfortably warm from head to foot. This was my first time ever running in conditions even remotely like these, so I didn't know quite what to expect. Despite the terrible weather that was to come, at no time during the entire race did I feel that the weather was a negative factor.
Another thing I did right was to wear my ultracool Oakleys. I wore my light-tinted blades. I pulled them down off my hat about five minutes before the start and never removed them the entire race. No, I did not need them to protect me from the blinding Arizona sun, which made only a token appearance for about three minutes at the 14-mile point. They did a fabulous job of keeping the wind and rain out of my eyes. They are one of the best equipment investments I've ever made.
It's always interesting to note how others dress at races. I saw one guy about my age standing in the portapotty line wearing only footwear, short shorts, and a singlet. He was shivering. Others were dressed in layers from head to foot.
One very attractive young lady who stood immediately in front of me at the starting line was wearing a couple of layers of clothing. After the start I next encountered her when she passed me about three miles from the end. By this time she had shed everything except the absolute minimum that public decency would allow: just shoes, socks, shorts and a training bra. (Or halter, or whatever they call those things.) She had rather long hair that was not tied back, and no headwear at all. Although this was an inspiring and entertaining sight, I couldn't help wondering how she kept warm.
The rain continued, from a light drizzle to an outright downpour, for at least 80% of the race. And at two points during the race, the rain turned briefly to tiny bits of hail! I remember thinking to myself: "I can't believe I'm really doing this."
The most amazing realization of all was that I was actually having fun! Monday at work, when I described my experience to a co-worker, he dubbed me a masochist. Not at all! In truth I'm more than a bit of a wimp. But like a lot of runners, I've found that once I'm rolling, I can go on and on by simply adopting the attitude: "This isn't really so bad. I can handle this!" Learning to manage discomfort is one of the primary techniques of distance running. The thought of bailing out never crossed my mind.
The course is hilly the first few miles. At one point there is a truckers' sign that warns of a 7% downhill grade the next 12 miles. Yesss! I thought. Bzzzt! Wrong! After about two miles of this, the route takes a right turn onto a reeeal steep uphill that goes for about another two miles. As I rounded the corner I said to the policeman on the corner: "Can I go that way instead? Pleeze? No? Oh." So up I went, but I ran it without too much pain. It's the toughest part of the course. I'm glad it was at the beginning.
The reward from enduring that quickly follows. Just after mile six the course turns onto state route 77 (Oracle Road in Tucson and probably north of there as well). Upon rounding the corner the eyes are happily greeted by a downhill straightaway that goes as far as the eyes can see. Yippee!
The rest of the entire course is all on SR77 except for about the last 100 yards, where it turns into the Allied Signal parking lot, and then ends very abruptly. It's mostly downhill all the way.
My race strategy was to take advantage of the downhills where I could, and pay the consequences later, so I hauled into it. Miles six to ten were the best part of the race for me. I couldn't believe the pace I was keeping. It was somewhere around 9:30 a mile. (Don't laugh. On runs longer than 13 miles I consider it a great run if I hold it under 10:30.) But the downhill just kept coming, so I kept accepting it.
There is no way to describe the exhilaration I felt during those miles. I knew I was going to have a good race, and I was having a good time doing it. I actually passed quite a few people. This was a new experience for me.
The 13-mile point was marked, but not the half-marathon point, which I thought was a bit strange. Almost every runner wants to know his halfway split time, right? Would it have broken the race director's budget to put up another sign a tenth of a mile after the 13-mile marker? I doubt it.
As I passed by what I estimated was the 13.1-mile point, I noted that I had just beat my half-marathon PR by at least six minutes. Whoa! Just after 14 miles a fellow who said he'd been following me a while asked me how I was holding up and what my goals were. I told him I was either running the race of my life or I was in serious trouble. It was too early to tell. I took a wild guess at my estimated time of arrival, which turned out to be exactly right. So he said he'd try to hang with me for a while. We walked through the next water stop, and when I started, he said he'd catch up, but I never saw him again.
From about the halfway point I followed three good-natured teenagers who were all running together and apparently having a great time, as they greeted everyone who passed them, and thanked everyone who cheered. I stayed with them for about two or three miles before they finally pulled away for good.
Some things I saw:
This race I drank considerably less fluid than I did at St. George. In fact, I ran entirely through one water stop. After 20 miles I walked past the tables, but didn't drink anything. XLR8 was the official sports drink, which was very easy to turn down. Yuk! What foul stuff. I can't imagine drinking any of that swill for any reason other than survival. I think they said the flavor was sour grape. Perhaps some of us at the back end of the race read some intentional message into that.
I was never aware of actually hitting the wall. My pace just slowed up gradually despite my effort and good intentions. After 20 miles it was all difficult, but I was never in serious trouble.
In other races the sight of the finish line is an inspiration that makes one charge to the finish. In this race the finish line is hidden from view until you round the corner into the parking lot, and then suddenly there it is, just 50 yards away. I saw the 26-mile marker, so I knew the end was just the equivalent of about 2.5 laps at the gym away. It was frustrating not being able to see it yet.
Then, as I rounded the corner, I saw my wife jumping and shouting and clicking the camera, and that fired me up. (I hope she was using fast film.) I smiled and waved and laid into it, because immediately afterward I found myself inside the lot and in sight of the finish line. A wave of adrenalin-charged emotion shot through me as I realized I'd made it.
At that point I came up behind a man about my age I'd been unaware of up to that time, though he obviously must have been running somewhere near me all morning. I'd chugged along for 46095 yards. Now it was time to race the last 50.
The duel began! I took off in an all out sprint, and briefly passed my competitor who had a surprised look on his face like I'd tried to goose him as I went by. But he reacted quickly and took off like a shot. He beat me by about six inches while the crowds cheered mightily. We shook hands and laughed on the other side, as they hung medals around our necks. What fun. I think we both won. My competitor was the other guy in the picture below.
Return to beginning of story
My time, you ask? Oh, did you really want to know that? Well.
By my watch it was 4:25:45. Officially, which I forgot to note, it was 4:26:28. My place in division was 60/88 (88.2%). Ah well, par for the course. In six months I'll be in a new age division, and maybe I'll be able to beat a few of those older geezers.
How did this compare with St. George? I beat my previous time by 16:36, measuring by watch time, and 19:24 by official time. YESSSS! I managed to accomplish the one goal that, for whatever reasons, I was unable to achieve in St. George, namely to run under 4:30.
I'm ecstatic about this time. It represents the very best I could do. To improve on it will take some time, a lot of further intense training, and perhaps another downhill run in a hailstorm. The soonest opportunity I will have to test any further progress will be at Grandma's marathon in Duluth next June, where I'll probably have to carry a baseball bat to defend myself from mosquitos.
It was raining pretty steadily when I finished, and there was nothing left in me to burn in order to keep warm. I downed some cold yogurt with a fork and choked down part of a very boring bagel. The award ceremonies started just a couple of minutes after I finished. We went over and tried to hover under cover and enjoy it. Normally I stay to the bitter end, but within five minutes I was shaking from the cold, and needed to sit. So we walked the c. 300 yards to the parking lot and took off.
The hotel we stayed at allowed no opportunity for runners to come back and check out a little later, so we just headed back. We stopped just up the road at a Circle K to use the potty and pick up a cappucino. I was content to be in my comfortable warm car enjoying the scenery on the slow route home, up SR79 through Florence, which was made more beautiful by the presence of many low-lying storm clouds. We were back home by 3:30. The rest of the day was spent showering, napping, and vegetating in front of the Sunday night ESPN football game.
Some lessons I learned from this run: