I went to New York, but so did Sandy…
It was six am, and still dark. The only audible sounds were our footsteps and easy breathing as we ran easily, almost stealthily, down Monterey street in downtown San Luis Obispo. The only evidence that there was anything “official” about this collection of people dashing through the gloom were the flashing lights on a police motorcycle leading the way. After the music and rah-rahs back at the start area, we were on our way. Fear not, that’s all the poetry you’ll get out of me today.
My training for this race had been a little uneven, since I had been battling Plantar Fasciitis in my left foot for some months. By dint of rolling, stretching, compressing, resting, and simply waiting, it at last seemed to have retreated. This was my first goal marathon since, when was it, CIM 2011? Yikes. I went to New York, but so did Sandy, so there was no fall marathon for me.
Feeling optimistic, I created two pace bands. One for 3:15 and another for 3:20. In retrospect, a 3:25 might have been a good idea. We drove most of the course on the Saturday and I was alarmed at how hilly it was, more than it had appeared on the elevation profile. Lots of steepish little rollers. Forget that 3:15 band!
I also tried a geeky little experiment. When doing track workouts, I always check my 200 meter split to permit an early pace correction in each bout. Wouldn’t it be great if marathon courses had a 200 meter marker? Yes, I could pace by Garmin, but I really don’t like racing with it. It takes a while to settle down after the start anyway. I visited the start area and a volunteer helped find the course measurer’s mark where the start line would be. The distance to the first corner by Garmin: 171 meters. A little light math predicted that it should be reached in 47 seconds at goal pace.
… and then the inflatable start arch blew over.
Another looming problem was the weather forecast. No rain. and the temperatures should be comfortable, but a 25mph wind? Oh dear! It should be a tailwind for much of the first half, then a headwind for the return leg. Hopefully it would not reach full force in the morning whilst the race was in progress. It would be tempting to run fast with that tailwind, but I resolved to restrain myself and leave plenty of energy in the tank for that return trip.
The start was at 6 a.m. The corrals were self-policed and everything went smoothly as we walked up to the line, Dean Karnazes gave a little speech, and then the inflatable start arch blew over. Well not completely over, some volunteers righted it and held it in place, and we started.
Would I be able to get that pace check in the dark? Yes, thanks to a street lamp on the corner. 42 seconds. Wow, five seconds fast over less than 200m meters, that’s ridiculous. And I’ve probably been doing that for most of my races, this is just the first time I’ve measured that starting burst. I dialled it back and let a few runners ooze past. Here’s the lead woman, I really shouldn’t be in front of her! There’s visor guy, who had exchanged a few words in the start corral. I asked him what his goals were. “Oh, 3:20 to 3:30, I’ll see how it goes.” “Me too”.
We did a little loop around downtown, which was sheltered from the wind. I still had the motorbike in sight at mile one but lost it thereafter. We commenced the first uphill on the road out of town. Visor guy pulled ahead. Either I suck at hills today or he’s overdoing it. Probably both. We’ll see how that works out!
I was still ahead of the 3:20 pace band at this point, but was concentrating on conserving energy. No hard uphill running for me, not in the first half anyway.
I really do suck at hills today!
Even with the wind from behind, the rollers soon put me behind schedule, but this was not shaping up to be a by-the-numbers day. It was light now, and the vineyards looked pretty nice in the morning glow. A teenager up ahead kept me entertained. He had been running with the lead group, then stopped to tie his shoelace. I ran by, then he whizzed past on the next uphill. I passed him again at the next aid station, as he slowed to wrestle with a gel packet. Then he passed again. I eventually reeled him in on the straight and level, and he meekly let me go by, but was then stirred into fresh exertions on being passed by the third placed woman who was just behind me at that point. His surge was soon over, and we saw no more of him.
A little after mile 12 the course doubled back for about a mile and we could see who was ahead and behind. I was pretty sure there was no one in my age group in front of me, so that was OK. Dean Karnazes seemed to be having a fun time of it with the 3:40 pace group. The third placed woman was now ahead of me, perhaps I should try to catch her for something to do? The headwind was strong enough to be bothersome, so I tucked in behind a tall young runner for a while, then took my turn in front. Our two-man peloton soon caught up with 3W, who had fallen behind the group she was drafting behind. She ran behind me for a while until we came to an uphill that was sheltered from the wind, and away she went. So did tall guy. I really do suck at hills today!
We got into some flatter country where the headwind was quite strong. 3W had rejoined the group up ahead and I tried to do the same, but could not quite manage it. I had to endure the full blast for about two miles until we changed direction. At least it was not as strong as forecast. I was still feeling quite good, but a little sad about how slow I was going.
At mile 22 we reached the half-marathon turn-around point, and from here on would be passing slower half marathoners. Many of them were walking. This made it still relatively easy to pick out my fellow full marathoners. Here I had a lucky break, on being caught by two young guys, one tall the other wide. I drafted both of these two for a while, which felt like being on rollerskates after the previous stretch. The wind reduced as we approached town, which is in the lee of a large hill.
I came up with a guy who had passed me earlier. He wore a headband withe “For Keith” written on it. “Who is Keith?” I asked. “He was my good buddy who passed away six months ago.” “Oh, I’m sorry. For Keith then!” I punched the air and left him.
“You can die in about three miles”
The course went along a bike path, and as we reached the faster half marathoners, most of them were now running. This made it harder to spot the people I was racing against, and I was surprised to suddenly be running alongside W3 again. She gave a smile of recognition and announced “I want to die!”. I tried the pep-talk. “You can die in about three miles. There’s no wind now, and it’s downhill from there.” This was not entirely accurate, but she rallied for a while before abruptly falling behind. Next up was visor guy, who remarked “Looks like you were stronger than me after all” as I passed. Then W2, who had passed me at at mile 2 and gone out of sight. She was also fading, but perked up on learning that her second place was looking safe. Out on the streets again, amongst kids holding up signs, we passed a (buddhist?) monk beating a gong.
Oh no! I had seen this in the course video, then blotted it out of my mind. A tall bike/pedestrian bridge over the railway, with switchback ramps involving a series of 180 degree turns. I charged up this, my ragged breath giving the half marathoners plenty of warning of my approach. I only had to gasp out “On your left!” once. My legs felt like they might give way when I reached the top, but everything held up as I switchbacked down the other side.
All over bar the shouting. A few more blocks, then another bike path. A sharp little uphill, and the Madonna Inn finish line came into sight down a nice quarter mile downhill. There was Cathi hanging over the fence and yelling at me. Across the line and it’s done.
My time was 3:29:02. I was 37th overall (out of 600-odd) and won my age group by over 13 minutes. Not a bad result, but could I have run it faster? Probably. Even though I was passing people at the end I was fading myself. I had gone from low-to-mid 7-minute miles at the beginning to some 8-plus minute miles into the wind on the return leg. My policy of conservative pacing in the first half paid off, but I could perhaps have done it even more. Also I was not all that fit. The Plantar Faciitis made for an uneven training cycle. The next one will be a lot better. I always say that.
As a footnote, that time is a 10-minute Boston Qualifier. I thought nothing of that at the time, but after the events in Boston, I would really like to run it next year. So would a lot of other people, and I think that margin will come in handy.