In April this year, I began planning my racing for the year. I had made the decision in Fall 2011 to run more shorter, faster races, but I just couldn't shake my need to run a marathon. For some reason, there is no escaping it. I love going long.
But somewhere, things fell apart. My speed was decent, but I just lost all desire to run further than 6 miles. As recently as 2010, I looked forward to every long run. It was my time to get out and experience things. There was a point where my long runs actually were 26 miles. And I loved it. Sure, it hurt and I was in rough shape the rest of the day. But I was younger (mid-20's) and could lay around for a Saturday afternoon recovering.
Fast forward to 2011 and 2012. Married. Bought a house. Had a kid. Got promoted. And it isn't like anything gets easier as you get older.
The long run, once an escape from the real world and three hours to get out and feel free, became a chore. I started working on Saturdays, too, and pretty soon I was running for three hours and then going into work. Effectively shortening the weekend to one day.
Fast forward again, to a few Sundays ago. After almost an entire week off, I picked back up running, glad to feel my legs moving underneath me again. Although it was obvious something was lost, I was confident I had done all I could to finish the race. One smart week of just logging a few miles.
Race day came slowly. Waiting all week, knowing that any hard effort would work against me, but that I needed some quality runs to put the spring back in my legs, was as hard as it had been in any previous marathon week.
I woke up Thursday with a massive headache. An extra shot of coffee did nothing to help, and Friday the headache got worse. Opening my medicine cabinet Friday night, I noticed my bottle of prednisone (which is oh so much fun) still had the same number of tablets it contained on Wednesday night. If you've never been on it before (I hope you haven't), prednisone is a drug that requires a taper to come off of. I had not been on it very long, but it opened the door in my mind. Maybe I had screwed up. Royally.
The headaches gradually scaled back in severity, but Saturday night was another bout with a massive headache. We visited some of my wife's family (who have been gracious hosts to me in 5 of my 9 marathons attempts) and had a fun time. My 3-year old niece and I have lots of fun, and my brand new 6-month old niece had a conversation with my 4 month old daughter. Wish I had video of that! I was able to take my mind off of my headaches, bronchitis, and the fact that I may not have been in stellar shape to race a marathon.
Race day came quickly after what was probably my best night of sleep before big race. My wife was staying back to get our daughter ready for the finish line, so I drove to downtown DSM myself. Downtown DSM is familiar to me, and parking has never been an issue. I arrive at least an hour early to all of my races to acclimate, and I pulled in roughly 70 minutes before gun time, allowing time to hit the port o potties three times prior to the gun. I was ready as I was going to be.
I never warm up before a marathon. This year was no different, and the fact I was slightly (OK, more than slightly) undertrained meant I needed to have every last grain of energy in my being at my disposal. The first few miles are also a great time to come out guns blazing and rock an awesome split, dooming you to at least a few miles of "death marching" at the end.
It was problem I wouldn't have. I had trouble even getting to a 9 minute mile. In my mind, I told myself that I was just sticking to my goal paces, which technically I was. In my heart, I knew that it should be really hard to hold back to run the split.
Mile 2 went by in a blur, and mile 3 was the entrance to the rolling hills that take you through the first 7-8 miles.
The DSM Marathon course has some notoriously rolling hills through these miles. After my first crash burn, I learned quickly to dial it back and and not get too aggressive. The 2012 version was no different. My goal had been to crank it up to 8:20-8:30 miles in these, a pace that should have been very easy for me. I also kept a close eye on my heart rate. Anything in the high 130s or low 140s is OK in the early stages of a marathon for me, and I did my best to recover on evrey downhill. Heart rate is more important than splits to me, and by the time I crossed the last hard hill at mile 7, my average pace, which should have been in the high 8:20s, was in the 8:40s.
My legs also were burning. During the last few weeks of hard training, I had a few 7 or 8 mile runs that felt like simple, easy jogs. I could have gone several miles more easily. My average pace on those was faster than where I sitting at the same point on race day. My calves weren't seized up, but they felt crampy, and my quads, which were as strong as they had been after months of triathlon training, just did not want to respond.
By mile 8, I knew my goose was cooked. There is a section of the course that loops around a nice little neighborhood and that is like a large roundabout. Going into the turn, my legs started to get the stiff, "peg leg wobble" that usually accompanies the last 2-3 miles of a 20 mile run. By the time I came out and passed the 8-mile marker, it became evident that no longer was I running for a goal time. I was running to simply see how much longer I could keep going.
The next several miles were uneventful if only because my legs continued to burn painfully and my mind continued to wax back and forth about whether or not I would see my first DNF. Thoughts of what I should have done differently ran through my mind, and pace checks on my Garmin became less frequent. Just running was all that mattered. A few minutes at a quicker pace, only to be accompanied by the ever present burning and crampy pain in my legs every step after were all I could to delay the inevitable death march.
At the halfway, I was somewhat picked up by the fact my average pace had improved. Concurrently, disheartening thoughts of the looming miles ahead brought me back to earth, and a brief chat with a 60+ year old "fun runner" who left me in his dust did little to help.
Around miles 16 and 17, the course evolves into my favorite section, running/cycling trails that are nice and flat (and fast). It was here in 2012 I picked my pace up and finished my best race, running an almost 7 minute negative split in the second half of the race.
It was not meant to be. By mile 17, I was struggling to keep it below 9 minute miles, and mile 18 saw the end of my race. At mile 18, The wheels came off, and the death march began.
Somedays you show up for race day, and things just have not gone right leading up to that day. You do the best you can with what little control you may have, and things still just don't go your way.
Now, when this happens, you have two options: 1) Hang it up and wait for a better day, or 2) Sack up and do it. I've had rough patches in races before. I've burned out fast and not been able to finish. And in those cases, I've always sucked it up and just pushed through it. This race was completely different. Things just did not go great from the start. The thought of dropping out crossed my mind several times, even after only 8 miles.
I've trained harder for races, put in more time and miles. And run faster (much much much faster). But I am proud of my race. Even when the wheels came off, even when it was all I could do to shuffle. Towards the last few miles, walking was tough. I've never struggled like that before. I ran a 3:45 marathon last fall with less training and less struggle towards the end.
I chalk the terrible day up to just not having it on race day. From being sick, to not getting in the high mileage I normally do, to having a baby and a life outside of running.
I've just have to get better at balancing my training in my life. A common theme for most runners/athletes. Not that I feel like I slacked in my training. But the whole point of doing anything, endurance sports included, is to get better. To take the journey of making yourself better than you were.
The following Monday I emailed my wife - marathon #10 is coming up next year and I want to do it right. Set a PR. And get in the training that will get me there. So we've agreed to a plan so that she can get the time she needs, and I can get in my training.
So, on to the next race. And base training.