I didn't hear the gun, but I heard a bell. No matter. We all shuffled across the start line through a square wire instead of a mat so the chips behind our bibs would be recorded. The contraption that recorded the chips was very narrow - thus the reason it took me 8 seconds to cross the start line in a field of 700 runners.
A quick turn out of the parking lot and down the first of many hills. I started back in the crowd in order to ensure a slow first mile. I kept my eye on my pacers, Marc
knowing that they would be disciplined as I got swallowed up by the crowd. I didn't have a specific first mile goal but I was determined not to ruin the race in the first mile. The first mile can be a delicate affair as the body gets the blood flowing to the muscles and the heart rate rises to meet demand. In this mile some oxygen debt can occur without the runner realizing it - but will pay for it later. So I wanted to get up to pace in a smooth, fuel efficient manner.
The field immediately spread out in one long line of runners - a lane wide and a quarter mile long. Knowing my own goal, I was amazed at the sheer mass of people in front of me and thought maybe I was going way too slow. But I doubted it and slowly smoothed out my pace by running at the left edge of the crowd and made my way to Marc & Mike still in view.
As I approached my two friends from the left I knew I'd get grief. I'm such a nervous creature before a race I'm sure I had them worried I'd bolt like a racehorse in the first mile. But I passed slowly and sent a good luck wave their way. Then I heard Mike yell, "Hey, take it easy up there!" I didn't hear Marc's comment but I'm sure he had one. I put the blinders on, took the hearing aid out, and dropped into the depths of my own little world called The Race. Total Focus.
I find getting into my own thoughts early helps me. I won't talk, look around, or otherwise be overly sociable in a marathon. It takes all my concentration to stay on pace - either by staying conservative or (later on) keeping the pace up. I think of nothing else but the task at hand. Admittedly, it makes for a long day since the race is so long. But when you're rewarded with steady pace splits, smooth delivery, and building confidence it is worth it to do away with distractions. In the first two miles I passed many conversations in progress.
I missed the first mile marker but hit #2 in 14:14 for a 7:07 average. My guess is I ran a 7:24 first mile and a 6:50 2nd mile. By mile two I had found a group of runners settling into the pace I was running. Since I hadn't slowed down, they must have started out quickly and dialed it down to the current pace. A lively conversation was in progress in front of me. I wondered at their ability to talk and run on a 3 hour pace. I ignored the talkers and kept the pace steady at an HR of 158. This number is 80% maxHR which I assumed to be "marathon pace". In training this level of effort has always been comfortably fast for me. However in the past five weeks I haven't spent much time right at this level. I had been either running below it or above it (hard days) with the training runs averaging MP by the end - basic progression runs.
So I was disheartened when mile three went by in 6:51. While it represents a 3 hour pace, I had expected an effortless 6:40 based on recent on training runs. Unfortunately, this was a false positive from training - a product of some good speedy runs of 5 miles or so during the first week of taper. While those runs were refreshing, they were not a proper indicator of marathon preparedness. If 6:50's it is, then 6:50's it was going to be.
I was very glad I chose to wear the HR monitor. Still too much of a novice at these paces to adequately "hold back", the monitor kept me in check, providing valuable feedback - especially to one whose shorter race paces do not translate properly into marathon paces indicated by internet predictors.
Mile 4 went by in the same manner, keeping the pace in control. This part of the race was the hardest mentally for me. Not because I was holding back but because I started to feel tight in the legs and the shins were talking a little. The expanse of the race was before me and I just wasn't feeling fast. This always causes a little doubt. But finally, the course took a left turn and went up a hill thus adding a little variety into the course and providing some relief to the shins. At the same time, the talkers faded and I picked up another runner with impressive arm muscles. He had a tatoo on the left arm that was becoming distorted with the increasing muscle mass. It's funny how closely one can scrutinize fellow runners when you're directly behind them. The same thing happened later on when I'd catch runners with elaborate shirts (I'd end up reading the tiny map of the drawn state). Anyway, we seemed to be running the exact same pace. This was not good. The danger with this is I can lose my own race and pick up someone else's. So with this in mind, I allowed myself to leapfrog each other as our paces differed on the changing terrain. He ran stronger up hills and I ran faster down. Usually, I can't stand leap-frogging runners due to the constant distraction. But this time, I reminded myself that it was just part & parcel of ensuring that I was running my own race, at my pace, and not his.
Together, we caught a good gaggle of runners between miles 4 and 7. I felt badly for those we were catching as it was a sure indicator that they had run the early miles much too fast. Miles 5 and 6 in the 6:53 range. Finally mile 7 brought a much needed confidence boost.
My new friend and I cruised through mile 7 in 6:41 and this changed my whole outlook on the race. In the latest mile my natural pace and effort had increased to a heart rate of 162 and I felt more comfortable at the slightly increased effort. And the 6:41 pace made me smile. For a small price in effort I gained 10 seconds per mile! I'll take it. For the next few miles, instead of trying to hold the effort under 160, I focused on holding it under 165. This new development worked wonders on my confidence. The next miles were 6:41, 6:46, 6:47, 6:49. I wasn't "slowing" as it was just me siding on the conservative side of the new range I had selected. This was reflected in splits. But I felt these per mile splits were netting me the needed incremental seconds to bring the average pace down to 3:00 by the end of the race.
Somewhere along here, I lost my new friend and came upon two more chatters. I would gain a little then hold, gain a little then hold, until eventually they came to me. I was running a steady pace so I think they were slowing down ever so slowly. Mile 12 in 6:43, mile 13 in 6:41. I was feeling good as I passed the half a few seconds under 1:30. The chatters were right behind me at this point and they exclaimed about being dead on pace. I don't know if they made 3:00 or not. I was pleased because by keeping my current pace I would have a slight negative split. (The blessings of a slow start).
Further, this time I didn't dread the distance of the second half. Normally, I go through the half and large doubts enter my head about my ability to finish the distance at the pace I am going. Like having my head stuck in the sand, I have in the past failed to consider the length of the race and it only hits me as I approach the end of my rope at 20 miles. But not today. I was in control but getting a little anxious about starting my second half plan.
During recent training runs, (hard days of 10 - 12 miles), I had been running a version of progression. Basically, running the first half at 80% or so, then bring the 2nd half up to 90%. These paces generally were 6:50's for the first half and 6:10's coming back. Occasionally, the pace would creep a little faster. A lesson learned from these training runs (and the recent 5k) was that the higher efforts, while feeling a little uncomfortable, could be held a long time. This was the result of all those miles. So I fully intended to apply this to my marathon and had initially set 18 miles as my launch. So miles 14, 15, and 16 were rather tough. I was getting stale at the 6:40 pace. 6:41, 6:41, 6:37 and I couldn't take it anymore.
A little early and a little risky since I was more than an hour out with 10 miles to go, but I flipped the switch at mile 16. The immediate effect was instant gratification as the legs thanked and thanked me for the new fuel source and the confidence was sourcing as I passed another dozen runners. My 90% HR yielded only 6:28 in that first mile - not the 6:10's I enjoyed in training. What a difference 13 miles make! But the engines were humming, I was strong, and the finish was approaching that much quicker.
6:28, 6:28, 6:18, 6:21 for miles 17, 18, 19, & 20. As I ran the 21st mile I was on a busy highway and not on the greatest running surface. Cars were speeding past on my left elbow, and the breakdown lane was the typical pavement littered with pebbles, etc. Traffic lights, brake lights, a narrow bridge, parking lots, and finally the mile marker atop an overpass bridge. Ugh - 6:37. For the entire mile I was trying to reel in 3 runners running in a pack. The distance didn't diminish but as they reached the water stop two of them walked with their drink. Sensing weakness I urged myself on and sure enough one of them takes a 2nd cup. Definitely a sign something's wrong!
I surge past the first one and go looking for the second walker. I find him running but as we approach a steep drop he slows and I hammer by looking for number 3. He's up ahead and we turn into a headwind. I mistakenly press to catch him and the effort does me in by mile 22. I cross in 6:31 but do not catch him. I never caught him and he looked amazingly strong with no sign of slowing. (It didn't occur to me that this runner was a relay entrant - I hate relays.
) Try as I might to get my act together, it took 6:42 to cross 23 miles and the engine was sputtering.
Pain set in and life got real tough. However, I have 25 minutes to finish to hit 3:00 and there's only 3 miles to go. I can do this. Since mile 16 I have been repeating the line " x miles to go - have faith in the training" and I kept repeating it now. 3 miles to go, have faith in the training. And this time, I had faith. Those early mornings and long miles were going pay off now. I was going to keep running. I was not going to walk, no - matter - what.
The trail took me over a bike path that twisted and turned and went through tunnels and down concrete alleys as we made our way into Corning. I say "we" since I now was running within sight of two more runners. One of whom I would catch before mile 25.
It took 7:06 to get to mile 24 and another 7:33 to get to mile 25. During this mile I kept repeating "it's only a 2 mile cool down, a 2 mile cool down, 2 mile cool down". Murder.
Then I gave it all I had left. Footsteps behind, people cheering for two, I had company and I was unhappy. I did not want to race someone to the finish nor did I want to lose a spot. I hadn't been passed since mile 2. At mile 26 (6:56) I suddenly thought this guy might steal any award I might get and I bolted up the bridge towards the finish into the crowd. I only had half the bridge in me but he didn't know that and he didn't respond. So I finished by myself, super happy as I saw 2:57 on the clock.
Undoubtedly, my best race ever.
Thank you to everyone that encouraged, advised, commented, and emailed. It really helped. A special thanks to Marc and Mike - they are great friends. And further thanks to my friend Eric in town here who always has time to run some of my miles in the early mornings with me to keep me company. And also to my Sunday morning long run crew - time for some more sub zero 22 milers!