The Harrisburg Marathon was this past Sunday and I had planned on it being my last long race of the year. My niece, Laura Kanagy, was running it in an attempt to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This was her third marathon. I ran Philadelphia with her in 2008 and then ran Harrisburg with her last year, along with another niece, who was running her first. Laura ran a 3:45 at Philly and I knew she had a good time in her, after that one. I just wasn't sure she would ever make running Boston a goal.
She finally made the commitment and put Harrisburg on her schedule so I said I would join her. I find it hard to turn down any run with good company. As the day approached, it was looking to be nearly perfect weather, 40 to 50 degrees and overcast. They were calling for about a 10mph breeze by the end, and we definitely felt it, but it wasn't too bad. We both drove into town the morning of the race and met an hour before the start. We registered, got a little warmup jog in, and lined up. The horn sounded and we were off.
The Harrisburg course starts and ends on City Island, an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, and the first few miles take you over the bridge and through downtown Harrisburg. Then the course offers a little bit of dirt trail before crossing back over to City Island for a loop and then back out to the north side of town. Many miles of the course are on paved path right beside the river. We were aiming for about a 7:55 per mile pace, which would get us to the finish in under 3:30. Her qualifying time for 2013 will be 3:35, and I wanted to try to get her there five minutes under that.
Our first miles were in the 7:45 range, and I was a little concerned that we were starting too fast, but I also was interested in banking a little time. She was trying to run faster and I had to hold her back. Marathon pace is always so easy those first few miles that it is difficult to be disciplined. Our pace gradually increased a little as we got close to the halfway point. She was running really well, but I have seen people blow up after the halfway point, so I felt cautiously optimistic.
The Harrisburg course is fairly flat except for miles 18-20. The course follows a rolling paved path through the woods at this point. The hills are short but kind of steep so they get your legs just at the point of the race when it is becoming hard. It was here that I started to see her struggle a little bit. I had to "stretch the rubber band" a little to keep her moving. I tried to keep slightly in front of her to pull her along because she was definitely slowing. We made it through the trail, however, without losing too much time (the three miles were in the 8:00 to 8:05 range). I stopped at a portapot as we left the trail and discovered when I came out that she must have put the hammer down. I finally caught her but she was moving really well again. We were down in the 7:45 to 7:50 range. We started scoping out people to catch, caught up with them, and then chose a new victim. This worked quite well.
I did not tell her where we were, time-wise, those last 7 miles and she didn't ask. I figured I would just keep trying to pull her along at 7:55 as long as I could. We headed down by the river again for the last few miles and she was definitely struggling. Miles 25 and 26 were up above 8:10. When you can see City Island again, it is still a deceptively long way off, and seems to take awhile to get there. It is mentally a tough spot on the course. When we got within half a mile, however, Laura put the hammer down again, and we surged to the finish in 3:28 and change.
Laura ran well this day and definitely put in a gritty performance. After struggling a little through miles 18-20, she turned it on and put in really good miles at a time when most people are really slowing down. We passed a lot of people in those last five miles, including relay runners.
This was an excellent way to spend a quality three and a half hours with my niece. I was just hoping that I would have the legs to keep up and not let her down. I've put a lot of miles on these legs this year (this was my ninth race of 25 or more miles since March) and my weekly mileage is always down in the fall. I've already ended up in a wheelchair after a slower race (Boston three years ago after a hard bonk) so I know I can't just take it for granted that I will be fine. The distance must be respected. This day I felt good. As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, this was supposed to be my last long run of the year. Well, my brother convinced me to do one more 50 mile trail race in mid-December near Chattanooga. How could I turn that down?