Monday, May 20, 2013

Pocono Run for the Red Marathon

Holy Cats! I had a ridiculous run today. This was the first time I ran the Pocono Marathon, and this year the course was changed due to a bridge closing. The course features about 1500 feet of drop. This year the drop was steeper and there were bigger hills in the middle of the course, so I believe it is probably a slower course than most years, although overall still a fast course. The roads were also open to traffic the whole way, which I believe is different. When I saw this news about a month out from the race, I wasn't wildly happy about the changes but what could I do at that point?

The day dawned to drizzle and a humid 55 degrees by the start time at 8am at the Pocono Raceway. While the prevailing winds are normally from the west, today they would be in our face the whole way from the east, about 10mph. While my brother Jim is the big weather-obsession guy, I was somewhat obsessed this week. After trying to break my PR last year at Boston, I was just hoping to stay out of the 80s today. The weather actually was decent. I don't think we hit 60 degrees while I was running and the wind was somewhat lessened by all of the forest that the course ran through. We did get the full force in our face sometimes, especially at the beginning, but it certainly could have been much worse. I felt pretty good, temperature-wise.

My goal was to start out at a 6:32 pace and hold on as long as I could. I was shooting for a sub 2:57 if I had a good day, a sub 2:59 if I had a bad day, and at least hopefully sub 3:00. It has been 5 years since I ran my PR of 2:58:59 at the Vermont Cities Marathon and I was hoping better training would compensate for being 5 years older.

After I actually got started I decided to try to hold about a 6:30 for the first 11 or so miles. The first part of the course is definitely the fastest and I figured the steep downhills would trash my quads and make the hilly second half slower. I was able to stay right on plan through 11, with some miles in the 6:20s but most miles in the lower 6:30s. I settled in with another guy who was trying to qualify for Boston at 3:05. I figured he was going out way too fast but I didn't want to ruin his game plan because I didn't know what kind of shape he was in so I didn't give him any advice. He ended up fading back when the uphills started.

When the steep downhill began, I got passed by about 8 or 9 people but I let them go and figured I would pass them back later. They were pounding down the hill with reckless abandon while I was trying to preserve my quads by finding that space in between braking too hard and letting fly and pounding too much. I think my experience with steep downhills in trail races is helpful in this kind of situation. One-by-one I believe I did reel them all back in when the uphills started, except one guy who I could see but never caught. That guy actually passed me twice as he stopped to tie his shoes in the middle of the downhill.

When the hills came, some of them were long and I couldn't recover my pace for the mile in many cases. When it was flat or downhill, I was still hitting my lower 6:30s but when the mile was averaged out I was in the 6:40s and occasionally over 7:00 when there was a long hill or multiple hills. I hit the halfway mark in about 1:26:30, which is less than 45 seconds off my half marathon PR. I was really pleased with that because my legs still felt fresher than they ever have at this point.

The miles and hills went by and I continued to feel strong and began to believe that I really had a chance to do something special. I got to 18 and decided to pretend like 22 was the end of the race and to really keep pushing until then. I ran 6:32, 6:22, 6:33, 6:38. Four miles to go. I couldn't believe it. I was fairly confident that I would PR by now. That is when both calves started to hurt. They weren't painful but they felt like they were on their way to cramptown. I just kept running and hoped they would hold on.

Finally it started to feel difficult. There were still smaller hills and I was struggling a little to get over them quickly. Mile 22 was 7:02. The next two were 6:44, 6:45, and then another 7:01. With a mile and a half left, I got passed by a relay runner and tucked in behind him for a couple hundred yards. I did not want to let anything in the tank this time. My calves were starting to feel worse and I was feeling a little light-headed. I just had to get to the track (the race finishes with a lap around the Stroudsburg High School track). I cranked out a 6:36 mile and then came to the entrance to the stadium.

Realization hits and a smile begins as I approach
the finish line.
I hit the track and kicked it home. I rounded the corner and could finally read the clock and it had just turned to 2:54. I could not believe it (I don't look at overall time on my GPS, just mile pace and overall pace). I sprinted to the finish and crossed the line with a fist pump. The time would be 2:54:30, good enough for ninth place overall (not including relay teams) and a four-and-a-half minute PR! Two years of preparation and bad luck with the weather a year ago at Boston had finally come to this. I was really a little overwhelmed with it all. I couldn't stop smiling and my wife, Faith, probably thought I had gone mad.

So I ask myself what the difference was. I think there are many little things that added up to a good day. Last year before Boston I felt like I was in the best shape of my life. This year I feel like I am in equally good shape. I have been doing a kettlebell program for the last three months and this has really strengthened my core, calves and hamstrings, and upper body. Trail races this spring have really worked my leg strength, especially quad strength with running the step downhills at a fast pace. Having difficulty walking after Hyner and Greenwood Furnace was actually a good thing, training-wise. I believe having a 34 mile ultra two months ago and a marathon five weeks ago helped to prepare me for those last five miles.

About three weeks ago I read about a breathing technique where you breathe in for three steps and then breathe out for two steps. This means that your first breath out every cycle is on a different foot. This made a lot of sense to me and I gave it a try. I felt that it helped with my pacing and my tempo runs this spring using that technique were faster than normal. I believe good sleep and good eating the week leading up to the race are also very important and I was able to do that this time.

And then there are the magic shoes. I just purchased some nice lightweight racing shoes. I had some new ones for Boston last year, the Mizuno Musha, which I loved but I felt didn't have enough cushioning for the marathon. My legs felt a little beat up in the second half of the race and I thought that the lack of cushioning was at least partially responsible. A week ago I got a pair of Asics Gel-lyte 33 shoes and they felt good and weigh about 8.5 ounces for size 9.

Finally, I believe in dumb luck. I don't know why I feel great some days and bad other days. The body is a wonderfully complex and mysterious thing. Last weekend I had the flu and actually passed out on Saturday night and this weekend I had rebounded and felt great. So many things beyond my control could have gone wrong but they didn't this time. You just have to go with what you are given and do the best you can. I feel fortunate to still be running and feeling well at 47. It could certainly go the other way at any time and I will try to appreciate what I have while I still have it.

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