I'm a planner. I pick my marathon 6 months to a year in advance, structure my work and personal life so that there are no great stressors in the last few weeks pre-race, book my plane tickets and hotel several months in advance, and ship all my stuff to my hotel about a week before so I can travel light two days in advance of the race.
Not this time.
Heck, I didn't even enter this race until 36 hours before.
As previously noted, I had originally planned to run the Mohawk-Hudson Marathon on October 8. But life, more specifically a sick cat, got in the way. So I tentatively redirected to race the next weekend, contingent on Izzy being stable enough for me to feel comfortable going out of town.
I picked the Columbus Marathon on Sunday, October 15 as my replacement race. Nice flat course, easy trip from DC, usually very cool weather. The weekend of Mohawk-Hudson had ended up very hot and humid on the east coast, but there was no way we could have bad marathoning weather two weeks in a row, right?
(insert ominous foreshadowing music here).
The running gods were cruel. As of early this week, Columbus was predicted to have a warm-up over the coming weekend, with high heat and humidity followed by a cold front on Sunday evening and perfect racing conditions on Monday.
I watched newscasts and refreshed websites and studied meteorology. Perhaps the weather wouldn't warm up after all. Or the cold front would move through faster.
I also checked out other marathons, identifying two alternatives to my already alternative marathon. One was Grand Rapids on Sunday. Small race, fast course, could be good weather (or not). But hard to get to - there were very few flights into Grand Rapids, and flights to Detroit (a 2:30 drive) were filling up as well.
The other was Hartford on Saturday. The forecast didn't look great for that one either, and the course was a bit more rolling than I would like. Not a slow course, but not superfast like Shamrock, CIM, Chicago, Grandmas. But it was easy to get to and would also allow me to enter last minute.
I went back and forth. None of them were looking great, and I kept hoping that the Columbus forecast would shift. But it didn't. On Thursday morning, after checking the weather forecasts and flight options for all three races, I swapped to Hartford, on Saturday morning. Since my flights to Columbus were on Southwest, it was trivial to swap flights from DCA-CMH to BWI-BDL. And fortunately a hotel was still available - the Homewood Suites just a block from both the start-finish area and the expo. Score!
I normally like to fly in two days before a marathon. Doing so gives me fudge time if my flight is delayed or cancelled. I also find that traveling takes something out of me - all the standing and walking and lugging of stuff. I like to get all of that done, plus the expo visit, two days before the race, and then spend the last 24 hours lying on the couch, stretching, and eating Chipotle.
However, my late decision meant that I'd be flying in on Friday, the day before, and hitting the expo that afternoon. Not ideal, but that was basically the story of the last two weeks, so I went with it. At least it was a short flight.
I also planned to fly back the same evening as the race. This broke my normal rule of not flying the same day as the marathon, but again, short flight. And only staying for one night, combined with not needing to bring much throw-away clothing (because of the forecast) meant that I could travel very light, with just a backpack.
So, I had a plan. Though it came into question again Friday morning, right before I left for the airport. My coach was concerned about the Hartford weather (I was too). Though temperatures wouldn't be too bad - high 50s into low-to mid-60s - the humidity would be high. It was frustrating for both of us, because we both knew that 1) I'm in fantastic shape and 2) I really struggle in humidity (I blame the asthma).
Running Hartford this weekend meant it was unlikely I would run the time I was capable of and had trained for. And I'd be risking another of my trademark humidity implosions, which could interfere with my race plans for late fall and winter if I needed an extended recovery time post-marathon.
We discussed starting the race, and pulling the plug if things were tough and redirecting to Philly. However, that option really didn't work for me. I have personal and professional commitments that I've delayed to focus on an October marathon. I need to catch up on those in November. I also don't like to drop out of races just because things are getting tough - that's a hard pattern to break, once birthed. (it's obviously a different story if an injury is flaring or I'm having a bad asthma day)
So, I had to do Hartford, or no marathon at all. I promised my coach that I'd start conservatively and really prioritize the hydration. Hydration is always important, but it was essential for this race. I spent Friday evening guzzling plain and coconut water, and eating salty tortilla chips, plus pinches of straight salt from a plastic container of extra rock salt I had picked up at Chipotle. Ditto on Saturday morning.
As always, I carried a lot of gels with me - 12. Nearly all of them were highly salted - either GU Rocktane, GU Salted Caramel, or GU Lemonade. I'm a very salty sweater, and I knew that this race would come down to discipline on three fronts: hydration, salt, and pace. I also carried a handheld water bottle.
At 7:15 I left my hotel for the 8 am start. Since this was a small race, there was no pre-race security, which made things considerably less stressful. There were also plenty of porta-johns.
Because it was warm and my hotel was close, I didn't check a bag. There was no need and I would be tight on time after the finish anyway as I would have to rush back to my hotel post-race. Checkout was at 12 pm and they were not allowing late checkout.
(the clerk seemed surprised that I would need late checkout given the 8 am race start - I presumed this was because of her confidence in my obvious running talent, rather than utter ignorance of the sport.)
Rain was possible either before or during the race - it was one of those mornings where the air was heavy and it was just a question of whether and when it would coalesce into droplets. In a burst of optimism, I wore a throw-away shirt to the start; pessimism meant that I added in a disposable poncho and a cheap white hat I snagged at the expo.
As it turned out, the throwaway and poncho were unnecessary and ridiculous - accomplishing nothing except making me feel slightly cooler when I tossed them. It was a sports bra morning. I did keep the cap on in case it started raining on course.
With about 10 minutes to go, I hopped into my corral. As a late registrant, I had originally been placed in a back corral. At the expo I was able to talk my way into the "seeded corral" (for runners with a 1:45 half-time or faster). I couldn't get into the elite corral and start at the front - a bit concerning since I had hopes of masters prize money and that was awarded on gun time. But starting in the seeded corral would only cost me about 5-10 seconds - that differential was unlikely to matter in a marathon.
Then the gun went off and we started. Per my plan, I hung way back, reminding myself to be patient as the 3:15 and then 3:30 pace groups passed me. Listening to the corral chatter, I knew that many people were planning on banking time due to the weather. I disagreed strongly with that strategy, but to each their own.
At this point, it's probably helpful if I revisit how I pace my races. As I've previously discussed, I run off of feel, and don't look at splits or paces while I run. That doesn't mean that I don't have a pacing plan. It's just that my plan is based off of perceived effort, rather than numbers. I always intend to empty the metaphorical toothpaste tube of my own effort during a race. My pacing plan comes down to where, when, and how hard I squeeze the tube.
Here, my plan was to go out very easy for the first few miles, and then stay very conservative for a long time past the half-way point. All throughout, I'd focus on energy management - gels and water. Then at some point I'd start chasing. Where exactly I'd flip the switch would hinge on how I felt and what the weather was like.
The first miles of Hartford are rolling and twisty through the city. None of the hills were particularly challenging - there are no major elevation changes and the course looks pretty flat when mapped - but a lot of up, down, turn, repeat. In shorter races I would have used the downhills to build speed and pick up time, but I was reluctant to do so here - any seconds saved here would be paid back with interest if my quads failed later. So instead I kept my cadence quick and my pace restrained. I also resisted the urge to work too hard on the uphills. Just maintain a constant effort and stay patient.
And keep drinking. I had started the race needing to pee slightly (TMI, but whatever). I decided that this was a good metric. Thirst isn't all that reliable during a marathon, but as long as you need to pee you can't be too dehydrated.
So I used that as a reminder - any time I stopped needing to pee I took another big gulp. Ditto for every time I passed a water station (they were every 2 miles). When my bottle was empty I walked a station and refilled my water bottle, emptying 3 cups into it. 5-10 seconds lost that would pay dividends later.
I relaxed into a groove that felt more "moderate" than marathon pace, and just rode that. The 3:30 and then 3:15 pace groups came back to me, and by 10 miles I was in front of both.
And alone. The 3:15 group was the fastest pace group, so there was just an archipelago of single runners ahead of me, stringing one by one into the distance. I looked for someone to work with - important since the wind was picking up and I would have liked to have had a wind block. But no luck. People were already starting to fade, and so I just kept passing.
At 10 miles, we started a long section out to Windsor and back. This section was only slightly rolling - for DC runners it was reminiscent of Rt. 110. We were running into the wind and would be for the next 7 miles. I wanted to pick up the pace slightly since I had a ton of energy in the tank and was getting impatient. But I bided my time. It was still early in the race, and I didn't want to waste energy on the wind. Better to save for later and try to stay as efficient as possible. And keep drinking and eating.
The turn-around was at mile 17, and so as I approached I started counting women that looked older - I had hopes of masters cash. I counted 5 - all significantly ahead of me. But several of them didn't look good at all - with 9 miles to go I could probably reel them in. And after the turn-around, I'd have a tailwind. The perfect time to shift gears.
So around the cone, and then I started to build. Not a sudden pace change, but a progressive increase, just like all my long runs. I could tell that despite my conservative early pace I was fatigued. My left calf was threatening to cramp and my gait was failing slightly (when I get tired, I twist and overstride with my left leg). But that was what all the yoga and core work was for. I started planking (so-to-speak), disciplined my rebellious left leg so that it planted under me, and continued to build and chase.
And they all started coming back to me. Some running, some jogging, some wobbling, some walking. It made things easy - I didn't feel great, but I was in control, and I just kept running from person to person to person. So many people to pass (triple points when that person was an older woman). These miles weren't easy, but counting down people rather than mile markers made them easier.
At mile 23, we turned right and returned to Hartford, and its small hills and turns. At this point, I felt a bit more comfortable using the downhills to build speed. Twist and turn and up and down and pass another person. And then we hit mile 25 and the ramp up to the final hill - a bridge back into downtown. The hill was not as bad as I expected - excellent.
Around this point, a young woman passed me (checking later, she ran a harder negative split than I did, and was the only person to pass me during the race after mile 17). I surged and went with her (no reason not to take a risk so close to the finish) as we rolled down the back of the bridge.
Only to be greeted with another unexpected hill, steeper than the bridge that preceded it. Oops?
[it's worth noting that the course appears to have changed a bit in the last two years, and so the older race reports I had reviewed for the course weren't all that reliable.]
I fought my way up that one, but that was pretty much the end for me. My legs grabbed up, and it was a rough final half-mile to the finish. Fortunately, it was downhill to the finish, so I was able to control the damage. And falling apart that close to the finish is also comforting in a sense - it tells me that I really did leave it all out there.
Seeing 3:10 on the clock as I finished was disappointing, given my hopes during the training cycle. But to paraphrase a friend of mine - any day you can finish a marathon is a good day.
I wobbled my way through the finish area (thankfully my legs waited 30 seconds post finish to cramp up) and then back to my hotel to shower and check out - my second race of the morning. (I just barely made it - checking out at 11:59 am).
It's frustrating to have had such a great training cycle and to be in the shape of my life, and then run a time that was far from my fitness and my goals. But it's less frustrating to miss a goal due to weather and life circumstances than to poor race execution.
I continue to be annoyed that after 7 marathons, my PR is still my first. But at least I know what works for me in terms of training, taper, and race execution. Luck just wasn't on my side these last few weeks. But at some point in the future, I will get a great day to run fast in a marathon. And I'm ready to take advantage when it happens.
Miles 1-2: 15:23 (7:42 pace)
Mile 3: 7:26
Mile 4: 7:13
Mile 5: 7:26
Mile 6-7: 14:25 (7:13 pace)
Mile 8: 7:13
Mile 9: 7:56 (refill bottle)
Mile 10: 7:09
Mile 11: 7:21
Mile 12: 7:22
Mile 13: 7:31 (refill bottle)
Mile 14: 7:15
Mile 15: 7:13
Mile 16: 7:18
Mile 17: 7:31
Mile 18: 6:55
Mile 19: 7:16 (refill bottle)
Mile 20: 6:51
Mile 21: 7:02
Mile 22: 7:12
Mile 23: 7:00
Mile 24: 7:08
Mile 25: 7:05
Mile 26: 7:06
last bit: 1:27
I negative split the race as 1:37:06/1:33:37. So 7:24/7:08 pace But I think the more revealing split is my pace through 17 (7:24) versus the last 9.21 miles (7:02 pace). It was a fun way to race, and the best way to execute, given the weather. Though probably not the most optimal pacing if the weather was better (negative splitting is the way to go, but this was a bit extreme). I was slightly surprised that I wasn't faster between 17 and the finish, but I suspect that was the humidity taking its toll.
You can also see how I paced the race by looking at my HR chart - the steady increase in HR starting around 2 hours is when I picked things up. You can also identify the rolling parts of the course by noting the HR peaks and valleys.
Placingwise, I worked my way up from 160th place overall at 13.1, to 149th at 17, and 97th by the finish. That was fun.
The results for female masters are suspect right now - several who placed above me may have been bib-swaps. But there were enough legit runners ahead of me that I'm sure I wasn't top 3 masters. Oh well, the cash would have been nice. I believe I did win my age group since the race didn't allow double dipping (the two faster 40-44 women got masters awards). But I won't know for sure until the results get cleaned up.
[as an aside - letting someone else run with your bib is NOT a victimless crime. Please don't do it.]
- This was really a well run race. The expo was well managed, as was the start-finish area. The race reminded me a lot of Shamrock in terms of organization, and I'd recommend it for that. The race also takes very good care of its local elites - "New England's Finest." That was nice to see, and is probably why it was so competitive, despite its small size.
- If I've given the impression that this was a slow course, I want to correct that now. I don't think this is a terribly slow course. I do think that this course is not as fast as Shamrock, CIM, Chicago, etc, and so I wouldn't recommend it for someone who was right on the edge of a BQ or an OTQ. It is a nice race though, and a good choice in general for a fall marathon. Well organized, easy logistics, and most years one should have good weather. I think my perception of the small hills was compounded by the humidity - on a better weather day I might have a different impression of the course.
- I stayed at the Homewood Suites on Asylum Street. It was a great location - a block from the expo and a block from the start/finish area. It also overlooked numerous bars and clubs. Fortunately I brought my earplugs with me, and thus had no issue sleeping. Anyone else staying there pre-race should do the same.
- The Expo was in Hartford's XL Center. I belatedly realized that the XL Center used to be the Hartford Civic Center, where I saw Nine Inch Nails play live 17 years ago when I was in law school in the middle of final exams. That concert was followed by several hours trying desperately to find the missing rental car so we could get back to finish our exams. We didn't realize that there were two identical parking garages on opposite sides of the Civic Center, and we had parked the car in one, thinking that we had parked in the other. I will never forget that night. And it's also funny where life takes you.
- 8 gels were consumed on course. In case you were wondering.
- As discussed in my training log, I ended up with a gap of 5 weeks between my last 20 miler and this race. I don't think that affected my performance at all, though - covering the marathon distance was not a concern today. That's good to know in case I ever have to postpone a marathon again.
- I do think that my time was affected not just by the weather and the course, but also by the stress of the last few weeks, and the travel the day before. How much is hard to say - the weather was by far the biggest factor. But I do feel that I wasn't as well rested for this race (despite the 5 week taper) as I have been for previous marathons - I just spent too much time on my feet the day before, and had too much stress between the cat and the changing of plans. For future races, I need to travel 48 hours before whenever possible. Minimizing stress is always good as well, though that's not always in my control.