Race Report: best laid plans

It’s been two weeks and I’m still processing this one. That by itself isn’t unusual: any event you spend months and months planning and preparing for–weddings, holidays, travel, moving, and so forth–is going to have a protracted reflection period, given how fast the event itself plays out relative to the time spent getting ready for it.

Granted, no one could possibly construe a full marathon as objectively “brief”, but in the broader context of having been training in some form since late May of this year, it certainly feels like it went by in a flash.

No, the unusual part comes from a confluence of two things. The first is that I haven’t run a marathon since April 2015, so in a very real sense, this was a brand-new experience for me. It reminded me of how, after spending most of 2015-2016 sidelined by an injury, I effectively spent 2017 learning how to run all over again.

The second part is how marathons are fundamentally different from (apologies for hand-waviness here) “most other” runs. One of the reasons I love running so much is that unlike so many other things in life, when you have a bad run one day, you can always go out the next day and try again (all other things equal). Not so with the marathon: unless you’re one of the 0.000001% who run ultras regularly or full marathons every weekend, you’re wrecked after a full marathon. You need a week, maybe more, just to be able to run a couple miles again, to say nothing of a full 26.2. So if you have a bad day, you’ll have to wait upwards of 3-4 months minimum–more like 6-12 months for us mere mortals–before you can take another crack at it.

So after said week of sleeping in every morning, eating whatever I want, and generally being dead to world–side note, man I could get used to this–followed by a week of slowly getting back into the swing of things, I’m still going through this in my head. BUT! I figure it’s time I took a shot at putting my thoughts on paper. Or blog-aper. Screen-aper? Scraper?

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Anywho.

Friday, November 8

First thing in the morning, Laura and I ran 20 easy minutes, coming out to 2 miles and change. After that, we split up and got ready to leave–The Lady and I were driving up as soon as we possibly could, while Laura and Renee were leaving later in the morning. It was a ~3 hour drive to our place in Chattanooga, and The Lady took charge driving the whole way there. I think I napped somewhere in there.

What can I say? The mountains are soothing.

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Along the way, we stopped at a Panera for lunch in what has become something of an unofficially-official day-before-a-race lunch tradition for us. The Lady got a delicious-looking salad and soup, and I got my 100% carb-free mainstay: a breadbowl of soup with a baguette side.

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Like Toby, I’m smiling on the inside.

We got to the house in Chattanooga around 1pm, well ahead of schedule: packet pick-up at the race expo didn’t begin until 4pm, and Laura and Renee wouldn’t arrive until 3. So The Lady and I scoped out the place: it was a house that belonged to a friend of ours from Athens and his wife, who were both traveling that weekend and had graciously offered to let us stay there… on the condition that we dog-sit.

Because, y’know, that was such a chore [sarcasm].

SUCH a sweetheart.

I ended up passing out for about another hour, waking up to the sound of Renee and Laura arriving. Renee didn’t stick around too long–she was just in town to visit her grandparents (though she would swing by the race to cheer us on)–at which point the remaining three of us decided to hit up the expo and then get some dinner.

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My first marathon in 4.5 years, and Laura’s first marathon ever!

On the note of dinner: for some reason, I didn’t mention this in last year’s Chickamauga half race report, but that year we’d discovered this literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked away in a residential area called Aretha Frankenstein’s. It was amazing, and after our solid performances at last year’s half, we’d been set on heading there again for pre-race dinner. I do remember barely managing to scarf down their full stack of pancakes the year before, but given I was running literally twice as far this time, I decided to get the same thing. I swear those pancakes are like three-quarters inches thick, each.

I didn’t end up sleeping terribly well that night, but I blame it more on the bed than pre-race jitters–it was a double o_O

Saturday, November 9

RACE DAY WOOOOOOOOO

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So, in a discussion with my coach a couple weeks before, we’d set up my goals for the race.

  • A-goal: I’m feeling fantastic. The race environment is like pure adrenaline in my veins. Weather is cooperating. Stars have aligned. Let’s go for sub-4 hours.
  • B-goal: Feeling good, feeling strong. Going to be a slog but I’ll get there. Let’s go for sub-4:10.
  • C-goal: Something’s a little off today, whether it’s me or the weather. Can’t soak in the event as much as I’d like, so let’s focus on finishing strong and shoot for sub-4:17 (essentially, a PR for me).

Ambitious, yes. But seemed do-able.

It was cold: 28F, and [as I would only learn after the race] 90% humidity. I felt good, though definitely nervous. I’m always wondering in these last moments if there was something I forgot to do or should have done more/less of, even though that’s literally the most useless moment to consider such things–what would I be able to do about it if I thought of something?

Laura and I got in our warm-ups, and before I felt ready, it was 7:30–race time!

Our original plan to stick with the 4-hour pace group for the first half went out the window before the race even began: there was no 4-hour pace group! Nor was there a 4:15 group, for that matter. The only groups we could find were 3:30 and 3:45 (lol nope), followed by 4:30. So we shrugged and found the 2-hour half marathon pace group, knowing full well we’d part ways a mere three miles in. But at least it’d keep us from going out too fast?

The Howitzer–or whatever antebellum metal-flinger passed for one a few hundred years ago–roared, and we were off!

The course went pretty much as I remembered it, with one small!big wrinkle: a 2-mile out-and-back a mere three miles into the race (yep, the split-off point between the half and full). After nailing the first three miles, we parted from the 2-hour half group and the course got noticeably sparser.

BUT! We were in for the surprise of our lives when, on the out-and-back portion, who should we see cheering us on, but none other than our training partner Renee (who’d run NY the weekend before)?!

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Renee got this great shot of us on the “out” portion of the out-and-back.

It was so unexpected–we had no idea Renee would be at the race! So it was a fantastic surprise and boost.

We whipped around, waved hello again as we passed, and then caught up to The Lady around mile 5! She’d staked out her first cheer position at a major convergence point that made it easy for her to get to the next part of the course. A great cheer squad for the first bit of the race.

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The Lady snapped this one as we went by around mile 5.

9:06, 9:10, 8:54 (oops), 9:01, 9:05

We were pretty much dead-on. I felt strong as we started in on the hillier parts of the course. Much like this point of last year’s half, I was eager to start chewing up some elevation.

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The next few miles of the course were a lot quieter–we were in the heart of the park, shrouded in tree cover. There were only a few places that could easily be accessed by spectators (thankfully the aid stations were well-placed). Laura and I kept each other company, but were mostly quiet and soaking in the thrills of the race.

8:58, 9:04, 9:09, 9:03, 8:59

Right around mile 11 was the first wobble, but it was entirely mental. As we passed the major cheering section–the course briefly turns onto a major road where there’s usually quite a bit of stopped traffic and spectators–I got a little too deep into my head and panicked.

My thoughts started racing; it was only mile 11?! I had more than half of the race left to go?! I felt my adrenaline surging as the anxiety rippled through my chest and arms. I felt like I had a weight on my chest. For whatever reason, I fell out of “lizard mode” and had a really difficult time clicking back into things, in spite of a brand-new, kickass 26.2 playlist.

Right around where I thought I was settling back in, I felt a shift in my legs and lungs: the former felt heavy, and the latter felt strained. This was definitely physical, not just mental. By mile 15, I told Laura that something felt off, and that I was going to ease up on the gas just a little and hope that my body rebooted after another couple of miles.

9:02, 9:07, 9:02, 9:01, 9:23 (uh oh)

That didn’t happen. Instead, shit hit the proverbial fan. To borrow another meme: things escalated quickly.

By mile 18, my legs were throwing cramps and I’d started to intersperse some walking time, both to let my legs relax and to give my lungs a chance to recover. I also felt really thirsty and was chugging 2-4 cups of water at every aid station I passed. It was unexpected, because I didn’t feel like I was overheating or had otherwise entered the race dehydrated, but holy cow I was parched now.

9:42, 10:44, 10:16, 10:35, 11:39

By mile 21, I could no longer run for more than a tenth of a mile at a time. I made the mistake of trying to run-shuffle to see if my legs would just relax, but instead my left leg went completely rigid: calves, quads, and hamstrings all locked up in unison. I could barely even walk, much less run.

Suffice to say, my mental game imploded, too. And it was the perfect environment: by this stage of the race, there were practically no one else in sight. I was on the second loop of the half marathon course, so there were no more half marathoners; marathoners were few and far between, and the spectators–already a sparse crowd–had thinned considerably.

What I couldn’t figure out was why I was crashing so hard. I’d done a full 20-mile training run on tired legs just four weeks prior and felt strong, and now I couldn’t even make it 18 after a two-week taper before having to take walk breaks. I’d trained through a brutal summer and was now running the coldest Chickamauga of any of the previous ones I’d participated in. What was going on?!

There were a lot of four-letter words. Though The Lady’s cheering never wavered (and I can’t thank her enough for that, even if I looked miserable in the moment; it made all the difference in the world).

The worst part in all this was the knowledge that, unable to run at mile 21, I had another 5 miles to go. I couldn’t fathom how. In those moments, if a sag wagon had come by, I probably would have jumped on it in an eyeblink.

Miles 21-24 were pretty dark.

13:46, 13:30, 13:43, 14:41

A couple of course guides on bicycles went by and asked if I was doing ok. Not thinking it made a difference (or, more succinctly, just not thinking by this point), I said I was fine except for needing water. I don’t know how, but the guy materialized a bottle of water from thin air. I gulped it down in pretty much one swig and immediately felt a little better, but also even more confused; it was becoming clearer that I was severely dehydrated, but how that had happened I still couldn’t begin to imagine.

As I had a lot of time on my hands, I mentally went through the week before the race. I’d been drinking my usual 25oz water bottle at work (x4 daily, theoretical baseline of 100oz water / day). I had noticed that I didn’t seem to be making more bathroom trips than usual, but given how the temperatures had fallen it didn’t strike me as something I needed to worry about.

I also didn’t feel like I was overheating: running tights, gloves, ear band, and a double upper layer (thin long sleeves underneath, thicker cold gear over that) seemed appropriate for a 28F starting temperature. But I also sweat [a lot!] more than your average runner; perhaps I really should have been aiming for more frequent bathroom trips the week before the race, even with the colder temperatures in the forecast.

The last thought I had was to notice that my current predicament really and truly wasn’t mental. It wasn’t a panic-induced breakdown, my racing thoughts at mile 11 notwithstanding. No, this was physical incapacitation: I literally could not have willed myself into getting back on A-goal or even C-goal pace. I was barely managing walking; it was clear that something had gone badly wrong and my race was done, whether I was prepared to accept it or not.

14:44

Let’s just say that, at mile 25 of a marathon, the logic circuits of your brain aren’t exactly firing. Put another way: there were a lot more four-letter words.

A small positive shift occurred here: I found that–after pushing myself only as hard as my body would permit without initiating full-scale lockdown, and taking plenty of fluids at each passing aid station–I was, very slowly, getting more usage out of my legs. Running for slightly longer distances before walking. Walking a little faster without cramping. Nothing impressive or transformative, but nonetheless noticeable–and lending further credence to the theory that this was all a case of severe dehydration.

12:30

By now I was back to the treacherous stone-riddled trail; I’d caught up to a woman who was also walk-running, and we briefly swapped war stories of which muscles were cramping and how often. I was able to maintain a 10-11 minute mile pace without dire pushback from my legs, so I settled in as best I could and just enjoyed the feeling of running again, however slow going it was.

While I knew I was closing in on the finish, I also knew the steady grade of the park trails would be yielding to the small but rapid course corrections of the neighborhoods we were entering. I tried to shut it all out and focus on running the last bit of the race and crossing the finish line strong.

It’s always a delicate balance: pushing with everything you’ve got left, and praying to whatever deity that your calf doesn’t seize and cause you to faceplant mere yards from the finish line.

4:36:20 official chip time

I was wrecked. I had that catch in my breathing, where if I sucked in too deep a breath, I’d go into nigh-uncontrollable coughing fits. My legs were shot to hell and threatening to seize at any second, and my chest still felt like it had a 20-pound weight sitting on it.

The Lady tracked me down shortly after I’d entered the food tent (she’d threatened to shove food down my throat if I didn’t eat something–anything–after the race) and gave me one of the biggest hugs ever, offering her unconditional congratulations and unwavering support, all without asking “what happened” or “are you ok” or anything like that. They’re honest and well-meaning questions, but as a marathoner herself (and a far better one than I could ever hope to be!) she knows that race plans going awry mid-event is the rule, not the exception. I’d fill her in on the race later, but all I wanted–needed–in that moment was support, and she had it in spades.

We met up with Laura–who, in her first-ever full marathon, had finished in 4:12 and placed in her age group!–and tried to get as comfortable as we could for the very uncomfortable process of forcing food down our pie holes.

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Everything tastes like chalk dipped in skim milk after a marathon. Even pizza. Even oreos.

At length, we discussed our races. Laura, having taken off at my insistence around mile 15, had slowed down a little over the next five miles, hitting an average pace of maybe about 9:10, before slowing down further for the last 10K. Nothing like my implosion, though: she did incredibly well, averaging about a 10:30 pace for the final stretch with a couple of walk breaks but overall an extremely strong finish. She crossed at 4:12, faster than any of the now-four marathons I’ve run!

I went into my dehydration theory, and The Lady more or less confirmed it by informing me (then for the first time) that the humidity at the start of the race had been sky-high. I also noticed I had precipitated salt all over my face, which was a dead giveaway that I hadn’t been drinking enough fluids.

Renee (and her daughters!) came by to congratulate us both before departing to drop her kids off with her extended family in Chattanooga. We made plans to meet up for dinner at one of our favorite Chattanooga haunts, then headed back to our “airbnb” to get cleaned up and NAP.

The next day, on the way out from Chattanooga, we stopped by Sky Valley, GA to have lunch with our friend Kim from Pittsburgh who was in town for the Sky to Summit trail ultra. The four of us caught up, ate great food, enjoyed some donuts afterwards, and had a lovely time before parting ways to head home. I caught up with my coach over the phone and filled her in on all the details. She also congratulated me on finishing, and we made plans to reconnect after I’d taken some well-earned rest and recovery time (she made me promise I wouldn’t do ANYTHING that first week… it was pretty awesome not doing anything, to underscore that yet again).

Epilogue

I’ve had this theory ever since Marine Corps in 2013: my standing marathon PR of 4:17 is a “soft” PR. I’ve run 5K races in just over 20 minutes, 10K races in just over 42, and half marathons in 1:41. A sub-4 hour marathon, in theory, should be well within the realm of possible. Even a 3:45 feels like it would be within reach after getting some more experience with the distance.

This past training cycle certainly had its ups and downs. It would have been silly to expect a flawless marathon training regimen after so long since my last full marathon; hiccups were inevitable, and in retrospect should have been expected (I suspect my coach built redundancy into the training plan from the start with this exact contingency in mind). Indeed, I missed a full week early in the training cycle, and one of my two 20-milers in October. Even so, over the “official” training period starting July 29, I churned out 530.61 miles over 84 runs, crushing over 18,500 ft of elevation and burning over 76,000 calories. Adding in the post-Ireland summer months increases the mileage by another 258.

That’s almost 800 miles in just over 5 months. Pretty solid by any definition.

So you’d think, given my propensity for self-flagellation and minimization of accomplishments, that I would be in a tizzy over this. How, given my training, did I crash so badly at Chickamauga? How, after one of my best 20-mile performances during a record-setting summer heat wave, did I put in a new personal worst by almost 20 minutes?

Weirdly, I think the margin by which I set the new personal worst has a lot to do with how rapidly I’ve come to accept what happened. If, by contrast, I’d missed my C-goal by 1 minute–finished at 4:18, say–I’d probably be furious with myself. Instead, by missing my C-goal by such a spectacularly wide degree, it made the facts all the more irrefutable: something outside my control went south in a hurry, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

I mean, clearly, I could have hydrated better the week before the race. But by the time I stepped up to the starting line, the writing was on the wall: it wasn’t going to be my day. No amount of four-letter wording–irrespective of volume–would change that.

The marathon is a beast. It’s unlike any of the other distances I’ve raced. Which is precisely why I knew, barely a full day after crossing the finish line 20 minutes later than any previous race, that I wanted to take another crack at the beast.

I don’t know when. I’ve barely even begun to get my legs back under me–runs last week felt good, until they didn’t, and I felt like I backslid a bit. This week they’ve been feeling good again, and I’ve been building more slowly, hoping to establish a rhythm again. Cross-training is going to be key: that fell off to literally 0 in the last two months of training, and while I don’t think that was THE reason for my performance, it certainly didn’t help anything. I also need to up my daily water intake to 125oz (5x water bottles) to be absolutely certain I’m sufficiently hydrated for these humid runs.

I’ll also need my coach’s help again. Self-training is great when you can manage it, and for shorter distances it certainly served us well over the years. But if I’m going to tame this beast, it’s going to take far more experienced people than me. To say Caitlin has been an incredible coach would be an understatement; she helped me reframe my mindset around running and rediscover how much fun it could be, even during those inevitable Mile 21s.

I also could never do it again without training partners. The Lady was and always will be my best and favorite training buddy, but the more the merrier. For the physical distances and mental grinds of the marathon, I’ve learned I’m someone who really needs the company. I do enjoy my solo runs, but for anything over about 12 miles, there’s just no substitute for someone with whom you can commiserate. So I’ll have to convince The Lady or Renee or Laura to run another one again.

But I definitely want to do it again.

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