“The trick,” I tell Ka., Ki., and R. at our pre-race dinner, “is to have several fallback goals. You can shoot for your stretchiest stretch goal, but if you miss it you still have the next one drawing you on.”
I have dreams, but no realistic expectation, of finishing in 3:30. The only reason I even added it to my list is because it’s not that far under 3:35, which is the Boston qualifier time for my new age group, and which I think is just barely in reach if I can summon up a monster effort and the day goes perfectly.
R. has been my training partner for the last 18 weeks. He is not much for mid-week running, but I’ve been able to bumble my way through those runs on my own. The Sunday long runs, though, we did together. I’d never have made it through them without him. One Sunday got rained out, and I missed a handful of mid-week runs due to minor injury, but aside from that we pretty much nailed the training plan.
“Doc, my heart sucks and I think I’m dying.”
The seed for the audacious plan to try to BQ was planted in early 2022, but it didn’t sprout into my consciousness until December. I was out of shape. Just getting out of bed and making breakfast caused me to break out in a sweat. My heart rate shot up to nearly 100 just getting out of my car to meet R. for a run.
At my yearly physical in February I laid all my worries on the doc, “I think my heart is on its last legs, doc. Give it to me straight – how long do I have?”
“Well, how long can you run before you get chest pains?”
“Pains? I don’t really get pains.”
“Hmm, OK, how long until you feel exhausted?”
“I don’t know – 6 to 8 miles?”
“Maybe 10:00 or 11:00/mile?”
“You moron, you’re not dying. You’re just deconditioned. Get out of my office!”
I still wasn’t convinced, so before I left I secured a referral to a cardiologist. She ordered heart-monitoring, a stress test, and an ECG. I completed these tests and came back to her office to get the results: “Give it to me straight, doc. How long do I have?”
“From the looks of these results, about 30 to 40 years. You moron. Get out of my office!”
Chastened and encouraged, I decided that there was no better time to do some serious speed training.
Coros makes a great watch. The battery life is outstanding – I’ve never drained it below 90% at a race – and it’s lightweight & featureful. Their app allows downloading several training plans, for anything from intense speedwork up to 100 mile races.
I found a plan with the moderately clunky name “12 week run speed development” and resolved to follow it to a T.
At various times in my life I am reminded of the etymology of the word “decision”: “de-“, meaning “off”, and “-cision”, a cut. A cutting off of all other alternatives. I have de-cided to follow this speed training plan and get fast; all other alternatives such as skipping a scheduled run, cheating on the training pace, etc. are cut off. Get fast or die tryin’.
And it worked. Of course it worked. How could it not? We know that training works. You want to get fast? There’s no big secret. Do the work and you will be fast.
Flash forward to December, 2022. I have completed the speedwork program, and R and I are in the early days of marathon-specific training. Time to do some racing and put the training to the test:
- December 4th, 2022 – South Berkeley Christmas 5k – 21:19 (PR)
- December 11th, 2022 – Holiday Half – 1:43:12 (PR)
- March 5th 2023 – Reston 10 Miler – 1:13:59 (PR)
Maybe I’m ready
I felt strong for the whole 10 miler, and had little or no soreness afterwards. The 7:24 average pace was encouraging, but how would that translate to 26.2 miles? That last 10k of the marathon is such a beast; I could easily lose 30+ seconds on my average pace if I blow up.
For the BQ I’d need to do 8:12 – and WTH, if I’m thinking about 3:35 I might as well put 3:30 on the table as well. That would be 8:00 pace. Let’s make a plan for it.
Easy enough – I know I will not negative split. I’ve never been fit enough to negative split a marathon, and I am in tune enough with my training to know that hasn’t changed now. That means I’ll need some cushion in the last 10 miles. I decide to target 7:50 to 8:00 pace starting out and see how long I can hold it.
Until the setback, that is. For some reason the taper runs after Reston are hard. Like, really hard. I feel sluggish and tired. I can manage to hold an 8:00 pace, but it’s a struggle. I’ve got an ache in my right hip that won’t let go. Even up until the last few days before the marathon I feel heavy and weak.
Maybe it’s time to be a little more realistic and preserve my more achievable goals. A new PR (< 3:57:04) should be no problem at all, and 3:45:00 is very realistic if I don’t go out too hot and blow up. Greed kills, speed kills. Run smart and go home with the PR. There will be more chances to BQ.
C is my ultra running idol. C is not fast. but she is gritty. Nothing can stop her. She runs with joy and determination. She messaged me not long before race day with some typically C-esque words of advice for my marathon: “May you be confident. May you trust your training and show up bravely, Ray!”
I guess I’m all in, then. 7:50s it is, for as long as I can keep it.
Race day dawns, and I’m up early. I brew some coffee in the hotel room and walk a couple of blocks to a 7-11 for some fast calories. I get a text from Ki. – he’s not brought any pins for his bib and what should he do? I recommend trying to cadge some from random hotel desks, or seeing if he can get random runners to give him one of their four; they should be fine with just three. I suddenly note that I have an extra two pins and offer to share them with Ki. if I can find him at the start.
I fail to find him at the start, but later learn that he cadged a stapler from a 7-11 and solved his problem thus. I also look for R., but he eludes me as well. With 5 minutes to the gun I head to my start corral, where I find my cousin W.
W. and his wife are running the half. I’d met up with them the day prior at the expo, and it was good to catch up. It turns out we have similar pace goals and he’s shooting for a 1:45 half.
We talk about maybe running together for the opening miles, but when the gun goes off I spot a gap between two runners ahead of me, dart through it, and I am gone.
My gear for this race included:
- Four Gu liquid energy gels. I had hoped to carry these in the liner pocket of my shorts, so as not to need a vest, but in pre-race testing I learned that this resulted in a significant, annoying thigh slap. I decided to carry them instead in my…
- Nathan Pinnacle 4L vest. This is by far the best hydration/running vest I’ve ever bought. Fits snug, no bounce, easy bottle access, plenty of storage space but contracts down when empty. I left the water bottles in the hotel and just used it to carry the gels and one 2Toms SportShield towelette in case my pre-race application failed me (it didn’t).
- Saucony Endorphin Elite shoes. I don’t even know what to say about these shoes except that they are super amazing and you should buy some. Lightweight, highly cushioned, they just seem to propel you forward off your toes. Best shoe I’ve ever bought. (I was tickled to see that W. had the exact same shoe).
- Coros Pace watch.
First mile, 7:52. Right on target. I feel great, The running is effortless. I started in the 3rd wave, and I steadily move up.
I feel so good. I feel unstoppable, Mile 2, 7:43; mile 3, 7:39; mile 4, 7:44. It’s too fast. I try to slow down, but it’s impossible. Any slower pace feels like standing still. The legs want what they want and I give them their rein.
The day is beautiful. It’s a little chilly in the shade, but the course is mostly sunny and I feel great. The next 11 mile splits are all within 5 seconds of each other, averaging 7:35/mile. It’s too fast, but there’s nothing I can do. I cross the timing mat at the halfway point and check my watch – 1:40:32. I have set a half marathon PR by over two and a half minutes. I am on pace to finish under 3:22. I know it’s unsustainable; I know I’ll have to crash and burn – but if this be wheezin’, make the most of it!
Down to the southern half of the course, and I still feel good. We run along the boardwalk for a couple miles; I don’t feel the breeze at my back, but I know it’s there. Then we turn off onto roads and it’s time to see how much guts I have.
The little speed bump just past mile 15 does not look like much, but it’s a significant hill, up and over a large bridge. This is where the magic starts to wear off. The bridge puts me over 8 minutes (8:13) for the first time on mile 16. I manage to drop back to 7:55 for mile 17, but mile 18 is 8:45. It’s one step forward, two steps back.
It’s a seesaw battle between fatigue and will. I pop back under 8 for mile 19 (7:57), and wind up just over for mile 20 (8:14). I’m still easily on pace for 3:30 with 10k to go, but there’s a lot against me in these last miles. I am really feeling the early pace and I am fatigued to the point where I have to walk a little bit each mile. I’m starting to feel some cramps flirting around my calves. And I know I’ll have to face that bridge on the way back.
Now the wheels are falling off, and I am losing my cushion fast. Each mile is slower than the last:
- Mile 21 through military housing , 8:33
- Mile 22 through the same, 8:41
- Mile 23 back over the bridge, 9:06
At this point I am about 3:02 into the race. A quick calculation tells me that to make 3:30 I’ll need to average about 8:50/mile the rest of the way. Not happening.
But the BQ is still on the table – I only need about 10:25/mile to beat 3:35. I dig deep and get ready for the attempt, but as we turn back onto the boardwalk I realize the breeze that had been at my back is now a vicious gale in my face. My lips are red and raw; my vest is chafing bad under my right arm; my legs have got nothing left, and this wind feels like it’s going to toss me into the ocean. Mile 24 is slower yet, 9:35, but that cuts my goal pace down to ~11:00/mile for the BQ. It’s a race against the elements now.
I have just another mile of boardwalk, then it will be out to the roads then back south with the wind at my back. Mile 25 is the slowest yet, 10:16.
I cross the last timing mat at mile 25.2. One mile remaining, and the time reads 3:25:10. I’ve got 9:50 to finish this. There’s no fatigue or loafing in the last mile; buckle down and get it done.
A right and then another quick right and I’m back on the boardwalk heading south. A huge statue of Poseidon is looming, and just past him, the finish line. Ka. yells to me from the sidelines. I’m going to make it.
I start to kick for the last quarter mile and my right hamstring completely seizes up, bringing me to a screeching halt. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no!” I can see the finish, but I can barely move. Limp, stagger, grab leg, limp, dig and gouge and massage hamstring, stagger, limp, check watch, f*** it, just run. If I die I die.
The leg will seize or it will not. I will make it or I will not.
The line is closer and the leg is rowdy, but it’s holding. Closer. Closer. I could crawl now and make it.
The last mile was an even 8:00. Finish time, 3:33:10. That’s a massive 23:54 PR and a BQ for this old man.
I see Ka. briefly then head back to the hotel to change and shower before coming back to watch R. finish. Once I’m in the room I get debilitating chills; I can’t get warm. I crank the heat up high in the shower, and I dread having to get out.
Outside it’s cold, and waiting for R. seems like an eternity. He finishes with a 30+ minute PR though, and there are many congrats and hugs.
I learn that W. bettered his previous best for the half by over 12 minutes. W.’s wife, M., and Ki. each finished the half with a very respectable time. It’s a beautiful day all around.
This is the first time I’ve finished a marathon and felt like more was achievable. The first 15 miles of this race went very, very well, and not all of the last 10 were disastrous. I have no doubt that with more training I can run strong the whole 26.2. I don’t think I’ve set my last PR.