Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Race review: First Light Marathon

I thought I had mixed emotions after Tucson, but that was nothing compared to this. I ran a 3:16:30, a PR by 2:48... and as of today, exactly 31 seconds shy of qualifying for Boston.

Winning my age group tipped me more towards feeling good about the race than not. I was first of 29 in my age group and 20th of 471 overall. That was a true AG win, too; no one got pulled out for an overall award.

 Coming four weeks after Tucson, my expectations were tempered. I decided ahead well before race day that I'd follow the Galloway run-walk-run method (5 minutes run, 30 seconds walk for a 7:30 race pace), not because I thought it'd help my time but because of the promise of not feeling completely trashed at the end of the race. (Spoiler alert: I felt completely trashed. If I came up 31 seconds short of a BQ and still had something left in the tank, there wouldn't have been any mixed emotions.) I was sore for several days after Tucson, and even though I know that had more to do with all the downhill running than anything, I was receptive to doing something different.

The forecast called for bitter cold and gusty winds, so I headed out for my warm-up in all the cold-weather gear I brought: beanie, compression shirt under tech shirt, gloves, tights, compression knee socks. I hadn't bothered to check the current weather first, so I was surprised by mid-30s and manageable winds, with the wind chill about 15 degrees warmer than expected. A quick mile or so had me sweating, so I went back to my room and ditched the hat and tight shirt (but kept the gloves, since I had a Gu packet wedged into each).

It felt really awkward pulling over to walk 5 minutes into the race. It seemed like almost all of my walk breaks east of I-65 -- the first 10 miles -- began just as I was approaching a group of spectators. It's a weird feeling to know what you're doing, and know that it looks odd, with no time to explain it. I could've given a very succinct explanation to the woman who passed me about 7 miles in and shouted, "Don't give up now!", but I passed. She was hardly out of line compared to the spectators at the 4-mile mark who reminded us that we had more than 20 miles to go. For some folks, math is hard.

I knew I had gone out a little faster than anticipated, but I was pretty shocked to see a 6:57 first mile that included a walk break. Nevertheless, I went right back to what felt like a comfortable half marathon pace with each interval. Before I knew it, I was banking a bunch of time against a 3:15:59 finish -- 4:10 at the 10-mile mark. Sure, I'd covered totally flat terrain with the wind at my back and had much tougher sledding ahead, but it was somewhere around this time that I started to think that maybe this walking thing was going to propel me all the way to Boston. With 10 miles to go, I was more than 5 minutes ahead of BQ pace.

Mile 18 brought a pretty awful climb that prompted me to take an extra walk break. I figured it was worth withdrawing a few seconds from the bank in order to save some energy for later. We turned east for the last 6 miles back downtown, into the wind. I was fighting it, but 22 miles in, I was still 3:38 ahead. At mile 25, I still had 10 full minutes to finish.

But there was just nothing left in the tank. Even running as hard as I could, I could barely get my pace under 8:00. And by running as hard as I could, I had to take a couple extra breaks. I could see the finish line a few hundred yards away as the last few ticks of the 196th minute dissolved. There was nothing I could do.

As much as the race wore out my legs, it turned my brain into mush, too. Normally when I run, all I do is count my steps. Breathe in, breathe out, keep the slowest rhythm I can to conserve energy. Sometimes I'll mentally break the race into smaller pieces or encourage myself with "only xx far to go." This was great for running with a pacer in Tucson; the speed was set, the course had very few turns, and I could be on total auto-pilot.

None of that applied here. Just trying to remember when I was supposed to take my walk breaks was too much; I missed a couple and had to fumble around to get back on track. I had wanted to print something out and tape it to my sleeve, but that never happened, and because of it, I was too preoccupied for other tasks, like taking my gels (late on all but the 1st) or even staying on course (twice almost went straight when I was supposed to turn; special thanks to the policewoman who shouted to me around mile 18).

Afterward, my friends asked me if I was pissed about the near-miss. I did all I could. When a basketball team loses by a point, they can pore over details forever and drive themselves nuts trying to figure out what one play cost them the game. I could do the same. Maybe it was too warm for the tights, too. Maybe I should've banked more time early or skipped or shortened some walk breaks. Maybe I should've had more Gatorade instead of just water (more on this in a minute). There are as many facets to analyze as steps I took and yet hardly any of them would produce something constructive, if any at all. I'm not going to worry about it.

Right off the top I must point out that the phrase "Southern hospitality" isn't something someone constructed from a myth. Everyone involved with the race was incredibly pleasant and welcoming. I also highly recommend staying at the Candlewood Suites on Royal. If it's not the closest hotel to the finish line, the difference is negligible... and again, very hospitable folks there.

The race is not chip-timed, but even when you include the half-marathoners, it's not a very large event -- and the starting line stretches all the way across 6 lanes of Government Street, so anyone who cares about his/her time is over the line within seconds. By the time I went back to my room, showered, got dressed and walked back over to race HQ, some results were already posted.

I had read comments about the Gatorade-like product that was available along the route, so I stuck to water for every stop but one. Big mistake on that one. The taste, though familiar, is way too strong. It couldn't have been a bad mix because others had written about the same thing. Go with just the water and take an extra gel or two if you think you'll need them. There were 18 water stops along the course. I usually take water at every single stop but even I had to skip the last 2 or 3 because I'd just had too much.

These are kind of weird with the walk breaks mixed in, but:
7:59 pace last 0.37

This is not a race for the person who must have a shiny memento. The wooden medals are painted by the members of L'Arche Mobile, a local group that meets the needs of the developmentally disabled. They also design the plaques that go to the age group winners (as before, I'll post pictures eventually). The awards are simple and may not appeal to everyone, but they are certainly unique and memorable.

The goody bag is an actual drawstring sling sack, with a long-sleeve cotton event T. I chipped in a few extra bucks for a long-sleeve tech shirt with a 10th anniversary logo. That's all you get for stuff, but the draw is the free night-before pasta dinner and free post-race lunch. Granted, the food was very bland for my tastes, but I heard praise from others. The massive setup in the atrium of the government building encourages visiting with your fellow runners.

Too Cold to Hold 15K, Dallas, Jan. 23.

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