Monday, October 29, 2012

Baystate Marathon Report

With my carry-on stuffed full of running gear, I began the long descent down from Leadville to DIA. My Hokas must have taken up a third of my suitcase. Nipple protection? Check. Assorted gels? Check. Bag of maltodextrin? Check. GPS, HR monitor, cadence sensor? Check, check, and check. (What the hell would airport security think of all this?) Over the years, the flight from Denver to Boston has become pretty routine. I fly out there about every quarter on business. Soon I was munching on dinner at Boston Beer Works at Logan, breathing in the thick, oxygen-rich air. It took all my self control to refrain from ordering a pint-- especially considering I could expense it.

My training partner!
Much like the flight, my "training" for this race was pretty routine. I would say that it was actually more recovery than training. I biked for a whopping hour the week after the 100. The following week I went for two short 4-5 mile runs during which I was definitely hampered by lingering ITBS issues. Then, the following week, there was my hernia surgery, which sidelined me for another week or so-- though I did spend some time on the bike trainer while I was recovering. All my runs were broken up by short hip stretching routines every 20-30 minutes or so. Eventually the pain in my left knee faded enough that it didn't affect my running-- though I could still feel some tightness from time to time. I managed to log one 20-mile run as my long run, and then snuck in a 13-miler and a 10-miler in the weeks leading up to the marathon. The rest of my runs were generally in the 5-6 mile range. With the exception of the 20-miler, I tried to pick runs that were mostly on pavement and that had minimal elevation gain (well, minimal for Leadville). I tried to keep my average pace around 8:45-9:00 min/miles, which is pretty much my "tempo" pace. So, low 8's going downhill and mid 9's going uphill. All in all, I logged about 4 weeks of 35 mile/week training before a one week taper. Overall, the training times I was logging were solid, but not amazing. In contrast to last year, when I was setting PRs on all my local routes in the weeks following 100, this year I was coming up a bit short. It certainly seems like this year's 100 took more out of me than last year's. Not surprising, really.

Red = Injured. Yellow = Bike. Brown = Hike. Green = 20+ miler.

Going in to Baystate, I really didn't know what to expect. I'd never run a flat, paved, sea-level marathon before. Hell, I'd never run a flat, paved marathon at any altitude before! While I'd run a few 10-13 mile training runs at sea level in the past, no previous training run was directly comparable. Obviously they were all much shorter (maxing out at half the distance). Some had hills (e.g., Vermont), while others were on sandy beaches (e.g, Florida). Looking at the data, it seemed like I could average around 8:45 min/mile for 10 miles. I'd run a few 5-mile runs at sea level where I'd averaged 7:40 min/mile. That seemed about the upper limit of my speed. So... I don't know... I was really hoping for 3:something. 3:59? 3:50? 3:45? Any sub-4:00 time would be a huge improvement on my previous marathon PR of 5:34 in the Salida marathon last March.

Baystate wasn't a focus race for me, so I certainly wasn't stressing out about my performance. However, I did feel a little bit of extra motivation to represent ultra runners well-- especially those that hailed from the mountains of Colorado. More than anything I was very curious to see how my body would respond to this new challenge. I was hoping I hadn't lost the endurance I had built up over the summer, and that my legs had recovered enough to hold up to the pounding of a road race.

My friend and co-worker, Dave Woodruff, kindly picked up my race packet on Saturday. He'd also generously offered to give me a lift from my hotel to the race on Sunday morning. Dave's a super fast runner, making the podium on many local races, and he was gunning for a Boston qualifier time of <3:10. One of my goals for the marathon was not to get lapped by him on the double-loop section of the course!

My alarm went off at 5am, which of course felt like 3am to me. I had packed enough snacks to scrounge together a pre-race meal of sorts: a Lara bar, a few handfuls of almonds, and 20 oz of the same maltodextrin-based energy drink I used for the 100. This time I also mixed in a 5-Hour Energy rather than drink it straight-- I had learned from my debacle at the Fish Hatchery. We were both in good spirits and chatted away during the short drive to the starting line. Once parked, we pinned our numbers on, made a few last minute adjustments, and headed towards the starting line. I scarfed down a Honeystinger waffle for a final 180 calories an hour before the start.

My nutrition plan for the marathon was pretty simple. Eat a good breakfast (~800 calories), don't pre-hydrate excessively (to avoid too many pee stops), and race with a 20 oz hand held bottle full of 300 calories of energy drink. Those initial 300 calories would take care of the first hour. After that, the plan was simply to eat gels and fill my bottle with Gatorade at the numerous aid stations along the course (approximately every two miles). I'd try to hit 300 calories an hour-- with about 100 calories coming from Gatorade and 200 calories coming from gel. Pretty standard for an ultramarathon, though probably more calories than most of the other racers ate. The weather forecast looked almost perfect. Not too hot, partly cloudy. Shorts and t-shirt weather. No arm sleeves necessary. I didn't anticipate needing any salt tablets in these conditions-- especially given the fact that I'd be guzzling Gatorade-- but I shoved a few in one of my pockets as insurance.

We had arrived with plenty of time to spare, so Dave and I hung out and chatted for a good while. I made sure to thoroughly stretch my hips to try to stave off any potential ITBS issues. Everything felt very casual and relaxed. With about 10 minutes or so to go, Dave and I took our places at the starting line. There were markers to separate the field into different pace groups: 11:00 min/mile, 10:00 min/mile, etc. I lined up somewhere around the 8:45 min/mile mark. I'd guess there were over 2,000 runners at the starting line-- with about half of them running the half marathon (which broke off after a few miles). There was great energy in the crowd and I was excited to start running! With a cheer, we set off!

I knew this race would be all about pacing. It was going to be a 4 hour experiment in gauging my perceived effort and listening to my body. I had to throw out my preconceived ideas about what a particular pace was supposed to feel like. Since I was in control of my pace, that's what I'd focus on. I was actually more concerned about things I couldn't really control: Would my knees hold up to the pounding? Would my ITBS flare up? Would running so fast cause me to cramp? I put those questions out of my mind since they were largely out of my control once the race began. The pacing experiment began in the first mile. What did a 9 min/mile pace feel like? How high was my heart rate? It was like learning to run all over again.

I wanted to go out slow so that I gave myself time to warm up. Plus, I had a not-so-secret desire to negative split the race, so I didn't want to run the first 13.1 miles too fast and put that goal out of reach. The first mile clicked by in 8:59. It felt super easy. Too easy. The crowds were still pretty dense at this point, and to a certain extent my pace was dictated by the runners immediately in front of me. My HR was hovering in the low 130s, but it felt very different than what low 130s feel like in Leadville. I wanted to run faster. I tried to focus on running smoothly and maintaining good form. Head up. Shoulders loose. High cadence. Small sips of calories. The first few miles went through town (your standard New England mill town), but then we started following a slightly more rural road alongside the river. I was pleased to see that there were actually a few rolling hills. I kept steady on the uphills and generally moved up a few places on the downhills. It seemed like most folks were more locked into a certain pace, whereas my instincts were to go with what the terrain gave me. I kept glancing at my watch to gauge my speed and my HR. I seemed to naturally settle in on an 8:15 min/mile pace, which seemed super fast to me, but felt right. Sustainable. My HR was up in mid 140s at that speed. In Leadville, I'd be right on the edge of going anaerobic at that HR. Generally, my GPS is set up to raise an alarm when my HR goes above 141 to keep myself in the MAF zone. Luckily I had the foresight to disable my HR alarm before the race! I found myself cruising along, thoroughly enjoying myself, and watching all the other runners.

Around mile 6 or so, I started setting PRs for distances I run in Leadville. I ran the first 6 miles at about the same speed as my typical Boulevard tempo run at home. I just had to laugh at the audacity of the whole situation. My plan was to maintain that pace for another 20 miles! I hit the 10 mile mark about 5 minutes faster than my fastest 10 mile Leadville run-- and I'm talking about an all out 10 mile effort in peak fitness (on pavement). Instead, here at sea level, running on relatively flat ground, it felt reasonable. Strong, but not reckless. Things were going very smoothly so far. Refilling my water bottle with Gatorade went quickly-- I barely had to stop. Better yet, I found that I could actually suck down a gel without dropping below a 9:00 min/mile pace! I've never managed to do that in the mountains. Holding my breath for just the amount of time it takes to swallow almost certainly causes a dizzy spell at altitude if I'm running that fast.

Most importantly, I was having fun. I distinctly remember one moment where a gust of wind blew a bunch of autumn leaves off of the trees that lined the route. We ran through the flurry of falling red and orange leaves. It put a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

As I started to close in on the halfway mark at 1:50 I felt like maybe I had let my enthusiasm get away with me. I had planned to reach it around 1:57 or so, which would've been a solid PR for 13.1 miles, but would still leave room for possible improvement in the second half of the race. I thought to myself, "This is crazy!" I had probably blown my chance to negative split the race. I backed off a bit during the middle miles, down to an 8:30 min/mile pace. But as I got some more gel in me, my mood improved and I started finding myself unconsciously speeding up again. At this point, I could definitely feel my knees. But, it was just a normal "creaky" feeling around the knee caps-- not the ITBS pain I so dreaded. I also seemed to be forming some kind of knot in my left quad. So far, my stride hadn't been affected, but the miles of pavement were beginning to take their toll. I began to pass more and more runners on the side of the road, stretching.

Around mile 14 a group of three very strong looking runners jogged past me while casually chatting away. These guys knew what they were doing. You could just tell they had treated the first half of the race as a warm up. They were the last runners to pass me for the remainder of the race.

Around the 30k mark (another PR) the carnage started increasing. I was now regularly climbing up the ranks, weaving around runners that were slowing down. Aerobically, I felt amazing. My nutrition was dialed in. It was all down to my legs. How long would they hold up? The various aches and pains had seemed to stabilize, so I was gaining confidence the deeper into the race I got. Everything was unfolding much faster than in a typical trail ultra. I didn't want to stop for anything! The one time I pulled off course to pee seemed like an eternity. I blew through aid stations as fast as possible. I ate everything on the run. True to the spirit of ultra running I took care of myself-- but I took care of myself while on the move. I stayed on top of calories and fluid without stopping. I shook out my arms every few miles to stay loose. I stayed in the shade whenever possible to cool down. I kept tabs on my posture and tried to maintain my form. This is probably where my experience helped the most. This race would be the ninth time I'd run 25 miles or more this year. But I didn't just want to survive the race, I wanted to run it strong with minimal fading in the crucial final miles. Running 50s and 100s keeps things in perspective, I guess. I didn't want to leave anything on the course, but I also didn't want to blow up. It's a fine balance which is hard to master-- especially on an unfamiliar course.

At mile 21 or so, my confidence reached some critical level where I knew it was finally safe to race. I was definitely going to run under 4 hours; now it was just a matter of how much. My pace quickened to sub-8:00 min/miles and my HR started climbing into the high 150s. I find that I feel a strange mixture of camaraderie and yet also competition with my fellow runners during a race. Generally, the camaraderie is by far the most common and long lasting feeling I experience before, after, and during a race. However, I cannot deny that I get a strong mental boost from moving up in the ranks-- especially late in a race. It's so much more satisfying, I think, than going out fast and not being quite able to hold on until the very end. Glancing at my watch, I knew I was close to negative splitting. I just had to push hard during these last few miles. I knew I was pushing because I started looking for those mile markers in anticipation. I'd spot a pack of runners in the distance and make it my goal to catch them. Beast mode. Finally, I turned into the finishing chute and sprinted through the cheering crowd and across the finish line in 3:38. Unbelievable.

I had done it! I had negative split the race! 1:50 for the first half and 1:48 for the second half. I had set back to back 13.1 mile PRs and set a marathon PR by 1 hour and 55 minutes. All in the same race!

26.2 miles of speed work.
If I ran with a HR this high in Leadville, I'd probably be dead.

Once I stopped running, my legs immediately locked up. I could barely walk! I hobbled around a bit and found a nice sunny spot in the grass to rest and stretch and nurse a Pepsi. Eventually I found Dave sprawled out near the food table. We quickly exchanged war stories. Dave had just missed a BQ due to his calves cramping up in the final miles. Damn it. (Next time, Dave!) But we had both set PRs. I had a big grin plastered on my face for the rest of the day. We slurped down a few bowls of soup while chatting about running, training, aging software engines, deprecated code, and the finer points of distributed systems synchronization. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a local Indian restaurant and gorged on the buffet.

Good times.

What a great way to finish a season of running! A big thank you to Dave for providing the excuse to push myself and run a final marathon this year. I feel like I learned a ton during this race. It was probably a once in a lifetime experience to make such a massive improvement at a particular distance. I felt like I was magically transported into someone else's body and told to run 26.2 miles. I had to figure things out as I went. It was surprisingly enjoyable to run just by perceived effort. Who knows? Maybe I'll start running without a watch!


  1. Man...don't it feel good to exceed one's expectations!? Congrats.

  2. Thanks, Jim! It was definitely fun to mix things up and run such a different race.

  3. You ever read a blog post and get all jazzed up to only forget to comment and realize you forgot three weeks later??? Yeah, that's me here. Well done Andy!

    I had a similar road marathon experience last year in NH. I too ran an unexpected fast time and had a lot fun out there. Although, not enough fun to make me want to go back to running on the roads!

    Hope all is well up in Pb!