I ran the National Marathon this weekend, my first ever marathon. It was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to running another, either this fall in the Twin Cities, or at some point next year. Next races on my calendar – a pair of ten milers in May and June.
I returned to running last April after 17 years of little to no physical activity. I was overweight and out of shape. I started running with the Couch to 5K training program, which helped me be able to run a 5K in May. Then I ran the Army Ten Miler in October, followed a few weeks later by the Richmond Half Marathon in November. And now the National Marathon. Couch to Marathon, in one year. I did it.
But this post isn't about the last 11 months. It's about Saturday. Continue reading if you want to see some runner-geek details about the race.
This was my first marathon, and though I had run several long training runs – up to 21 miles – I wasn't quite sure what to expect, especially at the end of the race. I had been consistently training in the range of an 8:40-9:00 pace, so I knew sub-4-hour marathon was possible. Still, what every experienced marathoner says to a first-timer is true: those last few miles are an absolute bear. If you look at my race log, you'll see that my pace slows around Mile 19, and I hit my first over-9:00 mile at Mile 24. Though miles 19-22 were tough, I didn't start to really hurt or question my sanity until Mile 23. For me, the last three miles were the worst.
Though overall I felt very good, I ran a far-from-perfect race. I went out a bit too fast – 13 miles @ 1:52 – and ran out of gas near the end. The energy of the crowd of runners, and the great spectators cheering us on, got the best of me. It was lots of fun, but I went out faster than I ought to have.
Another reason for my fade during the last three miles, I think, was that I was out of fuel. I ate an entire bag of Chomps – think high-energy gummy bears – from just prior to the gun to the Half mark, but then ate nothing on the second half. In retrospect, I wish I had eaten some more Chomps from Miles 13-18, as that might have helped me somewhat at the end of the race (during which I was suffering from some wooziness).
My time was also affected, even if only somewhat, by my wide swings on most of the turns during the first half of the race. I avoided the crush of runners trying to cut the corners as tight as possible and kept my stride open, but I also added .5 miles to my run by doing that.
I stopped to use the bathroom near Mile 6 – I was overly hydrated, perhaps? That stop cost me about 90 seconds. Rather than stand in the long lines at the nasty port-a-potties, I stopped at a Caribou Coffee. However, later in the race I learned that experienced marathoners of both genders know how to find discreet spots along the course, even in an urban marathon, to find relief.
In addition to drinking from my own hydration belt (large bottle of water, small 5oz bottle of Gatorade) I hit my first water station at about Mile 9, and then drank water and/or Powerade at nearly every station after the Half mark. I never got thirsty on the run.
When I began to hit a wall at Mile 23, I knew my time was good enough that I was going to get my goal of sub-4:00. So, despite the pain and mental anguish, some of the pressure was off. Sure, I would have preferred to run negative splits, but with only 3-4 miles to go, I knew that I was able to finish at a slower pace and still get my goal of a sub-4-hour marathon. I was glad to be in the position of being able to simply focus on finishing rather than trying to maintain or pick up my pace on the last few miles.
Finally, I wish I had known the approach to the finish line. As I was crossing the bridge toward RFK Stadium, I knew I was getting close, but I didn't know exactly where the finish line was (the finish was on an uphill along a curve, and there were no large signs or balloons or anything rising over the crowds and trees, so it was hard to see the finish line area from the course). I remember going up the road around the north side of the stadium, where spectators were starting to line up, and asking one of the spectators, "Where the heck is the finish line?" I wish I had known the last mile better. It wouldn't have changed my time significantly, of course, but it would have made the last mile mentally much easier.
Overall it was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to more road races this season, including another marathon in the fall, if everything works out.
I'll get into the more personal side of running – the journey over the past year, and its emotional and physical ups and downs – in a future post. But suffice it to say that is has been an amazing year, and I owe so much to my dear wife Jessicah – who ran a great half marathon on Saturday – for encouraging me and putting up with me over the past year. We did it babe! Thanks so much for your love and support!