Saturday, May 9, 2009

Eugene marathon race report

Last weekend was a blast - I got to spend a relaxing weekend with Christine and the girls, sandwiched around a good run. It was a truly amazing event, and I hope my words can do it justice.

We drove down to Eugene Saturday afternoon. After a few days of pretty good weather (considering it's spring in Oregon), a Pacific weather system decided to move in for the weekend. I packed well: running jacket, cap and gloves - but it wasn't cold enough to justify long pants. On the two hour drive down, we drove through some very heavy rainstorms. All the while I'm thinking, "I'm going to be running through THIS tomorrow? This has the potential to be miserable!"

Fortunately by the time we got into Eugene and got to the expo, the really heavy squalls had past. The expo itself was great - a good range of exhibitors, easy packet pickup, and importantly, I joined up with the Clif Bar Pace Team. Specifically the 4:15 group. On my long runs, I had been training at a 9:35ish pace... and bonking and cramping around 18 miles. I figure that I can back off to a 9:44 pace and have enough left in the tank to make it to at least 22, maybe 24 miles, then use willpower to get through the last few miles. Nice idea, but it didn't quite work, as we'll see later.

For dinner, we went to McGrath's fish house. I truly carbo-loaded before running Portland in 2007, and I found out that my body doesn't really take well to carbo-loading. For me, it basically leads to frequent appreciation of where the course organizers have placed the portajohns. This time I figure that since we're eating a pretty healthy mix of carbs and lean protein at home, I should do the same the night before the race. After a decent crab cake appetizer and a nice salmon dish with potatoes, mission accomplished. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and vegged out until I turned in around 10pm.

The alarm goes off at 4:30... wow, it's early. Only an hour earlier than the usual wake-up time, so fortunately it doesn't seem too ridiculous. Also, typical of some runners, I was scarcely able to sleep through the night, so I wasn't completely groggy but did get enough sleep to feel rested. After my usual breakfast of Trader Joe's Os, I start downing Ultima replenisher drink at 6am to get some electrolytes into the system.

6am we start to make our way to the race area. There's no parking close by, so Christine drops me off at 6:20. By 6:40, I'm safely in the 10:00 and faster starting corral, I've found my pace group, and Christine and the girls come find me. Which is great, for a couple of reasons: 1) it was awesome to get some last minute encouragement from the loved ones; 2) my Amphipod race number belt managed to destroy my bib, so I gave the belt to Chrsitine rather than carry the extra gear for 26 miles. On the bright side, there were a couple of folks in the pace group who donated a couple of pins so I could pin my bib on my shirt (thanks, Wendy and whoever else!).

7am and the gun goes off as expected. Since we're toward the back of the fast corral, we don't get to the line for about two minutes. But once we do, we're off and running - and immediately the whole concept of a pace group comes in handy. Nearly every race that I run, from 4 miles to marathon, I go out too fast in the first mile. Having a pacer there holding us back was great... instead of bolting out of the gate too fast, I race the first mile in 9:50 - within 6 seconds of the goal pace, and on the slow side. But then the big downhill comes on mile two. The pacer (Star) constantly talked to us, giving pointers on how best to run downhill to save our quads for the important miles. And downhill we fly... second mile goes by in 9:19. However, we still have a bit of momentum and even more downhill - mile 3 in 8:41. At this point, I'm starting to get a bit worried, but I'll see how it looks once the downhill ends.

During mile 4, I start to get in my groove. That wonderful feeling that you can run forever. I'm running a 9:30-9:40 pace on the flats, and it feels easy. I also start to notice the crowd a bit more. The crowd was hard not to notice in the first two miles around the University, but now we're in the residential section, and there are people (and occasional bands and street performers) out to encourage us. The only downside is that on the other side of the greenway we see runners coming back from the turnaround at 5 miles. And we continue to see them. And even more runners... it makes miles 3-5 seem like they go on forever.

After the turnaround, we get more running tips from Star. She points out that most of the group gets ahead of her every time we pass a band or a radio truck - not only are downhills our enemies, but music subconciously makes us speed up unless we're very intentional about running a slow pace. She also gives us one of the tidbits that will probably stay with me the rest of my life: running a marathon is really three races. The first 10 miles, you're running with your head. You're pacing yourself, you're using your mind to keep your body under control on the downhills and when you pass those bands that trick us into speeding up and wasting the energy we'll need later. The second race, miles 11-20, you're running with your legs. This is why we train, this is why we have the long runs leading up to the marathon. This is where the endurance pays off, and our legs, now accustomed to the pace, take us up to mile 20. The last race, the last 6 miles, you race with your heart. Your head is telling you that you want to (or need to) stop. Your legs are begging "no more!" I keep this advice in mind not only because it's wisdom from someone who's run 106 marathons, but also because I know that I'll need it later.

Miles 5-7 are pretty much cruising, then onto a greenway through Amazon park for the 8th mile. At this point, I realize that our pace group is being rude and taking up the entire path. Yes, we need to move over, but I think - who are these crazy yahoos sprinting past us on the grass? Star reminds us that we'll see them later, and they probably won't be running. Especially since if they've been behind us for 7 miles, why are they running a sprint at mile 8? Hopefully for their sake, they're all running the half marathon. :)

Mile 9 is back up that hill that we saw at mile 2. Wow it's steep, but the wonders of the pace group again - Star reminds us that we need to take shorter steps and down worry about slowing down up the hill. I'm really digging this pace group... until we pass 8 miles in a little less than 76 minutes. Can you say 9:30 pace for the first 8 miles? And I was bonking at 18 miles on a 9:35 pace? This is suddenly looking like it could be a long day - but it also could be a major PR, so I figure I'll stick with the pace group as long as possible.

The marker for mile 9 is back in the start area, and another pacer joins us. Around mile 10, he points out that people who use GPS or Nike+ during their marathons actually log about 27 miles during the race, darting back and forth across the road, to the water stations, and not cutting the tangents as closely as they could. That thought enters my mind that I actually need to run 27 miles in 4:15, which is actually a much speedier pace (9:27). Hmmm... starting to worry just a bit. At mile 11, the second pacer (name was Jim or Ron - but I can't remember for sure) sidles up and chats with me for a while. He's just a rookie compared to Star, as this is only his 46th marathon, having started doing this crazy marathon stuff in 2001. Pshaw - only 5-6 a year? What does he know? :)

Around mile 12, I start to float out in front of our group. Not too far - about 100-200 yards, which means I can still hear 90% of Star's commentary. I do hear her promise us a story around mile 17, so I'm going to make sure I don't get too far away from the group. I do pass through the half marathon check in under 2:07. At this point, I'm feeling pretty good, so I'm not sure whether I should be happy or worried. :) I have been keeping myself well-hydrated up til now. While I did miss one water station around mile 3 or 4, I've hit all the other ones, and had two, sometimes three, cups of water at each. And most of the water has been going down the hatch, although there were a couple of noteable spills. And I've been keeping myself well-fed too. At mile 2 I broke out the first pack of Clif ShotBloks. Three blocks (100 calories) every two miles, so I'm taking in a good amount of energy. I'm also taking four Hammer Endurolytes every five miles, hoping to stave off the cramping that I encountered back in Portland.

By mile 15, two things are starting to happen. First, I'm starting to feel a little bit... tired. Exhausted. Not sleepy, but worn out - strangely, like I've been running for two and a half hours. I'm still out in front of the group by a hundred yards, and I hear Star telling everyone "if you're starting to feel tired, that's perfectly normal - you've been running for over 15 miles". So all systems are still go, and miles are still clicking off between 9:37 and 9:48 pace. But also, the sun is starting to peek out. Remember that rain that was so nasty on the drive down, and was supposed to be here all weekend? Well it was drizzling for the first two miles, so I felt pretty secure in my jacket and hat. But now it's been more or less dry for two hours, and I'm still wearing that jacket. Yeah, it's unzipped almost all the way down, but it's still on. There will be good and bad results from that....

By mile 17, I've rejoined the pace group. We're all running together on the Willamette River trail. For me, no more running out ahead, and besides, I want to hear Star's story. But by the time she's getting to the good part (it's about her trying to run an aggressive pace at a marthon in 90 degree weather 6 weeks after being dumped by her boyfriend) we're at mile 18, and I realize I'm headed for bonkville. So I drop off the pace and am now running miles of 9:58-10:04. And by mile 21, I slow down to 10:19. Mile 21 is also important, as it's the river crossing that will put us on the south bank, and it's pretty much a straight line back along the river to the finish. But finally, around 21.5 miles into this thing, the legs and head win out over the heart - I decide I'm going to walk for a while. In retrospect, maybe - just maybe - I could have slowed down to a nice 11:00 or 11:30 pace and kept running, but I think the walk break - about three quarters of a mile - rejuvenated me enough to bring it home in decent style.

While I was on said walk break, I did pass someone that was either unconscious or pretty darn near it. She had someone holding her, wrapped in a blanket, and a couple of other runners had just called the paramedics, who I could hear coming from somewhere close by. Note to self: do not end up like that.

At the same time this is going on, I start to notice something. The crowds, which have been amazing all along, are really starting to use people's names (for those of you that don't know, you usually have the option of putting your name on the bib along with your number). While I'm walking, I get people yelling "Great job, Mike, you're doing great!". That's enough to inspire the heart; a little after the marker for mile 22, I get back to running at a nice trot, around a 10:00 pace. I even get into a groove - run 4-6 minutes, walk a minute. And lo and behold, I'm making progress. And people are continuing to cheer me on. And I'm remembering Star saying that you run the last 6 miles with your heart. Well, mind and body got the best of the heart at mile 21.5, but now the heart is clearly winning and carrying the day.

By mile 25, I've got that goofy smile plastered across my face, and I can't get it off. I'm not going to make my goal pace of 4:15, but I'm probably going to break 4:30 and take at least 40 minutes off my PR. And I'm having fun! One more walk break around 25.5 miles, and I realize that I'm running the rest of this thing. Who cares that it's uphill... my mind could clearly see that it was uphill toward the finish, but my body didn't feel it - the heart was pulling me along. Around that last corner, and I can see the finish banner. A few more steps and I see Christine and the girls taking pictures and cheering me on! A couple more steps, and I hear them call out my name over the loudspeaker as a finisher of the Eugene marathon. Wow! There's even a small bit of video of me finishing around 4:28:06 "gun time": Crossing that line at a normal running pace was an experience like no other!

The aftermath: well, it took me probably ten minutes to get my bearings, as I was completely out of gas - no sugar left in this body (I stopped eating around mile 20 because I was getting nauseous), so no energy for the brain to run on. And once I stopped after the finish line, my legs didn't want to move anymore. And I could barely put anything back into my body. I did drink some water and some SoBe stuff, but could only eat two Famous Amos mini-chocolate chip cookies for the first hour or so. But Christine got me safely back to the hotel, where I was finally able to eat the rest of my Famous Amos cookies and take a shower. Two hours in the car later, and we were safely back home with me not looking forward to climbing up the stairs, but very much looking forward to an epsom salt bath - which works wonders for reducing muscle soreness.

This was an amazing, incredible experience, and I did learn a few things:
  1. Star's three races of the marathon. Incredible wisdom.
  2. Slower pace group next time. I should have run with the 4:30ers and then left them behind around mile 10-13. Probably could have run a 4:20-4:22 had I run negative splits, but I left too much out there the first 10 miles.
  3. Ditch the jacket. Unless it's raining cats and dogs, don't worry about a little cold and wet - there'll be enough heat generated by running to keep me warm, and when that sun came out, it was just brutal. Or at least tie the jacket around the waist next time. I'm pretty sure it didn't cost me much, but it did probably make me sweat a little extra and make the bonk come a little earlier
  4. Bandaids for those sensitive areas. Christine mentioned that they saw a lot of men with two bloody spots finishing. Well, as soon as I took off my jacket, I realized I was one of those men too. (Fortunately all the during and after-race pictures are of me with my jacket on!) I put on plenty of Glide, but apparently it wasn't enough. Next time, bandaids or athletic tape or something. It didn't hurt during the race, but the shower after was killer.
  5. Eugene is an amazing running town. The crowds were incredible. The people during the last five miles along the river were amazing - some of them were clearly spectators, but some just seemed to be out for a day at the park and decided to cheer us on anyway. And the volunteers were amazing too. I do hope I get to run this one again, because it can give the Portland marathon - also an amazing event - a run for it's money.

There are probably a lot of other things I could have written about - but having almost a week to reflect, these are the things that stick out. I'm definitely looking forward to the next marathon (Portland on October 4th), as well as the next chance I get to run in Eugene. Who knows, maybe this fall or next spring I'll finally break that 4:15 goal? :)

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