Describing the experience of running a marathon is tricky. If you are a non-runner, you already think I'm crazy, so trying to explain it won't make any sense. If you are a runner, you know I'm crazy, and that every person's experience is vastly different in a given race, let alone from race to race. But, I'll do my best.
This past weekend was the Portland Marathon. This was my 3rd road marathon, and my first time in Portland. I chose it primarily due to the timing - the beginning of October lets you do the bulk of your training in good weather in the summer, and it is early enough to avoid the worst of the fall weather. As a comparison the Seattle marathon has had snow in certain years at the end of November. In addition, we like Portland a lot, and it's close by. Cole, L and I took the train down on Saturday morning to kick of Marathon weekend. First stop, the expo - it was a very well run expo, and a good size - quick to get in, quick to get our numbers, good flow of people through the hotel, decent selection of discount gear - all good. We had dinner at Pazzo Ristorante on Saturday night for the traditional pasta loadup, and then early to sleep.
I got up at 4:45am in the morning on Sunday for a 7:00am start. Just couldn't sleep any more. Got dressed, had a little breakfast, and then walked over to the start line (another great feature of Portland - most of the hotels are downtown, making them all less than a mile from the start line). It was a chilly morning, but a good start area. There were about 8000 runners. As we were waiting to get going we got a weather report from the starter. Temperatures should be between 50 and 60 up until 12:00, and there is a 30% chance of rain. "Don't worry", he said. "In over 25 years we have never had rain on race day, you guys will be fine". Tempting fate - I almost yelled at him to shut up. The starts were different. People were grouped according to their self projected finish times, in 15min increments. I was hoping to run between 4 hours and 4:10, but I started with the 4:15 group, since I wanted to make sure that I went out slow and had some kick left at the end. Each group was walked to the start line, and then they waited for the group in front of them to turn the first corner, to give people a chance to space out. This ended up creating a very strange situation for me, as the gun went off for our wave, I found myself as one of the first people to cross the start line, with no-one in front of me. I've never had that before, and it was really unnerving.
Over the first mile I was in a complete fog. It was still early in the morning, I wasn't mentally prepared, I wasn't sure I was physically prepared, and I was running on my own. I had a few people pass me, and that freaked me out even more. To hit my goal time I should have been running faster than the 4:15 group (I needed to be running a 9min30s pace, and 4:15 is about a 9:45 pace). What the heck was I doing ran through my head a few times. Then I hit the first mile marker and checked my time. Holy crap. I had run an 8:30 for my first mile. That is not good. For me, that is way too fast (you sub7 runners out there can snicker all you want). And going out too fast in a marathon is a proven bad thing..... For the next 5 miles I tried to get myself into a solid 9:30 rhythm. Unfortunately I just couldn't do it. At mile 5.5 L and Cole were there cheering me on - and all I could say was - "I went out too fast". Sure enough, checking my results online, for the first 10K (6M) - I was doing a 9:16 pace.....
So now I'm all up in my head - I'm actually feeling pretty good, cruising along well, not feeling tired. My plan for the race was to go out at a reasonable pace, and then try to speed up in the second half, but now I'm thinking, why not just keep going at this pace! I mean, lots of people do it, and maybe I'm just in good shape today. To be fair, part of my thinking on this race was not to be as conservative as I usually am, and if that led to me blowing up partway through, oh well, then it's a learning experience. Hmm.
Right around mile 6 the rain started. It was mellow at first, but it just kept going. Frankly my first thought was how much it was going to suck for L and Cole - it's always tougher to just stand out in the rain rather than run in it. So I just kept plowing along toward mile 9 - the turn around of an out and back. Things were still going great at this point - my average pace was still at a 9:17 and things were really flowing. At mile 10 I had a really weird feeling of nausea and lightheadedness, and I actually thought I might have to stop if it kept up. Fortunately it went away after 2 min, and I felt normal again - whew. At mile 11.5 I saw L and Cole again - always a great boost for me, and things were still flowing well. I crossed the halfway point in 2:02:29 - a 9:21 pace, and bang on track for hitting a 4:05-4:10 goal. Sweet. I decided not to try to run faster for the second half - I was cruising well, and didn't want to blow that up. For miles 13-16 I kept on a solid 9:30 pace, running in the rain, heading north for the St. John's bridge.
Now, the crux of the Portland course comes at the bridge. from mile 16-17 it basically goes uphill for the only real tough part of the course. Given how well I was going, I decided I would keep pressing up the bridge. Normally I will slow down measurably to stay out of the red zone, or maybe even walk - figuring I can easily make up the time later if I keep my legs fresh. Why I decided to ignore this knowledge I can't explain. In any case at mile 17, at the top of the bridge, I found out that despite feeling like I had pushed it up the hill, I had still run an 11:00 mile. Much slower. But that's OK - I can get back to my 9:30 pace, and then make it up with the downhilll sections around mile 24. That's cool.
The next 6 miles were basically flat, and I still felt OK. I felt like I was using the same amount of exertion, my legs were tired, but they were still going, didn't feel like my cardio was blowing up. Except. Somehow, someway, I was going slower. For miles 18-21 I was averaging about a 10:10 pace, and then after that, it was 10:20-10:30 all the way through the finish line - a full minute slower than the first miles. It was really weird - even on the downhill I couldn't get going any faster. But I still kept going - I was going slower, but it didn't feel easier, or harder than the earlier miles. Basically my legs just slowed down. The worst part was just after mile 25 when the 4:15 bunny passed me. That hurt - and I tried to speed up to keep up with the group, but no joy. Damn. Just nothing left in the legs.
I saw L and Cole one last time at 25.5, and that gave me my last surge. One last push across the finish line and I was done. 4:15:15. A new PR for me, about 5 minutes faster than my previous best.
So what did I learn. I knew going in that you do better in a marathon when you run the second half faster than the first. It feels better both physically and mentally - and I can definitely attest to that after this learning experience. I went out too fast - I knew it, and I did it anyway. Then I pushed too hard up the hill to the St. James bridge. As a case in point I ran past some folks that walked it - and then I watched them pass me still going strong at mile 21. That sucked. On the flip side I hadn't trained as much for this marathon as previous runs, I didn't stress about it too much leading up (the day before being the exception), and I still ran my fastest time ever. So you can't really sneeze at that! This week is about recovery and rest, and then it's back outside, for what, I don't know, but hopefully the next thing I do I'll do with other people, rather than on my own - it's getting too lonely out there....