Thursday, October 11, 2007

Report: Steamy Steamtown Marathon

Steamtown Marathon
Scranton, PA
October 7, 2007

Executive summary:
Steamtown was steamy, but nothing like Chicago or Twin Cities. 62F (90% humidity) at the start and 75F at the 3 hour mark.

A well organized mid-size race. Very similar in course and feel to Boston. A countryside point-to-point course with many town residents out to hand out water bottles and cheer from their front yards. The downhill course is scary fast and if not careful the race can get away from you in a hurry. It's easy to see that the Scranton area residents take pride in the event with ample course and crowd support.

Goal one: 3:03
Goal two: 3:08 (PR)
Goal three: To finish with a smile and learn something.

Results: 3:16:27 (135 of 1582 finishers)
1st half: 1:31:40
2nd half: 1:44:47

After the Mohican 100 in June, I joined my local marathon training group for a 16 week program designed for this race. The plan was an adaptation of a Daniels Marathon Plan A with one quality mid-week workout and a weekend long run. Averaged 49 mpw running and 45 mpw cycling for the 14 weeks leading up the race. An early season time trial set my initial VDOT at 52. I raced infrequently this summer, but the one 10 mile race (6 weeks ago) gave me the confidence to increase my quality training pace to VDOT 54. In the last phase of training, the emphasis was placed on long tempo sessions in the form of “cruise intervals.” Ran the weekly 40-50 minutes of tempo consistently at 6:20-6:25 pace; the easy and long runs at 8:00-8:30.

This season was a bit light on mileage. Yet I stayed healthy and managed to hit all the quality workouts and long runs, each week, through the taper and into the final week. My confidence was high and everything seemed to fall into place this training cycle. I felt ready to run miles in the range of 6:50-7:05 for the race. The downhill course provided an additional mental boost.

The story of my marathon, however, was the fever and cold that crept up on me with less than 72 hours to the race. On Friday, I developed a scratchy throat that turned to a fever on Saturday. I would never shake the cold. I spent Saturday worrying about it, hydrating and eating the best I could. The ailment took me out of my game plan, as I had no appetite on race morning and I failed to have a bowel movement before the race start. Of course, I started the race. I told myself to run 10 miles and see how it goes.

The race:
The Steamtown race experience reminded me of a small version of the Boston marathon with a shuttle to the start and the wait at the high school. We got to the start with plenty of time to use the restroom, stretch, and check-in a bag before the 8am start. My cold and fever took away my pre-race game face and all I was concerned with was hydrating and trying for BM. No luck.

The race started next to the high school in Forest City, PA heading north-to-south towards Scranton. Although the course is generally downhill for the first 16 miles, the most significant elevation loss comes within the first six miles. I started off with my basic marathon plan to go easy in the first two miles similarly to a weekend long run. My idea is if I jog the first two miles that I effectively turn my 26 mile marathon into a 24 mile marathon.

After goodbyes to my buds, I line up in the first third of the field and away we go into the foggy air. I remained optimistic that temps in the 60s would have minimal effect, but the lack of wind took its toll immediately. It took only a mile to become drenched in sweat. Normally, an easy first mile is 7:45-8:00 but Steamtown's initial mile offers 150’ loss by the 3/4 mile and I arrive at easily at M1 (7:10). I still have my reservations about my day but my goal at this point is to just get to mile 5 and go from there.

While I’ve placed high expectations for myself in this race, this is the first time racing the marathon as already qualified for Boston. I felt less pressure than normal and with my condition I briefly entertained the DNF. Why not, I thought? After all, Columbus is two weeks away.

I settle in and hit M2 (7:14) and notice that I’m already drenched. I’m pleased the miles are coming easy, staying a bit above goal pace, and after M3 (7:16) we leave the township and head along a scenic country road. Looking ahead I couldn’t believe my eyes – at least several hundred runners lie ahead. Even though I held back, I expected to be closer to the front. The course sucked in anyone who wanted to run fast. Sheesh. I thought I was going fast!

Well aware that next mile offers the steepest pitch on the course, I loosened-up and was not surprised when I arrive at M4 (6:33). That’s just the beginning. The course continues on a steady decent, losing another 200’ in the next two miles. I take the first S-cap at 30 minutes and arrive at M5 (6:46) exactly at 35:00 flat and perfectly on pace. Not bad, I thought to myself.

In hindsight and with knowledge of the humidity, I should have backed off the goal pace by 5-10 seconds. But not knowing the course I had no clue how it was to unfold so I just went with it M6 (6:52) continuing on and telling myself to now make it to 10 miles and evaluate from there. I was somewhat shocked that I was steadily passing runners up to this point, but it was a steady flow.

M7 (7:06) approaches the township of Carbondale as we cruise along the main thoroughfare which continues on for a good long stretch with some more downhill before arriving at M8 (6:53). To our benefit, the locals seemed to embrace this race as there were many “unofficial” water stops; residents in front of their homes with a table handing out water bottles. On this day I took advantage of all the liquids I could. Chilled water felt like heaven.

Before M9 (6:58 ), I caught up to a woman wearing a bandana around her neck and asked the casual question, “run ultras?” She replied and we struck up a conversation. Hearing she ran Hellgate 100k, I asked her her goal. She said sub-3 but has backed off due to the heat. M10 (6:53) came quickly, passing in 1:09:41 and I was feeling great and thought I could possibly do something on this day. Oh, how easily the competitive mind blocks out negative thoughts. In this case, the hot and humid weather.

Hungry a little sooner than normal, I take the first of three gels at 75 minutes.

Kerry, the speedy ultrarunner from Connecticut, and I traded miles M11 (7:04) and M12 (7:06) before eventually just running and working together. We took turns leading and the random conversation, including her husband's aspiration to do the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, passed the time. The course flattened out through the town of Archbald M13 (7:05) before hitting the half in 1:31:40. Pace was perfect sevens and I couldn’t complain, considering the humid day. Before the race my guess was that this course was 2-3 minutes slower in the second half. My dreams of a PR began to materialize.

I took S-cap number two at 90 minutes and continued the mission for max hydration, taking fluid at each chance. At M14 (7:00) the pace wasn’t slowing, but I felt the heat and the effort rising. I tried to ignore my temperature but each time I poured water on my head I could feel it turn warm right away. Not good.

Right before M15 (6:56) we turn off the road and on to a dirt towpath style trail along a scenic river. Kerry was immediately turned on by the dirt trail and she led the next mile (still downhill) M16 (6:52) as this race was shaping up great for her. She was feeding off the female competition and ready to reel them in. I pleaded for some patience, surprisingly she heeded, yet still our pace easily picked off runners ahead.

Gel number two at 120 minutes.

We continued working together as we left the dirt trail near M17 (6:57). At this point came my “where’s the porto-john” moment and knew I had to stop. No john in sight as I ran on gingerly. Kerry was ready to roll and, looking back and not ready to leave me, I told her to go on (like I had any choice.) I survive the next 5 minutes until entering the park passing M18 (7:11) and finally found a place for the pit stop. During the stop I simultaneously shivered and overheated. Reality hit me and I knew my day was somewhat done. Details being details, 2+ hours of humid, sweaty running and toilet paper don’t go well together. The deed takes a little over two minutes and after the restart I continued to push ahead arriving M19 (9:46) entertaining a good finish but with much less spirit. Arriving M20 (7:36) in 2hrs 23min+, I still had thoughts of a 45 minute final 10km and a possible PR. But in my heart I knew that this was not to be my day. I know what “good” feels like at mile twenty and this wasn’t it.

It helped to have a similar race experience. Athens ’05 was a similarly hot day where I backed off after 18 miles, finishing intact and returning to race three weeks later.

I trudged on, passing the desolate miles M21 (7:43) and took S-cap number three at 2.5 hours into the race. By M22 (7:49) I was no longer passing others and simply holding on to some semblance of a pace. While I was definitely jogging at this point and not running, I did notice a higher than normal amount of walking dead in this race. My guess is one or any of three reasons: 1) heat and humidity, 2) the faster-than-normal pace depleted runners' glycogen stores more quickly, or 3) downhill pounding taking its toll.

My moment came again. The next porto-john could not come soon enough and this time I was in no rush to do my duty. My head was spinning and I just tried to compose myself. I cleaned myself off, laughed, and started walking on. With the chance to break 3:10 slipping away I thought to wait for one of my training buddies and just before [b]M23[/b] (12:28 ), I turn around and see Mark about 100 meters behind. I wave and wait for him until I realize that he's running well and could likely blow on past me. I run on.

We both know that three hills loom in the final three miles of the race. Mark chases me up the first one and catches me with about 2.5 to go. He’s laboring, but still gamely. My fleeting energy returned as I relished the chance to become pacer for a friend. In my head, I’m thinking we can still break 3:20 when Mark utters, “I can still PR.” (Which is 3:15.) I didn’t argue with him and kept pushing.

By this point we’ve arrived in the city of Scranton and crowds became more frequent and louder. The nastiest of the three hills came next, a 100’ ascent to M24 (8:25), which Mark and I ran evenly throughout. I expected worse. The reward was a downhill M25 (7:34) that kick-started our drive to the finish. The final turn comes and the last 3/4 mile is a straight shot to the finish line. One minor hill separated us from the finish line. I drag Mark along to M26 (7:43 + 1:29) and the finish. If not for Mark's presence, I'd likely finished minutes later.

What a run. Mark finished a few seconds behind missed his PR by 1 minute. Kerry finished in 3:04 and 6th overall woman. My training bud Liz missed her PR by only a couple minutes in 3:27. A tough, humid day to run. It's frustrating that we can only imagine and never know our outcome under better conditions.

I gave it a go, but the story of the day was my malady and the weather. I consumed only half of my normal pre-race breakfast, so I imagine that I was not topped off prior to the start. Since I slowed down on my own, I don't exactly know how well my glycogen stores worked. Nutrition-wise, I stuck the plan that has worked for me: to avoid gatorade and consume water only.

Carried: 4 gels, 5 S-caps, a few cough drops
Consumed: 3 gels, 3 S-caps, 1 otter pop, and water only. It’s normal for me to pass on the gatorade.

If marathoning was only about the training and running, we'd all have fabulous race results, every time. Unfortunately, it isn't. Part of the allure of the sport is the unpredictability of the conditions and the on-the-fly decisions that are needed within the race. We’ll never know in advance how the body will react to the stress of marathon pace under the conditions of the day.

I am remiss not to mention that I recently launched a fundraising project for the Fisher House Foundation. Please visit my Firstgiving site to learn more about me and my endeavor to raise funds for an organization that help families of injured servicemen and women. Thanks to all that contributed -- I'm off to a great start toward my goal.

As I write this on Wednesday, I have 30 cycling miles and an easy 5 mile run under my belt since the race. The fever is gone and I feel better. I avoided a complete thrashing of the legs and I imagine that a marathon re-run is on the horizon in the next 3-4 weeks.


Blogger E-Speed said...

great report Lloyd! You are so thorough! Hope your re-run comes with the highly anticipated good results!

11:26 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Lloyd, good report. Have you considered more energy gels? Sometime I sugar crash about 20 minutes after a gel. So I try to take them every other mile. It helps keep me focused on something other than the discomfort. So I think about when I can take one next, and get ready for it about a mile prior.

10:34 AM  

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