Friday, April 30, 2010

Report: 2010 Glass City Marathon

(Statue of Sy Mah at the entrance of Olander Park, Sylvania, Ohio, where miles 16-17 of the Glass City Marathon passes by.)

Five years ago upon crossing the finish line of the Flying Pig Marathon, in a personal best Boston-qualifying time of 3:09, the first words uttered were, "I never have to run that fast ever again." It took numerous tries and shortfalls before I captured that elusive first BQ. Never again, heh. Fast-forward a few years - 3:09 became 3:08 and a couple years later became 3:04 in Fall 2007 before cracking sub-3 the following year.

Training cycle: My wife Andrea and I originally targeted Boston this year but plans changed as we decided to use our vacation time elsewhere. Glass City, only six days later and within a two hour drive, fit the schedule nicely as an alternative. We decided early on to build a bigger base than in previous seasons. I had not raced a marathon in nearly 18 months but a half marathon breakthrough last fall (1:21) provided the motive to take another shot at a marathon PR. For the four month period December to March I accumulated an average of 265 miles per month, a rough average of 63 miles per week for that period (an increase of about 5-6 weekly miles.) Everyday easy training paces did not change much but the speed of my quality work did. I capped off the season with a period of threshold-pace runs approaching 6:10 per mile pace. Given a decent day, I felt ready to take a shot at 2:55.

New course: We arrived early enough on Saturday to check out the new marathon course. The attraction to Glass City was for a flat, fast course and the new venue did not disappoint. The course changes scenery about every 4-5 miles to and fro from neighborhood roads to the smooth, flat surface of the University Bike Trail and back again. We recognized the toughest section might be the open road between miles 9-14 where winds would certainly come into play. The new course started and finished on the campus of the University of Toledo, ending at the 50-yard line of the Glass Bowl football field.

Weather tweaking: Andrea had to talk me off the ledge a few times last week. I wanted the result I sought after and thought poor weather would derail the season. After checking the weather 11,293 times during the week with forecasts for heavy rain and wind, we got lucky to catch decent marathon conditions with temps starting in the upper 50s and staying there throughout. A steady wind helped in the first half and hindered on the return trip. An overnight rain provided an eerie fog throughout the race. Slightly humid, but not horrible. Looking back, I wasted entirely too much energy thinking about weather.

After an early and low-key dinner, Andrea and I spent a little time reflecting on high and low points of our past marathons. We sought inspiration by reading the race report of our friend Voodoo Joe's PR in the wet and wild conditions at the Surf City Marathon. Following Joe's lead, we had no excuses to be timid no matter what the conditions were to be. After a morning meal and rituals, we arrived on site with about 75 minutes to go and plenty of time. The new venue was a little unorganized which resulted in extra walking to find the bag drop but in hindsight the extra walking helped to loosen up. With 15 minutes to go, I jogged for five minutes, allowing 10 minutes for final stretching and preparations. I had already said good luck to Andrea.

Pace plan: I scribbled the five-mile splits (5, 10, 15, 20 & 23) for a 2:55 and 2:58 on my bib.

Nutrition and hydration plan: Sip water at every chance, one S-cap (electrolytes) at 0:30, 1:30, and 2:30 into the race, and an energy gel at miles 9, 14, 19, and 23. I carried a water bottle at the start which I held for the first four miles to avoid the water stations. It felt humid from the get-go so I ended up taking the S-cap a little early, at 20 minutes in and every hour thereafter. Though I didn't plan on it, I consumed an energy gel ten minutes prior to the start because I felt hungry.

Miles 1-4: 6:44, 6:28, 6:50, 6:48

My usual marathon strategy is to run the initial mile easily before settling into race pace but having warmed-up I aimed to pace not far off my goal 6:35-6:40 per mile from the get-go. With about 1,500 half-marathoners in the race, it felt like runners were flying all-around and passing us left-and-right. Beth W. (winner of the Fools 50k) and Shanna (a local training partner) were in my vicinity at the 1.5 mile point when a cyclist (with sign) started following the lead women. Miles 1-4 were through nice neighborhoods. Mile 2 split appeared quick but I knew from the prior day's recon that the measurement was short. Wasn't worried.

Miles 5-8: 6:37, 6:34, 6:32, 6:35

We turned onto the University Bike Trail for the next stretch heading west. The women grabbed water and I moved ahead and never looked back. The path was perfect surface: Flat, smooth, and somewhat shielded from the wind. And desolate. Flounder gave me a tip to focus on "smooth and efficient" and that's the cue I focused on for much of this race. When the half-marathoners split away near the 6 mile mark, very few targets remained to chase. Smooth and efficient was feeling good though I felt I was right on the threshold of "holding back." My pace freshened and I went with it.

Miles 9-14: 6:30, 6:31 , 6:30, 6:31, 6:37, 6:32
The bike path ended and I see one runner up ahead as we move to the stretch of country roads. Gel #1 consumed at mile 9 and I reel in and pass the only runner in sight just prior to mile 10. I'm already ahead of 2:55 pace at this point but didn't think I was banking time. Fog lingered in the air to limit visibility and I wondered about the wind direction. Passing the eleventh mile at the far west end of the course, after a couple right hand turns I got my answer. Miles 12-14 were due east and facing the wind but my pace was steady. The half came (1:26:25) with one minute banked to my 2:55 goal. All the while I ran alone with no one around. Though spectators were sparse, a group of locals (members of the Akron Marathon committee who recognized me) offered their cheers. It was nice to see them every few miles as they were following a friend aiming for 3:10. I missed grabbing water at M14 to wash down the gel but did so at M16.

Miles 15-19: 6:44, 6:33, 6:48, 6:34, 6:39
I survived the first stretch of open roads and miles 15-16 turned into another nice neighborhood where we escape the wind. Still running alone. When the mile 15 timer called out I was on 2:52 pace I started to dream a little, "was this my day?" The seventeenth mile entered Olander Park, site of the old US Championships for 24-hours where Mark Godale set the still-standing U.S. road record for 24-hours. In 1999, Godale ran 162 miles, only to place second to Yiannis Kouros of Greece who ran 167 miles. I know Mark from the local running club. When I mentioned the new course passes through Olander Park he said had he been in this Glass City race he would have been temped to skip that part. Heh. Exiting the park I pass mile 17 and surprised to see a slower split of 6:48 but happy to see two runners ahead by about 60-100 seconds. Miles 18-19 were the absolute worst section of the course on Syvania Avenue - dead into the wind and under construction. Only one lane of bumpy road was open and cars whizzed by, sometimes inches away at 40+ mph. I focused on staying small into the wind and on "smooth and efficient" to catch my first runner in nearly 10 miles. While I was happy with splits 18-19 (6:34, 6:39) I was not aware at the time that might have taken some of the wind out of my sails.

Miles 20-23: 6:55, 6:58, 6:55, 6:47

Finally, we turn away from the wind and into Wildwood Park for miles 20-21. Scenic through the trees I pass twenty miles (2:12:30) with my then-slowest mile of the day. My feet started to hurt and legs suddenly heavier. I wasn't falling apart but no longer was I feeling smooth and efficient. The course curved along windy paths of Wildwood and half-marathon walkers started to appear. A spectator told me I was tenth place. Mile 21 came even slower and the course returned to the University Bike Trail for the long, straight homeward stretch. I wondered if I was falling apart but kept my head in the game one mile at a time. Half-marathon walkers were becoming more frequent now and finally a runner comes into view passing the mile 22 mark. I wanted someone to work with but guy started walking when I caught him. No help. Another runner appeared and he too started walking. As I pass into 8th place, the guy picks it back up and drafts off me for about 800m before dropping off. Though it was no help with the wind, at least he helped to push me when the race started to get tough.

Miles 24-26: 6:54, 6:46, 6:44 (Last 0.2) 1:23
I hadn't imploded yet but the pace certainly slowed. I had the mile 23 split written on my bib - I had lost the one minute of banked time and yet I was still right there. With no other runners ahead, thoughts of a 2:56-2:57 finish entered the mind but I focused only on the next mile. At this juncture what can be done except to run the straightest line possible, relax, and focus? I thought about Voodoo Joe and what he would do. Passing mile 24 my watch showed 2:40 - just under 15 minutes to get it done and I knew it would be close. I had some tough workouts recently and recalled that I could endure for next 2.2 miles in a similar fashion. Still no one to chase except walkers. And with fog still filling the air, there were no visual cues as to how close the university was. Finally, the bike path ended leaving the final 3/4 mile lap around campus. Thankfully, with 800m to go came a gradual decline that propelled my stride. Passing mile 26 in 2:53:35 energized me and entering the stadium I saw 14 ticks of the clock and 60 yards separating me from my goal.

2:54:58 (old PR 2:58:16, Marine Corps '08 )
Splits: 1:26:25/1:28:33
8th Overall, 1st 35-39 AG

Andrea set a personal best as well, crossing the line in a terrific negative-split 3:37. Beth and Shanna finished 1-2 for the women in 3:01 and 3:03.

It's a wonder how marathons unfold. Though Glass City was my 27th marathon and I had the confidence on this day, I remain amazed how the mix of strategy, conditions, patience, and execution all factor into the result. I describe the marathon as dull excitement. Compared to shorter races, the marathon race takes so long to crescendo. When it does, the runner is in one of three conditions: Too slow, too fast, or right on the edge of racing threshold. In any case, it takes a lot of invested time to get to that crescendo - for most, about 3-5 months of training and roughly two hours of the marathon race before finding out. On this day I was there on the edge of my threshold and fortunate enough to just hold on to finish. Thankfully the worst of the weather held off and I had a chance to find out for myself.

For an idea of the foggy conditions, as well as a few photos, go here. Enter bib #163