You can’t wing a road marathon.
Ryan must have said those words to me about a million times over the past few months. For no reason in particular other than shear laziness, I stubbornly evaded any and all tempo & speed training for my upcoming road marathon. Don’t get me wrong, I did have grand ambitions to train for this road marathon when I first signed up for it several months ago. Ryan had signed himself up for the NJ Marathon and I told myself that I’d mirror his training plan. Whatever tempo session he did on a Tuesday at lunch, I would do the next day. It all sounded great, until the next day would come I would head out to a local trailhead with Kea instead!
Well, I did do 1 “workout”. It consisted of 3 by three 1-mile repeats: one at 5K pace, the next at marathon pace, and the last at my normal running pace. Repeated 3 times. Going into it I had no idea what my target marathon pace was, let alone my 5K pace! Ignorance: First sign of a problem. On the spot, I decided to run my 5K pace at 6:40 min/mile and my marathon pace at 7:10, and my regular pace at 8:00. Boy did that hurt!
So, like a good girl, I ignored all of Ryan’s advice and went back to the trails. Avoidance: Second sign of a problem.
Then Ryan headed over to NYC to run the NJ Marathon and I was simultaneously inspired and scared. Whelp, 6 days to my marathon… it’s not too late to start training now is it?! So that same day I went for a 7 mile run on the bike paths in the pouring rain with Kea and ran a 7:10 pace. Ready or not, here I come!
The alarm went off at 2:55am last Sunday. I jumped in the shower, put on my racing kit and my brand new pair of Hoka Huakas that I had bought 3 days ago and only worn once so far, nudged Ryan to get out of bed and off we went up to Fort Collins. On the dark hour-long drive Ryan asked me what my race plan was. I said I didn’t have one. Lack of Planning: Third sign of a problem.
So as I boarded the buses at the finish area that would take the runners 26.2 miles west to the starting line, Ryan’s final words of advice were: “Remember, stick to your non-plan.”
“Yes, coach” I said with a giggle as I boarded the bus at 4:30am.
The temperature gauge on the bus said 55F when we arrived at the start which made for a pleasant 60 minutes of hanging around before the gun went off but meant that it was going to be a scorcher out there. I hopped in the portapotty line 3 times, attempted to skip rocks on the Poudre River and was glad that the combination of darkness and pre-race nerves meant that no one noticed my impressive rock plopping skills, and chatted with a few random familiar faces milling around. Everyone seemed to have a set race plan masked in a kind of modest “we’ll see what happens” spirit. They probably thought I was the same – secret target time in mind, secret plan in the back pocket, all under the casual guise of “oh, I don’t know, we’ll see”. But I really wasn’t prepared, didn’t know what I was going to do, had no idea what pace to run and was genuinely just gonna set off and see what happens.
10 minutes to start. I followed the mob out to the road and lined up. I remember spotting the runner holding the 3:15 pace sign. Without even thinking I lined up a few people ahead of him. And just like that, with 5 minutes to go before the gun, I all of the sudden had a plan. Impulsivity: Fourth sign of a problem.
Go big or go home. Right? Or something like that. Probably more like “Go big and blow up”.
I don’t even know what pace a 3:15 marathon come out to. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember what pace my 3:19 marathon at Loch Ness worked out to. Well, whatever, I was going to run faster than that. Delusion: Fifth sign of a problem.
6:30am. Go! At approximately 6:32 we turned a slight corner and the glaring Colorado morning sun shone brightly and squarely in my face. 25.9 more miles to go running straight eastwards into the blazing ball of fire.
The first mile felt modest as most first miles often do. I was struck by how quiet everything was. I was running in a pack of about 10 dudes and no one was saying anything. We ran through a really cool carved square tunnel at mile 2.5 and I let out an awkward “Wow! That’s so cool!”. No one talks during road marathons. So I shut up and just ran.
Maybe a little too hard. I glanced down at my watch and noticed I was running well under 7 min/mile pace. After a few miles of that nonsense I settled into a comfortable 7:05-7:10 pace through the half-way mark. We popped out of the canyon at around mile 15 where the first crowd of spectators were anxiously awaiting their runners. Ryan would be here somewhere in the next mile or two.
Mile 17, just past a big blow-up green dinosaur, there he was camera in hand with our friend Zak holding Kea and a Simple Hydration bottle with CarboPro & Hydra C5 mixed in it for me to pick up.
I will never know what it’s like to run half a footstep behind someone and be able to comfortably see over their head. The annoying part of being a petite girl running amongst mostly men is that their elbows inevitably swing at eyeball height. It’s a good motivator to sneak out in front.
Anyways, things were getting hot and, after choking on and spilling several cups of water along the way, I was thirsty and glad to pick up my Simple Hydration bottle. I took a few swigs and slid it into the straps of my sports bra between my shoulders. From now on I would purposely spill cups of water on myself at the aid stations. I would also start to slow down.
Funny how you feel like you’re putting the same, if not more, effort into the run yet the pace starts slowing. I was convinced that my watch was lying to me. Ok, 7:30s. I can hold this for the next 7 miles. Just hold here.
And just like that my legs said “Running sucks. I hate you. Get me off of this road.” What I would have given for a random fence to have been thrown in the middle of the road forcing us to have to lift our legs and move them in a different way. My hips were getting so stiff, my stride was shortening, and my legs were all like “why you making us run so hard?”. And, of course, now my watch was definitely lying to me: 8 min/miles!?! There’s just no way.
The fact that no one was passing me and I was still somehow managing to pass a bunch of runners (and the 3:15 pace guy hadn’t blown past me… yet) further enabled my delusions that I wasn’t actually slowing down to the 8-8:15 pace that my Suunto Ambit indicated.
And then mile 24 came along with the smallest of hills and a water station. I assumed it might be the last before the finish so I picked up 2 cups of water, threw one on my face, the other down my shirt and then stepped back for a 3rd cup to douse over my head. And then… I walked. Oh god! How can I run in 90-100 degree temperatures up 2,000′ climbs at mile 60 of an ultra and yet my legs didn’t want to run up this hiccup of a hill, I felt like I was melting in 75F, and the finish line in 2 miles felt impossibly far away?! Welcome to blow-up land. I nailed a 9 min/mile average pace that mile thanks to my completely unnecessary walking episode.
I tried to do the math to figure out what my finish time could have been and what it was probably now turning into but that was a giant waste of precious energy so, for the sake of my personal pride and dignity, I picked up the pace as best I could and finally once I heard the sounds of the finish line I believed the millionth spectator of the day who said “you’re almost there!”.
A personal best. And 5th place female overall (I’m not gonna talk about how I missed out on 4th place by 10 seconds… grrrrr).
I ran well and solidly for the first 18 miles. Too bad a marathon is rather inconveniently not 18 but 26.2 miles long.
I’m not happy to have been such a slacker in my training but I am happy to have taken a risk at the starting line despite the looming and inevitable blow up. I now know that with structured and focused speed training I can hold that 7:05-7:10 pace and run a sub-3:10 (especially if it’s a cooler day… or a race at sea level). And that makes me feel pretty darn excited.
I also walked away from this marathon confirming (as if it was necessary) Ryan’s statement: while you might be able to finish in a somewhat impressive time and you might get lucky and swing a PR, you can’t actually run a solid race to your fullest potential without putting in some work before hand. So, basically, no, you cannot wing a road marathon.
All in all, I would absolutely run this road marathon again and I would recommend it to anyone. The first 15 miles through the Poudre Canyon are gorgeous and peaceful. The race organization is impeccable, the volunteers were awesome and the finish line was teeming with tired runners, proud fans, food & massage stations, a beer tent and live music.
The Hoka Huakas did their job as I wasn’t feeling too trashed after the race and hardly felt sore at all the next day. Let’s see how the legs hold up at the Quad Rock 50 miler this weekend though…!