In reviewing this race, I’ll start with the highlights and end with the foibles, because it is such a varied experience when looking at the first 17 miles compared to the following 9. Training leading up to the race was solid, the taper provided sufficient rest and recovery, and I was greased and ready to rock prior to the start. Weather was ideal for a long race with starting temps in the low 40’s and warming up to about 50 through the 4+ hours I was running— clear skies, sun, and a light wind throughout. I ran in shorts and a sleeveless shirt and was a little chilly for the first few miles, but felt like I made the right decision concerning clothing. I was never really cold until struggling to run near the end. Note to self: for my next fall marathon, try arm warmers for at least the early miles.
The marathon started on the local high school track where we did a gentle lap before heading onto the road and down the long, half-mile hill. With all the adrenaline and excitement surging I took off fast, but comfortably. I wasn’t worried about starting too quickly as we were heading downhill and I did not want to fight gravity while it was on my side. My first mile split was 7:48, but I wasn’t concerned and gradually reeled it back in— 2nd & 3rd mile splits were 8:40 and 8:39, still a little fast, but more reasonable.
Shannon, who has been my training partner for this race, was out there running the course with me. We were both determined to run our own races, but ended up seeing each other often as our goals were close and we’re accustomed to running similar paces. It was nice to see and chat with her on occasion throughout the run, familiar faces are always helpful. Other than Shannon I didn’t know anyone else who was running the full marathon. Fortunately my wife, Sarah, and two other friends were out along the course offering support. I got to see them often and their encouragement along with Sarah’s gear and refueling assistance were a big boost.
My strategy for the race was to take what the course gave me, to run strong when the conditions were good and to back off through the more challenging sections. A PR didn’t seem to be a reasonable goal as the course is known to be quite arduous. Much of the race was on the undulating and unevenly surfaced trails of the Chippewa National Forest. Although beautifully scenic, the trails in the forest are typified by unrelenting hills— some rather steep, rocks, roots, and lots of ankle-turning dents through the softer grass-covered sections. Otherwise, the paved portions along the Paul Bunyan Trail were also chock full of challenging ups and downs. Even the smooth paved and gravel/dirt sections of road were fraught with hills. All this seemed to make running for a PR unreasonable going in. Concerning time, I was thinking 4 hours to 4 hours and 15 minutes might be achievable. And yet…
I started strong, feeling like a man possessed. After a couple miles the adrenaline was gone and I was still very much wanting to fly. I knew enough to not blow it in the first half, but didn’t want to pussyfoot around until there were only a few miles left either. I’d rather bonk than run overly cautious. I felt like I was doing a decent job holding myself back far enough from the edge of madness. Splits over the first 7 miles were 7:48, 8:40, 8:39, 8:59, 8:45, 8:45, and 8:36. That was surely a fast start, but I never felt like I was pushing all that hard.
Shortly after the 7-mile marker we turned into the trails of the Chippewa National Forest for the first time. Immediately off the road in the ditch there was a mud puddle and no good way around it. Shannon and I both tried our best, but we still each soaked our left feet, which turned out to be more of a problem for her as she developed a big, mean blister on the bottom of her foot. I was lucky and only had a little irritation on the ball of my foot, but no actual blistering.
Heading into the woods and feeling beastly I was determined to continue to run strong, but wise. The problem was that my excitement to finally be running on the trails blurred my perception and judgment a great deal. I rode the wildman high for too long. I should’ve known I was pushing harder than was prudent when I began to pass bunches of people on such challenging terrain. Rocks, roots, hills, and soon other runners were being left behind. After a couple miles in the woods I thought Shannon must be just a little ways back and I glanced behind me a few times when I had long straightaways behind me. She was nowhere to be found, however, and that could have been another sign I was hitting the trail too hard. The five miles on the trail, although tempered by tough terrain, still show decent splits— miles 7-11: 8:36, 9:04, 9:16, 9:38, 10:04.
The next 6-mile stretch featured some dirt road and then the hilly pavement along the Paul Bunyan Trail. My legs were feeling a bit fatigued from the hard miles through the woods, but I still had no problem keeping my pace around 9:00/mile. I decided to focus on running smooth and relaxedly for awhile, having become keenly aware that I was on track for a PR. I knew I had a long way to go, but told myself that if I can get to around 18 and still have a shot then I was sure as heck going to go for it. I saw Sarah after about 16.5 and was feeling great since I had let up slightly for a few miles. I announced to Sarah, “I’m going for a PR!” She was surprised and responded, “Wow, I guess you’re feeling good.” Splits for miles 11 through 17: 9:05, 9:05, 9:00, 9:00, 9:41, 8:59.
At mile marker 17, unbeknownst to me, I was faced with another turn into the Chippewa forest. This was immediately demoralizing as my previous excitement about perhaps hitting a PR was based on the hope that I’d mostly have pavement or dirt roads the rest of the way. Obviously I didn’t study the map well enough. I hadn’t studied the map because my goal had been to run strong and enjoy myself, not to be anywhere near a PR.
So I headed into the forest again, this time feeling like I actually had 17 hard miles in my legs. I knew then that a PR was slipping away, but hoped it would be a less challenging piece of trail and if I ran it easy enough I’d be able to finish with authority. This time there was only about 3.5 miles of trail to deal with, but it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk. Splits for these four miles were 10:39, 11:47, 12:52, 10:38. I was obviously starting to struggle and walked all but the shortest hills. My thought and hope was still that going easy here would allow me to finish well.
Going easy through the woods wasn’t enough to save my soul. I came out feeling like I had been through the ringer and still had around six miles to go. Running at any sort of a decent clip had become incredible work and everything was beginning to hurt. Back onto a dirt road the hills were an enormous chore and I resorted to occasional walking breaks. I knew I needed to refuel as I was feeling hungry, but nauseous at the same time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any real food options, only shot bloks which were completely unappealing because of the nausea. Sarah offered me a Lara Bar at the aid station around mile 19.5, but I didn’t think I needed it…oops! Note to self: have something other than shot bloks to munch on for the latter stages of a marathon when/if the nausea sets in.
Battling pain and a lack of energy it had become obvious I had gone too hard for too long over terrain that was more than I could handle. Shortly thereafter I settled on the remaining goal of just finishing the damn thing. I was pissed, but felt like I had learned some more tidbits about myself. Mainly, I now have another example of how emotions can blur my perception of physical signals. Much can be overcome through sheer will, determination and even with eagerness and joy, but physical limitations can only be stretched for so long before we pay a price. Body and mind are not two. To be a smarter runner I have to stay more in tune with all aspects of my being.
I tried to enjoy the scenery as well as I could and trudged on, alternating between running slowly for 1/2 a mile to a mile and walking for a few tenths of a mile. It was incredibly frustrating to hardly be able to run after feeling quite strong for 2/3 of the marathon. And yet, in the end I am glad I went for it and learned some hard lessons. I still enjoyed my experience overall and even appreciated the struggle. The course was thoroughly impressive, the volunteers and organization of the event were also topnotch.
Shannon and I finishing. Her official time, a solid 4:16:04. My time, something to build on at 4:26:42.
Today, the day after, I’m sore but recovering quickly. I feel like I’ll be able to run and resume my training in a couple days. I look forward to my next marathon and some other race distances before then. I’ve run four marathons beginning in 2007, two this year. This year’s other marathon, on June 13th, was the only time I really ran a smart one, but it was such a different race with all its pavement and more manageable hills. There is still so much to learn and all kinds of training to take on and conquer.
Looking forward I’m hopeful and excited for whatever comes next!
Official Time: 4:26:42
Avg. Pace: 10:11
Split for First Half: 1:57:44
Division Placing: 2 out of 5
Placement Among Males: 29 out of 50
Overall Placing: 35 out of 62