Running marathons is like riding a bike. Once you know what it’s like, you don’t forget. The period before this marathon was marked by a remarkable lack of nervousness. Yes, there was excitement but it was tempered by the fact that, well, life happens. My four year-old son came down with a cold that spread to my seven year-old by the end of the week. Yes, I was concerned I might get it. But I didn’t really think it would matter. After all, I had run through H1N1 for several weeks last fall – what was a small cold? And, lo and behold, I didn’t get it.
And yes, you are supposed to take it easy before the marathon, stay off your feet. But I had volunteered to chaperon my son’s field trip to the zoo – he loves the zoo, and I like going with him. And there were birthday parties and flowers to plant on Saturday. One of my implicit promises I make to my family is that I will minimize the interference that running places on the rest of our commitments. I don’t sit down much on a normal weekend day, so I wasn’t going to make this much different.
But I didn’t think it mattered. If there was something different about this marathon, it was a sense of confidence. Never had my training been so precise, going nearly hitch free. I hit every pace on every run, and had just one minor issue on a long run (which was overcome on the next long run). The long runs always completed a challenging week, so I wasn’t too worried about the legs being tired. I knew which outfit worked for me, which shoes felt best, where I could park, what I could eat in the morning – nothing negative or uncertain was allowed to creep into my mind.
I set the alarm for 4:50. This was a compromise with my wife, who felt I was ridiculous for getting up too early (but again, I just didn’t want any concerns like not finding a parking spot as Ron Wireman experienced in his Nashville Marathon, having to wait for the porto-potty, etc.). But this didn’t matter either – no alarm was necessary. I was wide awake at 4:45. This, after all, is sleeping in compared to when I usually get up for a run. I had my Clif Bar Chocolate Brownie, took half a liter of Gatorade with me in the car, and was on the road by 5:05. Downtown Cleveland was nearly dead when I got there; parking was certainly not a challenge. I actually sat in my car for a while just so as not to have to stand around too long before the race, but soon got impatient and headed to the porto-potty and gear check.
The morning temperature was 50 degrees, and the breeze off the lake made it quite chilly. I found some shelter in a doorway that the pace teams were using as a staging zone, which was fine because I had planned on meeting Steve Rose, who was pacing the 4:45 team, before the race. Steve came by after a while and I introduced myself, we shot the breeze for maybe 10 minutes (and he showed off his war wound from an impromptu race he had run with a local bozo the night before, resulting in a tumble over a cobblestone and a gash on his arm), then I decided to head to the starting area – still 35 minutes before the race.
At this point, I was shivering uncontrollably despite having a long-sleeve cotton throwaway shirt – there just weren’t enough runners around to create any shelter from the wind. But I still prefer that to wasting energy on being worried about a start position; I was between the 3:00 and 3:10 pace groups where I wanted to be. As the start time approached, I set the VP on my Garmin to my BQ pace (7:27), shed the long sleeve shirt, and settled into position.
The race started smoothly – there was little jockeying for space like at crowded events such as Chicago or Boston, so we quickly settled into a fast pace. The only issue was my Garmin had gone to sleep, so I had to restart it on the run, which threw its time off by maybe 20 seconds. Like most of my runs, I was in the mid 6’s about a quarter mile into the race and it felt easy; Cleveland starts on a downhill towards the Rock Hall on the lake. I forced myself to slow down a bit. The chill dissipated almost instantly, and we headed past the Science Center and back up a hill into downtown.
My race strategy called for me to stick around 7:20 early. However, the first 6 miles flew by mostly at a sub-7:00 pace and I felt no concern, as the legs and breathing were fine. We had crossed the Carnegie bridge into the near west-side communities of Tremont and Ohio City, which I really don’t know that well; the fan support here was the best of anywhere in the race (it generally holds true that west-side Clevelanders are more friendly than us east-siders). Cleveland is different than any other race I have run in that there is a half-marathon that starts at the same time and shares the first 12.5 miles, so many of the other runners around were half-marathoners (designated by a red bib, versus the blue bibs for the marathon). So there was no need to worry about who was passing who – I was only concerned about the clock, and I was winning that race.
The first challenge at Cleveland comes in miles 9 through 11, which are largely uphill. It does help that you are heading back into downtown, and this marks the end of the beginning of the race. I grabbed a gel at mile 9, intending to hold onto it but since I couldn’t seem to secure it in my waistband, I just imbibed it. My pace did slow a bit through here, to the 7:05 – 7:20 range, but I wasn’t too worried because it was largely driven by the hill. It was also a unique experience to be running on a highway (the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway); I can’t say I’ve done that in a marathon before. I started to get passed by a lot of runners as we reached mile 12, but this wasn’t a concern as I knew they were half-marathon contestants, and this was verified by the fact that 75% or more of the people around me veered right shortly after we exited the highway, while the marathon course veered left, back down to the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock Hall.
This was an interesting dynamic – suddenly the run became a lot more solitary, plus you had the knowledge that you were not quite at the halfway point yet everyone who had been around you was nearly done. Instead of being demoralized, I actually found it inspiring – I hadn’t put this much time into training to do a half-marathon, now was my time. My first half was at 1:32-ish. Yes, a bit faster than the plan, but I felt strong and it was a mental relief to know I could run a 1:43 second half and still quality for Boston. I had no intention of running 1:43 – I was shooting for 1:35.
Miles 13 through 17 are a long straightaway along the lakefront – very scenic, and facing a bit of headwind. A good 20 yards separated most runners here, but I was surprised to be gaining on many of the runners in front of me – I no longer felt concerned about my fast start. I probably passed an average of a runner per mile over the back half of the marathon, and was maybe passed by five at most – this is not typical for me as I usually fade hard on the back half. For this long straightaway, I was back at my original race strategy, which was to hold in the 7:10 – 7:15 range for miles 10 through 20. I did have to concentrate more through this stretch to hold the pace, but it was still very comfortable, and I continued to gain a margin on the BQ time.
I was pleased to pass through mile 16 without any setback, as that is where I had bonked on my next-to-last long run. As we hit the turn at mile 17 to head up East Blvd., we were now in more familiar east-side territory, as I had gone to school not far from there at Case Western Reserve University. The miles seemed to fly by here, and when we hit the downhill hairpin loop to Martin Luther King Blvd. between miles 19 and 20 (and I took another gel), I knew that there would be no wall at 20 miles today – that mile was done in 7:02. To be fair there was now a bit of a headwind heading back towards the lake, and my pace did start to slow slightly.
At mile 21, we headed up a ramp to St. Clair, and now we were turning back into the city – I could start to see the final goal in the skyscrapers of the Cleveland skyline. Granted, they were still far away, but it is always a relief to at least be able to see the destination. I started to count down the numbered streets, it seemed like we got from E. 105th to E. 72nd pretty quickly, but then they seemed to start passing a whole lot more slowly than I would have liked (I guess I’m used to driving through this area, not running). My pace had slowed a bit to 7:20, but I knew Boston was in the bag – now I was doing the math in my head as to how to hold onto a PR at 3:09.
If there was a wall this day, it came after mile 23. This was when I started looking at my watch more frequently to see the distance to the next mile marker instead of the pace. The “easy” pace started slipping into the 7:30 to 7:40 range, and I started to realize that 3:07 was slipping away. As we hit E 40th Street and turned south for a bit, I thought that crossing “Payne Street” at this point was appropriate enough. We then took the turn at Euclid and started counting down the streets again, until the turn at E. 18th. We crossed “Payne” again for good measure but now there was just a mile left.
And here’s where the one scary part of the race happened – the right hamstring that tends to tighten up on me did so at this point. Ironically, this is the exact same point that it happened in my previous BQ at Chicago 2002. I tried rubbing it out, but it wouldn’t stop barking, so I finally figured it was worth taking 5 seconds to step off and give it a quick stretch. That did the trick and I heard nothing from it the rest of the way. With a mile to go and still 8 minutes to beat the 3:09 PR, I was feeling good but knew I couldn’t take anything for granted. I skipped the last water stop as we turned onto the home stretch on Lakeside, and just stared at the finish line about a half-mile off.
I didn’t notice that I was passed by someone on this home stretch as I was so focused on the official clock as it ticked through the 3:08’s. It was only the next day that I found out it was Sam Felsenfeld of Operation Jack. Sam is running to raise awareness and funding for autism, and I have heard of his efforts since I also have an autistic son; if you have the opportunity to check out his quest to run 60 marathons this year, please do so. I also heard someone yell “Go Greg” with around a tenth of a mile to go and knew instantly it was Nathan Adkins as he had said he’d be at the finish. I was on cruise control now and could see that I would be in under 3:09.
My finish of 3:08:48 set a personal record by 20 seconds. I finished 96th overall – my first top-100 finish ever – and 12th in my age group. Could I have done better with a slower start? Maybe, but the goal was reached, and there is now plenty of time to sit back and think about future race strategies. All-in-all, this marathon was an absolute pleasure; with just ~2300 finishers it is small but big enough to matter. It was a different way to see a city I have spent a lot of time in and around. Many people do not appreciate the beautiful old near-in neighborhoods of Cleveland that made this course so interesting; even the winds along the lake seemed manageable, offering more of a cool-down than resistance. I will most likely run it again next year (after Boston, of course!); they are talking about moving the finish line to Browns Stadium with the new Medical Mart arriving near the convention center.
The only post race issue is some severely damaged toenails, which didn’t bother me until after I took my shoes off. It is time to sit back and make plans for reaching the next set of goals (which I’ll share later). I’d like to thank everyone who has followed along on this part of the journey and provided such encouragement and inspiration; I’m convinced this is as big a reason as any other as to how I’ve been able to come all the way back to peak performance in my first marathon in over 5 years.