Relaxing to the Win – 2011 Towpath Marathon Race Report

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Start of the Towpath Marathon. The author is 481. Early leader was 451. Vince is 423.

My fall marathon choice for this year was the Towpath Marathon, held along the Ohio Canal Corridor by the Cuyahoga River between Peninsula and Brecksville, Ohio in early October.  It is tough to characterize this marathon, as it is held on a the Towpath “Trail” but the trail is a pretty hard cinder surface, nearly like running on the road.  Regardless of how you characterize it, the defining characteristic of the race is that it is flat and, so long as your legs can handle the repetitive motion that comes from not having hills to adjust to, it therefore has the potential to be fast.

Zoning a bit during The Star Spangled Banner

After a pretty solid season of high mileage training using the Pfitzinger 18/70 program, capped off with a PR at the River Run Half-Marathon, my best ever 6-mile tempo run (at a 6:07 pace), and my best ever mile intervals (averaging 5:43 each), I approached the race with some confidence in my sub-3:00 goals – in fact, so much so that I had adjusted my thinking (and the pace on my watch) to center around 2:57.  The weather turned out perfectly for the event, overnight lows around 50, warming to the mid-60’s by 11:00, with nothing but clear skies and very little wind.

After my usual getting-up-5-minutes-before-the-alarm on race morning, and a breakfast of an English muffin and coffee, plus a bottle of water, all to cap off the best-ever carbo-loading and hydration preparation I’ve ever done before a race, I left plenty early, given the reputation the Towpath has for traffic issues at the Boston Mills Ski Resort starting area.  I thus arrived 90 minutes before the race start, and just stayed warm in the car, with a few trips to the restroom mixed in.  About 20 minutes before the start, I made my way to the starting line and did some lunges, myrtl, and stretching to get loose.  As always, I lined up near the front, and struck up a conversation with the gentleman, Kevin, who finished just behind me at the Towpath Ten-Ten 10-mile race in June.

The race was a bit unique in combining a half-marathon, marathon, and 10K, all with different courses and, at least for the marathon, a different starting line.  Thus, they could fit in a large crowd (2,360 overall, just under 500 for the marathon) onto a relatively narrow trail without crowding.  The marathon starts on Riverview Road (thus giving the some space to spread out early) and then heads south on the Towpath, whereas the half-marathon starts a bit further back on Riverview Road and then turns north when hitting the trail.  With the double out-and-back route, you had the opportunity to see your fellow marathoners twice, in most cases, plus see the ~2:00+ finishers of the half-marathon (and the half-marathon walkers, who shared part of the marathon route).  This was really a well-planned set of courses.

So, now for the race, my goal, based on some great advice from Chris Stelzer on Dailymile, was to focus on staying relaxed as long as possible, so long as relaxed meant “6:45 pace or thereabouts”.  Early on I joined up with another runner who stated his goal was 3:07.  We chatted for a bit, and he mentioned that he trained with the guy who had taken the early lead, and he was targeting a 2:50 marathon.  Right after we hit the trail, I realized that Mr. 3:07 was running more like a 2:52 pace, so I let him go and just relaxed about it.

About the same time, there was a group of what sounded like three runners coming up behind me.  Part of the “relax” policy for this race was “no looking back” – I now realize that once you start looking back, you are acting more out of fear than confidence.  One of the runners, Mr. Bright-Green Compression Socks, passed me before the 2-mile mark, but the others must have faded back.

So now just began one of the long relatively-alone sequences.  There was a runner in my sights, but we maintained roughly a 50-yard spacing for several miles.  I focused on hydration, which was easy as the aid stations were, well, excessive (and I mean that in a good way).  I was pleased to find they had Gatorade, as the aid station list before the race stated Heed was the beverage of choice, and I’d never tried that before.   The miles just passed along steadily, with one at 6:58 concerning me a bit, but I wrote it off to poor marking of the mileage – I used the manual laps on my Garmin so as to be more accurate on splits.

Somewhere around the midpoint of the Towpath Marathon

At about the 6-mile mark, the runner in front of me stopped for a bit to tie his shoe.  Our gap closed to maybe 15 yards, but then held steady for another two miles or so.  Suddenly, he began to slow, and I passed him just after the 8 mile mark, before we crossed an intersection near the turn-around.  This was where I first got a count of my position in the marathon as the leaders made their way back, and I found myself in 6th, with everyone in front looking pretty strong, especially the leader.  Considering I expected to finish between 10th and 15th given last year’s times, I was pleased with this spot, and just continued to relax.  There were several runners within 100 yards behind me, but I just (say it with me) relaxed and figured they’d catch me if they were good enough.

And so it went for the first 4 or so miles of the return.  Seeing the marathoners heading out, including a colleague from work and a middle school classmate and now Dailymile/Facebook friend, Jennifer Beaujon, gave me extra motivation, and my pace picked up to the low 6:30’s (but I still felt relaxed).  The Towpath has curves but also some long straight stretches, so you can see well ahead of you, maybe by 1/4 mile at times.  And it was in one of these long stretches, just before the half-way point, that I saw Mr. Bright Green Compression Socks coming back to me.  Knowing that moving into fifth sounded good, but realizing that I had plenty of time to catch him, I just stayed relaxed, and over the next mile or so I reeled him in, passing him past the 14 mile point.  Oh, and I had hit the halfway point at 1:27:51, ahead of my 2:57 pace, but still feeling very relaxed.

Splits for the Towpath Marathon (yellow highlights mileage marker uncertainty)

With a few more miles of alone time, I started the math of what pace I needed to keep to go sub-3:00, and 2:57.  And as the miles went by, and my splits stayed in the low 6:30’s, that number kept going up.  And I felt no need to slow down.  I knew, absent a freakish injury, sub-3:00 was in the bag.  So I relaxed even more.

You hit the finish area just before mile 18, and then head north for the last 8 miles of out-and-back, and here is where the half-marathoners pass you coming south. So, once again, plenty of motivation, hearing shouts of encouragement (“you’re in 5th place!”) and returning the favor, and the pace stayed steady.  I began to wonder if Mr. 3:07 would eventually fade, but no one was in sight through mile 20.  I started to feel a bit dizzy, and I had missed the gels at mile 19 as they were on the wrong side of the trail, but I tried to, well, you know, “relax” about it, and the dizziness faded.

And maybe that was because, just ahead of mile 21, the thought occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the leaders come back yet, and I knew we were close to the turnaround.  They shortly began coming back, but only the top two, and they didn’t seem as far ahead as I would have expected.  And then, seconds later, both the 3rd and 4th place runners came into my sights, not having reached the turnaround yet.  Again, knowing there was plenty of time left, I relaxed, and passed Mr. 3:07 into 4th place about halfway into mile 21 (he ended up doing 3:05, glad he beat his goal).  We then hit the turnaround loop, and I passed into 3rd place in the middle of this, and Mr. 3:07 was already well back.  In fact, on the return, I didn’t see any runners coming north for a while, so I knew that those who were close at mile 9 had faded quite a bit.

Now the runners coming north began telling me about the 2nd place runner, who was Vince Rucci, owner of the Vertical Runner store and running community in Hudson, Ohio (a really outstanding store, and Vince had hooked me up with the Mizuno Wave Riders last year).  I had seen Vince at the start and thought, “well, there’s someone I’ll never keep up with in a race.”  Suddenly, somewhere past mile 22 (mile marker 23 appeared to be missing, as I and my work colleague never saw it – and mile 22 had measured long), there was Vince, and the gap was closing pretty quickly.  I was excited, but stayed relaxed, and eventually passed him, feeling very content with what now appeared likely to be a second place finish.

Between mile markers 21 and 22, still feeling relaxed

I missed the gel station again but didn’t care at this point – I felt fine.  No signs of any bonk, energy was high.  And it started getting higher.  After moving into second, the runners coming north began saying, in essence, “the leader is a minute-and-a-half ahead of you and he’s really struggling, go get him.”  When I crossed the one intersection on the back half of the course between mile markers 24 and 25, the race volunteer stationed there got on her walkie-talkie to the pace bike and said “we have a runner coming up strong on the leader.”  And shortly after that, the reports from the runners coming north were, “he’s just 25 seconds ahead of you, and really hurting.”

And, just around mile 25, there he was.  And the gap was closing unbelievably fast.  It must have been just 20 seconds after I saw the leader that I passed him.  The pacer looked back, and started picking up her pace.  After I took the lead, the previous leader (Michael Siringer) pulled up and yelled, “It hurts!”.  I knew at that point that there was no one that was going to come back on me.

At that point, my right hamstring, which had been tight for the past several weeks, and which I’d dug my thumb into several times in the race, nearly seized up and cramped on me.  Jennifer had yelled her greeting to me coming north sometime at that point (she commented that it looked like my hamstring was troubling me). I once again dug my thumb into my hamstring, and I once again relaxed, and I thought “not this time”, as I’d had to pull up in each of my past 6 marathons or so with a mile left to stretch that hamstring.

Just before the finished. No longer relaxed. In fact, my wife calls this “scary”.

And lo and behold, the cramp went away.

And I resumed my natural stride.

And the pacer started calling out to the half-marathoners who were still on the course, “please make way, the marathon leader is coming through.”

And the runners coming north began cheering me on, some of them applauding.

And I completely lost track of my time goals.

And the mile 26 marker was on me before I knew it.

And just beyond the 26-mile mark, I heard the pacer get on her walkie talkie and announce “the marathon leader is coming in”.

And I burst out into the opening near the Boston Store, and the crowds began to cheer.

And I picked up the pace a bit more.

And the finish line was just around the corner.

And I made the last turn, pumped my fists low, and screamed “yeahh!!!!”  Which is quite an outburst for this normally stoic runner.

And I finished that last 0.2 miles in a 6:04 pace.

And the announcer said, “The winner of the 2011 Towpath Marathon is Greg Strosaker (mispronounced a bit, I think) of Solon, OH, in a time of …”  (I zoned out and didn’t hear).  It was 2:55:41, nearly 8 minutes faster than my previous PR and my first sub-3:00 marathon.

And I didn’t know what to do.  The volunteers in the finish area were all congratulating me.  I shook my legs out, grabbed my medal, grabbed a Gatorade, and a banana, and a Subway sandwich, and some pretzels, and started eating.  See, I had to get home in time to coach my 6-year-old son’s soccer game in around 2 hours.

I stayed put for a while and watched the others come in.  I was surprised at the margin of victory – I’d polished off a bit of my sandwich already.  Vince ended up in second.  Then third was another minute behind, a runner I hadn’t passed so he must have finished strong.  I watched a few more runners coming in, offered my congratulations to them, and then ran (recovery pace, don’t worry) to my car to call my wife.  While heading to my car, someone walking to the race asked, “Did you finish?”  My response was simply, “I won.”  On hearing the news, my wife reported that my 6 year-old son had just asked, “Did Daddy win his race?”, and she had said “I don’t know yet, but he probably didn’t win.”  And then I went home, as unfortunately I couldn’t stick around for the awards which weren’t for another hour.

So, I actually won a marathon.  Yes, a small marathon, and not the strongest field it has ever had, but a marathon nonetheless.  I don’t think I’ve ever outright won a race.  Even in high school track, I was always in second place.  Two lessons that will stick with me forever – first is that high, easy mileage works.  Yes, you need the lactate threshold work, and some VO2max work over the long run, but the marathon is about aerobic capacity, and no better way to get that than time on your feet.  And staying relaxed and steady, and being confident in your potential, and not reaching beyond that, is the key to the marathon.

1:27:51 first half.  1:27:50 second half.  It doesn’t get any steadier than that.  Mile 25 passed in 6:41, spot on with the average for the rest of the race. I didn’t accelerate the second half.  Everyone else faded.  Like I always do.  But not this time.

Now to figure out what’s next. I guess 2:50 sounds pretty good. I like simple goals.  But first, I’ll relax a little more.

And this, by the way, is a phenomenal event.  And the Nike Lunarfly 2 is a terrific marathon shoe.

Update 10/13/11:  I’d like to thank Ty Godwin for including my summary in his Raceapalloza recap on his Seeking Boston Marathon blog, and Jodi Higgins for featuring me on her Thumbs Up Thursday post on Run Jodi Run.

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