For the second year in a row, my fall A-race (and only marathon) was the Towpath Marathon, run on the popular cinder/asphalt trail in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. It was not my original intent to run this race this year – to defend the 2011 title – as the original goal was to return to the Akron Marathon, fearing the pressure of “repeating” would dictate the season. However, the Achilles tendinitis that plagued spring training left me cautious about incorporating a lot of hills, so the flat Towpath sounded a bit more accommodating.
After a generally successful, if a bit up and down, season of training, I was optimistic about this race. However, I had some uncertainty about a goal. After originally targeting 2:50-2:52, a few recent signals caused me to take a more cautious outlook:
- A tune-up half marathon resulted in a 23 second PR (1:23:10) over the same race last year. It seemed a bit of a stretch to count on a 3:00 or more PR in the marathon (last year’s Towpath time was 2:55:41) with that small of a half-marathon PR, and various prediction approaches (+16 sec/mile for marathon pace versus half-marathon pace, the rule of 11 (2 x HM result + 11 minutes), and the McMillan calculator) pointed towards a 2:53 – 2:55.
- A few other friends with similar training and race results had run 2:51:42 on a downhill course (Dave Spell at Wineglass – who is a faster runner) and a 2:53:52 (Stefan Smith at Berlin).
So I set a more conservative range of 2:52 – 2:54 for the race, with the goal to go out at a 6:35 pace (equivalent to a 2:52:30) and hold that as long as possible. To simultaneously avoid getting caught up in focusing on other runners early in the race, yet tap into the motivation inherent in the title of “defending champ”, I adopted the mantra of “my race”. Early on, the point was to interpret this to mean sticking to the strategy and not worrying about others. In the late miles, the tone was to turn more aggressive to find the desire to chase down any leader who was in reach.
Most of the race details were well-tested ahead of the event, including a trial run on the course itself, the pre-race breakfast, even the playlist on the iPod (not for the race, but for the commute and waiting period before the start). The chilly temperatures in the low 40′s with a small chance of rain (and residual dampness in the valley) prompted a wardrobe adjustment to include arm sleeves, cheap throw-away gloves picked up at the expo, and a short-sleeve shirt instead of a sleeveless one (but a shirt I’d also worn on numerous long runs with no issues). I was up a bit later than intended the night before the race, wrapped up in the Ohio State blowout of Nebraska (college football is one of my rare concessions to pure leisure time). When I finally turned off the game to go to sleep, my wife woke briefly to mumble one last reminder – “don’t go out too fast.”
Race morning went by hitch-free, except for our seven year old son getting up before I left at 5:45 – I got him his breakfast and he promised to watch TV quietly until at least 7:00. I arrived to the race start plenty early, and killed time staying warm in the car listening to music and thumbing through Facebook updates, coming across a particularly appropriate one from Runners World:
“It’s rude to count people as you pass them. Out loud.” — from an Adidas ad
About 30 minutes before the start, I walked the half mile to the starting line, did some leg swings and lunges to warm-up, then just sized up the competition. There were several familiar faces from last year:
- Vince Rucci, co-owner of Vertical Runner, who took 2nd last year but has a marathon PR of 2:46 (though he focuses more on ultras and trail running now)
- Mr. 3:07, who was talking 3:00 this year (thus we dub him “Mr. 3:00″)
- Several others, most of whom were talking about having just run Akron the week before.
Thus, none of these raised huge concerns (though you always have to keep an eye on Vince). It was only when Mr. 3:00 started talking to another runner who wasn’t familiar from last year that I grew a bit concerned, as he was mentioning running “2:50, maybe 2:45.” One other concern appeared at the last minute, as a fast-looking woman removed her sweater to reveal a “PowerBar Team Elite” shirt. After all, I never said that the better runner who could beat me at this race had to be a man. Finally, Mark Shipley of Pittsburgh came up and introduced himself just before the race, and we wished each other well.
The race started just two minutes late, and I settled into an easy groove. Vince and Mr. 3:00 took off quickly, and the “runner of concern” (whose name was Joe) settled in beside me. Two other runners were in front, but Mr. Sweatpants didn’t seem to be much of a concern, and the Purdue Boilermaker faded back by a quarter-mile as well. Joe and I struck up a conversation as we headed down Riverside Road towards the Towpath, and I gave him the lowdown on Vince and Mr. 3:00 (keep an eye on the first, the second will fade by the half-way point). Joe mentioned that he heard last year’s winner ran 2:55, so I took the opportunity to introduce myself. When he asked what my goal was for today, I hedged a bit and said “2:53″ (should have hedged more). He replied “sounds good,” and we proceeded to run side-by-side.
We hit the Towpath just before the first mile marker in 3rd and 4th place, at a 6:24 pace. My concern at this point was in letting Joe pull me to a faster-than-planned start, so I kept a close monitor on the effort and pace, and was successful in pulling back to a 6:38 second mile. I asked Joe how many marathons he had done, and he surprised me in replying, “this is my first.” Fortunately, he quickly clarified that he had, in fact, completed three Ironman Triathlons, and his best marathon time was 3:01. Gulp. It was his turn to hedge, though, stating he was “unsure of his fitness” at the present time.
We continued side by side for the next several miles, Joe seeming eager to push ahead (and I encouraged him to do so), and me being generally successful in holding back, with the next five miles ranging between 6:27 and 6:35. Initially, we heard footsteps behind us, but I never turned to look (and neither did Joe), and they eventually faded. At one point, Joe asked what pace I was targeting, and I replied “6:35 early, this is a race you can negative split,” to which he replied “sounds good.” So we continued side-by-side, with Vince generally in sight and not seeming to build his lead, and Mr. 3:00 ebbing and surging a bit in second.
As we approached Ira Road, around eight miles in and just half a mile ahead of the southern turnaround, Joe mentioned that he was going to step off to “pee”. I mentioned he’d certainly have plenty of time to catch back up, and pointed out that we’d actually been running a slight uphill on the way out (probably unnecessary, as he’d mentioned that he had lived nearby after college), so we could thus “think downhill” on the way back. We soon passed David Peters, a dailymile friend I actually have met before, out on his training run. When Joe finally stepped off the trail, I said “I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
The first turnaround gives you a chance to scout the competition. Vince looked to be 30-40 seconds ahead, and Mr. 3:00 was around 20 seconds behind him. After the turn, it looked like the next runner was 30 seconds back, and the “elite” female another 15 seconds back of him (Joe had jumped back on in between). Neither seemed a big threat at this point so long as I stayed steady. Mark soon passed by and stated that Vince was 40 seconds ahead. Within another minute or two, Joe caught up and, instead of staying beside, he stated, “I’m going to push ahead.” I passed on the news about Vince and wished him luck. It was clear this was going to be the defining moment of the race, one way or the other – I stuck with “my race” and let Joe go.
David had stopped at Ira Road to offer his encouragement, a good lift knowing that it was unlikely I would see Joe again. The passing marathoners coming south always provide an extra boost, as did the slight downhill, and the pace picked up a bit to 6:24 to 6:34 for miles 8-12 (though some of the miles were slightly mismarked). The gap started to close on Mr. 3:00. One runner encouraged me to “wait until the next mile marker and then pass him,” but I had no specific timing in mind, and just continued to focus on maintaining the right effort.
Soon, Vince started coming back as well, and before mile 11 he was roughly even with Mr. 3:00 – Joe was well out of sight already. The gap continued to close to Vince and Mr. 3:00, and I eventually passed them just after the 12-mile marker, offering my encouragement as I did. Their footsteps faded quickly, and it became a pretty lonely run for a while, with still a few dozen marathoners passing on their outbound leg. The half-marathon mark passed at 1:25:10, a little faster than desired, but the thought started to creep in that maybe I did have a 2:50-2:51 in me today.
Shortly after this, doubts started to creep in – the easy pace seemed to be slipping to the 6:40′s, and it was far too early for this to be happening. Fortunately, I soon realized we were on a slight uphill, and after it turned down, the pace returned to the low 6:30′s, and I once again relaxed, knowing we still had a long way to go but satisfied that all systems still felt good.
The only issue during this phase (miles 13 through 17) was that I missed the gels at the aid station – the volunteers really didn’t call attention to it, and I didn’t notice them until after I was past. This didn’t concern me too much, as I’d gone without gels last year so was comfortable enough relying on Gatorade for fuel. I also listened carefully after I passed aid stations for their cheering and occasional cowbells to encourage the next runner back, but I honestly rarely heard anything.
A sharp 90 degree turn around mile 15 provided one opportunity to glance back, and no one was in sight. But Joe was not in sight on the long straightaways ahead either, so the only choice was to bear down and run “my race.” The pace stayed steady in the low 6:30′s, with two small surges thrown in just to perk things up when I felt like I was losing focus.
Passing through the finish area just past mile 17 is a mixed blessing. It is the one part of the course with any amount of crowd support (though it’s mostly directed at the half-marathoners finishing their race – this is the first time you encounter them as they start 3 miles behind the marathon and only go north on the Towpath). But you also realize you still have the toughest 9 miles to go. The half-marathoners coming south into their finish do help lift your spirits with their encouragement, and the challenge becomes being friendly in return. I’m not a speedist, in any way, it’s just that I was concerned about saving as much energy as I could and staying focused on “my race.” In fact, when one runner offered up, “great job on being second,” I kindly (I hope) reminded him, “thanks, but there’s a long way to go.”
I looked for extra motivation at several points during this phase. David helped out once again by appearing at both of the intersections on the out and back, making a total of six assists, one time reminding me, “this is what you’ve trained for,” which was, in fact, a helpful thought. I drew energy from symbolically “taking the gloves off” around mile 19, as I’d kept them on the entire race, despite the original intention to shed them at the start.
While my left hamstring had been tight/knotted and a source of concern heading into the race, it was the right hamstring that started to get sore, as well as the right calf. This was my first marathon in the Saucony Kinvara 3′s, so I expected a bit of calf tightness and was able to ignore that. And fortunately, hamstring soreness is nothing new either, so this turned out to be largely a non-event. I did start to tire, and the pace slipped a bit into the 6:34-6:41 range but held steady. I knew that the 20-mile mark was always a mental barrier, so I was happy to pass it feeling no weaker.
I did keep my eyes ahead, hoping maybe to see a sign of Joe, but it was strictly half marathoners (and a recreational runner who fooled me for a second). One runner kindly stated “you can get him, he’s just 4:00 ahead!” I smiled wryly, and replied “he’s running pretty fast, isn’t he?”"Yes, he is,” came the answer.
Eventually I saw Joe coming back after the turnaround, and he was indeed a good distance ahead. I gave him a thumbs up, smiled, and told him, “looking strong,” trying to suppress hopes that he’d get a hamstring cramp of his own. At this point, it was clear that second was the best I could hope for today, so my thoughts turned to racing the clock and avoiding any significant fade that would allow anyone to catch up.
The turnaround, roughly a quarter mile loop, provided one more opportunity to see what was happening behind you. I eagerly looked across the loop as I headed back south, but it wasn’t until I exited the loop that the third-place runner – the PowerBar elite team runner – passed me heading north. I knew my lead was at least two minutes, and I couldn’t see losing that much over the last 4+ miles. The thought must have provided for a little giddy-up though as, at 6:34, mile 23 was my fastest of the last eight.
The pace slowed to the mid 6:40′s over the final few miles. With hitting the 25 mile mark at just past 2:44, I knew that a sub-2:52 had slipped out of reach, there just wasn’t enough pep left in the legs to pick up the speed. When I hit mile 26, tensing up with excitement at nearing the finish caused both hamstrings to cramp, nearly bringing me to a dead stop right before the turn into the finish chute. Fortunately, I relaxed enough to muddle through, thinking how much I dreaded seeing these finishing pictures. I heard a lot of yells of “Go Greg!” as I finished, so I’d like to thank all who were there offering their support.
The 2:52:18 finish was an improvement on my PR from last year’s race by 3:23. It wasn’t as even of a race as last year, but both halves (1:25:10 first, 1:27:08 second) were faster, and the two fastest halves I’ve run in marathons. I met Joe in the finishing area, shook his hand, and said, “nice job, sandbagger.” He laughed and we chatted for a bit, then Jim Smith (who I’d like to thank for providing the pictures for this report) took our picture.
I didn’t have to leave the area after lingering a bit to make it back in time to coach a soccer game this year. Instead, I had to hustle quickly back to my car to coach two soccer games, plus take team pictures, which started 1:28 after I completed the marathon. I had to leave even before the third place finisher, Sarah Ranson of the PowerBar elite team, came in at a little more than 2:58. I made it just in time, and the pouring rain and cold temperatures made it feel like I was taking an ice bath. That, combined with staying on my feet, may have helped mitigate the post race stiffness. And the good news is that both teams played their best games of the year to date.
The next day I exchanged emails with my chiropractor, Leo Kormanik, sharing the results with him. He mentioned that he had raced against Joe McDaniel in college, that that Joe was an All-American. I guess if you are going to have to lose your title defense, you might as well do so in style. Joe finished in close to 2:45, so the outcome was never in doubt.
As always, there are lessons to learn. The first is not to read too much into tune-up races – the half-marathon four weeks before the race left me doubting my goal a bit too much. The second is the reminder to always run your own race – if I’d been pulled into running Joe’s, there is little doubt I would have crashed and burned. Third, staying relaxed, patient, and positive is the only way to keep consistent in the marathon and during training. Finally, you can only control your own preparations for the marathon, and have no control over who else comes to race. This was exactly the way I wanted to finish my story – delivering the race that I was capable of (though perhaps a little more restraint early could have yielded a slightly faster result).
The next year will bring about some changes in my goals and training, and I look forward to starting the process after taking some time to recover (and enjoy some beer, which I had set aside for most of the last nine weeks of my training cycle). This may well be my last race of 2012, as the season has been a bit draining. I thank all of my readers and friends on various social networks for your support, and hope to be able to return the favor as you reach for your dreams.