Running Down Thunder Road

I’ve had a few folks ask me to sum up my recent marathon.  I realized I had a disparate collection of emails and oral retellings, but needed to get everything down in one concise spot before I started forgetting things.

Some of you have read my negative split posting from last year.  Of course, the problem with writing such things is that I have to practice what I preach.  So it was as I lined up on a chilly December morning on the starting line of the 2008 Thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte.  Lots of thoughts swirling through my head… Pacing… Strategy… Weather… Training… Was it enough?  Was it too much?  What would I be thinking in three hours?

Thunder Road is a fairly new marathon, filling the void left by the old Charlotte Observer Marathon.  I had decided to run it after a buddy of  mine convinced me we needed to run Boston at some point in our forties.  I had run Boston in 2002, at the fresh-faced age of 36.  My buddy’s idea seemed a little nutty at first.  Marathon training, done right, takes time.  Lots of time.  In my older years, I have been grounded by a fair number of injuries.  I had made a similar attempt a couple years earlier, only to be derailed by dead legs and lots of worrisome pains that were not healing.  So when the suggestion of a Boston qualifier first came up, I was a bit leery of it.  But, all I need to get into the big race is a 3:20. (Disclaimer: I know  a lot of folks can only dream of a 3:20, so I don’t mean to come across as pompous when I say “only a 3:20…”  A marathon, any marathon, no matter how slow, is a major accomplishment.  But, a 3:20 is generally something within my range.  I am lucky to be able to say that.)  So we would take a pretty conservative training approach.  No crazy hard speed workouts.  Long runs, but only a minimum number, and only the minimum length we would need.  Lots of easy runs.  No big deal.

The crowd moves away

The crowd moves away

I agreed.  Let’s do it.

I had been pretty fortunate to that point of 2008.  I had only raced twice (a spring half-marathon, and a little 5K) and had managed to stay injury free.  Additionally, I was managing to log 45-55 miles per week, week after week, with really very little effort.  I was maybe taking only one or two days off per month, so I figured as long as I stayed healthy, why not.  So our early speed workouts were lots of 400, 800, and mile workouts, maybe twice per week.  Part of the plan also included two tune-up races.  The first was a 15K in October, the other a half-marathon in November. And we slowly started layering in some long runs.

August turned into September, and everything was going well, and the workouts seemed easy… Maybe too easy.  The 3:20 goal looked like a no-brainer.  The weather yielded to the cooler fall temperatures, and the long runs ramped up… Sixteen… Eighteen…

As October rolled in, I had to think about that 15K, and what to shoot for.  This particular race is one of my favorite every year.  It’s a challenging course, but very pretty, and usually the crisp fall weather makes the humid summer struggles fade into memory.  So it was I came to think that maybe, just maybe, I could shoot for 6:05 pace.  That would be almost my PR pace.

PRs.  Oh they are such tricky things.  They are a great benchmark to judge yourself.  But as I get older, I have to do the same mental magic tricks everyone else does… Dialing back expectations as an older body faces the truth… The truth that the PRs I logged when I was 35 were probably no longer realistic as I plowed into my 40s.  So, this 15K would be the first litmus test, and I needed to set reasonable expectations.  The Thursday prior I decided to run a good hard 7 mile tempo run… Maybe, just maybe, that would let me know whether 6:05 to 6:10 was realistic.  If I could do seven miles, in training flats, and be near 6:10, then that probably means I can do the same on race day in racing flats.  Imagine my surprise when I stopped my watch and it told me I had averaged 6:02!  That was a lot faster than I thought I could roll.  So I waited for race day…

…And was not disappointed!  My finish time was 54:56… An average of 5.54!  And, it was a PR… At a time when I thought all my PRs were behind me… And it wasn’t like I had squeaked in under the wire… I broke my old PR by about half a minute.

My half-marathon in November was a similar story.  My old 1:20 PR fell by over two minutes.  At this point, my training buddy was telling me I needed to come up with another plan as targeting a 3:20 marathon was a waste of effort.  I was thinking he might be right.

So after talking with a few sages, I came up with 2:50 for my marathon target.  Two hours and fifty minutes.  Man.  Just the thought of that made my heart race.  I had done 2:59 twice (including that Boston run) and I thought that was as good as it would ever get.  The thought of taking off another nine minutes seemed like crazy talk.

Okay… That’s the set-up… Now for race day…

I know I want to negative split.  I’ve done it before, I think it’s the smartest way to marathon, and dang it if I haven’t BLOGGED about it.  To do anything else is crazy.  But for 2:50, I need to average better than 6:30 per mile… For 26 miles! Can I really click off 6:30 (or faster) in the waning miles of a marathon?  Man, I don’t know!  To say my mind was filled with doubt is a massive understatement.  But I commit to it… I’m going to follow my own advice.

On race day it’s cold, but otherwise perfect weather.  With a starting temperature around 30, but plenty of sunshine and nary a breeze through the leaves, I opt for nothing more than gloves to protect me from the cold.  I’m carrying a Gu in each glove, and there will be Gu at 16 and 20.  So with four Gu shots, and PowerAde, I should be able to stay away from the dreaded bonk.  A fitness magazine is sponsoring pace groups to help guide runners to various goals.  The fastest pace group is the three hour group, and I decide their 6:50-something pace will probably be near where I want to start out at.  I’m figuring if I can hit the 10 mile split and be within shouting distance of 6:30 pace, then I’ll be setting up for a decent second half.

The gun fires, and I feel relief more than anything.  I’m really not a huge fan of running marathons.  They are something of a necessary evil in my opinion.  As a runner, people tend to judge you by your marathons… How many, how fast, etc.  I’m probably off the hook on the “how many?” question since I have a pretty good answer for “how fast?”   The training is lengthy, and it’s pretty much a one shot deal.  If I have a bad day, it’s not like I can turn around in a few weeks and try again.  Months of training and hours on the road have boiled down to this, and now it’s on.

The first mile is downhill, and I fall in with the three-flat pacers.  Everyone is pretty jazzed and hyped up, which is dangerous.  In a race that is all about conservation and survival, many people will ruin their day right here.  We go through the split in 6:48… A bit faster than I wanted (I was thinking something more like a 7-flat) but it was down hill.  The second mile settled down and we logged a 6:56… Much better!  That would turn out to be my slowest mile of the race.  I drafted the pace setters and let them do the work through three and four.  The one thing I did notice was the number of people in the group that seemed like they were breathing awfully hard.  Too hard I thought.  Somewhere between the fourth and fifth mile, a small pack of us broke away.  Not quickly or suddenly mind you, but just a bit quicker.  We were still clipping off 6:48s more or less, while the pace group was trying to stay just on the slow side of 6:50.

Approaching the six mile split, I turned to the guy next to me and asked him what he was shooting to run.  His response was something like “Uh, *gasp* I’d like *gasp* to get in *cough* close to three…”  I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was in over his head.  I don’t know where he finished, if at all, but I’m fairly certain it wasn’t close to three.

The 10K split was 42:10.  Perfect.  Nice and easy.

At this point I started to really relax and take it all in.  The miles had been effortless, and we were going through some really pretty parts of the city.  At around 8 miles, I heard a conversation amongst my pack mates that went something like this:

“How you feelin’?”

“Eh, not bad… A little tired.”

“Yeah, me too…”

Gents, if you’re eight miles into a marathon, and you feel a little tired, it’s going to be a long day.  What I came to realize was there were a lot of people around me who were already in over their heads.  I’m guessing they didn’t read my blog.

The miles continued to drift by as we cruised into Myers Park, a very pretty tree-filled neighborhood.  I pull away from my small pack and am pretty much running solo.  It would turn out to be pretty much just me from there on.  Hit the ten mile post at just a hair over 1:07.  Not bad at all!  That certainly was where my pre-race planning had me.  But then I looked at my split for that tenth mile… 6:10!  Uh-oh… Way WAY too fast.  The gears started turning and I had to convince myself that was okay.  It was a downhill mile, but still.

The course turns into Dilworth and we approached the halfway mark.  I’m picking off other runners slowly but surely.  Passed a couple near the 11 mile mark… A couple more just past 12.  I turn the corner and look down a long stretch and can see the mats laying across the road at the half marathon mark… I cross in 1:27:10 surrounded by screaming spectators and the thumping beats of a live band.  As I turn the corner and head into the second half of my race, it seems like it gets very quiet.  There’s nobody in front of me that I can see, and nobody behind me that I can hear.  I start trying to do the math on my half split to see if I can figure out the pace… I can’t do it.  But, I know it’s probably not far from where I want to be.  So now it’s time to get serious and see if I really can do this negative split nonsense.

Mile 14 comes and goes.  My watch says 6:20 for the split.  Mile 15 drops to 6:08!  A spectator calls out that I’m in fifteenth place.  I back out of the rich pace a bit, but manage to get by a handful of people.  At this point I notice I am closing and passing people VERY quickly.  At the 15 mark I saw my buddy Aaron probably 150 meters in front of me.  By fifteen and a half he is within spitting distance.  As the 16 marker comes up, he is behind me somewhere, but I can no longer hear him and am now focusing on the next two guys in front of me.  I found out later that he dropped out at the 22 mile mark.

The 16 mile mark is the first snafu of the race.  There is supposed to be Gu there.  I’ve been taking PowerAde at all the water stops, and I’ve already snarfed down both my Gu packs (chocolate in case you were wondering).  There is supposed to be Gu at 16.  I’m counting on it.  Well, I think what happened was that I forgot what mile marker I was at.  I thought I was at 15, when I was really at 16.  Anyway, I totally forgot to look for the people handing out Gu, and was oblivious to them screaming “GU!!!!” at the top of their lungs.  The marathon brain drain had set in.  I was getting dumber by the mile.  I did look for Gu later, but that was the 17 mile mark.  In my stupor over looking for Gu, I managed to forget to grab any PowerAde.  It was the first water station I had skipped.  Meanwhile the past two miles had clicked off in 6:15 and 6:11 respectively.  At this point I was committed to the pace, and it was going well.  I had a rhythm going and I felt pretty good.  Just beyond the water station I passed another guy and up in the far distance (maybe 300 meters) I could see two more guys running side by side.

Mile 18 was 6:03.

Mile 19 was 6:04.

As I approached 20, I was in the wake of those two guys.  One of them turns around and does a double-take.

“Where the hell did you come from?”

I wasn’t expecting a conversation at that point and didn’t really know what to say.  I just mumbled something unremarkable.  At 20, I saw the volunteers holding Gu.  I washed it down with a couple gulps of PowerAde.  Mile 20 was a 6:09, 2:09:36 total.

About 800 meters down the road I had the first feelings of a possible pre-bonk.  Legs were really feeling heavy, I was tired, I couldn’t think straight.  I was real happy with the pace at this point (I was right around 6:29 pace) but I also knew I was getting into the danger zone.  Additionally, I was all alone with nobody to run with, and this is a part of town I’m not very familiar with.   I felt disoriented, not really sure where this street was going, which street was next, and how any of these would take me to the end.  It was a strange sensation.  I felt like I had been out there a long long time, and felt like I still had a long way to go.  But then, almost as quickly as the feeling descended on me, it left me.  The 20-mile Gu was working it’s magic.  Mile 21 was a 6:22.

I decided I needed to relax a little.  I kept the same pace and went through mile 22 with a 6:21.  I came up to the next aid station.  I’m right handed, but the aid station was on the left.  Ordinarily not a big deal.  But my IQ, corrected for 22 miles of marathon racing, was now hovering somewhere around 65.  I approached, stretched out my hand toward the last volunteer, grabbed the PowerAde cup, and promptly dropped it.  I knew I needed the calories, but at the same time I couldn’t decide whether I should turn around, or stop, or what.  I just kept going, hoping for the best.  Then, I heard footsteps closing behind me, fast.  I thought it was one of the guys I passed back at 20.  I looked over my shoulder and saw one of the water station volunteers chasing me down, cup in hand.  He had seen the botched hand off and quickly grabbed a cup and came after me.  I learned weeks later the guy’s name is John Wimbish, and I mention him by name because he may very well have saved my race.  I don’t know what would have happened without those few precious calories, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.  He is also a marathoner, and knew that ever cup is precious, especially at that stage of the race.

Mile 23 was 6:09.

Somewhere between 23 and 24, I passed the last runner I would pass.  Don’t know who he was, but he scared me.  He had clearly hit the wall and was in full all-out bonk survival mode.  He was shuffling at maybe nine minute pace or slower.  I wondered if I was next.

Mile 24 was a 6:18.

Mile 25 I was just trying to hang on.  6:29.  Uh-oh.

Shutting it down as I crossed the finish line.

Shutting it down as I crossed the finish line.

Lots of stuff goes through your mind in the last mile.  Well, sort of.  I was trying to compute the pace, but couldn’t.  I was trying to figure out what I would run if I totally crashed and burned with a 10 minute mile.  Couldn’t figure that out either.  I was trying to figure out what street I was on, and how could it possibly get to the finish.  The last mile was tough.  It’s uphill.  Even if it was downhill it would have seemed uphill.  I just wanted to hang on and keep one foot in front of the other.  I turned the last corner and could see the finish in the distance.  The split at 26 was a 6:22.

At that point, I knew the bonk wasn’t happening… I could survive another two-tenths of a mile, although I swear it seemed closer to a half mile… But I managed to find a little bit more lift in my legs (I wouldn’t call it a kick… It wasn’t).  As I approached the finish, I could see 2:48 rolling over to 2:49 on the clock and realized I really had pulled it off.  Until that moment I wasn’t really certain.  I scooted across the line where my wife and kids awaited, in fifth place overall.  The official time was 2:49:09.  I managed to hit every split on my watch except that one!

As far as the negative split, I got that too.  My second half split was 1:22, five minutes faster than the first half.

And yes, another PR!  Almost exactly ten minutes better than my previous best, and at a time in my running life when I assumed I had set all the PRs I would ever set.

So now, that behind me, I can think about NOT training for anything for a while.  With a Boston Qualifier in my pocket, I will look at going in 2010.  I’ll give my body a good chance to rest and recover, and a summer of slogging easy miles to make sure I can tackle another training program.

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7 Responses to “Running Down Thunder Road”

  1. Fantastic write-up. Had me glued to the screen and looking forward to each paragraph. Congratulations on such a great PR! Very glad for you to have published the experience for others to share.

  2. Chris Bean Says:

    That really is a sweet re-telling of the marathon experience. Having only one marathon under my belt (in which survival and simply finishing was the goal), I look forward to training well enough to ‘enjoy’ one that much. All I remember from my marathon is some cute girl cheering me on at mile 20 yelling “Way to go 4046…you’re almost there!” She was lying…but it propelled me at least 4 more miles. 😉

  3. atty. jon Says:

    You’re an inspiration to me. I am training now to qualify for Boston at the age of 39. I hope by age 40, I’d run it as a gift for myself. Thanks.

  4. John Wimbish should be bronzed for that act of marathoner heroics!

    Great race.

    Thanks for stopping by Team HQ and inspiring me to keep trying the negative split. Cheers!

  5. Amy Knight Says:

    Wow, very well writen I enjoy this artle a lot.

  6. What a great writeup of your marathon, Chaz! I’m glad I got a chance to hear the entire story! And again, congratulations!

  7. Jeff Caylor Says:

    Fantastic write up, and congratulations again. Some how I missed this… Been a crazy year so far. Best of Luck in Boston! I think we’ll need a DailyMile party… I won’t be racing Boston this year, but I hope to see you at the race!

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