Tuesday, August 14, 2012

San Francisco Marathon race report

Story of my first marathon.

All the running magazines and all the running books talk about the Boston Marathon. A book I've found particularily helpful, Run Less, Run Faster, devotes about 1/3 of the book to training plans with the specific goal of qualifying for Boston.

I decided it was time for me to try.

Other runners I spoke to said they thought that me getting into Boston was a sure thing. While this was comforting, I still needed to, as they say, actually do the running. As a newbie to the process, I thought I would just get one of the 10 open slots that our running club gets each year for Boston and enter that way.

“Bad idea,” my running friend Patrick said. “You'll be starting with 5 hour charity runners. It will be a traffic jam the whole race. You need to qualify.”

After some talking, he connected the dots that I was going to San Francisco and that it was a cool weather marathon, even at the end of July. He advocated and I accepted the challenge of getting a BQ in San Francisco.

From the beginning of the race season back in March, I had begun putting my race times and distances into an online calculator that predicted my marathon finish time based on the race I had just run. Even an easy race, 2 weeks after the punishing 7-Sisters trail race, predicted a BQ, which was comforting. Back in January, I had committed to doing the MassDash, a 24-hour relay across the state which had me running 20 miles of road running in a 18 hour span. My longest road race in my career up to that point was 9 miles so I was committing to, within two weeks, putting 5x more road pounding then I had ever done.

So, arriving at the start line injury free was a big concern. In April of this year, I had done a hard 9-mile road race that I hadn't prepared my legs or body for properly. One of the after effects was that I put my back into spasm and was in bed for 3 days. After recovering from that, I shifted from running 6-7x a week to running every-other day. On the non-running days, I got on the stationary
bike and peddled like crazy. While my running volume was down, I always think of myself as a slow recoverer and this seemed a good strategy.

Before the back spasm incident, I had held a volume of 40 miles/week for 8 weeks. This left me incredibly strong, running a faster pace for the 9 mile race then I was able to hold for later, shorter races. It had also left me injured. Since I had dicided to do so much racing during the 2012 season, I decided that I would ere on the side of injury prevention over speed. This balance seemed to be working for me as I reached the marathon starting line injury free.

After the MassDash, my family and I traveled to California for some visiting of friends and camping in the mountains. I did no running for the week after the relay, as is my system after a long race, then only light running after that. My longest run in the 3 weeks before the marathon, not counting the 20 miles of racing, was 1 hour and at that, I only hit that mark 2 times. While I knew that endurance is slow to fade and that even touching speed in strides is enough to hold on to most of the speed, I still wanted to run a harder workout close to the marathon to “test” my legs.

I did not do this. There is a story of the 196? American olympic marathon team that traveled to Europe. 1 week before the marathon, they ran the course as a “warm up” at about 2:45 pace. On the actual race day, the fastest member only ran a 2:43, way slower then his training predicted. The others couldn't even match their “practice” run pace. I knew enough to not make this mistake, even though I wanted to. That resistance to desire is certainly part of the discipline of the pre-marathon taper.

A key to success in any long race is picking a pace at the beginning that you can hold at the end. Of course, how does one know what pace your body will be able to withstand after 2 hours of hard running? To find this, there is only one place go to – past race performance.

In 2011, I had run the Pisgah 50k trail race and, using my 2010 performance, had picked a pace that turned out to be too slow. I say this because I raced the lats 11 miles more then a minute faster then I raced the first 20 miles. A well paced race should have no more then 10 second difference per mile at the beginning of the race then at the end. I had been much too conservative in the 50k pace prediction.

Knowing this, I agonized over my starting pace. Julienne was infinitely patient as I daily spoke about what I thought my body would be able to do on marathon day. My best race, the pre-spasm 9 miler, predicted a 2:45 marathon. My slowest 10k predicted a 3:11 marathon. I needed at least a 3:15 to qualify. What would I run?

It used to be that anyone who wanted to drop the registration money could run in the Boston Marathon. Then, as the field sizes grew, the organizes put qualifying times in, meaning every runner who went into the race planning and ready to race it, had to have run a previous marathon. Then, only a few years ago, there were more people with qualifying times then there are spaces for runners on the roads. As a consequence, qualifying times became tighter and even having a qualifying time was no longer a guarantee of an entry spot – now, you wanted the fastest qualifying time you could get.

So, just because I was pretty sure I could run a 3:15 marathon, that wasn't good enough. I wanted a fast marathon to ensure a slot in the big race. But could I run a sub-3 marathon? For many people, that is a central goal of the marathon.

I decided that a sub-3 marathon 2 weeks after the Dash was more then my body was capable of. The zone of my predicted performance narrowed as I put past performances plus their elevation data and temperature date into online calculators to estimate a performance on a cool San Francisco morning with its '1000 of climbing and descent.

I came up with a 3:08 time. This was fast enough that, if I was feeling good at mile 15, I could start running faster and possibly get below 3:05. Going below 3:05 meant that I would beat the qualifying time by 10 minutes and would be able to register for the big race earlier then most people. 3:08 was also fast enough that if I started really struggling later in the race, I had enough of a margin to probably finish below 3:15.

So, I went into the race ready to run 7:10 miles. I would start behind the 3:05 pace group and determine to never pass then.

I kept that determination until about mile 5. The first parts of SF are 4 mile of very flat running. The miles, when I could find the hidden, pointing backward, small or non-existent mile markers, were coming in at 6:50-7 min/mile. A little fast but I still felt safe. Then, as we began the first climb across the Golden Gate bridge, we click off a 7:40 mile that felt much too easy for me.

I check with the 3:05 pace group leader and based on his goals for the race, the group was on target. He planned to be ahead some time in the beginning, lose some time on the hills, then gain some time again toward the end of the race where the was more downhill. This seemed like a good idea but in the moment, that 7:40 mile felt and looked (on my watch) too slow for my 7:10 pace. I passed the pace group as I headed into mile 9 where I picked up 2 GUs to replace the two I had already eaten.

Fueling during a long race is very important, another key to a successful marathon. In the edition of Running Times that had come out just before the race, there was an article by researcher, Tim Noakes, who had written the Lore of Running, a thick, research based book on running. I had learned a lot reading that book and in his recent article about hydration, I learned another key fact. Don't drink too much liquids.

During the 50k race of 2011, I had stopped to pee 3 times. This felt excessive to me but at the time, I was operating under the plan that one needs to replace fluids as quickly as they are lost. I was also under the impression that one of the reasons for a Bonk (my 2010 Pisgah experience) was lack of fluids. After reading Noakes article, I changed my thinking.

Bonking, he advocated, was only about low blood sugar, not hydration. Only drink when you're thirsty. Marathon finishers can end with a 7-10% body weight drop and are otherwise in fine health and recover just fine.

Based on this, I stuck with my 2 GUs an hour and only drinking based on thirst.

From mile 10-20, the course was mostly through a large park, the Golden Gate Park. At one point, we marathoners ran past the finish of the 1st ½ marathon and it I felt envious to not be stopping. Or, maybe more of a feeling of “Hey, good for them.” It's nice to try to keep it positive.

I chatted with another runner for a little while from around mile 14 to mile 15. We both commented on the bad mileage markers. He too was working to qualify for Boston, after failing to qualify for Boston at Boston due to high temperatures. He later went ahead of me and was successful in his bid.

Things really began to get going at mile 20. Up to this point, my legs were working fine but they showed signs of growing fatigue. At the top of a rise near mile 20, I suddenly felt bad. I noticed some regurgitated GU in my mouth, my legs felt crampy and I felt light headed. I slowed way down for a few paces, took a few deep breaths and....

nothing. I was suddenly fine. I realized that at mile 20, I needed to shut up, calling out to the crowds “Hey, thanks for coming out!” and focus inward on the running. Frank Shorter has a running book where he speaks of disassociating and associating. Early in a race, he advocates lots of mind wandering and being lazy brained. Later, as the body begins to fatigue, he advocates focusing, or “associating” and bringing your brain back to the task at hand.

And so, starting at mile 20, I began to really focus. I stopped saying “Nice job man,” when I passed runners. I stopped hooting back to the crowd. And I especially stopped calling out to the young women holding signs that said such things as, “Hey, Sweaty Guy! I Know We're Strangers. This Might Seem Strange but... Give Me A Call!”

I found that as fatigue became greater, I was still moving nicely. Toward the end of the race, there are a large number of downhills. These were a challenge to my tired legs but not so much that I was forced to slow dramatically. I did find that my vision started to be a problem. Toward the end of the race, if I ran too fast, I started getting stars in my eyes and tunnel vision.

Later, I talked to Jay, my running Guru. During the race and after, I had thought this vision problem was due to lack of oxygen.

“What kind of pace were you holding?” he asked.
“7 minute miles.”
“Nope, not oxygen, not for you. You have to be at max heart rate to get oxygen debt problems. What kind of calories were you taking in?”
“2 GUs an hour,” I said.
“That should be enough. Sounds like you had an electrolyte imbalance,” he said.
“I figured the GUs had that covered.”
“That's what their advertising says but in practice, there is almost never enough either Potassium or Sodium in those. Where you drinking a lot of electrolye replacer?” he asked.
“Only enough that I wasn't thirsty.”
“Hmmm. There it is.”

So, next marathon, I'll have to carry some of the electrolyte tabs they sell and toward the end, start throwing some in my body.

At about 1 mile to go, I started speeding up but again, my vision was the limiting factor, not my legs. I was certainly tired but I felt I had a bit more speed to give. In the last ½ mile, I slowly accelerated. A guy came up on my right and I said to myself, “Nope, no more passers,” and I began to squeeze down on my remaining reserves. I also squeezed my eyes tight and shook my head because as I accelerated, even though I was forcefully breathing to get more oxygen into my system (wrongly thinking this was the problem,) I was concerned I might trip and fall so close to the finish.

As it was, I probably passed 15 runners in the last mile, some I had last seen many mile before. Some were moving very slowly, which I had great compassion for, having experience it before. I also knew the cause - they did not eat enough during the run.

I came though the finish line in 3:04:20, a very pleasing result given that I beat my qualifying time by 10 minutes and that it was my first marathon and only 2 weeks after 20 miles of racing. I stumbled around for a bit, had a few smoothies, chatted with two guys who I had chatted with during the race, and then my teeth began to chatter.

Between the cold smoothies and the cool day and the depth of my fatigue, I was tired and cold. I limped to the UPS truck that had my bag and retrieved my sweats. After talking myself through the process of dressing and keeping the reflective mylar plastic under my jacket, I then began to negotiate the walk back to the car.

For a few block, I was lost, unsure exactly which way I had walked 4 hours before. At that time, there had been many people streaming toward the start line so I just joined the herd. Now, alone, it took some doing but I soon found a few identifiable features that guided me safety.

It was on the walk back that I began to get giddy laughter about my feeling of success. By the time I had gotten back to our friend's house, Julienne was still able to see the lingering phase of the giddiness. All I had to do was think about how I had just run what I feel was basically the fastest marathon I could have done under the conditions, I would start to have giddiness bubble out of me.

I was glad she shared that and I was glad to be on the way to Boston!