Monday, September 19, 2011

Race Report: Top of Utah Marathon

When the hail started, all I could do was laugh. Right there at mile nine or ten of the Top of Utah Marathon, the walls of Blacksmith Fork Canyon rearing up on both sides of me like castle ramparts, the smell of the early fall trees in the air, the sound of my fellow runners' feet smack-sloshing the road around me. I laughed. My nose was running faster than I was, and I was running too fast. Next to me was a guy from New Mexico.

I told him, "This is what I wanted to happen during some of those hot summer training runs, but it never did."

He said he had done some long ones in 100 degree weather and dreamed of rain.

We both laughed again. And down came those pea-sized ice chunks and chilly needles of water.

It wasn't the end of the nutty weather, or the beginning. The first dousing rain had fallen on us at the start. We stood in the inky-black pre-dawn porta-john line, wearing the ill-fitting sweats we'd eventually toss away. At one point, after I had said goodbye to Erin and Alana, I stood with a bunch of other runners under the inflatable starting line gate. After my sweats got thoroughly sodden, I cast them off. They weren't doing me any good.

At other times during the race, thunder and lightning creased the sky, seeming right over our heads. After I emerged from the canyon and into town, about mile 14 or 15, I saw a horse in a meadow, an Appaloosa-looking fellow. He cantered nervously, beautiful in his contained energy. I think the thunder had spooked him. In that euphoric moment, I imagined myself drawing on his animal power. I thought I might actually do it. I thought I might qualify for Boston.

But I should have known it wasn't to be. The night before, at the expo, I had talked to the pace group leaders for the 3:40 and the 3:50 marathoners. They agreed that runners in this race, unlike most marathons, needed to bank time in the first half. Once the downhill ends (somewhere around mile 18), a lot of people slow way down, they said. The 3:40 guy said he planned to set 8 minute flat miles in the first part.

Thinking I was being conservative, I lined up with the 8:50 group. When I found myself keeping up with them for the first three miles despite a pace in the 8-teens and 8:20s, I went with it instead of being sensible.

I hurtled down that canyon.

Mile 1--8:29
Mile 2--8:11 (at one point in this mile, my Garmin said 7:36--ack!)
Mile 3--8:15
Mile 4--8:28 (the pace group got way ahead of me)
Mile 5--8:28
Mile 6--8:44
Mile 7--8:38
Mile 8--8:27
Mile 9--8:35
Mile 10--8:53 (this is probably where I should have been the whole time)
Mile 11--8:30
Mile 12--8:28
Mile 13--8:31

I ran a half-marathon PR of 1:51:50 in this race. Great. Except this wasn't a half-marathon.

Mile 14--8:34
Mile 15--8:21
Mile 16--8:40
Mile 17--8:31
Mile 18--8:54

And somewhere in that mile 18, the bonk came. They say it comes at Mile 20. For me, it was two miles early. There was a little hill there, but it was gradual, nothing really as hills go. Nonetheless, to me it was like someone had turned me around and asked me to run back up that canyon.

Mile 19--9:30
Mile 20--10:03

Somewhere in the 21st mile, my buddy from New Mexico, whom I'd lost at a water station somewhere, caught me. "I've been trying to get you for five miles!" he said. He looked great, his stride steady. I tried to stay with him.

Mile 21--9:14

But it didn't last. My lungs and heart still felt great, but my legs--quads and hamstrings--were as achy as I ever remember them being. It was then that I walked. A lot. I watched the window for BQ'ing recede and pass.

Mile 22--10:36
Mile 23--11:10
Mile 24--10:36

When I realized I had only two miles to go, I decided that if I couldn't get the BQ, I needed the sub-4. I knew it would be tough on those legs. But I wanted to salvage this race and be happy at the end. So I pushed (or what counts for pushing at that point!).

Mile 25--9:41

In this mile, a jubilant man in green passed me. "I've just gotta stay ahead of those damn balloons," he was saying to the woman next to him. "Don't they stress you out???" she replied. I knew they were talking about the 4-hour pacers' balloons.

Mile 26--9:40

The 4-hour pacers with their balloons passed me. One of the balloons had popped and hung, deflated, from the stick as its porter bobbed along. I felt like that balloon.

But I kept my eye on the Garmin. It said I was still OK. I rounded a corner and there was the finish line, a tenth of a mile down. I bore down. The 4-hour guys were dancing just ahead of the line, waiting to cross it when it turned 4 hours on the dot. I sprinted (or what counts for sprinting at that point!). I got there ahead of them.

Last Point-2--8:35 pace (ironically, this is my bare minimum BQ pace)

Final result: 3:59:11

I had done it. Despite not sticking to a reasonable race plan, despite bonking, despite rain and hail and lightning, despite walking, I beat four hours. My previous best time, in New York City 2005 at age 32, was 4:13:58. My first marathon, in Houston 1997 at age 24, was 5:00:26.

Best of all, I was happy. I had redeemed a race that could have left me miserable and discouraged. Redemption is what running is all about for me.

Good things about this race:

1. NO POTTY STOPS!! My "fueling" pre-race was perfect. I stuck to my guns and avoided fiber, dairy and heavy baked goods (and most other sweets) in the three days ahead of the race. The day before I had hard-boiled eggs, bananas, salty pretzels (thanks for this tip, Jill!), a turkey-tomato-mustard sandwich on a white salt bagel, Gatorade and the pre-race pasta meal of pasta with vegetarian red sauce, a white roll and salad. Race morning, I ate a hard-boiled egg and some dry Frosted Flakes and drank a cup of coffee. I had Cliff Shot Blocks every four miles during the race until the last six miles when I didn't bother. I had water and Gatorade at every aid station. It worked. I'll do it again just that way for Houston.

2. I was able to set a personal record even with a bonk. I'm now only 15 minutes shy of my BQ time. I think I can do it in Houston with good training and the willpower to stick to a race plan even when the talk around me suggests I do something else.

3. The weather! I love cold weather. I don't mind rain. Even hail is OK if it's short (and it did help that we had patches of sun during the race's second half and at the finish line). I'm hoping it will be nice and cool in Houston in January. I really do believe that heat takes a lot off your time. Expectations will need to be revised downward if heat is an issue.

4. Hanging out with Erin and Alana before and after the race. Especially after! Who doesn't love a celebratory lunch involving Mexican food and three women who got PRs?

Bad things about this race for me (the ones that were mostly out of my control):

1. I had to drive to get there and didn't study Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming well enough. I ended up driving way longer on Thursday night than I meant to because there was nowhere to stay between Laramie and Rawlins. Then, when I got to Rawlins at 11:30 p.m., the nicer hotels were completely full with itinerant refinery workers. I stayed in dumpy place, the kind with a musty cigarette smell, bare bulbs, peeling plaster and a curtain safety-pinned over a rickety wall-unit A/C. I slept terribly, worried the whole time about bedbugs and fleas (fortunately not an issue).

2. My cold didn't clear up before the race. Fortunately, it's just a little cold and it never entered my chest--I don't think it was a factor (at least not a major one) in my Fail. But it added a layer of stress and uncertainty to my entire taper week and interfered with my sleep.

3. I had to walk a lot in those last miles. I wouldn't care if walking had been part of my plan. But it wasn't.

This race reminds me a lot of my Boulder Spring Half last March (though for that race I had a cold that was much worse than this one). I ran too fast and bonked, but still set a PR (albeit not as much of a PR as I wanted at the time). After that, I overcame those mistakes in my next half marathon (the ZOOMA Women's Half), finishing strong and beating my PR again despite heat. That's what I will seek to do in Houston (minus the heat part, I hope).

My goals for Houston, therefore, are simple:

1. Stick to my race plan.
2. Finish strong--no going too fast.
3. BQ (the end for which all these other things are the means)

Oh--and because as usual I was CRAP at taking pictures and Fast Cory was AWESOME at taking them (and really you should see this gorgeous place), here's a link to his race report (PR for him too-Yay Cory!).