The sky drizzled a light rain down on us as we waited in the parking lot for the shuttle to take us to the start. I blessed the heavy overcast as a propitious sign; my worries of a scorching hot day began to fade (prematurely, as it turns out).
Reaching Battery Park and feeling the cool wind sweeping off the lake put the final seal on my plans: I would start at 6:45 pace, and shoot to break 3 hours.
The rain quickened as we stood in the starting corral. This was to be my first race in contacts--a recent acquisition. I felt pleased to have my decision to go to that trouble vindicated; glasses are a nuisance in the wet.
We were counted off, and then the whole mass of us, several thousand strong, surged forward into our first loop through the downtown Burlington side-streets. I ruthlessly held my pace to no faster than 6:45; despite that, it crept lower anyway; I seemed to be holding steady on uphills, but gaining time on the declines. The first charge up Church St. felt marvelous; the energy of the crowd was electric; the shops and restaurant awnings that Ev and I had passed by in leisure now streamed past in a blur; the human energy concentrated in one great continuous cheer.
The rain continued as we started on our out-and-back on the highway. I took the opportunity to gain a little distance, hugging the very edge of the shoulder on the long curves that made up the road, staying well to the side of the running pack. I took my first shot blok at mile 5, as planned.
At the turnaround I get a wave from Ricardo, perhaps 30 seconds ahead of me. Damn! I thought. One of is way off-pace here, and I don't think it's me (Ricardo had been saying he wanted to break 3:30 the previous evening).
The cruise back along the highway felt effortless, the incline at mile 8 negligible. I dutifully ate shot bloks at odd-numbered miles and chased them with a little water at the ensuing water stops, though I didn't feel the need of them. I caught up with Ricardo somewhere before mile 9, his great coughing fits resounding over the sound of the crowd. It was amazing how well he was managing it, and I wondered what he would be doing without that chronic cough.
By mile 10 the rain had stopped. We were on the long stretch through South Burlington, and the pace no longer felt effortless, but neither did it feel difficult. Around mile 11 I snagged a gel to use for later. We wove our way through a small neighborhood and then began to work our way back northward to the 13.1 mile mark.
I was beginning to feel the mileage now. Nothing serious, but the realization of 13 more miles still to come was sinking in. As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, I once had a little bit of bonk around mile 13 in a long run, but talked myself back in the game, telling myself you will feel stronger at 17 than you do right now--and somehow that came to pass. I sucked my gel, took some water, and told myself the same thing.
We passed through a canyon-like stretch of bike trail and through the sewage treatment plant detour (which smelled like what it was). Soon we could hear the booming voice of the Taiko drums declaiming the incipience of the Battery Street Hill. Another great crowd here; the drummers and the cheers made mile 15 one of the easiest on the course--I topped the hill and took stock of myself as I passed under the "Start" banner.
Some fatigue in the legs; breath still coming easy; not thirsty, tired, but still strong. I had hit the half in 1:28:30 or so; still planning on holding the pace. You will feel stronger at mile 17 than you do now.
A runner should beware making promises he can't keep. At mile 17, two things happened. (1) sudden, immediate need for a portajohn. (2) the full emergence of the sun. I don't feel badly about stopping--there was really no question about that--but I am somewhat equivocal on the subsequent mile.
Ironically, the externalities of mile 18 were wonderful; on the course map it had looked like an afterthought; a lazy turn in a local neighborhood, necessary only for burning up distance. But that neighborhood was out in force, and filled with unofficial aid stations: oranges, watermelons, water, hoses: it was all there. Sadly, this was where I was forced to take full stock of my physical situation, and it was not good. My legs were getting heavier by the minute, and burning with a fire as though I had been running 400m repeats, instead of the ~8:00m pace I had been managing since my rest stop.
When I reached mile 18 I paused for a second and looked to my right. Two miles back in that direction were the start and finish areas. Food and water and rest. I looked to my left. That way lay 8 miles of pavement; steadily worsening outside conditions, and steadily degrading physical condition. I looked back to the right and I thought about it.
I really, really thought about it.
But there are degrees of quitting. I have only DNF'd a race when I had a legitimate and immediate fear of injury--and that only once. So I turned to my left and kept on plodding.
I was using the same kind of jog-walking that I used to limp home in Hyannis. I would run for a bit, while the fire in my legs built and built. Then, when I didn't think I could stand it anymore, I would walk for a stretch. It hurt to break my self-promise not to walk. Inevitable? I wish I knew. Maybe if I had held to a 9-10 minute jog the fatigue signals would have plateaued eventually, or maybe I just would have hurt myself. I didn't gut it out long enough to learn.
Around this point--mile 20, I think--I heard distinctive coughing echoing from behind me. Still clinging to a little pride, I did my best to hold to a run. All the same, Ricardo passed me not long later, asking me what had happened. "I'm done," I answered. "No no," he protested. "Drink some gatorade!" I appreciated the well-meaning advice. If only that would have fixed me. For that matter, if only I had a nice honest cramp--important muscle groups gone completely out of my control. That would have been preferable to the silent firefighting battle I was waging, pain pit squarely against determination.
Some interminable time later we picked up the bikepath for the last 5 miles home. Occasionally glimpses of Lake Champlain would emerge through the trees. The canopy above largely protected us from the sun, though not from the rising heat and humidity. The water stops had signs indicating the severity of atmospheric conditions: "Low" meant ideal running conditions, from there ranging through Moderate and High to Extreme, which meant very dangerous levels of heat and humidity. The water stop at the beginning of the bike path was advertising "High".
For my all own demoralized state, the bike path was a pleasant enough place to nurse along a little bonk. You know you are in sorry straits when you slow down to take water at the 25.6 mile station (I wondered why they even had one there--now I know!) Just as I was approaching the entrance to Waterfront Park and the finish, the 3:30 pacer man caught up to me. Sigh. I mustered a little bit of gas and passed him, sweeping through the crowds that lined the chute leading into the finish. A final, desultory kick brought me home.
Final result: 281st, in 3:29:42.
Grade: F (I walked!)
Allowing 4 minutes for my bathroom break, I had almost the exact same result as in Hyannis, in nearly the exact same time. Given the extra volume I ran, the extra quality workouts, the extra consistency--I never, never would have guessed this outcome. Needless to say I am disappointed. I have taken two good licks at the marathon now, and both times it's knocked me on my ass. This is a tough distance. My reward for three months training was not any pride of accomplishment, or glory to privately gloat on. Instead, I got another stern lesson in endurance racing, from the only real teacher there is.
But it is not a cheap reward. I will take it and value it commensurate with its cost. To sum it up in two parts:
- In shorter distances, the conditions of the race can usually be relied upon to make you faster. In the marathon, however, the race only makes me faster. It does not make me stronger or more enduring. In that sense, the race is the enemy.
- There is a formula for calculating your expected marathon time: take your 1/2 marathon best x2, and add 10 minutes. That would make me a 2:57 marathoner. I have been implicitly following this advice--acting like a 3 hour marathoner who once had a bad day and ran 3:25. But 3:25 is not my personal best because of some anomaly. It is my best for the very good reason that on race-day I can only run 18 good miles. It is time to start acting like a 3:25 marathoner who is honestly trying to better his PR, rather than setting out to run the 3 hour race I somehow conceived that I deserved.