Race Report: Newport Marathon

Where on Earth do I begin? Hmm.

Well, the gist is this: I was running around 40 seconds slower than intended marathon pace, but at marathon effort, for the first 15 miles or so. Then, after the turnaround, my pace began to degrade further (while my effort increased). After some consideration (and mental math) I decided to cut my losses and drop out just before the 18 mile mark.

That’s the dry, fact-based summary. The more interesting dimension to this event is the one that featured a constant give and take between my emotional side and my rational side. The rational side won out and, while I’m obviously disappointed, I know I did the right thing by deciding to drop out. Or, rather, I am at peace with having dropped out, because I know I did it for the right reasons.

There was obviously something very wrong going on today. It was as though I was transported back a year into the body I had then. The mile-by-mile lowdown provides more detail, but the big picture is that I was just terribly, inexplicably (and consistently) slow from the moment the horn blew. There is either some training-related issue to address (Residual fatigue? Loss of fitness/early peak?), or a medical one (Anemia/low ferritin? A sub-clinical illness or infection?). Either that or my chakras are out of whack or I am being punished for a past life transgression. Who knows?

So here’s the narrative of how the race played out:

My plan was to run the first 4.2 miles completely by effort and not pay attention to pace. That’s because the first miles of this race are nuts. They snake through the streets of Nye Beach and feature hairpin turns, running on gravel or rough sub-pavement surfaces, and some short but very steep uphills. So I promised that I’d keep things in the 87% MHR range and not even look at pace.

During these early miles I felt not just good, but great. I truly thought I was going to have a bang-up day and had set myself up for the sort of race I wanted to run: well-paced and featuring a negative split, as well as a big PR.

Then I looked at my watch for the first time and had the initial big shock of the day. As I approached the 5 mile mark, merrily running along at 88-89% I saw that my average pace was around 30-40 seconds off my desired pace of 7:05-7:10. So I had a deficit of 2-3 minutes already. What should I do?

First I questioned the watch. Was it giving me accurate speed data? Apparently so, since someone else with a Garmin nearby called out a mile split that was in line with my own. So that data was correct. Next, I questioned the heart rate monitor. But I know what “marathon effort” should feel like – even without an HRM telling me – and this was it. I was applying myself to the right degree, but my legs were moving much slower than they should have been.

So this was my new reality: I was running at marathon effort, but for some reason that translated into a marathon pace that had me on track for around a 3:20 race. In the past, my response would be to deny this fact and start running faster, even if it meant going to half marathon or tempo effort. But I promised myself I wouldn’t do stupid things in this race, so I kept on the current pace and kept thinking. What else could be going on?

The miles went by as I pondered. I also tried some little experiments: How fast could I go if I picked it up to 90% effort? I could swing around 7:30 at that pace. But I knew I’d be done for if I tried to run the early miles at 90%. So I split the difference between my goal effort level of 88% and somewhat improved prospects of 90% and decided to see what I could manage at 89%. If I could make it to the halfway point still feeling reasonably fresh, it might be feasible to salvage things (meaning at least not do worse than my last marathon time).

I also managed to convince myself that the problem was external. It simply had to be a headwind. What else could explain the disparity between my training paces and today’s race pace? Around mile 10, I’d started to make peace with the fact that there was no way I’d get close to 3:06 or even 3:15. But I could keep racing, still get a PR and perhaps pick up an award.

I plodded on, alternating between 89% and 90% now, but still feeling good. Then I hit the halfway mark at 13.1. My watch read 1:40:59. I started doing the math. Double that and you get 3:22. Slower than Steamtown’s 3:19. Plus there was the stark reality of the last two miles, which are a steady slog uphill. So I might be lucky to make 3:24 at this rate.

Still, I reasoned, I was running into a headwind. I’d be hitting the turnaround point at mile 15.4. Surely with the wind at my back I could count on an easier time and perhaps at least even splits.

At the turnaround I got the second shock of the day. Rounding the pylon I was hit with a full on headwind of more than 10mph. So for the last 11 miles or so I’d been running this badly with the aid of a tailwind. Holy shit. I was done for. Now I was thinking I’d be lucky to run 3:34. This would be a giant step backward. Not just six months of training down the drain, but a leap back to 14 months ago.

I watched in horror as, predictably, my pace slowed and my effort level increased. The thought that rang into my head, clear as a bell, was this: “I have a choice between two failures. I can either finish the race with a shit time or I can DNF.”

I had no physical issues with finishing. I knew I could. There was no question about that. But the idea of looking at a 3:30 or whatever it was going to be instilled a sense of demoralization that overwhelmed me. I’ve never dropped out of a race, even when I should have. When I’ve wanted to, it’s always been because of discomfort. This time, though, it was because I didn’t see the point in finishing when the reward was an indelible record of this mysteriously terrible performance. A DNF is indelible too, but at least it’s abstract. So I decided to drop out.

Having never DNF’d, I had no idea what a production it can be. First of all, I had to be able to talk to race volunteers without bursting into tears, which was a big challenge. Then I had to deal with all the volunteers thinking I was still running and saying, “You’re halfway there! You can do it! Great job!” and wanting to throttle them, nice as they were. Finally, it took over half an hour for the sweep van to show up. So, in the meantime, after wandering the periphery and moping for five minutes, I decided to rejoin humanity and take a chair next to the pickup from which they were grabbing water and cups.

There was a very sweet dog on a blanket next to me, a boxer named Dexter. I have never been so happy to see a dog in my life. Dexter didn’t give a rat’s ass that I’d just DNF’d. He just wanted to lick all the salt off me and have his back rubbed. I got the love and comfort I needed for the 20 minutes I sat with Dexter. Finally the van showed up and in it were three locals, two of them runners. We chatted a bit, but they could tell I was in a somewhat fragile emotional state, so they only spoke when I spoke to them. Nice people and perfect for manning a sweep van.

We picked up two other struggling runners on the way, one of whom I ran with for about a mile early on. His explanation was the same as my own: “I’m not injured or sick. Just having a really bad day.” The other guy had back problems which flared up in the home stretch at mile 24. He was dead silent for the entire ride.

Finally, an hour after my decision to drop I got let out near the finish and found Jonathan in the crowd, searching for me on the course so intently that he didn’t notice me until I was a foot away.

He had a rough day out there too, although not anywhere near as bad as mine. He was off pace for the first 15 miles by about 10 seconds per mile. Once he hit the headwind, he was running a good 40-60 seconds per miles slower than intended, having also thrown in the towel mentally and turned the finish into a training run. He’s in the host hotel right now attempting to collect whatever AG award he won as I sit here composing. I couldn’t bear to join him, for obvious reasons.

I’m trying not to get totally depressed and discouraged. It’s not the DNF that’s bothering me. It’s not knowing why things went so wrong.

24 Responses

  1. Julie,
    Maybe this will be a little funny tomorrow or the next day.

    I admire you for many reasons, but mainly for your honesty and insight.

    Here is Larry’s commentary.

    Let me just take a minute here to mention a terrific female masters runner, Julie Threlkeld, a person of Swedish extraction……or Norwegian?….in any case, she trained like a Kenyan…..or Ethiopian?….did Threlkeld, for this race, often wearing racing flats, which each weigh just a bit more than a piece of lefse. Oh, I just confirmed that her heritage is indeed Norwegian, which reminds me that the Norwegians and the Swedes have quite a rivalry going back three centuries: think Yankees/Red Sox. In any case, even though she had a rough day on the course today, I know that she will be back, well on her way to running like a human hydroplane.

  2. 10/10

    This was funny now, which is saying something on a day when I’ve lost my sense of humor. Thanks. You’ve capture the essence of Larry Rawson. And my name’s Julie (although Lisa is a nice name and changing it would allow me to establish a new running identity and set of PRs). I’ve corrected your comment.

  3. Julie,

    Thanks so much for this post and for being honest and real. I’m sorry all the months of training didn’t result in a dreamy PR for you today. I can’t wait to hear what’s next for you with your training and goals. The best to you!

  4. I wish I could say something witty and clever, the perfect balance of sympathy and hope. But sometimes things just suck.

  5. Hi Julie,

    Sorry the race was so tough, all around. If it makes you feel any better, when I don’t want to exercise, I think about this blog and how dedicated you are, and I get going. I’m still fat, but slightly healthier, and that, in part, is a result of reading your blog. So even if you feel little total crap about this race, know that your influence goes beyond times and heart rate monitors.

    Thanks

  6. Oh, sweet Julie, that is such a killer to hear, my heart goes out to you. Damn marathons, so much riding on them and so easy for one thing to go wrong. I understand the DNF entirely, I think I’d have done the same.

    I’m sure you’ll find a way to use this race to fuel your next one. There is some major retribution coming your way. Hugs.

  7. Yikes. I’m really curious as to the underlying issue, too. I will say that it doesn’t sound like my experiences with anemia, that tends to be more of a long slow descent into tired, and spiking heart rates have always been my first symptom. Maybe you’ll come down with something in the next day or two that will explain it. Or maybe it’s just one of those damn things.

    Either way, you sound really sane and comfortable with your decision. Good job. Can’t wait to follow your next race.

  8. Julie, sorry it wasn’t your day. Forgive me for still chuckling at Marilyn-Larry’s commentary.

    You did the right thing to DNF at 18 miles. Get a blood test first. Maybe you can have another start in 4-6 weeks? This could be a good training run for another go. Got to be something wrong – hopefully it’s something simple and you’ll bounce back well. I thought for sure you’d run 3:08-10ish – 3:15 on a bad day.

  9. In the same situation, I hope I would have been as wise as you (but not sure that I would have been). Assuming the problem is temporary, you’re in shape for another marathon this season.

    Marylin – Running like a human hydroplane? :D

  10. I’m so sorry. It does sound like you made the right decision, though.

    Could you be getting sick? When I’ve had experiences like yours, I’ve ended up developing a nasty cold/flu a day or two later.

  11. This is not the race report I was hoping to read. You obviously put in the necessary training and preparation, so this poor performance was just a fluke, I’m sure. You’ll be back this fall and ready to run an amazing marathon that will quickly erase all the bad memories of this one. Hope you can enjoy the rest of your trip. Don’t beat yourself up over the DNF too much.

  12. The one thing I really like about running and runners is that it requires and reveals deep, insightful intelligence – all things you demonstrate. Running is also one of the most Known Unknowns in my life. With all the prep, patience and persistence there are things beyond us, those things we try to run to and away from.

    You did more in those miles run that most people do in their entire lives.

    Glad you have peace and we know you’ll be back again, stronger because of it. Let go and hang on.

  13. Shit shit shit. That’s all i got. If you lived closer to me, we’d be drinking right now.

  14. I’m sorry to hear the race went haywire. I’m sure it’s no consolation, but the unpredictability of sports was on full display this weekend, with your race, Nadal losing at the French Open, LeBron not making the NBA finals, and, on the track, Tirunesh Dibaba falling short in the 5K.

    I’m no coach, but have you given thought to another marathon in the near future? You are of course in fantastic shape and by dropping at 18 miles you saved your body the damage that a full marathon would have exacted.

  15. I recommend racing a ‘thon in three weeks… maybe????

    Whatever you decide, keep on running…

  16. I’m sorry this didn’t go well. With the training you already have under your belt, I’m sure you’ll come back strong for the next one…

  17. Thank you so much for showing the true side of a bad marathon! You are inspiration and I hope that I can learn to listen to my body as well as you listened to yours.

  18. You did the right thing. BIG enormous hugs to you, and I’m not even normally a huggy person.

  19. Julie, The honesty of your post says you are one class act.. I ran Newport with you (we were just 2 minutes apart at 13.1) and you describe the course (especially those screwy early miles) and the conditions we faced exactly. Eventually you’ll unravel what happened in your race and use it to lay the groundwork for the best marathons you’ll ever run. I’ll leave you with this. Perhaps last Saturday you were beaten but you didn’t lose. The losers never made it to the starting line.

  20. […] and more importantly, Julie blew up at Newport and is in assessment/talking-long-walks-on-the-beach […]

  21. Hi Julie, I feel like a bad friend for not reading your heavy race report and analysis any sooner than freaking July 11th. I give you huge props for being so gentle with yourself–you could have really beat yourself up for a DNF–and for just wanting to understanding why. (WHY indeed!) It sounds like you and your coach learned a lot of important lessons, lessons that may help you for Sacramento. But nevertheless, it sucks. The silence in the sweep van eloquently (non-)says it all. A hug, two months two late. You are still my girl running hero.

  22. […] I experienced the second DNF of my brief competitive racing career. Loyal readers will recall the first, earlier this year, as the debacle known as the Newport Marathon. That experience made me want to […]

  23. […] 2008. I missed last year’s because I was too busy crying into my microbrews in Oregon after dropping out of the Newport Marathon at mile […]

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