Race Report: 2008 Steamtown Marathon

My race experience was summarized in my preliminary report: I ran under 3:20 — a 13 minute PR over April’s race — but it wasn’t a pretty performance. The detailed version follows.

Pre-race warmup

Steamtown has an excellent reputation, one that is well deserved. The volunteer-to-runner ratio is about 2:1 and it shows. The buses from Scranton to the start in Forest City were plentiful and easy to find, and they left as soon as they were loaded. I found a seat on a 6:20 bus and had a pleasant chat with my seatmate.

Once onsite, we were greeted by cheerleaders and lots of adorable teenaged volunteers, all of whom were friendly and proactive. Bag dropoff was easy, there was a gym to keep warm in. Most notably (and unnecessarily), the portapotties were segregated into Men’s and Women’s.

I had plenty of time to do some warmup running, stretching and sitting around attempting to relax. Jonathan couldn’t run this race due to an injury. Those last few minutes before race start, when I was warming up alone, were when I missed him the most acutely. My pre-race emotional “anchor” wasn’t there and it was a lonely feeling indeed.

We were called to line up early and, for the most part, people seemed to line up under the appropriate pace per mile sign. The national anthem was sung, start instructions were given and after a rib-cracking firing of a cannon just 50 feet away, we were off and running.

Early miles

The first few miles were worrisome. My thighs felt tight and my calves and ankles were aching. Not a great way to start a marathon. I was also having difficulty getting into a 7:10-7:15 pace as planned. I managed around 7:30 for the first three miles, and 6:59 for mile four (big downhill). I should have realized that I wasn’t in shape to run 7:15 the whole way and adjusted my plans. But I am stubborn.

At mile five I started to feel better. My legs were warmed up and I was cruising along in the 7:20 range. We were still mostly going downhill, but there were some bumps upward and flat sections. So I switched to my heart rate view and focused on keeping my effort in the 87-88% range.

Pace/heart rate

Mile 1: 7:33, 83%

Mile 2: 7:31, 88%

Mile 3: 7:28, 88%

Mile 4: 6:59, 87%

Mile 5: 6:58, 87%

Mile 6: 7:02, 87%

Mile 7: 7:34, 88%

Mile 8: 7:15, 87%

Mile 9: 7:24, 88%

Mile 10: 7:20, 87%

Mile 11: 7:26, 87%

Mile 12: 7:37, 87%

Mile 13: 7:35, 86%

Middle miles

The first half of a marathon is supposed to feel relatively easy. This was not easy. I was starting to feel the strain at mile 12. That’s also the point at which my quadriceps began to burn. I had a feeling that I’d taken the early hills too fast — and was possibly running at too fast a pace — but it was too late to undo the effects of those early hills.

Miles 14 – 17 were okay, but not great. We hit a section of cinder trail and it was sort of like running in sand. There were lots of roots and rocks to avoid too, and I was having trouble putting out the mental effort required to both avoid falling on my face and keep a decent pace up. Lots of people passed me on the trail, which didn’t help.

My watch lost satellite reception at around mile 16.5, so I was flying blind in terms of pace. I stopped looking, since I knew it would only depress me. I still had heart rate info, so I used that as my guide. For miles 18 – 20, I couldn’t keep up a good effort. The pain in my thighs was becoming more pronounced and it was difficult to move them at a fast rate anymore. It was at this point that I knew the hardest part was yet to come: an additional six miles that were going to hurt a lot physically and challenge me mentally.

Pace/heart rate

Mile 14: 7:30, 85%

Mile 15: 7:38, 86%

Mile 16: 7:47, 85%

[This is where my watch lost GPS reception, so the next few miles are a bit wacky. It reconnected by mile 19, but the splits from 19 on are guesstimates.]

Mile 17: 9:14, 84%

Mile 18: 11:37, 83%

Mile 19: 7:56, 84%

Mile 20: 6:40, 86% (big downhill)

Miles 21-26

Internally, I was suffering greatly at this point. I was trying to isolate the pain I was feeling in my legs from the feelings of dread that consumed my mind, as they only fed off of each other. This was the first race in which I got something out of the spectators lining the streets, as it allowed me to focus on something external. They were a helpful distraction and a few individuals provided the small act of kindness or the shot of humor I needed during those awful 45 minutes.

There was the woman at mile 21 who affectionately scolded me for slowing down to try to get my cup into the trash can. “Just leave it!” she yelled. “We’ll pick it up. This is your day.”

There was the elderly man rolling down the middle of the street in a electric scooter at mile 22, who yelled at me, “Lady, you gotta work for that mile!” That made me laugh out loud.

And there were the many, many people who clued me in to the fact that there weren’t that many women in front of me:

“See? There’s a lady runner…”

“We like to see the girls out front!”

“You go, girl!”

For miles 21 and 22, I had a younger woman right on my heels. This was both good and bad. Good because she pushed me to run harder. Bad because she was obviously drafting off of me. I would move way over to the side and she’d follow me. This began to annoy me and just as I was about to ask her to share the work and run with me, she passed me anyway.

Miles 24, 25 and 26 were the toughest. My heart rate was down in the low 80%s because I couldn’t get my legs to move faster. It was very frustrating to know that I am capable of running a full marathon at 88-90% heart rate, but not today.

Still, I didn’t resort to walking up the hills as lots of people around me were doing. And I did pass a few people in the final miles, despite the fact that my pace was falling off. Still, when I look at the final mile splits, I never really fell apart. And how I managed to run a 7:30 pace at mile 25 is a total mystery. I kept telling myself that regardless of whether I ran fast, ran slow or walked, it was going to hurt like hell; so I may as well try to run as fast as possible to get this over with.

Pace/heart rate

Mile 21: 7:42, 86%

Mile 22: 8:03, 83%

Mile 23: 7:48, 81%

Mile 24: 8:00, 80%

Mile 25: 7:30, 82%

Mile 26: 7:55, 85%

The finish

The finish at Steamtown is phenomenal. You are richly rewarded for those last three miles of hills with a .2 mile downhill that’s steep and lined with screaming spectators. It’s too bad my legs were trashed or I would have dashed down that hill at a faster clip than I did. Still, I tried to run as fast as I could.

Which wasn’t very fast, apparently. Jonathan’s description of my crossing the finish line:

“You were running a controlled pace, and you showed a lot of focus. Your form was still okay. You didn’t look as tired as a lot of the other people coming in, but you also didn’t look like you could have done much more.”

Finish time: 3:19:22. I was 19th female overall and the sixth masters finisher.

Post-race ponderings

This was not my best race, but it wasn’t my worst either. Unlike the 2007 Vermont City Marathon, the wheels didn’t completely come off. But, looking at my splits and heart rate for this one, it’s fair to say that I could have run this better. So why didn’t I?

For one, I overestimated my fitness and ability to run at a particular pace. This summer’s training was hampered by extreme heat and humidity, leaving me doubtful about what I could run. After the first few miles, when it was clear I was working too hard, I probably should have set my pace at 7:30 and stuck with that, but I really wanted to try for 3:10.

My most successful race was the 2008 More race, with “success” being defined as the improvement in time coupled with a confident, consistent race performance. My training went well for that one, and so once I’m recovered, I’m going to revisit that plan. What’s obvious to me is that running very high mileage didn’t help me very much, especially since it came at the expense of being able to do quality workouts well. I was never fully rested and recovered during this training cycle, and I didn’t do the requisite miles at marathon pace that I needed to in order to prepare.

I’m happy that I improved my time this time around. But I didn’t run a smart race; I simply lacked the necessary training. As a result, I suffered much more than I needed to. I don’t want to suffer like that again, at least not if I can help it.

8 Responses

  1. I wonder why the portapotties were segregated. Did you ever find out?

    Isn’t 80 low even for a resting heart rate? Mine is usually 155-160 when I’m running long distance.

    Wow, 19th female is INCREDIBLE! Congratulations on a job well done 🙂

  2. I’ll fix that — by “low 80s” I was referring to percentage of max, not beats per minute.

  3. Wonderful report, incredibly exciting and painful at the same time, feeling your legs and the inner struggle. But WOMAN, you left out a little fact…that you came in 1st in your AG! By over 8 minutes! So while you were having an “interesting” time, you were over a mile ahead of your peers. If you had one of those little bowing emoticons around here, I’d throw one in for sure. Wow, you are something else.

    I’m excited to see what races are next for you, because there is nothing as inspiring as a fast woman. I’m looking forward to more tales from the speedy lane…

  4. Thanks, Flo. I figured that humility is the better part of valor. But I am pretty happy about that AG award.

  5. Wow, that’s AWESOME! First AG is nothing at all to hide, you need to CROW.

    Your race report was really informative in addition to being a great story. Thanks for sharing so much of your running self in your blog.

    Enjoy your visitors!

  6. Thanks for the detailed report – certainly interesting reading.

    I’m tending to agree with your ponderings. Targeting sub 3:10 early on looks to have hurt your final time. Maybe 3:13-15 was possible without the leg problems. Low HRs from mile 17 shows the quad problem. By the way, to maintain 88-90% usually for a marathon is a great effort.

    You do well on high mileage, but maybe 90ish is a tad high in order to get the necessary recovery/quality? 100 is easier for elite/faster runners because they take less time to run those miles – usually they’re doing 15-16k in an hour on an easy run. Your 90 is probably worth 130 or more by time.

    Anyway, congrats on the age-group award. Enjoy the recovery.

  7. Thanks, Ewen. Excellent analysis. I’m planning to target an average of 80mpw for the next training cycle, after rebuilding my base up to 100. I think that’s a good compromise and it should allow me adequate recovery time — especially if I also start adding in an extra day or two between hard workouts. I’m also going to take the next month of recovery seriously, which I didn’t do last time — I was running hard within 10 days. Not this time. I’ve learned my lesson: high mileage + not enough recovery = race day disappointment.

    Anyway, I’m already very excited about training for the next one and applying what I’ve learned. Onward and upward.

  8. A flat race and you can run so fast!!!.
    A nice race to read and have a lot off fun of this marathon!.
    And take a rest!.
    Groet Rinus.

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