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.

Boring vacation photos: Siletz Bay, OR

Some snaps from Siletz Bay, near Lincoln City on the Oregon coast.


The 137 billionth photo of this jut of land ever taken.


Which is more horrifying: a 50 foot high wave or this illustration of a 50 foot high wave?

More pre-race ponderings

[Composed at 39,000 feet]

We’re about four hours into the flight and I can tell we’re getting close. The terrain 39,000 below has turned from urban to suburban to rural and now progressively more and more hilly. I expect to spot Mount Hood in an hour or so. Then I’ll know we’re almost there.

As a side note, I just love this little “netbook.” It’s a Samsung NC10. It’s very elegant: matte white, light (under 3 lbs) and like a little toy. It boots up in about 15 seconds (which was helpful going through security) and it’s very zippy with 2 Gigs of RAM. The keyboard is almost full-size to, so it’s very easy to type quickly on.

Today was a good day for distraction. In the morning I had a six mile run to do, followed by loose ends to tie up at work before disappearing for three weeks. Then I had to finish packing, which involved checking and rechecking my numerous lists. I wanted to make sure that if I forgot something, it wouldn’t be an important thing to forget. Or, as Jonathan put it a bit more succinctly, “It had its chance to be remembered.”

Now I find myself sitting on the plane, trying to ignore the several hours of mild turbulence we’ve been suffering (and the mild nausea it’s brought on, thanks to my penchant for motion sickness) and with eyes tired from reading. My mind drifts to Saturday’s race. I’ve spent time reminding myself of all the obvious lessons I’ve learned:

  • Don’t get pulled out too fast by the crowd or your own excitement

  • Run what feels like too slow a pace in the beginning; the first 10 miles should feel easy

  • Drink water early and often

  • Take a gel at least 15 minutes before you think you’ll need it

  • Try to zone out mentally for the first 15 miles; reserve mental energy for later

  • Don’t obsess over missed mile splits and don’t try to “make up” lost seconds in subsequent miles

  • Seconds lost in the first few miles equal minutes gained in the last few

  • Don’t let anyone else set your pace

  • Focus on running each individual mile, not on how many are left

  • Pass people decisively; don’t look back

  • If it’s windy, find a big guy to run behind, or try to run in the middle of a pack

  • Never walk

  • Never quit – unless you are injured, unconscious or dead

And here are a few new tips I got from Kevin yesterday:

  • Feeling bad for the first few miles happens sometimes; mile four is too early to start telling yourself you’re having a bad day

  • Following from that, you often can’t know what sort of day you’re having until about 6-8 miles in, so remain calm

  • Don’t try to fight a headwind, because you’ll always lose; accept it and adjust your pace to the appropriate effort level

I’ve had such bad luck with weather for training and racing that it’s been hard to remain confident in what pace I can actually maintain. But I do have several things going for me.

For one, settling into something right around a 7:05 pace has happened fairly naturally in all conditions. I’ve had to work harder for that pace on some (most?) days than others. But it’s a pace I know I can run even in the worst of circumstances and it’s an easy one for me to “find” and lock into. So if I luck out and end up with good race conditions, I have a good shot at running that pace for the duration at the appropriate effort level.

I know I can run at a very high level very late in the race. I’ve run marathons at a consistent 88-89% effort for the first 20 miles and ended up in the low 90%s at the end. Unless I succumb to exhaustion (like I did at Steamtown, due to muscle damage from the early downhills), I can run strong to the finish.

I’ve also run four marathons and, if the list above is anything to go by, I’ve learned a great deal about racing that distance. I’ve had the benefit of running just one good marathon (which, while sad, is certainly not unusual), and that one good race is the one that I’ve been sitting here thinking about. Why did it go so well? How can I repeat it?

The key to racing a marathon well is simple, although not easy. It is not about “running with heart” or pushing through the wall or any of that Hollywood garbage. It’s not about wanting something badly enough, or overcoming some inherent weakness through sheer force of will. Where people want magic, there is only this dull fact: marathon racing is a purely physiological endeavor. If you are not trained to run 7:05 over 26.2 miles, you cannot run 7:05 over 26.2 miles.

Moreover, to make an even duller point, from what I’ve observed and experienced, racing a marathon well all comes down to one essential act: practicing effective energy management. This is true for people running 10:45 pace as much as it is for people running 4:45 pace.

It’s this rather dry requirement that I will bear in mind over the next few days. I will burn it into my brain so that as soon as I start running, that mantra is all I will know, all I will think and all I will do.

The reason that putting this truism into practice is not easy is that you can’t ever know how much energy you have on a given day. You may have done everything right in terms of training over the preceding months, tapering over the preceding weeks, and eating and sleeping over the preceding days. Your workouts and shorter races may have all pointed to sure success. You may even find yourself standing on the starting line feeling fantastic. But for some reason, all things being seemingly equal, the outcome is never predictable. Sometimes it’s downright disastrous. One day you run out of gas at mile 18. Another day, six months later, it’s mile 25. And perhaps on another day, you have a magical day when your energy stores seem limitless, because you’ve somehow managed to perfectly nail the rate of energy expenditure and replenishment.

I suppose that’s one of the biggest reasons why I love the marathon, both as a racer and as a fan. It’s such an unforgiving distance. Yet so satisfying to experience and witness when things come together.

To be honest, I feel strangely unconcerned about the outcome of Saturday’s race, considering the enormous effort I’ve put into getting ready for it. Whatever happens, it will be okay. Barring injury or some other catastrophe, I should easily best my last time of 3:19.

I tend toward thinking of this race as a stepping stone, a necessary stopover on the way down to the 3:00 mark. Perhaps I should give this race more weight, meaning focus on the task at hand rather than looking six months down the road to the next goal of breaking three hours. But I’m hoping that my lack of worry doesn’t stem from overconfidence as much as it does from the certainty that I’ve done everything I can to succeed.

I know I’ve done the requisite training and I know how to run the race. If for some reason I don’t do as well as I’d like to, I’ll learn something from it for next time as I’ve had to do several times before. But I’ve no doubt I’ll continue to improve over the long run.

Pre-race potpourri

A paella of posts, if you will.

So, I spent the weekend tackling a to do list that rivalled Santa’s. But I got almost everything done. And I took a two hour nap yesterday too. All I remember was entering the bedroom with the sincere intent of cleaning it, but instead lying down and waking up two hours later.

Some random things:

I did my last fast run before Saturday just now. The assignment was seven miles with three at 7:00. I did the three on a windy track and managed 7:05 avg pace. The wind was about 10mph, but with faster gusts. I had a choice: Either slow down or just go ahead and run the planned pace and work a little harder. I choose the latter option, primarily because I wanted to remind myself that if come race morning it’s windy not to be a fool and try to run planned pace anyway.

Upon checking the data, my suspicions were correct: I was running at 92-93% MHR, so my little three miler was more like a tempo run than an MPace effort. Unfortunately, the forecast for Newport is showing wind. But it’s still four days away. At the very least, I’m mentally prepared to adjust plans if need be, with a recent physical “memory” of what it will feel like if I don’t as reinforcer. I’m determined to have a good race, not just a PR, but also a race where I don’t suffer unduly as I have done in varying degrees in three of my four marathons. I think that’s what they call running a “smart” race.

On another note, I started reading Lorraine Moller’s memoir On the Wings of Mercury. I’m about 30 pages in, but so far I am blown away by what an excellent piece of work it is. With a few exceptions, running memoirs typically range from the flat out terrible (Dick Beardsley’s) to the merely pedestrian (Joan Benoit’s, Grete Waitz’s). Moller’s book, though, is a revelation of outstanding writing and expert storytelling. She did not use a ghostwriter, as I’d suspected as soon as I started reading it. She’s just an extremely talented writer. She’s also very funny. I’m looking forward to digging into this one on the plane. The book is not yet released in the US, but I managed to order a copy from Newton Running.

Finally, I’m in day two of carbohydrate depletion. A few years ago, in one of my many failed attempts to lose fat, I went on a low carb diet for several months. I lost weight, but not fat (I was about 8 lbs lighter than I am now, but I wore larger clothes). I have no clue as to how I tolerated it. I felt okay on the run, but toward the end I felt lightheaded. I’m also sick of eating nuts, cheese, eggs and meat already, and it’s only been about 36 hours. Thank goodness I can hit the bagels and fruit again tomorrow.

Swedish Fish have been purchased. House/catsitter has been arranged. Airport taxi has been reserved. All systems are go.

“Hey! You got running blog in my Facebook!”

“And you got Facebook in my running blog!”

Do you maintain a blog about running? Are you also on Facebook? Well, your ship has just come in, my friend. Because now there’s yet another lame-o group on Facebook, exclusively for … wait for it … runners who blog — about running!

Join us today. And don’t forget to post your blog’s address.

Spring Race Training: Week 18 / Taper Week 2

09spr-training-18This should be short. Because I only ran about 39 miles this week.

I’m headed into full on taper madness, much as I’ve tried to avoid it. Where should I start?

I feel fat and slow (I’ve been reassured that this is a good sign).

Where making lists and plans typically calm me, they’ve had no effect.

Every stupid ache and twinge heralds pre-race injury. This is especially ridiculous considering that I spent most of this cycle training with a groin injury as my constant companion.

I have zero discipline in the evening when it comes to drinking (although I have managed to avoid overeating). I want to quiet the voices of taper madness, so I have that extra shot of vodka. This in turn raises my heart rate the next morning, so I have no clue what my RHR would be sans alcohol.

I’m convinced that I’m going to catch a cold from some idiot over the next few days. What was I thinking when I scheduled our flight three days before the race?

On the positive side, my legs are finally starting to feel as if they’re coming around. Although my upper legs are way ahead of my lower legs, making for an oddly schizophrenic recovery. I went out this morning and wanted to rock, running 8:26 pace for the first quarter mile before I came to my senses.

I’m sleeping well, something that has surprised me given the cutback in miles and effort. I typically have bad insomnia during recovery weeks.

As for pre-race preparation:

I’m not bothering with “mental training” this time around. Doing visualization exercises has never had any demonstrable effect on how I race. So screw it. I’m going to approach this one as a purely physical animal.

I feel strangely calm when I think about previewing the course, which we plan to do on Friday — the first two miles on foot (easy run through the streets of downtown Newport) and the rest by car. I usually freak out when I drive a marathon course (because it becomes all too clear just how far I have to run). I don’t think it’s going to be an issue this time around, for some reason. (Famous last words.)

The only hard running I’ve got between now and Saturday is a seven mile “rehearsal run” on Tuesday morning. Forecast looks nice: low 50s and very low humidity. Windy, of course, but I don’t care. I only need to run three of those miles at slightly below MPace.

In the meantime…

* twiddle twiddle twiddle *

More anxiety-ridden overanalysis

Sometimes my legs feel pretty good. Other times, they feel like crap. What does that mean? Does it mean anything? Surely it must.

My resting heart rate in the morning is all over the place. But that may be due to hitting the booze some nights and not others. Or is it?

My chosen racing shorts made me look thin the other day. Today they made me look fat. But why?

The weather forecast for Saturday in Newport says “low 53, high 62.” How is that even possible?

Should I eat pizza on the drive from Portland to Newport or is that overdoing it on the carbohydrate loading? Speaking of which, should I do the full deplete phase? That will just make me really bitchy. Probably. (I think.)

Will I be able to buy Swedish Fish in Newport? What happens if I can’t? Maybe I should buy it here and travel with it. In my carryon. In case my luggage is lost.

Does Airborne really work? Or is it a load of crap? I should take it anyway. Or should I?

Should I kill myself now? Or wait for a few more days on the off chance that my suffering will abate? What if it gets worse? Then I’ll really regret not having killed myself now…

What progress looks like

Of all the supposedly “essential” running equipment I use, there are two tools that I couldn’t do without: Sporttracks software and my Garmin GPS watch. Using the two in combination, I’m not only able to see my progress from day to day, but also from month to month, season to season, and — perhaps most dramatically — year to year.

Take a look at this chart. It shows three pieces of data: Average pace, average heart rate (% of max) and average length of run.

What a difference a couple of years (and a few thousand miles) makes. (Click to enlarge.)

What a difference a couple of years (and a few thousand miles) makes. (Click to enlarge.)

Notice how the average pace and the average heart rate have dropped as the average distance has increased? Funny that.

Dear Crazy Costco Bitch: The Movie

Dear Crazy Costco Bitch,

I know it’s sometimes frustrating to go to Costco and discover that there are other people there who want to buy things at the same time that you want to buy things. That’s why I usually go midweek, sometime in the afternoon after school has let out yet before people get off of work. I’m usually delighted by the short lines at those times. And today was no different.

Apparently you held a different opinion. You’d filled your cart to the brim with delicious, supersized goods. It must have weighed at least 200 lbs. Yet your steel cornucopia’s challenging density didn’t deter you from flitting from line to line, certain that you could outwit the time/space continuum. It seems that at some point you settled on my line and, shoving your cart in front of a woman who was clearly already behind me, you declared, “I’m behind her!”

Had I been the victim of your cart-bullying, I would have spoken up. But, perhaps seeing abdication as being the better part of valor, my former linemate chose to let you have your way and moved to another line. So there we were, waiting for the person ahead of us (yes, just one customer) to finish his transaction. But things weren’t moving fast enough for you. No, you just had to share your management and logistics expertise by bellowing, “Too much talking! Not enough working!” and “Come on! I want to get out of here!”

To accommodate you, two Costco employees proceeded to open up the closed register next to us. At which point you moved your cart over and began to place items on the conveyor belt. But things still weren’t moving fast enough for you. When you were told it would take a minute or two to set things up, you escalated your fit, throwing items across the aisle onto the empty conveyor belt behind my items. Again, you made your wishes clear. “I want to get out of here!”

Lady, we wanted you to get out of there too.

A few moments passed, during which I began my transaction, eager to get away from you as quickly as possible. But then you decided to talk to me. Fortunately, you didn’t screech at me. Instead, the true depths of your madness emerged. In a scene right out of Sybil, Tantrum Woman was gone and instead I had a new best girlfriend! “Hey,” you fairly moaned, “Those strawberries look awesome.”

Let’s get something straight here. I am not your friend. And, setting aside for the moment that I loathe anyone over the age of 16 who uses the word “awesome” without irony, I am in fact mad at you for several reasons. First, you have just made every middle aged, middle class white woman in the world look like a clueless, entitled, whiny, hateful prima donna. Thanks a lot. Second, and more important, you’ve just spent five minutes verbally abusing people who are trying to help you and who are still being nice to you. That’s why I turned around and said, “You see these people here? They are human beings. Why don’t you try treating them as such?”

Okay, I didn’t really do that. I was just having one of my Walter Mitty moments and couldn’t actually bring myself to confront an odious dragon lady such as yourself. Maybe one day I’ll have the balls to do such a thing. I like to hope so.

Instead, I asked the cashier if she had to take happy pills to do this job. Then I told her about the one stint I had in a job “serving the public” and how I lasted all of a month in it. Do you know why I was talking to her? Just to piss you off!

Maybe you saw us laughing. Did you wonder what we were laughing about? We were laughing at you!

I know it’s hard to change. You probably won’t. That’s why one day I hope you have to work a retail job, or some other job dealing with the public, so you can spend your days navigating an endless series of abusive, five minute long relationships with people just like you.


Races Like a Girl

P.S. Are you the same crazy bitch who nearly ran me over on Pipeline Road this morning when I was out for my run?