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.