Saturday, December 8, 2007

2007 Rocket City Marathon

The normal format of any story is composed of an introduction, where as you tease the content and inform the reader where you are taking them. Then you move on to build the background of the events in question before you ultimately form a conclusion that ties the whole thing together. Then the reader is left to draw their own meaning from the words, never knowing if that was the true intent of the writer. That is normal.

This isn't your normal story. This is going to be about as opposite of normal as you can get.

What you should take away from this is that no matter if you are an elite runner, or a back of the packer, everyone can have a bad day running a foot race. It is also very possible that a poor showing at a race can be attributed to identifiable mistakes, even if you are a seasoned veteran. You should prepare fully for a race and have a plan ready to execute. Then when you show up on race day, you should take everything into consideration before determining if the plan you prepared is valid, or if you need to alter it in some way. This is the most important factor to a successful race; plan, prepare, replan, execute, evaluate, reflect. Those should be your steps in any goal race. As I look back a the Rocket City Marathon, my mistakes are increasing in numbers as the days increase since the race was over.

Now that you have read the ending, if you really want to stop and not go any further, please feel free. Hit the delete button and spend the next 10 minutes doing something else. Go to bed early, play with the dog, kiss your spouse, watch some CSI, call an old high school friend. Do whatever it is that you do.

But if you want to see how I came to this conclusion, then put your feet up, get comfortable, and read on.

As a side note, I almost didn't have a post race write up. I was going to settle for a few lines in my log book. That is, until I started to get emails. Not just one email, but several. People were asking, no demanding, that they get their race review from me. Apparently someone out there actually wants to hear about the race from my perspective; someone more than my mom.

Well, here it is (unless you opted out after you read the conclusion above, in which you wouldn't be reading this parenthetical interjection.)

Each year, I look ahead when developing my plan, to have 1-2 goal races. My first goal race was the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon. The purpose of that race was to run a fast marathon and qualify for Boston. I did so, running a negative split race, 1:35, 1:32 for a 3:07. My second goal race was the Rocket City Marathon. In between and around these two goal races, I run other events, possibly including a small taper to increase my chances of performing well, but saving my peak for each goal race.

Here is where you get to hear about rookie mistake number one. My race plan had me running the Huntsville Half Marathon 4 weeks before the marathon. This would let me race, rest, peak and taper for two weeks. In my experience I have found that a mere two weeks of taper is best for me, as long as the long run two weeks out is no more than about 20 miles. More than two weeks and I just feel sluggish on race day. This was the plan that I intended to follow. What I did was much different. For some strange reason, when presented with an opportunity to run an ultra marathon on the day before the event, which was three weeks out from the marathon and one week after the half marathon, I thought it would be a good idea. At the time it seems like a great challenge... the Grand Prix (Dizzy Fifties Ultra, Rocket City Marathon, Recovery from the Holidays Ultra and Mountain Mist Ultra). And it turned out very well. I never hit the wall, and ran strong the whole race, finishing 8th of 108, at 4 hours 42 minutes for 31.07 miles. What it left me with though, were tired legs that I was not able to recover from before the goal race, the Rocket City Marathon. Never change your yearly plan, especially when close to a goal event. Like I said, rookie mistake.

So I went into the marathon with tired legs, what is the big deal? The weather in Alabama should be perfect PR weather in December, right? Welcome to mistake number two. I have run races in sub zero weather, 12" of snow, freezing rain and blistering 100+ degree heat. December 8th was my first race running in moderate temperatures (ranging between 60 and 65 degrees) with extreme humidity. It seems like an odd combination, but that is what it was. The humidity was between 88 and 92% humidity for the day, averaging 90% during the hours of the race. Any time the weather is not 45 degrees, overcast with no wind, you should alter your approach and go from goal A to goal B or C. These three goals should represent A) Perfect weather conditions, flat course and everything lines up perfectly, B) Weather is just a little too hot or cold, a hilly or winding course with many turns, C) Weather is extreme, either temperature or wind, a course with more elevation change that flat roads and things just don't feel right. I should have adjusted from my goal A (2:59) to goal B (3:10) before the race event started based on the humidity and winding road path. In my mind this was not a PR course, but I had my mind made up that it was going to be a banner day no matter what and I was too stubborn to adjust my plan. Many of the experts have some sort of formula in which you should adjust your goals based on conditions. An average of these in my research showed that I should have changed my goals by 5 to 10%. Based on the 3 hour goal, I should have readjusted to 3:09 to 3:18. I call them experts in jest, but in the end they proved me wrong in questing their knowledge when they fairly accurately predicted my actual finishing time.

Now that you've heard about the pre-race mistakes that I made, let's go through some of the more intrapersonal moments that I went through mile by mile.

I didn't really have much of a race plan going in, but once I saw fellow runner and friend Jon Elmore at the start, I devised a race plan to stick with him. I knew from past experience that he would run fairly even splits, and despite it being opposite to my normal approach I tried my best just to stay with him. He and I had run very, very similar races at the Huntsville Half Marathon and at the Dizzy Fifties 50km ultra marathon. I thought it was a great opportunity to have a better runner pull me along for a change. Plus Jon and I had talked about the race a few nights before and our approaches sounded very similar.

In the early miles Jon and I were all smiles and laughs, passing though other runners, sharing small talk with those that stayed with us for a while, or silent with runners who didn't. Mile 1.5 was the first spirit squad, the Sherman clan along Randolf. Brimmer and Stephanie went all out with their Rickey Bobby obsession, yelling shake and bake as runners passed over the heavily chalked road with motivational sayings. Reading Go Eric Go on the road was pretty motivational as we passed through the first two miles in 14:07. This was much faster than the 7:30 pace that I had hoped for through these early miles.

Jon and I pushed on through the winding corners of the early miles, racking up splits of 6:44, 6:50 and 6:46 through 5 miles. In general, I like to be at 36:40 - 37 minutes through five miles in a marathon. At this point I usually step up and lower the pace slightly. On this day, I was already at 34:27, running 6:53 pace and well ahead of schedule. Yet, I felt good so we pushed onward.

The next 5 miles were mostly the mirror of the first 5, running 34:19 or just 8 seconds faster than the first 5. This is where most of the rain fell during the race. It was heavy, but steady. I think that the humidity had just built to the point where the clouds had no choice but to let go of the moisture and rain down on us. Mile 10 found us along Bailey Cove near Grissom High and more spirit squads yelling at the top of their lungs. As usual, I feed off of spectators and I ran past them pumping my fist in the air like I'd just hit a home run in the bottom of the 9th to win the world series and even gave some high fives to some people along the way. This was also the first time that I saw some friends who made the trek out early to watch the race. Up until now I had been taking in water or Gatorade at every stop, but I felt like I was in a slight deficit, both of fluids and electrolytes. At around the 9 mile mark, I began to realize the incredible pace that we were holding down and I asked John what pace was needed to run sub 3 (hours). I knew that we were close, but I didn't want to let on that it was a goal. I lead into the question by saying, "not that I care, but..."

Just past the 10 mile point, Jon and I began to assemble a group of runners. At first it was 2, then 3, then 5 and at one point we carried at least a dozen runners along. I think that they assumed that we were race provided, given the fact that we ran together in our Fleet Feet garb. Nonetheless, we ran steady at sub 7 pace and broke the light wind for runners behind us. I later found out that a female master (who finished around 3:03) ran behind me for around 7 miles. In her speech at the post race dinner, she joked that all she saw was the back of my tri jersey, as she ran that close. When it was all said and done, this was one of the rewarding moments of the race; knowing that I had helped other runners through these difficult middle miles, breaking the wind and setting the pace along with Jon.

The next 5 miles were again identical to the first two sets of five, running 34:29, after 5 miles splits of 34:27 and 34:19. In this stretch we caught up and passed 'ol Marty Clarke. Both Jon and I were very worried about Marty, as he is a much faster marathoner than us and we should have no business in catching him. But he had some health concerns after the same ultra marathon that left me with dead legs and as we ran with him for a while, told us that he was going to drop out at half. This made our feelings of concern turn to thankfulness, in that he was smart enough to drop out when his health was in question. I am sure that thi made his wife happy also.

This was slowly turning into a miracle day with only 11 miles to go. What could possibly go wrong now Eric? In a word, plenty. (Sometimes I refer to myself in the third person, as I am doing here in trying to provide an objective look in at a certain performance). You weren't in optimally rested shape and the conditions were less than ideal. I have your answer... you could stray from your strong negative split marathon approach and go out too fast; so that's what I did and it was evident in my 5 mile splits. In my best marathons I have negative split by 7 minutes and recently by 3 minutes (1:35 and 1:32). In my worst marathons I have gone out too strong and faded late. I had just run the fastest first 15 miles of all of my marathons and I was about to pay for it.

Just as we made the turn off of Bailey Cove and to the north along Chaney Thompson, I looked over to Jon and calmly, I told him that I wasn't going to be able to hold the pace. It was just like I was hit by a truck; all of a sudden it was too hot, I wasn't hydrated well enough, the humidity made my legs feel like anchors and I just couldn't do it anymore. Just before I began to walk, I advised the female masters runner who had stuck with us for so many miles, to stick with Jon; he was strong and looking good. The pack that we had lead through 15 miles was now disbanding and as Jon continued off, I began to walk. I had just walked for the first time, 15 miles into the race, with 11+ long miles to go. This was the beginning of the longest 11 miles of my life.

Through 15 miles we had averaged 6:53 minute miles. With all of the walking, slow jogging and stops at aid stations the next 5 miles would take 39 minutes and 19 seconds and drop my average by 15 seconds per mile to 7:08. I began to search for reasons to quit, people I knew who could drive me home and feeling like I wanted to be anywhere but on that race course. Anyone who would listen to me for more than 30 seconds as they sped by, I would tell the tale or running an ultra marathon just a few weeks prior to this race and how it was the sole reason for my poor performance.

Luckily for me, I began to catch other runners whom like me, were also having very bad days. I passed a male runner with a race number in the 40's, looking to break 3 hours who would later finish more than 30 minutes off of his goal. I ran for a few miles with a single digit number female runner who had logged 80 mile weeks at her peak to run this race. She was walking more frequently than she ran. We alternated leading and trailing. When she would walk, I would walk. We just seemed determined to finish at this point.

After mile 20 it seemed like the gaps between aid and water stations were hours apart. The humidity had really built up to a stifling level and my early hydration deficit was coming back to hurt me late. It was too late to make up the difference as the salt had already began to build up on my skin. I could tell that I was in trouble.

At mile 23 on Airport Rd, I saw Laura and some other friends. The last time they saw me was before mile 15 and I looked strong. They were excited to see me with 5km to go and take some sort of action shot with their camera. When I came up to them and began to walk, they knew that something was wrong. Most of what I remember was that I told them 'that it just wasn't my day'. This certainly was not what they were expecting, but I think that it helped the non runners of the group understand how running this distance can be very humbling to even an decent athlete. I wasn't a broken man, I wasn't crying and I wasn't talking about giving up running forever. I just wasn't having a good day and I was adult enough to accept it. I didn't like it, but I could accept it.

At mile 24, I started to feel a little better, knowing that the end was near. I saw what I thought was a Fleet Feet jersey up ahead of me just past Drake Ave. As I got closer, I could tell that it was Jon Elmore again... I saw him to talk to a bystander, and as I caught up to that bystander, I asked if that was Jon. He said yes, and I quickly picked up the pace to catch up with him., yelling his name when I was 10 meters behind. He slowed to allow me to catch up. Together we ran for a short time, as he told me that he had developed cramps in his legs and that he could barely lift them. I suggested that we finish together, but I could tell that he wasn't going to be able to hold even the slow pace that we pushed along at. Sadly, I had to leave him behind as I wanted to just finish and get this over with.

The 5 mile stretch from 21-25 were run in 43:04 or 8:37 minute miles, dropping my pace from 7:08 all the way down to 7:26. I had lost 18 seconds per mile in the last 5 miles. The rain was starting again now, and though it was just a light mist, it was still discouraging.

At this point I had my reasons for finishing singled down to both HTC (Huntsville Track Club) Grand Prix points and pride. The crowds were still thin due to the weather, so I wasn't going to be able to pull energy from them for a final push. That said, I still managed to lower the pace slightly below an 8 minute mile, passing several people as a neared the finish. I don't remember if they called my name as I crossed the finish line, as I was just focused on wanted to stop running.

When it was all said and done, I had run a 1:31:00 first half (13.1 miles at 6:57 pace) and the second half in 1:46:05 (13.1 miles at 8:06 pace) for a 3:17:05 finishing time. Many people would love this time, but when aiming for a 3 hour marathon, the 17 minutes that separated me from my goal seemed like a year away.

In the end I saw many top runners drop out or struggle along to disappointing finishes. With these, I also saw some phenomenal runners and friends who fought the humidity and ran great times. I have often thought that the difference between the elite and mortal runners is just the ability of the elite athlete to battle fatigue and fight threw and deal with pain better than the average runner. We all hurt at some combination of pace and distance, they just know how to handle it.

I would say that if you polled the masses, more would say that it was a bad day than a good day, but that is not an excuse. I made vital mistakes of not going in with fresh legs, not adjusting my race plan when the conditions were less than ideal, I went out too fast and I didn't take in enough fluids at the right times. I don't know if you can rank the severity of mistakes you can make in a distance race, but I would say these are undoubtedly in the top 10. You just can't make mistakes like these and expect stellar results.

So now that I have had plenty of time to reflect and analyze the race, I am actually pretty happy about the results. In hind sight I would have started slower and finished stronger, but I speculate that the overall results (time) would be about the same. On this day, the conditions were going to dictate that I run something between 3:10 and 3:20, and I was in the lower half of this range.

What did I say were the most important factors of a successful race? They were plan, prepare, replan, execute, evaluate, reflect. I didn't plan well. I prepared fully. I didn't replan based on conditions. I failed to execute. I have now evaluated and reflected on the results. You can count on the fact that going into my next road marathon (Boston in April) that I would not make these same mistakes.

Now as the story and the year ends, I have to be happy about how it all turned out. After all, I personal record 18 races (of which were 4 marathons, 2 ultras and 2 half marathons), set personal records at 15km, half marathon, marathon and ultra marathon and logged 800 more miles than ever before (up from 1800 to 2600+), all in southern conditions that are much more demanding than anything I have ever run in before.

We will all live to run another race and have our day in the sun. Let's just hope that it is sooner than later.

If read to the end, I am glad to have kept your intrigue. If not and you just skipped to the bottom, then go back and read what you skipped because it was a little insightful, a little educational and a little entertaining. I can promise you that it is better than the re-run of CSI that you are about to watch:)

Thanks to my friends for being on the course, to my running pals for training with me on this day, to my wife for encouraging me to finish and dealing with me day in and day out, to the Shermans for their spirit and countless others.