Monday, December 11, 2006

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

In order to run a marathon, first you have to forget your last one.
I stood there frozen in pain and disbelief. My left hamstring was locked into a solid cramp from my knee to my buttock. People jogged by and encouraged me to continue. Only one more mile to go. But the cramp wouldn't release. I couldn't walk, much less run. Heck, I couldn't move without the muscle erupting in waves of pain. I couldn't possibly come this far and have to stop. Could I?

The previous month has been a bit of a trial since I pulled my calf at the Motive Bison Stamped half marathon. I've had to limit my running and let the muscle recover, but everything felt good going into the Dallas White Rock Marathon yesterday. I had done a proper taper so my legs were well rested. I'd gone off my diet for the last couple of weeks so I was well fed and nourished. I'd completed a 20k run the previous Sunday with no issues and my marathon pace felt very, very easy so it seemed like I'd been able to maintain my conditioning through the injury. Based on previous race results my predicted marathon pace was about 8:57 so I felt that trying to run 9:10 and finish in just under four hours was reasonable as long as the conditions were good.

Anna and I drove up to Dallas Saturday afternoon because I had to pick up my race packet. I thought that the race Expo was at the American Airlines Center because that is where the race starts, but we got there to see Mavericks fans arriving early for the NBA game. After asking the parking attendant we found out we needed to go to the Dallas Convention Center. After wandering all over we finally found the it, but the place was huge and we had to hunt and ask directions again to find out where in the complex it was located. Then it was off to check into the hotel and go to the pre-race pasta party at the Hyatt. Another bit of drama when we arrived because my packet didn't include the tickets that I had purchased for the dinner. A nice lady had mercy on us and let us in anyway and we got to eat some carbs and listen to some speakers. I was still hungry when it was done and since I wouldn't be eating breakfast the morning of the race I decided to stop at Denny's. For the first time ever at a Denny's we had good service and good food. I laid out my gear for the race and settled down for a good night's sleep.

I had a restless night because I kept waking up worrying that I'd sleep in, but soon it was 6 am and time to head out. I was at a loss for a moment because I couldn't find my PowerAde so I had to rush out and buy some Gatorade at a gas station while Anna finished getting ready. With that problem solved I swallowed a couple of gel packets, a large coffee, and a quart of gatorade and I was ready to go. The weather was perfect a 44 degrees with an overcast sky and light winds. The traffic getting into the AA center was good and we arrived with time to spare. I took my last bathroom break and headed to the huge crowd at the starting line.

I gave Anna one last kiss and hug and slipped into the mass of nervous energy to find my pace group. A couple of fighter jets seemed to be shooting through a canyon of skyscrapers as they roared close overhead overhead and then confetti flew and the horn blew and I started the slow shuffle to the starting mats. The balloons carried by the 4:00 pace group leader moved ahead of me and by the time I crossed the starting line I could barely see them bobbing up ahead.

I settled into a comfortable pace and tried to find my marathon pace rhythm, but it was difficult in the crowd and because the road had a slight upward incline. My heart rate was nearly 170 so I slowed down a little and was a little concerned to see the balloons continue their retreat. I checked my watch and ten minutes had already passed and I hoped that I'd missed the first mile marker. After a couple of minutes I knew I had and started looking for the second mile marker without knowing what pace I was running.

When I saw the second mile marker I realized why I missed the first one. They were pretty blue banners mounted on poles and they rotated with the wind. Depending on the direction of the wind they could be pointing straight toward or away from you making them invisible. Despite my heart rate, my pace was about 9:40 or about 30 seconds per mile too slow. I couldn't even see the balloons now as I corrected my pace and tried to get down to a 9:00 pace. This was difficult because the course had a gentle upward slope for the first seven miles as it climbed first through downtown Dallas and then into upscale suburban estates.

My heart rate stayed around 168 throughout the climb but my legs felt ok. I finally crested the hills and the view opened up onto White Rock Lake. I was now grateful for about three miles of downhill running that let me drop down to about an 8:40 pace and finally see the bobbing balloons of the pace leader again. The next ten miles were flat. Bowling alley flat. Flat as an iron. Flat as a pancake. Carpenter's dream flat road for ten miles.

Now I settled into a 9:00 pace and tried to close with my pace group. At the water stops each mile they got closer and closer. As mile 13 went by I'd almost caught up and just a tenth of a mile later I passed the halfway point at 1:59:00, exactly one minute ahead of pace. Now I was running just a few steps behind the pace leader but my legs were getting uncomfortable. Now I was happy to be running with a group because otherwise I might have slowed down. But every time I'd start to drop off the pace I was able to concentrate on smoothing out and relaxing and I was able to keep going. But it was definitely becoming a struggle. Around mile 15 I remember commenting to a fellow sufferer that my legs hurt.

But what could I do at that point? The heart rate I was sustaining was ridiculous. In February my lactate threshold had tested at 163 in a lab setting and I was well above that. But I didn't have the familiar lactic acid burn of fast running. After 15 miles of running I was just sore and tired and I told myself that I'd be just as sore and tired if I slowed down. I told myself that if I walked then I just tighten up and get more sore and have difficulty running again. I told myself I'd keep going for one more mile. And then another. And another as we turned back toward Dallas and could see the skyline and our final destination with less than ten miles to go. That was encouraging and the last few miles around the lake went quickly even as my discomfort grew.

Just before mile 20 I traded the 4:00 goal for survival. The course climbed 180 feet in the first 7 miles. Now it climbed the same amount in less than a mile and my already struggling legs could no longer stay in contact with the pace group. I know that doesn't sound like a very big hill, but after 20 miles the legs feel the additional effort of even a modest rise and this was a pretty good hill. I didn't even consider trying to stay with the group and shortened my stride and kept running at a reduced pace up the hill while my heart rate climbed above 170. By the top of the hill 21 miles had passed and my legs were burning with lactic acid in addition to their previous soreness and fatigue. So I walked and hoped that the muscles would be able to flush out the lactic acid.

The last five miles were down hill, but with the 4:00 goal now out of reach I settled into a more reasonable pace and my heart rate hovered around 160 as I slowed to around a 10:00 pace. Los Lonely Boys started playing Onda and I closed my eyes and ran with the music for a while at a slightly quicker pace. I played air guitar and must have looked funny, but it got me a few hundred meters further down the road. But when the music was done I needed to walk again and shuffled along for almost five minutes.

I started running again around mile 23. Now I had less than 5 km to go and suddenly I was moving past walkers and slow joggers and the crowd which had thinned out was suddenly thick again. I was confused until I realized that they started the half marathon an hour later than the full marathon and that the courses had merged. I almost collided with half marathoners and my legs protested as I had to swerve and change pace to weave through the maze of bodies. I could now hear the contest white noise of the downtown freeways as I entered the urban canyons of the city and my spirits rose in anticipation of the finish. I passed mile 25 and picked up my pace to finish strong. My legs were tired, but knowing that the finish line was so close I could live with the discomfort and pain and knew that my legs had just enough energy to put on one more burst.

And that is how I wound up with a cramped hamstring that refused to uncramp. I flexed my quadraceps as forcefully as I could and raised my toes but everytime I relaxed the hamstring immediately cramped into a rocky knot of pain. So I held my pose and relaxed and waited and bent a little at the waist to gently stretch the overtaxed muscle. I finally tentatively relaxed a little and this time nothing happened. I took a step. Still good. No pain as I began walking and still no pain as I resumed my jog to the finish. Now I rounded the last corner and the finish line was in sight. I couldn't stop smiling as I ran through the cheering crowds that were gathered to greet the finishers and I was overcome with emotion as I crossed the red timing maps that recorded each finisher with an audible electronic beep. My eyes filled with tears as I was welcomed by volunteers who hung a medal around my neck, wrapped me in a space blanket, and gave me my finishers shirt. I stumbled with fatigue and a concerned worker asked if I need medical assistance. I smiled and said no and headed toward the exit to find my wife waiting for me to guide me into the arena as drizzle began to fall.

I stupidly deleted my mile splits before I could record them, but I was with my pace group up until mile 20 so I know I averaged 9:10 pace for the first 20 miles. The last 6.2 miles were slow and I really don't care. I set a personal record (PR) in the half marathon (1:59:00) and a huge PR in the marathon with a final time of 4:17:34 which is an average pace of 9:50. That is an improvement of 43 minutes over my first marathon 10 months ago. I was 56th out of 184 males in the Clydesdale division (over 200 pounds) and 1790 out of 3507 marathon runners.

I was happy when I finished my first marathon, but I'm really over the moon because I felt like I raced this one and really pushed my personal limits. I was nervous going into the race on a number of different levels. Perhaps my biggest concern was whether I could really reach the potential suggested by previous races, books, and pace calculators. A 9:10 pace would have seemed farfetched 3 months ago. While I didn't finish at that pace, I made it 20 miles and I have a new confidence that I can reasonably aim for a sub four hour time in a couple of months at the Austin Marathon.

This post is already long so I'll post about the aftermath tomorrow. I hope this wasn't too boring for you, but it is a big deal to me and I wanted to capture my feelings before the memories begin to fade.


Sister Mary Lisa said...

Not boring at all. Incredible, really. Wow! I'm so glad you did what you set out to do, and that your wife could be there to witness it too is great.

Anonymous said...

Wow! So glad you finished well and beat your own personal best. Hope the leg is feeling OK. Glad you were able to finish. That would have sucked to have to quit with so little to go.

Anonymous said...

Please, keep posting these race logs -- you really write well to get us into the experience with you. Especially those of us that are sticklers for details. We're all proud and rooting for you. :)

Though cramps that refuse to let go suck, at least they're not injurious, so that's good.

You're getting me really close to digging my running shoes back out of the closet. *Really* close. Got to get through some dental work first, though -- can't imagine what running would do on top of throbbing dental pain. *wince* But I digress.

Good show!

Sideon said...

Congratulations :) What an awesome experience!

I am in total awe. Eight miles is the maximum that I've ever run. Eight. My body cannot fathom what a marathon would be like!