Monday, February 19, 2007

Happiness is Running

Meet my training partners, Hunter on the left and Scout on the right, who completed all of my training runs with me but didn't get the pleasure of actually competing in the races. When our Miniature Schnauzers died I wanted to get larger dogs that I could run with. After looking and thinking about different breeds we purchased a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd Dog and have never regretted it. As we researched the breeds we learned that not only could they run, they needed regular exercise to avoid behavior problems. So from the time we adopted them into our family we have walked and run with them nearly every day. This could become a chore, except that I soon saw how much they love their exercise and their enthusiasm was contagious. Now they've converted me and helped me complete the Austin Distance Challenge for the second year in a row.

A picture is often worth 1000 words so you can click on the following links to see the marathon map and elevation profile.

Anna and I got up a little late at 5:00 am and didn't get downtown until almost 6:00. The on-street parking was already almost gone and street closures prevented me from reaching the parking garage I'd planned on using. But we got lucky and found an open parking spot on the closed side of a side street just one block from the start/finish area of the race. I got in line to take care of nature's call and by the time I was done it was time to gear up and get ready to go. I waited until 10 minutes before the 7:00 am start to take off my sweats and head to the starting area because of the cold. Unfortunately, the entire Congress Avenue bridge was already packed and overflowing with nervous runners and the pace group leaders were bunched together near the front. I wanted to start close to my pace group and I was able to thread my way along one side and get even with the 4:00 pace group. I just had time to adjust my shoe laces and fireworks started going off and the mass started to move south across the starting line.

The crowd was incredible and completely filled the five lanes of Congress for as far as you could see. People of all abilities enter the races including people that plan to walk the entire marathon. What I can't figure out is why the walkers insist on lining up at the front of the race and then walk side by side blocking all of the faster people behind them. But as I headed out I found myself weaving around people walking and jogging even slower than me.

The first mile goes up a deceptively steep hill and between the crowds and the hill I hit the 1 mile marker right with the 4:00 pace group at leisurely 9:36. Halfway through the next mile the course crested the hill and turned to loop back toward downtown and the pace picked up. It felt a little fast but I was trusting the pace group leader even though he was running ahead of the 3:50 pace group. Sure enough, mile 2 went by in 8:55. The entire next mile was a pretty good downhill and the pace picked up even more. The pace groups were supposed to run at an even pace and the 4:00 group should have been running at 9:12 pace. Even though the first mile was slow, the leaders are supposed to not try to make it all up quickly. But mile 3 raced by in a very quick 8:36.

Now we were crossing the Lamar Boulevard bridge into downtown and I started letting my pace group leader pull away from me because the he was STILL ahead of the 3:50 group and my heart rate was consistently above 160. A cool feature of the course is that it loops back within a block of the start/finish area which allows the fans to see the start and then walk over to see the runners at around the 5 mile mark. It was a real boost to cross the bridge and be met with huge crowds cheering and band music blaring and despite the early pace it really energized me and made the time go by quickly. Mile 5 took 9:01 as I tried to get closer to my target pace, but it was still too fast.

We finished the downtown loop and headed west along scenic Town Lake and the hike and bike trail. We crossed under Lamar and finished mile 6 in 8:52. I was still staying close to the pace group but was wondering what the hell was going on. Everything you read and hear about marathons is the need to not go out too fast and the pace group leaders are supposed to slow the pace and keep people from getting overenthusiastic in the early miles and burning up their legs. Instead, my leader was committing the classic mistake and running at a pace much closer to my 10k pace than my marathon pace. I really wanted to run with a group, but at this point I throttled back and decided to just run my own race because I knew that the hills were coming and there was no way I could survive at this pace.

I hit mile 7 in 9:25 and headed up the first of many hills that rise up from Town Lake. The hill slowed me down to a 9:25 at mile 8 and then the course flattened a little before it turned once and for all away from the lake and up a killer steep hill right before mile 9. This was the start of the worst part of the course but I went through mile 9 in 9:20 and my legs felt strong on the steep hill despite the quick early pace. Despite steadily climbing up hills I finished mile 10 in 9:28 and felt good.

Here the marathon and half marathon courses split. The half marathon runners headed down a hill and were nearing the end of their race as the rest of us turned north on Exposition and a series of brutally steep hills that I knew I had to be taken carefully to avoid burning my legs out. With my pace group long gone I kept an eye on my heart rate monitor and listened to what my legs were telling me as I rolled over the steep, steadily climing hills and through the upscale Tarrytown neighborhood. There were several churches along the road and the congregations had turned out to cheer the runners on. As I was running along I passed a lady standing on a ladder in the middle of the road and was shocked as cold water hit me. Although I was streaming sweat, the air temperature was still in the 40s and it didn't feel good. I found out later that it was a priest blessing the runners and sprinkling them with Holy Water.

The hills slowed me down to 9:56 and 9:50 on miles 11 and 12. The reward for reaching halfway was cresting the worst of the hills and getting a brief downhill that allowed me do mile 13 in 9:27. At this point I knew the worst of the hills were behind me and that I could safely try to get back on pace. Because of the brisk early pace I was still ahead of a 4:00 pace and still hoped to meet my aggressive goal of 4:00 and was pretty sure I could finish ahead of 4:15. Mile 14 was pretty flat and I got back down to 9:19, but the hills weren't really done, they had just flattened out. As the road resumed a gentle incline I slowed down to 10:04 on mile 15, 9:57 on mile 16, and 9:52 on mile 17.

Things were starting to get rough and I remembered my resolve to not break down mentally and turn the closing miles into a death march. So, I started talking to myself. Flow. Glide. You're feeling good. Sure you're uncomfortable, but you've still got a lot of energy. This is a pace you can run all day long. It feels great to just glide along. Your body is telling you to stop, but you know that it can handle it. Coax your body. Soothe it. Calm it. Steady your breathing. Ride the bike. Be smooth. Keep loose.

I was talking out loud to myself and saying all of those things and more and it was working. I'd reached the top of the course and now the steady climbs reversed into steady downhills with a few climbs mixed in. Unfortunately, even though I was running reasonably comfortably, I my legs were feeling the fast early pace and so I couldn't speed up. Mile 18 went by in 10:04 even though I wanted to get down to a 4:15 pace of around 9:45. A lot of people were out as I ran down a gentle slope at a 10:09 pace but a rise at the end of mile 20 slowed me all the way down to 10:41.

I could feel my will power wavering and my legs protesting at the abuse and this is where I'd faltered in my first two marathons. So I gave myself a short break to gather myself, do some more talking, and steel myself to finish strong. I walked for exactly 3 minutes and groaned as I resumed running down toward the finish. The break slowed me down to 11:59 for mile 21, not as bad as I expected, but I vowed to keep my heart rate in the 160s and let the chips fall.

Mile 22 doubled back north and headed up another long moderate hill that slowed me to 10:47. It was tough, but I was staying in the game mentally and was steadily gliding along. Right before mile 22 we crested the hill and turned onto Red River and a nice gentle downward slope that helped me get down to 10:18 for mile 23.

Somewhere during mile 23 the 4:15 pace group finally caught up to me and as the pace leader drew alongside I matched her stride for stride and hung on. They caught me just before heading down a pretty good hill to start mile 24 so that made it pretty easy to increase my leg turnover and stick with the small group. The change of pace actually felt good to my legs even though it was faster. I tried talking to the pace leader and she tried to encourage me by telling me I could hang on with the group as we turned onto 38.5th Street and hit a short, but brutally steep hill. Being in a group helped me battle up to the top even at the faster pace but my heart was racing at 175. I completed mile 24 in 10:04 but I had to let the pace group go because my heart was pounding at over 170 even after the hill and I still had over two miles to go and one more big hill. But unlike my previous marathons I made a conscious decision to throttle back, but I didn't give up.

Mile 25 was all downhill as we ran through the UT campus and past the huge football stadium. A hard rock band took advantage of the acoustics under the stands to entertain the exhausted marathoners with pounding drums, throbbing bass, shredding guitars, and howling vocals. I was really exhausted. It was downhill but my stride was breaking down and I could only manage 10:36 even though my average heart rate was 170. I recognized a girl walking who had dropped from the pace group right after me. I encouraged her to keep going. With my goading she started running with me. Her IT bands on both legs were hurting. I haven't had this common running injury, but I know it can cause agonizing pain in the hips and the outside of the knee and she was clearly in a great deal of pain. I was talking to her, but it was as much for me as it was for her. But it felt more sane to be talking to someone else than to myself.

My only gripe with the course is that most of mile 26 was an extended hill that took us up from the UT campus to the state Capitol building. About halfway up the hill both hamstrings started getting little cramps that had me running with short, stiff, steps, afraid to bend my knees. I don't know how I did it, but I wasn't going to walk. I was reaching back with my hands and kneading the tortured muscles as I hobbled along. It would have probably been faster to walk. I got to the top of the hill, but not really. As I turned south toward the Capitol the driveway still sloped upward. It finally flattened out as we looped around the east wing and the final downhill stretch to the finish line.

My hamstrings finally quit. They didn't lock solid like at Dallas, but they cramped enough that I couldn't move. I'd been looking at the time for the last mile and desparately trying to pick up the pace despite the hill because I still had a chance of beating my personal record of 4:17:34. But I stood at the corner of the Capitol waiting for the spasms to stop. I don't think it was more than 10 seconds but it felt like forever. Fortunately the rest of the race was a straight shot down Congress Avenue. As I headed down the front drive of the Capitol I couldn't remember what street ran in front. I knew the finish was at 4th but I didn't know how many blocks were left and I couldn't see the finish line because of the crowds. I got to the bottom of the drive and saw the sign for 10th street. Only 6 blocks. I trotted along and the downhill gave my hamstrings a break and allowed me to finish smoothly. I didn't have any kick, but I was running. I crossed the finish line and stopped my stopwatch with my heart pounding at 172 and 4:19:03 showing.

I walked a few steps, grabbed a powerade and a space blanket and had to stop before I fell over. I was relieved, happy, proud, and exhausted. No regrets or any misgivings about how the race unfolded or how I performed.

I don't have any blisters. My right foot isn't very sore so maybe I'm not getting a stress fracture. A little chafing, but nothing serious. Very sore hips. Some sore muscles, but not too bad. I won't run for a couple of weeks but I think I prepared well for the race and it paid off.


Liseysmom said...

Congratulations!! I'm in awe of anyone who can finish a marathon.

Sideon said...

Awesome picture!

I'm doing a standing ovation for your achievement in the center of my cubicle farm - I don't care if I get funny looks (probably because I'm used to them (the funny looks) so often).

Be well.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Great post, and great photo. Your dogs look so nice!