Third Time’s a Charm!
The Miracle in Maryland or Chris and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Posted Monday, 28 November, 2005
I’m not old! I was worried for awhile. I just turned 43 and missed my qualifying time for Boston by two and a half minutes at my target race. Sure there were horrible winds and we could all justify it, but I used to run those 7:30’s by accident, without even trying. Was that it? Were my days at Boston to be snuffed at 8 tries? Would I have to, God forbid, take a charity number? I do so enjoy getting my butt whipped by that unforgiving B*tch of a race every April.
Not today. Today WE kicked butt at the North Central Trail Marathon.
Missing your target marathon is unsettling. It’s like that dream where you show up for some important event naked. It just leaves you out there hanging. You spent your capital and didn’t get the cupie doll. What do you do? Well in my case…that would be the “moronic compulsive” old guy case …or as I like to say; the “hopeful positive thinking” case…anyway, in my case you immediately sign up for another marathon in two weeks. The theory here being that you’ve already trained and you might as well use it. Jump back on the bike that threw you. Strike while the iron is hot.
The counterpoint to this theory comes in the form of people telling you that you’re crazy and/or stupid and you’re just going to hurt yourself and you’re not getting any younger. (especially the people who you are married to.)
It was something I’ve done before. In ’99 I DNF’ed on the old Baystate course and doubled down at Cape Cod only to get massacred on the hills. Knee tendonitis had shortened my training. Then I turned around and qualified by a whisker at the old Ocean State Marathon in Rhode Island. (Great course; Warwick to Providence – down hill with a tail wind – RIP) It all ended well with great celebration.
History was repeating itself in 2005. Again I signed up for Cape Cod after getting thrashed by the wind at Baystate. Unfortunately, again I got massacred by the hills and some awful medication I was on for poison ivy. But was it really the poison ivy? Or was I done with qualifying? Was I too old? Did that car accident eat my qualifiers forever? As much as I don’t care any more, you know it still bothered me.
It used to be I would find out around 20 miles whether the wheels were falling off, but during these two marathons I knew early. I felt it start to slip away around 15-17. Worse than that; I gave up too easily. It started to slip away and instead of bearing down I let it go. When it started to hurt I gave in. I let my big brain get away with those negative mantras and rationalizations. That evil little voice, you know the one. It tells you that it’s ok to walk. It tells you that it’s not your fault, it’s not your day and the wind is really bad. It has your focusing on coming up with good excuses instead of focusing on the race.
Not today. Today I was a stand-up guy.
Then Ted calls with a brilliant idea. Let’s drive to Maryland and run this trail marathon. Of course, I’m in with both feet. Driving 7 hours to run a marathon in the woods might seem like an unlikely thing to do, but it made perfect sense to me.
Of course in the intervening 4 weeks after Cape Cod and before the trail marathon I had an intricate training plan that was going to reverse my fortunes in one last great gasp at fame. I was going to do hard speed work and long tempo. I was going to throw in some aggressive 20 milers. I was going to suffer. This was it. Last chance.
Then about 7 days after the Cape, I was just getting ready to start beating my body up with a Spartan regimen, I was running easy up a hill and it felt like someone shot me in the right butt cheek. I had to stop and stretch. I hobbled home. I’d like to think I’m getting smarter as I get older. Instead of ignoring it and trying to run through it I stopped running and immediately made an appointment to go see a hip doctor.
I have never had any hip problems before and I had no experience to know whether I just tweaked something or twisted the end off my femur. I was not really surprised when she said, “You’ve been running too much and you’ve given yourself tendonitis at the attach points of your (unpronounceable tendon)”
“I’ve got a marathon in three weeks, is that a problem?”
“You probably shouldn’t do that.”
“It’s a trail marathon. It will be nice and soft…”
“It’s up to you, but you’re not getting any younger. You’re not going to recover as fast.”
Don’t you just love doctors? They like to err on the safe side. My super human training plan was out the window. Instead I spent 3 days a week running easy with the dog in the woods, trying to stretch, loading up on “Vitamin ‘I’” and trying not to put on weight. It was good for the dog, but it left me feeling more and more unprepared, sliding down the knife’s edge away from that goal race pinnacle.
Ironically enough, Ted was recovering from a spate of injuries that started last year with a hip stress fracture. He and I had been following the same training program. It has different names, but we can refer to it here as the “fragile-old-guy training program.” The way it works is that you only run 3 days a week. Speed, tempo and fast long. That’s it. No more 50 mile weeks. On the off days we swim. It’s a great program. I’ve never felt healthier. Unfortunately it had been leaving me about 6 miles short of my goal.
At the Thanksgiving morning 5K I ran, (yup, 2 days before the marathon, and I placed in my age group), a running buddy asked, “Are you ready?”
I answered honestly and without hesitation. “No way! It would take a miracle for me to qualify this weekend.” Nevertheless, the day after Thanksgiving Ted and I were in the rental car heading south. My wife was diving headlong into her holiday shopping frenzy and I was bailing out to go run a race.
It was a nippy 27 degrees Friday night and we were stressing over what to wear. We were checking the weather every 10 minutes. It was supposed to be 33 at race time. Fuzzy hat? Sweater? What to wear? Before I left the house I had dug deep into my lucky stuff pile and un-retired one of my old Ronzoni hats. There’s magic in those hats. I hoped I would get to wear it.
On the way down we talked strategy.
“Whatever happens, I’m not leaving anything out there.”
“Me neither, I’d like to break 3 hours and run negative splits.”
“You’re nuts. You’ve only been training for 5 weeks.”
“So? This is you’re 3rd marathon in 6 weeks. Who’s nuts?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m not giving up tomorrow. If I have to hop in on one good leg dragging a bloody stump…”
And so on… Not so much strategy, more locker room banter. Our dinner was Power Bars, Gatorade and a loaf of sour dough bread from the super market. We watched a really bad movie on cable called Resident Evil 2. There’s nothing more entertaining then leather clad women kicking the crap out of zombies. (It’s a guy thing).
The day dawned crispy and 30ish. We made our way over to the start early to get a good stretch in. This is where being veterans helped. We found a quiet alcove in the school and prepped. Ted procured some trash bags to wear for the start. I went with the Ronzoni hat. I figured frostbite for good karma was a decent trade. It turned out to be a good choice. We were plenty warm once we got racing.
Around 9:30 we were off. Let me stop right here and say this was a great course and a great race. If I could have found the race director I would have kissed him and every member of the Baltimore Running Club, on the lips. Awesome course. The whole thing, except for a couple miles at the start and the finish, is along a rail trail. It runs along side a beautiful river with waterfalls through mostly oak woods. The surface is crushed rock, but it’s well beaten down. It’s more like a very firm dirt road. Soft enough for saving the legs, but firm enough to get a good grip and no ruts, potholes or puddles. Just perfect.
There were around 400 marathoners and 80 ½ marathon relay teams. The rail grade is imperceptivity uphill going out. It is just enough to keep you from going too fast, but not enough to notice. When you make the turn at the half (there’s a cone in the trail), it turns into a wonderful 1% down grade. This works out great. Just when you are hitting the wall and at that delicate point where the race hangs in the balance, it’s all easy down hill on a soft trail. Instead of worrying you can just lean back, stretch it out and ride through the difficult bits. In comparison, imagine having a nice soft down hill instead of Heartbreak Hill. You get the picture.
And we kicked some ass! Ted finished 5th with a 2:54. It was his best marathon in a decade. I finished 41st and I qualified with 3 minutes to spare.
The course starts at an elementary school and is supposed to run 1.8 miles out on some rolling down hill roads to the trail. At the finish it is supposed to take a slightly different 1.5 mile rolling uphill route back to the school. We weren’t too worried about this because a) a little uphill after 25 miles of flat-as-a-pancake would probably be a welcome change and b) you can deal with anything if you can smell the finish line. It was a great way to start with that first mile down hill. I probably entered the trail already 1:30 in the green, but, as we discovered there was no way to know for sure.
The police screwed up the first turn and sent us out the 1.5. This really didn’t matter. Essentially we just ran the course backwards. It did however make all of the mile marks incorrect. Whichever volunteer spent the night walking the course and stapling up mile markers did it all for naught. The only thing we knew for sure about the mile marks was that they were approximately a mile apart. This way we could still pace, and we knew approximately where we were, give or take a ½ a mile. In a way it was liberating. It forced you to look at the big picture and focus on splits instead of milestones.
On the way out we could hear hunters shooting in the woods. There was a group of bird watchers around 5 miles out. That looks like a fun sport. Let’s spend Saturday standing around staring into the woods with a telephoto lens. I asked them if they were having any luck and apologized for scaring off the yellow-bellied sap suckers.
As we ran between stone outcroppings the icicles were melting and breaking away in the morning sun making small crashes in the leaves. The river was crystal clear. It was cold enough that we didn’t sweat much. I only went through maybe 35 – 40 ounces of fluids and was fine. I also continued my love affair with espresso Gu. Great stuff if you can stomach it. Sugar and caffeine! Boo-Hah!
Ted flew past in the other direction as I was approaching the turn around. “You’re number 11!” I yelled. He was flying. He hunted down five more victims on the long slow decent into the finish before he was done. Negative splits – 2:54 – and the bastard is in my age group next year!
The first time I knew a mile for sure was at the half. They had a clock. I had a full 5 minutes in the bank at the 1/2. I was pacing a 3:16 on the uphill and now I was taking this safety margin into the down grade. There was a slight head wind and it intensified as it funneled in the narrow gorges. As I usually do, I found a nice gentleman to draft. He was wearing on of those GPS pacing watches and had us doing 7:27’s. I could tell he wasn’t going to make his 3:15 target by the way he was taking short strides and fighting it. It was his first marathon. I told him to breathe and stretch and relax. Then I left him to fight his own demons.
I thought that ff I could just cruise to 20 I could make it in. I was slowing down but not much. I started picking off stragglers and walking crash victims. It hurt and I was red lining, but I was focused and working through it. 26 miles is supposed to hurt. One guy I passed said, “Hey, you’re looking good.” Uncharacteristically, I couldn’t think of anything to respond and couldn’t spare the energy to do so. Not getting any response, he continued, “Actually, you look terrible, but you’re running well.”
There was a sign that said “5 Miles Left” and I wanted to believe it. My sciatic was screaming and I thought, “No problem it’s only a nerve.” My back started to hurt and I thought, “Too bad, straighten up, keep moving.” My breathing was short and gaspy and my heart rate was bad. I closed my eyes and forced it all back into place. I had no idea what the mile was and didn’t’ really care. I just focused on moving forward, I knew I had a good margin and all I had to do was keep moving.
When I hit the road my right foot started to go numb, “Too f-ing bad”, I thought, “Keep moving.” There were some sharp up hills on the road, it had bad camber and I struggled. Then there was a nice steep downhill and it shook everything loose. The last three little hills weren’t too bad, but I was red lining and making funny faces, I crashed across the finish and had to be held up by the volunteers. Once I caught my breath I was looking for a race director to kiss.
What a race! What a day! That’s why we do it my friends, for days like today. Today we owned that race! Today we ruled the roads and the trails. Today I’m not finished and I’m not old!
- Train 3 days a week…
- Run 3 marathons in 6 weeks…
- Get whipped by the first two…
- Tweak the hip…
- Don’t train at all for a month…
- Race a 5k in a snow storm 2 days before…
- Drive 7 hours to run in the woods…
- Ronzoni hat – Qualified!
- Stress fracture and Achilles tendonitis…
- Train 3 days a week…
- 5 week training program from scratch
- Drive 7 hours to run in the woods…
- Sour dough and silly movie
- 2:54 – 6th place – negative splits – hand carved choo-choo train trophy…
That about sums it up…
See you in Hopkinton!
Cool Running Note:
Chris has just finished writing his first book. The Mid-Packer’s Lament is a series of short stories on long distance running, racing and the human comedy inherent in all sports enthusiasts, but prevalent in the mid-pack. This is a book for runners and wannabe runners. There are stories about training, eating, special places and special races. There are stories about the accidental athlete in all of us and the stupid things we do for even amateur endeavors. Whether you are a weekend mid-pack runner or a competitive club runner, you’ll find something thought provoking and amusing that you can relate to in the Mid-Packer’s Lament. Cool Running encourages you to buy the book and it would make a great stocking stuffer. It can be ordered directly from http://www.amazon.com