13th out of 7XX in 3:13:48. My 3rd slowest marathon ever (the two slower being my first marathon and the inaugural Run the Caldera marathon in Los Alamos—the entire course is on trails at 8000ft (high point near 10,200ft) in the New Mexico mountains with nearly 5000ft of elevation change during the course. I even had to stop for a bear blocking the trail). But I’m pleased with the run—it’s hard to be upset when you’re staring at the back of the lead motorcyclist 18 miles into the race.
Waiting for the gun
I picked this race for two reasons. First and foremost, it was one of only a handful of marathons which fit into my schedule. Second, it afforded an opportunity to travel out to Wales—the only part of Great Britain I had not yet been able to visit. In making that decision, I made some compromises early. I signed up for the race only two months before the start, which effectively dictated my training schedule from the moment I clicked on the Active.com link. I had good general fitness, but little marathon specific training. Nine weeks was going to have to be enough. Second, every review of the course described it as ‘challenging’. I was pretty dismissive. Frankly, we (as a running culture) have come to describe anything with a hill—however small—as ‘challenging’. That’s just laughable. The world is full of hills. They’re fun. All of my PR’s are on courses known for their hills—Boston Marathon, St. Neots Half. Hills don’t make for a slow course, they just punish poor pacing. Now if you were my AP English teacher, Mr. Hecker, here’s the part where you would start talking about foreshadowing. The hubris of the runner leading him out into a pace that he couldn’t handle. But I don’t know if Mr. Hecker quite believed it was a pace I could ever handle (so to speak)—so while I valued his opinion, I discarded his judgements.
The race itself was part of the ‘Long Course Weekend’ in Tenby, and was put on by the same crew that organizes Ironman Wales. There were three events over the course of the weekend, a 2.4 mile ocean swim, a 112 mile bike sportive, and the marathon. It was intended to draw people who were competing in Ironman Wales later this summer, but it drew a significant number of single sport athletes in the bike and run as well. I had looked over the last year’s results and the winning time was right at 2:41, with second place waaay back at 2:49. That suggested to me the second place runner had blown trying to follow the leader, or the winner was much stronger than the second place guy. Well, the winner certainly had a resume, but most of it was older, and he hadn’t run much under 2:40 for several years.
The lead up to the race was (relatively) uneventful, except for my consistent nerves and concern I was dehydrated, tiring my legs walking the 100 yards to and from the car, or not carbo loading enough. Hell, at one point I even thought I was getting fat from tapering and continuing to eat. Ultimately, I got to the start line rested and ready to go.
Gun went off and I settled into a deliberately slow pace. Fifteen guys went by me immediately. Over the first mile, I gradually eased into my rhythm and began rolling up they guys who started too aggressively. I clicked my watch at the mile but didn’t look at the split— It felt easy which was all I really cared about. An obsessive, all-encompassing focus on splits was really going to be useless on the undulating course, and really didn’t have any purpose in ‘racing’. So I turned my mind off. Before mile 2, I had moved into 6th and flashed by our B&B. I waved to the owner, who was standing out watching the race. I think she was mildly surprised to recognize anyone, let alone me, and I got a little cheer for picking her out of the crowd. By the second mile I moved into 4th and I hit my watch again. The guys behind me were quickly falling away, and there was a small group of 3 in front of me. They weren’t gaining on me, but they weren’t closing either. I didn’t want to be in no-man’s land for large portions of this race, so I gradually bridged up as we reached the first significant climb. Significant is probably an understatement, because the road pitched up for the next full mile. I had now moved into second, running steady, but not aggressive. I was mildly surprised when we turned the first bend and the hill kept going up, steeper than before. I was shocked when we turned again and it kept going up. A sign on the side of the road cautioned drivers of the 14% gradient. The leader started walking. I was, quite suddenly, in the lead of the Wales Marathon.
When I wrote this originally, I gave a detailed blow-by-blow of the next 18 miles. I’m glad I wrote it, because it was very therapeutic for me to express the built up frustrations, emotions, and reactions, but ultimately, I don’t plan to publish it for this blog. These past months have been about a build up and the process. I learned a lot about myself as a runner, more than I thought I could still learn, and I’m stronger for it. The race was an expression of my fitness. That’s what I intend to talk about.
At the top of the hill, things started to sort themselves out again. The three runners behind me worked their way back to the front and we packed up. As we crossed mile 3, I hit the watch, and allowed myself to look down at the split for the first time. 6:01 for the mile, 17:51 for the course. Yeeowzas! I tried not to read too much into it, as I felt pretty good. Looking back, it was probably the correct decision as I was already getting the sense the mile markers were sketchy. Other runners’ Garmins were beeping all over the place and nowhere near any sort of marker. 18-ish for three miles. Screw it, push.
I hit the watch again at mile 6 and saw 5:58 for the mile, 37:12 for the overall time. I was mildly frustrated, thinking we had slowed, but I gathered myself and remembered the course markers were a little off. I estimated 6:10 mile pace.
At mile 7 two things happened. First, there was the first ‘feed’ station, which had water, sports drink, and gels, just like advertised. Second, another runner moved up from the field and passed me, moving up towards the lead pack, some 15 meters ahead. He was a little bit shaggy, and just after he went past me, one of the guys at the aid station yelled something specifically to him—“You can win this, just run steady”. Bingo. Here was the player. He passed me relatively quickly, but stayed in between me and the leading 3 for almost half a mile before we all joined up again. As we went past mile 9, I hit the watch and saw a split of 11:34 over the past 2 miles and 55:49 overall. 6:10 pace would have equaled 55:30, so it seemed reasonable, even if the 2 mile split was screwy.
Short, sharp climb up to the base of the castle and the halfway point
Inside the castle walls
We hung together for the next 3 miles, and as we turned sharply off the road and onto a stretch of trail, the lead motorcycle left us for the first (and only) time during the race. I found myself in the front with a small gap opening up and a flat stretch of road. I opened my stride, testing to see how I felt. Good. I thought back quickly to my pre-race plan. Save any big moves until 30km. I can run hard for 10 miles. If I’m feeling good at 16 miles, I’m putting the decisive move down then. We came off the trail and back onto a road. Twelve miles in 1:15 and a mile split of 7:39. That one pissed me off. The mile mark wasn’t even close. We went through the aid station (I was expecting a feed station) and I grabbed at two cups of water. I downed my last gel; I was only carrying two since I expected them at the 6, 12, and 18 mile marks. Nope. As we approached mile 13, Shaggy surged sharply. Really sharply. Like, not during the middle of a marathon sharply. There were about a half-dozen runners wearing the same singlet as him standing in the half-marathon pen who started hooting and hollering as we came past halfway. At least what was probably halfway (the 14th mile was 3:38 by my watch, so move over Hicham El-Gerrouj). The surge coincided with the departure of everyone else from the lead pack. It was down to two.
Mile 15 was still quick but read 6:39. I completely ignored this split. It did, however, bring the rhythm of footsteps into earshot. I assumed, at the time, it was yellow singlet recovering and closing back up. Instead it was a new runner, moving quickly, who pulled along side. Contender. When he passed me, the move was deliberate and sustained—not a surge, but a drive towards the finish. He was pushing for home from 20km out. Between 16 and 17, I felt a hint of a chill shudder through my body. The past two aid stations were water only, and I was out of gels. We hit 17 at 1:45:20, continuing at 6:10-ish pace, but at mile 18, a gap started to open.
Fortunately, the scenery was pretty nice over the last 8 miles(aka my personal hell).
I could tell it wasn’t good, because although I was only 10 meters back,the gap had opened to 10, 15, almost 20 meters by the 19 mile mark. My watch said 6:03 for the mile.
Then the vulture eats you. Or something like that. I’ve been part of some pretty spectacular marathon explosions (implosions?) before, but this one might have been my best. The fall from grace was truly humbling. I gave up any pretenses of running and walked most of the last 5 miles. This was not a gradual, slow death as in so many marathons, this was a find me an aid station so I can drop the f*ck out.
As I look over the results, it is clear the last 7 miles of that course broke us all. The winner, having gone through 18 miles at 2:41 pace, finished in 2:47, meaning the last 8 miles were at 7 min/mile pace. The dude dropped a 5:5X 19th mile, so clearly he paid for his surges in those last six miles too. The fact that no one could close him down shows just how hard we had pushed.
The finish was in the picturesque town of Tenby
My mantra going into the race was simply, “express your fitness”—meaning just go out and run a race that reflects all the hard work you’ve done. And I did that. The race, in effect, ended for me after 18 miles, but that—strangely enough—is incredibly reflective of my fitness. I did exactly 1 run over 17 miles in training, and that was the only run of that distance I’ve done in 3 years. It was naive of me to think I could ignore that without consequence.
But I led, I led the race, and when I was at the front, everyone in that lead pack honestly believed I could win. And I believed it too. Looking back, two months after the race, I know I can win.
So if Mr. Hecker is out there somewhere reading this, think not of hubris and tragedy. The ending of this play is yet to be written. This race was about re-learning how to run—and maybe—how to win. That’s a far more valuable lesson than the one gained simply through a fast time.