Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Race Recap: The Vermont City Marathon

On the way into Burlington I saw my first camel. At least I think it was my first camel. I can't recall ever seeing a camel before Friday afternoon. It was your classic camel; two humps, mangy, kind of lopsided except it was by itself on a farm in the middle of Vermont without any of its camel friends. Now, you should know marijuana is legal in Vermont. However, none of us in the car had partaken in the state’s liberties and we all saw the same camel. When Jason arrived the next day, he too mentioned seeing the camel on Vermont State Route 7. Certain that we could rule out hallucination, we Googled “Vermont Camel” and found this. So, if you are ever driving to Burlington and see a camel on the side of the road, that’s the story.

Other than that, the trip from Manhattan to Burlington was pleasantly uneventful. At the last minute, I took the day off work so we could beat the Memorial Day traffic. We made more pit stops than usual not because my very pregnant wife needed to pee, but because I needed to pee from downing so much water to stay hydrated. We didn’t have our first crisis until midway through dinner Friday night. We had picked a touristy burger and beer joint out of convenience and the conversation turned to our elite water bottles which Josh and I planned to share. That’s when I realized I had left the carefully selected bottles in the cabinet above the kitchen fridge. I went into panic mode. I called Jason hoping he was still in NYC and could swing by the apartment. He was not. I called the manufacturer of the bottles, a science supply company in New Jersey (they were technically meant to clean chemistry beakers, but we found they worked really well for taking fluid on the run) but they were closed. I called the University of Vermont Chemistry Department, which was also closed. Our best bet was the City Sports down the street. We jogged over and found they had clear plastic bottles that would do the trick. Crisis averted.

Checking out the start at the scenery on the shakeout
Saturday was spent trying to relax, but as is the day before any marathon there was too much nervous energy to sit still. Josh and I went for a 30-minute shakeout run and checked out the finish area. We stocked up on good local beer. Attempts at a nap were futile. In the afternoon, we sat in the living room of our rented apartment listening to My Morning Jacket records decorating our back-up water bottles with pictures of our families, wives and dogs that Josh had thoughtfully printed out. It was anxiety-relief through rudimentary arts and crafts. Honestly, if there was an award for best decorated elite water bottles it wouldn’t have even been a contest. One of the photos we were going to tape to a bottle was a quote from professional runner/movie maker Alexi Pappas. When I read it, it caused me to reflect on the 15-week training cycle that got us to Vermont.

“Racing is not about how you feel. It’s about how you feel about how you feel.”

I felt pretty good about how I felt. The build up to Burlington was nearly perfect. Josh and I built a flexible training plan that worked great with our schedules and included a perfect balance of speed and stamina. I missed zero days to illness or injury. I did have a nasty cold in April that caused me to skip a 10k race and left me less than 100% for my half marathon, but getting sick once during a training block is pretty typical. We nailed all of the key workouts most notably our marathon simulation; a 26.2K effort meant to mimic race day in every way. We ran the 16.3 miles at an average pace of 5:44 and it felt comfortably hard. Mentally, I was in a much better place than my last marathon in Boston of 2013. I was sleeping again and eating right. Most importantly, I was truly having fun and loving running. There was no doubt we were both in shape for a great race.

Elite bottles ready to go. This was Josh's idea and it was awesome!
Saturday evening, we went to the expo. I tried and failed to win an eight-pack of Heady Topper. I tried and succeeded at changing the age on my bib from 34 to my actual age of 31. Josh dropped off our water bottles, four filled with lemon lime electrolyte powder mixed with water, two filled with a chocolate cherry Clif Shot caffeine gel mixed vigorously with water. Along with the photos on each bottle were instructions on at which mile they should be placed.

Saturday night was a smorgasbord of pre-race feasts. For Josh it was pasta and meatballs brought in from Zabar’s in Manhattan. Jason pan seared some chicken and roasted some potatoes. I ordered sushi and green salad and followed it with a dessert of fresh cut mango and a couple spoonfuls of Ben and Jerry’s Banana Peanut Butter Greek Frozen Yogurt. Our families all stopped by to wish us luck and then we all turned in early. I was surprised to fall asleep pretty quickly.

The alarm was set for 6am, but I was up at 5:45 and ready to roll. I went into the kitchen and made two frozen chia waffles – the same waffles I ate before every big workout – and topped them with peanut butter and jam. I washed them down with a cup of coffee and water with a Nuun tablet. I put on my race costume and the appropriate amount of Body Glide and made multiple trips to the bathroom to ensure I’d make zero trips to the bathroom during the actual race. Just before stepping out the door, I ate half of a Smooth Caffeinator Picky Bar for an extra boost.

Just before heading out the door
Our apartment was less than 800 meters from the starting line, so we jogged over around 7:20am, 43 minutes before the scheduled start of the race. It was 55 degrees and partly cloudy, a little warm but nothing race-altering. Jason and Josh were both allowed access to the elite bathrooms. I was not, but that was not an issue. We stood side-by-side as they gave the final race instructions. And then we were off.

Our race plan called for the early miles to be run in the 5:50-5:55 range with a faster split allowed in the first mile. We were right on pace through mile one, but picked it up a bit as we went a long. The race begins by winding through city streets for three miles before heading onto a highway. Just after mile three, we saw the first elite aid station approaching and Josh instinctively grabbed our bottle from the table. We both immediately knew something was wrong. First of all, we weren’t supposed to see our first bottle until just after mile four. Secondly, it was the caffeine mixture we had not planned on until mile nine. Clearly, we were going to pass by this spot again in six miles, which is when we were meant to grab the bottle. I don’t know what, if any, effect the early caffeine had on us. We had both taken caffeine prior to the race so it ended up being a lot of caffeine in a short amount of time.

Waving to my family
The crowds disappear when the race enters the highway for a five-mile out-and-back stretch. There, we found ourselves in a pack with a trio of runners from Boston who refused to take over pacing duties. Josh, Jason and I set the pace for them the entire stretch. We went through the 10k at 36:07 which was a little fast, but not suicidal. I know those tracking me online got an alert saying I went through the 10k in 34:12. That on the other hand, would have been suicidal. I have no idea where that data came from. We skipped the elite fluids at mile four knowing we’d pass by it again at mile eight and could grab it then to make up for the missing bottle at mile nine.

Mile nine brought the first surprise of the course for me. I knew there was a hill there, but I did not expect it to be so steep. When we got to the top, I made a comment to Josh and Jason about how much it sucked but neither responded. We followed that mile with an unusually quick mile 10 (5:38); a nice downhill reprieve during which we were all able to give a wave to our cheering families. It wasn’t long after this as we wound our way through some neighborhoods that I realized Jason had dropped off the back of our trio. I knew he hadn’t been able to train for the race as well as he had hoped and that he might just try to run a time that allowed him to run Boston next year. I could also tell Josh wasn’t feeling great at this point, but put off asking for another two miles because I knew the answer was one I didn’t want to hear.

We went through the halfway point in 1:16:44, right on pace for our goal of 2:34-2:36, but Josh had told me his breathing felt off and he had started to slow. I slowed down through the elite fueling station hoping the rough patch would pass. I, on the other hand, had just come out of a rough patch and was feeling the best I had since the start of the race. It was really hard to make the decision to set out on my own even after Josh told me to go. This was not in the plan. We trained together and we were supposed to finish together. Still, I knew it was the right thing to do. He said, “Go after it. Be smart!” and I was on my own. On my own like that damn camel without any camel friends.

I entered “No Man’s Land” at mile 14 on the south side of the Burlington bike path. 5:50s were coming with little effort at this point and I was able to pass some runners without even trying. At mile 15, the course climbs the steepest hill of the race. I knew it was coming and allowed myself to back off a bit and not worry about the split. I made it to the top without losing too much steam and hoped to myself that it would be an 11 mile cruise to the finish from there.

The thing about 11 miles is that it’s a long way. Think about going on 11 mile run at a relatively easy pace. It’s a substantial day’s work. Now think about going on an 11 mile run after running 15 miles. When you look at it that way, it’s pretty daunting. But I felt good and that’s not how I was thinking. My pace had settled into the high 5:50s, but I was OK with that. As I hit the mile 16 marker, I knew all I had to do was maintain a 6:00-6:05 pace to run 2:35:xx and a PR was probable.

Once Josh and I separated, I no longer had access to our elite fluids. Only Josh could grab them. I had planned for this scenario and was carrying two back-up gels. Of course, there were water and Gatorade stations all over the course. The problem was, I didn’t practice with these fluids or gels. I tried to take a Gu at mile 17 and I barely got a taste before spitting it right back out. There was no way I was going to be able to choke it down. I knew I needed electrolytes, so I grabbed a Gatorade from the next table. I don’t know how long it had been since I drank full-sugar Gatorade but it sure was a shock to the system. It tasted like someone had melted down a cheap lollipop and put it in a cup. These issues aside, I still felt pretty good and foolishly thought if I could make it mile 20 I was in the clear.

I hit mile 20 in 1:58:51. My pace had only dropped a few seconds. Since we were winding through cul-de-sacs and quaint neighborhoods, I attributed the slight slowdown to the huge amount of turns. I passed at least three people during this stretch. I was feeling tired, but another 10k did not seem too daunting. Then, somewhere right before mile 22 my quads decided to stop working. It was like someone flipped the “off” switch. All of the sudden, they were done for the day.

Josh's dad got this great shot of the final turn
What followed was an agonizing four mile ride on the caboose of the pain train. If you are still feeling strong, the final stretch of the marathon course is a lovely finish. It’s a flat if not slightly downhill jaunt through a tree-lined bike path along Lake Champlain. I appreciated none of that. I just wanted it to be over. With three miles to go, I took a popsicle from a child. As each mile got slower, my hopes of a PR slipped away and I knew there was no way to salvage it. I was actually running just under 7:00 pace but it felt so much slower. Runners would pass me and I would try to feed off their speed and hang on but I couldn’t. With less than two miles to go, a guy with long hair passed me and said, “You’ll have to run harder than that if you want to break 2:40.” I wanted to punch him, but wasn’t sure I could afford the energy.

With less than 400 meters to go, I turned onto the grassy finishing stretch and saw my family again – my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, niece and aunt - all cheering wildly. Lauren started running along the fence that separated the spectators from the runners and even though she’s eight months pregnant she was keeping up with me just fine. A guy wearing goggles and basketball shorts sprinted past me which would have been devastating if I couldn’t tell from his bib that he was a relay runner. Pictures from this stretch show just how weak my quads were by the end of this race. It appears as I’m heavily favoring my right side; lopsided again like the camel. As I crossed the line, the announcer said something about me smiling which certainly wasn’t true. 2:40:35. My immediate feeling wasn’t relief. It was disappointment.

I’d had a better day than Josh and Jason. After we split, Josh thrice vomited a substance the resembled the stuff that dinosaur spit on Newman in Jurassic Park. The fact that he finished under those conditions is a testament to the size of his huevos. Jason dropped out at mile eighteen and subsequently had to walk up and then back down a hill to get home. When we all met back up again we were a battered bunch in need of beers.

my niece Halle made it hard not to smile even after that race

I have nothing but good things to say about the Vermont City Marathon. Everything about it is first class. I was admittedly initially bitter about not being included in the elite field, but I respect how they stuck to their rules. In the end it worked out just fine. The race staff was helpful and approachable and it was obvious the volunteers were having a good time. The course was well-marked and well-staffed. It’s incredibly spectator-friendly. I saw my family four times including at the finish. On top of all that, Burlington is a really cool town. It reminded me a lot of Oswego with its size, proximity to the lake, and youthful vibe, not to mention the ice cream and beer.

I don’t know what went wrong in the race and I haven’t spent a lot of time dwelling on it. I won’t second guess our training or preparation in any way. I won’t blame the weather. There’s a chance we went out a little fast, but there’s a better chance that it just wasn’t our day. That happens with the marathon. It’s not worth beating myself up over and honestly, I’m surprisingly OK with it all.

And here’s why: It wasn’t a great race. But it was a great weekend. It started with a great road trip – camel, and all – with two of our best friends. When we got to Vermont, we all got to see the people we love the most. I am so grateful my family made the trip just to watch me run. Lauren and I got to spend one last weekend away together before our family becomes a trio. Now, it’s on to our next marathon. Baby Lentil (temporary name). The race is scheduled to start sometime around June 28th.

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