Friday, May 11, 2012

Lessons Learned: A Lincoln National Guard Marathon Race Report

Earlier this year I was informed that I had made the New Mexico National Guard marathon team which means that I got to run the Lincoln marathon, which serves as the time trials for the All Guard marathon team.
Coming into the race I had several unknowns that I have either never contended with or have only contended with under very different conditions.  In the different conditions category was humidity and speed.  I've run in humid conditions twice before, one in a very hot humid trail 50k and that was pretty miserable.  The other time was a really humid trail 50k in a light rain and cool temps.  That race was awesome and stands as my 50k PR.  Lincoln was going to be humid and a little warm and it's a road marathon.  I wasn't sure what that would mean as far as what I should expect.  I knew it wouldn't be anything like hot and humid on dirt roads so I figured I could pull of a much faster pace but would the road and shorter distance allow me to significantly exceed my humid, wet and cool 50 k PR pace?  Unknown.

I have also run fast, at least for me.  I just did a 10k at a 6:50 pace but that was only a 10k.  My road marathon PR is 3:28 but that was run on a downhill course in cool, dry conditions at around 3500 feet elevation.   That marathon PR was also run the weekend after I had run 2 other marathons.  Would the lower elevation at Lincoln and the fact that I was better rested make up for the fact that my marathon PR was run on a downhill course?  Would the flat course, higher temperatures and humidity wipe out any advantage?  Unknown.
For the total unknowns I had my weight, the flat course and the fact that I was intentionally trying to run a fast marathon.  Right now I'm about 10 pounds lighter than I have been at my lightest during any previous marathon.  I have read that you gain about 2 seconds per mile per pound but I have no idea what the variance on that might be and have no idea what considerations for type of course and weather it may assume.  While I have run a couple of flat courses I've never tried to run one fast.  Probably the most comparable courses I have run are San Antonio, R&R Arizona and Wisconsin.  S.A. Was very hot so it was a bust, I ran with the GeekGrl at Arizona so just hung with her and Wisconsin was the third marathon in a streak of four marathons over two week period so none were run hard.  Even with my marathon PR I only ran as fast as it felt good, I had no expectation I could break 3:30 and wasn't intentionally trying to meet any time goal.
Given all the uncertainties I thought up some goals and began to look around to see what I may be able to do.  My main goal was to run a Boston qualifying time, which has just dropped to 3:25 for me, a 3 minute and 24 second PR off what I already considered a really fast time.  I also looked at race time predictors.  There are a few websites with calculators that allow you to enter recent races and they predict what you should be able to run at different distances.  I used my 10k race and got predictions ranging from 3:15 and a few seconds to 3:19 and a few.  While heartened, a 10k is no marathon and when I had run my previous PR I had a much deeper base because it was at the end of a good season of running.

In the end I decided to just go as hard as I thought I might be able to do and just see what happened.  I didn't want to go out too conservatively because I wanted to walk away knowing I had tried my hardest and I was willing to risk doing worse in order to try and do better because, after all, the time standard for making the All Guard team was out of my reach no matter how well I ran and so it all comes back to training for the grand slam, get used to both extreme exertion and coping with falling apart.

I decided to go out with the 3:15 pace group, faster than I thought I could realistically handle but closer to my dream goal of a sub-3:20.  The pace groups at Lincoln are very good.  They all start out conservative for a nice two mile warm up and then start making time through the middle and allow for some fading toward the end.  Knowing that the 3:15 pace group was going to speed up to at least a few 7:07 minute miles through the middle I knew in advance that I was going to let them go at some point but I was going to hang for the warm-up, which I did and it felt comfortable but I could tell that for a marathon start it was probably at my upper limits.

The weather report called for possible thunder showers with dime to golf ball sized hail and winds blowing in one direction at 7:00 a.m. and blowing in the exact opposite direction by 10:00 which was within about 25 minutes of when I hoped to finish.  The temps were predicted to be 70 at race start and down to 64 by 10:00.  There was also supposed to be 95% cloud cover through the day.  Minus the hail and possibly the thunderstorms it sounded like a good day for running.  Thankfully the hail and thunderstorms never materialized.  Much less welcome, however, the cloud cover dissipated very quickly, the sun came out and the day began heating up by the time I was at mile 8.  It never got blistering hot like most of the races I've done lately but it moved into the range of slow running temperatures.  Apparently, while not a record high,  it was about 15 degrees above normal.
The one thing that the weather websites got right was the wind.  It started in one direction in the morning and over the course of about 2.5 hours it swung around to exactly the opposite direction.  It was not a severe wind by any means.  It was relatively light and ranged between a constant 11 and 17 mph.  The thing that sucked about the wind is that it was pretty much a headwind through the entire race.  In the morning it was in our faces and the first 19 and a half miles contain virtually all the uphill sections so we were running uphill into a light wind and by the turn around we were greeted with another headwind.

Anyway, back at mile two I did start to speed up but I made no effort to try and stick with the 3:15 pace group.  I watched them pull away slowly as I continued to run comfortably.  Over the next few miles I drug my average pace form a 7:37 minute mile to a 7:30 minute mile, fast enough to go under 3:20.  I was feeling really good and just kept going taking the race as it came.  There were a few little hills that pulled my pace back down a bit but nothing that I would say took a toll.  By mile 9 I could tell it was a bit warm, not hot, but warm for running fast though I still felt good.  By mile 13 I remember thinking to myself that the headwind, though light, was going to take a toll though I was hopeful it would be a tailwind on the way back knowing that the last half of the race is an out and back.
The last half of the race also contains some slightly steep rollers on a bike path and about a 5 mile section that is almost imperceptibly uphill going out to the turnaround.  These were difficult miles.  I was still running pretty well, still feeling pretty good but I was starting to become annoyed at the warmth and the wind.  I started to really have to focus on staying positive by telling myself the race was all downhill with a tailwind after mile 20.  During the trek out to the turnaround the wind started to become more variable, gusting a bit into your face then from the side then seemingly gone.  When the wind was gone it felt like the temperature soared and when it was present it seemed to drain your energy reserves.  It was like dying the death of a thousand cuts, no single factor could be called bad, at worst they were barely perceptible annoyances but taken together I knew my energy was being slowly drained by factors other than pure forward propulsion.
By the time I hit the turnaround I was ready to celebrate.  I was hitting the final 10k downhill with a tailwind, at least that was the idea.  Once I actually turned around I found myself running into the wind again.  I was seriously frustrated because I knew it was sapping my energy and I knew that the wind was supposed to blow from that direction for the remainder of the day.  I looked at my watch and my overall pace had slid to a 7:42 and for two miles in a row I clocked 8:05 miles.  Sub-3:20 was gone and I knew I was in real danger of missing 3:25 if I didn't pick it up so I dug a little deeper and pulled out a 7:55 mile.  I didn't know if that was going to be good enough to prevent a slide from the 3:25 but I knew it was all I had, I was conserving nothing.

When I hit the final 3 miles I was slowing back down, the course had mostly flattened and I was starting to feel the heat.  With about 2.5 miles to go I grabbed a cup of ice to eat and cool me off but when I tipped it back the several small pieces of ice had melted and frozen together in one large chunk of ice that uselessly bumped into my lips, too big to fit in my mouth.  I threw the cup on the ground and ran on trying to regain a race saving pace.

I could hear people coming up behind me and I kept worrying it would be the 3:25 pacer and soon enough it was.  He blew past at a good clip and I struggled to hang on but he was pulling away quickly as soon as he passed and then we hit the series of short, steep rollers on the bike path. Like everything else they're no big deal but in a depleted state when you are just trying to hang on they are decidedly unwelcome.  The next mile I was reduced to an 11:47 pace and I was done with a little more than a mile to go.  I was still hoping to get even a one second PR, a 3:28:23, but that was looking unlikely so I was left determined that I would run as hard as I could even though I knew it sure didn't look like I was running.

That last 1.2 miles was a very long 1.2 miles.  The race just seemed to go on and on no matter how frequently people said "you're almost there!". I finally reached the University of Nebraska stadium where I was told to make a left into the stadium and the finish line would be right there and sure enough I went through a tunnel and broke out onto the 50 yard line and the finish line was right there in the center of the field.  I used the last of what I had so I wouldn't be lost in a group of half-marathon finishers and I crossed the finish line in 3:32:02.  I was pretty out of it but aware that the uniformed soldier hanging the finishers medal around my neck was a two star general so I was sure to add "sir" to my thank you.

I wandered under the stadium seats where the post race food and drinks were set up, grabbed some diet mountain dew and water and laid down on some cool concrete steps.  As with all marathons it was good to be done.  There was no question in my mind that I had given it my all and I was too tired to consider how I felt about the end result.  After a bit I got up to seek out my teammates.  I soon found Coriz and Espinoza who told me they hadn't seen Bartnik but they knew he had finished in 3:07 and had made the All Guard team.  Neither of them had run the required 3:07 and both said they had cramped up in the heat.  However, later at the award ceremony it was announced that because the day was so hot the standard to make the team was going to be changed back to the previous standard of the top 40 men and top 15 women.  This allowed Coriz onto the team and still had the "slowest" runner on the All Guard team finishing in 3:11.

After a nap and some time to recover and reflect I have decided that I am happy with my race and the decisions I made.  I went into the race with too many unknowns to make a solid prediction as to what I should expect to run but I learned a lot.  It was the first time I have ever really tried to run a race to meet a certain time goal.  I've run to race meaning that I have run hard and run smart and tried to place but running to a specific time goal, tracking splits and all, is a different experience.

With respect to Boston, I am a runner on the bubble.  I can run the lower BQ time that I need to qualify but I have to have very good conditions on a fairly flat to downhill course.  Under perfect running conditions on a flat to downhill course I believe I could run something in the ballpark of a 3:17, maybe even just below 3:15.

I also know this, I had a great time over the past few weeks first running Boston and then running on the New Mexico Guard marathon team at the All Guard time trials.  It is a culture of speed where runners are all trying to run "wicked fast" and it was fun.

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