First of all, thanks to all those who were encouraging in the past few months. Apologies to all those whose mails, texts, calls, etc I have not responded to, especially in the last two weeks.
I had been travelling in the US, first from New Jersey to Duluth, MN for my race (and the bandwidth in Duluth sucked), then from Duluth to the San Francisco Bay Area and finally back to New Jersey before I returned to India last evening. All this travel combined with a lot of meetings with friends has ensured I have mostly stayed off the internet and my phone. So my communication has been intermittent. This shall be remedied over the next few days.
Now for my race report. As those of you who have followed my blog over the past few years know, I have been trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon. While I did so last year, I still didn’t get a place in the Boston Marathon 2012 starter list due to a combination of the fact that I am not too fast (yes, sub 3:10 is still not very fast!) and also the way the BAA has tweaked its entry process from the 2012 race onwards.
I was trying to run 3:08 or faster in order to be well under the 3:08:46 eventual cutoff for the 3:10 group for the 2012 race.
Unlike last year, I did 16 of my 18 weeks of training in India. While I had been unable to run tempos at my desired pace of 6:30 min/mile, I had managed to hit the interval paces of 6:00 min /mile (In fact I went much faster) regularly in India. I came to the US 2.5 weeks before my race just to ensure that I could indeed hit my race pace in colder weather. While Jersey City/New York weren’t ideal since they were about 21 deg C in the morning compared to Bangalore’s 26 deg C, I still managed two runs – a half marathon @ 7 min/mile and a 10K in Central Park (~6:36/mile) which gave me the confidence that I could perhaps pull it off on raceday, if the weather gods were kind. There were some indications that there would be stormy weather at the start of the race and there were also indications that Duluth was warmer than it usually is at this time of the year, which meant that the weather wasn’t going to be of assistance in my BQ quest.
My dear coach and I met at the Minneapolis Airport, from where we drove to Duluth. Once we picked up our bibs and race packet, we settled down in our hotel for the next day’s race. I couldn’t bear the anxiety of driving to the start, just in time for warm up and decided to take the starting line transport. Also, unlike last year, I wanted to have adequate time to pee, if needed.
As always, I had a coffee moments after waking up (Instant coffee is awful – this one was no different). I had 2 bananas as breakfast. This has worked for me on my recent races and my long runs of up to 24 miles. So I have stuck to it.
A fellow passenger, Aaron and I got talking on the way to the start. Aaron is a kick-boxer among other things and was looking to run around 3:20. We were at the start a little over an hour before the start. So we settled down and talked about each other’s preparations, injuries in the last year, etc. I began warming up with about 40 minutes to go. Since we knew we were going to run different paces, we separated at that time and met only later in the day at the hotel.
It was quite sunny already. I didn’t worry much mostly since I didn’t have much choice. As I was running up the gentle uphill at the start during warmup, I noticed an elite Kenyan woman do the same. Although she ran real slow, she kept her pace even when we hit the top of the slope and I began to run back. I had begun breathing heavily by the time the slope went up!
Once I finished stretching, I aligned myself with the 3:05 pace group. My plan was to run 7 min/mile till mile 20 and then see how to take on the next 6.2 miles. Our hope was that I should be able to run 7:30 min/mile for the last 6.2 and finish in around 3:07-3:08.
The 3:05 pacer was an experienced runner who had run a PB of 2:28. He kept up a conversation all through till mile 17 or so, after which the banter reduced since everyone was focusing. I am sure he kept chatting after that too, but the others in the group may not have had his strength to keep up.
As at last year’s race, my coach turned up in time at the start despite having to take a lot of deviations on the way to the start line (just like I expected, that would have gotten me way too anxious for my own good). The race has one of the most memorable starts to a race I have attended with fighter jets flying overhead after the singing of the US national anthem.
We began well. At around mile 3, my left hamstring began acting up and I began to pray, something I kept up for the next 17-18 miles, just asking to not DNF or finish in 4 hours or something like that, like my San Diego debacle last year.
While that pain was constant, my plantar didn’t seem to hurt much at all. Tony commented that I looked too smooth and unreal for someone running 7 min/mile. My reply was that I was just trying to hold back. From around mile 9 or so, my average HR crept up to 178-179 and stayed there till I crumbled around mile 20. While this should have warned me of the implications of warmer weather, I was determined to gut it out and ignored this at least till mile 17. I had only one target at this point – Get to the next mile in 7 min and then to the mile after that and so on. I managed this till mile 17, from when I began to slow down perceptibly. (See the graphs*).
I was at mile 20 in around 2:23, only a min or so behind my pace group, but I knew at mile 17 itself, that my 3:07 was not happening that day. That was because my chest had begun hurting with the effort of pushing the pace through the heat from around miles 13-17 and then again from 17-21. I actually slid my HRM down to my waist since my chest was hurting from miles 18-21 or so when I thought I will get psyched by the high HR but put it back on around mile 21 when I felt I might end up killing myself or cause some serious cardiac damage since I started feeling a dull pain in the chest.
To further the frustration, the sun had decided to say goodbye at this point and the weather became positively fabulous. But my mind was in agony. I had spent a lot of time and money getting to the race. And it was going to be at least another year before I could take another shot. And I was in the best shape of my life. I had never been lighter or stronger than I was at the starting line. And even that was coming up short.
Around mile 22 or so, my coach made his now magical appearance by my side saying that we had around 25 mins and that if I could pull through 3+ miles I could still hit 3:10. I was nowhere near that. My legs seemed to have taken the day off. Although I had no specific pain or dizziness or anything else that would cause me to slow down, it felt like I was trying to run up a hill with some 20 kg extra. So it was basically a capacity issue. My muscles were spent. I could continue running at that pace (9:00-9:30/mile or so) but I couldn’t pick up the pace by even 10-15 seconds per mile. I ended up doing the last 10K in 57 mins as my coach pointed out during one of our post-race conversations! I haven’t run that slow in over a year, even on easy runs! Usually I finish the last mile of my race pretty strong regardless of how the rest of the race went. On this day, I was so spent that I barely jogged thru.
I even checked the colour of my urine post race. There was nothing to suggest I was dehydrated or even low on salt. And neither was I even mildly dizzy or hungry (beyond the usual hunger that accompanies anyone who finishes a marathon) which means I wasn’t low on sugar either. I never felt hungry even once during the final few miles which is a good indicator of how well I ate before the race.
My coach, Tony tried cheering me up saying that I shouldn’t really expect to set a PB in every race I run, despite whatever my preparations had been. He also added that he ran his own PR when he didn’t feel great and struggled thru a race over a mile slower when he was in the best shape of his life.
So I will return again to training in over 6 weeks from now and am on a complete break of sorts from running. I intend to cycle as much as I can during this break. I had decided on this break regardless of the outcome of my race to allow my hamstring/glute trouble which I have been carrying for over a year now, to heal. Hopefully that will work out better.
Maybe it is time to make serious plans for that Helsinki trip!
Another reason why this post took so much time is that I was also quite disappointed with missing my target despite my preparations so far. And whatever I may say, it is quite a humbling experience to not be close to 3:08. At several points in the race, I felt quite overwhelmed emotionally to see my dream slip away ever so agonizingly. I do know as much as (if not better than!) anyone that a BQ will happen sometime but that does not really help when you are slowing down on the best part of the course. And I had over 50+ runners pass me in the last few miles as the timing page tells me helpfully! There was a huge mental contest between my will to finish and the ego to just DNF since a 3:10 was as useful as a DNF to my BQ quest. I am glad the former won it but even now I wince a bit each time I recall the race. I know that someday this will be "one of those races I ran for a BQ" but till then, it will hurt.
I must also mention here the concerned medics who attended to me after I finished. I went in after getting my medal and posing for a pic with Tony to check on the chest pains to make sure it wasn't a heart attack or some other cardiac issue. Immediately they made me lie down and fitted me with some 10 electrodes and took my vital stats. They did an ECG twice and I reassured them that I have run at 200-205 HR for over a min. So 130 wasn't a concern. However they let me leave only after my HR dropped to 97 and my ECG showed no heart trouble. They kept peppering me with questions about my health history and that of my family. One helpful volunteer went and got my t-shirt. However since they didn't let me exit from the same door I came in, I missed the enormous tent with free food at the finish line! I had to wait at the exit to the medical tent in stead and drink water :( I ended up shivering all the way to the hotel in the finish line transport bus, due to hunger! Since I had a very late breakfast after showering, the quantity I consumed scared my coach. All he kept telling me over the next week as we met various times was to eat less!
But the experience was anything but demoralizing for the most part. The spectators who line the course are lovely. One pretty blonde woman had this poster which said something along the lines "Hello, total stranger! Have a great race...." or something. As I passed her, I smiled and she saw that I liked her poster and gave me a huge wave and cheer as I passed. There were loads of kids who were handing out fruit, jelly etc. There were people who had set up their garden hoses to spray you as you passed to counter the heat. The course was solid eye-candy given Lake Superior's uninterrupted presence. And the stretch from downtown Duluth to the finish line is electric. And the company I ran with for about 20 miles (not to forget my awesome coach for 6 of the 26.2 miles) was fantastic. As I was telling someone earlier today, not one of the bunch who was with the 3:05 pacer at mile 20 looked less fit than I was. Every one of them looked supremely fit and well trained. So that number is not going to be achieved in a hurry or with ease. And besides even the elite athletes ran about 4-5 minutes faster than they usually do. One of them was a runner with a 2:07-2:08 PR and the best men’s time was 2:12. So I guess it hurt them a bit too. So that is indeed some consolation.
But as I said in my earlier short post, I am still learning but I wish this education process was less expensive :)
*Thanks to Wunderground.com for weather data.