February 18, 2007
I'm not sure exactly when it was, but sometime in the late spring of 2006 I was putting
together my usual summer training plan which focuses on building speed and I noticed
that my target paces lined up with what one would run to prepare for a 3-hour marathon.
While I've done plenty of longer races on trails, my last official road marathon was in
1996, when I posted a respectable 3:22. I hadn't felt any need to improve on that, but
suddenly the lure of breaking 3 hours had snagged me.
So, here I was 9 months later driving to Pensacola to see if I could achieve what distance
coach Allen Lawrence once calls the "mid pack runner's 4-minute-mile". It's just a
number, but once it gets stuck in your head, it's not an easy thing to shake.
I chose Pensacola for three reasons: 1) it was a reasonably low-key affair so I wouldn't
lose time in the early miles jostling in a huge pack, 2) it wouldn't be hard to convince
Kate that going to Florida in February was a good idea, and 3) my good friend and former
training partner Keith Irwin lived there. It's always more fun to hang out with friends
than sit around a hotel room.
We arrive the day before the race and find that the temperatures are a good 20 degrees
below normal. That's not entirely a bad thing, but it will make the 6:30AM start a bit
frosty. After picking up my race number, Keith and I drive the course. The first half is
gently rolling hills with the half marathon point coming just after the last of the climbs.
The second half should be kinder, with a long downhill back to the shore and then a flat
loop punctuated by two short, but steep bridges at 19 and 24 miles. My main concern is
the wind; the course is very exposed, especially the beginning and ending sections along
Map of course.
Keith comes with me to the start the next morning. The wind certainly will be a factor
and it's making the 32-degree air feel much colder. I'm glad I decided to wear my wind
shirt and tights. After fifteen minutes of jogging, I don't feel quite so cold. We line up
and sing the national anthem while the sun rises over the bay and then we're off.
As always with a marathon, the early pace feels very easy. I notice that I'm in the lead
pack, which doesn't seem like such a good idea, especially considering that the
half-marathon field is mixed in with us. I back off a bit and am soon joined by a larger group.
We go through the first mile in 6:35, which is 15 seconds too fast, but my heart monitor
is only reading 152, so I figure no damage done.
I don't stay ahead of schedule for long as the second mile starts the hills. By the third,
we've turned north into the wind. The extra effort is mitigated by the fact that we are
running along Scenic Highway which is everything the name claims. The sun continues
to move up into a cloudless sky which takes the edge off the cold wind. Just past the
4-mile mark, the half-marathoners turn off. This doesn't leave too many people left on the
road ahead of me. A spectator says that I'm in seventh place.
At seven miles come the toughest section of the course, an uphill into the wind followed
by a short descent and then the steep hill leaving Scenic Parkway. Keith has stationed
himself at the top of the steep hill with the video camera. I decide spiking my pulse to
look good on a home video is probably not the best use of energy at this point and plod
by. I get to mile 8 in 55:22, which is nearly half a minute off pace, but I had expected to
lose ground in the first half, so I'm not too worried about it.
Things get a bit easier from here as there are no more hills until the half. I get passed by
two more runners and consider trying to stay with them so we can work together against
the wind. However, we're currently running with the wind at our backs and my pulse
jumps to 165 trying to match them, so I let them go to get back to 158. At least I'm still
in the top 10.
In another mile we are rejoined by the half-marathoners. As they've covered significantly
less distance, we're merging with the tail end of the field. Most of them are still enjoying
their outing and shout encouragement. The cold and wind have removed any trace of
spectators from the course so it's nice to have the joggers cheering us on. Most of the
field is local and it appears that many of them don't have any cold running gear. I pass
one woman whose bare legs are bright pink and wonder just how miserable she'll be by
the time she reaches the finish.
Just before the halfway point, we run back down to sea level. Keith is shooting from the
bottom of the hill, so at least he gets some footage of me moving at a decent pace. The
descent is immediately followed by the climb up to mile 13. Secure in the knowledge that
the next six miles are pretty easy, I dig a bit and pass the mile mark at 1:29:27, which is
only 11 seconds off my intended pace. Strangely, the timing mats where our "official"
half-marathon time is taken don't show up for another 62 seconds. The mile markers
have been very accurate thus far, so I conclude that the mats are misplaced and I haven't
lost another 18 seconds in just a tenth of a mile. Mile 14 arrives in 1:36:19 (still 11
seconds off pace) to confirm this.
The next part of the plan is to use the tailwind/downhill to mile 17 to get back on
schedule. That turns out to be a fairly easy task, at least psychologically. It's fun to be
running fast. My pulse rises to 161, but it feels easier. I get to 17 in 1:56:30; 14 seconds
ahead. Although I'm beginning to feel the effort, I'm brimming with confidence.
It's about this time that I realize that the road I'm running on is covered with tiny plastic
beads; the remnants of yesterday's Mardi Gras festivities. I've got a 90-degree turn
coming up. Ordinarily, I'd think nothing of it, but I'm keenly aware of the fact that my
fine motor skills are on the way out, so I tiptoe around the corner, making sure none of
the beads come between my shoes and the pavement.
In another mile, the half marathoners turn back towards the finish and I'm again all alone.
Except that it seems like the two guys that passed me at mile 9 are closer than they've
been for a while. I wonder if I'm imagining it or if I really am bring them back. I don't
have to wonder for long as one of them goes to pieces on the steep bridge at mile 19.
Keith is at the top of the bridge and gives a cheer as I surge into eighth place.
Going through the next water stop, one of the volunteers calls out, "You're almost there."
I suppose it might seem that way to someone who's never run a marathon. As I look at
the 20-mile sign, I'm thinking the real race is about to start. You can screw up a marathon in
the first 20 miles, but to do well, everything hinges on the final 10K.
I do a brief status check. Time: 2:17:13, 7 seconds ahead of pace. Heartrate: 164, a touch
high, but acceptable for this late in the race. Hydration: feels OK, I've been drinking 4-6
ounces at each water stop (they are placed at 2 mile intervals and 20 ounces an hour is
plenty in this temperature). Fuel: no sign of bonk, I ate my packet of Gu just before the
last water stop. Fatigue: I'd be hard pressed to lift the pace, but I don't feel like I'm about
to lose it either. All in all, it's as good a shape as I've ever been this late in a long running
race. Still, when I see an abandoned bicycle sitting in someone's front yard along the
course, I'm nearly overwhelmed by the desire to steal it, despite the fact that it's in such
bad shape it would take some effort to pedal it at my current pace.
The course still has a few blows to deliver. Just after passing 21 miles we turn north again for a
brutal mile directly into the wind. The other runner that passed me at mile 9 has caught
the two in front of him. The three of them are about 100 meters ahead of me, but as soon
as we hit the wind, one of them folds. Passing him is the only consolation I'll get for the
mile. By the time I turn back east, I'm 10 seconds off pace. Worse, I've cooked it pretty
hard to limit the damage and I'm having trouble getting back up to speed even without
The remaining two right in front of me haven't fared any better. Both falter, but the guy
who passed me at 9 manages to get going again and stays ahead. I pass the other runner
to move into sixth. The stopwatch is suffering no such fatigue. With only 3.2 miles to go,
I'm 20 seconds off pace and staring at the final bridge. It's beginning to look like 3 hours
is simply not going to happen.
At the base of the bridge, I finally catch the runner who passed me at 9. He mounts a
surge on the first part of the incline to get a few meters ahead, but then slows. As I pass
him, he mutters aloud, "I just can't do it anymore." I tell him to hang in there, but I've
been there myself - when the engine goes, there's just not much you can do but shuffle
A top five finish seems like ample compensation for missing 3 hours and it helps me push
over the last two miles. I can see fourth place ahead, but he's a ways up the road and
doesn't appear to be faltering. With half a mile to go, I pass the same girl with the wind-
burned legs I saw at mile 12. She's looking about as forlorn as I expected she would but,
to her credit, she didn't shortcut the end. I do manage to pull back a few seconds before
the line, but at the finish my time is 3:00:15 (by the chip timing - 3:00:16 for those
purists who insist on going by what the finish clock says).
Normally, I'd beat myself up a bit for missing a goal by such a small margin. In this case,
I'm not really sure there was anything else there. As you can see from the heart rate
graph, the cardiac drift landed me right at 90% max going into the crucial 10K. Further
evidence of an optimal effort is that cranking the HR all the way up to 95% only pulled
back 5 seconds over the last two miles. That means the tank was getting pretty empty. As
15 seconds is certainly within sampling error for an effort of this length, I can
legitimately call myself a 3-hour marathoner. If I want to call myself a sub-3-hour
marathoner (I do), I'm just going to have to get faster. I'm OK with that.
The best call of the day was made
by Kate who suggested lining up a masseuse at the finish. While there were free
massages offered by the race organizers, there was a fair wait since most of the
half-marathoners had already finished. Rather than stiffen up waiting for a 10-minute rub
down, I was getting a thorough 30-minute treatment within a few minutes of crossing the
line. Best money I've ever spent. Yaya spends the time testing out my shoes.
After the race, we all head over for brunch to celebrate (3 or no 3, it was an age
group win and a PR by a pretty hefty margin). Some claim, perhaps rightly, that eating
and drinking properly are crucial after a hard effort to maximize recovery. I say, a
marathon knocks you out for six weeks no matter what, so you might as well enjoy it.
The champagne flows freely.