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Wineglass Marathon

October 3, 2010 - Leg 2.5 (Andrew has already run Boston) of the Three Marathons Fundraiser

It was with some chagrin that I saw the Wineglass Marathon dubbed the "Speediest Marathon" by a Runners World reader's poll. Aside from the fact that it's clearly not true (haven't these people seen the course profile for Milwaukee?), it meant that there would be a whole bunch of extra entries from people desperately trying to reach an elusive time goal. Of course, that's exactly what I was doing, but one never likes a secret to get out.

I've been infatuated with breaking three hours in the marathon since 2006. It seemed so innocent at the time: my performances in shorter races were predicting a marathon finish of right around 3 hours; why not give it a go? When I emptied myself at Pensacola only to come up 16 seconds short, the offhand goal became a quixotic crusade. Subsequent attempts did not go well, so when I started my training for the Wineglass Marathon last spring, it was with a recognition that, whatever the prediction tables may say, this was not going to be easy.

In addition to what was arguably the most disciplined and difficult training program I've ever undertaken (based on the marathon program from Daniel's Running Formula), I did a lot of extra research on the race itself. Empirically, Wineglass is a fast course. Rated by percent of the field qualifying for Boston, it consistently ranks between fifth and tenth in the country. However, when you look a bit closer at the split times, an alarming trend can be seen. This course kills people at the end. Even at the top of the results sheet, it's typical to see people losing 30 seconds or more per mile over the final third. Scroll down and it gets much, much worse. This is particularly odd because, aside from a small hill just before 21 miles, the last 10 miles are quite flat.

I know of only one other race where the front of the field is so uniformly demolished by the final miles: Pere Marquette. I decided to look for other similarities and it wasn't hard to spot one. Now, those who have run Pere Marquette are no doubt thinking I've lost my mind comparing a gently rolling road marathon to one of the most brutal trail runs in the Midwest. But, the similarity is in what you don't notice about the two races, and it's the key to running them well. While Pere Marquette is famous for the savage climbs and Wineglass enjoys favor among PR seekers for its net downhill first third, most of the time on either course is spent on fairly flat terrain. My results at Pere Marquette are completely out of line with my relative abilities (as in, I beat people I have no business beating) and I attribute it to the fact that I'm willing to give away time on the early hills in order to run the flat middle section strong and still have something left for the murderous finish. It occurred to me that the same strategy might work at Wineglass. Rather than trying to get way ahead of pace through the early rolling section, take it out easy and then go to work between miles 9 and 20 which are pancake flat except for a little bump at 15. As with Pere Marquette, the finish would then be a matter of fortitude, but that's true for any solid marathon effort.

Armed with a strategy, I head off to Buffalo with Yaya in tow. The trip gets off to an auspicious start when our luggage doesn't arrive. Fortunately, I had the sense to put all my running gear in the carryon bag.

Saturday morning, we confirm that the airline still has no idea where our suitcase is and then head off to Niagara Falls. Yaya has never been there and now seems as good a time as any. We ride the Maid of the Mist which, in retrospect, wasn't the best call as we both get soaked and don't have any other clothes to change into. We stop at a local Target to remedy that situation and then head to Corning for packet pickup.

Stylin' in the new shirts
There we meet my sister Annie and her husband Al, along with my Carol's Team teammates Kevin Robertson and Don Sebastian, both running their first marathons. I pull out the new Carol's Team jerseys (I had put their shirts in my carryon, too) and am glad that Kevin, who designed them, is as pleased as I with the finished product. After some really outstanding pizza, we make arrangements for getting to the start and Yaya and I head back to Annie's farm for the night.

With predictions of possible rain, I'm relieved to step out the door at 5AM and find a crisp, clear sky and temps in the mid-30's. By the time I've hooked up with Kevin and Don and made it to the start in Bath, the clouds have filled in and the temps have risen to the low 40's, but the rain is still holding off. I run a short warmup and decide I'm overdressed. I hustle back to the car to ditch my hat, gloves, and tights. Kevin and Don come to the same conclusion and with all of us madly throwing clothes into the car, we wind up locking the keys inside. That problem doesn't need to be fixed now, so we shrug and hurry off to the start.

We make it to the starting grid with about a minute to spare. I find a spot in the third row while Kevin and Don head further back. The Race Director starts a countdown at 10, but after "1" we hear nothing. Apparently the siren isn't working on the bullhorn. The front row runners aren't sure what to do and then we hear the RD yelling "Go! Go!" and we're off. Nothing chip timing won't fix, so we all get a chuckle out of it.

The first mile of any race is always stressful for me. It's so important not to take it out too fast, yet running it easy always feels like giving away time. Getting the opening pace right is hard enough when it's a pace you run a lot. But, unlike a 5K (interval pace) or a 10K (just a bit faster than tempo), I don't have a good frame of reference for a marathon. I did a few marathon pace runs in September and a dial-in workout just four days ago on the track, but it's still a shot in the dark. Making it even worse is the fact that the first mile is slightly downhill. It's with great relief that I check my watch at the first mile marker and see 6:57.

The next three miles are flat, so I ease the pace up into my target range of 6:40-6:50. After that we get into the "hilly" section of the course. I put that in quotes because none of the hills are very big. The first, 40 feet vertical coming at the end of mile 5, is the biggest. I stick to my strategy of staying within myself and don't worry that the group I'm running in moves on ahead. Likewise, I relax on the descents, keeping my turnover high and resisting the urge to open it up. There is a light wind in our faces, so I do make minor adjustments to try to stay near people, but I don't fret about the fact that I lose a dozen places through this section.

At the 8-mile mark, the rolls are behind us. It's time to find my pace and hold it for as long as I can. Things start well as I run the next mile in 6:41 to hit the relay exchange at mile 9 in 1:00:50, 15 seconds ahead of plan and a minute ahead of 3-hour pace.

What follows is, quite simply, 7 more miles of the best steady-state running I've ever done. Each is within a few seconds of 6:40 and even the roller at 15 (both the up and down are in the same mile) can't knock me off the pace. The half goes by in 1:28:18 (12 seconds ahead of schedule, 1:42 up on 3-hour pace). My legs feel great. My breathing is controlled. I'm passing nearly all the runners that left me through the early hills. The effort, while significant, feels like something I can easily hold to 20. Of course, there is the little matter of what comes after that.

The first hint of what's to come is felt just past the 16-mile marker. The sun is out now and the sweat running into my eyes (making me wish I had grabbed my summer running hat when I ditched the warm one) is indicating that I am going through a lot of water and electrolytes. I've been taking Gatorade at each station, so I'm pretty sure I'm OK. However, the right quad is starting to complain. It's the sort of twinge I'd ignore in a shorter race, but little problems in the first 20 typically become big problems after that, so I knock the pace back to 6:50 hoping I can run through it.

I hit the second relay exchange (18 miles) at 2:01:17, now 30 seconds ahead of plan and a comfortable 2:16 up on 3-hour pace. The quad hasn't got any worse and there's nothing I can do about it anyway, so I continue on without further adjustment. I hit mile 20 at 2:15:05. It's time to make good on my conviction that if I get to 20 between 2:15 and 2:16, I'll find a way to bring it home under 3.

The final 10k begins with the second largest climb on the course. It's neither steep nor long, rising just less than 40 feet in a quarter mile but, at this stage of the race, it gets my attention. In my only really bad decision of the day, I decide to push it. The mistake is not immediately obvious. The effort feels good and I run the mile in 6:47. However, mile 21 gives the elevation back with a short, steep descent and both quads protest vigorously at the change of stride. By the base of the drop I'm staggering, trying desperately to keep my balance without cramping up completely.

Fortunately, I've been through this before and know that, while it's going to cost some time, these sorts of setbacks can be mitigated with proper care. I run mile 22 in 6:59 (my slowest mile so far). Things aren't getting worse, but they aren't getting better, either. I'm loath to back off any further for fear that I'll not be able to pick it back up. However, there's no way I run another four miles in this state, so I shorten my stride knock 23 all the way back to 7:12. The break has the desired effect as my quads stand down from their threat of immediate mutiny. I'm not out of trouble yet, but I'm feeling increasingly confident I can save this. I've got nearly 24 minutes to run just over 5K.

Which makes it a fine time for some comic relief. The course is currently following a bike path through a park and many signs have been staked in the grass offering encouragement to local favorites. Written on the path itself are the familiar words "On- On" the universal call of the Hash House Harriers (the drinking club with a running problem). A few meters later comes a second hash mark: "BN" with an arrow pointing forward. Sure enough, I round the next bend to see an unofficial aid station set up on the side of the path. The cups have a suspicious amount of foam on top of their contents. Beer is Near. While I haven't run many hashes in the past few years, I feel obligated to call out "On! On!" as I go by. The Hare hops to his feet in excitement. Clearly I am "up front" on this one. "Have a beer!" he urges. "Any other day!" I call back over my shoulder.

I go through mile 24 in 7:04. Surely I can run 2.2 miles in under 17 minutes! My quads are screaming, but it's the more familiar sensation of tying up rather than the feeling that something is about to snap. Mile 25 is covered in 7:03. I have nearly ten minutes. I'm passed by two runners in the last mile, both of whom look like they could be in my age group (it turns out one is), but I don't dare get into a duel at this point. I'm running this one for time, not position; just stay steady and bring it in. The footbridge across the river to the finish is jammed with people cheering us on and I do manage to lift my pace just a bit at the end.

Mission accomplished!
I cross the line at 2:58:43 (chip time; gun time was a few seconds slower due to the confusion at the start). Annie is just beyond the line, positioned to get the finish photo. As we hug, Yaya and my mother, who can still move quite briskly for an 81-year-old, come hurrying over from their vantage point on the bridge and add their embrace.

I don't know the physiological mechanism behind it, but I'm always amazed at how you can be running hard to finish a race one minute and after 30 seconds of rest, you can barely walk. No sooner have the words, "I want to walk for a while" come out of my mouth than I realize making that happen will be no small matter. I shuffle around the perimeter of the finish area at a 60:00/mile pace with family in tow and then decide to abandon pretenses and just get to eating the post-race food. With pizza, bagels, and cookies available, the latter activity turns out to be infinitely more enjoyable.

Kevin and Don both finish despite running into serious trouble with cramping. In fact, cramping seems darn near epidemic today. From the parade of hobbled gates coming across the finish bridge, one might conclude this event was only open to those with some sort of disability. I still don't quite know what it is about this course that bites folks so hard, but it seems to be a race where you either PR or go to pieces (or, in my case, both).

Despite the indiscretion in mile 20, I have to say this is one of the best races I've ever run. I had a good plan, I stuck to it, and when things got tough, I hung in there. In a way, I'm glad I had trouble. It made the last part of the race really exciting (perhaps terrifying is the better word) that the issue was suddenly in doubt after taking it for granted through the middle section. Competitively, it was a decent result, too: 30th overall in a field of 1800 and third in my age group. Any time you bring home hardware from a marathon, it's a good day.

What lies ahead is less clear. The race wasn't perfect and while Wineglass certainly is a fast course, I could realistically aspire to improve on the time (there's always Milwaukee). But, I'm not sure I care to and I don't know that I can put myself through the training I did in June and July again without the motivation of finally breaking 3 hours. I have awesome respect for those who marathon well, but my heart is in the ultras on trail. At any rate, my next (last?) road marathon is Boston and in that context a 2:55 is no different from a 3:05. Either way you're good, but not competitive. Even in my age group it would take a 2:40 just to crack the top 10 and winning would mean bumping off Reuben Chesang in 2:21. It doesn't make a lot of sense to build six months of training around a race where you're so completely outclassed.

But those are thoughts for another day. For now, we bask in the increasingly beautiful day and the knowledge that we all did what we came to do. Then it's off to break into the car and to Annie's for a big dinner where we practice the slogan on our new shirts: Live, Laugh, Love. Carol wouldn't have had it any other way.

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