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Carol's Fat Ass

Illinois Marathon

April 30, 2011

It started as a way to scare myself into some decent training. With the only long race on my spring schedule being the 100-miler at Kettle Moraine in June, I was worried I might not be motivated to put in anything other than a ton of easy miles over the winter. So, seeing how well Mother Road 100 went just six weeks after the Wineglass Marathon last fall, I decided to run the Illinois Marathon this spring with the idea of carrying that fitness into Kettle.

The idea is to run through a full marathon prep, have a decent race, and then move on to the 100, which is still the main goal. Marathon prep is, of course, no small thing. Last summer, I used Daniel's program and remember it being some of the toughest training I've ever done. I decide to use his program again and find that it is much easier in the winter, particularly the split tempo workouts which are the mainstay of the program. The training goes so well that by the time I'm heading to Champaign for the race, I'm no longer viewing it as a secondary race, but a real opportunity to improve on the 2:58:51 I ran at Wineglass.

Kate and Yaya come along, not so much to watch me race as to have a chance to visit Kate's sister, Mary, and her husband Justin, who are proud parents of our 6-month-old niece, Lily. Number pickup doesn't take long since the expo is pretty much shut down by the time I get there. On the way out, I recognize Frank Shorter's voice addressing the attendees at the pasta dinner. I'm tempted pop in and listen to the man who is primarily responsible for me being a runner at all, but decide that it will just get me all fired up and I'll probably destroy my whole race by running the first mile in 6:10.

I wake at 4:30 on race day (I'm an early riser; that time isn't unusual for me) which gives me plenty of time to have some oatmeal for breakfast without risking gastronomic issues during the race. The start is close enough to my Sister-In-Law's house that I could jog over as a warmup, but running back might not be so much fun, so I drive. Just after 6:00, I start my warmup: about 10 minutes of very easy jogging on grass. I take a break to hit the restrooms, shed my top layer of clothing, and then put in another 15 minutes including a few easy striders. I get to the start about 10 minutes ahead of the 7:00 start and am happy to find that people seem to be respecting the predicted finish signs. There are about 50 of us in the sub-3-hour corral, which is about what I'd expect in a field of 2500.

Course map.

While the temperature is nearly ideal (55F at the start), there is a pretty firm wind blowing out of the southeast. We start with it behind us, so when we hit the first mile marker at 6:28, I'm not too concerned. The second and third placed women are right next to me and they both say they are targeting 2:55. I probably won't go quite that fast, but I take it as confirmation that my pace isn't off by much.

The next few miles go easily, as early marathon miles should. We're going into the wind, but I'm in a pack of eight runners who are all willing to share the load and keep the pace right around 6:40/mi. At mile 8, we turn off roads onto the paved bike path through Meadowbrook park and.our little pack starts to splinter. There's only another mile or so of headwind (at least for a while), so I put out a bit of effort to stay on the pace. The winding bike path gets my internal compass a bit turned around and I momentarily panic as I feel a wind off my right shoulder. It seems hard to believe that such a steady breeze could have suddenly changed so much, but if we have to fight it all the way north, this is going to be a very tough race. Turns out, we're already heading north and are about to get seven relatively easy miles.

That carries perils of its own. Freed from having to focus on exactly where to position myself in line to get a good draft, I strike up a conversation with my lone remaining companion, a guy named Chris Travis from Chicago. While this is a great way to keep yourself from going out too fast, we're into the middle miles now. Fortunately, Chris is wearing a GPS watch that shortly emits a chirp telling us that we've taken our foot a bit too far off the gas. We get back on pace and go through the half in 87:49, which is 16 seconds ahead of my planned pace. Being off by just a second per mile in these conditions is certainly cause for optimism.

However, my enthusiasm is tempered by two things. First and foremost, every seasoned marathoner knows the real race doesn't even start until mile 20. At that point, nearly five of the remaining six miles are going to be into the wind and we don't have our group anymore. Second, my calves are getting tight.

I had rather expected this latter development. When I ran Double Chubb two weeks ago, my calves were tight for the whole week following. As late as last Monday I had worried that I had overcooked it in that race and wouldn't have my legs back for the marathon. While they did bounce back later in the week, I knew there was a good chance that I'd be feeling it in the second half. At this point, it's merely a warning sensation and not actually slowing me down, but Chris is getting all pumped about how we can work together and stay on pace, so I decide to break the news bluntly, "Chris, there's no way I'm running a 2:56 today." He's quiet for a bit, then says, "OK, let's just keep working together and see what happens." I'm fine with that plan.

He leads through 14 at which point I feel my legs coming back a bit. As I pass him he asks, "Really?" and I assure him I'm OK and am willing to share the load. Besides, it's still just a cross wind, so leading isn't that much harder than following. That all changes in another mile as we turn into the teeth of it. As we round the corner, I look back and note that we may have a little help coming from behind. We're only about ten seconds ahead of another group of three.

While I know I'll have to succumb at some point, I'm determined not to give up the pace until after 20. Chris takes another short pull and then we get passed by Timothy Maass of Wisconsin who has jumped up from the group behind. He's moving well, so I bolt on immediately. The course turns again and we're given a break. We hit 17 in 1:53:49; our first late-race encounter with the wind has only cost us 4 seconds of pace.

Timothy is really on it now, dropping the pace down to around 6:30. It's pretty close to my limit, but I really want to be with him for the next headwind section which, while only half a mile long, is very exposed. Chris starts to drop back. I try to encourage him, but at this point in the race you can either drop your pace or you can't. If the latter is true, no amount of positive thinking will change that. By the time we make the turn, he's lost contact.

Timothy and I trade several times on the section heading south on Crescent Drive. We hit 18 with a mile split of 6:35 and then turn out of the wind. Timothy keeps the pressure on and, with no draft to help, I'm nearly shaken off. As we approach the next turn south, I muster a few determined strides to latch on just as we make the turn. We get to 19 with another good split of 6:39 but, as we turn out of the wind again, I know I can't match another surge and hope to finish well. It's only a few hundred meters to the next turn south, but I decide to let him go.

Mile 20 snakes through the Devonshire subdivision. It's mostly cross wind so, even though I've knocked it back a notch, I still turn in a decent split of 6:53. The real race is about to begin and at 2:13:57, I've got a whopping 3 seconds in the bank.

Tyin' up with 4 miles to go.
I'm reminded of when I hit 20 at Pensacola (my first serious attempt at 3 hours) 7 seconds ahead of planned pace, only to have my hopes crushed by a nasty wind. A key difference, however, is that I've learned that, while negative splits make for a nice bragging point, most non-elites actually turn their best marathon times if they go ahead and lay down a pace that fades a bit at the end. Thus, my plan all along has been to give up some time in the last 10K. As long as I can keep my mile splits around 7, I can still bag a PR.

That's easier said than done. Mile 21 is a brutal slog into the wind (which appears to be shifting more to the east and gaining intensity). I run it in 6:59. 22 is a mix of head and cross wind and I manage a slightly better 6:52. It also helps that this mile goes right past Mary and Justin's house and the family has come out to cheer me on. 23 should be faster, as it's all cross wind, but I'm really starting to tie up and another 6:59 is all I've got. 24 is back into it and I finally give in and run my first mile over 7:00 (7:11). Base-60 arithmetic is more than my brain can handle at this point, but it seems like I've still got a shot at the PR.

Only in Champaign (which literally means "flat") would the rise in mile 25 be described as a hill. However, with my form completely gone and wind sweeping across the adjacent golf course, the grade feels like a mountain pass. As I reach the "summit" a spectator cheers emphatically, "That's it! That's the toughest part of the course right there!" True enough and I'm happy to have it behind me, but, really, what was it, 30 feet vertical?

While it is the slowest mile (7:12), the extra effort in mile 25 is the push I need to stay focused for the finale. There's still no break from the wind, but I'm fine with fighting it knowing the race is nearly over. Timothy is still in sight, but far enough up that I'm not tempted to catch him. I keep my stride as controlled as I can. Entering the stadium, the half-marathon is mixed in, which is somewhat problematic. The half started 30 minutes behind us, so this is the really dense part of a much larger field moving at a much slower pace. I weave my way through them and get a shock as I look up at the finish clock which is still showing 2:57. I was reasonably sure I had a PR, but I didn't think it would be by over a minute. I hit the line at 2:57:36.

Which brings me to my one gripe about this race. I've had my moments of glory. I don't need screaming throngs to affirm my performances. But, dang, I don't think anybody even noticed. I was 29th out of 2500 runners and won my age group. Let me throw modesty aside for a moment and state that's a pretty fine run. But in the minute that elapsed between the runner ahead of me and the runner behind me, nearly 100 half-marathoners crossed the same finish line. If this wasn't the best run performance of my life, it sure was in the top three, yet it was drowned in a sea of mediocrity.

Let me be clear that I have nothing against slow half-marathoners. I find the 13.1 stickers on their cars a bit silly, but I'm not going to tell people how to best amuse themselves during their free time. I just think that if the marathon is the feature event, a bit of care should be taken to recognize the folks who do it well.

And with that mini-rant behind me, let me clarify two other points. First, this was a very well organized race. Everything that really mattered was absolutely right. Second, that age group win is a bit of a technicality. Bruce Holmes is 46 and ran a 2:51:02. However, he was the second fastest master (includes everybody over 40), so rather than a plaque, he gets a check. The age group prize rolls down to me. Well, I'll take 'em however I get 'em and I didn't get beat by anybody older than me. Not too bad for a race that was just supposed to scare some decent training into me. I guess it worked.

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