Best Last Chance, aka The Wineglass Marathon

The crowd gathers at the line of the 2012 Wineglass Marathon. Some guy picks his butt while another does push-ups – I would not recommend these activities as good pre-race rituals. But that’s just me.

Hi, gang.  Well, I just got back from another epic adventure and as always, I’m sitting down to write the story for posterity.  These marathon posts are, well, marathon posts.  So grab some coffee (I recommend Dunkin Donuts with International Delight Pumpkin Spice creamer and Stevia – it’s what I’ve been drinking for days now) and settle in for the long haul.  Here we go.

After my Boston debacle, the worst crash and burn since the Hindenburg disaster, I became anxious to get back in. Not because I was in a hurry to be tortured again, but because I couldn’t let things end that way – that horrific Bataan death march could not be my one and only Boston marathon.  So about as soon as I was able to walk again, I started looking around for the right marathon to run as a qualifier.

After months of researching, and closely watching marathonguide.com to track how many people were qualifying, I finally settled on the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, NY.  Wineglass has a fast course, net downhill, and traditionally near-perfect conditions with start time typically seeing temperatures in the mid-40’s.  If I timed it right, this would be my best, last chance to qualify for the 2013 Boston Marathon.

I was gambling.  Wineglass would take place on September 30, weeks after registration for the Boston marathon opened.  But the qualifying times this year were nearly 6 minutes faster, 5 minutes + the removal of the 59 second ‘cushion,’ than last.  For example, qualifying for 40-45 year old men a year ago was 3:30:59.  This year, it was 3:25:00.  I also took into consideration the fact that a lot of Boston runners often qualify for the Boston marathon in the prior year’s race.  Since it was 89 degrees on race day last year, significantly fewer people qualified.

My gamble paid off.  By race weekend, Boston was not yet full.  The stars were aligning in my favor.

Friday

Early Friday morning, Laura and I began the long drive to New York.  It would take well over 10 hours, but the countryside surrounding I-77N is beautiful this time of year so I thought it would be a pleasant ride.  I was right.  Beautiful, verdant vistas like this awaited us at every turn:

I snapped this pic from a gas station parking lot during one of our many pit stops on the drive from Cornelius to Corning.

With great company and a beautiful countryside,  the 10+ hour drive (11+ including all the many stops I made to get out and stretch and walk to avoid stiffening up) was the fastest ever.

We rolled into Corning before sunset, checked into the hotel, drove around to make sure we knew how to get to all our upcoming destinations, made a grocery run to Wegman’s, unpacked and settled into the room, then set out in search of food.  Again, the ol’ smartphone helped pay for itself as I used the Urban Spoon app to locate a place to carb load.  We settled on Sorge’s, a local family-owned Italian joint.

Sorge’s, site of our first meal in Corning, NY.

Apparently Sorge’s has, or had, the world record for longest noodle. Keep your jokes to yourself, peanut gallery.

I was a little disappointed with the homemade spaghetti – the noodles seemed mushy to me.  And as much as I craved it, I avoided ordering beer because I was attempting to be at least semi-healthy with the marathon a short 36 hours away.  I did taste Laura’s Italian draft, Peroni, and it was pretty darned tasty.  I fought off the temptation to drink more than a sip.

After dinner, we made the short drive back to the hotel, crashed early, and slept like babies in the Fairfield’s luxurious, comfy queen-sized bed.  The room was perfectly located near the parking lot, away from any elevators and ice machines and anything else noisy for that matter.  The room was so incredibly refreshing and relaxing, cool, dark and silent, the marathoner’s dream room.  Things were falling into place nicely – it would appear that the running gods were smiling down upon me.

Saturday

We awoke early and set about getting Laura ready for her race.  She would be running the 5K, her first ‘real’ race (she ran the Old Mecklenburg 1K a couple of weeks earlier) back after recovering from a stress fracture.  We rushed over to the YMCA where we had been led to believe that the 5K runners would pick up their packets.  But once there, we soon discovered that only the half and full marathon packets could be picked up at the Y – the 5K folks would need to pick up their stuff at the high school stadium.  The lady at the Y proceeded to give us elaborate directions to the high school.  “Okay, bear with me as I’m a little directionally challenged.  What you’re going to do is turn right out of the parking lot.  Take a right at the first stop light.  Proceed to the next stop light and turn left…”  And so on.  Directionally challenged myself, I listened intently and memorized her every word.

Upon exiting the Y, we realized the high school stadium was directly across the street.  Laura and I laughed.  The lady’s directions were correct, but she could have easily said, “You need to go to the high school, over there” and pointed and we would have found it just fine.  Good times.

Laura retrieved her packet, and she and I ran a little warm-up.  She stretched while I snapped the following pics:

Laura stretching in anticipation of the Wineglass inaugural 5K.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the visiting running dignitary, walks around before the 5k. I felt like a dork, running out in front of her to snap this pic, but I did it anyway. Joan turned me into paparazzi.

Moments later, Laura lined up for her race:

I didn’t notice a lot of fast-looking folks and thought to myself that Laura might win this thing outright.  Moments later, they were off and gliding down the street.

It was an out-and-back course so I ran down to the corner and waited, knowing they’d be coming back by in a few minutes.  An older local gentleman, about 65, struck up a conversation with me and told me he was hoping to run a 3:48 in the marathon on Sunday.  While we talked, the leader came through.  I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t Laura, but this kid looked like he was about to run sub-18.  I wondered why he hadn’t lined up at the front – this would be a gun-time only race and he had to have screwed himself out of at least a few seconds.

Moments later, Joan Benoit Samuelson came cruising in.  I hadn’t known she’d be actually running the race – she looked to be pacing a kid and they were coming in at just under 20:00.  Laura came by seconds later and my new friend and I cheered her on.  I ran beside her for a couple of seconds, and then snapped the pic below.  I backed off quickly, thinking it probably wasn’t a very good idea to run sub-6:30 pace the day before the marathon.

Laura, tight on the heels of a gold medalist, sprints to the finish.

Laura set the tone for the weekend, PR’ing by some 45 seconds or so with a 20:17 and a master’s win.  Afterward, I talked a begrudgingly accepting Joan into posing for this pic with the masters’ winner:

The 1984 gold medalist poses with the 2012 Wineglass 5K Masters winner.  Joan is apparently starting to get miffed that I keep snapping pics of her.

Laura ran a nice, long cool-down on the Corning Painted Post East High School track while I played the role of photographer.  The high school stadium is incredible and features beautiful views of mountains in the background:

The Corning high school has an incredible track and stadium.

I snapped this pic for the Corning West hurdlers that are wondering what happened to that missing hurdle. Yep, your rivals have it.

After Laura’s race, we jetted back across the street to the Y, home of the expo, so I could pick up my packet which wasn’t available earlier lest you were wondering.  We then left in search of breakfast.

Things continued to fall into place perfectly.  On the way out, I noticed a sign “Free pancakes!” in front of a church so I slammed on brakes and pulled in.  Inside the church which Laura and I affectionately dubbed “The United Church of the Free Pancakes,” everybody was super friendly and courteous while we chowed on the free pancakes (I did make a donation), right up until one of the sweet little old ladies said, “We’re not running you out” which, of course, is church-speak for “We’re running you out”.  Laura managed to take this pic before we were run out:

Allen stuffs his face with pancakes. If Satan himself were giving away free pancakes, I’d stop and eat.

Free pancakes?!?  Could this trip get any better?  How could everything possibly go this perfectly?

After pancakes, we shot over to the Corning Information Center on Market Street to pick up more swag, namely my complimentary wineglass and split of champagne.  I briefly got a little miffed when the lady asked to see my bib: “I don’t have it with me.  Why do we have to go to separate places to pick up everything?  The name is Allen Strickland.”  The lady calmly looked me up and handed me my glass and champagne.  What a jerk – who complains while getting free champagne?  Yeah, me.  My apologies Corning champagne lady.

That afternoon, we hit Market Street again for my final carb-loading session (I refuse to call it carbo-loading – that is some recent phenomenon, like saying PB for personal best instead of PR for personal record.  I am old school and they will forever be called carb-loading and PR by me.)  I saw a sign that read “Endless Pasta” and that was good enough for me so we popped in.  I texted Chris (Lamperski, fellow Lake Norman area Charlottean who was in town with his fiancée, Karin Helmbrecht.  Chris was a legitimate contender to win the full, already the course record holder for the half.  Karin was running the half.) to tell him we would be eating at some restaurant, 54.  He had texted me the day before to tell me he and Karin would be eating at the Holmes Plate Restaurant.  Bizarrely, it turned out to be the same place as Chris, Karin, and Karin’s folks walked in literally seconds after I texted him.

My spaghetti was nothing to write home about, but it served its purpose of filling the glycogen tanks.  If I could take the 54 noodles from Saturday and cover them with the Sorge’s sauce from Friday, I could have made a decent plate of spaghetti.  Chris and Karin stopped by and we briefly chatted.  And that was it -all I could do now was rest until post time.

That night, I had another brilliant night of sleep.  No obnoxious stranger snoring nearby.  No desperate attempts to fall asleep on an uncomfortable couch.  Only deep, luxurious, peaceful sleep.  All the peripherals had gone absolutely perfectly.  Now I just had to run.

The Wineglass Marathon

I woke up mere seconds before my alarm sounded.  I hopped up and started my standard pre-race rituals.  I put on my shorts, singlet, and Nathan belt filled with Carboom gel packets.  I couldn’t make up my mind about which shoes to wear – Saucony Triumph, a little heavy but with better support, or the MizunoWave Precision, lighter but less supportive.  I put on the Triumphs for now, but threw the Precisions into my complimentary Wineglass bag (have I mentioned how much good swag this race has?)

Laura offered to play chauffeur, driving me to the race site so I could avoid the long bus ride to the starting line (this was a point-to-point race, beginning in Bath, NY).  We made the ride without incident, arriving at the start with an hour or so to spare.  There was a nice little garage facility there for race-day bib pickup, complete with folding chairs and heaters, so I plopped down and waited for start time.  Chris showed up moments later and Laura, he, and I chatted as we anxiously awaited.  I was still indecisive about which shoes to wear when Chris mentioned that Paul had told him “You have to wear flats” which helped me to ultimately decide to go with the Precisions, the more flat-like of the 2 shoes.

After half a dozen nervous trips to the port-a-john, and a stealth “behind-the-building” visit when the lines grew too long, it was time to line up.  I took my place about 2 rows back from the front, gave Chris a good-luck fist bump, and suddenly it was time.  I always find it a little surreal how you train and wait for months and months, and then suddenly the moment is upon you.  I am ecstatic when I’m healthy, well-rested, and injury-free as I line up to start.

Everything had gone absolutely perfectly of late.  Boston was still open.  The weather was marathon perfect – mid-forties, overcast, slight tailwind. I had a fast course laid out before me.  If I didn’t qualify today, I couldn’t blame anything or anybody but myself.

Corning weather forecast on race day.

Chris, with the blue ear warmer, white tee and black arm sleeves, lines up on the front row with the other contenders. I’m a few rows back, buried somewhere in the crowd.

I, a big bundle of nerves before a race, always seem to have this eerie calm come over me just before the start of a race.  Mere minutes before the start, I checked my heart rate and it was a blissful 72, darned close to my resting heart rate.  And then before I knew what was happening, we were running.

As always, I inwardly told myself, “Relax.  Throttle back.  Go out very, very slowly.”  As always, I went out fast, and the first mile, despite what Todd may have said, was straight downhill.  I felt like I was crawling, sleep-walking, but when I checked my Garmin, it showed the pace as sub-7:00.  Jesus, slow down dude.  As I kept telling myself to slow down, I noticed a familiar figure just ahead – it was my 65-year-old buddy from yesterday.  I eased up beside him and said, “Didn’t you tell me yesterday that you wanted to run a 3:48?  You are going WAAAYY too fast!”  He grinned and said, “Hi guy!  Yeah, how fast are we going?”  When I told him we were at about a 7-minute pace at the moment he yelled, “Whoa!  Better back off!”  Which we both did as we continued to chat for a moment or two before wishing each other luck and then settling into our respective goal-race paces.  Or thereabouts.

I crossed the first mile in 7:40 and while I felt so comfortable that I could have laid down on the curb and taken a nap, the heart rate monitor read ungodly high, in the 170’s.  I didn’t believe it, but continued to attempt to throttle back anyway.  Finally, at about 1.5 miles, the heart rate read 136 and I quit panicking.

I got a little angry because I felt like I had to pee, despite the half a dozen pre-race port-a-john visits.  I hoped the urge would go away, but after a 7:42 second mile, I still felt the need to go.  Fearing that I would want to skip water stops if I continued on this way, I jumped into the port-a-johns at mile 2.  I quickly took care of business and hopped back on the course.

After the noticeable sense of relief, I noticed that the 3:25 pace group had passed me during my biological break (aside: I once worked a job that required you to pick from a selection of possible reasons whenever taking a break – “biological break” was one of the options).  I intentionally picked up the pace – I wanted to race that group because I knew that if I finished ahead of them (assuming the pacer kept pace), I would meet my goal.  I quickly, probably dumbly and  too quickly, caught and passed them.  They had a giant, crowded herd of folks with my same goal, several of them loudly, annoyingly, dare I say obnoxiously, yacking about past marathons and accomplishments.  I wanted no part of that so I rushed past.  Mile 3, 7:52 with a pee.

Oops.  I was out fast (why can’t I break this habit?  I am the scorpion that stings the frog who carries him across the river, “It’s just in my nature”).  But I felt so comfortable, the miles were clicking off so incredibly easily that I told myself to relax and roll with it.  The conditions were so perfect.  What could possibly go wrong?

I had scored a free 3:25 pace tattoo at the expo and so I ignored my mile splits, other than to keep a feel for the pace, and instead focused on where I should be according to the chart.

3:25 pace chart tattoo. I thought about having this thing permanently applied, but this would look really stupid if I ever get much faster. Which I hope to do.

I was banking considerable time in the early miles.  At mile 9, I saw Laura, navigating along the course to check on me and cheer me on, for the first time since the start.  She cheered wildly and snapped the following pics:

Mile 9: Chris battles it out for a spot on the podium (he would ultimately finish 4th overall in 2:36, good enough for money) while…

…I battle it out with some old guys and a kid with “I (heart) Mom” written down his arm. I’m still fresh as a daisy, thinking this whole sub-3:25 thing is going to be a piece of cake.

I still felt great and comfortable here and just continued to cruise along.  All the peripheral stuff continued to go smashingly well – I drank water at every stop and took my first gel, without incident, at mile 6.  No choking on water going down the wrong pipe.  No gagging on gel.  No gastrointestinal discomfort.  Just a lot of miles clicking by ahead of pace.  I was beginning to believe that a PR wasn’t out of the question as every time I checked my little pace tat, I got farther and farther ahead.  I went through the half right at 1:40, some 2 and a half minutes ahead of schedule.

Laura showed up again around mile 14 and I was glad to see her.  Things had warmed up slightly, into the fifties, and while still virtually perfect, I was warm enough to lose the gloves.  They, along with my visor, were getting heavy with sweat, and the day remained overcast so I had no use for a visor or sunglasses.  I yanked all these things off and handed them to Laura, ever so grateful for her support.  While I still felt good, the first signs of fatigue appeared.  Miles 6 through 11 were all 7:35 or faster, while mile 13 had been a 7:48.  Buoyed by Laura’s cheers, and those of a significant gathered crowd – the fan support was incredible throughout despite the mostly rural course – I dropped a 7:27 mile 14.  I still felt very confident about my chances for a sub-3:25 and if I could bet in Vegas, would have gladly placed money on me, and might even have put a few bucks on a sub-3:20.  The 3:25 group was nowhere to be seen.

Miles 15, 16, and 17 clicked by in 7:42, 7:40, and 7:40 as I comfortably cruised through the beautiful scenery.  I was running through a postcard and the only times things were less than pleasant were those couple of occasions when we passed pastures and caught a big whiff of cattle, but that was a small price to pay for such beautiful scenery.  I remained in a zone and consciously checked my pace tat at every mile marker – by mile 18, I was nearly 3 minutes ahead and loving my chances.  Laura parked on I-86, above and parallel to where we were running, and snapped this pic before cheering.  I exuberantly waved, happy and confident with only some 8 miles and change to go.

Mile 18, still confident!

I told myself, “Okay, only 8 miles left.  Just run your everyday workout, a little faster, and you’ve got this.  You can run 8-flats from here on in and qualify with time to spare.”  I was feeling a little tired, but not overwhelmingly so.  8 eights were all that stood between me and my second trip to Boston.  Piece of cake.  Relax, enjoy the scenery, cross the line, register for Boston, start making travel plans.

My mile 18 split was 8-flat.  Pretty close to perfect, but I thought I could do better so I picked things up ever so slightly.  Mile 19 was 7:50.  I was making post-race plans in my head.  Register for Boston immediately since it might fill up today.  Text Nathan, tell him I’m in.  Drink beer.

I knew the bonk awaited me, but I told myself I was ready.  I knew the pace would slow, but all I had to do was make sure it didn’t do so precipitously.  Manage the decline.  Keep it at 8:00 or better.  I felt the fatigue rising in my muscles and joints.  I fought it back.  Mile 20, 8:02.  That’s fine, keep things there.  You’re still good.

Here came the bonk, or as I have affectionately dubbed it, “The Darkness”.  As I always say, “Embrace the darkness”.  Hello Darkness, my old friend.  Bring it.

Mile 21, 8:15.  Uh-oh.  I tried to do the math in my head – will I still make it if I run 8:15’s from here on in?  I think so.  Hang on, Allen.  Hang the *(%^ on!!

Mile 22, 8:14.  Okay, okay.  You’ve still got this.  But no slower.  You can’t afford slower.  We entered a little park with a windy, paved bike path.  The many curves slowed things down, but I welcomed the change.  The super long straightaways, while flat and fast, had begun to feel monotonous.  Maybe the change of pace would help rejuvenate the ever-fading leg muscles.  Nice try.

The 3:25 herd passed me.  Shit.  &^*%.  Damn.  Hook your trailer to their wagon and go.  I was trying to hang on to a handful of sand that was rapidly spilling through my fingers.

Mile 23, 8:08.  3 miles to go.  3 lousy miles.  You can do this.  You can do this.

And then, no you can’t.  The darkness punched me in the face and I reeled.  I could barely lift my legs and I had rapidly been reduced from a run, to a jog, to a shuffle.  I stumbled and oh-so-very-nearly fell face first, barely re-righting myself.  I knew if I went down it was officially over – the Herculean effort it would take to get back up and start running again would officially finish me.

A chubby girl with one of those water belts passed me.  Oh how I hated her in that instant.  Why would you wear that belt – it carries maybe 20 ounces and they have water stops every mile?!?  Maybe if I had one of those belts I wouldn’t be dead now.

Mile 24, 8:28.  I see this now, but I had quit looking at my watch during the race.  It was meaningless.  Just run as fast as you can without falling over dead.  I would run til hyperventilation, then back off til my breathing returned to something close to normal.  I was done.  D.  O.  N.  E.  2 miles sounded like 20 miles.

Mile 25, 9:00, and all the sand slipped out of my hand.  I shuffled along, passing a few walkers, being passed by a few runners.  All I could think of now was finishing.  Please god, let it be over.  I saw Laura running toward me and I nearly cried.  “I’m done”, I barely managed to say.

I struggled to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Volunteers and supporters cheered and yelled, “You’re almost there!  Just cross the bridge and you’re done!”  But I had driven this way several times and I knew how far it was to the finish from here.  It seemed infinitely far.  As we neared the bridge, someone yelled “Only a mile to go!” and I turned to Laura and said, “That might as well be a hundred miles”.

My hamstrings started cramping.  I ignored them, but they slowed me down nevertheless.  There was a gust of wind as we started on the bridge.  I managed to tell Laura, “Run in front of me” so I could draft off of her, but her easy jog had her pulling away.  I struggled to go fast enough to tuck in.

We entered the final stretch and I glanced at my watch.  I saw 3:25-something and knew, officially, I had missed my goal.  I was on the verge of stopping and walking when some guy started to pass and pride made me pick up the pace enough to hold him off.  I crossed the line and looked up at the 3:27:something in disgust.

I took my medal and was oh-so-glad that this thing was over.  I had so many mixed feelings.  Glad that I at least proved to myself that my 5-hour-plus Boston marathon was an aberration.  Frustrated that I couldn’t manage a 3:24:something under perfect conditions.  Grateful to Laura for incredible moral support.  Mad at myself for not delivering my end of the bargain by qualifying for Boston.  Everything I couldn’t control had gone perfectly, and I had thrown it all away by failing in the last 4 miles.

On the ride home, I read this blog post and filed it under “things that would have been good to have known yesterday”, but of course, I already knew this yesterday.  Why can’t I seem to do it?  Now as I sit here and lick my wounds (figuratively, you sickos), I have to try and decide if I want to go through that again.  I am 1 – 7 against the bonk, my only victory over it coming in the 2010 Dallas Whiterock Marathon.  Can I beat it again?  Do I really want to try?  Man, I so do not want that horrible run at Boston to be my last.  But I don’t know if I have what it takes to go through this again.  Marathons are like having children – you forget how painful the experience can be.  I’ll mull this over and get back with you.

In the meantime, I’m going to take some recovery time, then run some of my favorite races.  The LungStrong 15K is in 2 weeks.  I’ll see many of you there.

4 Responses to “Best Last Chance, aka The Wineglass Marathon”

  1. Todd Says:

    Wonderfully told story, as usual, Allen. And great progress since April. Consider Tobacco Road in March. You have at least another Boston in you.

  2. jim McKeon Says:

    Allen,love your blog,really love the Corning recap. Corning was my first ever marathon back in 2010. It’s a tough run, even for a “flat” marathon. I remember entering that park trail, just beyond the tunnel, thought i had died and gone to hell. Then, two turns before the finish bridge my left hamstring locked up, DAMN!!!. After a few limps, resumed my shuffle and FINISHED!!!. Always remember, running 26.2 miles is a big deal man!!. Not a lot of guy’s our age can do that. Great job.
    JIM

  3. Is it best to start slow in a marathon? : Science-Based Running Says:

    [...] burn at the end. A friend of mine, the always-entertaining Allen Strickland, had this experience just this past weekend. He started a bit too fast, and although the first 20 miles felt pretty easy for him, he struggled [...]

  4. Jeffrey Adams Says:

    Great story, I am running the same race in just short of 2 weeks, my first full. One of my running friends told me I will never be the same when I cross the line. I hope I can make it! Thanks for your story. Take care and god bless.

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