Richmond, The Race

The start of the 2009 Suntrust Richmond Marathon

The gun fired and we were off.

After a shaky couple of days leading up to the race, things were finally looking up.  Dean made it to the starting corral prior to the gun firing.  The weather was a marathoner’s dream – low 50’s and overcast.  And I was starting in shape and injury free, a gift that I vowed not to take for granted.

I knew coming in that the Boston qualifying time of 3:20:59 (7:39/mile) was a very aggressive goal for me.  But during my last few weeks of training, various race predictors (McMillan’s race calculator, Yasso’s 800 meter repeats, etc.) based on recent race times and/or workout splits, predicted I’d run around 3:25.  I hoped they were within five minutes of being right.   I knew that I’d have to execute perfectly to break 3:21.  Go out too fast, and I’d crash and burn.  Go out too slow, and I’d dig myself a time deficit that I’d never be able to recover from.  The margin for error was razor-thin.

During the last few weeks, in an attempt to gain every possible advantage, Dean and I had solicited advice from many of Charlotte’s best marathoners.  Christi Cranford, marathoner extraordinaire and one of our Blue Ridge Relay teammates, is a pacing machine, a virtual metronome of running.  She has paced people in more marathons than I’ve run and she’s qualified for, and run, the Boston Marathon.  She told us it’s fine to go out a little slower than goal pace  as long as we weren’t behind by more than 20 seconds after the second mile.

One of the toughest things to do when running a marathon is to throttle back early in the race.   It is so incredibly tempting to run faster than your goal race pace, to try to ‘bank time’.  This strategy is usually a fool’s errand and if you employ it, chances are good that you will pay dearly during the later stages of the race.  As we started down Broad Street through the heart of downtown Richmond, our pace quickened.  We were being carried along by the wave of runners going out too fast.  When I glanced down at my watch and saw that we were cruising along at 7:16 pace, I said to Dean, ‘A little fast’ as I eased back.  Dean slowed too as hundreds, many of whom we’d see again later, blew by.

A man in patriot garb (think Thomas Jefferson, not Tom Brady) anachronistically yelled through a bullhorn, ‘Follow the pink flamingo to victory!’  I thought he may have been insane until this lady on a bike zipped past me:

The pink flamingo lady

Somewhere near the first mile marker, a band played REM’s ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)’.  We crossed the first mile split in 7:43 – not too fast, not too slow – perfect.

I tried to lock into goal race pace and yet remain comfortable.  An athletic girl easily passed me as she tossed off what looked like an expensive running sweat jacket.  Dean turned to me and said, ‘Wow, that looks too nice to abandon’.  Hordes of people, beginning to heat up, were shedding layers all around us.  I kept trying to to relax, my heart still racing at the spectacle of it all.  The cheering crowds lining the streets kept my adrenaline level high.  I tried to take my mind off the race, instead wondering which charity would get all these clothes and who’d be the fortunate one to land that girl’s jacket.  In what felt like mere seconds after passing the mile one marker, my watch beeped, alerting me that I’d crossed the 2nd mile – 7:44.  2 miles down and Dean and I were within 9 seconds of goal pace.

Christi and our mutual buddy, fellow marathoner Todd Spears, had both given me more advice that I planned to follow closely – ‘Pay attention to your heart rate.   The heart doesn’t lie.’  Following their advice, every time I checked the watch and my heart rate exceeded 160 beats per minute, I backed off.  And herein lies the problem that I struggled with all day – I seemingly couldn’t lock into BQ pace, 7:39, without crossing that 160 BPM threshold.  Times went down, the heart rate went up.  It was an incredibly tough balancing act.  I felt like I was laboring a tad more than I should have been, especially this early in the race.

And yet the miles seemed to click off quickly, always a good sign.  Dean seemed to be cruising effortlessly and for me to run even with him took a little too much effort.  Slowly, almost impercebtibly, I dropped back.  But he would briefly stop and walk at water stops and I would catch back up.  Mile 3 went by in 7:40, mile 4 in 7:44.  Miles 5 and 6 were mostly uphill, so the splits were slower, 7:53 and 7:55 respectively.  We were now almost a minute off of BQ pace but certainly still well within striking distance.

Mile 7 was the first of 3 ‘party zones’.  I was amazed at how many people had come out on a cold, rainy day to cheer us on.  I waved and gave high fives.  Dean pumped his fist in the air. We sped up through the dense crowd on both sides of us, people cheering, using cowbells and other noisemakers in a show of support.  It was inspiring, uplifting.

Mile 7 also included a long, downhill stretch and I let it carry me.  I flew past Dean who was chatting with some guy running his first marathon.  I passed a ton of people who resisted the descent.  Dean called out ‘Hey!’, implying, ‘What gives?  Why so fast?’ I answered,  ‘Just using the terrain.  Why fight it?’  My heart rate hovered in the mid 150’s as I ran my fastest split of the day, 7:27.

The stretch of miles 8 through 10 was my favorite of the race.  We ran down Riverside Drive, a mostly flat stretch directly adjacent to the James river.  I thorougly enjoyed running alongside the fury of the flooded river, swollen from the recent rains brought on by the remnants of Hurricane Ida.  The river distracted me from the gradual onset of pain that invariably accompanies a long run.  With the beauty of the raging river on our left juxtaposed against the equally beautiful trees, resplendent with multi-colored autumn leaves, on our right, I almost forgot I was in a race.  Almost.  I sailed through miles 8, 9, and 10 in 7:46, 7:44, and 7:34.  After 10 miles, I was a measly 40 seconds behind BQ pace.  I remember thinking to myself at this point, ‘Hey!  This might actually be doable.’

But I also remembered something our friend and uber-fast marathoner, Nathan Stanford (who had run the Richmond marathon several times before  and was running it with us, or rather ahead of us), had told us – miles 12 through 18 are the hilliest and toughest of the course.  He implored us to take it easy during the early part of the race, to make sure we had enough in the tanks to make it through this part without imploding early.  So I continued throttling back, even though I felt strong, in fact stronger, than I had all day.  I wanted to pick up the pace.

But I resisted this urge and it’s a good thing I did.  Because the ascent actually began around mile 11.  As we turned left onto Forest Hill Avenue, I thought ‘Uh-oh.’  How I dread seeing the word ‘Hill’ in a street name on a marathon course, especially after mile 10.  Suddenly, my heart rate soared and my pace slowed.  This is where things got especially tricky.  I didn’t want to back off too much and kill my pace, but at the same time, if I didn’t, I ran the risk of hitting my anaerobic threshold (AT), that point where lactic acid starts building in the muscles, basically setting off  a ticking time bomb that will ensure you crash sooner rather than later.  I was most definitely walking that tightrope between too fast and too slow as my heart rate soared into the upper 170’s.  I tried to err on the side of too slow so I could get the heart rate back down – I crossed the 11 mile marker in 7:59.

The week leading up to the race, Aaron Linz, another of Charlotte’s elite marathoners and the chairman of the Charlotte Running Club, had advised me to fuel, fuel, fuel.  ‘This is my constant message to all and I will say it again, and again and again…Take freakin gels/beans, whatever it is you like every 40 minutes so 4+ of them during the race.’  I did some further research and found this article on marathon fueling.  After doing the math, I determined I needed to take in some 250 calories an hour during the race. 

I carried what felt like 2 pounds of sport beans (jellybean-like objects, but infused with stuff you need during exercise, like electrolytes, etc.) in a ziplock bag, inside a pouch in a running belt.  I had precisely the amount needed, according to the above formula, to adequately fuel during the marathon.  But doing math while running a marathon can get a little tricky, especially for those mathematically challenged like myself.  Counting out individual jellybeans while running near 7:39 pace turned out to be a little more problematic than I had envisioned.  And it wasn’t counting them alone that proved problematic, the amount needed was also troublesome.  12 beans equals 100 calories – I needed 30 beans per hour.  I felt like I was doing as much chewing as running.  At mile 12, I took out my giant ziplock bag of beans just as Dean turned around to check on me.  He started laughing and said something along the lines of ‘That was like a magic trick! Where have you been hiding those?’  It’s even tougher to chew a mouthful of beans between gasps of laughter.

Miles 12 and 13, full of rolling hills, went by in 8:07 and 7:56.  I was beginning to tire.  I was grateful to the second party zone, again large, cheering crowds on both sides of us.  Dean’s wife Carol was there and he stopped to get a kiss, moral support, and some fresh supplies.  I yelled, ‘Hey, where’s my kiss?’ as I ran by.  (I could have used one from my significant other Laura, but she was busy running a race of her own, her first half marathon.)  Dean and I crossed the half-way point dead-even, stride for stride, before he began pulling away again.  At this point, we were a little under 2 minutes behind schedule – behind, yes, but by no means out of it yet.

I knew the last 3 miles had been the slowest of the day so I made a concerted effort to pick things up a bit.  I crossed mile 14 in 7:43 as I made my way towards the Robert E. Lee bridge.  Nathan had warned us that the bridge was tough.  I’d heard that once upon a time, the bridge was somewhere around mile 22 on the course and it had so destroyed the souls of runners that enough of them complained until race organizers changed the course.  I was about to find out why.

Swirling winds buffeted us as we made our way across the bridge.  I tried to duck in behind other runners, but nothing seemed to help – it felt like the wind was coming at me from all directions.  The James River, which had seemed so beautiful at mile 8, now seemed evil as it taunted me.  It was haunting and brutal.  I stopped looking down at the river and tried to focus ahead.

A lady casually passed me and I recognized her – she had passed me around mile 9 in the Lungstrong 15K  weeks earlier.  ‘Hey!  Aren’t you from the Lake Norman area?’, I asked.  ‘Yes’, she cheerfully replied, too cheerfully under the circumstances, I thought.  We chatted for a moment, a nice diversion, until she continued on her merry way, leaving me to suffer alone on the bridge. 

My legs got numb.  I felt my dream of qualifying for Boston slowly starting to slip away.  But as I neared the end of the bridge, a pleasant surprise awaited me.  Just on the other side of the cruel Robert E. Lee bridge stood famed marathoner Bart Yasso, at the race with the other editors of Runner’s World.  The magazine staff had picked Richmond as the site of  the Runner’s World marathon challenge.  ‘Bart!’, I yelled, waving to one of my heroes as I finally stepped off the bridge from hell.  He smiled and said something like ‘Hey there fella!’ while heartily slapping me on the back.  He added, ‘You’ve got this, guy!’  I grinned, reveling in one of the highlights of my race.  For you college basketball fans, this is a bit like having Dean Smith show up at your rec league basketball game and yell to you, ‘Hey kid,  nice shot!’  I managed a 7:59 for mile 16, thanks largely to the momentum gained from Bart’s encouragement.

That was pretty much it for the fun stuff.  Miles 16 to 18 mostly climbed uphill.  I was slap dab in the middle of what I’ve dubbed ‘the little bonk’.  My splits mostly dropped from here – I finished mile 17 in 8:24.  Around this point, volunteers handed out wet washcloths and I gladly accepted one, hoping it’s cool, refreshing wetness would somehow mitigate the fatigue I was beginning to feel.  And it  did help, a little.  I sped up, temporarily, managing 8:11 and 8:12 for miles 18 and 19.

At the last party zone, somewhere around mile 19, some guy offered me Yuengling beer.  Normally I would leap all over some free Yuengling, but this was not the time nor the place. My stomach rumbled in protest at the thought of beer.  Maybe that was the sport beans talking – after all, with them hording up all the space in my stomach, there wasn’t much room for anything else.  Regardless,  I tried to tell the guy, ‘Meet me at the finish line’ but it came out garbled.  I think I may have said ‘Yeet ye mat muh minute shine’.  The guy looked at me like I was crazy and I wanted to say, ‘Hey, you go run twenty miles and see what you sound like’ but I knew I couldn’t say that either.

It’s a sad feeling when a dream dies.  I officially gave up on Boston near mile 20 when the 3:30 pace group passed me and I didn’t have the energy left to keep up.  They all seemed chipper and fresh as their pacer cheerfully yelled to the crowds, ‘Give it up for the 3:30 group!’  How I hated her in that instant.

I was now neck deep in the ‘big bonk’.  It was gut check time, time to desperately hang on to the secondary, tertiary and lower goals.  Boston was dead, and so was 3:30.  It was time to hang on for dear life and hope to  break 3:40, or at the very least, PR (3:50).  Anything less than that and I would be downright despondent. 

The good people of Richmond did all they could to help.  Friendly folks of all ages handed out orange slices, pretzels, cookies, and even gummy bears.  I ate various handouts as my ‘magic’ beans had long since stopped helping. 

It was around this time that I saw a tiny little kid, a boy of maybe 4, looking depressed and patiently, shyly, holding up his hand in hopes of receiving a high five from one of the runners.  All the other poor schmucks, desperately trying to fight off the crash and burn, ignored him (in their defense, many of them probably had impaired vision at this point).  I gave him a high five, selfishly hoping that some of his limitless supply of energy would somehow be transferred to me.  He lit up, grinned, and turned to his mom and yelled, ‘Yes!’   Ah, to be a kid again I thought, so easily cheered up.

I was hemorrhaging time now.  Mile 20 went by in 8:30, 21 in 8:28.  I inwardly cursed at myself,  conjuring up an imaginary drill seargant running beside me and screaming,   ‘8:30?!  8 @#$%ing 30?!  Is that the best you can do?!  Pick it up you $@#! &^%!!’  I ran by a guy doubled over and puking on the side of the road.  ‘At least I’m not him’, I thought.  ‘Must of drank the Yuengling.’  Seconds later he passed me.  The drill seargant flipped out.  ‘Puking guy?!  You can’t beat a guy who just puked his guts out?!?!’  ‘But he’s lighter now’, I retorted.

Old men with canes passed me.  Little old ladies with walkers passed me.  An armless, legless paraplegic on a skateboard passed me.  College football coaches Mark Mangino, Ralph Friedgen, and Charlie Weis passed me.  And there was not one damned thing I could do about it.

Time stopped.  Stuck in some dimension outside of our normal time/space continuum, I tried to keep my legs moving.  Empires rose and fell.  Stars went supernova.  Species evolved, flourished, and then went extinct.  I ran (sort of).  In what seemed an eternity, miles 22 through 25 went by in 8:43, 8:52, 9:14, and 9:29 respectively.  I could have sworn I saw Superman fly overhead, doing that thing where he flies against the rotation of the earth, making time march backwards. 

The final mile and change was a mercifully sharp descent.  Again, huge crowds lined the streets and cheered like fans at a Hollywood premiere.  I ran mile 26 in 8:48 and for the last .2, I was buoyed in on cheers.  I tried to kick down the final stretch, but when I nearly fell because my legs refused to match the cadence that my brain ordered, I backed off.  I was astounded to see that the clock read 3:34 and change as I crossed the finish line – during the ‘big bonk’, I honestly thought I’d be very lucky to break 3:40.

For a split second I was upset about not qualifying.  But then I realized that I had PR’d by over 16 minutes.  That’s significant.  Do that one more time and I will qualify for Boston.

So my road to Boston continues.  Stay tuned.  Anybody out there know of a really flat, fast marathon around the March or April timeframe?


Dean PR’d as well, running a 3:29, his first marathon under 3:30.  Laura reached her goal of breaking 2:30 in her first half marathon, finishing in 2:24.


One Response to “Richmond, The Race”

  1. aaron Says:

    march 21 – Shamrock in VA or the Tobacco Road Marathon that same weekend in Raleigh. Both are flat and fast. NC marathon in High Point – nope! ING in Atlanta – way too hilly!
    Dig the site that does the nutrition calculation. I book marked that. I have never seen Mr. Yasso. That is cool! Hey, 16 min PR is fantastic and yes, you are on track to qualify for Boston with your next swing at it!

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