The Shamrock Marathon

Sunday, After a lot of tossing and turning, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. in a hotel in Virgina Beach.  Finally, it was race day. 

I went through my regular race morning routine, including eating a toasted bagel with peanut butter and honey.  I was lucky that this hotel provided a toaster (at Richmond, I had brought my own $10 piece of junk toaster and nearly burned downed the hotel).  Having bonked hard in all my previous marathons, I added a banana to breakfast for some extra calories.

This race morning had a few logistical issues to work through.  Laura was running the half at 7:00, so I wanted to see her off before hoofing it back the half mile or so to the marathon starting line (we were set to begin at 8:00).  As Laura entered her corral around 6:50, I kissed her, wished her good luck and then made my way back, like a salmon swimming upstream against the hordes of late halfers.

Shortly after 7:00, I was safely back in the hotel, which, as luck would have it, was directly adjacent to the marathon starting line.  I performed a few finishing touches; put on extra sunscreen, drank a little Vitamin Water, etc.  I found a marathon pace chart on the internet and looked up the 20-mile time for a 7:40 pace – 2:33:20.  I grabbed a pen and wrote 2:33:20 on my left forearm.  Then, full of nervous energy, I headed down to the start.

Théoden and I had made plans to meet near the starting line and I spotted him the moment I walked up.  He was chatting with a number of other Charlotte runners, including our 1st Annual Dunder Mifflin Running Club teammates Jes Douglas and Alice Watson, and fellow Charlotte Running Club member, Dexter Pepperman.  Introductions all around as several of us were meeting for the first time.   Moments later we made our way to the starting line.

As we anxiously awaited in the only starting corral, I made note of the 3:20 pace group nearby.  It hurt a little to see the pace leader – he was short, bald, looked to be late-30’s to early 40’s, and to be honest, seemed a little, well, dumpy.  This guy is fast enough to be the  3:20 pace leader at a major marathon, which means he probably can easily go sub-3:00.  How?!  How can so many people seem to easily achieve what I struggle to do?  But I digress.

Moments before the race, the Charlotte folks and I were chatting about race goals when I told Dexter I was hoping to break 3:21 and qualify for Boston.  He then introduced me to his pal, Joel Thomas, also from Charlotte, who had the same goal.  Joel told me he had run 3:25 at the Marine Corps Marathon.  He seemed friendly and optimistic and a lot like someone who would make a nice surrogate racing buddy since my pal and racing partner Dean was not running this race.

When planning for Shamrock, I had decided to employ the 10-10-10 stategy.  It goes something like this.  Get comfortable for the first 10 miles.  Enjoy your surroundings.  Chat with other runners.  Relax.  Appreciate the fitness level you’ve achieved after months of training – this race is your reward.  Then, for the next 10 miles, lock into race pace.  Really get serious about focusing on goals.  Concentrate on hitting the splits.  And finally, duing the last 10 kilometers, it’s gut check time.  Race a 10K giving it everything you’ve got.

The First Ten

A few announcements and the singing of America, The Beautiful later, and after months of hard work, trial and tribulation, we were finally off.  It felt exhilirating to run.  I was grateful to be healthy and fit and feeling 100%.  No injuries, no illness – half the battle was already won. 

Joel and I hung together and almost immediately locked into goal race pace.  At the first mile marker, my Garmin read 7:40.  Perfect.  Some random guy in the crowd yelled ‘Only 25 miles to go!’  Joel turned to me and said ‘What a @#$%’ (censored – shoot me a comment below if you’d like to know the exact word.  Or just guess.)  At that instant, I knew Joel and I would get along just fine.

The weather was nearly perfect during this early stage of the race – low 50’s and sunny, with a gentle, little breeze.  The course was as flat and fast as advertised.  It felt easy, very easy, to maintain race pace (7:39/mile).  In fact, I had to continually remind myself to throttle back. 

The 3:20 pace group looked to be going out much too fast. At mile 2, my watch read 7:37.  We were dead on pace and I could barely see the little 3:20 flag drifting along far ahead of us.  I felt bad for the poor souls that were sticking with the 3:20 guy – he was ‘banking time’, that deadliest of marathon strategies.

Shortly after mile 2, we crossed a bridge, the only ‘real’ hill on the course.  We’d go out and back and then cross it again around mile 10 (make sure to read Théoden’s blog here – he does a great job of describing the course).  The monotony of a flat course really hammers a specific muscle group, namely the quads, as opposed to the normal, with-hills-spreading-the-workload-across-various-muscle-groups, course.  I never would have believed this but by mile 10, I needed that hill.  But I’m jumping ahead. 

Back shortly past mile 2, Joel and I cruised along comfortably, and he did a tremendous job as a race partner.  When my pace accidentally creeped up, he would let me know, ‘Getting a little fast’ and I would back down.  Exactly what you want a racing partner to do.  I was very fortunate to have stumbled upon this guy.

We continued our comfortable jaunt for the next few miles as we neared the turnaround point around mile 5.5.  I saw fellow Dunder Mifflin teammate, and also fellow Charlotte Running Club member, Meghan Fillnow (somehow I missed our front runner, Justin Breland).  We made the turnaround and exchanged supportive cheers with friends; some of Joel’s buddies, then Théoden, then Jes and Alice, among others.  The respective splits for miles 3, 4, 5 and 6: 7:42, 7:39, 7:46, and 7:32.  I had reached mile 6 dead-on Boston qualifying time and I felt great.

About this time, I took my first gel.  And shortly thereafter things got, in a word, problematic.  I felt like this.  I’ll spare you the TMI but let’s just say that I started anxiously looking around for porta-johns.  But I managed to fight it off and made a mental note – ‘coordinate the taking of gels with water stops – these things need to be watered down’.  Religiously following that strategy, I avoided future incident.  Whew.

The course now took us through a portion of Camp Pendleton.  Various military personnel lined the course and cheered us on.  A cool little perk of this marathon is that your name is printed on your bib so throughout the race people cheered ‘Go Allen!  Looking good!  Keep it up!’ and so forth.  Unbelievably encouraging and helpful.

Joel and I continued on pace even as the 3:20 guy was a dot on the horizon far ahead.  Actually, we ran slightly faster than goal pace at this point, which was fine given the flatness and shaded areas of the base.  Miles 7-10 went down like this: 7:34, 7:34, 7:31, 7:35.  By mile 10, I was some 20 seconds ahead of pace.  Part 1 of 10-10-10 had been exercised flawlessly.

Second Ten

My quads felt a litte tight thanks to the pancake-flat course so that when we crested the hill of the bridge for the second time, it was a relief on the quads.  I saw the next water stop at the foot of the bridge so I fumbled around in my Nathan belt, sort of like a flat fanny pack, to retrieve another gel.  I found one and downed it just in time to grab a water chaser from the outstretched hand of a volunteer.

Then we hit the beach for a couple of miles, not on sand but on the cement boardwalk along the beach.  Here’s where some of the best crowd support awaited us.  Tons of people lined the sidewalk, sat on benches, and cheered us on.  I’ve never heard my name called out so much – it was great.  The only problem – the cheers of the crowd got me excited and my pace kept creeping up.  My Garmin 405 was worthless during this stretch as we ran in the shadow of the beachfront hotels which apparently were jacking with my watch’s GPS signal.  My watch would read something crazy like 8:50, I’d believe it and speed up, until Joel would tell me, ‘Fast dude – I’ve got 6:50 pace’.  Craziness.  So I went ‘old school’ for a while and paced on feel  until we cleared the hotels and my watch started acting normally again.  Miles 11 and 12 went 7:35 and 7:46 respectively.

As we neared the halfway point, Mother Nature, my arch nemesis, decided to intervene.  The temperature rose.  The breeze, so gentle at the start, now turned forceful.  And 13 miles of flat were beginning to take their toll on my quads.  I tried an old trick, an exaggerated chicken trot, trying to stretch out the quads a little while still maintaining pace.  I would do this periodically throughout the remainder of the race.

As we reached the spot where a few hours earlier I left Laura in her starting corral, the first feelings of doubt began to creep into my mind. After all, it was at the halfway point in Richmond where I began to unravel.  But in Virginia Beach,  when I looked up and saw the clock read 1:40, the optimism generated from still being right on pace pushed doubt aside.  I took another gel at the next waterstop and caught my second wind.  Mile 13: 7:33.

I felt great for the next 3 or so miles.  We were running out, against the flow of returning half marathoners in the opposite lane – beginning to run the same half marathon course they were now finishing.  I was a little surprised at the huge number of halfers who were finishing in over 3 hours.  Silly little thoughts about various half individuals – ‘I wonder how much she trained? I wonder what kind of weekly mileage he puts in?  What got them into running?’ – occupied my mind during this stretch.  By this time, Joel had dropped off the pace somewhat and I pushed it a bit to take advantage of my little surge in energy.  Mike Hamm passed me with authority during this stretch.  I tried to go with him but the pace he was maintaining was too fast for me so I let him go and settled back into my goal pace, if not slightly faster.  Miles 14 – 16; 7:31, 7:29, 7:36.

Around mile 16, we cut off Pacific Avenue and headed up Shore Drive.  Mile 16, my dreaded foe.  He and I had done battle in the past and he had destroyed me every time.  I vowed not to let that happen again.  This was the breaking point for a lot of runners.  The incline, while relatively slight, was long and steady and it reduced many runners to walkers.  I tried to keep my mind busy by counting the people I passed.  I tried to convince myself that every person I passed infused me with a little energy.  I lost count after passing some 20 people and instead of counting, started reading the silly little signs someone had posted along the side of the road.  ‘If Milli Vanilli falls in the woods, does someone else make a sound?’  ‘How does Teflon stick to the pan?’  ‘Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the bottle?’  And so on.  Mildly, pleasantly distracting.  Fatigue was beginning to set in but I focused on making my legs churn with the same cadence.  Mile 16: 7:36.  Take that 16, you little b*tch.

I started to slow.  I needed some short term motivation.  I looked for Mike but couldn’t spot him – I couldn’t understand how he had gotten out of my sight range so quickly.  Was he laying down 6-minute miles?  I fought to maintain pace – Laura, upon researching the course, had told me that the stretch from mile 20 until the end was downhill.  If I could hold pace, or close to it, until then, maybe I could get back under 7:39/mile pace.  Hang on, dude.  Miles 17 – 19: 7:43, 7:54, 7:50. 

Final 10(k)

Gut check time.  By the time I spotted the 20-mile marker, I was hanging on by a thread.  The wheels hadn’t fallen off yet, but I had lost a few lug nuts and the bus was getting wobbly.  My Garmin beeped 7:50 for the mile split.  As I crossed the  marker, I looked up at the clock which read 2:33:44 and then I glanced down at my forearm where I had written the 20-mile goal, 2:33:20.  With the difference between gun and chip, I was very close to on pace.  But doing a little basic math (you’d be surprised how difficult this is at mile 20) in my head, I realized my goal was based on 7:40 pace.  Run 7:40 miles for every mile and I miss qualifying by a few seconds.  So I figured I was a few seconds behind.  I figured if I could run a 7:30 this mile, I’d be right  back on pace.  I picked up the pace.

But I was starting to struggle.  After 4 or 5 miles of only passing others without anyone passing me, now a few folks passed me.  Each time I tried to hook my trailer to their wagon.  Some kid passed me and then stopped to walk.  I passed him back.  He passed me back.  A little rivalry between old and young formed.  We continued like this for the next mile.  Mile 21: 7:39.

For some reason, that 7:39 was like a punch to my gut.  I had exerted more energy than on any previous mile and I had expected a 7:30 or better.  Those measly 9 seconds were devastating to me because I felt there was no way I could maintain this pace through the end.  As I began mile 22, the Boston qualifying dream died a slow death.  Again.
I took my sunglasses and threw them into my pocket since they suddenly felt heavy on my face.  I saw the photographer ahead and I flashed him 2 peace signs so that when I looked at the pics later I’d know where in the race the photo was taken.  After the race, Laura said something like ‘I knew when I saw the lighthouse we were nearly done’ and I said, ‘What lighthouse?’  Look at this pic and you’ll see how out of sorts I was:

Photo courtesy Brightroom Photography

We soon headed back up Pacific Avenue and faced the marathoners who were just beginning their second half of the race.  I saw my DM teammate Tom Patania who looked to be struggling.  We waved and yelled each other’s names.  God, how I felt for Tom at that point – he still had some 12 or so miles to go.  But I wasn’t exactly enjoying a stroll through the park myself.  The breeze felt like gale force winds now.  The sun seemed to be focusing its heat on me.  I just tried to hang on.  Mile 22: 8:09.

I performed my own little reenactment of the Bataan death march.  I shuffled my feet and slogged along up Pacific Avenue.  Some guy passed me and I tucked in behind him to draft.  But he eventually pulled away.  I never stopped running, but I felt deathly slow.  I knew I was hemorrhaging time but I tried to hang on.  Barring an absolute disaster, I would still PR.  I was hoping to break 3:25, or at least 3:30.  I expected Théoden to pass me any second.  Miles 23-24: 8:30, 8:42.

For the rest of the way, I just wanted to break 9-minute miles.  In each of my prior marathons, I crashed and burned so badly during the bonk that I had several miles over 9.  I didn’t want to have any today.  Mile 25: 8:58.

I kept my eyes peeled for the turnoff that would lead us back onto the beach boardwalk and mark the final stretch.  But we just kept running and running and running, up, up, up Pacific Avenue.  For the love of god, get this race over with.  Where was that GD turnoff?!?

Finally, I spotted it ahead.  I eventually got there and made the left turn onto the boardwalk.  Some guy screamed, ‘Almost there!  You can see the finish line from here!’  Technically, he was right.  I could see the finish line.  But it was a tiny dot on the horizon.  I nearly cried when I saw it.  What sadist put the finish line so far away?

I was content to slog away at my 9-minute pace jog.  Then some little guy sprinted by me, pumping his arms in the air, and cheering wildly.  I cursed him in my mind and let him go.  Then another cheerful young man ran by, grinning like a cheshire cat.  I scowled and used some inner profanity on him too.  By the time a third guy passed me, I muttered, ‘$%^! this!’ (again, censored) under my breath, put an evil grimace on my face, and took off, immediately passing him back.  He said, ‘Nice!  Good job!’ which was kind of him, but I was in no mood for kindness.  I was in a kick kittens and punch puppies kind of mood.

Reached deep inside to find a kick when this guy passed me

I charged through the finish line in 3:26:50.  I was grateful to the third guy – without him, I don’t break 3:27.  Check out this grimace of determination as I near the finish line:

The first 2 tens of the 10-10-10 plan had gone without a hitch.  Oh well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.

While I came up short of qualifying for Boston, I had a pretty strong race.  I met nearly all of my other goals, which included:

1) Finish (always the first goal of a marathon)
2) PR (broke my old PR of 3:34 by nearly 8 minutes)
3) Break 3:30
4) Score for the Dunder Mifflin team (It turned out that somehow, somewhere I had passed Mike.  Only the top 3 finishers of a team counted towards scoring.  Justin Breland was our top finisher with a 2:55.  Then Meghan Fillnow ran a 3:04.  And I was our third scorer with the 3:26.)
5) Finish within an hour of Jordan Kinley’s time.  Jordan ran a 2:27 to finish second in the Tobacco Road Marathon.

The Post Race

Shamrock had the best post race celebration I’ve ever seen, thanks in large part to the main sponsor, Yuengling.  They heaped lots of swag upon us – a medal, a finisher’s t-shirt, a nice running hat, and tons of food.  On the beach, there was a giant tent and inside it we all recapped our race with fellow runners while listening to the band rock.  Free beer and Irish stew for all.  Laura and I lounged around intermittently in the tent and then outside on the beach and quickly downed our 4-beer limit.  In about 30 minutes, I had gone from agony, doing my death march up Pacific Avenue, to ecstasy, drinking beer with the girl I love on a beautiful beach.

So all in all, not a bad day.  Now I just have to find a way to drop 6 minutes at the next race – I think it’s about time to hire Coach Gaudette

Stay tuned.  The quest continues.


3 Responses to “The Shamrock Marathon”

  1. Nathan Says:

    Allen – email me when you get a chance. I’d like to help you out with your next marathon. Let me know your plans for the fall and we’ll snag that BQ before the race fills up next spring…

  2. Richard Hefner Says:

    Great race and review Allen! I know it’s not exactly what you wanted but it’s hard to complain about an 8-minute PR at a time that most of us envy (including me). You’ll get your BQ before long!

  3. Bruce Wagoner Says:

    Think about Steamtown Marathon in Scranton (then you can be a bona fide Dunderer, no less). Seriously, it’s a fast, mostly down-hill, good BQ’ing course. I’ve run it the last 2 years with poor training and ran 3:31 both times. It’s well-run and very organized, nice mid-sized field (1900 finishers) and we had great weather both years (mid-October). Check out their web-site and/or I can give you more info if you’d like.


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