The Towpath Marathon

 

Course map. Can you figure out how I added a quarter mile to this course?

 

I’ve finally made it home from my Midwest adventure, limped upstairs to my condo,  and figured that I might as well knock out this blog post while the details of the race are still fresh in my mind.  The past weekend made for quite an adventure.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post, but this little blog doubles as a journal for me and I want to make note of a lot of silly details.

Pre-Race

Throughout the lead-up to this race, many people asked me what fall marathon I would be running.  When I answered ‘Towpath’, invariably I’d get a blank stare from the asker.  So I’d have to explain where it was and why I chose it.  The Towpath Marathon is held in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Peninsula, Ohio, geographically situated between Akron and Cleveland.  When I was doing research for which fall marathon to do, someone pointed this one out to me.  So, like I always do when looking into a marathon, I went straight to marathonguide.com and started reading comments from those that have run it.  Runner after runner posted how much they loved this race, how beautiful it was, which is all fine but what really caught my eye was how many people said how flat and fast the course was, how they PR’d, and, the real kicker, how they had qualified for Boston.

I love trails.  I love flat and fast.  I love beauty.  I love courses without a lot of twists and turns.  Add in that it’s not ridiculously far away, a reasonable 7.5-8 hour drive straight  up I-77, and I was sold.

After 5 months of my standard roller-coaster ride of a training camp, suddenly race weekend was upon me.  Saturday morning I loaded up my car and jumped onto I-77, Ohio bound.  After about 8 hours of what just might be the most beautiful stretch of interstate highway in the country, complete with breathtaking views of mountains and fall foliage in North Carolina, Virginia, West Virgina, and Ohio, I arrived at my destination.

I quickly checked into my hotel and then shot over to the ‘expo’ which is a euphemism of the highest order.  There were approximately half a dozen booths, 3 of which were directly related to running.  The Concord Bunny Run 5K had a better spread – seriously.  And given that the expo was held at a ski resort, and the area was home to several other ski resorts – read ‘hilly’ – my spider senses were screaming.  Trying to relax myself, I remembered the post after post at marathonguide talking about ‘flat and fast’.  They couldn’t all be wrong.  Could they?

I picked up my packet and headed back to the hotel for the ‘pasta dinner’ – another huge euphemism.  Technically, yes, it was a pasta dinner, but sort of the way that Ryan Leaf was an NFL quarterback.  I was shocked at how bad it was.  Go to the cheapest store you can find, buy yourself a box of their cheapest/worst penne, boil it, pour in a jar of Ragu, and you my friend would have just whipped up a better pasta dinner than I had.  I ate a very small portion (buffet style set-up) and instead loaded up on sourdough rolls in hopes of filling the ol’ glycogen tanks.  I went back to my room and ate a bunch of pretzels to bridge the hunger gap.  I prayed this would be enough.

I was hyped up.  Various friends and I texted back and forth about my states of mind and readiness.  I told everyone I was as fit and ready as I’d ever been.  And yet still uber-nervous.  But this comes with the territory.  I got everything together – charged my 2 GPS watches (a primary and a backup), filled my fuel belt with my fuel of choice, CarBoom gels, pinned the belt to my shorts (to prevent slippage), and tied my D-chip to my Karhu racers.  Nothing left to do now but sleep.

I turned on some college football – Miami versus FSU, to be exact.  For some reason, nothing is as soothing to me as a televised football game where I don’t care who wins.  I was exhausted from the drive and I drifted off to sleep by 9.  I woke up in the middle of the night, turned off the TV and the lights, tossed and turned for an hour or so before eventually falling asleep again.  As far as marathon-eve goes, I probably slept better than I ever have.

Race Morning

The alarm went off at 4:45 and I leapt to.  I had prepared for all contingencies.  Case in point, I brought little packets of instant coffee in case the hotel didn’t have any, and this lame hotel had left none in my room.  So I made due with my instant coffee and then prepared my standard race-morning-bagel-with-peanut-butter-and-honey breakfast.  I put on my standard race day outfit – running shorts and Charlotte Running Club singlet – put on sweats over that as it was cool, grabbed my drop bag (yes, Ada Jenkins finally paid off – their bright orange swag backpack makes for a perfect drop bag) with spare shoes, shorts, towel, clothes and money for post-race beer, etc.  I checked, double-checked, and triple-checked before I felt ready to go.  I hustled to the hotel lobby to jump on board the 6:00 a.m. shuttle to the starting line.

In the lobby, I spotted a female runner arguing with the guy at the front desk.  When I walked up she asked, ‘Are you here for the shuttle?’ and when I answered ‘Yes’ she told the guy, ‘See, there IS a shuttle’.  She later explained to me how this guy had told her that there was no shuttle.  It figured – this hotel was by far the lamest official race hotel that I’d ever encountered.

The 6:00 shuttle finally rolled in around 6:15, just before I officially hit the full-blown-panic stage.  The girl and I stepped on,  joined the only other 3 runners already on board, and the group of us pleasantly chatted on our way to the starting line.

We arrived at the starting line by 6:30 for a race that was set to start at 8:00.  I chomped at the bit.  I vacillated between nervously bouncing around and being statue-like still upon realizing that I was burning energy that I would desperately need in a few hours.  I drank a lot of water in an attempt to fully hydrate, and then nervously went to the bathroom 5 times.  The last hour and a half of waiting seemed longer than the 5 months prior to the race.

Finally, The Race

At about 7:40, I made my way to the starting line.  I felt the need to relieve myself – again – but the restroom lines were dreadfully long.  No way the people in the back would make it to the start in time.  I hoped it was just nervousness and would go away.  I eased into the starting group in a spot relative to where I thought I would finish (quick aside – why don’t more people do this? )

I was filled with joy – I always am when it’s time for the big race and I’m standing at the starting line and I’m healthy, fit, not hurt and not sick.  That’s half the battle.  It’s like Christmas morning if you’re a marathoner.

Finally, they rang the starting bell and it began.  The starter just finished telling us we’d be turning left so I hustled over to the left as far as I could go, in the shoulder.  ‘Throttle back, throttle back!’ I screamed in my mind.  I felt like I was crawling but when I looked at my Garmin, it registered 7:10/mile pace or so – typical of me, always going out too fast.  But damn, I felt if I went any slower I would be walking.

It seemed like mere seconds before we came upon the first water stop.  I was just about to skip it when words of wisdom from Coach Hadley popped into my head: “You need to stay properly hydrated in order to remain as efficient as possible.  Think of yourself as a car with only so big of a gas tank, push the gas pedal too hard or erratically and you run out of gas quicker, but if you keep it smooth and get the oil changes regularly (aid stations) you’ll get better mileage and make it further. ” I felt like Luke Skywalker hearing Obi-Wan Kenobi – I shot across the street and grabbed a cup of water and downed it.

Coach Hadley had given me a very specific strategy and I was determined to stick to it – the man knows what he’s talking about.  Another of his athletes, Caitlin Chrisman, following the coach’s advice, had recently qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.  Follow the plan, Allen.  Ease into the race the first few miles.  Your body takes a  few miles to be running at top efficiency, so start off a little slower and gradually ramp up into it.  Maybe something like: 7:50-8:00 for the first mile, 7:40-7:50 for the second mile, 7:30-7:40 for the 3rd mile. My first mile split: 7:40.  Oops, but I expected that – I have a hard time throttling back early, I always have.  I reminded myself that Mile 1 is no time to panic.  Relax, it still felt easy.

I kept trying to throttle back as I came through the second mile in 7:43, but at least now I was dead on the coach’s recommended pace.

Into the third mile, I still desperately felt the need to relieve myself.  I couldn’t go 23+ more miles feeling like this and if I carried on thusly, I would want to skip water stops.  Drastic measures were in order – I took a detour off the path and into the woods.  20 seconds later, I was back, feeling infinitely better.  Mile 3, 8:04.  So 3 miles in, I was dead-on pace, albeit out of order.  And I felt fine.  So far, so good.

Mile 4-22:  Then try and be as steady and consistent as possible through the middle section of the race, allowing some natural variation for the hills.  7:30 miles nice and consistent, a little slower if its uphill and slightly faster if its down hill.  See how effortlessly you can click of those type miles. Mile 4, time to lock into pace, which I did.  I relaxed and enjoyed the course.  Every bit as advertised, the Towpath was simply beautiful.  The scenic fall foliage was spectacularly colorful and downright gorgeous.  Leaves peacefully fell and I made a mental note to soak it all in.  Way too often in races, I get tunnel vision and ignore my surroundings.  But this place was simply too beautiful for even me to ignore.  I was enjoying every second of it.  I was absorbed in the beauty when my Garmin beeped and I snapped back to the task at hand.  Mile 4, 7:40, nearly perfect pace.

After 4 marathons, I have all the peripheral stuff, i.e. fueling, down pat.  I had 6 gels attached to my belt, but, for some reason, 2 of them came loose.  I caught one just as it was falling out of the belt – I shoved it in my pocket.  I didn’t notice the other one but a kind runner, on his way past, pointed it out to me.  I grabbed that one and shoved it in my other pocket.  Those were the only 2 gel issues I had all day.

I was nailing my splits; 7:35, 7:34, and 7:40 for miles 5, 6, and 7 respectively.  I was locked in and enjoying myself.  So I allowed my mind to wander as I made notes of various runners around me.  A somewhat chubby guy flew past me – he had to be running sub-7:00 pace or near it.  ” Poor guy”, I thought.  “I’ll be seeing you again my friend.”

I effortlessly ran mile 8 in 7:35.  And then did it again for mile 9.  Until this point, I was running completely on my own.  I began looking around for someone to work with.  A kid (20-something) had passed me earlier and had been hovering just ahead for a couple of miles – he looked to be running a steady pace and one roughly equivalent to mine.  But when I thought of closing the gap and working together, he accelerated and pulled away.  I remained alone.  But running a marathon is like dying in (at least) one way: no matter how many people are around you, ultimately you go it alone.  I continued my lone quest.

By now, the leaders had already made the turnaround and were coming back towards me.  The leader seemed like a really nice guy, yelling out to me “Looking great guy, keep it up!”  I managed a “You too!”  It reminded me so much of a few weeks earlier when I ran by the Salem Lake leader, eventual winner, and president of the Charlotte Running Club, Aaron Linz.  And just like at that point in Salem Lake, I was energized by my exchange with the leader and I subconsciously picked up the pace.  It was shortly thereafter that we came out of the trail and crossed the road, lined with spectators, and then made our own turnaround.  I was thoroughly  juiced from seeing the leaders and hearing the spectators and subsequently laid down a 7:20 mile.  When my Garmin beeped and I saw the mile split, I thought, “Oh sh*t.  Throttle back, dummy!”  But I still felt great and was continuing to enjoy myself, so again, there was no need to panic.  Slow down a smidgen and relax.

It was about this time that I heard footsteps behind me – someone was running immediately behind me.  And it seemed like every runner coming the other way called out, “Looking good Ron!” or “Way to go Ross!”  So Ron, or Ross, was drafting off me.  I slowed down and let him come alongside me.  I said, “Hey.  What’s your goal?”  And he said, “Don’t have one.  Just finish really.”  I knew that to be bullsh*t.  This guy was clearly a well known local runner.  He was thin and fit – this wasn’t his first rodeo.  I said, jokingly, laughing, “You’re a liar!  I know you want to do better than finish!”  He just laughed.  Ron or Ross didn’t want to confess his true goal.  So I was still on my own.  I reverted to my 7:30’s pace, pulled out in front of Ron or Ross who fell back into place behind me.  I was a little pissed that he preferred to draft off of me, rather than work with me, but I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe beating Ron or Ross is more motivation than working with him.  Use this.”

Ron or Ross and I continued along our merry way.  We came upon a younger runner who, throughout the race, had exchanged turns passing me – he’d pass me, then slow down until I passed him, rinse, lather, repeat, since about mile 5.  So I tried again to find someone to work with, “Hey.  What’s your goal?”  He answered, “Don’t really have one.  I’m a bit under-prepared for this event.”  Bastard, you can run with Ron or Ross – I’m leaving you guys.  Theme to this weekend, “Allen Goes It Alone”.  Fine.  I can do this.

Somebody, I wasn’t sure who yet, faded as only 1 guy stuck with me.  Whoever it was, he was really huffing and puffing – I figured I’d be completely alone again soon enough.  But I felt great, and just like Salem Lake, I actually felt better at this later stage.  I clicked off a 7:31, a 7:27, and a 7:29 for miles 11, 12, and 13.  I was gaining more and more confidence.  I came through the half in 1:40:01, perfectly on pace.

Up ahead, I spotted a familiar figure, the ‘chubby’ guy who had passed me earlier.  He was doubled over and puking.  I felt really bad for him.  On the plus side, he had just run a smokin’ half, sub-1:40.  On the minus side, if he continued, he had a very long road ahead of him.

A little farther along, I spotted ‘the kid’ who had pulled away from me so long ago.  Again, I hoped maybe we could work together but I realized this wasn’t going to happen – he was significantly fading.  Allen continued to go solo, or rather sort of continued to work with Ron/Ross who was latched on from behind, as we sped past ‘the kid’.

Through the half, I thought to myself, “I so have this.  BQ, guaranteed.”  I was comfortably cruising – I’d never felt this strong, this good, this deep into a marathon.  Miles 14-16 went by in 7:21, 7:28, 7:25.  I could feel Ron/Ross struggling.  He fell off the back somewhere shortly after mile 16.

I’d never felt so well so late in any of my previous marathons, but I could feel the distance gradually beginning to take its toll.  However,  shortly after mile 16, I passed the finish line and saw the halvers finishing.  It was exciting.  I knew I only had to go out five and then come back five more – piece of cake.  Spectators lined the course here and cheered – I got juiced again and caught my second wind as I ran mile 17 in 7:22, then 18 and 19 in 7:29 and 7:32.  If you had tried to bet me at this point on whether or not I’d qualify for Boston, I think I would have been willing to wager a large sum of money.  It was finally going to happen.  I was daydreaming about high-fiving strangers at the finish line as I basked in my Boston-qualifying time.  I was dreaming of doing the Alice-Rogers-sub-18-5k-pose crossing the finish line.  This was a done deal.

Mile 20 lie just ahead and with it, the big bonk, or as I like to call it, ‘the darkness’.  But not this time – I was going to make the darkness my little bitch.  How many times had I heard the marathon is “a 20-mile warm-up and then a 10K race”?  Fine, let’s do this.  Let’s race a 10K.  And I believed I could race a conservative 10K and still make it.  All I had to do was go sub-7:40 the rest of the way and I had this thing in the bag.

Suddenly, I felt it.  The darkness surrounded me and sucked my energy.  No problem, I knew this was coming.  I literally sang the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” in my head, “Hello darkness, my old friend”.  I pictured “the darkness” as Iron Maiden’s Eddie or as The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum – some slimy little weasel that I just needed to get my hands around.  I was going to put this minion of evil in a rear naked choke and make him tap out.  Mile 20, 7:38 – I had the little bastard by the neck – I so have this.  Mile 21, 7:38 – I was squeezing the life out of the weasel – somebody call a travel agent and make my arrangements for Boston.  We made the final turn – 5 miles and change to go.  I had this – I was finally going to qualify for the Boston Marathon!

Then, somehow, the darkness snuck out of my grasp, got behind me, and gripped me by the neck.  Mile 22, 7:51.  This was exactly where I fell apart at Shamrock.  Hang on, hang on!  I still had this – I just needed to dig.  I screamed internally at myself, “You’ve come too far to fail – hang on!  You can do this!”  I thought of every inspirational sports movie I had ever seen, desperate for motivation – Rocky, Rudy, The Karate Kid, Without Limits, Chariots of Fire, Vision Quest, you name it – I recalled it.

I quit looking at my watch at this point.  I ran as hard as I could until I started hyperventilating – then I would back off – over and over.  It was only afterward that I learned my bonk splits.  Mile 23, 7:54.  24, 7:57.  Please, please, please – I pleaded with the darkness for mercy.  I felt like the guy in the hand-to-hand combat scene in Saving Private Ryan. No, no, no, no!   Mile 25, 7:51.  Hang on, dig, dig, dig – you can do this!  Do not give up!  But I was tensing up – all form was gone.  I felt like a poorly manipulated marionette.  I felt all muscles tightening up – my neck, my shoulders, arms – I would try to relax and shake them out and they would instantaneously tighten up again.  Mile 26, 8:09.

I rounded the final turn and looked up and saw 3:22-something on the clock.  All air was sucked right out of me.  I was completely deflated as I heard the darkness laugh – he had defeated me yet again.  I crossed the line and burst into tears.  I knew I was going to – regardless.  I would either cry tears of joy or tears of despair – they turned out to be the latter.  Completing a marathon is such an emotional thing anyway, but to come so close (I missed by less than a minute and a half) after such a long journey, and after all I’d been through of late – it was an overwhelming moment.  I limped away from the crowds, found a spot out of view, and sobbed, until I started hyperventilating again.  “Dude, get a hold of yourself.”  Luckily, I didn’t have enough water or salt left in my body to cry for very long.

Post Race

I limped my way to the bags area and retrieved my drop bag.  I pulled out my phone and saw that I had multiple texts from friends anxious to hear the results.  I responded and then posted on Facebook, “‎3:22:19. My watch shows 26.47 as the distance. How does 1 miss the tangents on basically an out and back course? Shed some tears now gonna drink some beers.”  I sold myself a little short – I later discovered my official chip time was 3:22:13.

I drank a beer, but it didn’t go down well.  When I stood up, I got light-headed and nauseous and had to sit back down immediately.  I waited a few minutes and stood up again – same results, but this time I made my way towards the first-aid tent.  I didn’t make it as I plopped down in the shade just shy of the tent.  The temperature, now in the 80’s, was stifling.  I laid in the cool shaded grass.

After a few minutes, a kindly park ranger, or highway patrolman, some uniformed man, approached me and asked, “Hey guy, you doing alright?”  I answered, “Yes, I just need a few minutes.”  Uniformed person: “Would you like something to drink?”  Me: “Um, yeah, okay, sure.”  He brought me a couple of cups of sports drink.  I expressed my gratitude, drank the beverages, and maybe 15 minutes later, stood back up and limped over to where the food was.  I was still fighting back tears.  But 2 apples, some pretzels, and an Almond Joy later, and I felt almost normal – like a normal guy who just had his ass kicked.

I eventually made it back to the hotel.  I iced, showered, and passed out before the end of the Cowboys/Titans game.  Which means I was asleep before 8.

Back Home

The drive home was as peaceful, serene, and beautiful as the drive up.  The big difference – I had a lot more difficulty entering and exiting my car and walking to and from wherever it was I stopped.  I continue to limp around.

I’ve had a little chance to reflect and I’m through beating myself up.  I PR’d by nearly 5 minutes.  According to my Garmin, I came through the 26.22 mile point in 3:20:29.  So in a way, I met my goal.  It came down to inadequately preparing/accounting for the tangents.  I thought by finding a basically out and back course that extra distance wouldn’t come into play.  I was wrong.  Latest lesson learned.  Next time, I will prepare to go 26.5 in better than 3:20:59.

Back to the drawing board.  Boston will have to wait, but hopefully for only 1 more marathon.

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13 Responses to “The Towpath Marathon”

  1. Paul Says:

    aaah, so close! loved the recap- still thought you might make it with 3 miles to go! 5 minute PR though?? you got this next time Allen! Have a break, regroup and get it next time- good job!

  2. Ellen Says:

    I know zero about training for/running marathons, but it sounds like you were fantastic! Focus on what you did right, learn from what you felt you didn’t, and you’ll get it next time. Congratulations!

  3. meagan Says:

    awesome recap and great race, allen. i know you’re disappointed but i definitely think this was a solid step forward toward reaching your goal. if anything, just think how much sweeter it will finally be when you do achieve it. i have no doubt you’ll get there on the next one.

  4. Shannon Johnstone Says:

    A 5 minute PR is huge. I know what it is like to miss BQ qualifying time by seconds (it sent me into tears as well), but you are very close. And next time you won’t have to PR by as much. Maybe OBX marathon in December? You are already in great shape…

    • Allen Strickland Says:

      Shannon,

      I’m running Thunder Road in December. Are you running OBX? I hear it’s a really cool race – quite a few Charlotte runners will be there.

  5. Shannon Johnstone Says:

    Allen, I am doing Detroit this Sunday, and your 3:22 is my goal!! We will see. We may do the Thunder Road Half. I am so glad to hear you are going to get another shot at your goal. You will have the home turf advantage! I predict success.

  6. Danielle Says:

    Nice recap Allen. I can relate to missing a big goal by such a small margin, but you’re getting closer with each marathon. Surely you’ll get it next time!

  7. Wayne Lee Says:

    Your race recap was a great read Allen…I truly admire your dedication to your goal and your “sticktoitiveness” (is that a word???) in pursuing said goal. Looking forward to seeing you again at an upcoming race!

  8. Mark Hadley Says:

    I am proud of you Allen, you stuck to the game plan and gave it everything you had and crossed 26.22 in your goal time. That is a winner all around. You can be proud of yourself, I definately am.

    The official BQ will come very quickly. Experiences like this race will make you that much tougher and faster next time around.

    Keep on truckin my friend, keep on truckin.

  9. aaron Says:

    Why do I have to be the comment after mark? Not much wisdom to add after than other than gosh, 5 min PR!!! That rocks. You can NEVER be disappointed with a PR. In fact, be super proud of that and as you noted, lessons learned that will get you there next marathon. Super congrats and drink more beer 🙂

  10. ac Says:

    nice report! It sucks you missed your goal, but it will be that much sweeter when you get it. It took me 12 marathons to qualify. There is so many things that can go wrong.

    One thing I’ve learned is never trust the GPS. They have a margin of error even in the best conditions.

  11. james Says:

    Hey, great race report. Sorry to hear you missed the BQ. I’ve been there too, and all I can say is get the book ‘Run Less, Run Faster’, and try like hell to get even splits. It is a lot of training to put in and not make your goal, everyone has been there, but that doesn’t make it any easier. You are so close I am sure you will make it if you really work on pacing.

  12. A Jogger, A Blogger, and a Whole Lot of Lager « Allen's Road To Boston Says:

    […] Allen's Road To Boston One man's quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon « The Towpath Marathon […]

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