Monday, February 20, 2012

Birch Bay Marathon

Keeping a blog has been a struggle since things went awry at Birch Bay in 2009. In 2008 I was one very bad side ache away from an undefeated season of triathlon here in the northwest. A new record was set in two of every three wins. THAT was fun! 2009 was going to be even better until about mile 8 of the Birch Bay 25K. An injured quad left me limping into the finish about two 1/2 minutes behind my projected time when things went awry. Sadly, it was still a PR by about two minutes that left me wondering what kind of magic that season would have held. One injury after another because I didn't let my body heal. Altering my run to work around that injury caused another, then another and so on. Now it's 2012 and I wonder what the heck happened to all that time!

They say that people find a new reason to get into shape when they get into the master's age group because they get to start all over again. That's my new division, but my new passion has little to do with that. It's really more that I've taken better care of myself and having a little boy has prevented me from doing too much. I'm basically injury free and have been for several months. It feels almost like I've had to start over.

The difference in the athlete in me is that I seem to be more inclined to find my potential than to set new personal bests. They sound a lot like the same thing, but the former is more about trying to take what I have and make it better rather than trying to break some record. Breaking records demands we achieve certain things at certain times and that leads to working out too hard and listening to the body too little.

When we train, we look at heart rate, watts and times for the most part, but there are so many other factors that impact our performance on any given day. Since this is about a marathon, the ones that impact the run were what I focused on. When evaluating my training, I consider the temperature, because there is an optimal temperature and anything above or below that causes slowing by a certain percent. I think about weight, because each pound has an effect on our pace. The amount of clothes we wear in cold weather also adds to that weight and can cumulate more sweat to carry around rather than be wicked away. The weight of our shoes has a very specific impact on our pace per mile. Wind speed and gradient affect our speed in quantifiable amounts too. Pair all those things with heart rate, times and current conditioning/rest/sleep and you can basically create a probability pace based on what you plan to wear, the weather, course and distance. It sounds complicated. Who knows if it is or is not. I am pretty good with numbers and have a good grasp of all that jazz, so it's easy for me.

All that mumble jumble above lets me evaluate my performances and predict with more accuracy what I can do in something like a marathon when considering the tests from short runs to the long ones. Marathons reward a person for knowing what they can do perhaps more than any other race. On the other hand, if you didn't do your homework, then you can have an epic failure, hit the wall and struggle to finish. It requires constant monitoring and adjustment, but running down a road for the better part of three hours leaves me needing something to keep my mind busy.

My goal for the marathon was to test myself for my goal marathon in April to make sure I'm accurately working all these numbers. I wanted to be sure to avoid down time that usually accompanies a marathon, so I needed to run fast enough to test myself without needing a bunch of recovery time as a result.

I crunched the numbers and concluded that on this course, temperature and what I'd be wearing, I would run just under 6:30 pace for 20 miles, then run 6:25 pace for the remainder as an incremental test within the race that would get me a net time just under 2:50:00. It would also be a little buffer just in case that 2:50:00 was too fast and I could either maintain the 6:30s or slow down a bit.

My nutrition was on and I managed to drop the little bit of weight that I had set out to drop by race day. I was prepared to see the weight jump up a little from the carb loading and water loading. Race day started with my final meal about three hours before the race with two gels just before the start, about a half mile warm-up and getting to the start line about two minutes before go time. Everything was working out according to plan, which did not include coffee or any of the fancy supplements on the market.

The race started and my half mile warm-up served it's purpose of little more than helping me know what that 6:30 pace felt like on that day. My HR had been high before I got out of the car (about 100), but it was actually lower than usual during the race. That's more of a training aid for me and pace is what the race was about, so no worries. The race started and I was right on the money with my pace. I adjusted based on wind speed and direction. With each hill, I adjusted to run the pace that the gradient would yield at my flat-land pace adjusted for wind. I ignored everyone and just ran my race. Mile after mile I worked the numbers based on where I was and where I needed to be by the finish. The pace was very well within my capability and met my goals. Some days I just don't feel good or run as fast as I think I should or predicted I would, but today wasn't one of those days.

At about mile 5, the half marathon split off, but I couldn't tell if any more than 3 of the 13 runners ahead of me were running the marathon. For all I knew, other than Joe Gray, the other 9 could have been doing the marathon. This is where we faced a roughly mile-long climb that I figured was 4%. Despite slowing to the prescribed pace for the wind and grade, I passed one of the three runners while the other two only pulled a little bit on me. That seemed to be a bit more than one of them could chew as he began to fade and I passed him. I could see about 3 minutes up the road and couldn't see anyone. My math left me thinking that the one guy that was left with me was the last one to beat. The racer in me compelled me to run faster, but I listened to my voice of reason and stuck to the plan. This was all about the plan regardless of place. I also know that very few people negative split a half. Although some even split a marathon, most slow down a good amount and that eased my competitive mind a bit when wanting to "win."

Thirteen miles in, I had banked a little extra time because the mile markers were getting progressively farther away from the automatic mile splits. It looked like I was going to end with a total distance of 26.32 miles, so that extra tenth left me needing to run an extra 1.5 seconds per mile ahead of pace. The adjusted pace for the first 20 was now 6:28.5 and the remainder was 6:23.5. I was in the lead at that point, so I didn't have any carrots out there daring me to run faster, so I just kept it all under control. Little did I know it, but the 2nd place guy seemed to break at mile 13 and I was on a runaway train.

I took my gels at the planned times and took only water during the race as I continually crunched numbers while enjoying the scenery in the very northwest corner of the state, looking out onto the water and perhaps even into Canada. At mile 20 I looked back for the first time and couldn't see anyone. Out of curiosity I asked Amanda (spectating on the course with Mercury) to get me a split. It turns out that I was about 4:30 ahead of second. When pulling away and in control of the race, despite being committed to a plan, there's no temptation to run faster.

Adjusting my pace by :05 per mile wasn't all that bad. It felt kind of weird as the final three miles were directly into the wind, so the pace had already been adjusted in such a fashion that I was essentially maintaining my overall average. It feels great to have such control over the numbers and to have adjusted properly throughout the run, because ignoring the wind and hills would leave me frustrated if I not only had to run :05/mile faster, but do it into a 10 MPH head wind.

The only thing that went awry was something I had no reasonable way of knowing until I hit mile 26. Had I planned ahead to get a split at a particular turn roughly 3 miles in, I'd know how far it was from that point to the finish and know what the total distance was going to be. If I had, then I would have known that the course, according to my GPS (set for a reading every second rather than smart recording), the course was going to measure in at 26.44 miles.

USAT has a 1.001 factor to prevent a short course. Hitting that number, you could expect to see a certified course as short as 26.2450 for a 26.21875 mile race. I was expecting to see 26.22 based on the mile markers and their progression on the road. Since I expected to see 26.32, I adjusted to run sub 2:50:00 based on the extra 39 seconds I'd need. When I realized the course was going to be a good amount over that, I basically had to surrender that 2:50:00 goal before I hit the line. I was at 2:48:02 at mile 26 according to my GPS. A 6:08 paced surge for .32 miles would have broken 2:50:00, but I just cruised that last .44 miles at 6:20 pace.

Finish time: 2:50:50
For 26.44 miles: 6:27.67

My goals was based on 26.22 miles, which works out to 6:29.02 per mile. Beating that by 1.35 seconds per mile and still feeling like I was in control leaves me feeling pretty good about how I'm working on my performance rather than working on personal records. My adjusted time for 26.22 miles would be 2:49:24, but I'm happy with my performance ... no matter how I slice it.

One final note, the goal was to push myself hard enough that I could test my fitness and accuracy with number crunching all the finer details, but leave enough on the table that I could get back to training sooner than a marathon usually allows. I'm happy to say that I was not only able to run precisely how I wanted to run, I felt better the next day than I ever have after a marathon. The next day is usually the worst, but I felt BETTER than the day before. Today, the third day, I felt pretty good and actually had to reign myself in because I'm "forcing" myself to follow a set recovery plan, no matter how good I feel. Despite all the positives, I don't feel I'm at where I need to be now to meet my goal for April. It's a lofty goal for me, but as long as I try to get there the right way and fail, I'll be more happy about how I'm doing things than what I achieve.