Running into the wind in McAllen, Texas

This weekend was an air drop mission. Will and I (see photo!) flew out of Philadelphia on Saturday morning, ran a marathon in McAllen, Texas on Sunday morning, and flew home Sunday evening. We got home around midnight.

The purpose of the mission was to run a really fast marathon. I was looking for a sub 3:35, which would be a PR and a Boston qualifying time. The course seemed perfect – super flat and fast, and not a lot of other runners – only about 200 running the full marathon. The weather was poised to be perfect as well – low 50s with clouds overhead.

I ran a 3:39 marathon at Philly just four weeks ago. With the additional speed training, better nutrition, and better tapering this time around, a sub-3:35 seemed like a very achievable goal.

Whenever I’m feeling good during a race, I always have to remind myself that there are still a lot of miles to go, and anything can happen. Even with all of these seemingly excellent conditions, this was a race that threw us a bit of a curve ball when we least expected it.

There were only 1,200 runners at McAllen, including the half-marathon runners and the relay teams. It was nice not to have to shuffle for space before the start, or to worry about losing time just after the gun jockeying for position.

The race started just before the sun came up. Everything was quiet; McAllen is a pretty small city, relatively, and we weren’t close to any freeways. The only sounds were light footfalls and breathing, settling into a rhythm.

We ran the first couple of miles bathed in a pre-dawn glow. The sun was lighting up low clouds with a vibrant pink color – it was beautiful.

My first few miles seemed to fly by. I was zooming past mile markers at around a 7:40 pace. After about three or four such miles, I settled into about a 7:50 pace, which I maintained for about the first 15 miles. Everything seemed easy and loose. I think I ran my fastest half marathon during this race (I haven’t seen splits yet). At this point, the race felt like it was mine to lose.

Around mile 15, there was a sign on the right that said “you’re now at the lowest elevation of the course!” Given that couldn’t have been more than 50 feet, I wasn’t too concerned – but it was weirdly demoralizing to know that the next 11 miles would all be ever so slightly uphill.

Around mile 16 or 17 was when the real struggle began. I felt heavier and slower, and couldn’t really figure out why – running just suddenly seemed a lot harder.

Then I remembered seeing flags on the way to the race that morning. Sailors sometimes look at flags to see how strong, and from what direction, the wind is blowing. Then, I knew – the first half of the race had been fueled by a not-negligible tail wind, and now we were running straight into it.

Wind, like hills, is a weird variable for running. Running up a hill is slower than running on flat, and running down a hill is faster than running on flat – but running up and down a hill is still slower than running that same distance on flat. Wind is the same way. Even though the net effect is zero in terms of force exerted on the runner, the runner is still exerting a lot of force during the hard parts: running up a hill, or running into the wind. That’s energy that could have been used to, well, run faster.

Around mile 20, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make a 3:35.  My mile pace had slowed to 8:45-9:00 in some spots, and there wasn’t going to be an easy way to recover those lost seconds.

That being said, a race is a race, and you don’t just give up because your goal suddenly is out of reach. I kept pushing.

The worst part of the last six miles was around mile 23. I say “around” quite deliberately here. It was an out-and-back section, and I looked across to the other side of the street and saw a “mile 24” sign for the way back. I hadn’t even seen a “mile 23” sign yet. Moments later, I did see one – and after about another five minutes, I’d reached the turnaround and passed the “mile 24” sign. I’m not convinced there was accurate measurement between those two miles.

Donchak receives an award. Emcee in yellow asks if this is my first marathon: Donchak says “This is my 33rd!”

Around mile 25, a runner up ahead had stopped and was leaning over, stretching. I tapped him on the shoulder and encouraged him to come with me – we were so close to the finish line. He caught up a few moments later, and we ran the next mile together. He pushed me more than I pushed him, I think; that last mile was really brutal. Each step was a challenge. After the race, I found out that it was his first marathon.

I finished in 3:41:24 – fairly significantly slower than I’d anticipated, but not a bad time. I placed 1st in non-elite runner categor, 4th overall – the 3rd place woman was a 3:39, and 1st in my age group (I’ll never live this down – I’m still apparently in the “Juniors” 1-25 age group).

Overall: it was a marathon. The trip was really fun, and being in Texas was great. The race itself was okay – I still feel this lack of resolution around a time I’m so close to hitting. But that’s why we stay at it – to push just a little bit harder. And there’s always another race.

 

Post-race with Will!

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