Marathon PR: Mountains2Beach in Ojai

A few weeks ago, I ran a fast marathon in Ojai. It was so fast, in fact, that it was my fastest ever marathon – by over two minutes! I ran 3:23:27.

After PRing my 50k a few months ago, I felt like maybe I was in good enough shape to try for a marathon PR. So I hunted around for a fast course and signed up for this one – Mountains2Beach – which is one of the fastest courses out there. It’s net downhill, which is fantastic, and the weather is typically quite temperate, which is also good for running at speed.

Here are some observations from the day.

Start

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

The start of wave 3. I’m in the front on the left side of the photo.

The start setup was three waves. The first wave was for runners who thought they would finish under 3:20. The second wave was for those between 3:20 and 3:40 (which is where I was supposed to start, with a 3:35 target time/ Boston qualifying time), and the third wave was for 3:40+ finishers. Waves started two minutes apart. The 3:35 pace group started in wave 2, which is where I was seeded to start as well.

I decided to start with wave 3; from previous experience, I knew that it was easier for me to catch up to other runners than to try to stay with a particular pace group. So, I gave the 3:35 group a 2 minute head start, then spent the first 8-9 miles catching them.

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 6

When I caught up to them, I ran with them for a little bit. But on one of the downhills, my legs were feeling good, so I let loose and kept going, leaving them behind.

 

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 9

Middle

For a while, I could actually see the 3:30 pace group, and I briefly entertained the idea of trying to catch them. Until about mile 16, it seemed possible, but my legs started slowing down. I ate a Gu and pushed through to mile 17, which psychologically was a good mile marker, as Patti had met me at 17 at Nashville a few weeks prior. So I was looking forward to that (to clarify – she wasn’t there, but I imagined she was because she’s the best cheerleader. Runners have weird minds.)

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 16

Finish

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

Mile 18.5. In the zone.

 

The thing about pace groups is that you know where they are even when you don’t see them. When a huge group of runners is jamming together, and one is holding a sign that says “3:35,” it’s pretty obvious to spectators what’s going on.

Around mile 21, I started hearing the crowds on the side of the road cheering for the 3:35 pace group. Which meant they were catching up. Which meant I was slowing down. And if they passed me I knew it was going to be really hard to stay with them (see “Beginning”).

One of the things I learned from Ingrid at Lake Chabot was that I could hurt when running, and things wouldn’t necessarily break. So at this point I really put on the gas. I was being chased, and I didn’t want to be caught, and running was going to hurt for a while.

The last two miles were pretty brutal. The course flattened out (no more downhill) which was a shock for the legs. The crowds cheering for the 3:35 group got louder. But I was running faster too.

At the finish chute, I gave my legs a 50/50 chance of giving out – my quads were jelly, and I wasn’t sure if my next step would land without me collapsing.

The pace group was RIGHT behind me. The sun was behind us, and I saw the shadow of the pace group sign on the ground next to me. It was RIGHT THERE.

I blasted through the finish just ahead of the 3:35 pace group, securing my PR.

Mountain 2 Beach Marathon & Half

This is the finish line. I am literally RIGHT in front of the pace group

After

Observations:

  • I’ve said for several years that distance runners hit their peaks in their 30s. As someone who turned 30 this year, I’m very pleased with the results so far. There were a lot of things about this race that would have thrown a younger me off, but having had the reps really helped me work through the tough parts.
  • It’s weird to have to learn to say a new PR time. Sometimes the old one still pops out!
  • I’m not sure I’ll actually make it to Boston, which is disappointing – just because a runner gets to register with a qualifying time under the guidance time, doesn’t mean they’ll be selected. The fastest runners get to go, and last year the cutoff time was over three minutes lower than the registration time. So we’ll see. But that doesn’t take anything away from this insane accomplishment.

 

Runners who qualify for Boston get to ring this super sweet gong

 

Finisher!

 

The stats

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Chasing the Unicorn … but not very fast

Somehow still running at the finish

I ran a race on Sunday called Chasing the Unicorn. It’s supposed to be a fast, flat course to help runners achieve a PR or qualify for Boston. The Unicorn is a reference to the Boston logo.

It was a fun race, but I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. I finished in 3:53, which was pretty far off from my BQ time of 3:35. Here are a couple of reasons I think it didn’t go so well:

  • My first half was really strong – maybe too strong. I needed to run 8:12 minutes/mile to get to my goal time, and I did 8:02s for the first 6.5 miles. I was still on pace at the half marathon – just around 8:15s, which is close, but going so fast early on may have cost me later.
  • It was really, absurdly hot. You might remember this excellent analysis on what it would take to run a 2-hour marathon (if you haven’t read this, do now). Optimal race temperature for elite athletes is 35*F, and for amateur/middle pack athletes is 45*F. When we started, it was 71*F. When finished, it was 84*F. The humidity in this race, especially in the second half, was really challenging.
  • I probably wasn’t recovered from my ultra two weeks ago. Apparently you need longer than two weeks after a 36-mile race to get back to peak running form. I wasn’t feeling super strong the week leading up to this race – nothing like I’d felt the week leading up to Moosalamoo – so I’d had an idea that Unicorn wasn’t going to be as fast as I’d liked. That said, it’s always important to push hard – no excuses.

The results: 3:53 finish, as mentioned. Pretty miserable splits. I came in 85th out of 179 finishers, and 21st out of 58 women, which is surprisingly non-terrible for how terrible my performance was. 23 runners (more than 10% of the field) did not finish, so it was a tough day. I feel good about my overall effort level during this race, even if the results weren’t what I would have liked.

I’m using this race as motivation for the next one. I’ve got New York coming up in Novemeber, then Northface 50-miler in SF in December, and possibly one more before the end of the year. I’ve never used a training schedule before – a legitimate one that I didn’t just make up on the fly – so I may try that for the next 10 weeks. Let’s see how it goes …

 

Until next time …

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. Continue reading

Leave Nothing on the Table

I rarely plan races very far in advance. Usually, I’ll see a race happening in about a week, sign up, awkwardly taper for five days, then run it. This has the benefit of allowing for no anxiety buildup; because I wasn’t *really* training anyway, there’s no pressure to meet a certain goal. It’s just a fun run.

In organizational psychology, there’s a theory called normative influence. It’s a fancy way of saying that individuals get sucked into doing or thinking the same things as a larger group. Which is a fancy way of saying “peer pressure.”

I’ve been signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon for about five months, which is a lot of lead time. My fellow business school students have been training hard for this race. I found myself doing what they did: following a training plan, scheduling long runs, adding in speed work. This isn’t a bad thing – just a little unusual for me.

Probably due to training enthusiasm, I ran into several problems during this prolonged training period, most of which were related to injuries and nutritional deficiencies. On race day, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was very nervous. I was hoping to run a 3:35, but didn’t really know what that meant, especially given the speed bumps along the way.

Top of the Rocky Steps pre-race.

With most races I run, I have time to think during the race. Marathons are long, and relaxing into the distance is part of what makes them enjoyable. When I run for speed, there’s no relaxation. The race is stressful and confusing and I never feel like I’m running quite fast enough. Philadelphia was more like the latter.

We woke up in the dark and jogged a mile along the river to the start line. The day was perfect; cloudy and chilly, and the course was great.

We started out at the Philadelphia Art Museum (famous for the Rocky steps!) and headed across town, through the city. Once we reached the Delaware river, we turned around and shot back the way we’d come, along a different street. This was my favorite part of the race; I felt unstoppable, flying through the closed streets of the city I live in, right past my apartment. I understood at that moment that this was the feeling I’d been training for – this light, unstoppable immortality.

Miles 8 and 9 were tricky; lots of hills. I definitely need to do more hill work; I lost some time here. My 13.1-mile split was 1:49 or so. Aiming for a 3:35, I knew I’d somehow have to run faster on the second half than I did on the first half. For the next couple of miles, I picked up the pace – it felt very achievable.

Donchak running!

Around mile 20, I was in for a surprise: my left quad cramped. In over five years and 30+ marathons, I’ve never had a cramp during a race. I really felt like my leg could have fallen out from under me – which was a really fascinating and somewhat concerning experience. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I drank electrolytes, took some caffeine, stretched, and popped an ibuprofen, hoping one of those things would help. After about a mile or so, it cleared up – but I had lost a couple of minutes I was pretty sure I couldn’t make up.

Around the 23-mile mark, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make my 3:35 goal. I had two options: give up and take it easy for the last 5k, or see just how fast I could go – even though I wasn’t going to hit my time.

I played out the post-race thought-process in my head. If I didn’t run my hardest for the last few miles, I’d always wonder what I could have done. As a good friend said, “when you have doubt, there is no doubt.”

One of my first managers was a runner as well. In one our one-on-one meetings, we talked about managing energy. He said, “I know you’re good at this – you’re a runner. You know that in the final stretch, you don’t leave anything on the table. You go for it.”

I threw down.

The last 5k were very hard, but I felt strong. I finished in 3:39:24.

While I wasn’t thrilled that I didn’t meet my goal, it was my second-fastest marathon.

All in all, it was fun to train hard with my fellow students. It also put a lot of pressure on the race, and because I didn’t quite hit the goal I was aiming for, I felt a bit deflated afterwards. I run for the enjoyment of it; not for time. Putting time goals into a race takes some of the magic out of being out there.

That being said, I still think I can hit the 3:35 mark. So I’m signed up for another race … which is 21 days away.

At the finish line with another Wharton runner. One of us ran a 2:49 marathon … can you guess which one? (Hint: it’s him.)

What I think about when I’m Running

Me running Boston … I think this was around mile 15.

Someone recently asked me what I think about when I run. I actually get that question a lot, so much so that I thought I’d written about it already. After digging through the archives, I realized I hadn’t – so here’s a sample of my thought process a little bit after the half-way mark of a marathon.

Okay, 14 miles in. Just 12.2 to go. That’s more than halfway done. I wonder if I can run the second half of this race as quickly as the first half. How fast did I run that last 0.8 of a mile? Like 8 minutes and 7 seconds? That’s pretty slow. What does that translate to for a full mile? Maybe 10 minutes and 13 seconds? That’s sort of like ten minute miles. That’s pretty slow.

I wonder if I can run my second half as fast as my first half. How was that last … I guess .9 of a mile? Now we’re at 8 minutes and 15 seconds? How is that possible? How does that compare to my average speed for the first 13.1 miles. I guess I could calculate that by taking whatever’s on my watch now … 8 minutes and 22 seconds … subtract that from my total time, then divide the remaining by 13.1?

But who divides things by 13.1? There’s no easy way to round that to something easy to divide by.

I wonder when the next aid station is. Maybe 3 miles. I’ll say three miles. So less than a half an hour away at my current pace. Maybe they have those chocolate Gu gels. Delicious.

Maybe I’ll work at it the other way. 12.1 miles to go, and if I run it in 10 minute miles or so, then that will take me 121 minutes or something? Is that even right? So two more hours? That’s slower than my first half I think. That’s pretty slow. Two hours is a long time.

But I’ve already been out here for about two hours. So it’s not that long. It’s less long than I’ve already been running.

I have a Gu with me right now. Maybe I should eat it. But the next aid station is probably pretty close. So maybe I should wait. Or maybe I’ll eat the Gu now, then get one at an aid station but not eat it at the aid station and just hold on to it, so I can eat it later.

Maybe I should run faster. If I run nine minute miles, I’ll get to the finish line about 12 minutes faster than if I was running ten minute miles. That’s pretty good. That’s almost fifteen fewer minutes of running overall. Think of all the things I could do with fifteen extra minutes at the finish line. I could … eat finish-line food. Get to my car faster and take my shoes off. Eat finish-line food.

I wonder if they have anything with peanut butter at the finish line. Or anything with protein really. Protein’s good after a race. But I really want a donut, like one of those Chocolate Glazed ones from Dunkin Donuts. I wonder where the closest Chipotle is to the finish line. Maybe they have cut up oranges and bananas at the finish line. I like Chipotle’s whole wheat tortilla … I wonder if they’ll have that at this store. Do they have Churros at Chipotle? Maybe I’ll treat myself to a Churro. Or maybe I’ll hold out for a Chocolate Glazed Dunkin Donut.

I wonder when the next aid station is. I think they said there was one at mile 16? Or maybe it was 17. So that’s like … less than 30 minutes away. For sure. Definitely less than 30 minutes, even if it’s at mile 17. Mile 17 would be a weird place to have an aid station though, so maybe mile 16. If I’m at mile … well, my watch says 14.2 now, but probably it’s ahead because of all that maneuvering through the start-line crowds. So probably I’m only at mile 14. Argh – that messes up all my time calculations. But two miles away from the next aid station. So twenty minutes – less than that for sure. So maybe 18 minutes, because I’m running nine minute miles now.

Well, my watch says 9:30. But that’s close enough to nine minute miles. So 18 minutes. But now I’ve definitely run farther than when I did the calculation, so probably like 17 minutes. That’s way less than 30 minutes. I think I can wait 17 minutes before eating a Gu.

I wonder what food is at the aid station. Does this one even have Gu gels? Did they say that in the race packet? I should really read those things. Remember that race that I didn’t read the race packet, and the race turned out to be 1.2 miles longer than they said it would be, but I didn’t find out until a mile from the finish line? Worst race ever. I should read the race packets.

I wonder what flavors they have at the aid station. Maybe I’ll get a chocolate one, because chocolate is delicious. But so is that weird strawberry flavor. But that one’s kind of sticky so you have to drink a lot of water afterwards. Ny hypothermia for me! Or hypertremia? What’s the one where you have too much water?

It would be great to just zone out for a bit. Maybe I’ll think about that book I’m reading for a while. They just got done with a family dinner in the book, I think. Someone cooked salmon and there were rolls. I’d like a bread roll right now. I wonder if the aid station has bread rolls.

That’s ridiculous. Why would the aid station have a bread roll?

That would be awesome if it did. Maybe with honey.

Okay, 11.9 miles to go. What’s that multiplied by 9 minutes and 37 second pace? That’s pretty close to 12 times 10, which is 120 minutes. That’s like two hours! Surely I’ve been running for longer than one minute. Definitely, because I’ve covered at least three tenths of a mile. At least. I wish I could run three tenths of a mile in one minute. That would be a really fast mile. I’d have finished this race already.

I wonder if they have baked potatoes at the finish line. Or donuts.

11.8 miles to go.

Boston Marathon Race Report: It Does Not Matter How Slow You Go …

This is a picture of Smoot Bridge in Boston, the bridge measured in Smoots (the height of a guy named George Smoot. Read about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoot )

Boston Marathon: I don’t even know where to start. In the style of Dickens, It was the hardest race I’ve run, and the easiest race I’ve ever run. It was the fastest, and the slowest. It was the most isolating race and the most friendly race.

To be sure, it was certainly the hottest race I’ve ever run. Temperatures were 90F towards the end of the race. The Boston Athletic Association offered an unprecedented option to defer racing due to the heat; about 4,300 people (15% of racers) deferred to run next year. 2,000 participants (10% of the field), received medical attention.

My finish time was 4:28 ish, which is about 2 minutes/mile slower than my qualifying time [3:35:05]. I’m just happy I didn’t end up on a stretcher. You can see my splits here (my bib number was 15030).

In terms of the actual race, I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. I qualified at the Santa Rosa Marathon last year, with a time of 3:35:05. As mentioned, I had no plans to run Boston at a pace even close to that. Continue reading

So Long as You Do Not Stop

MIT, Cambridge, MA

Currently: relaxing before the Boston Marathon tomorrow. It’s supposed to be very hot. Check out this strongly-worded announcement from the Boston Athletic Association.

I took this picture earlier while wandering around Cambridge. This is on MIT’s campus. I liked how alien the construction looked – like something beings from another planet would have built. When I think about the warm race tomorrow, my mental picture is tinted this hot orange color.

From the announcement:

The weather situation continues to be a significant concern for Boston Marathoners. We have determined that the race will occur in a “red zone” which is considered an increased risk but acceptable for high-level elite runners. However, it is not considered safe for unfit and novice runners.

Those who are running the race should run much slower, adding several minutes to your per mile pace.

Continue reading