Monday, October 7, 2013

What the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon Taught Me

On Sunday I crossed the line at the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon in 3:13:21. This was good enough for 41st place, out of a field of about 940, and only 19 seconds off my marathon PR. Overall I am pretty darn pleased. Even with a good race, though, there are lessons to be learned.

As usual, I went out too fast. I passed the first mile in roughly 6:55 and the second in roughly 13:55. “(Expletive),” I said both times. (The start was so quick in part because Smuttynose Rockfest, taking advantage of the fact that it’s 2013 and all races are timed electronically, started the race in waves of waves. Folks were first grouped by pace and then send off in smaller waves every minute or so. By the time I reached the mat at the official start, I was already jogging, the group around me was small, and no one was in the way. As far as race starts go, this was one of the most efficient and sensible that I’ve ever seen.)

Then I looked around. It was a cool, cloudy and dreary day, the kind of day only a runner could love. The course was flat. My training hadn’t been perfect, but I’d done three 20 milers, all of them slogs on hot, humid August and September Sundays in New England, and I’d hit my targets in just about all of my speed workouts and tempo runs. “If not now,” I thought, looking back at my watch, “When?”

I maintained that unnecessarily fast 7-minute pace for 12 more miles. I briefly entertained thoughts of breaking 3:05 and qualifying for Boston. By the 15-mile mark, though, I’d regressed to 7:15 pace, and before long it was 7:30 and then 7:45. My last few miles exceeded 8 minutes, in large part due to an uncooperative left quad.

Overall, I ran a 7:22 pace. For months, I’d trained with the intention of running at a 7:15 pace, only to decide less than 14 minutes into my marathon to throw caution (and logic) to the wind and go faster. I didn’t necessarily hit a wall -- I never needed to walk, and even in my last two miles I was moving at a decent clip -- but I still slowed down.

Theoretically, if I’d stuck to the plan, and run 7:15 pace, I’d have finished around the 3:10 mark and PR’d by about three minutes. But I don’t regret starting too fast. Not at all.

Why? I went through the half around 1:32 -- still on pace for an admittedly unrealistic but not impossible BQ. That boosted my confidence. After an occasionally sporadic few months of training, flying through the first 13.1 miles like I did, and feeling good to boot, encouraged me to keep pushing. At a 7:15 pace, I’d have hit the half in 1:35 -- still great, still fast, but, in a way, routine.

Put another way, I took a chance. Yes, you could say it didn’t work. Look at the official results. A few folks who finished ahead of me were behind me at the half. They got stronger as I weakened. To use a phrase, I tried to run with the big boys, and I couldn’t.

You know what? That’s OK. My goal going into the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon was to beat my marathon time from 2001. I beat that time (3:22:45) handily. A PR was a “stretch” goal, something I only anticipated if the conditions were perfect. (They weren’t; it was cool, yes, but it was also windy and rainy, especially when we ran by the beach.)

Crucially, the experience taught me a few things.
  • I need to pace myself better. I knew this already, sure, but this weekend’s race further emphasized the point.
  • I’m stronger than I give myself credit for. Back in 2001 -- my first marathon -- I went through the half around 1:32, too, but I fell apart shortly thereafter. This time, I didn’t fall apart as badly. I credit smart, largely successful training.
  • I might need new shoes. My hips have hurt on my previous long runs and started to hurt in the second half of this race. I haven’t worried about it, as the pain’s present only when I’m moving and goes away after a couple days, but after a Twitter conversation Sunday night, I’m thinking it might be time for a gait analysis.
  • Last year’s bonk, the worst race of my life, is behind me.
  • Most of all, I know I can do better. If I maintained 7-minute miles for more than half of a marathon and didn’t collapse in a heap along the course somewhere, surely I can push myself further. If I strengthen my hips, or get shoes that correct my pronation, or both, surely I can push myself further.
Could I have run better? Yes. Could I have run worse? Yes -- much worse. Right now, I’m celebrating the fact that I just ran the second-fastest marathon of my life, but I’m also using the experience to find a way to make my 10th marathon the fastest one yet.

The best thing about running, after all, is that there's always another challenge to face, another goal to set and another race to run.