Sunday, May 12, 2019

All Aboard the Pain Train...Delaware Marathon 2019 race report

1 ticket for the Pain Train, please.

Rules of the Pain Train:

  1. We do not talk about the Pain Train. Just get on, and shut up! Then tell your legs, “shut up, legs!”
  2. Kind of like Hotel California, once you get on the Pain Train, “you can never leave”. You must COMMIT. No getting off the Pain Train until you cross that finish line!
  3. You can’t get on the Pain Train too early in the marathon. That’s just called “really bad pacing,” and you will get ejected from the Pain Train (and likely walk and pet dogs)—this is the exception to Rule #2.
  4. You can’t care how ugly you look or what weird (and loud) breathing sounds you make while on the Pain Train.
I have not been on the Pain Train while racing in a really long time. We are talking epic Ironman racing days circa 2009-2010. It used to be a given that I would swim as hard as I thought I could (though I could never really make myself suffer in the water), then I’d drop the hammer on the bike (“almost but not quite vomit level”) for 5-5.5 hours, start the marathon and really make myself suffer by the second half. I could never go out too fast on the marathon, because biking for 5 hours beforehand really deters you from that, so I was pretty good at pacing myself and then gritting out the second half.

It also used to be my full-time job, so there’s that.

In recent years, I only train a fraction of my previous volume, then go out too fast on race day and inevitably blow up (see rule #3 of the Pain Train). I’ve been too scared to go to that painful, hurty place... because I’ve been there, and it’s ugly and dark and frightening. Life’s gotten comfortable, and I’ve gotten too soft (maybe both physically AND mentally).

Instead, I’ve found myself not quite getting the results I want; last year I raced almost exclusively on trails, because it’s a good way to hide from the numbers that show you are getting slower. The conditions are different year over year and you can always blame the conditions! Especially last year—mud and crap all the time!

But I kind of knew I was being a wuss, and this year decided to go back to chasing a marathon time on the road again. After kind of a “meh” coaching experience last year, I trained myself through the winter, and while I didn’t break any mileage records, I was at least fairly consistent since January, averaging 35-45 miles per week except when I got sick for two weeks in March. It took a while to get things rollin’ after feeling burnt out last fall, and I made sure to do more long runs with friends but also let fun life stuff supersede running obligations if there was a conflict.

New this training cycle: I actually got around to doing some tempo runs, mile repeats and the occasional Yasso 800’s. My tempo run pace was just under 8 minutes (for a maximum 5 or 6 miles before work) and I could do 10 x 1 mile at under 7-minute pace (with a generous recovery). My long run paces weren’t too speedy (9 to 9.5-min pace). In an ideal buildup, I would aim to get in five or six 20-milers but only got in two of them (one being the Naked Bavarian race 8 weeks before the marathon). Because getting sick, April shenanigans, you know—real life.

SO...not my strongest buildup and I didn’t know what to expect. But I knew if I didn’t give myself a range of goal times, I might falter and then throw in the towel when things went south (like at Caesar Rodney the month before). Here were my A-B-C goals:
A goal: sub-3:20 = 7:38/mile pace
B goal: sub-3:25 = 7:49/mile (my post-pro PR on a very flat course)
C goal: sub-3:30 = 8:00/mile

(Yes, even though I could barely muster sub-8 pace for 5-mile tempo runs, I know that race day magic is a real thing.)

Then there was the A++++ goal: sub-3:15 (7:26/mile).
3:15:02 was my debut marathon time and still-standing PR, from when I was training full-time and living on Jeju Island, South Korea, 10 years ago! (Super old race report here: .... I was feisty!)
There was also a D goal: BQ, or sub-3:35 (8:12/mile). I used to think this was a given, but then I got too cocky and could barely run a 3:42 at the Marine Corps Marathon last October, because I realized I did not respect the marathon.

Thus, my overarching goal was to: RESPECT THE MARATHON.

I have run a handful of marathons in the past 5-ish years, and apparently I always get too excited and go way faster than I should, forget that I haven’t trained much, or just completely disrespect the marathon to the point that I am TAPPED OUT by mile 10, which is a terrible feeling to have with 16 miles to go. It is not good to be too “optimistic” (i.e. unrealistic) about what your starting pace should be!

So this was my pacing and nutrition strategy:
1. Hold back the first 14 miles. Run comfortably, but not TOO comfortably, at just under 8-minute mile pace.
2. Sip from the bottle. Refill it at mile 14 aid station. (I didn’t like the Maurten formula because there’s not any electrolytes and I’m a heavy sweater, so I used my custom Infinit formula that I had made last summer. Instead of a Camelbak, I used an Orange Mud Hydraquiver with 25oz Camelbak bike bottle because if I’m trying to go somewhat fast, it’s difficult running with a giant bladder on your back and impossible to fill on the fly. About 300 calories per bottle.)
3. Take in 3 Maurten gels (100 calories each): 1 just before the start, 1 at mile 12, and 1 at mile 19.
4. Miles 14 through 20: start pressing. Drop the pace to under 7:45.
5. Miles 20-26: push, push, PUSH! Drop to under 7:30’s and finish strong.
I told myself to stay patient and to stay smart, and that I believed in myself, my training, my strategy, and most of all, MY ABILITY TO SUFFER.

That’s right. I knew it was time to revisit the PAIN TRAIN.

The night before the marathon, I wrote myself a couple messages on the “magic running sticks”. I had stopped using them a few years back, and was inspired to dust them off earlier this year. This was something Brett had us TBB athletes use (more so the women) if he thought we had bad running form, so I used to do every single training run and race with them, and called them the magic running sticks. Do they work? Of course, they’re magic! They are also handy for holding emergency money, and writing motivational messages to yourself. (Spoiler alert, that’s my finisher’s medal, so I definitely finished the race.)

pre-race smiles

So how did it go?

This was my first Delaware Marathon and practically in our backyard (12 miles up I-95). So it was glorious to sleep in our own bed, and leave the house by 5:30am for a 7am race. We got rockstar parking in the Amtrak parking garage, which was literally right next to the start/finish line. No lines in the porta potty. This was a stark contrast to the huge crowds of Marine Corps Marathon, when I thought getting to the race 1.5 hours before the start would be plenty of time! (It wasn’t. I got stuck in a porta potty line for over 45 minutes and was sprinting to the starting line when the gun went off.) Here in Delaware, I even got to use the porta potty 4x before the start! (I’m such a nervous pee-er.)

I positioned myself by the 8-minute pace sign and off we went!

Comfortable, easy, hold back, hold back.
Mile 1: 7:37. Yikes! A little too fast. Settle down, cowboy.
Mile 2: 8:00. AUGH! A little too slow.

2 things happened at the mile 2 marker: First, I was really annoyed that I went a little too slow, and next, someone that looked like a race official started yelling at us URGENTLY to make a left turn even though the rest of the pack had gone straight. “Everyone else went the wrong way, I’M NOT JOKING!!!” What?! This was really stressful, and there were no arrows telling us to make a left, and then where to go from there. So on one hand, maybe everyone else went the LONG way, and we are going the short way! “Are we winning the race?” I joked to my fellow runners, because there was no one in front of us.

Until we joined back up to the rest of the field, several turns later and a bit in front of us, who quite likely went the CORRECT way and we went the extra-long way. 😒 Either way, the slower second mile and then the startling re-routing of the race course pumped some extra adrenaline into me and I ended up pushing the pace a little faster because I was sure I ended up going the extra-long way and then tried to make up for it. (I know GPS isn’t everything, but my mile splits had been chirping on the dot right before this happened, and every mile afterward it chirped exactly 0.1 mile too early). Also, now that I look at the map there is definitely NOT a random left turn at the mile 2 marker, but what do you do when a race-official-looking person yells at you to make a left turn? 

Miles 3 through 6: 7:28, 7:40, 7:32, 7:37.

I had given myself the caveat that if I felt pretty good the first 14 miles, I would go more by RPE (rate of perceived exertion, or going “by feel”) rather than hold myself to 7:55/mile pace. I was also slightly wary of going TOO easy, because sometimes when I try to slow down to a certain pace, I end up going too slow. So as long as the pace still felt comfortable (but not TOO comfortable!), I didn’t worry about going too fast. I made sure to smile and wave at the photographers and thank all the volunteers and first responders.

Mile 7: 8:06 (long uphill, wasn’t worried about the slower mile).

Miles 8 through 12: 7:37, 7:36, 7:32, 7:23, 7:10 (WHEE downhill).

Still feeling good, and pretty comfortable, I had purposely also put my GPS watch to show just my current mile split instead of the cumulative time, so that I wouldn’t obsess about my finishing time. I really enjoyed going through the neighborhoods, all the people cheering on their front lawns, and running through some of my old stomping grounds (I lived in Trolley Square when I first moved to Delaware). And hills—hills are fun, and always super tame compared to growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area!

Mile 13 was an easy breezy 7:45, and I got to see Kevin and my training partner Kathy, who had kept me motivated with fun long runs throughout the winter. I also saw the race clock, and it said 1:40:xx. Which, WHOA, suddenly occurred to me “THIS COULD BE AN A++++ PR DAY!” Because you know, if I followed my pacing plan, I would drop my pace at mile 15, and then again at mile 21.

I neglected to take in my second gel at mile 12 and of course thought “it’s fine, I don’t need it...” BUT was very impressed with my drink mix timing, because right before the mile 14 aid station, I was out of my drink. And I didn’t want to stop, but I also didn’t want to be stupid, so I did a quick stop, had a volunteer refill my bottle, and I poured in my baggie filled with powder.

As soon as I started running again, *chirp!* mile 14 at 7:51, even with a drink refill stop. Miles 15 and 16 were 7:40 and 7:44, freakin’ fantastic! These miles were at the start of the new Jack A. Markell trail (AKA “The JAM”) which would be an out-and-back and new update to the DE Marathon course. I thought this would be cool because it’s very flat, and the out-and-back would allow you to see the competition ahead and behind you by the turnaround. Unfortunately I didn’t account for the lack of crowd support and there were so many less people doing the full marathon (we had started at the same time as the half’ers) that it was really sparse out there.

Somewhat suddenly at mile 17, I had a mental meltdown, because I was supposed to start dropping my pace, it wasn’t really happening and THAT’S THE PLAN, WHY ISN’T THE PLAN WORKING??? And um, it really was not happening. Also, I really had to pee. Since mile 2. (I don’t understand how this is possible, because I freakin’ peed 4x right before the start of the race.)

We were right past the women’s jail, and I saw some empty porta potties (for the race, not for the inmates!). I sucked in my mile 12 gel, ducked in the potty, and forced myself to mentally regroup. *chirp!* mile 17, 8:49 with a gel and pee stop.

I felt better, took a deep breath, and looked at my magic running sticks. They reminded myself, “YOU ARE STRONG. YOU CAN SUFFER!” Okay. This is the sucky part. 3 miles to the turnaround!

Did I mention that the weather was pretty much perfect? A week earlier, the forecast had called for upwards of 70deg, which I thought would be great competition-wise (since I do pretty well in the heat relative to others), but it ended up being in the low 50’s and very overcast. Which was pretty ideal conditions to go for a faster time—and this was one of the many reasons I gave myself to not just give up. “Run as hard as you can now, because you never know when you’ll get weather conditions this perfect again.”

Miles 18 through 20: 7:53, 7:56, 8:02. Not terrible, but not faster. JUST LIMIT THE DAMAGE AND KEEP MOVING. The turnaround was near 19.5 miles; I counted the women in front of me and I was in 8th, then I moved up to 7th. (I didn’t realize that the first woman who was WAAAAAAY ahead was on a relay team until after the race.)

Miles 21 through 23: 8:02, 8:06, 7:53. Still not terrible, but I should really pick up the pace with 3 miles to go! I can do this! I had become acutely aware during this stretch that my breathing was really audible, and I didn’t care. Hello, old friend. Welcome back on the PAIN TRAIN. I was really grateful for the other runners coming the opposite way that cheered for me, but was unfortunately unresponsive. I had biked this trail several times when it opened last fall, and ran my last medium long run (14 miles) on it just the week prior, so I was very familiar with the final stretch.

I had also camped out as a spectator at mile 24 at the Boston Marathon two weekends prior, which was EXTREMELY helpful, as it made me think, “what kind of marathon runner do you want to look like at mile 24? Someone who is still pushing hard to the finish, or someone who has quite obviously already given up with 2 miles to go?”

Clearly I wanted to be the runner still pushing hard at mile 24! So push I did! Unfortunately, my final mile splits didn’t quite reflect that...
Miles 24 through 26: 8:14, 8:21, 7:55.

Yup, at mile 24, I tried to push the pace and felt the first twinge of a cramp in my hamstrings. NOOOOOOOOO!!! NOT NOW! So the plan switched to “keep pushing as hard as you can, but not so hard you cramp up and have to walk it in!” The last 2 miles are beautiful, because you are going over the cool new wooden bridge over the wildlife refuge, onto the wooden boards, and then back on the Riverfront, but I honestly may have preferred two loops of the original marathon course. Because, no crowd support.

It also began to drizzle the last couple miles, and I ended up taking off my super cool Asian Fit Oakley shades and stuffed them in my back pocket. At long last, I saw my friend Nina cheering for me that last half mile on the Riverfront, and I already had on my ugly pain face grimace and sounded like a dying animal. I managed to bump down the pace to 7:40 in the final 0.4 miles and “sprinted” down the finish chute to get every last second.

I knew I’d be close to my B goal, and I say “sprinted” in quotes because the pain face made it to the official race video and Kathy also took a video of the final “sprint” and... well, in my head I felt like I was sprinting but on video, it is really a glorified faster shuffle. HAHA!

The clock turned to 3:27 as I crossed, and because I didn’t start right in the front, my official time was 3:26:51. At first, I was slightly disappointed because the first half had gone so well and I actually had delusions of being able to PR, which would’ve been 11 minutes faster. (Note to self: maybe A+++++ goals should not be made, because they are usually on the unrealistic end of the spectrum. Anything faster than A goal is a bonus!)

But really, my first reaction was relief to be DONE! And then absolute gratitude for my friends and family that came out to watch, since I don’t often race a bigger local race. The Byrons (our race car family) came, my in-laws came, Nina and Kathy, and of course my Kevin.

Apparently I got 6th woman, won my age group (other than the 44-year-old woman who won, the rest were way younger), and got 1st Delawarean woman! The winner went 3:17, so I was within 10 minutes—this race used to bring a faster field when there was still a small prize purse and it wasn’t just 2 weeks after Boston—so perhaps I’ll add “win the Delaware Marathon” to my bucket list.

After recovering and ruminating on my race, I am actually quite proud of it. Turns out that my Ironman marathon PR is a 3:27:02 from Ironman Florida in 2009, and while I didn’t have a 6-hour swim and bike warm-up, it’s almost 10 years later, I’m 15lbs burlier, and I train just a quarter of what I used to do. So to beat that by 11 seconds, I’ll take it! What’s funny is that I only knew what my Ironman run PR was after looking it up later, and apparently I ran 7 Ironman marathons that were in the 3:30 +/- 4 minutes range. The Delaware Marathon was an eerily familiar pacing situation to most of those Ironmans—run the first 13 at 7:45 to 8:00 pace, then HOLD ON FOR DEAR LIFE AS THE LEGS INEVITABLY SLOWWWWWW DOWN! Maybe this is just the pace my legs know how to run! We need to change that, for the faster.

Here is my slow-motion finish grimace, if you are interested (starting at 1:38):

While I’m not the fittest I’ve ever been, I feel like this was the grittiest I’ve raced in a while, and the smartest I’ve run strategically in a long time. And I’m still learning that your performance on race day can vary based on your execution of the day, despite how fit you actually are through the previous months of training. By the time it’s race morning, your fitness is what it is.

But if you pace yourself well early on, and then grit your teeth, grab your shovel (so you can DIG DEEP), and are willing to suffer and hop onto the Pain Train, you’ll go a long way to maximizing the fitness that you actually have. I felt that I actually pushed the limits of my current fitness level, which is all that you can ask for. (Also, the Pain Train analogy works GREAT for this race report, because if you hadn't noticed, the start and finish were at the Amtrak station!)

I can look back and laugh at my goal times now, because I’m not sure holding sub-8 minute pace for 5-6 miles of tempo running is a good indicator of what you can run marathon pace in, but maybe that’s the secret.

In conclusion,
Factors in your control for race performance =
Training leading up to the race + race day execution

Factors NOT in your control for race performance =
Weather conditions + crowd support + race organization (arrows?!)

Final thoughts on this race 2 weeks later:

There was a time in my life (maybe 4-5 years ago?) where I was trying to figure out what to focus on next, athletically, after Ironman retirement, and breaking 3 hours in the road marathon and then going after the OTQ (Olympic Trials Qualifying time—which is currently 2:45) was one of those options. I subsequently got distracted with trail running, ultramarathons, and even a VERY brief flirtation with obstacle course racing (whereby I quickly remembered how wimpy my little arms are, and realized I had little interest to put in all the hard work to change that). I’d still like to break 3 hours in the marathon some day, but after a really disappointing 3:42 at Marine Corps last October, remembered not to take fitness for granted, and not to set goals too far ahead of my current fitness level or I’d just be perpetually frustrated.

I definitely feel like I lost some speed in my legs when training for ultras last year, so I’m excited to just jump into shorter and faster races this summer, and when I’m ready to sign up for another marathon, I plan to get myself through a more solid training cycle (still looking to nail the 6 weeks of 20-mile long runs) and go after my 10-year-old marathon PR. Trail runs are fun, but I did rather enjoy training myself to chase faster times and paces!

When all else fails, just remember: