Monday, November 20, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Flying Monkey Marathon

On November 19, I race-walked the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon.  This was my third straight Monkey.  I ran it the first two times, but this year I decided to walk it.  This is an extremely hilly course, and I knew running down those hills would be too hard on my back.  Walking it was challenging, but easier on my body.

This race is run on a notoriously hilly road loop through Percy Warner Park in Nashville, TN.  The course forces you to run every hill in both directions.  Trent, the race director, is fond of saying, “Running is stupid.”  The runners are fond of saying, “I hate Trent.”  All kidding aside, this is race with a sadistic sense of humor.  It’s for runners who want to challenge themselves, while having fun and enjoying the scenery.

Every year there’s a different them.  The theme of this year’s race was 12 Monkeys.

I’ve done eight other marathons since my back surgery in June, but they were all races that I signed up for before my back injury.  Registration for this race was in August.  I only had one week to enter the lottery.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to run something this hilly.  It would be way too hard on my back.  I put my fate in the hands of the Monkey Gods, knowing I would have to walk the race.  Later that month, I got the bad news from Trent:

“Today is not your lucky day.  Today is, in fact, a bad bad day for you. I am sorry.  We have conducted the lottery, and you were selected to run. Yep. You are in. Words cannot express how sorry I am for you.  Or how sorry you will be.  Anyhow, looks like you are in.  Good luck with that.  You will most certainly regret it.  I'll be in touch.”

I flew to Nashville on Friday.  The first two times I did this race, I stayed at a Hampton Inn in the Bellevue neighborhood, which is west of the park.  This year, I decided to switch things up and stay at a hotel in Brentwood, which is east of the park.  It was a shorter drive from the airport, but a longer drive to get to the race.

After checking into my hotel, I drove to the Gordon JCC for packet pickup.  The first time I did this race, it was my 300th marathon or ultra, so Trent gave me bib number 300.  He gives returning runners the save bib number each year, so I’ve had number 300 ever since.  By chance, this year’s race was my 300th marathon, excluding ultras.  I didn’t plan that.  It’s something I didn’t realize until September.

I’ve always been impressed with the race T-shirts.  Everyone gets a short sleeved shirt with the race theme and a long sleeve shirt that’s customized with their monkey nickname and their previous monkey kills. My monkey nickname this year was “Walking Monkey,” and I had two monkey kills.

Staying in Brentwood gave me some new restaurant options.  I found some good brick oven pizza just a few blocks away from my hotel.

The race started at 8:00, but they had an early start at 7:00 for people needing more time.  I had mixed feelings.  If I took the early start, I’d have a better chance of seeing friends after the race.  On the other hand, I would have to get up earlier, and it would be colder.  I woke up at 2 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep.  That made the decision easier.  I arrived early and took the early start.

It was 41 degrees when I arrived at Percy Warner Park, but the temperature was still dropping. There was also enough wind to make it feel colder.  I wore my signature cheetah tights, hat, and arm warmers.  It’s the first time I’ve race-walked wearing tights, so I didn’t know how that would feel.  I just knew I would be too cold without them.  It was supposed to eventually warm up, but only into the mid-40s. Meanwhile, the wind was supposed to pick up.  I made a last minute decision to start the race wearing a Tyvek jacket.  As usual, I expected to take it off after I warmed up.

Before we started, Trent made some pre-race announcements.  He reminded us that the aid stations wouldn’t be up and running until 8:00.  I was prepared for that.  He also told us there wouldn’t be any course marshals for the first hour.  That meant we had to know where to turn.  I wasn’t prepared for that.

The first time I did this race, I was injured, and it took me 5:40 to run the course.  My goal this year was to see if I could beat that time walking.  I expected to finish somewhere between 5:15 and 5:30.  That’s slower than most people taking the regular start, but faster than most people taking the early start.  I needed to make sure I wasn’t in the lead in the early miles.  I wanted to follow people who knew the course.

We start on grass before getting to the road.  After making the first turn, there were only two runners ahead of me.  I work hard to keep them in sight.  I followed them onto the road and started climbing the first hill.  The road seemed more narrow than I remembered.  There was a good reason for that.

The two guys in the lead were already pretty far up the hill when I saw them look back at me.  They might have been unsure if they were going the right way and wanted to know if others were following.

I heard some shouting behind me.  Then my friend Diane shouted my name loudly. I looked back.  The runners behind me were turning around and going back.  We took the wrong turn.  I shouted to the runners ahead of me, but they had already disappeared around a bend.  I don’t know if they heard me.

I hurried back down the hill and followed everyone onto the correct road.  I was already pretty far up that hill before I turned around.  I probably lost about two minutes.  If I was aiming for a PR in this race, I would have been distressed about it, but you can’t PR at Monkey.  I put it out of my mind and kept walking.  I gradually moved up through the group of early starters, but there were now plenty of people to follow when we reached the next turn.

Soon we began the first long hill.  It’s one of the biggest hills on the course.  By the top, I was getting warm, but I kept my jacket on.

I was curious to know how the first downhill would feel.  I’ve run this course twice, but I’ve never walked it before.  It’s non-stop hills, but I couldn’t remember how steep the grades are.  On a gentle grade, I can walk faster.  On a steep downgrade, it’s tough to go fast and maintain a walking gait.  I sometimes have to slow down to keep from “lifting.”  I was relieved to discover that the first downhill section was nice and gentle.

Midway through the third mile, we reached a short but steep downhill.  I remembered this as the steepest hill on the course.  Here, I had to slow down going down the hill.  Fortunately, it’s also the shortest hill on the course.

Trent has mile markers, but they should be viewed as approximate.  When I reached the three mile sign, my watch read 33:56.  That seemed impossibly fast.  It would have been plausible without the wrong turn.  Knowing I had lost some time, I didn’t trust it too much.  Over the next few miles, I paid attention to my splits. You can’t tell much from one, but the trend was clear.  I was averaging slightly better than 12 minutes per mile.  That’s not as fast as my best races, but it’s a pretty good pace for this course.

Soon, I reached another long uphill section.  This one made me work up a sweat, so I took off my jacket.

Trent usually has a number of amusing signs placed by the side of the road.  Last year, people were stealing the signs, so this year he tied all the mile markers to trees.  There were a few other signs, but not as many as usual.

 I had a camera with me to take pictures of the signs.  I also planned to take a few pictures of the course.  After a few miles, I got into a comfortable rhythm and realized I could walk this course faster than I previously thought.  After that, I didn’t want to stop.

On one of the downhill sections, I felt one of my insoles slipping sideways under my foot.  I considered stopping at the next aid station to take off my shoe and fix it.  I’m glad I didn’t.  After that aid station, there was a longer downhill section.  I expected my insole to get worse, but instead it seemed to slide back into place.

We were getting spread out, so I couldn’t always see someone in front of me.  Between six and seven miles, I reached another road and wasn’t sure which way to turn.  I stopped and looked back.  I couldn’t see any runners behind me either.  I started to panic.  Did I make another wrong turn?  I didn’t want to backtrack all the way to the previous turn.

After a few more seconds, I saw a group of runners behind me.  I was still on course.  A volunteer who was just arriving was able to tell me which way to go.

On another downhill section, I felt my insole slipping again.  This time it slipped forward in my shoe.  This was a long hill. By the time I reached the bottom, my insole had slipped about two inches.  It folded under my foot.  This wasn’t going to slip back into place. I did my best to tune out the discomfort.

I expected it to get warmer eventually, but it still felt cold.  I was noticing more wind, and my hands and arms were getting cold.  The rest of me felt fine.  In fact, I could feel sweat on my back, legs, and under my hat.  My fingers, however, felt painfully cold.  My only option was to put on my jacket, but then I’d be sweating like crazy.  I had to live with cold hands and arms until it warmed up.

One of the major junctions on the course was next to the Percy Warner Golf Course.  This area was exposed and I really felt the wind.  As we passed the aid station, we made a sharp turn and started climbing a long hill.  I hoped climbing the hill would warm me up.  It helped a little, but my hands were still cold.

After about 11 miles, I started to notice the sun emerging from behind the clouds.  I expected the temperature to finally start climbing.  Also, direct sunlight makes it feel warmer.  I started to get more comfortable, but I wondered if I would go from being cold to being hot.

I was also about 11 miles into the race when the leader passed me.  Runners taking the regular start had to make up an hour to catch us on the road.  Our finish times would take that into account.  As more runners caught up, I no longer had to worry about having other runners to follow.  By now that really wasn’t an issue.  All the turns had course marshals now.  Still, I hate being alone on the road.

I reached the halfway mark in 2:34:46.  That was faster than I expected.  I was on pace to break 5:10, but I expected to slow down in the second half.  It seemed like I started too fast.  I was afraid the hills would eventually wear me down.  Also, I expected to get too hot.

At 15 miles, I realized my pace for the previous five miles had been faster than my pace over the first 10 miles.  That surprised me, since I thought I took the first 10 miles too fast.  I wondered if it was actually possible to walk the second half faster than the first half.  I had never walked negative splits in a race.  When I run a marathon, I usually start too fast.  I’m even worse at pacing when I walk.

I had 11.2 miles to go.  That made me realize I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  The backbone of this course is an 11.2 mile loop through the park.  By itself, it’s considered to be a difficult run.  I still had the equivalent of one full loop to go.

In the second half of the race, I started to recognize more and more of the aid stations. 
I was approaching them from the opposite direction now.  Everything that was uphill in the first half was downhill now.  Everything that was downhill in the first half was uphill now.  You might say this race is all about Karma.  When you go up a hill, you’re later rewarded with an equal downhill.  When you go down a hill, you’re later punished with an equal uphill.

At one point, the road made a junction with another road, and I saw a big group of runners coming down a hill.  It was obvious that they took the regular start.  I wasn’t sure if I should turn right or left, so I asked a volunteer.  She said, “You go up the hill.”  I replied, “Of course.”

When I went by the golf course again, I once again regretted how exposed it was.  This time instead of getting cold from exposure to the wind, I got hot from exposure to the sun.  It didn’t help that this was the start of a long climb.

Every mile I checked my pace.  I was consistently logging miles that were 12 minutes or faster.  As long as I kept doing that, I had a decent shot at negative splits.  That was my goal now.  I tried to power up the hills without slowing down.  I tried to gain time on the downhills.

At 20 miles, I noticed my pace over the previous five miles was once again faster than it was for the first 10 miles.  A negative splits race was within my grasp.  Now I was on a mission.

The last major obstacle came with just under three miles to go.  It was that same short but steep hill that was uncomfortable going down.  Now I had to climb it.  It was tiring, and it made me hot.  More importantly, it slowed me down more than any other hill.  Fortunately, it wasn’t long.

Whenever I was about to crest a hill, I felt myself shift into a faster gait.  I usually did it without thinking.  This time, I had to make a conscious effort.  It took time, but I eventually got back to my previous pace.  I was hot now, but with less than three miles to go, I could tough it out.

I was climbing another hill when I saw a yellow sign in the distance.  It had to be the 24 miles sign.  Often in a race, I’ll compare the remaining distance to a course that I train on.  One of my favorite routes for walking is a 1.1 mile loop through my neighborhood.  I just had to do it twice.  At the sign, I checked my watch.  I clocked another 12 minute mile.  Just past the hill there was an aid station.  I knew where I was.  I was about to make a left turn and begin a long gradual downhill section.  The last 2.2 miles were mostly downhill.  I had it.

I’ve done this race twice before.  Both times I found this downhill section to be painful.  My quads were sore and I actually slowed down going down this hill.  Not this time.  I had no soreness at all.  That’s a big difference between walking and running.  I still left good going downhill.

I sped up noticeably in the next mile.  Then I reached another aid station.  They asked if I wanted water or Sword.  I jokingly asked if they had beer.  I got an unexpected answer.  “We got Fireball.”  Best aid station ever.  That gave me the fire in my belly I needed to race through that last mile.

I left the road and crossed the grass again to get to the finish line.  For the last five miles I was targeting a 5:07 finish.  I finished in 5:05:55.  I walked negative splits by almost four minutes.  It’s worth noting that my wrong turn added about two minutes to my time for the first mile.  Even if you subtract two minutes from my first half, I still had negative splits!

The finisher medal was the usual Flying Monkey logo, but also incorporated the 12 Monkeys design.  With it, we also received a beer cup from Yazoo Brewing.  In addition to the Yazoo logo, the cup also had the 12 Monkeys artwork, so they were obviously custom-ordered for this race.

There was a huge spread of post-race food.  Trent always makes several pumpkin pies.  In addition, each runner brought some food.  There were also hot entries that must have been made by the volunteers.  I didn’t go through the entire buffet line.  I just had pizza, pumpkin pie, and some cookies.  There was also chocolate milk and a beer garden with Yazoo beer.

I always thought Trent said “Running is stupid” just to taunt us.  Now I realize he’s right.  Two years ago I ran this course in 5:40.  This year I walked it in 5:05.  When I’ve run this course, the downhill miles at the end were painful.  This year they weren’t.  Clearly, on this course at least, walking is much smarter than running.

When I finally took off my shoes, I saw the insole in my right shoe slid forward and folded under my foot.  Hopefully it’s not permanently creased.  The insole in my left shoe shifted sideways.  I expected to have horrible blisters.  I have a new blister on my right heal, but it’s not as bad as I expected.  My left foot feels fine.

I’m sure most of the runners have sore quads this morning from running up and down all those hills.  My quads aren’t sore at all, although I’ve got some soreness in my glutes.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:05:55
Average Pace:   11:41
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  345
Monkey Kills:  3

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

I've Had a Hard Time Deciding If I Should Enter the Western States Lottery

The lottery period for the Western States Endurance Run (WSER) started on November 4th.  It ends on November 11th.  For weeks, I’ve been undecided as to whether I should put my name in the lottery.

For those who don’t know, WSER is a 100 mile trail run that starts in Squaw Valley, CA and finishes in Auburn.  It’s the granddaddy of all 100 mile trail runs.  It’s also the most popular, which is why they need to use a lottery.  Every year, thousands of runners attempt to enter the race, but only about 400 will get in.

I got into this race in 2012.  I wasn’t ready.  I wasn’t sufficiently trained to handle the numerous long, steep descents.  I trashed my quads in the first 15 miles.  I made other mistakes, and they all seemed to feed into each other.  After a long, slow downward spiral, I finally dropped out at the Michigan Bluff aid station (55.7 miles).

Some of my friends tried to reassure me by telling me I would finish the next year.  They didn’t understand.  As difficult as it is to finish the race, getting into it is even harder.  After my DNF in 2012, I didn’t have a qualifying race for 2013.  I had to wait another year.  In 2013, I ran a qualifying race.  Then I put my name in the lottery for 2014.  I didn’t get in.

In 2014, I entered another qualifying race.  My plan was to keep qualifying and entering the lottery every year until I got in.  The longer you keep trying, the more tickets you get in the lottery.  With only one ticket, your odds are almost nil.  After five or six years, your chances start to get realistic.  It was a long-term project, but I was determined to earn a second chance to finish this race.

My qualifying race in 2014 was the Bighorn Trail 100.  That race is comparable in difficulty to WSER.  If I could finish it, I would not only qualify, but I would prove to myself that I was ready.  I was in good shape.  I was pacing myself well.  I had the right gear to make it through a nighttime thunderstorm.  About 44 miles into the race, I fell into a creek. The water was ice cold, and I got hypothermic.  I had to power walk for four miles just to get to an aid station where I could drop out.  That DNF was disappointing.  It also left me without a qualifier for 2015.

In 2015, I registered for the Bighorn Trail 100 again.  I wanted to finish this race as badly as I wanted to finish WSER.  About six weeks before the race, I suffered a groin injury.  I wasn’t fully healed in time for the race.  Obsessed with redeeming myself for my previous DNF, I started the race.  After 30 miles, I saw the error of my ways and dropped out.   I didn’t get a buckle, and I didn’t get a qualifier, but I made my leg worse.

By the beginning of 2016, I couldn’t run at all.  I needed to take some time off to heal.  Then I needed to do some physical therapy and get back in shape.  I didn’t run a qualifying race that year, but by the end of the year I was getting back in shape again.

One of my goals this year was to qualify for WSER, so I could once again start building up tickets in the lottery.  Another goal was to finish the Bighorn Trail 100.  This time I also scheduled another qualifying race.  In February, I ran the Rocky Raccoon 100.  I finished Rocky Raccoon, but I never made the trip to Wyoming for the Bighorn Trail 100.  At the same time the race was starting, I was in surgery to repair a herniated disc.

I’ll never know for sure what caused this injury.  It may have been the cumulative wear and tear of years of training and racing.  Alternatively, it may have been the additional strain of doing more hill training and running hillier races.  I first noticed my symptoms during a race that had a few steep descents.  Four weeks earlier, I ran a marathon that descended about 5,000 feet.  I was also doing hill training in preparation for the Bighorn Trail 100.  The impact of running downhill puts much more strain on your muscles, joints and spine.  Finally, the injury may have started with a traumatic event.  In the previous six months, I had fallen six times during races.  In one of those falls, I broke a rib.

For the first few months after surgery, I could only walk.  I took up race-walking to stay in shape, and so I could still do a few of the races I had already entered.  Since then, I’ve done a little bit of running, but I’m still mostly walking.  I expect to eventually return to running marathons, but I don’t know if I’ll even be able to do races like Bighorn or Western States.  Maybe this was a one-time injury, and I’ll eventually be good as new.  On the other hand, maybe I’ll be at high risk of another back injury if I do races that are too rugged.  I just don’t know.  That’s why I’ve been unsure about whether to enter the WSER lottery.

Let me be clear about one thing.  I don’t want to run WSER in 2018.  I know I wouldn’t be ready.  The point of entering the lottery is to start building up tickets again.  Realistically, it’s going to take several years to get in.  If I ever want to do this, I have to start getting tickets in the lottery.  The point of entering this year is to keep my options open for future years.

Before entering the lottery, I asked myself three questions.

The first question is, “What would you do if your name got drawn for 2018?”  The odds of that are pretty slim, but it’s still a possibility.  In all likelihood, I wouldn’t run the race.  In past years, that would mean forfeiting my entry fee and also wasting a coveted bib number, when thousands of other runners were trying to get in.  This year, the race organizers made a change to the entry process.  In addition to drawing enough names to fill the field, they’ll draw additional names to create a waiting list.  If an entrant notifies the race officials that they’re unable to run, somebody from the waiting list will get to run in their place.  If my name gets drawn and I notify them before May 1st that I can’t run, I’ll get a 75% refund.  I also won’t have to feel guilty about denying anyone else a chance to run.

The second question is, “Will you run a qualifying race next year?”  It’s pointless to get a ticket in the lottery next year if I’m not going to keep trying every year.  If you don’t enter, you lose all your tickets.  I don’t expect to be able to run WSER next year, and mostly of the qualifying races are also pretty rugged.  Is there a qualifying race that I think I could finish, even though I’m not currently doing much running?  Could I run it safely, or would I have too much risk of injury?  I’ve identified at least one qualifying race that I could probably finish.  It’s the Vermont 100.  The Vermont 100 is a hilly race, but the course is more dirt road than trail.  It’s challenging, but it’s not technical.  I could probably finish it with minimal injury risk by walking the downhill sections and doing run/walk everywhere else.  It’s even possible that I could power walk the whole thing and finish within the 30 hour time limit.

The last question is, “Do I really think I can finish WSER, or am I just kidding myself?”  I don’t know the answer to that one.  Right now, it’s hard to imagine.  It will probably take a year to get all the way back into running.  During that first year, I’ll stick to road races that are mostly flat.  A year from now, I’ll probably have a better idea.  Until I know for sure, I want to keep my options open.  If I don’t enter the lottery this year, I’m essentially giving up for all time.  I’m not getting any younger, and I’ll only be more prone to injuries as I enter my 60s.  If I’m ever doing to do this race, I needed to do it before I get too much older.  That means I need to start building up tickets in the lottery.

After considering all of this, I still went back or forth several times.  One week, I convinced myself to just give up on WSER.  The next week, I convinced myself to keep my options open.  Until registration opened, I didn’t have to make a final decision.  On Saturday, registration finally opened.  The clock was running, and I only had one week to make up my mind.  Today, I finally made my decision.  I put my name in the lottery.

I hope I don’t get in!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Marshall University Marathon

On November 5, I race-walked the Marshall University Marathon in Huntington, WV.  I ran this marathon 10 years ago, finishing it in 3:07:59.  That was only the third time I broke 3:10 in a marathon, and it still ranks as my seventh fastest time.  I knew this was a course that I could run fast, so I assumed I could walk it fast as well.  It’s fairly flat.

I’m working on my third circuit of marathons in all 50 states.  The last three states I needed were West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.  This race gave me my third West Virginia marathon.

Huntington is a college town.  It’s home to Marshall University, and the town really roots for their football team.  In 1970, the team was traveling to a road game, and their plane crashed.  Most of the players died in the crash, as did several coaches and the school’s athletic director.  The 2006 film, “We Are Marshall,” depicts how the school and the town coped with that tragedy.  I saw that movie shortly before running this race in 2007.

There isn’t a major airport near Huntington, so I flew to Columbus, OH and drove the rest of the way.  I was originally planning to fly to Columbus on Saturday morning.  Then Delta cancelled their only morning flight, so I had to look for other flights.  After considering all my options, I decided to fly to Columbus late Friday afternoon and drove to Huntington on Saturday.

When I got to Columbus, I had dinner with my friend Sandy.  Sandy is a fellow blogger.  In addition to her running blog, she just started a blog called The Brewery Log, where she reviews breweries she visits during her travels.  After dinner, she introduced me to a local brewery called The Seventh Son, where I sampled a few styles of beer I had never tried before.

On Saturday, I drove to Huntington.  After checking in at my hotel, I paid a visit to Spring Hill Cemetery, where there’s a memorial for the players, coaches, and boosters who died in that 1970 plane crash.

Next I picked up my race packet.  They had this metalwork sculpture on display at the expo.  It’s for sale, but I don’t think I could fit it in my suitcase.

Later, I had dinner with two friends at the Marshall Hall of Fame Cafe.

The course was two loops, starting and finishing at the football stadium.  The race started at 7:00, but if you wanted to park at the stadium, you had to get there before they blocked off the streets.  I got up early, so I could get to the stadium before 6:00.  Fortunately, it was the day we set the clocks back an hour, so it didn’t seem quite as early.  I didn’t sleep well Thursday or Friday night, so I desperately needed an extra hour of sleep.  I got to bed early and slept well until 2:00.  Then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.

It was 57 degrees at the start of the race, but the forecast high was 78.  I expected it to get up to about 70 before I finished.

Between the warm weather and my recent lack of sleep, I could easily have said this just isn’t my day to go for a PR.  If I took it easy in this one, I wouldn’t get another chance this year.  My next race is unusually hilly.  The one after that will be unusually hot and humid.  The one after that, I plan to run.  I felt I had to at least take a shot at my walking PR of 5:03.  I decided to start the race near my PR pace and see how I felt.

One of the nice things about starting at the stadium was being able to use the stadium’s bathrooms.  There are lots of them, so I didn’t even have to wait in line.

Before the race, I bumped into several people I know.  I guess I’m not the only one who needed another West Virginia race.

As I lined up, I looked for pace groups.  The slowest marathon pace group I saw was 4:45, but I saw a 2:30 pace group for the half marathon.  That’s an average pace of 11:27, which is the same as a five hour marathon.  I lined up right behind them.

I was talking to friends in the start area when we heard a cannon blast.  That was the start.  I had to take a few seconds to put my watch in chronograph mode, so I got separated from the 2:30 pace group.  After crossing the starting line, I worked my way through the crowd until I was right behind them.  Then I was careful to never get in front of them.

I reached the first mile marker in 11:12.  That was a bit fast, so I eased up and let the pace group get farther ahead of me.  I kept them in sight.  I never saw the two mile sign, so I gradually caught up to the 2:30 group again.  By the end of three miles, we were averaging 11:20.  That was still fast, but more reasonable.

When I pace myself, I have a bad habit of trying to keep each mile at or under my goal pace.  Ideally, if some miles are too fast, I should have others that are too slow, so the average is about right.  I stayed behind the 2:30 pacer, knowing she would eventually do that.

This race was in a state I needed to complete my third circuit of marathons in all 50 states, so I wore my 50 States Marathon Club singlet.  Other runners noticed that and asked me which race I did in this state or that state.  Talking to other runners helped me to relax and get into an efficient stride, without overthinking it.  I never saw the four mile sign, but I stayed near the 2:30 group.

When we got to the five mile sign, I saw we were already a minute ahead of schedule.  That was similar to how I started the Mankato Marathon two weeks ago.  That race ended badly.  I set a PR for the half marathon, but by the 15th mile, I was already struggling.  After 19 miles, I completely blew up.  I was concerned, but continued to follow the 2:30 pacer.

This race is relatively flat, because it mostly follows streets that are parallel to the Ohio River.  As soon as you turn away from the river, you quickly encounter hills.  We eventually turned left and started running away from the river.  They must have found the only north-south street in town that didn’t have big hills.  It was slightly uphill, but not too bad.

We eventually reached Ritter Park Trail.  Here, we followed a creek.  We were on a paved path near lots of trees.  In the first loop, this was my favorite part of the course.  We followed this creek for about two miles.

We passed someone playing a flute.  The melody was familiar.  Out of context and without lyrics, I could quite identify it.  It was right on the tip of my tongue.  It seemed like something from a musical.  For at least a mile, I was obsessed with identifying the mystery melody.

Before long, the pavement was replaced by crushed limestone.  The grade was uniform, and it was densely packed.  I was on it for about a minute before I even realized we were no longer on pavement.

The path was narrow, so it got congested here.  A few other runners got between me and the pace group, and it took a while before I caught up to them again.

After seven miles, we were about a minute and a half ahead of schedule for a five hour marathon (or a 2:30 half).  After that, we finally settled into the right pace.  I had to hope the fast start wouldn’t take too much of a toll on me.  My pace, so far, was similar to Mankato, but I didn’t feel like I was working as hard.

I eventually figured out the mystery melody.  It was “Mamma Mia” by ABBA.   Technically, that is from a musical, but the song predates the musical by two or three decades.

We eventually ran around three sides of Ritter Park.  On the north side of the park, we were serenaded by a wind quartet.  I didn’t recognize the music they were playing.  After leaving the park, we turned onto a street that took us back into the downtown area.

After 10 miles, I heard the 2:30 pacer comment about needing to slow down to be able to finish between 2:29 and 2:30.  She only had a few miles left in her race, so I was worried she would slow down too much for me.  I wanted to slow a little, but I didn’t want to have to speed up again in the second half.  We were only about two miles from where the marathon and half marathon split, so I went ahead on my own.  I had to start paying more attention to my mile times.  I wanted to average 11:30 the rest of the way.

Near the end of the loop, we were on an out-and-back segment.  We could see faster runners who were already heading out on their second loop.  I recognized a few of my friends.

I missed the 11 mile sign, so I had to wait until 12 miles to see what pace I was on.  Over those two miles, I averaged 11:18.  That was still a little fast.

After the split, the half marathoners went directly toward the football stadium.  The marathon route took a detour through the heart of the Marshall University campus.

There were far fewer runners doing the marathon.  There weren’t many runners around me, so it was harder to gauge my pace by comparing myself to the runners around me.  Also, some of the runners going my pace were using a run/walk strategy.  When they ran, it was hard to keep up with them.  When they took walking breaks, I passed them easily. Despite that difficulty, I managed to do the 13th mile at about the right pace.

I reached the halfway mark in 2:28:08.  That wasn’t quite as fast as my half marathon split in Mankato, but it was still too fast.  I felt OK, but I was concerned.  For the rest of the race, I was asking myself how I felt and comparing it to how I felt at the same point in the Mankato Marathon.

The start of the second loop was different from the start of the first loop.  In the first loop, we ran east on 3rd Avenue, run down a short hill and ran west on 5th Avenue.  This time, we went east on 5th, went up the short hill and returned on 3rd.  The street with the short hill was 27th Street.  It’s paved with bricks.

As I made the turn onto 27th Street, I saw the 14 mile sign.  In that mile, I slowed to 11:36.  Having a slow mile isn’t a bad thing, but I worried that it could be the start of a trend.  I wanted to pick up the pace in the next mile, but I was starting uphill on bricks.  When I eventually rounded the corner onto 3rd Avenue, I really made an effort to pick up the pace.  When I eventually got to the 15 mile sign, I saw that I not only got back on pace, but sped up to 11:07.  That was my fastest mile so far.  Oops!  I overcompensated.

On the bright side, I was able to pick up the pace.  At the same point in the Mankato Marathon, I was starting to slow down and couldn’t get back on pace no matter how hard I tried.

By now, it was getting hot.  We sometimes had a headwind, and I found it to be a welcome relief.  The sun was out, and the cooling effect of the wind was the only thing that would keep me from overheating.

I saw my friend Charlotte, who had to stop to fix a problem with her shoe.  Charlotte does every race in a different costume.  For this race, she was dressed as a Marshall University football player.  Instead of a helmet, she had a bison hat that looked like the team logo.

My next mile was 11:20.  I kept knocking out fast miles, but I felt OK.  I was getting to the point in the race where it’s more psychological than physical.  With each mile I completed, the remaining distance seemed more manageable. As I continued to walk fast miles without feeling like I would blow up, my confidence grew.  It was the opposite of Mankato.  Instead of subconsciously giving up, I was digging deeper to find energy reserves I didn’t know I had.

We were almost to the point where we would turn and head away from the river.  It was only slightly uphill, but it was also into the wind.  This was the 19th mile.  That’s the same mile where I came unglued in Mankato.  This time, I actually sped up in what could have been a tough mile.

I turned onto Ritter Park Trail again.  Now I couldn’t feel any wind, and I was hot.  Overcoming the heat in the last seven miles was now my biggest obstacle.

I saw the flutist again.  This time, it only took a few seconds to recognize the music.  She was playing the theme from “Star Wars.”

On my second trip through the park, I was much more conscious of the trail surface.  There was some loose grit that made it harder to maintain a fast pace.  There were also leaves.  I felt like they were slowing me down.   In my 21st mile, I slowed to 11:38.  I fought hard to pick up the pace in the next mile, but it was tough.

I eventually reached a place where I had to turn right and cross a wooden bridge.  I didn’t remember the bridge.  We were so spread out that I couldn’t see any other runners in front of me.  I was reasonably sure this was the right way to go, but there was doubt in my mind.  It would be a shame to have a potential PR spoiled by a wrong turn.  It was the right way.

On the other side of the park, I saw the horn quarter again.  They were playing the theme from “Rocky.”  It’s easy to get sick of that, but this was a fresh arrangement.  It gave me a psychological lift.

In mile 22, I managed to pick up the pace a little.  That was reassuring.  Also, I only had 4.2 miles to go now.  That sounded much more manageable than 5.2.

I left the park, and headed toward downtown for the last time.  It was a welcome relief to know I would have solid pavement for the rest of the race.  Before turning onto 6th Avenue, I had to go under a railroad bridge.  The ramp going down was uncomfortable.  The ramp coming up the other side was tiring.  Everyone was walking here.

At each mile marker, I asked myself what pace I needed to average the rest of the way to break five hours.  At 23, I realized a 12:00 pace would be fast enough.  I kept fighting for 11:30s.

Soon, I made the turn onto Virginia Avenue.  I was heading east again.  For the rest of the race, I would be headed more or less toward the stadium.  Knowing that somehow made it seem closer.

My 25th mile was 11:49.  That was my slowest mile so far, but with only 1.2 miles to go, I knew I had it.  Earlier, after a slow mile, I tried to speed up again.  Now, I just wanted to keep from slowing down any more.

We made the same detour through the Marshall University campus again.  This time, it seemed longer. We were on a sidewalk that had traffic circles where it intersected with other sidewalks.  If I took the shortest line, I had to walk over bricks, which made my feet hurt.  If I took a somewhat wider path around the circle, I could stay on concrete.  I always took the shortest possible path, in spite of the pain.

The 26 mile sign was just before we entered the stadium.  I was disheartened to see that that mile was slower than the previous one.  I couldn’t dwell on it.  I was almost done.

I had to go down a steep ramp to get onto the football field.  I had to slow down to maintain a walking gait.  It would have been much easier to run it.

The highlight of the course is the finish.  As you get onto the football field, a volunteer hands you a football.  You go down one sideline, make a U-turn, and then head straight down the middle of the field, finishing at the goal line.  They used to use regulation footballs, and you had to give them to another volunteer after you finished.  This year, they used souvenir footballs, which we got to keep.  Race-walking with a football wasn’t nearly as much run as running would have been, but I was about to set a race-walking PR, and I wasn’t going to mess it up by running in the last 100 yards.

I finished in 4:58:01.  That’s a new race-walking PR by more than five minutes.  The second half was slower than the first half by a minute and 45 seconds.  That means my pacing wasn’t optimal, but even the second half was faster than a five hour pace.

The finisher medal design has changed since I first did this race.  The medal used to be a 3D design of a bison.  The new design is two dimensional, but has more color.

After finishing, I bumped into more friends.  Then I headed outside the stadium for post-race food.   They had hamburgers, potato chips, chocolate milk, bananas, and beer.

My feet are a mess.  I was suppressing a lot of pain from blisters.  I’ll do everyone a favor by not posting any pictures of my feet.  It was worth it, though.  I broke the five hour barrier!

I’ve walked seven marathons.  I’ve set marathon or half marathon PRs in all of them.  That streak is guaranteed to end after this race.  My next race is the Flying Monkey Marathon.  I’m going to walk it, but it won’t be a PR.  You don’t PR at Monkey!

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:58:01
Average Pace:  11:22
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  344
West Virginia Marathons:  3