On Saturday, August 23, 2014, I ran the Wausau Marathon. Wausau, WI is a three hour drive from where I live. It’s one of the many relatively new Midwestern races that I’ve never done before. That gave me an opportunity to experience a new race while also saving on travel expenses.
For the past week, the race itself has been overshadowed by the challenge of making it to the starting line. After my last race, I was experiencing Achilles tendonitis in my left ankle. I pretty much dropped everything else to try to recover in time for this race. I don’t give up easily when it comes to races. I wouldn’t do the race if it was going to make my ankle worse, but if there was any possible way I could get healthy in time to do this race, I was determined to try.
By Friday morning, I was feeling optimistic. After an emotional roller coaster, it finally seemed like I had a chance. I didn’t actually know if I was healthy enough to run, but I was finally walking without any discomfort, and that was an important start.
I finished my last-minute packing and got on the road around 10:00. After a lunch stop in Chippewa Falls, I arrived in Wausau around 1:30. I stopped at Hampton Inn first to see if they had a room ready. They didn’t have a room ready yet, so I continued to Wausau Center Mall to pick up my race packet.
Wausau is in Marathon County, and the marathon course is a loop that starts and finishes at the county fairgrounds, which is also called Marathon Park. That couldn’t be any more appropriate. When I saw this sign, I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble finding it in the morning.
After packet pickup and a stop at Marathon Park, I was able to check in at Hampton Inn. I didn’t want to spend too much time on my feet, so I relaxed at the hotel until dinner.
I met four other runners for dinner at Rocky Rococo Pizza & Pasta. Rocky Rococo is my favorite Wisconsin-based pizza chain. It’s a pan-style pizza with a chewy crust that I just love. I actually chose this race, in part, because there was a Rocky Rococo in Wausau. I’m almost as fanatical about pizza as I am about running marathons. Maybe that explains why I can run marathons every weekend and still gain weight.
After dinner, I was walking around a bit without a heel lift or Achilles tendon support. I felt OK, so I tentatively decided to run without them. I had never worn the Achilles tendon support on a long run, and race day isn’t a good time to experiment. I was still planning to have them in my SpiBelt, just in case.
I often have trouble sleeping the night before a race. Two weeks ago, I didn’t sleep at all before my race. Last week, I again didn’t sleep at all before my race. This week, I experienced a strange sense of calm. I didn’t expect to sleep well, so I didn’t worry about it. I viewed any sleep – even an hour – as a gift. I was able to fall asleep right away. A few times I woke up and had trouble getting back to sleep, but I got about five hours of sleep. I was happy with that, even though I was still tired.
The race didn’t start until 7:00, but I got up at 5:00. That gave me time to take a hot bath and stretch, while still being able to leave the hotel an hour before the start. The bath helped loosen up my muscles before stretching. I wanted to do a good job of stretching before this race – especially my Achilles tendons.
When I woke up, it was 69 degrees. According to the hourly forecast, the temperature wasn’t going to change much during the race. When I walked out to my car, it was foggy, and there was dew all over the windshield. I had run in conditions like this once before. It was in my first marathon, way back in 1983. It was 100% humidity.
I got to Marathon Park early enough to get a parking spot right near the starting line. The park was a great venue for the start and finish. There was plenty or parking and real bathrooms. As I started getting ready to run, I discovered that I forgot to bring either my Achilles tendon support or a heel lift. It was official. Ready or not, I was running without them.
My primary goal was to finish without further injury. Ideally, I also wanted to run a time under 3:30, but that was a secondary goal. Accordingly, I started running somewhat tentatively. I eased into my pace gradually as I convinced myself I was OK. I didn’t have any tightness or discomfort in my Achilles tendon, so I continued to pick up the pace. Before long, the pace was starting to feel fast. I wanted to check my pace at the first mile marker, but I missed it.
When I reached the two mile mark, my time was 15:03. I was going too fast. I eased up a little, but I was starting to chat with the runners around me, so I kept going too fast for a few more miles.
The course started out running through the downtown streets of Wausau, but before long we started getting into neighboring communities. The course was one big loop, so it took us through a number of different towns before returning to Wausau. I remember form the course map that we would go by several small parks. I was working so hard to maintain my pace, that I didn’t notice very much of the scenery in the first half. It didn’t help that there was a layer of moisture on my sunglasses that obscured my vision.
After about five miles, I realized I had to slow down. I slowed to eight minute miles and let the other runners around me pull away. Even that pace felt too fast. I worked to keep up the pace, but it felt unsustainable. I felt sluggish and tired. Every major muscle group in my legs felt tired, sore and tight. At first, I thought it was because I wasn’t recovered from the all-out effort in my last race. I soon realized that the humidity was also a big factor.
I was only seven miles into the race when my right eye started to sting. Sweat was dripping into my eye, and it was unusually salty. I didn’t feel hot, but I had been sweating profusely since the beginning of the race.
At 10 miles, I reached an aid station. It was the fifth one on the course. So far, they only had water. I was getting concerned that they would all be that way. I had skipped breakfast, assuming I would get enough calories from drinking Gatorade. I was regretting that decision.
I’ve only run one marathon drinking water the whole way. That was my first one. That race was 63 degrees at the start with 100% humidity. My goal in that race was 3:30, and I held that pace for 14 miles. In the late miles, my legs cramped up, and I struggled to a 3:59 finish. I was starting to wonder if this race would turn out the same way.
Just before 12 miles there was another aid station. The volunteer asked me if I wanted water or Gatorade. I eagerly accepted a glass of Gatorade. That gave me a psychological lift. All but one of the remaining aid stations had either Gatorade or gels.
Right after the aid station, we cut diagonally across a major intersection. Both roads were open to traffic, but police were there to stop traffic for us. That’s something I noticed throughout the race. Wherever we turned, there were both signs and volunteers to tell us which way to turn. In places where we crossed traffic, police were there. Traffic control, signage and course marshals were all excellent.
Besides mile markers and directional signs, there were also a number of signs with motivational messages. Some were amusing, and others were predictable. I appreciated seeing a sign in the first half that said, “You are NOT almost there.” I’d rather have brutal honesty than false hope.
The next aid station was at the 13 mile mark. I drank two cups of Gatorade. I looked at my time, but I was too distracted to realize that I had slowed down in that mile. When I got to 14, I saw that I had slowed to 9:10 in that mile. That didn’t surprise me. I felt like I was slowing down. Then I realized my previous mile had been almost as slow. At the pace I was now running, I would finish in about 3:45. What shocked me was my next mile. It was barely under 10 minutes. In the span of three miles, I had slowed down by almost two minutes per mile.
I had accepted that I could break 3:30 today, but I was now worried about breaking four hours. I couldn’t afford to keep slowing down. After that, I fought to hold onto a 10 pace. Some miles were faster, and some were slower, but on average I held a 10 pace.
Around 18 miles we came to my favorite part of the course. We ran through a large park alongside the Wisconsin River. We crossed two covered bridges and briefly ran alongside a creek. Later, we crossed a long pedestrian bridge over the river.
With seven miles to go, I only needed to average 11 minutes per mile to break four hours. So far, my slowest mile had been 10:31, but I felt like the wheels could come off at any time. I kept fighting for 10s.
With three miles to go, a spectator said “You’re almost there.” I remembered the sign I saw earlier. I wasn’t almost there. I was hanging on for dear life, and three miles seemed like forever.
I was able to hold the pace until the last two miles. We crossed another long bridge over the river. The approach to the bridge was a long gradual hill. I maintained my effort but my pace slowed. At 25 miles, I saw that I had over 18 minutes left to break four hours. I just had to keep running, and I would do it.
I crossed some railroad tracks and saw the corner of Marathon Park. It’s like a rectangular forest in the middle of Wausau. Then I saw where we turned to enter the park. A volunteer said, “You’re almost there.” I knew about how far I had to run through the park. This time I really was almost there.
I finished in 3:54:50. Within seconds of stopping, I felt light-headed. I’ve experienced that for a few seconds before, but this time it lasted almost a minute. As I moved through the finish area, I couldn’t walk in a straight line, and I had to be careful to keep from falling. Fortunately, that feeling passed. I made my way to the food tent, where I saw my friends Cade and Jen.
I had been drinking a bottle of water I received after crossing the line. In the food tent, I had a brat, a banana, cookies and a beer. I was half done eating the brat when I remembered that I recently gave up eating meat. Oops. I think it was worthy of an exception. Nothing says Wisconsin like beer and brats. OK, beer and cheese would be better.
While we were eating, the awards ceremony started. It was no surprise that Cade and Jen both won age group awards. Then I heard that our friend Aaron also won an award. Aaron had to leave right after he finished, but Cade was able to pick up the award for him. Eventually, Jen heard them call my name. Even with a time that I thought was disappointing, I placed second in my age group. I think the humidity took a toll on everybody. The age group awards were pint glasses that said, “Wausau Marathon.”
Half an hour after finishing, sweat was still dripping from my clothes. I’m sure I was dehydrated, and my electrolytes were also off. As soon as I got back to the hotel, I fixed a cup of tea. I had a tea bag and a hot cocoa packet in my room. When I finished the first cup of tea, I made a second one. Then I made the hot cocoa. I was catching up on fluids, but my electrolytes were still off.
After taking a long hot bath, I did my best to stretch. Stretching was difficult, because every time I stretched one muscle group, another one would cramp up. When I started stretching my hamstrings, my abdomen cramped up. That was painful and lasted a long time. As I tried to relax my abdomen, my feet cramped up.
Eventually I got dressed, but I didn’t leave the hotel until it was time for dinner. I had dinner with another group of runners at Great Dane Pub, where the food was good, and the stories were even better. I rounded out my Wisconsin culinary experience by having Wisconsin style cheddar mac, which probably went a long way to replacing the salt I lost during the race.
Sunday morning, I noticed welts and abrasions in various places where my skin was rubbing against the edges of my clothes. I don’t usually have problems with chafing, but my clothes had been drenched with sweat for the entire race.