Saturday, December 13, 2014

Race Report: 2014 Rocket City Marathon

Today, I ran the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL.  This is one of the oldest marathons in Alabama.  Back in the late 80s, I remember seeing this race in Runner’s World’s annual list of the top 20 marathons in the United States.  When I originally decided to do marathons in every state, I had this penciled in as my Alabama race.  As it turned out, the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham fit into my schedule better.  Now, I’m getting close to completing a second circuit of 50 states, so I chose Rocket City for my second Alabama race.

Huntsville is called the rocket city, because this is where the Saturn V rocket was developed.  That’s the type of rocket that was used by NASA for the Apollo missions that took astronauts to the moon.

There aren’t any non-stop flights from Minneapolis to Huntsville.  To get there, I needed to change planes in Detroit.  Flying home, I’ll change planes in Atlanta.  When I priced these flights, they were expensive, so I booked this trip with miles.  I stayed at the downtown Embassy Suites, which was the host hotel for the race.  The start, finish and expo were all within walking distance, so I didn’t need to rent a car.  Instead, I took a cab from the airport.  The expo was held at the Von Braun Center, which is connected to Embassy Suites by a skyway.

The one place in Huntsville I wanted to go that wasn’t within walking distance was the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.  Anticipating the interest in going there, the organizers held the pasta dinner there in the Saturn V Hall of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.  There were buses to the dinner from Embassy Suites.  I made a point of catching the first bus, so I would have a little time to look at the exhibits before dinner.  They covered the development of the Saturn V rocket and some of the history of the space program.

We ate dinner underneath a Saturn V rocket that was used for one of the moon missions.  The featured speaker was Dave McGillivray, race director of the Boston Marathon.  I never knew his background before nor did I know his athletic accomplishments.  He’s a great motivational speaker.

While I was there, I took quite a few pictures of the Saturn V.  It was impossible to get the whole thing in one picture.  Vertical, it would be 36 stories tall.

I also took a few pictures of the other exhibits.

The weather in Huntsville was surprisingly chilly.  When I woke up, it was 31 degrees.  It was about the same temperature when the race started at 7:00.  Fortunately, it was a sunny day.  According to the hourly forecast, it would warm into the upper 40s before I finished.  I had to strike a balance between being warm enough in the early miles and not being overdressed in the late miles.  If the last two weekends have taught me anything, it’s that I handle warm conditions better than cold conditions.  I decided to dress for the cold and take my chances on rising temperatures in the late miles.

Because of the race, Embassy Suites started their breakfast at 5:00.  I woke up before that, but opted to go back to sleep instead of having breakfast.  I didn’t feel like I needed any solid food, so I made a cup of tea in my room.  When I was ready for the race, I stopped by the breakfast area to have a glass of orange juice.

This is a medium sized race.  It’s big enough to have most of the amenities you associate with larger races, but it's not so big that it feels crowded.  That meant I could wait until the last minute to line up for the race.  I met a few other Marathon Maniacs for a pre-race photo inside the lobby.  Then I took the skyway over to the Von Braun Center.  The start was right outside the building, so I didn’t have to go out into the cold until 10 minutes before the race.

This year marked the debut of a new course.  Since I never ran the old course, I can’t comment on how the new course differs from the old one.  This year’s course has two distinct loops.  The first half of the course winds through residential neighborhoods on the northeast side of town before returning to the downtown area.  The second half is a loop through the southwest side of town, passing the Huntsville Botanical Garden and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center before returning downtown for the finish inside the arena at the Von Braun Center.  There aren’t any major hills, but it’s not flat either.  The course is constantly undulating.

Ever since the Seattle Quadzilla, I’ve had a few tight muscles.  Accordingly, I approached this race a bit cautiously.  My plan was to start the race on pace for 3:30, but wait to see how I felt before deciding if I would try to run any faster.  I thought I was doing a good job of pacing myself when I ran the first mile in 7:59.  Then I ran the second one in 7:34.  I didn’t feel like I was running any harder, so the first mile must have started slow and then got faster.

I gradually settled into a pace that was between 7:50 and 7:45 per mile.  After five or six miles, I found myself alongside the 3:25 pace group.  The pace felt good, so I decided to stay with them.  I was still concerned that I might get hot in the late miles, so I decided to plan on positive splits.  I would run a bit fast while it was still cold and give myself the option of slowing down if I got hot later on.

Shortly after I joined the 3:25 group, we briefly turned into the wind.  I worked myself into the pack, so I would be sheltered from the wind by other runners.  That was a bad idea.  We ran past a school, and there were a couple of wide speed bumps.  With a wall of runners right in front of me, I couldn’t see the rise in the pavement until I stumbled on it, jarring my left leg.

My left hamstring and glutes, the same muscles that had felt tight for the last two weeks, were now complaining.  It wasn’t anything serious, but they were uncomfortable for the rest of the race, and I started really noticing the hills.

For the time being, I was still able to run the same pace.  Instead of running with the 3:25 group, I got a little ahead of them, so I could see the pavement ahead of me.  I reached the halfway mark in 1:44.  That gave me cushion of three minutes that I could give back later if I started to get hot.

Just past 14 miles, I started to notice we were on along gradual hill.  I remembered from the elevation profile that it was uphill from 14 to 18.  There had been a similar uphill stretch in the early miles, but with fresh legs, I didn’t really notice it.  I was concerned that I could begin overheating if I took this section too hard.  I figured it was a good time to cut back to eight minute miles.  I didn’t need to keep adding to my cushion.

Mile 15 took me 7:53, but mile 16 took 8:22.  At this point I could afford to average somewhere between 8:15 and 8:20 the rest of the way.  I couldn’t afford to keep running 8:22 per mile.  The 3:25 group passed me.  I let them go.

We were now running toward the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.  There were a few rockets outside the building.  I’m not sure if they were actual rockets or just scale models, but one was tall enough that you could see it from miles away.  I knew we would run there before turning around.  I was pretty sure that was also the end of the uphill section.  It was nice to be able to run toward a landmark.

My next two miles were 8:00 and 8:15.  I was happy with those times, but I was beginning to struggle with hills.  I wasn’t getting hot as I had feared.  The tight muscles in my left leg were making it difficult to run uphill.

When we reached the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, we ran past the building, turned around, and ran on a trail through the grounds.  There were several other rockets that I couldn’t see from a distance.  One looked like a space shuttle.  When I got close enough to see the sign, I read that it was the Pathfinder Orbiter developmental test article.

I expected to begin several downhill miles.  While the trend may have been downhill, there were uphill sections as well.  I couldn’t keep all of my miles under 8:15.  At this point, 8:20 was fast enough, but I was cutting it close.

In the last five miles, the course leveled out.  Now we were fighting headwinds.  At first, I told myself that the wind was my friend.  Headwinds in the late miles may be tiring, but they would keep me from overheating.  In fact, I was doing just fine in cross-winds.  The only times I felt remotely warm were the times we had the wind at our back.  That didn’t happen much in the second half.

In the last five miles, I could see that I was going to break 3:30.  I was giving back time, but I had a large enough cushion to get me to the finish on pace.  The last mile and a half were the toughest.  This section was almost entirely into the wind.

Besides the regular mile markers, there was a one mile to go marker.  I reached it in 3:20:34.  That gave me 9:26 for the last mile.  I knew that was safe, even though I was slowing down running into the wind.  I ran the last mile in 8:25, finishing in 3:28:59.  That was my slowest mile of the race, even though I was fighting for it.

As it turns out, I never regretted my clothing choices.  Not only did I not overheat, but my hands were cold all the way to the finish.  The wind was both stronger and colder than I expected.

We finished inside the Von Braun Center Arena.  After finishing, we never had to go outdoors.  Finisher medals and post-race food were all indoors.

Post-race food included bananas, grapes, Moon Pies, chocolate milk and vegetable soup.  There were also several tables where volunteers were spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread and bagels.  The volunteers were all friendly and helpful.  For that matter, all the volunteers at aid stations were great, even though they were standing outside on a cold windy day.

After the race, I never had to back outside.  I could walk back to Embassy Suites through the Von Braun Center and the skyway.  After a long hot bath and some stretching, my leg felt OK.  I don’t think my stumble did any long-term damage.

This was the 19th consecutive weekend that I had at least one race.  In all, I ran 29 marathons or ultras in 19 weeks.  When I attempted to do the same thing last year, I suffered a hamstring injury in early October and limped through my next 24 races.  This year, I was relieved to get through this part of my schedule without an injury.

I don’t have another race until the Across the Years 48-Hour race, which starts on December 30.  In the meantime, I have a 16 day break.  The last time I went that many days without a race was in February.  I’m also winding down a period of heavy training that coincided with all these races.  With all of that behind me, I’m ready to begin tapering for Across the Years.

I’ve now run at least two marathons in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.  I don’t know when I’ll get back to those two states.  They’ll probably both be long vacations with Deb, so we have to wait until it’s a good time for both of us to take along trip.  By then, I’ll be getting close to finishing a third circuit.  My third Alabama race is already scheduled for January.

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