Sunday, September 20, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Fox Cities Marathon

This morning, I ran the Fox Cities Marathon.  This race has a point-to-point course that goes through six cities along the Fox River, starting in Menasha, WI and finishing in Neenah, WI.  I’ve done this race twice before.  In 1999, while I was working on running marathons in every state, I chose this for my Wisconsin race.  At the time, I was trying to avoid repeating states, so I didn’t return until 2011, when this race was the site of the Marathon Maniacs annual reunion.  This year, it was one of the quarterly reunions of the 50 States Marathon Club.

The course has been a little different each time I’ve run it.  This year’s course started on the University of Wisconsin – Fox Valley campus and finished at Riverside Park in Neenah.  Past incarnations of the course crossed the Fox River several times.  This year’s course mostly stayed on one side of the river, but there was one notable crossing.  Late in the race, we crossed the widest part of the river on the Freedom Trail trestle bridge.  This used to be a railroad bridge.

Appleton is roughly a five hour drive from Minneapolis.  It was nice to have two consecutive races that were within my driving range.  I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Appleton.  There were closer hotels, but this is the same hotel where I stayed in 2011.

After checking in at Hampton Inn, I drove to the UW – Fox Valley campus to pick up my race packet.  While I was there, I also attended the 50 States Marathon Club reunion.  The highlight of these reunion meetings is recognizing members who have finished running marathons in very state.

I knew several of the runners who were recent 50 states finishers.  Two of them were runners I celebrated with at the races where they finished.  It was nice to also see them get their awards at a reunion.

After the meeting, I joined other runners for dinner at Rocky Rococo, my favorite Wisconsin pizza chain.  They have a pan-style pizza that I don’t find in many local restaurants.  You can order whole pizzas, but they also have pizza by the slice, which is convenient when you don’t know how many people will be able to join you.

I had a horrible night’s sleep.  I only slept for about two hours, not all at once.  Usually, I can shake that off once I start running.  Of course, I usually start at a fairly fast pace.  If I ran a more relaxed race, I didn’t know if I would still be able to shake off the lack of sleep.

There were several options for race day transportation.  The last time I did this race, I parked at the start.  I was intending to do that again this year, but made a last minute decision to park near the finish in Neenah and take a bus to the start.  I got to downtown Neenah so early I was able to find street parking in the same block where I caught the bus to the start.  I arrived at the start about an hour before the race.

At the start, we were able to go inside the student union, which had comfortable seating and real bathrooms.  I had no regrets about parking near the finish.  I was comfortable before the race, and I knew I would have my car nearby when I finished.  I was able to hang out with several friends who were at the reunion meeting on Saturday.

The weather was excellent.  The overnight low was 50 degrees, and the high was around 70.  There was no chance of rain and very little wind.  Last week, in weather that was a few degrees cooler, I ran in tights.  This week, I opted for shorts.  I waited until the last minute to line up, so my legs wouldn’t get cold.  My legs are currently sensitive to cold temperatures, and I didn’t want to risk having circulation issues.

In my last race, I started too fast and slowed down pretty dramatically.  My pace in the second half was more than four minutes per mile slower than my pace in the first half.  I started this race with two goals.  First, I wanted to improve on last week’s 4:57 finish time.  Second, I wanted to keep my pace more consistent.  My guess was that a time in the 4:30s was probably realistic, so I should be starting the race somewhere around a 10:30 per mile pace.

I was assigned to the “A” corral, based on the estimated finish time I gave when I entered the race.  That was months ago, when I was healthy.  I lined up at the back of the “A” corral.  I probably should have lined up farther back.

As we started running, I was evidently influenced by the people around me.  I wasn’t trying to start fast, but found myself right behind the 3:40 pace group.  After easing up a little, I slipped behind the 3:45 group.  I don’t know what happened, but before I knew it, I was right behind the 3:40 group again.

The pace felt easy.  I had a hard time believing I was really on pace for 3:40.  I’ve done a few races where the pacers deliberately went slow in the first mile to let everyone get warmed up.  I wondered if these pace groups were doing that.  Surely, I wasn’t really on pace for 3:40.

We started with the half marathon, but the two courses separated early in the race.  They turned north to run a shorter loop before heading south toward Neenah.  We continued east to run a much longer loop.

I missed the one mile sign.  When I reached the two mile sign, I checked my watch.  My time through two miles was 17:10, an average of 8:35 per mile.  For the first time, I knew that I was going much too fast.  It felt deceptively easy.  Over the next few miles, I slowed down by 5-10 seconds per mile.  My pace eventually leveled off at nine minutes per mile. That was still too fast.  It’s roughly the pace I was running last week, and that race was disastrous.  Still, it felt deceptively easy.

In the early miles, we ran past a few farms.  The first time I ran this race, it was run in the opposite direction.  I remember running past farms late in the race, when the runners were all spread out.  These miles were kind of boring, so it’s better to run them early in the race.

After a few more miles, we started reaching residential neighborhoods.  In the middle miles, these gave way to paved trails around parks and through greenways.  The race goes through a number of different communities.  More than once, we were greeted by squads of high school cheerleaders.

Through 11 miles, I was running a pace similar to the way I started last week.  I still felt OK, but I was conscious of the fact that I started falling apart at this same point in last week’s race.

The early miles were mostly flat.  As we got closer to the halfway mark, the course became slightly rolling.  There weren’t any big hills, but even on small ones, I started feeling some discomfort in my legs.  My KT tape was helping, but running downhill was uncomfortable.

Just before 12 miles, there was a steep downhill.  I had to slow down.  Then I had to work hard to regain my pace.  I heard people cheering for a pace group.  I realized it had to be the 3:55 group.

This was the most scenic part of the course.  We were in a greenway alongside a river.  I realized we must be seeing the Fox River for the first time.  Previous incarnations of this course crossed the river several times.  I missed that.

I was carrying a camera, but so far I hadn’t taken any pictures.  I was tempted to stop, but I was worried that my legs might get stiff.  I was still in a good rhythm, so I decided to forgo taking pictures.

Knowing the 3:55 pace group was right behind me gave me motivation to pick up my pace ever so slightly.  I was still ahead of them when I reached the halfway mark. My time for the first half was 1:57.  That was four minutes faster than last week.  So much for starting at a more reasonable pace.  The question now was, “How much would I slow in the second half?”  Last week, the collapse began at 11 miles.  If nothing else, I was holding out longer.

The small hills on this section of the course were beginning to take a toll on me.  The downs were uncomfortable, and the ups took me out of my rhythm.  The 3:55 group moved past me and pulled away.

I overheard two other runners talking about one more hill that was coming up.  After that, the rest of the course would be fairly flat.  That sounded encouraging.  As we left the paved trail to return to streets, I noticed we were beginning a hill.  A spectator confirmed that this was the last significant hill.  It wasn’t actually that big, but the damage was already done.  Knowing the rest of the course was flat didn’t help.  I held a nine minute pace for 14 miles, but now I was beginning to slow down.

I never saw the 15 mile sign, but that’s about where the 4:00 pace group passed me.  I took consolation from lasting four additional miles before they caught me.  Last week, they caught me at 11 miles.

When I reached the 16 mile sign, I finally had a chance to check my pace.  Over the previous two miles, I averaged 10:15.  That’s better than last week.  Last week, I went from 9:15 to 11 in one mile.  I realized I would continue to deteriorate, but I was comparing myself to last week.  Mile by mile, I wanted to limit the damage.  I wanted to have a less dramatic second half collapse.  My primary goal was to beat last week’s time, and I liked my chances.

In mile 17, I slowed to 11 minutes.  Last week, I was already running 12-13 minute miles by then, so I was still holding up better.

Mile 18 seemed to take forever.  When I looked at my watch, I assumed it would be a 13 minute mile.  It was only 11:24.  That was actually encouraging.  I started the next mile with some extra motivation.  I just wanted to limit the damage.

The next mile took us through more residential neighborhoods, and one yard had several signs.  One read, “200 yards to the 19 mile sign.”  I looked ahead, and there it was.  When I got there, I was disappointed to see I ran that mile in 13:06.

At that pace, I wouldn’t be able to break 4:30.  At first, I thought I could do it if I sped up a little.  Then I realized I was forgetting about that pesky 0.2 miles at the end.  I actually had no chance of breaking 4:30, but I still had a good chance of breaking 4:40.  Earlier, I thought finishing in the 4:30s was a realistic goal.  At this point, it looked likely.

Just after the 19 mile mark, I was passed by the 4:10 pace group.  Having realized I wouldn’t break 4:30, I wasn’t too concerned.  I tried to bear down and keeping from slowing down.  My next two miles were each 13 minutes or a few seconds faster.  That was encouraging.

This race had a 90s theme.  I think it’s because the first Fox Cities Marathon was held in 1991.  Throughout the race, I saw signs with questions about 90s movies.  Then the next sign would identify the movie and year.  One of the movies was Toy Story.  As I neared an aid station, I saw two volunteers walking along the road in costume.  One was Buzz Lightyear.  The other was a toy soldier.  I regret not taking a picture.  I was past them before I remembered I had a camera.

Last week, I started walking at 22 miles after taking more than 14 minutes to run a mile.  This week, my time for mile 22 was 13:30.  This week, I kept running, knowing it would allow me to beat my times for miles 23-25.  If nothing else, I was going to beat last week’s time.

I reached what looked like a boardwalk.  We were alongside some old railroad tracks.  I realized we had reached the trestle bridge.  I’ve never run across this bridge before.  While I missed the other river crossings, this one was a welcome addition to the course.  I no longer had to worry about my legs getting stiff.  That ship had already sailed, so I stopped twice to take pictures.  Each time, it was difficult to start running again.

Shortly after crossing the bridge, I saw the 23 mile sign.  Even with the stops, that mile was under 15 minutes.  By comparison, the same mile of last week’s race took more than 16 minutes, because I walked it.  Miles 24 and 25 were also slow.  Each one took between 14 and 15 minutes, but that was better than walking, as I did last week.

Last week, I picked up the pace from 25 to the finish.  That wasn’t going to happen this week, but I did the best I could.  It occurred to be that I might be able to break 4:40, but it was going to be close.

As we ran through Neenah, we weren’t on the main street, so it was hard to tell where I was.  At one point, I looked to my left and saw a bridge.  I recognized it.  The last time I ran this race, our approach to Neenah took us across Doty Island.  We entered downtown Neenah from the bridge on my left.  From there, it was only a few blocks to Riverside Park.

After three more blocks, we turned left.  I heard someone say we were almost to 26.  Looking ahead, I could see the 26 mile mark.  It was just before a turn.  I checked my watch when I got there.  4:36:07.  I knew I had it.

I turned and looked for the finish line.  I couldn’t see it yet.  At the end of the next block, I saw the 13 mile sign for the half marathon.  We had one more turn.  Then I could finally see the finish.  For four miles, people had been saying, “You’re almost there.”  For the record, you’re not “almost there” until you can see the finish line.  NOW, I was almost there.  I kept pushing and finished in 4:38:38.

One of my goals was to beat last week’s 4:57.  I did that.  I thought something in the 4:30s was realistic.  I did that.  I wanted to do a better job of pacing.  Two out of three ain’t bad.

The finisher medal read, “25.” That’s because this was the 25th Fox Cities Marathon.  Finish line food, besides fruit, cheese cubes and cookies, included cake.  Again, that’s because they were celebrating 25 years.

I made my way through the finish area and found the 50 States Marathon club tent.  Eventually, I retrieved my gear bag and walked back to my car.  It was a half mile walk.  I didn’t eat much post-race food, so I grabbed some lunch on my way back to the hotel.  Eventually, after a shower and a long soak in the whirlpool, I had a proper dinner.  By proper, I mean pizza and lots of beer.  This is Wisconsin, after all.

This was my fourth race wearing KT tape.  My left leg is improving.  My right leg isn’t.  After the race, it was as sore as it’s been.  The good news is that I’m one week closer to the end of my 2015 race schedule.  I need to hang in there for 12 more weeks.  They’re not getting easier, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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