Saturday, June 11, 2016

Race Report: Heartland Series, Day 7

Today, I ran the seventh race in the Heartland Series.  This is a series of seven marathons in seven days, sponsored by Mainly Marathons.  Like most of their series, each race is in a different state.  I didn’t do the whole series; I just ran the final race in the series, which was in Albert Lea, MN.

Ideally, I’d like to be running marathons every two or three weeks. Then I don’t need to do any long training runs.  It also lets me evaluate my progress, as I continue my comeback.  I’m also trying to find races that are close to home, so I don’t have to make too many travel commitments.  This race fit both of those criteria.  It’s also one of the five remaining Minnesota Marathons I had not yet run, so it helped me make progress toward that goal.

I drove to Albert Lea on Saturday.  I stayed at Country Inn & Suites, which was on Albert Lea’s business loop.  It was also only a few miles from the race site.  After checking in, I drove over there to make sure I knew where to go in the morning.  After walking around for a few minutes, I could feel sweat dripping down my legs.  It was sultry.

The big event in Albert Lea this weekend was a classic car show.  By chance, it was right outside the hotel, so got to see from of the cars before going to dinner.

Next I walked over to Green Mill for pre-race pizza with four other runners.  There was also a big group dinner closer at another location, but Green Mill was next door to the hotel, and it’s hard for me to pass up pizza.

My last race was a big breakthrough for me.  Ideally, I would have liked to see more improvement, even it was only by a few minutes.  When I saw the forecast, I knew I had my work cut out for me.  The overnight low was 69, with a forecast high of 93 and high humidity.  The race started at 5:00, so I knew I would finish before it got into the 90s, but that’s still hot enough that I had to pace myself cautiously.

The course was an out-and-back that we ran 16 times.  Multiple out-and-backs are common for Mainly Marathons races, although 12 laps is more common.  There was an aid station in the start/finish area with a variety of food and beverages.  They also set up a smaller aid station near the other end that just had fluids.

We ran on a paved path through Brookside Park, which is on the north side of Fountain Lake.  The start/finish area was next to a boat launch on a narrow channel.

Parking at the boat launch was limited, so we needed to park at a school that was about half a mile away.  People who ran other races in the series already had their race bibs.  I had to pick up mine before the race, so I arrived early.  I brought a cooler filled with ice, so I could put ice in my hat during the race.  With a slight breeze off the lake, it felt surprisingly pleasant.  I knew that would change.

There was a 5K, a half marathon, a marathon and a 50K.  The races all started together, but consisted of different numbers of laps.  For the 5K, there was a different turnaround point for their second (final) lap.  I don’t remember if there was something similar for the 50K.

There weren’t any mile markers, but I was content to check my watch at the end of each lap.  I didn’t have a good feel for my pace until I finished the first lap.  I finished that lap on pace for about 4:08.  That seemed too fast.  Even in ideal conditions, 4:08 would have been an aggressive goal.  Knowing it would get hot, it seemed unreasonably fast.

As I started my second lap, I told myself to relax a bit.  Even still, that lap was only a little bit slower than the first one.

By now, I was noticing the humidity.  I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I noticed I was sweating more than usual.

For the rest of the race, I got slower with each lap.  I didn’t try to force myself to stay on any particular pace.  I maintained a consistent effort, and my lap times gradually deteriorated.  Each lap was 30 to 60 second slower than the previous lap.

Most of the course had shade.  Other than the start/finish area, there was only one other area where we were exposed to the sun for more than a minute.  By the end of my seventh lap, the sun was high enough in the sky that it was shining on us in this area.  It didn’t feel hot yet.

I reached the halfway point in 2:15, but I knew the second half would be much slower.  I was getting fatigued.  I didn’t actually feel hot, but I expected I would in the second half.  I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

With each lap, my pace degraded and I felt more and more tired.  I’m sure the heat was affecting me, but I never actually felt hot.  Because of that, I never started putting ice in my hat.  I’ve run lots of hot races, but most of those involved higher temperatures or direct sunlight.  Here, the humidity was a bigger factor.  That might be why I didn’t perceive my fatigue as heat-related.

As I got increasingly uncomfortable, the number of remaining laps seemed daunting.  I started to toy with the idea of running most of the way and then switching to walking in the late laps.  As I entertained this thought, I decided I had to wait until I was sure I could walk the remaining laps and still break six hours.

I needed to run at least 11 laps.  It would be safer if I ran 12.  Then it occurred to me that 12 laps would be just short of 20 miles.  Since this race was doubling as a long training run, I wanted to run at least 20 miles before beginning to walk.  I forced myself to run a 13th lap, but only by telling myself I could walk the last three.

For most of the race, I wasn’t eating solid food.  I just drank Gatorade.  I never felt the need to drink more than one cup.  I never really felt thirsty.  There were kids volunteering at the aid station.  Their job was to offer freezer pops.  I didn’t really need one, but they were cute, and it was hard to say no.  I had one after my 11th lap and another after my 12th lap.

Every Mainly Marathons race has some type of hot entrée.  Today was hot dog day.  After my 13th lap, I stopped to get a hot dog.  I couldn’t eat one while running, but my plan was to walk the rest of the race.  The hot dogs were cut in half, making it easy to eat them quickly.  I ate fast and washed it down with Gatorade.  I was done eating before I left the aid station, so I persuaded myself to continue running.

I already gave myself permission to walk the last three laps, so any running I did now was a bonus.  I had one big incentive to keep running.  I was still on pace to break five hours.  I couldn’t quite see myself running the rest of the way, but I took it half a lap at a time.

By now, most of the half marathon runners were done, but most of the marathon runners were still on the course.  The course never got lonely.  There were also two runners doing the 50K.  One was doing 50K every day of the seven day series.  I was impressed with anyone running marathons for seven straight days, but I was even more impressed with her.  I was struggling to get through 16 laps.  She had to do 19.

With about two laps to go, I saw my friend Karen.  She was mostly walking, and it didn’t seem like she was that far ahead of me.  I decided to keep running until I caught up with her.  Then I’d walk with her until I finished.  It took longer than I thought.  I finally caught up to her on my last lap.  I only had about half a mile to go.

Before the race, I asked Karen to let me know if she noticed anything unusual about my stride.  I think I was OK at first.  In the middle laps, she started to notice a “hitch” in my stride.  She could also tell my left leg was stronger than my right leg. Now she was noticing all sorts of problems.  As more and more muscles got tight or fatigued, I reverted to bad habits from last year.

I expected walking to be easier.  I probably used less energy, but it wasn’t any more comfortable.  My hamstrings were really tight.  By now, I could walk the rest of the way and still break five hours.  I didn’t make any attempt to speed up as we entered the start/finish area.

I finished in 4:56:42.  Compared to the 4:19 I ran two weeks ago, that’s disappointing.  I had to remind myself I ran it under tough conditions.  I also had to remind myself that as recently as April, I couldn’t run that fast.

I was proud of myself for running as much of the race as I did.  I really wanted to give up and walk.  I’m not in great shape, but I have enough experience to play mental games with myself.  This time, I played a game of “bait and switch.”  I got through laps 10-12, only because I thought I would walk the last three.  Then I dangled the carrot of breaking five hours.

The finisher medals for these races come in several pieces that chain together.  Everybody who ran at least one race, got the head piece for the series.  They also got a “2016” medal to attach at the bottom.  For each individual race, you got a medal in the shape of that state.  Finally, anyone who did all seven got an extra piece for completing the series.  My three pieces look like this when they’re chained together.

I saw someone else wearing his medals for the entire series.  The long chain of medals extended down to his shins.  It’s a good thing I didn’t do the whole series.  I’m not tall enough to wear all the medals.

Besides the medal, I also got a Heartland Series T-shirt.  I have mixed feelings about that. I’ll wear it to dinner tonight, but I don’t feel like I really earned a “series” shirt.  I only did one race.  On the other hand, one of the rules of these series is that you’re not supposed to say, “only.”

Even though I never felt thirsty, I assume I got a little dehydrated.  Before leaving the finish area, I rehydrated with a few ice cold glasses of chocolate milk. Later, I had a bottle of Dr. Pepper.

Walking back to the car, I could tell my shoulders were bobbing from side to side.  When I got to the hotel, I could see my reflection in windows.  I was waddling like a penguin.  In general, I’m feeling closer to normal with respect to my walking and running mechanics.  After a race, however, I’m still a wreck.

I’m a little disappointed with myself for not recognizing how much the heat was affecting me.  Clearly, it was a factor, but I rarely felt hot.  I only perceived the fatigue, not the obvious cause.

I also never put ice in my hat.  In the early laps, I didn’t feel like I was that hot yet.  In the later laps, I didn’t want to stop, for fear of interrupting my rhythm.  I’ve used ice at lots of races, but they were always fixed-time ultras, where I was taking walking breaks each lap.  You don’t mind stopping for ice if you’re going to walk anyway.

As a race, my result was a little disappointing, but understandable.  As a long training run, it was a success.  I got in 26.2 miles (almost all running) in summer heat.  Today’s race was supposed to serve one other purpose.  Marathon results are my best way to evaluate my progress.  My next two races most likely will also be hot.  I might not get an opportunity to run a fast time until August.  By then, I’ll be trying to qualify for Boston.

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