Saturday, July 16, 2016

Race report: 2016 University of Okoboji Marathon

This morning, I ran the University of Okoboji Marathon in Iowa.  I’ve done this race three times before, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect.  In particular, I knew the weather could range anywhere from “warm, but reasonable” to “stinking hot.”

When I entered this race, I was reluctant to make too many long-term commitments.  I could drive to this race, so my only non-refundable expense was my entry fee.

The Okoboji lakes area is in northern Iowa.  It’s a lake resort area.  They hold lots of athletic events there, and somewhere along the way a few people got the idea of selling branded sportswear.  They created a logo based on a fictitious university called the University of Okoboji.

They refer to the week of the marathon as homecoming week.  Besides the marathon, they hold a 10K race, a half marathon, and a triathlon.  My only major criticism of these events is that it seems like there’s too much going on at the same time.

I drove to Okoboji on Friday.  It’s normally a three hour drive, but road construction added an extra 45 minutes.  After checking in at my hotel, I drove a few miles further to Milford to pick up my race packet at The Three Sons.  The Three Sons is the athletics store that sponsors the race.

I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out by the lake.

I wasn’t sure where to have dinner until I drove by a restaurant called, “The Ritz.”  Their sign said they had the best pizza on the lake.  I had to find out for myself.  I ended up having a taco pizza.  Their smallest size was 12 inches, and the toppings were thick.  I realize after one slice I wouldn’t be able to finish.  I ate half.  Enough toppings fell off that side of the pizza that I also had a “taco salad” on the side.  Fortunately, my hotel room had a fridge and microwave, so I could save the other half for after the race.

After dinner, I started to feel sleepy.  Big meals sometimes have that effect.  Since my alarm was set for 4:00, I decided to go to bed early.  I got some good sleep at first, but I woke up at 12:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep.  At 3:30, I got up and started getting ready for the race.

I was ready early, so I drove to the start.  The race starts and finishes by the Arnold Park amusement park, where there’s a large parking lot.  I couldn’t remember if the parking lot fills before the race, so I wanted to make sure I could find a parking spot.  For future reference, parking before the race is not an issue.  The marathon is fairly small, and the other races have different start locations.  By late morning, the lot gets full, but it’s easy to find parking at 6:00.

It was 59 degrees, but the humidity was apparently high.  There was a thick coating of dew on my windshield.  I had to run my wipers as I drove, because it kept reforming a few seconds after it was wiped away.

A few minutes after I arrived, I bumped into a friend who told me the bathrooms were unlocked.  That’s good, because my breakfast consisted of a 20 oz. bottle of Coke.  I already needed to make a trip to the bathroom.

My fastest previous marathon time this year was 4:19.  Based on recent training runs, I thought I was ready to break four hours.  I didn’t know, however, how much heat and/or humidity would slow me down.

This year’s weather was in the “warm, but reasonable” category.  The forecast high was 78.  It was comfortable at the start, and I only expected it to get into the low 70s by the time I finished.  That’s warmer than ideal, but not bad for July.  Accordingly, I set a goal of breaking four hours, even though I knew it was optimistic.

The course begins with a short out-and-back along the eastern shore of West Lake Okoboji.  After about a mile, we crossed a bridge over the channel that connects West Lake Okoboji to East Lake Okoboji.

After crossing the bridge, we ran about a mile and a half along Lake Shore Drive before turning around.  The turnaround was right in front of The Inn at Okoboji.  In these early miles, I was averaging about nine minutes per mile.  That put me on pace for 3:56.

This part of the course had a number of small hills.  In the fifth mile, I felt like the pace was already getting tiring.  Then I discovered I sped up to 8:38 in that mile.  I probably sped up running down a hill and didn’t slow down again later.

After completing our out-and-back, we began a big loop, taking us all the way around West Lake Okoboji.  For the next 15 miles, there weren’t as many hills.  I got back onto the right pace, but I gradually realized it wasn’t going to be sustainable.  It’s not a good sign when you feel like you’re working, and you haven’t run 10 miles yet.

As we ran around the north end of the lake, we spread out.  I could usually see only one or two runners ahead of me.  At 11 miles, I passed another runner at a water stop.  After that, I didn’t see another runner for the next two miles.  I had to watch closely for the course markings.  There are a few places where you can make a wrong turn if you’re not paying attention.

When I reached the 13 mile mark, I checked my watch.  I was almost to the halfway mark, and I would get there in about two hours.  As I got closer, I could see lots of people milling about at the next intersection.  I would turn there, and I thought I remembered there being a water stop there.  It seemed like there were a lot of people for a water stop, but I wondered if this was one that serviced both runners and bikers.  There’s a section of the course where runners are on a paved path, and bikers are next to them on the road.

The large crowd wasn’t because of bikers.  There were hundreds of runners lined up in the street.  I heard a countdown. “7 … 6 … 5 …”

The half marathon was starting.  My timing couldn’t have been worse.  It was a much larger race than the marathon, and they started just before I got there.  I had difficulty pushing through the spectators, so I could make the turn.  Then I was behind a wall of runners.  They were going too slow for me, and there was no room to get through.  I had been slowing down in the past few miles, but it didn’t want to go this slow.

With constant shouts of, “excuse me – marathon runner coming through,” I managed to work my way through the crowd.  I slowed down a little, but at least I was able to run.

I started to notice sweat dripping into my eyes.  I was really perspiring heavily.  We were on the west side of the lake, running past cornfields.  All that vegetation was causing sky-high humidity.  The temperature had climbed several degrees, and I was starting to notice the sun.

There was no aid station at the half marathon mark.  Maybe there would have been, if I didn’t get there at the wrong time.  I was getting thirsty.  Thankfully, there was an aid station at 14 miles.  I decided to drink both water and Powerade.

By now, I had abandoned my “A” goal of four hours.  I reach the halfway mark on pace, but I was already slowing down, and I expected to suffer in the second half.  My “B” goal was to break 4:19.  That was my fastest time so far this year.

I eventually moved through the crowd of runners until I was surrounded by runners who were going an acceptable pace.  For the next few miles, I averaged 10 minutes per mile.  By the time I reached 16 miles, I only needed to average 11 minutes per mile for the rest of the race to beat my “B” goal.  I knew I’d slow down some, but I was reasonably confident I would average better than 11 minutes.

Between 16 and 17 miles, I reached another aid station.  I again drank both water and Powerade.  After leaving the aid station, I regretted not pouring a cup of water on my head.  I was starting to feel hot.

Shortly after that aid station, we ran through a tunnel under the highway.  For the next two or three miles, we would be on a path on the opposite side.  This section of the course isn’t as accessible, so there aren’t any aid stations on that side of the highway.  It’s also the most sun-exposed section.  It’s also right next to all that corn.

I felt relieved when I finally saw the tunnel that would take us back under the highway.  After a change in direction, I also started to feel a breeze.  I had to run another half mile before reaching an aid station.

At19 miles, we turned onto the road that would take us around the south end of the lake.  From here, I knew the layout of the course well enough to segment it in my mind.

The 19th mile was a slow one.  Not only was I no longer able to sustain 10 minute miles, but that one was slower than 11.  There were some small hills in that mile, and they wore me down.  To break 4:19, I still needed to average pretty close to 11 minute miles. I was no longer confident I could do it.

The next segment of the course was the road that took us around the south end of the lake.  It was a little over a mile.  Fortunately, it was reasonably flat.  I worked hard to pick up my pace.  When I could, I reeled in slower runners.  I was able to get back on pace, but I had to fight for it.

With about six miles to go, we turned onto Lakeshore Drive.  This would take us alongside the eastern shore of the lake.  Eventually, we would be on the same route as our earlier out-and-back, but that was still a few miles away.  In the meantime, I had to get through the hilliest section of the course.

I missed the 21 mile mark.  When I got to 22, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I averaged 10 minutes per mile for those two miles.  I was once again confident I could break 4:19.  I would have to fight for it, but I was going to do it.

Mile 23 was the toughest of the race.  It seemed like it was almost all uphill.  I worked hard to keep up my pace, and ran it in roughly 11 minutes.  That was another pleasant surprise.  Now I had 38 minutes to run the remaining 3.2 miles.

After a few more minutes, I reach The Inn at Okoboji.  That was the turnaround point earlier in the race.  From here on, everything would look familiar.  I knew there were more hills, but I also knew they wouldn’t be as bad as the previous mile.

Near the end of mile 25, I recognized the last significant hill.  It was followed by a short, but steep downhill.  Then we turned to cross the bridge for the last time.  Just before crossing the bridge, I saw the 25 mile marker.  My watch read 4:00 and some odd seconds.  I had plenty of time.

The last mile was all about finishing.  I was hot, I was tired, and I didn’t like how my legs felt.  I also knew I didn’t need to fight for time.  I just needed to keep running.

I eventually finished in 4:12:56.  While I wasn’t able to break four hours, it’s still my fastest time this year.  I’m making progress.

I didn’t have to wait long to get my official time.  Each race bib had a QR code we could scan to get our individual result.  When they first added QR codes, they just took you to the web page for results.  Going straight to your own result is much faster.

This race has a 40 year history.  I first ran it six years ago.  At the time, I had a few criticisms. Since then, I’ve noticed improvements each year.  Some are large; some are small.  The biggest improvement was when they changed the marathon course so it starts and finishes in the same place.

Before leaving the finish area I ate a banana and drank a bottle of Powerade.  When I got back to the hotel, I was starving.  It’s a good thing I had four slices of leftover pizza.

It’s been another successful homecoming week at the University of Okoboji.

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