Sunday, August 21, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Super Tunnel Marathon

This morning, I ran the Super Tunnel Marathon in North Bend, WA.  This is a new race that uses the same course as the Light at the End of the Tunnel and Tunnel Lite Marathons.  The course is almost entirely downhill, but it’s a gentle grade.  Having run the Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon two years ago, I knew it was a fast course.

Once I realized I had a realistic chance of qualifying for next year’s Boston Marathon, I arranged my race schedule to give myself the best possible chance.  This race was my first chance to qualify.  I also scheduled another downhill race three weeks later.

The course for this race starts in a small parking area near Snoqualmie Pass.  After leaving the parking lot, runners enter the Snoqualmie Pass Tunnel, which is two and a half miles long.  This used to be a railroad tunnel.


After the tunnel, the mostly dirt trail turns downhill and descends 2050 feet before reaching the finish in North Bend.  The first 21 miles (including the tunnel) are on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.  The last five miles are on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.

Excluding the first three miles, which are fairly flat, the average grade is about 1.6 percent.  Although that’s not at all steep, I worried about how my legs would handle running downhill for that many miles.  Running downhill can beat up your quads, but it’s also hard on your adductors.  I injured my adductors in both legs last year.  They’ve healed, but I’m still working to rebuild strength in those muscles.  My physical therapist has advised running with a slight forward lean.  That forces me to use my glutes, which relieves some of the strain on my adductors.

For the past few months, I’ve tried to incorporate some small hills into my training runs.  On the downhill side of each hill, I lean forward and run fast, paying close attention to my form.  More recently, I did a few runs on the treadmill.  I varied the grade between -1.5 and -2.0 percent and ran downhill for an hour or more at a time.

To qualify for Boston, I need a time of 3:40.  The Boston Marathon is usually oversubscribed, so to actually get into the race, you need to be a minute or two faster.  I figured 3:37 would be safe, but anything slower would put me “on the bubble.”  That’s an average pace of 8:17.  If I could break 3:35, I would be able to register during the first week.  That’s an average pace of 8:12.

On my treadmill runs, I set the speed just a little bit faster than the pace I needed to break 3:35.  In addition to conditioning my legs for downhill running, I also wanted to get a good feel for what this pace felt like.

I flew to Seattle on Saturday, arriving in the early afternoon.  I stayed in Issaquah, which is just east of Lake Sammamish, along I-90.  From there, I would need to drive about 20 miles in the morning to get to the finish area in North Bend.

When I ran the Light at the End of the Tunnel Marathon in 2014, the region was experiencing a heat wave.  As the temperature climbed in the second half of the race, the heat gradually wore me down.  The time I gained by running on a fast course was roughly offset by the time I lost as I began to overheat.  When I arrived in Seattle on Saturday, it looked like déjà vu all over again.  The weather was again being characterized as a “heat wave.”  It got up to 93 degrees in North Bend.  It was the third straight day with temperatures in the 90s.  Fortunately, Saturday was the last unusually hot day.  The forecast high for Sunday was only 75.  That’s still hot for a marathon, but nothing like 93.  I could expect to be uncomfortable in the late miles, but at least I had a fighting chance.

After checking in, and making sure the AC was working, I had dinner at Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria.  It was nice finding authentic Neapolitan-style pizza only a mile from my hotel.

I had to get up early to drive to North Bend to catch a shuttle to the start.  The race didn’t start until 8:00, but the last shuttle left at 6:35.  I got there early and boarded the second bus.  When I checked in at the start, I received my race bib and two drop bags.  The first drop bag was for warm-up clothes that I wanted transported to the finish line.  The second bag was for my flashlight.  It’s dark inside the tunnel, so most runners use a flashlight or headlamp.  Just past the tunnel, there’s a place to drop off a bag with your light, so you don’t need to keep it with you for the whole race.

Even though this is a relatively small race, they had pace groups.  Many runners attempt to qualify for Boston on this course.  Since I was hoping for a time of 3:37 or better, and needed to run faster in the first half, starting with the 3:40 pace group wouldn’t help.  Instead, I lined up right behind the 3:30 pace group.  My plan was to stay as close to them as I could in the first half, and then allow myself to slow down a little as I got hot.  I expected the late miles to be slow, so I was planning to run positive splits.

The temperature at the start was in the mid-50s.  When it was time to check my gear bag, I stayed in the sun to keep from getting cold.  Once I started running, I was comfortable.

I followed the 3:30 pacers through the parking lot, onto the trail, and into the tunnel.  Inside the tunnel, I had to split my attention between staying close to the pacers and staying in the middle of the tunnel.  The trail slopes toward either side, so it’s more comfortable to run in the middle.  That was easier said than done while running by the light of my flashlight.  There were at least a dozen runners following the 3:30 pacers, so it was tough to get right behind them.  If I got too far behind, I was afraid I would lose sight of them.

Inside the tunnel, it was cool and damp.  The trail surface was surprisingly wet, and there were a few small puddles.  The pace felt brisk.  A 3:30 marathon corresponds to a pace of 8:00 per mile.  I expected that pace to feel reasonable once we started running downhill, but I had to work to run this pace on a level grade.

The first two mile markers were inside the tunnel.  They were well marked, but I didn’t bother to look at my watch.  I would have needed to shine my flashlight on my watch to see my time.  It was easier to just stay close to the pacers and assume they were keeping us on the right pace.

Running through the tunnel, I held my flashlight with one hand and kept my small drop bag in the other hand.  As I neared the end of the tunnel, I turned off my flashlight and quickly stuffed it into my bag.  Then I tied it shut and made sure my bib number was still visible on the outside of the bag.  I had to do this within the last 50 yards of the tunnel.  Before that, there wasn’t enough natural light to see without my flashlight.

Outside the tunnel, volunteers were lined up on both sides to take our bags.  Seeing most runners go to their right, I went to my left.  That was a mistake.  After dropping off my bag, I had to cross over to the other side to get a drink at the aid station.  Runners were streaming out of the tunnel, and a few bumped into me as I crossed over to the other side.

Aid stations were spaced two to three miles apart.  That’s pretty good for a trail marathon, where most of the course isn’t accessible by road.  Knowing it would get warm later, I was worried about drinking enough to stay hydrated.  I usually drank a cup of water and a cup of Gatorade.  That forced me to stop briefly at each aid station.  I can drink one cup on the run, but not two.

By the time I was done at the aid station, I had fallen behind the pace group.  The trail turned downhill now, so I didn’t have to work as hard to maintain my pace.  Now gravity was doing some of the work.  Still, the pace we were running felt brisk.  I couldn’t catch up to the pace group too quickly.  I had to be patient and close the gap gradually.

When I reached the three mile marker, I looked at my watch.  It was all zeros.  I remember pressing the Start button as I crossed the starting line, but I must not have made good contact.  Usually, I keep looking at my watch until I see the seconds counting up.  I apparently forgot to do that.

I quickly started my watch.  I was still about seven seconds behind the pace leaders.  It probably took another few seconds from the time I crossed the three mile mark until I started my watch.  If we were on the right pace, the pace leaders would have passed the three mile mark in about 24 minutes.

At four miles, I got my first split.  It felt like we were going fast, but I was still surprised to run the fourth mile in 7:40.  I felt like I was just able to keep up.  Now I knew why.

I moved up next to one of the pace leaders and asked him if he remembered his three mile split.  It was 24:10.  Since I started my watch about 10 seconds later, I made a point of mentally adding 24:20 to all my future splits.

The next time we reached an aid station, I again fell behind the group and had to gradually catch up.  Again, I took my time.

Most of the time, the trail was surrounded by tall trees on either side.  That gave us lots of shade.  Every so often, we would cross a bridge or come alongside a clearing.  When we did, we got gorgeous views of the surrounding valley.  We also were briefly in the sun.

When I was in the sun, I could see my shadow in front of me.  This was an opportunity to evaluate my form by watching the shadow cast by my head and shoulders.  Ideally, the shadow should move forward down the trail with no side to side motion.  I could see a slight side to side bobble by my shoulders.  I wasn’t able to maintain my posture running downhill at this pace.

At eight miles, we reached another aid station.  By now, catching up to the pace group would have taken too much effort.  I resumed my previous pace, but didn’t try to catch up.  I estimated I was running about 15 seconds behind them.

I found the pace to be barely sustainable.  Common sense suggested I should back off a little.  I was afraid to do that for two reasons.  First, I was afraid I’d back off too much and not be able to get back on the pace I needed.  I was also afraid I’d be slow in the last five miles.  I wanted to have a five minute cushion at the 21 mile mark.  That meant I couldn’t afford to slow down, even though I was worried that my current pace was too fast.

My next mile was 7:45, even though I was hanging back behind the 3:30 pace group.  In the next mile, I fell further behind, but that mile was also 7:45.  Clearly, they sped up for a couple of miles.  I was glad I was no longer trying to keep up.  I eventually lost contact with them completely and tried to maintain a similar effort.

My next few miles were a little bit slower, but I tried to keep them close to eight minutes.  I questioned how much longer I could do that.  I wondered if I had already blown this race by starting too fast.

The next time I saw my shadow, there was no side to side bobble by my shoulders.  Now that I was no longer fighting to keep up with the pacers, my posture was better.

My pacing plan was to run the first half in 1:45.  Then I could afford to run the second half in 1:52.  I reached the halfway mark in about 1:44:30.  So far, so good.  Now I needed to hang on for eight more miles of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail.  That was easier said than done.  My next few miles were in the range of 8:21 to 8:26.  That was fast enough for now, but it wouldn’t give me the cushion I wanted in the last five miles.

Assuming my 24:20 adjustment was correct, I reached the 15 mile mark in two hours.  That would be the last time I had an average pace of 8:00.  My most recent miles, however, were slower.

I felt like I was really fighting to maintain the best pace I could.  I still had five more miles before the turn onto the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.  If knew I would be slower on that trail, so I couldn’t afford to slow down before then.

I ran the 17th mile in 9:28.  That was disheartening.  My previous mile had been 8:26.  How could I slow down by more than a minute?  I wondered again if I had blown my race by starting too fast.

I refused to give up.  I maintained my effort in the next mile.  It was 7:47.  Then I realized the 17 mile marker must have been misplaced.  The average of those two miles was 8:38.  That seemed more reasonable.

In addition to the shade, we sometimes had a cool breeze.  I was thankful for the breeze.  I would get hot eventually, but for now it was keeping me cool.

I battled my way through four more miles to reach the only significant turn on the course.  After leaving the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, I ran a short but noticeable downhill segment.  Then I ran through a campground.  As I left the campground, I was on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail.

There were three reasons I expected to be slower on this trail.  First, it was a more level grade.  While there was still a slight downhill trend, it was far less noticeable than the previous trail.  I knew it would take more effort to run the same pace.  Since I couldn’t pick up my effort, that meant I would be slower.  Second, a portion of this trail has a surface of loose rocks.  I knew that section would be slow and tiring.  Finally, the temperature was climbing.  It was about 70 degrees by now.  For the first time, I was starting to feel hot.

At the 22 mile mark, I figured out how much time I had to break 3:37.  I needed to average about 8:45 per mile.  My previous mile was 8:43.  This was going to be close.

At times, I had to remind myself that 3:37 was an arbitrary goal.  I wanted to qualify for Boston with three minutes to spare, but I didn’t really know what it would take to get into Boston.  Without knowing, every second counted.  I was tiring, but I spurred myself on with the mantra, “every second counts.”

I ran the next mile in 8:45.  I was doing it.  Then I slowed to 8:51 in the 24th mile.  Breaking 3:37 now seemed doubtful.  I kept fighting.  “Every second counts.”

I reached the section of trail with loose rocks.  It was tiring, and I knew the loose footing had to be slowing me down.  I fought for it.  “Every second counts.”

Occasionally, I crossed a bridge over a small stream.  On the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, the bridges were fairly long, and the surface was usually covered with gravel.  On this trail, the bridges were all made from concrete slabs.  The firm traction on the bridges was a welcome relief from the rocks everywhere else.

When I reached the 25 mile sign, I saw I had slowed to 9:30.  I wasn’t going to break 3:37.  Unless I could speed up, I wouldn’t even break 3:38.  I had to do what I could.  “Every second counts.”  I tried to pick up the pace, but I was running out of gas.

Eventually, at a slight bend in the trail, I saw the 26 mile sign.  It quickly became apparent that the 25 sign had been misplaced.  I didn’t slow down after all.  I was still on pace to break 3:37.  Looking ahead, I could see the finish line.  I could see the clock.

Knowing my watch was wrong, I watched the clock all the way in.  I finished with a “gun time” of 3:36:41.  I later learned my “chip time” was 3:36:39.  That was a Boston qualifier with 3:21 to spare.

After finishing, I had to really work on stretching my adductors.  My hips were also sore.  It was tough to keep my hips moving as I walked around in the finish area.

The finish line food was great.  Beverages included chocolate milk, Coke, water, and Gatorade.  Food included watermelon, chips, cookies, two kinds of cake, and chili.  There were probably several foods I missed.  I couldn’t eat much solid food.  I mostly ate watermelon and rehydrated with chocolate milk and Gatorade.

I know several runners from Washington, and I also saw some friends who traveled from Oregon.  I spent longer than usual visiting in the finish area.  Then I caught a shuttle bus back to my car.  I felt better after a hot bath and some stretching, but I expect to have sore legs for days.  This is a fast course, but you pay a price for running a downhill race.

I have a tendency to go out too fast in races.  More often than not, I pay for it in the second half.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not smart about pacing myself for even splits.  Every now and then, however, it works out.

Today, I ran the first half fast for a reason.  Many times throughout the race, I thought I had made a mistake.  In the end, I was able to hang on.  My plan was to run the first half in 1:45 and the second half in 1:52.  Give or take a few odd seconds, that’s exactly what I did.

I still have one more race before registration for the Boston Marathon begins.  Today’s time was probably fast enough, but I still have one more opportunity to improve my qualifying time.  My next race is also downhill.  It descends about twice as much as this one did.  I may be able to run faster, but it’s nice to know I probably don’t have to.  The pressure is off now.

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