Sunday, July 16, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Prairie Series, Day 1

This morning, I did the first race of the Prairie Series, in Breckenridge, MN.  When I signed up for this race, I assumed I would be running it.  Instead, I walked it.

This is the first race I’ve done since my back surgery a month ago.  I can’t run for eight more weeks, but I can walk.  I’ve cancelled five races so far, but this one didn’t have any time limit, so it was feasible to walk it.

When I had my follow-up appointment two weeks after my surgery, the neurosurgery nurse wasn’t too keen on the idea of my walking this far this soon.  His concern was that I wouldn’t be willing to stop if I started having back discomfort.  It’s like he knows me.

Aside from that, I really didn’t know if I could ramp up to a marathon in only 24 days.  At the time my longest walk since the surgery was only four miles.

When I told Deb I might not be able to do the marathon, she reminded me there was also a half marathon.  I was signed up for the marathon, but I could always drop down to the half.  With that in mind, I started ramping up the distance I was walking, to make sure I’d at least be ready to walk a half marathon.

Last Tuesday, I walked 14 miles.  At that point, I knew I could do the half marathon comfortably.  The marathon would still be a big step up, but I didn’t have to commit myself.  I could wait to make that decision during the race.  I could walk the half marathon and this see how I felt.  If I still felt good, I could continue.  If I later felt like the marathon would be too much, I could always stop, knowing I was still a half marathon finisher.

Obviously, I wanted to do the marathon if I could.  I signed up for this race because it’s a Minnesota race.  I want to eventually do every marathon in Minnesota.  Finishing the half marathon wouldn’t help me make progress toward this goal, but it was still a consolation prize.  By finishing either distance, I would finish 25 races with Mainly Marathons.  When you do that, you’re called a “Mainlyner,” and they have an award for that.

Breckenridge is about a 220 mile drive for me.  If I had to fly, I wouldn’t have been able to go.  Besides not being able to run, I have other restrictions.  For now, I can’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds.  When you fly, you need to be able to carry all your bags at once.  Try packing for a trip without taking more than 10 pounds.  Fortunately, with my own car, I could have a few light bags and make separate trips to the car for each one.

I drove to Breckenridge on Saturday.  I wasn’t sure how comfortable my back would be on such a long drive, so I made frequent stops to get out of the car and walk around a bit.  There wasn’t much lodging in Breckenridge, so I stayed just across the river in Wahpeton, ND.  After checking in and unloading the car, I went to Welles Park in Breckenridge to pick up my race packet.  This was the first race in the series, so you could pick up your race packet the day before.  They also had a free pasta dinner, which was an opportunity to see old friends.

The marathon and half marathon both started at 5:30, but there was an early start at 4:30.  It was a hot day, so they were recommending the early start for anyone who expected to be on the course for more than six hours.  I knew I would take longer than six hours if I did the marathon, but I didn’t want to start in the dark, so I took the regular start.  My longest walks have been in the late morning and early afternoon, so starting at 5:30 I expected to feel comfortable for the first few hours.  I only had one concern about starting at 5:30.  I didn’t want to be the last one on the course.  There’s usually at least a few people needing eight hours or more, so I was hopeful nobody would have to wait for me.

The course was a 2.54 mile out-and-back that we ran or walked 10 times.  We started with a shorter out-and-back to bring the total mileage to 26.2.  Half of the race was in Minnesota, and the other half was in North Dakota.  We finished each out-and-back in Minnesota, but the shorter one started in North Dakota.  By the rules of the 50 States Marathon Club, this race could be counted as either Minnesota or North Dakota.  I was planning to count this one as a Minnesota race.

The North Dakota side of the course was paved, but the Minnesota side was a gravel road.  Had I known I would be doing half of my walking on gravel, I would have brought gaiters.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find that out until I got here.  There wasn’t any place nearby where I could buy any, so I just had to hope I wouldn’t get too much grit into my shoes.  I was most worried about the area around my heels, where I already had blisters.

I had to make sure I knew the course, because I was going at a different pace than everyone else.  The runners were all faster, but the other walkers were all slower.  I was the only one trying to race-walk, and it resulted in an in-between pace.  At first, I was almost keeping up with a few of the runners, but that didn’t last long.

When I finished the short lap, I checked my watch.  Zero.  Apparently, I never started it.  I quickly started it as I began my first of 10 full laps.  That turned out to be a mixed blessing.  I didn’t know my time for the short lap, but it made it easier to see what my pace was on my full laps.

The next time a runner passed me, I was able to compare my time to hers.  That told me my short lap was about 10:04.  That was faster than I expected, but the distance was less than a mile.  My first full lap would give me a better idea of what pace I was starting.

I was working to walk fast, but I still felt like I could be going faster.  My pace felt like it might be sustainable for the whole race.  When I finished my first full lap, I was shocked to see it was under 33 minutes.

To put that in perspective, I made a range of estimates before the race for what my time for a full marathon should be.  My most optimistic estimate was 6:20.  That’s about 37 minutes per lap.  I started four minutes faster than that.  I was on pace for 5:40.

My next few laps were also about 33 minutes.  I was surprised that I could walk this fast so easily.  I suspect it was because the temperature at the start was only 59 degrees.  That’s much cooler than any of my training walks.  I was able to work harder without getting too hot.

I expected the pace would eventually wear on me.  Typically, when I get fatigued, I start to have lapses in concentration.  Then my pace becomes erratic.  I decided to be pre-emptive about it.  The paved path on the North Dakota side was a great surface for walking.  The pavement was uniform, the path was mostly straight, and it was fairly flat.  Here, I pushed myself to go fast.  When I got into a good rhythm, I could easily stay with it.

On the Minnesota side, it wasn’t such a good surface for race-walking, so I gave myself permission to ease up a bit.  With planned “easy” sections, I didn’t have to maintain my focus all the time.  That allowed me to get through the race without suffering from any mental fatigue.

When I finished my fifth full lap, I was more than half done.  Including the short lap, I had completed 13.5 miles in 2:56 and change.  I was easily on pace to break six hours, and my laps times were still consistent.  There was no longer any question that I was going to walk the full marathon.  I still felt great in spite of my fast pace.  The only question now was whether I would need to slow down at some point.

I had been putting off a bathroom stop for a few laps.  The sweet tea I had with breakfast was going through me.  At the beginning of my sixth lap, I finally made a bathroom stop.  It seemed to take forever to empty my bladder.

By now, it was getting much warmer.  The sun was at a higher angle in the sky.  Parts of the course were shaded, but where we were exposed, I was getting hot.  I expected my pace to deteriorate.

Most people doing the half marathon were done, so there were far fewer runners on the course.  That made it easier for me to walk the tangents.  I was passing fewer walkers, and fewer runners were passing me.  That made it easier for me to maintain my focus.

The people still on the course were mostly people I know.  They all knew why I was walking, and they gave me lots of encouragement.

That lap was two minutes slower, but that was mostly due to the bathroom stop.  In my next lap I was back to 33 minutes.  I only had three laps left, so I figured out how fast I would need to walk them to break six hours.  If I could average 38 minutes, I would do it.  I expected to slow down, but not by five minutes per lap.

My eighth lap was slower, but only by a minute.  With two laps left, I only needed to average 41 minutes per lap.  I was getting hotter, but I only had to tough it out for five more miles.

My ninth lap was a minute slower than my eighth lap, but it was still much faster than the pace I needed to break six hours.  Breaking six was no longer in doubt.  I needed a 37 minute lap to break 5:50.  So far, all of my laps had been faster than that.  If I held my pace, I would do it.  If my pace continued to erode, it would be close.

I tried to pick up my pace, but I couldn’t do it on the Minnesota side of the course.  The surface was just too difficult for walking fast.  Once I got to the North Dakota side, I really pushed to go fast.  The heat was getting to me, but I only had two miles to go.  I maintained my focus until I got back to the gravel road around Welles Park.  Then it got difficult again.

I finished in 5:47:24.  This was my first walking marathon, so that’s a PR.  It’s actually faster than a few of the races that I ran.  That exceeded my wildest expectation for how fast I could walk a marathon.  My average pace was 13:15.  Five days ago, I walked 14 miles as fast as I could, and my pace was 13:53.  You’re not supposed to get faster when you’re walking almost twice as far.  I’ve been doing some shorter walks where I’ve focus on improving my pace.  They must be paying off.  It also probably helped that it was nice and cool for the first two hours of the race.

The finisher medals for the series form a chain.  The top piece is for anyone who does at least one marathon or half marathon of the series.  I like the covered wagon design.  The next piece is for today’s race, which I counted as a Minnesota race.  If I did the marathon or half marathon tomorrow, I could add a North Dakota medal.

I didn’t know how my feet would look when I took off my shoes. The uppers were coated with dust.  When I got the shoes off, I could see that some of the dust got into my socks.  How were my feet?  They were no worse than before.  I still have large blisters on my heels, but they didn’t seem to hurt any worse than before.  They might have been slightly larger, but there wasn’t any blood.  That was a relief.

I was originally signed up to do the second race of the series as well.  It would have been convenient, since it’s the exact same course.  Most people are counting it for Minnesota on day one and North Dakota on day two.  Ordinarily, I wouldn’t hesitate to do marathons two days in a row.  Under the circumstances, however, it would be too much.  I may decide to drop down to one of the shorter distances.  They have a half marathon, a 10K, and a 5K.  It all comes down to whether I feel like getting up at 4 AM again.

Alternatively, I could sleep in, but still go over to the park to walk a couple of laps with friends.  I walk every day, so why not walk here before driving home?

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  5:47:24
Average Pace:  13:15    
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  337
Minnesota Marathons:  43
Walking Marathons:  1

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