On April 27, I ran the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon in Louisville, KY. This is the third time I did this race, and it was my fourth marathon in Louisville. Last year, I race-walked this race, setting a marathon walking PR of 4:39:51. This year, I was running, so I was hoping to be about an hour faster.
I could have flown directly to Louisville, but I got a good airfare by flying into Cincinnati. The Cincinnati airport is actually in northern Kentucky. From there, the drive time to Louisville is less than two hours.
I arrived around lunch time, so before leaving the greater Cincinnati area, I stopped for lunch. Pizza is my favorite food, but I also like Cincinnati-style chili, and it’s not something you find in other parts of the country.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn in downtown Louisville. I wanted to stay there last year, but they were already fully booked. It’s only a few blocks from where the race starts and about half a mile from where it finishes. Last year, my hotel was a mile away.
The expo was held at the Kentucky International Convention Center. That’s a different location from where it was held last year. This location was much more convenient, since the convention center is just three blocks from Hampton Inn.
In addition to my race bib, my packet included a three quarters sleeve T-shirt and a souvenir size Louisville Slugger bat. I don’t recall any other races with three quarter sleeve shirts, but it seemed appropriate, since the Kentucky Derby is three quarters of a mile. The bat was one of the more unusual souvenirs I’ve received, but it’s worth noting that Louisville Slugger bats are manufactured here, and the race finishes next to Louisville Slugger Stadium.
Besides packet pickup, race expos generally have booths where local running-related businesses can promote their products. It’s common to be able to try free samples of things like sports drinks. At this expo, you could try free samples of bourbon. Jim Beam was one of the sponsors.
After the expo, I went back to the hotel to drop off my race packet and organize my clothes for the race. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring downtown Louisville.
I had dinner at the Bluegrass Brewing Company. Besides sampling their beers, I had a spinach and artichoke pizza. It was much more filling than I expected. Since getting home from Boston, I’ve been on a diet. I’ve lost two pounds so far, but I had to wonder if I undid that by eating so much the day before the race.
I was able to get to bed early that night. I didn’t sleep perfectly, but I got enough sleep that I felt alert and well-rested in the morning.
Hampton Inn has a free breakfast, and their breakfast service started an hour and a half before the race. I was still full from my big dinner, so I didn’t feel like eating any solid food. I had a cup of tea and half a glass of orange juice.
The weather for this race was almost ideal. It was 46 degrees when I left the hotel and got into the low 60s by the time I finished. For most of the race, the temperature was in the 50s. There was very little wind and no threat of rain.
I got to the start area just as pre-race ceremonies were beginning. They had the bugler from next week’s Kentucky Derby to play the Call to the Post. That was followed by “My Old Kentucky Home” and the National Anthem. Then Kathrine Switzer, who was the official starter, made some pre-race remarks.
Six weeks ago, at the Shamrock Marathon, I ran most of the race with the 3:35 pace group, and then went ahead on my own in the last six miles. I tried to do the same thing four weeks ago at the Carmel Marathon, and the pace broke me after only six miles. Two weeks ago, I started the Boston Marathon on pace for 3:30, but it felt too tiring, and I had to back off the pace after only five miles. Ideally, I wanted to break 3:30, so I could get a time that would assure me of getting into next year’s Boston Marathon. I had serious doubts about being able to run that fast. It seemed more realistic to try to do what I did at the Shamrock Marathon.
If there was a 3:35 pace group, I would have started with them. They had 3:30 and 3:40 pace groups, but no 3:35 pace group. I assumed I would be on my own to set the right pace.
As the race started, I went out at a pace that felt similar to Shamrock. Within a block or two, I got bottled up behind a large group of slower runners. I don’t know if they were all together or were just coincidentally running at the same slow pace. It seemed like they were starting in the wrong corral for the pace they were running. It took a while before I could find room to get around them. Then I tried to accelerate to my previous pace.
After slowing down and speeding up, I no longer had a good feel for how fast I was running. Before the end of the first mile, I found myself catching up to a large pace group. It was the 1:45 pace group for the half marathon. That pace is equivalent to a 3:30 marathon, so I slowed down to stay behind them.
I reached the one mile mark in 8:01. To run a marathon in 3:30, you need to average 8:00 per mile. I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea to pace for 3:30, but the pace didn’t seem unreasonably fast, so I continued running right behind the 1:45 group.
Early in the second mile, we reached an aid station. I usually drink at every aid station, but I skipped this one, so I could establish a consistent rhythm for at least another mile. Running past that aid station had an unintended side-effect.
Everyone handles aid stations differently. Some people come to a stop while they drink. Some walk or slow down while they drink and then resume their previous pace when they’re done drinking. Some people carry their own fluids and ignore the aid stations. Because of all this, pace groups tend to break up at aid stations and then reform shortly after the aid station. By the time the 1:45 group reformed, I was ahead of them.
In the next mile, I told myself to relax. I didn’t want to get too far ahead of the group. I was running ahead of them, but I could hear them talking. As I reached the next mile marker I could hear the pace leader telling his group they were right on schedule. I was ahead of schedule. Pacing for 3:30 seemed ambitious, and I was already six second ahead of that pace.
Running through the downtown area, there were lots of sharp turns. I did a good job of running the tangents, but it distracted me from my pacing. I had a tendency to accelerate as I came out of turns. Before long, I no longer heard the pace leader talking. I ran the third mile in 7:45. Now I was 21 seconds ahead of schedule.
The next time I reached an aid station, I walked for a few seconds while drinking. That was like hitting the reset button on my pace. As I resumed running, I wasn’t going quite as fast. I could hear the pace group again.
For better or worse, I’m always influenced by the pace of the runners around me. Soon, I was once again getting out of earshot from the pace group.
As I passed the five mile mark, I considered slowing down until the pace group caught up to me, but I didn’t want to slow down too much at once. If I slowed to about 8:05, it would take four more miles for the group to catch up. Eventually, the marathon and half marathon courses would diverge. This pace group was doing the half marathon. After the split, I would be on my own anyway, so I kept running at the pace of the people around me.
Just past eight miles, we entered Churchill Downs. As I turned and ran through the gate, I heard the PA system. They were replaying the call from previous Kentucky Derbies. We ran through a tunnel under the clubhouse. As I descended into the tunnel, the downhill grade was uncomfortable. I had to adjust my gait to keep from overstriding. Coming back out of the tunnel, it was uphill. I eased up, rather than tire myself out running the same pace. Up to this point, the course was fairly flat, but this was a reminder that there was a hilly section coming later. I had to pace myself through the hills without wearing myself out.
We ran between the clubhouse and the track. Before leaving the grounds, we ran through another tunnel. This one took us underneath the track where the best three year olds will be racing next Saturday. Coming out of this tunnel, I again had to control my effort going up the ramp.
Immediately after leaving Churchill Downs, we reached the spot where the marathon and half marathon split. Half marathoners kept to the left side of the street, and then turned left to head back toward downtown. Those of us doing the marathon kept to the right and then turned right to head farther south. It was now official. I wouldn’t see the 1:45 group again. There was also a 3:30 pace group for the marathon, but I had not seen them yet. They were somewhere behind me.
At eight miles, I was 40 seconds ahead of schedule. At nine miles, I was only 14 seconds ahead of schedule. Did I really slow to 8:26 in that mile. That mile included all the turns and tunnels going through Churchill Downs. Maybe I relaxed too much in that mile. Alternatively, the mile marker might have been misplaced. I had to wait for the next one before I would know.
At 10 miles, I was only 11 seconds ahead of schedule. Now it seemed more likely that the mile markers were accurate and I had slowed down. I made more of an effort to keep up with runners ahead of me. The road wasn’t as crowded now, so it was harder to tell if I was keeping up.
At 12 miles, I was 22 seconds ahead of schedule. Then the road turned slightly uphill as we approached Iroquois Park. We had to do a four mile loop around the park before returning on this same road. The entire loop would be hilly. Every other part of the course is reasonably flat, but this is the section that made me question whether my pace would be sustainable.
I saw the lead runner already coming back. There was nobody chasing him for as far as I could see. All of the big hills were behind him, so it was unlikely that anyone would catch him.
I crossed a road and entered the park. The grade got a little bit steeper, and I had to slow down. My goal over the next few miles was to maintain a consistent effort, rather than trying to sustain a consistent pace. As we made a switchback, the grade got even more tiring. I remembered this hill from last year. I was power walking up the hill, and I started passing people who were running.
The first hill in the park was both the longest and steepest. The 12 mile mark was right at the top of the hill. When I got there, I was 11 seconds slower than the pace I needed for 3:30. I slowed to 8:33 in that mile. It was the first time since passing the 1:45 group that I had fallen off the pace for 3:30.
I was surprised that I was still ahead of the 3:30 group. I know they started in the same corral, but they must have lined up much farther back. Each corral took up a full city block. I assumed I was only in front of them because I crossed the starting line earlier.
The next mile began with a long downhill. At first, I used it to recover from the hill, but before long, I was accelerating. Over the next mile, it was rolling hills, but it was more downhill than uphill. The top of the first hill was the highest elevation on the course. For the rest of the loop, we had a slight downhill trend.
The 13 mile mark was also at the crest of a hill. When I got there, I was once again ahead of pace, but not by much. The halfway point wasn’t marked, but I ran the first half on pace to break 3:30. I may even have been on pace for 3:29.
After a long decent, I saw runners ahead of me turning right to continue downhill. I also saw runners coming up the hill and turning right onto the loop. Where we already at the end of the loop? It seemed too soon. I thought we would be in the park for at least another mile. As I made the turn myself, I reached it was an out-and-back. I don’t remember this being part of the course in previous years. Going out, it was a nice downgrade. Coming back, we had to run back up the hill.
As soon as I negotiated the turnaround, I saw the 3:30 pace group still going out. They weren’t that far behind me.
Running back up that hill took something out of me. When I got back onto the loop, it was downhill again, but there was another tough climb near the end of the 14th mile. The 14 mile mark was halfway up the hill. When I got there, I was 25 seconds behind schedule. That was a bit discouraging, and I was still going uphill.
I assumed mile 15 was mostly downhill. I was wrong. It was rolling, and the downhill parts weren’t as steep. I wouldn’t make up time in this mile.
At 15 miles, I was shocked to see that I was now 55 seconds behind schedule. Since the second mile, I had been focused on only one goal – breaking 3:30. Now that goal seemed out of reach, and it was harder to maintain my motivation. It occurred to me that I should be focusing on breaking 3:33 instead. That goal was still within reach, and it would still be my fastest time this year.
We were now leaving the park. The next mile was downhill, but only slightly. I fought hard to pick up my pace, and I made up some ground. Now the course leveled off. I fought hard to keep up with runners who had consistently been in front of me. The rest of the course would be mostly flat. If I could get back into a good rhythm, I might not lose any more time.
At 17 miles, I had to look at my watch twice. It didn’t seem correct. Suddenly, I was more than a minute ahead of schedule. I couldn’t possibly have sped up that much. The mile marker had to be misplaced. That made me suddenly question whether I could trust any of the other mile markers. Was I ahead of schedule or behind schedule? I really had no idea. Then I realized that I hadn’t seen the 3:30 pace group since the out-and-back. If I had fallen off the pace, they should’ve passed me. They were still behind me. Realizing I was probably still on pace to break 3:30 gave me the motivation I needed to lift my effort. I didn’t know if I could sustain it for another nine miles, but I had to try.
As we passed Churchill Downs again, we merged with the half marathon course. The street was divided. On the right were a relatively small number of runners doing the marathon. On the left were a larger group of walkers at the back of the pack of the half marathon. I could see their mile markers as well as ours. They were taking a direct route to the finish, but we had to run about four miles farther.
At the 18 mile mark, I once again appeared to be behind schedule, but I took that with a grain of salt. I continued to lift my effort. At 19 miles, I still appeared to be behind schedule, but by only a few seconds. That seemed plausible. I was now passing runners who had been ahead of me for the last 10 miles.
At the pace I was going, I would finish in about 58 minutes. Even if I began to fade, I would probably be done in an hour. I told myself I just had to maintain this effort for another hour. That didn’t seem at all reassuring. The pace no longer felt sustainable. I was barely hanging on and needed to focus on one mile at a time.
At 20 miles, I was shocked to see I was now almost a minute ahead of schedule. I couldn’t have gained that much time in one mile. I now had even less trust in the accuracy of the mile markers, but I kept up my effort.
By now, I was feeling thirsty. Since leaving Iroquois Park, I had been noticing the sun. I was tempted to skip aid stations, so I wouldn’t be at risk of slowing down. I couldn’t afford to do that. I didn’t want to get dehydrated, like I did in Boston.
We turned left to begin a four mile diversion that took us east of downtown. The half marathoners kept going straight. They had less than two miles to go.
At 21 miles, I was slightly more than a minute ahead of schedule. I didn’t know how much I trusted that. By now, I was confident that I really was on pace to break 3:30. I wasn’t willing to assume I had a minute to spare.
Shortly before 22 miles, we went under a railroad bridge. It was downhill before the bridge, but uphill after. Running uphill, even briefly was tiring. A runner who wasn’t in the race was running in the opposite direction. He said this was the last hill. That seemed plausible, so I believed him. He was wrong.
At 22 miles, I checked my watch again. Now I was a minute and a half ahead of schedule. I was starting to believe. That was three consecutive readings that had me significantly ahead of a 3:30 pace.
There was a hill in the next mile. I told myself I would just maintain the same effort. I suspect I actually maintained the same pace. I didn’t adjust my gait at all. By the top of the hill I was tired, but I didn’t lose much time. At 23 miles, I still appeared to have a cushion of 1:28. There was no longer any doubt in my mind I would break 3:30, but I still didn’t know how big the margin would be. I told myself not to let up.
With about two miles to go, my legs felt wobbly. I seriously wondered if I had set a pace that was sustainable for 24 miles, but not for 26.2. I focused on keeping up with the runners just ahead of me. On the bright side, my cushion – if I could trust the mile markers – had grown to 1:50.
A spectator said, “You’re almost there.” That’s a pet peeve of mine. I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell someone they’re “almost there” when there are still several turns. I don’t feel like I’m “almost there” until I can see the finish line. She also said, “You’re in the home stretch.” That’s worse. It’s a horse racing term that literally means you’re out of the last turn and headed straight for the finish line.
I rounded another turn and reached the 25 mile mark. I had a cushion of more than two minutes. At 24 miles, I didn’t know if I would falter. Now I knew I wouldn’t. I was running within a block of the hotel I stayed at last year. I had a good feel for exactly how much was left. It’s one thing to know it’s a mile to go. It’s another thing to be able to visualize it.
I made the turn onto Main Street. There was still one more turn, but that was just before the finish. I wanted to pick up the pace, but I had no gas left in the tank. By now, runners and walkers from both races were sharing the road. It was hard to see around all the walkers to know how many blocks it was to the last turn.
At 26, I didn’t look at my watch. Instead, I was focused on the turn. I could see it now. I made the left turn next to Louisville Slugger Stadium. I had to make a wide turn to get around a group of three people walking together. Then I raced for the finish line. Now I really was on the home stretch.
I finished in 3:26:59. That’s a Boston qualifier with eight minutes to spare! That was beyond my wildest expectations. Now I know for sure I’ll be doing at least one more Boston Marathon. At the Shamrock Marathon, I qualified with 1:36 to spare, but I wasn’t confident that would get me into the race. I’ve felt under pressure to get a better qualifying time. Now all the pressure is off.
If you exclude races that are substantially downhill, this was my fastest marathon in four years! I used to take pride in being able to consistently break 3:30, but lately I could only do it with a big assist from gravity. Those days are finally over. Today, I did it on a loop course with a tough hilly section in the middle. I even ran negative splits.
The finisher medal design includes a baseball bat. It seems that’s as much a part of the theme as the Kentucky Derby.
I reluctantly accepted a heat shield, even though I didn’t feel like I needed one. I remember how it made me sweat after the Boston Marathon. I also remember how much I was glad I had it by the time I got back to the hotel.
After a bathroom stop, I made my way to the post-race food. I had already finished a cup of water. I took a banana, but walked past the table with bagels. A volunteer handed me a box with snacks. I didn’t know what was in it. It turned out to be some peanut butter and cracker sandwiches, jalapeno potato chips, and applesauce. I skipped the Powerade, but drank a carton of chocolate milk. Then I made my way to the beer garden for my free post-race beer.
When I got back to the hotel, I soaked my legs while eating the rest of my post-race snacks. I spent the next few hours relaxing at the hotel. Now I just need to celebrate with some post-race pizza.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 7:54
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 372
Lifetime Boston qualifiers: 123