Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Race Report: 2021 Boston Marathon

I’ve often said that every Boston Marathon is different.  Sometimes it’s extreme weather, like the heat in 2012 or the rain and wind in 2018.  Sometimes it’s something completely unexpected, like the bombs in 2013.  This year’s Boston Marathon was different in many ways.  For starters, it was held in October, instead of April.  It was also the first time the race was held in person since April of 2019, so it was a two and a half year wait.  Finally, there were a number of COVID-19 safety measures.

This year’s race had a reduced field.  Usually, there are more than 30,000 runners.  This year, the field was limited to about 20,000 runners.  The actual number of runners was probably closer to 16,000.  Because of travel bans, many of the runners from other countries couldn’t get there this year.

Every year, Adidas sells a Boston Marathon celebration jacket.  They change the colors each year.  I’ve always wanted to get one with the same blue and yellow colors as the B.A.A. logo.  This year, for the first time since 2013, they used those colors for the celebration jacket.  I ordered one as soon as they were available.  I tried it on, and then I put it in my closet until this weekend.

Some people won’t wear the jacket until after they finish the race.  I don’t look at it that way.  It’s not like a finisher medal, which you only get after crossing the finish line.  They call it a celebration jacket, and I wanted to wear it all weekend to celebrate finally being able to travel to Boston and run this race after last year’s race was cancelled.

I flew to Boston Saturday morning.  I woke up at 1:00 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, but my day got better when I got to the airport.  The TSA agent saw my Boston Marathon shirt and thanked me for representing Minnesota in Boston.  He has family in Cambridge. Shortly before boarding my flight, I was pleasantly surprised with a free upgrade to first class.

Many other passengers on my flight were also traveling for the race.  I saw several who were wearing Boston Marathon jackets or shirts.

Finding an affordable hotel on marathon weekend can be difficult.  Finding one within walking distance of the finish line can be next to impossible.  I got lucky this year.  Before the B.A.A. announced the date of this year’s race, I made a hotel reservation for this weekend based on a rumor.  My hotel was right around the block from the Hynes Convention Center, where the expo was held.  Not only that, but I got a fairly reasonable rate.  It was still somewhat expensive, but it wasn’t insanely expensive.

After my flight landed, I took the subway into town.  I arrived at my hotel around 12:30.   That was much earlier than the advertised check-in time, but my room was ready, so I was able to drop off my bags before heading to lunch.

For lunch, I went to an Italian restaurant and wine cafĂ© on Newbury Street called Piattini.  Newbury is just one block over from Boylston.  Piattini was only a few blocks from my hotel, but just far enough off the beaten path that I was able to get a table with no waiting.  They had outdoor seating with space heaters.  They also had excellent pizza.

After lunch, I went to the vaccine verification and testing site at Copley Square.  Before you could pick up your race packet, you had to either show proof of vaccination or a negative result from a COVID-19 test.  I’m fully vaccinated, so I didn’t need to get tested.  Runners who needed tests could get them here.  I’m not sure how long it took to get results back.

After showing my vaccine card, I received a wristband.  You need the wristband to pick up your race packet.  You also need it on race day to board a bus to the start in Hopkinton.

Next, I walked over to the convention center to pick up my race packet at the expo.  Both the vaccine verification and packet pickup were quick.

Boston usually had a huge expo with dozens of exhibitors.  This year, the expo was scaled down.  There were fewer than 10 exhibitors.  I stopped by the Marathon Tours & Travel booth to ask if there was any news about international travel in the coming year.  I also stopped by the Samuel Adams booth to try a sample of their Wicked Easy lager.

After dropping off my race packet at the hotel, I went to the Trillium Brewing beer garden near Fenway Park for a happy hour gathering with the Boston Squeakers group.  We usually meet in one of the local pubs, but this year we chose an outdoor venue instead.

I had dinner with Robert Wang, who administers several maratrhon-related Facebook groups.  Robert wanted to go to Mike’s Pastry after dinner, and there are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Italian Restaurants in that neighborhood.  We couldn’t find any that were still taking reservations, so we decided to start walking in the direction of Mike’s Pastry and see if we could get a table at any of the restaurants we passed along the way.  Most of the restaurants were packed, and some had long lines outside.  We found one that had a large outdoor seating area with tables available.

After dinner, I walked over to Mike’s Pastry with Robert.  I wasn’t planning to buy anything, but I was curious to see how long the line was.  It went to the end of the block and around the corner.

After not sleeping well Friday night, I needed a good night’s sleep.  I slept well for most of the night, but woke up at 4:30 and had trouble getting back to sleep.  I didn’t need to get up early for anything on Sunday, so after getting back to sleep, I slept in as late as I could.

When the Boston Marathon was postponed from April to October, it resulted in a quirt of scheduling that had the Chicago Marathon taking place the day before the Boston Marathon.  After eating breakfast at the hotel, I spent most of the morning watching a live stream of the Chicago Marathon.  I knew Shalane Flanagan was planning to run both races, but I was surprised to learn that Tatyana McFadden was not only doing both races, but was aiming to win the women’s wheelchair division in both races.  I watched her win in Chicago, but I would have to wait until after my own race to find out if she could win again in Boston.

At noon, I went to the finish line, where members of Marathon Maniacs were meeting for a group picture.  This was the first of three group pictures at the finish line.

Next, I joined two other Marathon Maniacs for lunch at an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street.  After a brief stop at the hotel, I went back to the finish line for two more group pictures.  One was with the Boston Squeakers group.  The other was with a World Marathon Majors Challenge group.

After the last group picture, I hurried to the Trillium beer garden on the greenway for a happy hour gathering with members of 50sub4.  While I was there, I met some runners who invited me to join them for dinner at another Italian restaurant in the North End.

There’s a long-standing tradition that the Boston Red Sox always have a home series on the same weekend at the marathon.  The regular season is over, but the Red Sox are in the playoffs, and by chance, they had home games Sunday and Monday.  After dinner, I watched the end of the game in the hotel lounge.  The game lasted 13 innings, so I didn’t get to bed as early as I thought I would.

Sunday night, my sleep was restless, but I got enough sleep to get by.  I was awake before my alarm went off, so I got up early to give myself time for a light breakfast before leaving to board a bus to the start.

In a normal year, the field is divided into four waves, and each wave is divided into eight or nine corrals.  Runners are dropped off in Hopkinton, where they wait in the athletes’ village on the grounds of Hopkin High School until it’s time to walk to the start corrals.

This was not a normal year.  This year, we had a rolling start.  Instead of being assigned to waves and corrals, we were assigned a time to board a bus to the start.  My bus loading time was 8:15.  As usual, we boarded the buses at Boston Common.

The bus ride to Hopkinton takes about an hour.  Masks were required while we were on the bus. And the windows were open.  When we got far enough east of Boston, I started seeing trees that had already turned color.  The autumn colors made the bus ride somewhat of a scenic drive.  As we arrived in Hopkinton, I saw a few houses with Halloween decorations.  That’s something else you don’t expect to see on marathon weekend.

We were dropped off outside Hopkinton High School, but instead of waiting there, we could immediately start walking toward the starting line.  There were rows of port-o-potties outside the high school.  The lines weren’t long, so made a bathroom stop there, before walking to the start.

It was 60 degrees and breezy, so I waited as long as possible before taking off my warm-up clothes and putting them in one of the donation bags.  There were more port-o-potties in the parking lot of CVS, which we passed on our way to the start.  I made one last stop there before walking the last few blocks to the start.

Temperatures were forecast to climb into the upper 60s by the time I finished.  It was cloudy, and I was expecting a fairly strong headwind for most of the race, so I wasn’t too worried about getting hot.  I was more worried about the possibility of fighting a headwind for most of the race.

There was one other very important way in which this Boston Marathon was different for me.  In the past, I always ran.  This year, I race-walked.  In recent weeks, I’ve been adding more running to my training.  My knee has been improving, but it’s still not 100 percent.  I would’ve been tempted to try running this race, but I didn’t want to risk aggravating my knee by running on a course that’s mostly downhill.

I’m generally more excited about running than walking.  In 2018 – when I was starting to get good at walking marathons – I was looking forward to seeing how fast I could walk the Boston course.  Unfortunately, the weather that year was absolutely horrid for trying to walk fast.  I ended up running that race, even though I wasn’t really trained to run.

This year, I got another chance.  I’m not as fast now as I was in 2018, but I broke the five hour barrier three weeks ago at the We Walk Marathon, averaging 11:17 per mile.  More recently, I walked a 10K race with an average pace of 10:07.  Those two races gave me a better idea of how fast I could expect to walk this race.  I was fairly confident I could handle a pace of 11:15, and maybe as fast as 11:00.

The first 16 miles have a downhill trend, but the grade is most noticeable in the first few miles.  As I started walking, the grade was steep enough to feel awkward for walking.  I couldn’t establish a stride that felt natural, and it didn’t seem like I could get into a consistently fast cadence.  I worked hard to get into a rhythm, but I had no feel for how fast I was walking until I finished the first mile.  As it turns out, I started way too fast.  My first mile was 10:12, which was about a minute faster than the pace I was shooting for.  In the second mile, I tried to relax a little.  That mile was slower than the first one, but it was still too fast.

After two miles, I reached Ashland, which is the second of the eight cities and towns along the route.  Ashland was home to our first spectators since leaving Hopkinton.  The spectators here are local residents who always come out to watch the race.  Ashland was also home to the first of 24 aid stations with water and Gatorade.  In between those, there were also a few with gels.

I wasn’t thirsty yet, but I didn’t have anything to drink since breakfast, so I drank a cup of Gatorade.  After that, I decided to only drink at every third aid station.  It would warm up eventually, but I didn’t need to be drinking every mile.

The third mile was still uncomfortable for me.  I still didn’t feel like I had a walking stride that felt smooth.  I slowed to 10:46 in that mile, but that still wasn’t a sustainable pace.  I needed to slow down by at least 15 more seconds per mile.

Mile four was the first one where I seemed to find my rhythm.  The grade was beginning to level out.  Unfortunately, I was still going just as fast, even without a steep downhill grade.  I think I was influenced by all the runners around me.  I was constantly getting passed by runners.  That probably effected my perception of how fast I was going.  Even when I was going too fast, it seemed like I was going slow.

In the early miles of the race, I was passed by several friends who recognized me.  They each greeted me as they went by.  I also got constant encouragement from runners who didn’t know me, but were impressed by how fast I was walking.  That continued for the whole race.  It was gratifying to know that runners who were going much faster appreciated that what I was doing was difficult.

I also got lots of shout-outs from spectators.  I’ve learned over the years that the runners who stand out the most get the most attention from the crowd.  Usually that’s someone with a colorful outfit.  In my case, I was a novelty.  I was the lone race-walker in a field of runners.  My gait looked so much different than the runners that everyone noticed me.

In Framingham, there was a DJ with a sound system.  As I went by, he interrupted what he was saying to exclaim, “We have a speed walker!”

The constant encouragement pumped me up, but it might have pumped me up a little too much.  It wasn’t until the fifth mile that my pace slowed to something that might plausibly be sustainable.  It was still under 11 minutes.

After drinking at an aid station at mile 5, I noticed spray hitting the backs of my calves.  Enough water was getting spilled on the road that it was like walking after it rained.  After that, I tried to stay away from the water tables as much as possible, especially at the aid stations I was skipping.

In mile six, I sped up to 10:47.  After that I finally settled down a bit.  For the next six miles, my times were all between 10:56 and 11:07.  This part of the course was somewhat rolling, although it still had a downhill trend.  Where it was uphill or flat, my form improved.  Going downhill, it felt awkward, and I started to notice blisters on my heels.  I couldn’t keep from overstriding when I was going downhill.

I was doing a pretty good job of drinking Gatorade without slowing down, but at the  mile 8 aid station, I spilled about half of my Gatorade on my shoulder.  I think I got distracted, because I heard my watch record a split just as I was lifting the cup to drink from it.  The good news is that it was yellow Gatorade, and I was wearing a yellow shirt.

By now, I was in Natick.  When I reached the 9 mile mark, I was coming alongside Fisk Pond.  Up until now, I was so focused on my pace, effort, and mechanics, that I rarely noticed my surroundings.  Here, I looked at the trees next to the pond.  Some were still green, but others were red or yellow.

By 10 miles, I was starting to feel hot and sweaty.  The headwind I expected never seemed to materialize.  I sometimes noticed a breeze, but it wasn’t consistent.  To make sure I was staying hydrated, I switched to drinking Gatorade every other mile instead of every third mile.

At 12 miles, I entered Wellesley.  I began to hear screaming in the distance.  I was now within half a mile of Wellesley College.  Wellesley is a women’s college that’s right along the route.  The students all come out and cheer.  They make so much noise, it’s called the Wellesley Scream Tunnel.

The Scream Tunnel begins right after the 20K mark.  I was so focused on Wellesley College, that I almost forgot to look for my friends Alison and Elizabeth, who were volunteering at the 20K mark.  I turned my head just in time to see them and give Alison a high five.

About a month before the race, the B.A.A published their health and safety plan for this year’s race.  It included the following advice for runners and spectators:

The highlighted portion is an obvious reference to the tradition of runners stopping to kiss the students at Wellesley College.  Usually, as you run past Wellesley, all the students are holding up signs indicating why you should kiss them.  I saw one “Kiss Me I’m Irish” sign and one “Blow Me A Kiss” sign.  Other than that, they had motivational signs that had nothing to do with asking for a kiss.

That didn’t stop them from making noise.  When I was walking within a few feet of the barriers, the screaming sometimes hurt my ears.

Going through the Scream Tunnel, I got so pumped up that I could tell I was speeding up.  As soon as I got past Wellesley College, I had to slow down to my previous pace.  I ended up walking that mile in 10:47.  I’m sure I was briefly going much faster.  I had other fast miles, but this one took something out of me.  For the rest of the race, I was working harder, but not going quite as fast.

My halfway split was 2:22:11.  That really shocked me.  I was paying attention to my times for each mile, but not my cumulative time.  I knew I was going fast, but I didn’t know I was going that fast.  I was already getting tired, so I knew I would pay for that fast pace in the second half

Fairly early in the race, I began to develop blisters on both my heels.  Now, I was feeling them constantly.  I used to get heel blisters from overstriding when I walk.  I’ve been doing better recently, but all the downhill walking forced me to take a longer stride.  I tried to shorten my stride and increase my cadence, but I was already too fatigued to get a faster turnover.  As I worked hard to sustain my pace, I continued to make contact too far back on my heel.  That made every step painful.

Mile 14 took 11:11.  Before the race, I would’ve been happy with that pace.  After so many faster miles, it now seemed discouraging.  What made it more disturbing was knowing I was really picking up my effort in that mile.  Mile 15 was five seconds faster, but I was really working hard to sustain that pace.  I was still on the easy part of the course, and I was already struggling to maintain my pace.

It was no longer overcast.  Now the sun was occasionally peeking through the clouds, which made it feel hotter.  Sometimes, I’d feel a cool breeze, but other times the wind wasn’t there.  It was turning into a hotter day than I expected.

There was one piece of good news in that mile.  I passed two people who were running.  I was hoping by the end of the race that I could pass someone who was running, but I thought it would be on one of the hills in Newton.  I didn’t expect to pass anyone when they were running downhill.

Up until now, I was still skipping every other water stop.  I wanted to skip the aid station at mile 16, because it’s in the middle of a hill, and I didn’t want to disrupt my rhythm.  With that in mind, I drank at mile 15 instead.

Toward the end of the 16th mile, I crossed the Charles River.  As soon as I crossed the river, I entered Newton and began climbing the first of four hills.  None of the hills in Newton are actually all that big.  They just come at the wrong time.  I was beginning the part of the course that punishes people who went too fast in the first 15 miles.  Guess what.  I was one of those people.

The first hill in Newton is a long gradual climb away from the river.  It’s fairly long, but the grade is slight enough that I was able to maintain a fast rhythm all the way up the hill.  As planned, I skipped the aid station at the 16 mile mark.  That was the last one I would skip.  Going up this hill, I noticed I was keeping pace with the runners.  I wasn’t passing any runners, but none of them were passing me.

The hill ended before the 17 mile mark.  I walked that mile in 11:04.  I was happy with that.  It wasn’t as fast as mile 16, which included a sharp downhill, but it was faster than miles 14 and 15, both of which were also mostly downhill.

I had a chance to recover on the downhill section between the first and second hills.  The second hill starts midway through the 18th mile, right where we made the right turn onto Commonwealth Avenue.  This hill is shorter than the first one, but the grade is more noticeable.

This hill wasn’t as steep as I remembered, but it was a little longer than I remembered.  I tried to sustain the same pace as before, but I couldn’t quite do it.  Here, I was almost keeping up with the runners, but not quite.  I passed the ones taking walking breaks, but everyone still running was gradually moving ahead of me.

After cresting the second hill, I started looking for the 18 mile sign.  My time for that mile was 11:17.  That was my slowest mile so far, but it’s worth noting it was an uphill mile.  It’s also worth noting that it was the same pace I averaged in my previous marathon.  It wasn’t exactly slow.

At the aid station, I spilled Gatorade for the second time.  This time it went on my wrist.  My wristband has already wet with sweat.  Now it was sticky.

By now, I was having a revelation.  The hills made me work harder, but I was actually more comfortable going uphill than I was going downhill.  The uphill sections were the only places where I could push hard without making my blisters hurt.  I tried to use that for motivation as I continued walking through Newton.

From 18 to 19 is a little bit of a rest break.  I tried to pick up my pace here, but I was only a few seconds faster.  At this point, the best I could do was to not slow down.  Just past the 19 mile mark, I started the third hill.  This hill is smaller than the others, and I’m never quite sure when I’m done with it.  You seem to crest it, then you come down a little.  Then you go back up.  Then it just levels off.  It was on this hill that I walked past someone who was running.

Just past the 20 mile mark, I started up Heartbreak Hill.  This is the fourth hill.  It isn’t unusually steep, but it’s longer than the previous two hills.  I was about halfway up the hill when I heard someone with a sound system playing “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.  That energized me, and I briefly pickup up my pace.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t sustain the effort all the way to the top.  On Heartbreak Hill, a lot of people took walking breaks.  I didn’t pass anyone who was still running, but I passed several people who were walking.

As I crested the hill, I heard a spectator say “It’s all downhill from here.”  That’s almost true, but not quite.  You begin descending, but then there’s one more rise.  After cresting again, you begin a long descent.

Miles 20 and 21, which included the last two hills, took me 11:18 and 11:19 respectively.  Those were my two slowest miles of the race.  I felt like I did a good job of limiting the damage.  My challenge now was picking up the pace again going downhill.  In theory, it should’ve been easier, but my blisters were intensely painful going downhill.  I was now at the point in the race where you ask yourself how bad you want it.

I raced down the hill from Boston College to Evergreen Cemetery.  It hurt, but I did mile 22 in 10:51.  That was the last time I got my pace down under 11 minutes.  The next mile was also downhill, but I couldn’t sustain my effort.

Just before Cleveland Circle, I passed another runner.  It was the fourth runner I passed, and three of them were on downhill segments. 

Navigating the turn onto Beacon Street, I had to be extra careful stepping over all the train tracks.  I never realized how many tracks go across the street here.  It’s easier to avoid them when you’re running.

On Beacon Street, I briefly left Boston to travel through Brookline.  This was the last of the communities I would pass through before returning to Boston near the end of the race.

I got my first glance of the famous Citgo Sign when I was about halfway through mile 24.  My immediate goal was to get to that sign, which was about a mile and a half away.  When I got there, I would have one mile to go.

The sign eventually disappeared behind the trees.  I pressed on until I reached the aid station at 24 miles.  I knew I needed to drink, but I didn’t want to drink any more Gatorade.  I felt like my stomach was close to cramping up.  I walked past all the Gatorade tables and drank water instead.

When I saw the Citgo sign again, it was only about half a mile away.  As I noticed the sign, I also noticed a small hill in front of it.  I recognized this as the ramp up to the bridge where we cross the freeway.  Halfway across the bridge, I reached the 25 mile sign.  At the aid station, I again drank water instead of Gatorade.

Right below the Citgo sign, there’s a sign next to the street saying one mile to go.  I was running out of gas, but I fought hard to maintain my pace.  About one block before turning onto Hereford, I started to see huge crowds on both sides of the street.  The energy of the crowd kept me going.

I made the last two turns and began the final quarter mile along Boylston.  The runners around me were all surging toward the finish.  I couldn’t put on a finishing kick.  I put everything I had into just maintaining my current pace all the way to the line.

I finished in 4:48:41.  It was only the fifth time I’ve walked a marathon in less than five hours.  It was only the third time that I broke 4:50.  I felt like I did it the hard way, going too fast in the first half and then having to work that much harder in the second half.

I managed to keep up my effort all the way to the finish, but as soon as I was done, I struggled just to keep moving forward as I continued through the finish area.  I staggered forward one step at a time.  My legs didn’t have anything left.

The first thing they hand you after you finish is a bottle of water.  I was thirsty, but I didn’t take a water bottle, because I knew there would be more beverages further ahead.

Next, I received a heat shield and a clean mask to wear on the subway for the trip back to my hotel.  Then I received my finisher medal.

As I continued slowly shuffling forward into the next block, I was handed a plastic bag with post-race food and beverages.  It included both water and Gatorade, so I really didn’t need to take water earlier.

I had to walk one more block, past all the trucks for people who checked gear bags.  Then I finally reached Arlington Station, which was the closest T station.  I had my Charlie Card ready, but an MBTA employee saw my race bib and waved me through.  On race day, runners can ride the trains for free.

After getting back to the hotel, I finally got a look at the blisters on my heels.  The one on my left heel was a huge blood blister, but it was fairly easy to drain.  The one on my right heel was much smaller, but hurt just as much.  It was deep under thick layers of skin, so it was harder to drain.  I didn’t realize it was also a blood blister until I drained it.

In happier news, I learned that Shalane Flanagan finished the Boston Marathon with a time that was six minutes faster than her time in Chicago.  Tatyana McFadden wasn’t able to win both Chicago and Boston.  She finished second in Boston, which is still pretty impressive.

I didn’t leave the hotel for the rest of the day.  It was all I could do to put shoes on and walk to the hotel lounge to have dinner.  My blisters were just too painful.

The Red Sox had another home playoff game, but this one didn’t start until 7:07 PM.  I watched the beginning of the game in the hotel lounge, but I couldn’t stay awake to watch the whole thing.  Fatigue from the race and lack of sleep caught up to me.  I would have to wait until morning to find out that the Red Sox scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to win the series in four games.

I slept well that night.  When I woke up, I found just walking to the bathroom to be painful.  My blisters made it difficult to walk, even for short distances.  Getting back into training won’t be easy.

This race taught me something.  Most of the races I’ve walked have had flat courses.  This race is only moderately hilly, but I now realize that even a slightly downhill course can be difficult to walk.

My flight home wasn’t until noon, which gave me time to enjoy a nice breakfast at the hotel before packing and taking the T to the airport.  Walking to the station was slow and painful.  Going down the stairs wasn’t bad.  Most runners had sore quads today.  My quads were fine, but I had sore glutes and blistered feet.

I arrived at the airport a little early, so I waited in the Delta Sky Club, where they were giving Boeing 757-300 models to all the marathon finishers.  That was a nice finish to the weekend.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:48:41
Average Pace: 11:01
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  442
Marathons/Ultras Walking:  24
Unicorns:  10 (11 if you count last year’s virtual race)
World Marathon Majors:  20

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Using Music to Improve My Cadence

I live in Minnesota, where we have long cold winters.  For a few months each year, the streets are covered with ice and/or packed snow.  The highway department puts enough on the major roads to melt the snow and keep them dry, but it’s not safe to run on a highway.  When I try to run (or walk) on residential streets, there’s so little traction that my pace is nowhere close to my race pace.  I can put in enough mileage, and I can get a tiring workout.  What I can’t do is work on my speed.

I do most of my winter training on a treadmill.  It’s not exactly the same as training on roads, but I’ve found I can do quality workouts on the treadmill.  I’ve had good results in road races after doing most of my training on a treadmill.  One winter, I even took second place in a 50-mile trail run after doing all of my training on a treadmill.

I haven’t had the same success race-walking on a treadmill.  I’ve consistently found that my walking pace on the treadmill is slower than my walking pace outdoors.  I often feel like I’m working just as hard as I do outdoors, but my pace will be a minute per mile slower.  For a long time, I was at a loss to explain it.  In the last year, I finally came up with a hypothesis.

A lot of people listen to music when they run, whether it’s indoors or outdoors.  I don’t do that unless I’m indoors.  When I’m outdoors, I like to hear my environment.  I like to hear the birds chirping.  I like to know when a car is approaching from behind.  If another runner talks to me during a race, I want to hear what they’re saying.

If I’m indoors – running or walking on a treadmill – I can listen to music without missing other sounds.  When I’m in the home gym in my basement, the only other sound beside my music is the background noise made by the treadmill.

I’ve never needed music to help pass the time when I’m outdoors.  The constant change in scenery is enough.  It gives me a feel for how far I’ve gone.  When my progress feels tangible, the time passes easily enough.

Running or walking on the treadmill is another matter.  It’s mind-numbingly boring.  One mile on the treadmill feels like about four.  I don’t think I’ve ever lasted more than four miles on the treadmill without listening to music.  Even with music, the miles don’t pass as easily as they do outdoors, but having a musical “landscape” goes a long way toward replacing the visual landscape that I’m missing.

When I run on a treadmill, I frequently adjust my gait.  Sometimes I take long strides.  Other times, I take short strides with a rapid cadence.  I’ve noticed a tendency to adjust my cadence so I’m in time with the music.

That works fine when I’m running, because I can easily adjust my stride length.  That doesn’t work as well when I’m walking.  When you run, you have a “flight phase,” during which both feet are off the ground.  When you walk, you don’t have a “flight phase.”  You always have at least one foot in contact with the ground (or the treadmill).  That’s what distinguishes a running gait from a walking gait.  When you’re walking, your stride can’t get much longer.  If you slow your cadence to be in sync with the music, you’re going to have a slower overall pace.

I’m pretty sure that’s why I can’t walk as fast on the treadmill as I do outdoors.  My music is causing me to subconsciously adopt a slower cadence.

My treadmill was a built-in step counter.  I’m not sure how it works, but it seems to be fairly accurate.  I’ve tried to improve my cadence, both indoors and outdoors, but the fastest cadence I’ve ever achieved on the treadmill was 156 strides per minute.  Outdoors, I usually have an average cadence in the 160s, with a peak cadence in the low 180s.  In a recent 10K race, I had an average cadence of 175.

I used to walk with too long of a stride.  I was able to go fast, but it wasn’t efficient.  I was wasting too much energy.  To get faster, I needed to retool my gait, so I had a shorter stride and a faster cadence.  I’ve had some success at that, but only outdoors.  When winter comes, I need to be able to do the same thing on the treadmill.

To test my hypothesis that my music was slowing me down, I created a playlist of songs that have a tempo of roughly 180 beats per minute.  That’s faster that my current average cadence, but it’s the cadence I’ll need to get much faster.

At first, I didn’t know how easy it would be to find a list of songs with the right cadence.  After a quick Google search, I discovered it wasn’t too hard.  180 strides per minute happens to be the same cadence that’s often recommended for people who are trying to improve their running economy.  As a result, there are websites with lists of songs that are 180 beats per minute (or close).  Here’s a screenshot from one such website.  The songs listed here all have tempos between 178 and 182 beats per minute.

I was only familiar with a handful of the songs on the first page of this list, but there are 70 pages.  I went through the whole list to identify songs that were already in my library.  I found about 40.  They spanned seven decades, and they were from different genres, but that’s OK.  I only had two criteria.  I had to enjoy listening to them, and they had to have the desired tempo.

I came up with more than three hours of music that met my criteria.  That’s more than enough for a workout.  I created a playlist on my laptop, connected it to my stereo, and put it in shuffle mode.

Winter weather is still two months away, but today we’re getting all-day rain.  I used that as an opportunity to do a walking workout on the treadmill and test my new playlist.

I initially set the speed to 5.5 mph.  That’s close to the pace that I’ve been walking outdoors, but it seemed much too fast to sustain on the treadmill.  I backed off to 5 mph, and then gradually increased the pace as I warmed up.  As I did, I found it easier to get my cadence up to something that was close to the tempo of the music.

I walked the first mile in 11:38.  That’s slower than I’ve been walking outdoors, but in my second mile I managed to speed up to 11:15.  That’s roughly my race pace for a marathon.

Having faster music doesn’t magically make you run or walk faster.  If your cadence is close to the tempo of the music, you’ll adapt.  If your cadence isn’t close to the tempo, you won’t.  I chose a tempo of 180, because that’s my long-term goal.  It’ll take some work to get there.

After a few songs (and after finding a speed that I could just barely sustain), I sometimes found myself getting in sync with the music.  Sometimes I could do it, and sometimes I couldn’t.  The most important thing is that my music was no longer slowing me down.

I walked seven miles.  Every 10 minutes, I glanced at the step count and did a rough calculation of my average cadence.  At first, it was about 172 strides per minute.  By the end of my workout, it was only averaging 170 beats per minute.  It’s worth noting, that my average cadence walking outdoors rarely gets that fast.  My previous best on the treadmill was only 156.  This was real progress.

The pace felt more tiring when it should have.  My average pace wasn’t as fast as my recent outdoor workouts, but it was more tiring.  I was working hard to get a fast turnover, yet I wasn’t getting as fast of a pace as I do outdoors.  That can only mean that I had a shorter average stride length.  I suspect that’s another case where I’m subconsciously influence by the treadmill.

I think I was limiting my stride in two ways.  First, I was probably avoiding placing my lead foot too far forward for fear of making contact with this plastic frame at the front of the belt.

Limiting the front end of my stride is actually a good thing, but I suspect I was also subconsciously limiting the back end of my stride.  Ideally, you want to roll all the way through your toes.  I can often feel myself doing that when I walk outdoors, but I never seemed to do that today.  I suspect I was afraid of getting too far back on the treadmill.  That really shouldn’t be a concern.  I probably never used more than half the length of the treadmill deck.  I have some awareness of how far back my stride extends when I run, but I have a shorter stride when I walk.  Why be concerned about moving too far back?  Have you ever fallen off the back of a treadmill?  It’s a mistake you only make once.  It’s an experience that puts some fear into you.

Overall, I consider this experiment to be a success.  Using music with a faster tempo made it possible for me to improve my cadence significantly.  It’s still going to be a lot of work, but my music is no longer holding me back.

When winter comes, I’ll be doing treadmill workouts almost every day.  The playlist I have now has enough variety for the occasional workout, but even in shuffle mode, it will start to get stale eventually.  My challenge before winter will be coming up with a longer list.

You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find songs that are that fast.  Even songs that I think of as fast tend to have tempos in the range of 150-160 bpm.  180 is really fast.  To get a longer playlist, I’ll probably have to add songs that are 90 bpm and take two strides per beat.  That’ll be a future experiment.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Race Report: Twin Cities Race Walkers 10K

On September 26, I did a 10K race sponsored by the Twin Cities Race Walkers.  I wanted to see how fast I could walk 10 kilometers, I was using this as a speed workout, as part of my training for marathons.  They had a 5K race and a 10K race.  I opted for the 10K, because I thought it would be better marathon training.

The race was held on the Gateway Trail, starting and finishing in Flicik Park in Maplewood, MN.  Our course was a one kilometer out-and-back loop.  There were orange traffic cones at either end of the loop.  The first turnaround was 400 meters from where we started, so it was difficult to see the cone until from the start.  The other turnaround was 100 meters behind where we started.

Although advertised as either 5K or 10K, you could actually do any number of kilometers you wanted.  One member of the club had to leave early, so he only did one kilometer.

For running, I’ve found that I can predict my 10K time by taking a recent 5K time and multiplying by 2.1.  I saw no reason why that same ratio wouldn’t also be a good predictor for race-walking a 10K race.  In August, I walked a 5K race in 30:43.  Multiplying by 2.1 gives a predicted 10K time of 1:04:30, which works out to an average pace of 10:24 per mile.

It’s worth noting that my recent 5K race was on a track, and I might not be able to walk as fast on pavement.  It’s also worth noting that I’ve had six more weeks to train since then, I had good reason to believe I’m in better shape now.  I mostly wanted to get a rough approximation of how fast I should start.

I launched into a pace that was so fast that I started getting out of breath.  At first, I was leading the race.  Then Jeff surged past me.  That’s when I remembered that he was only doing one lap.  Trying to keep up with Jeff in a one-kilometer race seemed like a bad idea.  I kept up a fast pace, but I allowed myself to fall behind a bit.

It was 400 meters to the first turnaround.  That’s like one lap around a track.  I was on my way back when I felt my watch vibrate.  It does that when it records my time for a mile, but it was much too early for that.  I looked at my watch and saw it giving me a 30 second countdown before going into energy saving mode.  I thought I started my watch when I started walking, but apparently I didn’t.  I was working my tail off to go fast, so it was frustrating that I wasn’t going to know my pace.

At this point I wasn’t too far behind Jeff.  I no longer felt out of breath.  Having caught my second wind, I decided to catch up to Jeff.  For the rest of the first lap, I matched his pace stride for stride.  I asked him to tell me his time when he finished.

As I finished my first lap, I started my watch.  Jeff stopped, but yelled that his time was 6:26.  I couldn’t easily convert that to a pace per mile in my head, so instead I multiplied by 10.  I was on pace to walk 10K in 1:04:20.  That was pretty close to the time I was expecting.

The pace still felt tiring, but it felt more manageable than it did earlier.  I worked hard to sustain my pace in the second kilometer.  When I finished by second lap, my watch read 6:18.  I was pleased with that pace, so I kept up my effort.

We were sharing the trail with bikers and runners.  I made a point of keeping near the right edge of the trail, so I wouldn’t be caught off guard when I heard an approaching biker say, “on your left.”

I was somewhere in the middle of my third lap when my watch recorded my first split.  I had finished one mile since starting my watch.  I walked that mile in 10:05.  That was faster than I expected.  I kept up my effort.

When I finished my third lap, my watch read 12:37.  I had finished three kilometers, but that was my time for two kilometers.  I slowed down in that lap, but only by one second.  Bruce Leasure was both our race-walking judge and our timekeeper.  As I started my fourth lap, he called out my time for three laps.  It was 18:50.  He continued to call out my times each time I completed a lap.  The difference between my watch and my official splits was always 6:12 plus or minus one second.  That meant my first kilometer was actually faster than I thought.

The next time I got a mile split from my watch, it was 9:55.  That really surprised me.  I didn’t think I would ever get my pace under 10 minutes during a 10K race.  That gave me motivation to keep up my effort, but that pace proved to be unsustainable.  None of my other miles were under 10 minutes.

It was around this time that I saw a large group of runners approaching.  There were all wearing maroon.  As they got closer, I realized it was the University of Minnesota cross-country team out for an easy training run.

After another half mile, I finished my fifth lap.  I was beginning to feel ragged, but I was half done now.  I didn’t know if I could keep up the pace, but I was determined to fight for it.

Twice per lap, I had to make a 180 degree turn.  Each time I did that, it slowed me down.  Then I would light a fire under myself to quickly get back into a fast pace.  I used the turns as periodic reminders to make sure I wasn’t slowing down.  As this point in the race, my biggest enemy was complacency.

I often ask myself if my pace feels sustainable.  I’m used to doing marathons.  I’m not used to doing 10K races.  There’s a big difference between what feels sustainable in a marathon and what feels sustainable in a 10K race.  When I was in my 20s, I did lots of 5K and 10K races.  My recollection is that I would feel out of breath after two miles.  After that, I would fight for dear life to hang on.  The pace never felt sustainable.

The next time my watch recorded a split for a mile, it was 10:09.  At first, I was disappointed to have slowed down that much from one mile to the next.  Then I realized something.  My PR for walking 10 kilometers was 1:03:45.  That’s an average pace of 10:17 per mile.  Even though I slowed down, I was still going faster than the pace I would need to set a new PR.  I was more than half done.  It was time to hang on for dear life.  I fought harder to keep from slowing down.

When I was 100 meters away from finishing my seventh lap, I passed one of the other walkers.  It was the second time I lapped him.  As I went by, he said his goal was to keep me from lapping him three times.  With only three laps to go, I knew I wasn’t likely to lap him again, but I took it as a challenge and used it as motivation to dig just a bit deeper.  I didn’t pass him again, but I did pick up my pace.

When I got my next mile split, it was 10:03.  I picked up my pace, yet I was a little disappointed.  I was working so hard that I honestly expected to get my pace back under 10 minutes.  By now, I only had about 1.6 miles to go.  I tried to pour it on, but I couldn’t get any faster.  When I eventually finished another mile, it was 10:05.

In my last lap, I tried again to pick up the pace, but it seemed like I was at my limit.  10K races are hard.  Then I made the turn with 600 meters to go.  The remaining distance was like a lap and a half around a track.  Finally, I found something within myself and made one last surge.

We weren’t all doing the same number of laps.  Even those of us who were doing 10K weren’t all on the same lap.  As we each approached the end of our final lap, we needed to let Bruce know we were finishing, so he could record our times.  After making the final turn, I yelled ahead to Bruce that I was finishing.  I was so fatigued that I almost tripped as I crossed the line.  My time was 1:02:51.  I knew it was going to be a PR, but I was still surprised to beat my old PR by almost a minute.

After the race, I had brunch with Bruce.  During the race, he was making videos of each of us as we went by.  After the race, he was able to show me some of the videos.  He sometimes slowed it down to one frame at a time, so he could show me all the things he noticed about my race-walking mechanics.

A few years ago, I got to a point where I could walk marathons pretty fast, but I was doing it with inefficient mechanics.  This year, I’ve improved my form, but I still have lots of room for improvement.

One thing Bruce showed me should be easy to correct.  The other things he showed me will be more difficult to correct.  It’s one thing to know what you need to do.  It’s another thing entirely to know how to do it.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I have good endurance, but my walking still isn’t as efficient as it could be.  One of the keys to getting faster will be improving my walking form.

Race Statistics
Distance:  10 kilometers
Time:  1:02:51
Average Pace: 6:17 per kilometer (10:07 per mile)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Race Report: 2021 We Walk Marathon

On September 18, I race-walked the We Walk Marathon in Mayer, MN.  This is a race that’s organized for the benefit of walkers, whether they’re race-walkers, fitness walkers, Nordic walkers, or hikers.  I walked this race two years ago, but at the time I had not done any recent race-walk training.  This year, I expected to be much faster.

You aren’t required to walk the whole race.  They also have a run/walk division for runners who alternate between running and walking.  For that matter, you could also run the whole way, but they discourage that by imposing a “speed limit” of 10:18 per mile, which corresponds to a finish time of 4:30.  Anyone who finishes faster than that is given an official time of 4:30 in the results.

I’ve race-walked seven other marathons this year, but I did them all in a span of three weeks.  In most of them, I was holding back, to keep some gas in the tank for the next one.  My fastest of those was 5:15:44, which was an average pace of 12:03 per mile.  My goal for this race was to break 5:15.

In addition to the marathon, there was a 50K race, a half marathon, and a 10K race.  In theory, the 50K and marathon started at 7:00, the half marathon started at 8:00, and the 10K started at 9:00.  In practice, it was a rolling start.  We were each assigned a time to pick up our race packet at Mayer Lutheran High School.  As soon as we had our race packets, we could go outside and start.

Our packet pickup times were staggered, based on our estimated finish times.  The earliest packet pickup time for the 50K was 6:45.  The earliest packet pickup time for the marathon was 7:00.  My packet pickup time was 7:15.

I left home at 6:00, allowing an hour for the drive to Mayer.  I got there a little bit early, which gave me time to shed my warm-ups and make a bathroom stop inside the high school before picking up my race packet.  After pinning on my race number, I got started as quickly as I could.

I don’t know if I was the last walker to start the marathon, but I think I had the latest packet pickup time.  I fully expected all the other walkers to have a head start.  My hope was to catch up to all the other walkers before the end of the race.

The race started in a parking lot on the south side of the school.  The first half mile was a combination of city streets and a paved path through a corner of West Ridge Park.  Next, we got onto the Dakota Rail Trail and started heading west.  The course for the marathon was a double out-and-back.  The vast majority of it was on the Dakota Rail Trail.

For the first minute or two, my legs felt a little bit stiff.  The long drive didn’t help, and the chilly morning air may have made my muscles tighten up.  It was 47 degrees at the start.

I worked hard to loosen up and get into a good rhythm.  By the time I was on the trail, I felt like I was going pretty fast.  I suspected I might be too fast, but I waited to see my split for the first mile.

To break 5:15, I needed to average about 12 minutes per mile.  I was reasonably confident I could sustain a pace as fast as 11:45, but I didn’t want to much faster than that in the first half of the race.  My first mile was 10:59.  I knew that was much too fast, so I told myself to relax a bit.  My second mile was 11:32.  That was better, but I worried that it might still be too fast.  By the third mile, I had slowed into the 11:40s.  I kept going at that pace for the next few miles.

There were four aid stations, and we would pass them each a total of four times.  They didn’t use any paper cups.  They had small bottles of water and slightly larger bottles of fruit juice and Gatorade.  I didn’t want to carry a bottle with me, but I also didn’t want to be wasteful, so I adopted a strategy of skipping most of the aid stations, but drinking as much as I could when I did stop.  I drank a bottle of fruit juice right before the race, so I was able to skip all the aid stations on my first trip out to the turnaround.

I started so far behind the other marathoners that I didn’t see another walker for the first mile.  Early in the second mile, I saw some people in the distance.  It wasn’t until the third mile that I finally caught up to the two walkers ahead of me.  After that, I passed at least a couple more each mile.  Most were walking, but not as fast as I was going.  A few were running, but they weren’t going much faster than the walkers.

The trail took us past a variety of scenery.  Most of the time, we had trees on either side of us.  At times, we passed ponds.  As we got farther from town, we sometimes passed corn fields.  There was a road next to the trail, but it was often hidden by trees.  Even though we were always close to the road, I seldom noticed it.

As I got closer to the turnaround at the west end of the course, I started watching for runners or walkers who were on the way back from the turn.  The first one I saw coming back was a runner.  I was still about three quarters of a mile from the turn, so he had a lead of a mile and a half.  Since he started before me, I assumed he was probably doing the 50K.  Regardless of which race he was doing, I didn’t need to compete with him.

About a minute later, I saw a walker coming back.  She looked like a race-walker.  Since we were going in opposite directions, I couldn’t tell which of us was walking faster.  She also started well before I did, so I assumed she was probably doing the 50K race.  I didn’t know for sure, though.

I was so distracted by the people going the other way that I forgot to notice my pace for the sixth mile.  I would have to wait another mile before I would get another chance to check my pace.

I saw two more runners who reached the turnaround shortly before I did.  On my way back, I was so close to them that I wondered if I would catch them.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  They both stopped briefly to adjust their camelbacks.  That’s when I went by them.

Although I was cold in the first few miles, it was warming up quickly.  I took off my gloves and put them in my fanny pack.  Then I started thinking about finally having something to drink.  On the way out, I had an opportunity to scout out the aid stations.  I knew the first one I would pass had only one trash bin, and it was right next to the table.  The one after that had trash bins a distance away in each direction.  I decided to wait until that one before stopping to drink.

There were mile markers going out, but not coming back.  When I saw the “6” sign, I realized I had already gone about 7.1 miles.  My watch vibrates when it records a split, but I never noticed it.  I glanced at my watch.  Sure enough, it read 7.1 miles.  I missed another split.

I knew by now that I was probably speeding up, but I didn’t know how much.  I knew there was another walker still ahead of me, but I didn’t know when she started.  I also didn’t know if she was doing the marathon or the 50K race.  Until I knew which one of us was going faster, I was inclined to pick up my pace a little.

When I saw the “5” sign, I looked at my watch.  I had already failed to notice another split.  That was three in a row.

About halfway through the next mile, I got to the aid station where I had been planning to stop.  By now, I had already walked almost nine miles without drinking anything.  That’s about a third of the race.  I grabbed a bottle of Gatorade from the table and twisted off the cap.  I had come almost to a complete stop while I drank it.  I drank the whole bottle and then tossed it in the trash bin.  I felt bloated, but that was enough fluid to last me for several miles.

I started checking my watch periodically to make sure I wouldn’t miss another split.  My ninth mile took 11:28.  That made me wonder how fast the previous three miles were.  It’s possible my current pace was sustainable, but I felt like I was pushing my luck.

As I neared the end of the mile, I saw an orange cone in the distance.  That was the turnaround point for the 10K race.  Conveniently, that was also roughly 10 miles for me.  Realizing I was almost done with another mile, I made sure I noticed when my watch recorded another split.  That mile took 11:24.  I was speeding up.

I also made a point of noticing my total time for the first 10 miles.  It was just under 1:55.  That meant my average pace for the first 10 miles was 11:30 per mile.  That confirmed that I was also going fast in the three miles where I didn’t notice my splits.  When I downloaded data from my watch after the race, I learned that miles six, seven, and eight took, 11:29, 11:23, and 11:30 respectively.

At the first turnaround, I was on pace for a finish time between 5:02 and 5:03, but I didn’t take that too seriously.  After 10 miles, I was on pace for a time between 5:01 and 5:02.  That made me wonder if it was possible to break five hours today.  Before the race, I didn’t think that was a realistic goal.  Now I was beginning to re-evaluate that.  For the past few miles, I had been pushing the pace a little, because I wanted to compete for the overall win, and there was another fast walker on the course.  Now, I had a second reason to push the pace.

I was conflicted.  Should I continue to push the pace, or should I settle down?  I only had about three miles until the halfway mark.  By then, I would have a better idea how fast the walker ahead of me was going.  If I was only worried about competing, I could afford to hold back a little until I knew where I stood.  If I had any serious thoughts about trying to break five hours, I had to push hard all the way.

I backed off a little in the 11th mile, but only by about 10 seconds.  In the 12th mile, I got back to my previous pace.

With only about a mile until the end of my first out-and-back, I started looking for the runner and walker who were ahead of me.  Soon, I would see them on their way out again.  I saw the runner first.  When he passed me, I had about eight tenths of a mile to go.  That put him about 1.6 miles ahead of me.  He added to his lead, but only by about a tenth of a mile.  He wasn’t going much faster than I was, even though he was running.

When I saw the lead walker, she wasn’t as far ahead of me as before.  At most, her lead was nine tenths of a mile.  Earlier, it had been more than a mile.  Since then, I had gained ground, which means I had a faster average pace.  I still didn’t know if we were doing the same race.  If we were, what mattered is who had the fastest time on the course, not who crossed the finish line first.  I now had reason to believe I was going faster.  I also realized I couldn’t relax too much.

I left the trail and got back onto city streets in Mayer.  Just past West Ridge Park. There’s a small hill.  It’s not much, but it’s the only noticeable hill on the course.  Going over this hill, I noticed some soreness in my legs.  That was a reminder that my fast pace was probably taking a toll on me.

In the last block and a half before returning to the high school, I had to watch my step.  I had noticed earlier that the city is repaving some of the streets.  The curbing is done, but they need to put down one more layer of asphalt.  As a result, there were uneven spots.  It wasn’t a problem if I paid attention, but I couldn’t afford to get careless.

I finished my first out-and-back in 2:30:44.  That was tantalizingly close to a five hour pace.  I had to see if I could speed up a little in the second half.

As I headed out again, I watched my step where the pavement is uneven.  I made a mental note to be really careful when I came back through here with tired legs at the end of the race.

When I recorded my 14 mile split, it was 11:02.  I knew I was speeding up, but I still didn’t expect to go that fast.  If I did a few more miles at that pace, there wouldn’t be any question about whether I was on pace to break five hours.  The only question is whether the pace would break me.

I felt like I was keeping up the same effort, but I slowed to 11:25 in the next mile.  Now I started to wonder what average pace I needed the rest of the way to break five hours.  I was too fatigued to do the math, but 11:25 sounded pretty close.

I made another stop to drink just past 15 miles.  I tried to drink another whole bottle of Gatorade, but it was too much.  I drank as much as I could and then dumped the last few ounces before putting the bottle in the trash bin.  I planned on making my last stop around 21 miles.

I was worried stopping to drink would make this mile slow, so I picked up my effort.  I was rewarded with a split of 11:06 in my 16th mile, in spite of stopping to drink.

It was around this time that I started noticing some discomfort in my fingers.  They were swollen.  This is a symptom I’ve had on rare occasions, but it’s usually associated with overhydration.  I definitely wasn’t overhydrating today.  In the first 15 miles, I stopped to drink only twice.  I’ve talked to other walkers who have had swollen fingers.  It’s apparently much more common for walkers than for runners.  When I walk, I have a fairly vigorous arm motion.  I wonder if fluid gets forced into my fingers by centrifugal force.  For what it’s worth, no other part of either hand was swollen.

If my only goal was to break five hours, I would’ve been more patient here.  I would try to average 11:25 per mile until the turnaround, and then I would push hard coming back.  Psychologically, it’s always easier to pour it on when you’re getting closer to the finish line.  At the moment, I was still getting farther away with each mile.

Breaking five hours wasn’t my only goal.  I was also competing with the walker who was somewhere farther up the trail.  That’s what drove me to continue pushing the pace, even though I still had 10 miles to go.  My next three miles took 11:11, 11:04, and 11:11.

By now, I noticed a walker ahead of me who had a familiar gait.  I recognized her arm motion.  At first, I thought it was the walker I had been chasing, but there’s no way I could have caught up to her this quickly.  I eventually caught up to the walker in front of me.  Then I discovered it was another race-walker I had noticed just as I was finishing my first lap.  She was doing the half marathon.  When I saw her before, she was just getting started.

After passing her, I caught a glimpse of the turnaround cone in the distance.  It was about half a mile away.  I still hadn’t seen either the lead runner or the lead walker.  I expected by now, I would at least see the lead runner.  Looking ahead, I couldn’t see anyone between me and the turnaround cone.  They weren’t ahead of me.  Where were they?

In retrospect, I could see how I could fail to notice the runner.  By now, there were also people on the course who were doing the half marathon, so a runner could blend into the crowd.  Runners all have a similar gait, as do the more casual walkers.  The faster walkers stand out.  What really surprised me is how I could fail to notice the only other walker on the course who was going anywhere near the same speed I was going.  I had to assume she was still somewhere ahead of me.  I had no way of knowing if I was gaining ground on her.

To be on pace for five hours, I needed to reach the turnaround in 3:45.  I got there in less than 3:44.  I now had a cushion of more than a minute.  I put the other walker out of my mind and focused on my own pace.

When I reached the “6” sign, I realized it now meant six miles to go.  I looked at my watch.  To break five hours, I needed to walk the last six miles in 70 minutes.  Now I could do the math.  I needed an average pace of 11:40 the rest of the way.  That sounded much easier than 11:25.

My next mile took 11:16.  I put 24 seconds in the bank.  With five miles to go, I just needed to average 11:45 per mile.

It was during that next mile that I stopped to drink for the last time.  The aid station was in the middle of a clearing in a town called New Germany.  I had noticed a wind that was helping keep me cool, but I was usually sheltered by the trees.  Now that I was out in the open, the wind felt tiring.  Fortunately, I wouldn’t be out in the open for very long.

I once again drank as much of a bottle of Gatorade as I could.  As I resumed walking, I didn’t like how full my stomach was.  Drinking that much, however, meant I wouldn’t have to stop again.

I was really happy when I saw my next split.  Despite stopping to drink, that mile was a few seconds faster than the previous one.  I kept up that pace in the next mile.  Each time, I recomputed the pace I would need the rest of the way to finish in five hours.

When I had three miles to go, I only needed to average 12:14 per mile.  Now I knew breaking five hours was in the bag, but I didn’t let up.  I wasn’t going to set an all-time PR, but this would be the first time I walked a marathon under five hours since 2018.  It’s a major milestone for my training.  Now that I knew I was going to break five, I wanted it to be as fast as possible.  I poured it on the rest of the way.

Halfway through the next mile, I saw another orange cone and a timing mat.  People doing the 50K race had to do an additional out-and-back that was just under two and a half miles each way.  This was the turnaround point for their extra lap.  Seeing that reminded me that I would get one more chance to look for the runner and walker who I missed seeing earlier.  If, as I suspected, they were doing the 50K race, I would eventually see them going out again.

I slowed down by just a few seconds in my 24th mile.  I should probably have been happy that I was still on roughly the same pace, but slowing down at all was no longer acceptable.  I dug deeper.  I walked the 25th mile in 11:00.  Then I started watching for the runner and walker who had been ahead of me for the whole race.

On my first lap, I saw them both before I left the trail.  This time, I didn’t.  I was already back on city streets before I saw anyone going back out.  After another block, I entered the park for the last time.  Then I went up the hill for the last time.  Halfway up the hill, my watch recorded my split for mile 26.  It was 10:56, which was my fastest of the race.  Then I saw the runner.  He was, in fact, doing the 50K race, but he had slowed down since I last saw him.  I gained almost a mile on him.

I never saw the other walker again.  I pressed on and finished in 4:55:58.  I enquired whether any other walkers had finished the marathon.  So far, I was the only one.  I don’t know what happened to that other walker, but it no longer mattered.  Based on her early start time, I’m going to assume she was doing the 50K.  Perhaps she took a break at some point, and I went by without noticing.

They had awards for the first three in each age group.  I was the only race-walker in my age group, so I received my age group award immediately.  I would have to wait until later to find out if I was first overall.  I was.  I even finished faster than all the runners.

After the race, I was surprised by how long I could stand around outside without getting cold.  By the time I finished the race, it had warmed up to 70 degrees.  Only the shade along the trail and the cool breeze kept me from feeling hot.

I eventually went into the school to have some post-race food and beverages.  They had water, fruit juice, and an assortment of snack foods.  Three foods that you don’t usually see after a race were buttered popcorn, cheese, and salami.

By now, I was noticing less swelling in my fingers.  By the end of the day, they were back to normal.  I’ll have to notice that the next time I walk a marathon, but it doesn’t seem to be a major concern.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:55:58
Average Pace:  11:17
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  441
Minnesota Marathons/Ultras:  84
Marathons/Ultras Walking:  23