Thursday, June 7, 2007

Washington's Birthday Marathon

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 2; 1st Edition
26.2 miles raced?? miles to go
Race: Washington's Birthday Marathon
Place: Greenbelt, MD
Miles from home: 19.1
Course Difficulty: 7 out of 10
Course Enjoyability: 2 out of 10
Weather: 20s and got lower, extremely windy, bright sunshine.
Finishers' Medal: 5.5 out of 10
Donations To Date: ~39k

At least I can consolidate.

Coming into this race, the windiest race I had ever done was a toss-up between the Nova Scotia Marathon with the gusts of the tail end of Tropical Storm Beryl reaching 50 miles per hour and the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, AL with constant bone-chilling winds. The coldest race by sheer temperature was hands-down Washington's Birthday Marathon in 2006.

Well, they are all now beat by this year's rendition of the Washington's Birthday Marathon which had temperatures that began at 24 degrees and unfortunately steadily declined throughout the day in spite of (or perhaps because of) the clear skies overhead. Throw in the wind which got worse by the hour (even though the race started at 10:30 AM which gave us all hopes of the warmest temps possible) and this was one of the most difficult races I have run to date.

The Course:
Click Here for a Map
When looking over my recap of this race last year, I noticed it was rather bereft of detail about the course itself. Of course, it was rather bereft of detail period but that was my modus operandi for the beginning of Fiddy2. You see, for the first half of the year in 2006, I was unaware if anyone was even reading my recaps so they were hardly as detailed as they would become in the latter half of the year. Plus, I had not found the places to post them such as, and the like, where people actually did that sort of thing. So simply talking about myself to the ether made no sense at all as I could not tell if my posts were helping someone. When I established people might like to hear about a race from a runner's perspective, I beefed those recaps up a great deal. Knowledge not shared is wasted. Also, I think a year ago, my feeling was I would never run this course again and therefore decided to conveniently forget about it. Too bad forgetting about it did not stop me from doing it again.
When I rate a course I do not often count the weather into its difficulty. But after two consecutive years of the same weather (and word from veterans that it never changes at this time of the year) in this case I have to factor it into the equation. The wind one faced at certain points whipping across fields was brutal and relentless. Almost standing me straight up at times in my tracks (and at approximately 180 pounds it is a stiff wind that can move me) I feel bad for anyone smaller or not running in tandem with someone else.

The course starts off on a slight uphill as you wind through the neighborhood of Greenbelt before you traverse a long steady downhill. Having run the course before, you know this will be the bane of your existence later when you have to run back up it. You then turn left and make a 300-foot jog into a brisk wind, turn around and backtrack. Another quarter of a mile later you begin what is the first of three loops of approximately seven miles. While each loop contains some rolling hills in the first three miles, there is nothing here, which is extremely difficult. The wind I spoke of earlier either stays at your back or is blocked by the trees as you run along slightly winding country (but paved) roads. Not closed to traffic the race leaves you with little to worry about, as traffic is light to non-existent. In the summer, I have a feeling this would be a very nice training run. With country air, enough hills to keep it interesting and even just minutes from D.C.'s beltway you feel like you are miles away from any hustle and bustle.

After these first few miles you then make a sharp left turn and begin a downhill run for a half-mile or so. Unfortunately, this is where the wind blowing off of a large field cuts into you like a hot knife through butter. This wind continues, off and on through the next few miles as you hit a series of hills growing in both length and grade. I would say it is just happenstance that the wind was bad in these certain places but it happened in the exact same places, with the exact same ferocity on each loop (until it picked up in the end which I will get to it).

After a brief respite from the wind, and with about two miles to go in each loop, you traverse down a highway and up a long curving road where the wind picks up with a vengeance. Then down the back end of this hill and then almost immediately back up a much shorter but much steeper hill that leads to the relay exchange point and the beginning on the next loop.
On your third and final loop you pass through here and backtrack to that original steep downhill and realize it us much worse going back up after 25 miles than it was going down after one.

Through a winding hilly trail you race down a path in the back of peoples yards and cross a pink chalked finish line with a cone and a guy with a stopwatch. This is one of the most innocuous finish lines you will find. No problem there. Fanfare is rarely what a lot of us runners are after.

My race: 1st loop
What promised to be a sunny day with a high near 38 with no wind was nothing like that at all. MY good friend Katie and I (who were celebrating our one year and one week of knowing each other by running our fourth marathon together) were both rather underdressed for the weather which actually occurred but figured we would be fine once the race started. Both wearing shorts and long sleeves we were no match for the guy who passed me to get the start line wearing nothing but shorts and a singlet. As this race has a relay, and many people pay the miniscule fee ($25) to run a measured course as a long run for Boston or what have you, I figured he would be doing the first nine plus miles and calling it quits. And when the race started and he took off like he was shot out of a cannon I figured my assumption was right.

An interesting character I saw at this race last year (and at one or two other races as well) is a longhaired older gentleman who runs full marathons with two border collies. Unleashed they do a "pretty" good job of staying out of the way but they are still dogs. And when they would get too far ahead and shoot back they would slightly get underfoot. Now, I think it is cool as heck that these two bandana-wearing pups will do 26.2 miles but I also think there is a time and a place for it and at the beginning of the pack is not it. Knowing this, and also knowing that this older chap has this excruciatingly annoying way of either breathing/reeling in the pups or both where every exhale is a high pitched wheeze I was glad I was planning on running hard today to put distance between us as well as for the new ear warmer I had on which muffled a ton of noise. Nevertheless, it was 6 miles before the last of his "Wheeee. Wheeee. Wheeee" faded into the distance. Running has characters.

I only saw Katie once in the race and it was on that initial 300-yard turn around. I wished her good luck and set out to see whether 6 weeks "off" from running marathons had either left me rusty or rested or a combination of both. With the Near-Naked Singlet wonder fading into the distance quickly, there was only slight Ethiopian runner and one other chap wearing headphones in front of me to contend with until around mile 4. Here a girl I recognized as being a runner in the area passed me. I caught up to her, chatted to her a bit and found out she (Emily) was going to run 17 miles of this race today in order to test her body out for Boston. So we more or less ran the rest of the loop together and shared some stories. I occasionally broke some of the wind for her as it always makes me feel good to help another runner. I told her to get ready for the big hills before the end of the first loop and we soldiered on

2nd loop:
Immediately after the exchange area I pulled over to the side of the road and made quick bathroom break. In almost no time at all I had caught up to Emily but could not find the headphone guy anywhere. Having had him in sight when I went to the bathroom I could not believe he had pulled away this quickly. So I was in limbo as to what place I actually was in. Was it 2nd, 3rd, or 4th?

Passing through the halfway point at 1:30:04, I was a little disappointed that my earlier mile splits of ~ 6:44 had obviously slowed a little bit. I felt strong here but knew I had much longer to go. Turning down the windy stretch I glance to my side and saw a chap in a white shirt with a red hat (White Shirt/Red Hat Guy). Sort of bummed there was another runner in the mix for the top 3 spots I soldiered on. Two miles later he was even closer. By the time we crested the summit into the exchange area he was right on my heels. Emily had pulled over, her work done, and wished me good luck

3rd loop:
I could hear White Shirt/Red Hat Guy behind me but decided to make him work for it. It took him a mile to pass me. And even when he did, every time we hit an uphill I gained ground. Psychologically, this is huge for me given how much I despise uphills. Hitting 20 miles and the downhill wind stretch again, he opened up more breathing room. Still on pace to go sub 3:10 (I thought a 3:08 was possible) I just tried to look inward to stay focused. My running was strong and and running a decent last 10k would put me in the 3:08 range.

Let me break away from the running here to mention the weather. It was bitter cold. Even with the sun shining to help heat you, whenever the wind tore though you it felt like your core had just turned to ice. Breathing was rather difficult as well and whenever you hit any semblance of a hill it always seemed to coincide with the open field wind, which almost stopped you in your tracks.

While my time had slipped a little from miles 13 to 20, in the next 2 miles it slipped even more. Actually, it was more than a slip. It was a fall. But by now I had looked to tricks I use when I get tired and I decided to break the remainder of the race into two separate 2-mile runs, convincing myself this was easier. Here is where it gets interesting. Stay with me on this one.
As I start down the highway, I see a guy in a singlet ahead of me. Is this the guy who took off like a shot at the beginning of the race? Sure enough it is and he is struggling with a capital ain't-gonna-make-it. I cannot believe he is out here dressed like this. He is teetering on the point of collapse (not unlike that guy in the Gatorade commercial at the end of the Ironman Triathlon) and I am sincerely worried for his health. Obviously a youngster (not even 20 and that is a stretch) he obviously underestimated not only the course, but the distance and the weather as well. I pass a volunteer and said: "He needs help. Now." A woman hopped out of her car wearing race insignia, nodded and said: "We are pulling him."

So, now I have about three miles to go and worse case scenario has me in 4th. Headphone guy, Ethiopian and White Shirt/Red Hat Guy are in front of me. At least I think so. Cresting the longest windiest hill, I stop for a short walk break. I was just spent. A black gentleman (I do not use African-American because, well his ancestors might not be from Africa and I am not politically correct) stood at the top of this hill the entire race with a radio blasting. Cheering every runner that went by, he was not only there last year when I ran but apparently has been there a multitude of years. As I paused to give him one last weak smile and wave of thanks, Ethiopian guy zips by me. What the …?

I know for a fact that I never passed him. How did he get behind me? It is virtually impossible to veer off this course. While I had a small complaint with the number of aid stations on this course (it could have used one more on each loop) I have no complaint about the volunteers who directed traffic, stopped vehicles from entering traffic ramps when we were crossing and pointed everyone in the right direction. Kudos to these volunteers who had to stand out in the bitter cold as we ran by. But there is no way he could have gotten lost (his claim after the race) and still had the energy he did. I am not saying he cheated but something is amiss here that is for sure.

Now, I am completely confused as to my place. It should not have mattered and I should have pressed forward regardless, but I honestly was completely wiped of energy. The smallest things can bring you down in a marathon. Down the steep other side of the hill and then up the other hill to the final relay exchange passing, I look behind me and two more people have appeared, rapidly approaching. I feel sapped but am doing my best to hold them off. Down the hill out of the relay exchange we go back onto the final stretch. Right before the mile 25 marker, the two guys pass me. I know have no idea if they are relay guys, what place I am in or if I have the energy to tackle this final horrible hill.

And just as the smallest thing can bring you down, it is amazing how just the slightest falter or misstep by a runner in front of you can give you an edge. While the Ethiopian guy seemed out of reach, the four of us were battling for the remaining spots. Just then White Shirt/Red Hat Guy started walking up the hill. Both of the other two do a little walking as well. From my experience I know that small walk breaks invigorate me so I decide to grab 10 steps of a break and then take off. Before I do, one of the guys in front of me begins to do a little stutter step and falters sideways. Here is my break. Filled with energy, I start running.

More people changed position in this last half mile than in any race I have ever been involved with. Blue Shirt Guy and the Falterer both pass White Shirt/Red Hat Guy. Falterer immediately begins walking and White Shirt/Red Hat Guy passes him. Blue Shirt Guy then gets within striking distance of Ethiopian Guy (who must have been crawling as I have no idea how we caught him). EG sees BSG and takes off. I use this as my opportunity to surge pass the Falterer and stop just short of White Shirt/Red Hat Guy. Using a speed bump almost like a starting block I push down and begin to sprint. I pass White Shirt/Red Hat Guy and am on the heels of BSG. EG is now half a block ahead as he has crested the hill and stated on is descent. Feeling I am now in third, I just want to make sure White Shirt/Red Hat Guy doesn't catch the same wind as I did and I high-tail it after BSG. BSG and I sprint down the hill after EG. EG turns under a bridge and gets ready for that final push. I look back and see that White Shirt/Red Hat Guy is nowhere to be found. Nor is Falterer. I smile a little bit.

With .2 of a mile left BSG puts on a futile push to try and get EG but falls short. I ease in comfortably behind BSG and smile a bit more. My time (3:14:33) was nowhere near what I was hoping for but I had 3rd place! The guy takes my tag off and says: "Fourth!"

My jaw drops. Who else was in front of us? Headphone guy? Who? No one has any idea as the guy finished nearly 15 minutes before the rest of us and has long since passed. I am at a loss. Few things can be worse than finishing 4th and out of the placing when you thought you were. EG, BSG and I finished within a minute of each other. Just like that, I went from elation to disappointment.

Now all I can think about is how exhausted and cold I am and how poor little Katie has got to be frozen. As I send my good friend Anne to grab me two jackets from my car, I say hello to my friend Jenny who has been waiting at the finish line for me. All of a sudden, the enormity of the effort I just put out hits me. I need to either sit down or I will be falling down. Jenny ushers me to her car. Before I know it, time has passed and Katie has finished in a stellar 3:30, taking 2nd place overall of the women. On this course on this day, that time is just wonderful. I go out to congratulate her, say goodbye to Jenny and almost collapse. Tiny Katie begins to walk me back to the warmth of the nearby building where we convened before the race for some food and drink. At one point I had to lay down on my hands and knees on the path and stop the dizzies. I have never felt like this before. Not this exhausted or tired. I am almost embarrassed. It is my 65th marathon! I should not be laid low by cold weather!

We finally make it back to the gym, hook up with Anne, grab Katie's award and try to warm up. It still takes me quite some time before I am able to stop shaking and hold a cup. I downed some chili, some peanut butter bread and about half a dozen cookies before swallowing two piping-hot mugs of hot chocolate. Anne and Katie took care of me while I scanned the area where I sat. Near Naked Singlet guy is swaddled in a blanket nearby. I asked him what the hell was he thinking. His response: "A 2:40 marathon." Running has it characters.

Continuing with my disappointment of "almosts" I got the news when I got home that I had not won the contest to run the North Pole Marathon but was rather the runner-up. Quite bittersweet to have two near victories barely tasted before they were pulled away all in a matter of hours. But disappointment, if you can handle it properly, is an excellent motivator. I am not saying I would not like things to come easier but when they do not, I feel I can indeed use it to press on. In fact, I might just run a 24-hour race in Virginia the weekend where I was hoping to be in Santa's backyard. I began planning that about 7 minutes after I found out I had not won the contest. Digest your defeats and move on.

I have 2 weeks until I test my legs in a 50k. I am going to try my best to just use it as a training run for my 100 mile race in June. But I make no promises of holding back.

Final synopsis: I was rested but not enough. I was rusty but not enough that it hurt me. The Washington Birthday Marathon on this day was not the race to test to see where I was fitness wise.

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