52.4 miles raced in 2011
Race: Rock N Roll Arizona Marathon
Place: Phoenix, AZ
Miles from home: 660 miles
Weather: 50-70s; Chilly and bright sunshine
I made no bones that I had two goals for this race
1. to run a sub-3 hour race
2. more specifically a 2:57.
For those new to my madness, I like to keep myself entertained in marathons by choosing exact times to knock off. For example, in Dallas in December I ran 3:02 which was the last time between 3 hours and 3:30 I had never run (meaning I have run a 3:01, 3:03, 3:04 etc at one marathon or another somewhere in my travels.) Next on the list of times not run? 2:57. I had run 2:58 on three previous occasions and a 2:56 was mine in the Hangang Marathon back in 2008.
Being such a numbers guy I was quite surprised when I learned just last weekend after running a 2:59 at the Mississippi Blues Marathon that of the 76 times I have run a marathon within 7 days or less of running another I had never run consecutive sub-3 hour marathons. This seemed impossible. I had 16 sub-3s to my credit, surely two had been back to back. Nope. There had been many closer permutations of this but never had I run them consecutively. Well then, here’s my chance.
I spent the two days prior to race in my usual spot – signing books at the expo. I was working with Sof Sole for this race as I debuted a yet-to-be-released-to-the-public insole in my K-Swiss shoes. I spent a few minutes catching up with Steve Scott (the most prolific sub-4 minute miler in the history of running) and also talked to both Frank Shorter and John Bingham. On the side of the aisle of people you do not know, I once again was privy to the stories about successes and failures ailments and goals and dreams from the assorted masses gathered at this race. After now more than two years of doing this lecture and book signing circuit, I never get tired of seeing the wide eyes of newbies, learning about the sport itself from people who have forgotten more about it then I know, and laughing at those who don’t realize I am the guy next to poster when they either say “That’s impossible!”
Some of my closest friends in the world I owe to this fantastic but exhausting lifestyle. And for the thousands I can say are more acquaintances than friends, I wouldn’t want anything more than the fact that they too feel they can share their life and stories with me. And now that I will be working with Sof Sole at various Rock N Roll races, ones where there is a much larger percentages of people taking that first step into marathoning, I have a feeling the experiences of mine I share with those will be far outnumbered and outclassed by the awesome experiences that get shared with me. Every time I sit down to new expo, knowing the next two days will be long ones indeed I think: "Here we go again” and sigh. When I finish I think “Can’t wait to do this again!” and smile.
The vast majority of my races I am usually by myself. Sure, I am surrounded by thousands of runners but I usually without specific friends or family waiting for me when I finish. For this race, I was very fortunate to have my good friend Shannon to experience the race weekend with me. In no way a tagalong, Shannon was in Phoenix to attempt her second marathon in as many weeks as well. A twist of fate had us both running the Mississippi Blues Marathon last weekend and this race here. Shannon had recently found out that she was severely iron deficient and was trying to test the outer boundaries of her limits. She knew she wasn’t fully recovered from being sick but was going to give it a go nonetheless. Carpe Viam.
Lining up here on race morning I was transported back to running third race in 2005. Mostly there on a whim to run and use it as an excuse to see my friend from high school, Jen, I was expecting nothing from the race. I had a 3:19 PR and was more or less here to support Jen in her first marathon attempt. Just a few hours later, I had a new PR and my first Boston Qualifying time ever (3:09:55). I was again spending time this weekend visiting and catching up with Jen and her husband as she herself was now coaching runners to complete the marathon distance. We had all had dinner the night previously where she introduced me by calling me... “a friend from high school. Well, I guess middle school. Crap- I have known him for like 30 years.”
With the horrific shooting in Tucson not only close in proximity to us here in Phoenix by distance but also by time, the race took a moment of silence for those slain as well as giver a hearty round of applause to some of the first responders to the scene who were on hand here to start the race with an airhorn. With almost perfect temperatures and a cloudy sky above us, we were underway.
I saw the race had a sub-3 hour pace group and knew I had to stay ahead of them if I wanted to obtain my 2:57. However, when I saw the first few miles were ahead of the 6:52 pace needed to get that sub-3 I decided to let them do whatever it was they wished to do and I would continue to run my race. Before I even hit the second mile, I found myself next to a girl wearing a “Team Nebraska” singlet who looked very strong and fit. She asked me if I was attempting sub-3 and I responded “slightly faster” and proceeded to tell her my silly goal. She said that she was hoping for sub-3 and after erroneously trying to go out too fast at Chicago decided to run much closer to an even pace with the race. I told her I would be happy to be her running buddy for the next 26.2 miles if it worked out that way and I instantly had a new friend.
Jen was a soon to be 30 year old, already mother of one and a personal trainer. She also had some pretty awesome tattoos. Swapping stories about tattoos, the painful process of getting a book published and how some people are able to pee on themselves during a run without stopping (I am 100% not kidding here – God I love runners) passed the time for us. Before we knew it we were making our second turn of the day. That doesn’t sound like much the second turn of the race did not come until after mile five. Soon we were approaching the 10k mark. I was right on pace.
To the Half:
We had begun to leave the 3-hour group behind us but soon had our own little group as well. I would later learn that a large group of guys had decided to run 6:45 minute miles (or a 2:57:00 exactly) which I found quite perplexing during the race. I could not figure out why this group was not running closer to the 3 hour group or a few minutes further ahead of us. Jen said it was because of our awesome buns. I couldn’t disagree, especially when no matter where the two of us would run, this pack would line up phalanx-like behind us. When they weren’t doing this they would pass us just to slow down and get right in front of us and create almost a protective bubble around us. Human behavior intrigues me so much and if I wasn’t huffing and puffing along I would have passed out questionnaires to these guys to determine why they were doing what they were doing.
Around the 11th mile I could tell I need to pick up the pace just a little bit, having slowed from my goal time and when we made a turn and started a very gradual downhill I found myself separating from Jen. I was sad to see her go from my sight but if I didn’t stay on pace now I definitely would not later. I fell in behind the same group of guys who had been riding my ass for 10 miles and soon had the group I would be running for virtually the remainder of the race.
To mile 20:
A slightly misplaced mile-marker here and there would make me wonder if my pace was indeed on but the next marker would even things out. Up ahead after the half-way point I saw a taller runner pushing someone in rather large jogger. But this was not one of those aerodynamic things of wonder that we see many of the mommy and daddy set pushing. This was a beast. I knew exactly who it was and as we all made a wide turn around a corner, this runner kept looking over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t cutting anyone off (which was far more common courtesy than some of those in my group had shown, unfortunately). I was using my body to create a shield for him as we made this turn and as we straightened up, I saddled up to him. “Hey Tim,” I said. Tim looked at me and with my sunglasses and hat on and probably three years between we last saw each other it took him a second to recognize me “Hey Dane!” We chatted for just few seconds and Tim introduced me to his companion in the chair who told me he was having a great time. He said he was trying to run a 3:15 to qualify for Boston while pushing what had to easily be 200 lbs of person and contraption. I can only imagine how much strength and energy that would take. While he would eventually miss this goal for the race by a few minutes, it was amazing how well he did.
After I left Tim, we began what can be considered the only “hill” of the entire course. However, after miles and miles of flat running, ones legs could definitely feel the change. I used the idea and image of Tim behind me pushing all that weight to keep me going as we wound through neighborhoods and curves and the sun finally began to come out. Thankful that somehow we had gone nearly 2 hours without the sun wearing us down I felt I had this 2:57. I would be a few seconds off pace on one mile only to make it up on the next. I simply wanted to get to mile 20 and then turn into the finish line seeking missile I become. A switch flips in those last 6 miles for me and even though 6 miles is a full 25% of the race, it always seems like the finish is just around the corner. I settle into a pace, usually stop talking (hard to believe, I know), often close my eyes behind my sunglasses and just run. Ten people cheering or thousands, I rarely hear or see anything but 6 feet in front of me. Fun and enjoyment have now turned into a task, a job. I have a mission to complete.
To the finish:
The group of 6:45ers (as I began to already name them for this recap in my head miles before) were hanging tight. Dispersing at aid stations to get liquids, falling off the pace and then regrouping into a tight knit club, I admired their fortitude. It appeared they had a coach or two who would pop in and run part with them (not as a bandit, mind you) and then disappear behind me. I knew that there were basically two turns left: right before mile 22 and then again right before mile 25. (Yes, there were two more turns in the last half mile and then a curve but for my mind, those did not count) All I wanted to do was get to mile 22 and focus on the three mile stretch heading south with the South Mountain area in the distance and all the television towers on the top. My last visit to Phoenix, three years prior, I was all of 2 weeks into a major life, vocational and spiritual change. In Phoenix for work, I took my lunch break and went for a 20 mile run in the valleys in the shadows of South Mountain. I thought about how three years prior I had qualified for Boston for the first time on this course. Now, today, I remembered this three mile stretch as being the defining moment of that race. Running with a 3:10 pace group, it had dwindled to just me and the pace group leader with a 5k to go. No matter how tired I was, or how hot, or thirsty or insert adjective, he would simply Not let me slow. I ended up running a 3:09:55, thinking I had to run under 3:10, not knowing I had the extra 59 seconds in the bank. No matter. It had come to this stretch. I wanted to repeat that success.
However, knowing I had approximately 30 seconds of leeway to keep my time at 2:57, mile 23 killed me. I somehow ran a 7:05 (needing to run a 6:45). I tried to calm myself and think that perhaps the marker was just a smidgen off and it would show on mile 24. Well, I was right. However, with the slightest of hills right before mile 24 slowing me a touch, I ran a 6:45. With 2.2 miles to go, I only had 10 seconds to spare. *gulp*
Try as I might, even as I passed runners on both sides, it was not my speed that was increasing as much as theirs was decreasing. A 7- minute 25th mile all but cemented the fact I would not get a 2:57. I would have to make up 5 seconds and run a 6:40 last mile to eke out the time I wanted. I have run far faster last miles but I could tell today it would not happen. Or maybe it would.
I began to pick up the pace with one runner who I had seen probably a half of a mile in front of me just a few miles ago coming into focus. Next thing I knew I was passing him. Then, the next next thing I knew, I was done. The energy left, the legs tired and the wind was gone from my sails. This runner passed me again, as did another who appeared to be drafting off my wake. I hit the 26th mile at exactly 2:57:00. With .2 to go, and approximately 80 seconds of running left, I would miss the big goal of the day. However, using a self-preservation method which has served me well, I did not risk a last minute push which may end up in a cramp and potentially kill the second goal: a sub-3 hour time.
I eased up and soaked in the moment, even as two of the 6:45ers passed me with about 10 feet to go. No matter- with a 2:58:39, I had my back to back sub-3s. I was pleased.
Jen would end up missing a sub-3 by just 29 seconds and vowed to get it very soon. Shannon unfortunately succumbed to some severe lightheadedness and wisely realized that sometimes the best run you do is the one you don’t and dropped out at mile 17. Her legs were there and her conditioning shows she will be able to continue to push forward. However, this was simply too soon for her to be pushing too hard so instead of doing the stupid thing and ending up in the hospital, she packed it in and chalked it all up to valuable race experience. Hey, even Bill Rodgers stepped off the course in his first marathon and did not finish.
As the absolutely beautiful January weather in Phoenix helped many runners set and crush new personal bests (and I have loads of emails from those who did to prove it!) I have to say this was a fairly successful weekend for many people. Success is also not defined solely by the clock as many, including myself, learned. While this sport judges us almost solely on that unmerciful ticking machine,it is always great to be able to look past he red numbers and see all that there is that running gives us. Sometimes we are a little blinded and taken aback by setbacks to be able to see the wonderful things we have. We can only hope that when we finally wipe the sleep from our eyes we still have the chance to reach out and grab what is important.
Right now, taking one week off from racing and visiting my family is what is most important to me.