91.7 miles raced in 2011
Race: Sandbox Indoor Trail Marathon
Place: New Richmond, WI
Miles from home: 1341 miles
Weather: 45 degrees; cool (Indoors)
“In that moment I realized the frustration that comes when the body breaks beneath the compelling demands of the will to victory.” –Roger Bannister
For the inaugural Sandbox Indoor Trail Marathon, the first man to run under 4 minutes in the mile had a quote in his book, The Four Minute Mile, which perfectly described my feelings right around mile 20. Here, without warning, I became completely separated from body and learned the true frustration which arises when my body will no longer do what my mind so wants it to do. But I am getting ahead of myself. I am also burying the lead, as I am known to do. For that, you will have to read on. It is worth it.
My goal for this race was to keep my streak of sub-3 hour marathons alive which would help me in about 15 subsequent goals at the same time. I was running the race with one of my best friends, Dani Ashford, who I knew was going to crush the competition. Dani was running just her third marathon ever and unless some unheralded speedster came out of the woods, there was no way she would lose. Dani did not share this sentiment, especially given her inability to train as of late because of a busy work schedule, ridiculous amounts of snow in the Twin Cities area where she lives and a soon-to-be-happening move across the country.
On the Saturday before the race, in between signing a book or two at the packet pickup, I checked out the terrain and course with Dani. With the marathon course being just shy of 120 loops, we figured that 90 second loops were necessary for a 2:59:59. Dani, hoping to run a 3:10 would have to average 95 seconds per lap. We tested out the turns of the course which were far more forgiving than we expected they would be, except for one which was far sharper than ideal. Both Dani and I were employing ICEPSIKEs on our shoes and wanted to see how they would work on this terrain. Dani told me that one of her weakest skills was handling turns-something one would definitely have trepidation about with a course that had over 800 of them. Having a decent eye of angles and how to run them I pointed out to Dani how and where to make cuts, showing that hugging each wall would be inefficient in some places and of utmost importance in others. How well this advice would play out in the next day with dozens of other runners around us remained to be seen.
I knew I had little to no shot of winning the race. Anything can happen on race day of course but amongst those in attendance was one Chris Friedman who had not only run in the low 2:40s but also had seemingly vast experience in running marathons in close quarters holding the record for at least one other indoor marathon, the Zoom! Yah! Yah! held in January in Northfield, MN. This was actually fine with me because winning was not my goal. This year is not about running fast marathons per se as I am beginning to focus, as much as possible given my already packed schedule, on triathlons. As such, if I were to win a marathon, it almost would be by accident and a by-product of what else I had planned. I simply wanted to run 90-second laps.
This marathon or one of the other races being run this weekend were populated with more than a fair share of runners whom I had met in previous places across the country. The Ottos, with Dan running the 5k and Trish the 10k, whom I had met at the Oregon Wine Country Half in Portland last fall had promised me if I ever made it to their home state of Wisconsin that they would present me with cheese, did just that! The proud owner of a rapidly disappearing block of delicious Merlot Cheddar, I am one happy camper.
Kent, whom I had met at the first time at the Paavo Nurmi marathon where we both munched on the stew handed out at the race was also running the marathon. So was David Hartz, who I met two years ago at the San Francisco Marathon where, on a relatively tough course and at the age of 52, ran his first ever sub-3 hour marathon.
In fact, there were more than 5 people on the course who could go under three hours. With the race having just shy of 70 runners total, that was a high percentage of fasties! I figured I would have plenty of company as I did my 90 second loops.
The great thing about running a marathon where you get a clock split every quarter of a mile is the instant feedback. The bad thing is, well, the instant feedback. Unless you process it correctly, it can be your downfall. For example, if I am trying to run 90 second loops and I run an 88 second loop, that doesn’t seem like I am too far off of my goal. However, keeping up that pace means I will run 8 seconds faster per mile (actually even faster as the course was closer to 4.5 loops per mile.) Eight second per mile ends up being nearly 3 minutes faster over the course of a marathon than planned. So one has to not only get the data provided but know what to do with it when they get it. Unfortunately, I learned in this first hour it was pretty hard to keep a pace one wanted regardless of what data you got from the clocks.
In the first hour, I was quickly passed by the two leaders who appeared ready to duke it out all day at a pace far faster than I cared to run. After a few laps a third runner passed me also and I was happy to let him go. Already running 87 second laps per mile or faster, I knew I did not want to tire myself out. Even as the race director extolled runners to do their best to keep a left portion of the course clear for faster runners, some seemed to feel no need to heed him. To some extent, I felt bad he even announced this over the loudspeaker of the course, as each runner running had paid an entry fee and had a right to run the race. Also, it is, for the most part, the passing runner’s responsibility to go around those they are passing. On the other hand, I know I would not wish to get in another speedier runner’s way and when so many runners did their absolute best to be “out of the way” those who did not were glaring in their steadfast refusal to do so.
In addition, as a few runners had on headphones, they could not even hear the footfalls behind them approaching. While we jokingly critiqued some of the song choices the race director chose to play over the loudspeaker (and when “Open Arms” by Journey was resoundingly booed, he changed it to a much more upbeat song immediately - to his credit) the music was a great motivator. Why someone would then have to wear headphones as well is beyond me, especially in a race of such tight quarters. But I digress.
I soon realized the carefully laid out course plan I had might as well have never been conceived. With only 68 runners on the course, there were still about 60 too many to run every tangent I had planned. However, it kept it interesting at the very least and without a doubt some of the runners became fast friends with those they passed and those who passed them cheering on familiar backsides.
I had settled into a comfortable pace much closer to 90 seconds even if I was still flirting with a faster time than planned. I was one more than one occasion very grateful I was wearing my ICESPIKEs as I was forced to make some tight turns that could have easily had me and my tired legs quickly eating dirt.
The biggest surprise to me had nothing to do with my own race but rather with Dani’s. Chugging away not too far behind me, even in spite of the fact that *I* was running too fast, she looked unbelievably strong. It took me nearly the first full hour to lap her which meant she was only 90 seconds behind me, way ahead of the pace she projected. The race had a projector set up at the start of the loop which would show on the wall in front of us all the loops run by each runner. A clever idea it could be tweaked just a bit to make it easier for runners to read for the next year by making it a little larger on the wall it was projected. If possible, having a second projector set up in a different location so runners would not coming down a hill onto a turn and trying to see their laps might even be better. Many times, I would get within sight of the projection and see my name just in time to see it switch over to the next group of 20 or so runners below me. But I could definitely see that I was holding my own with those in front of me, even if the overall leader continued to put a little more distance between me and him.
When I passed Dani for a second time, I told her she needed to make sure to drink. I told her mostly because I knew I had to do so myself. There was an aid station located right after the first turn of the course which means runners could have a drink ever quarter of a mile. However, the fact that one this aid station constantly made you forget to actually make use of it. I went through the first 7 miles before I remembered to grab a drink. Given that the temperature of the arena was around 45 degrees I did not think dehydration or heat would be a problem. However, I knew I still needed fluid. So I made sure Dani remembered as well.
After passing Dani, the second place runner passed me for the second time. I soon fell into step right behind him and felt very comfortable doing so. I was surprised that we were running 90 second laps however as they definitely felt a second or two faster. I actually wanted to go faster but a logistical problem presented itself. On the last straightaway before the loop ended the course had a small 15-foot hill. Going up the hill the second-place runner, Michael Ruddy, would put about 10 feet between us. Coming down the other side, however, I, being a strong downhill runner would almost run up his back. I would have liked to continue to use this momentum into the beginning of each loop but at the bottom of the hill we made almost a 90 degree turn and invariably ran into some slower runners who 10 meters later would crowd the left hand curve coming up. As such, I could never once really pass Michael. To be honest, it started to get in my head and aggravate me a little. I knew here I was feeling better than he was but there was nothing I could do about it. After about 8 loops of this I decided to pull back by a few seconds and let Michael go. Fully expecting to be closing in on passing Dani for the third time, I turned around and saw that I had barely put 1/3 of a lap between us. Dani was cooking!
About this point I realized I needed to make a pit stop. Yet, while the bathrooms were relatively conveniently placed just off of the course and down the hallway, I didn’t want to lose what would easily be a full 60 seconds or more to utilize them. I quickly ducked behind one of the bulldozers parked on the far end of the course and answered nature’s call. I was hidden, it was in the dirt and no one would know the wiser. Well, until now. I did this because I could feel I was tiring a little bit and needed just a small break. When I popped back out, Dani had closed that third of a loop and was right by me. I ran with her for the next loop telling her how proud I was of her and could not believe how fresh and strong she looked. My intention was to run with her for a little bit. However, after just two loops I realized that running side-by-side someone in this fashion was mostly impossible. Plus, she was obviously stronger than me. I had a feeling she might slow just to allow me to stay with her so I motioned for her to go ahead.
After a few more loops, I noticed I was at loop 91. The 93rd loop meant there would be just a 10k left, or so my math skills told me. I had been wearing a K-Swiss visor which was all matchie-matchie with my K-Swiss shoes. Here I took it off for a second to just adjust it and I was nearly flooded in my own sweat. I have no idea how I could possibly be sweating this much in a place where spectators were standing around with woolen mittens and full winter jackets. This was my first signal that things were on the quick decline. By the time I had done just two more loops to get to lap 93, I was quickly becoming a big mess. No more than two loops later, I was brought to a standstill. I stopped at the aid station and grabbed both water and a power drink and downed them both. I had to put my hands on my knees as the entire place got really dark. I was beginning to get some serious tunnel vision. Before I knew it Dani had passed me again, leaving her just one loop behind me.
I had actually thought about the possibility of slowing down if a sub-3 was not possible and finishing hand in hand with Dani. Now I realized that chances were good that she would blow by me within just a few loops. I began running again and would turn out to loops right around 99 seconds and then be reduced to almost shuffling. Then I ran a 95 second loop before almost weaving into other runners in exhaustion. On more than one occasion I must have looked horrific as the EMTs on-hand asked if I needed anything. I just wanted to be done.
Meanwhile, Dani was continuing to tear up the course. I am 100% certain this would have been one of the closest I had come to not finishing a marathon if not for two things:
1. The closed nature of the course allowed for immediate medical assistance which would have probably made me think it was fine to push past where I normally would have.
2. There was no way I was not going to be on-hand when history was made.
This second point may seem like a little hyperbole but believe me when I say it is not. To cut to the chase, I ended up struggling across the line. My last 10k was atrocious and I ended up losing an entire 12 minutes in just those final 6 miles. Numerous times I thought I was going to black out, only to rebound for half a loop and then almost go down again. So when I finally finished fifth overall in a time of 3:12:54, ending my streak of sub-3s at a whopping two, one might think I would be very upset.
Well, I was very exhausted. I immediately went into the adjoining room (the race was run on a converted motor-cross circuit with a room where spectators would watch safely behind huge glass windows and order concessions) where a nice hunk of delicious beef and a mountain dew were awaiting me. I need calories and I needed them bad. I would have normally been happy to simply collapse in a heap and be happy I was done. But I had to be lucid to congratulate Dani.
Here is where the lead has been buried and I pray you read this far. Not only did Dani win the race, and take fourth overall, but according to the Association of Road Racing Statisticians, she is now the fastest female to EVER run a marathon on an indoor track! I knew her projected time would give her this title but never once said anything as I did not wish to freak her out. Now, knowing that she was running even faster, I wanted to be the first to congratulate her. But I had to double and triple check first. When word finally came down (albeit too late to tell her in person) I could not have been more happy. Dani’s time of 3:05:16 is now the gold standard for anyone out there hoping to run faster. And given the tough nature of this course, I have no doubt in my mind she can run 10-15 minutes faster on a normal course, with relative ease, within a year.
As I made mention in my Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine article, while I lost in this race, I truly won. While I was upset with my performance, I think it is good sign as a runner to be upset when you actually do not break three hours. It also keeps it all in perspective as well. I have often said that the faster I get the slower I realize I am. I am therefore, mostly, running only against myself. I know I am not an elite runner when it comes to marathons. I am pushing myself to be the best I can be and hope to get faster along the way. Occasionally I have break through moments. Other times I get to see awesome moments by others. This race was one of the latter.
I felt the Sandbox Indoor Trail Marathon was extremely well-run, especially for a first-time event with little to draw from in terms of how to run it. The race itself was from easy but is unique and enjoyable even in its toughness. Both Dani and I were happy to have been wearing our ICESPIKEs and I wonder how many others had wished they too had the footing we had on the course.
I truly hope my schedule allows me to return to this race again next year. For the most part I would like to figure out why I was sweating so profusely and hopefully gain control of that problem so I could have a chance to really give the course record a run for its money. I was flattered the race director took a suggestion of mine on where to place the aid station and truly appreciated how they seemed to really take the runner’s best interest into account, adjusting many things on the fly. Given the smallish nature of the race and the controlled course, this was obviously easier done than in other races but the fact it was done is what really sticks with me.
To me, spending a day pursuing a better life by pushing your physical and emotional boundaries is the best way one could ever spend a Valentine’s Day weekend. Fall in love with yourself.