Friday, September 28, 2012

Omaha Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 7; 13th Edition 
287.5 miles run; 1 mile swam; 30 miles biked in 2012 races
Race: Omaha Marathon
Place: Omaha, NE
Miles from home: 1651 miles
Weather: 40s-50s; sunny

I have been waiting to run this marathon in Omaha for four years and I was not disappointed when I finally was able to get to the Cornhusker State.  First and foremost, I love geographic anomalies. After landing in Omaha after a long day of flying, I was ready to get to my hotel. Less than a mile out of the Omaha airport, however, I saw a “Welcome to Iowa!” sign. Wait a minute.  Did I take a wrong turn? I hadn’t crossed over the Missouri. What gives?  As soon as I got to my hotel, I fired up the internet and figured out that what I had passed through was the town of Carter Lake.  You can read more about it here, but basically, the Missouri River shifted back in the 1800s and what used to be Iowa found itself smack dab in the middle of Nebraska.  This small sliver of land maintained its Iowa passport and remains part of the Hawkeye State to this day.

Moreover, I realized that this marathon course ran within mere feet of the border. (I would have loved if it ran into Carter Lake itself but I am sure doing so would have required talking to yet another municipality, another set of rules and another bureaucracy to deal with so it probably was not worth it.  Maybe in future years this can be part of the race.)  The next day, prior to the expo, I went for a run to check out this area.  I didn’t even realize that part of my run followed part of the marathon course but later this would help me.  Familiarity is a wonderful thing.

The expo itself flew by in a blink. The Omaha Marathon has grown every year for the past decade and continually needs to change venues to host its expo. At one point, I got to see firsthand what I already knew existed – people thinking that because they are the “customer” that they can be entitled to the sky and everything in it. As the race director calmly tried to handle some poor chap who was losing his mind over the fact that his t-shirt might be delayed and would have to be mailed to him, I was reminded why after a short stint as a race director, I have no desire to do it anymore.  I am pretty sure that when the guy left the area he realized what an ass he had been but in the moment, it was more than clear he just wanted to bitch and wasn’t expecting to hear any pushback.  (N.B. the pushback did not come from the R.D., who was a saint, but rather from me when I told him he was being an idiot and needed to stop.  In case you are curious, fella, every vendor and person around thought you were a dipwad.  Hope it was worth it.)

But even this tirade could not derail a wonderful expo and an even more enthusiastic and involved crowd who gathered for the pre-race dinner. As I had just a few weeks ago in Pocatello, I was gifted with a standing room only group of runners who were eager to laugh, break bread and shake out the sillies the night before a big race. I also participated in an auction that helped benefit charity and modeled some shirts to be sold to the highest bidder. I met Marines running their first marathon, guys who had run some of the same 40-person races I had in far-flung corners of the world, girls who would go on to set twenty minute personal bests, and loads of people in between.

I was ready to get my marathon on.

Race Morning:

I spoke to more than a few younger runners at the expo who were visibly nervous.  Not uncommon at all, but I could really identify more with them than usual. My recovery from a cycling accident and subsequent training snafus have left me curious about what my body could do.  As my buddy Sam jokingly said in Pocatello, “You are only as good as your last marathon.”  Not true at all, but definitely runners can relate that what happens in your last few races, no matter how out of whack it is with everything you have done or plan to do, can shape your perception. I was definitely nervous and had no idea what I could pull out of the proverbial hat in the Gateway to the West.  All I could do was show up.

What was assisting me in getting back to a place of good times was the darn near perfect weather for the race.  As we queued up for a special two-part harmony of the National Anthem the temperature hovered right around 40 degrees. Some people were dressed like they were going to the surface of Mars, and others (like myself) were wishing it would stay this cold for the next three hours.  A wind which had swept the plains in Omaha the past two days had completely abated and other than a warming and energy-sucking sun, there was very little more runners could ask for from the weather gods.  I was ready to go.

I was asked to get up and offer a few words of encouragement to the throngs of people before the race. I happily obliged. Standing on top of the scaffolding, with the sun just beginning to peak out over the horizon, I realized that only race morning could make me appreciate being up at the crack of dawn.

First Seven Miles: (14:36, 7:10, 7:11, 7:08, 13:53- I missed hitting the watch on the first and 6th mile, hence the lumping.)

My goal for this race was to see how long I could hang onto a 3:10 pace, which is right at a 7:14 minute mile. I had no idea if I had the endurance back yet to try something in that realm but my past two weekends of halfs suggested I was close. I did, however, want to heed my own advice and not go out like gangbusters and rip off sub-3 hour pace miles at the start. Fortunately, that was not the case I hung in a comfortable area as the miles passed by.  Around mile 3, I began running with a female runner ,Joanie, who would end up taking second place overall.  We exchanged some pleasantries and talked but more or less just ran side-by-side.  I think we were using each other for pacing as when one of us would pick it up or slow it down, the other would follow suit.

The first six miles took runners in a loop north of the starting line, near the aforementioned Carter Lake and then back to the area near the TD Ameritrade Park Omaha which hosts the College World Series.  This allowed the 10K runners to turn off and all of those running the full and half to secretly hate them. It also marked the end of the first of three sections of this race.  Up until this point, the race had just a small rise at the first mile and mostly flat otherwise. We ran through an area that wasn’t exactly the prettiest but it was flat and straight. It always amazes me when people ask me what I think about when I run.  My answer is always something along the lines of what DON’T you think about? Here I knew some would complain that the section wasn’t too pretty or there weren’t enough spectators.  I only saw a very runnable section that just so happened to be where I had run the previous day.  So it was familiar and easy.

As we left Stadium and went up the easy hill at mile 7, I told Joanie the hill seemed far less steep the first time around.  She agreed.

To the Halfway Point: (7:12, 7:23, 6:54, 7:09, 7:10, 7:23)

The Omaha Marathon used to have many more hills in previous runnings. I am glad they took them out. Now, we only needed to worry about a big rise from miles 8.5ish to mile 10. In a free few moments earlier in my trip I had taken a quick drive around Omaha. It just so happened a wrong turn had taken me down the exact street we were running on.  I knew there was a nice downhill in this section before we hit those uphills and was enjoying it.  Here, I fell back a little from the pace Joanie was setting and assumed she would run away from me.  But as we hit the uphills, and she passed runner after runner (some who were running the half) I feel in behind her doing the same. Even though I was trying to play it conservatively and not go gangbusters, I somehow was still hitting mile after mile under the 7:14 pace.  I knew I would be fine through 13 miles. The question which remained was how far after 13 and how big would the drop be.

In spite of the cool temperatures, I was still drenched in sweat.  I was also well hydrated.  As such, a pit stop was needed.  But being a guy, it was one of those NASCAR-esque pitstops, and I also planned it on a downhill.  That way, when I got rolling again, I could use the downhill to get my legs under me and not lose too much time. “What do you think about when you are running?”  Strategy, dear questioner, strategy.

Not long after I pulled over, I saw Joanie had to do the same.  Hitting the porta-potty for a lady means a little more involvement and I immediately felt sorry for her. I hoped she would be in and out before too much time had passed but pressed on nonetheless.  A nice section of the next mile had us running in one direction where other runners were about to begin their own climbing of the hills.  It was nice to see so many others, in their various outfits, in various shapes and sizes, out enjoying this beautiful morning. You know that feeling you get when you lock eyes with another runner on your daily run and you both connect?  That is what it is like in course sections like this but times 200.  I love it.
As we approached the spot where the half-marathoners could make their final push for home a few runners in that race began to pass me.  I told them I envied the red on their bib number (indicating they would be done in about 5 minutes) and they said they would save me some chocolate milk at the end. Turning away to finish their race, I heard a familiar cadence of footsteps behind me and just like that Joanie was by my side. “That was like a 7:04 mile you just ran,” she said.  “Then I need to slow down,” I replied and promptly did so.  Joanie took off.

I hit the halfway mark at exactly 1:34 and was pleased so far.

To Mile 20: (7:29, 7:00, 7:26, 7:22, 7:35, 7:13, 7:43)

To me, one of the most important mile of a marathon after the initial few to keep yourself in check, is mile 14.  Right after the halfway point, there is a tendency to have a little bit of a letdown.  Mile 14 almost always indicates what sort of day I will be having the rest of the way.  When I fell off my desired pace by 15 seconds, I immediately was bummed. However, as a veteran of 141 of these races previously, I decided to see what would happen at the next mile.  Sure enough, the mile markers had been a little askew and holding the exact same pace showed me that it was merely 15 seconds of running out of whack.  Just like that I was back to feeling good and ready to keep on truckin.  Joanie, on the other hand was slowly disappearing into the distance.

The next mile had one runner pass me and I tried to keep in pace.  For all intents and purposes, while I could not do so, this was the only person who passed me the entire second half of the race (more on that in a minute.)  His pace, while quicker than mine, still kept me honest and allowed me to pick up my pace again after accidentally slipping below the desired level.  Back when I was in good running shape, I could tell almost to the second what pace I was running and if I had slowed down or sped up.  But here, as I fight to get back into that shape, it is not as apparent and I need outside clues.  A runner passing me is such a clue. (To clarify, I was running virtually alone for the entire second half of the race.  I was in a no man’s land of running paces with people in eyesight up ahead and the occasional runner or two a few hundred yards behind whom I would only see when I made a right angle turn somewhere. Other than that, it was just Dane running solo.)

One of the things which happens in the planning and mapping of marathon courses is that the first 13 miles are usually fantastic.  They are through well-manicured sections of parks, through great neighborhoods teaming with cowbells and spectators and witty signs (some not so witty too. “Worst. Parade. Ever” and “Run Like You Stole Something!” are getting a little tired.) Then, the half marathoners finish  and start their parade of happiness and stiff walking and the marathoners get shuttled out to the back end of a factory which seems to make other factories, or out and back along a lonely highway.  I mean, I understand why – most races have triple the number of participants running the 13.1 distance than 26.2.  Got to make them happy or they will complain.

But here in Omaha, it seems the best parts were reserved for those of us pushing double the distance.  Nice shaded sections of neighborhoods, a loop around beautiful Miller Park and then another opportunity to see the runners behind us coming the opposite direction waited marathoners.  I was really pleasantly surprised and definitely needed the boost. The pace was beginning to feel a little strained as we began a climb up a small rise around mile 20, my calf muscles whined just a touch.  These were the same calf muscles which sidelined a lot of my running this summer and I have learned to pay special attention to them.   When I rolled into the aid station at mile 20, I promptly came to a stop, walked through and calmly drank a glass of water and power drink (perfectly mixed, by the way.) Time to be smart.

Onto the Finish: (7:50, 7:37, 7:57, 8:26, 7:46 7:57, 1:43)

Even in the shade of the trees and the cooler temps I was shaking sweat off of my head like a dog in a water hose. I know it is healthy and I know it is an efficient way for my body to cool itself but it is not fun to know how much even a small amount of warmth effects me.  It is no coincidence that all of my best running efforts have occurred when the temperatures have been cool and the sky cloudy. Running 84 miles in 12 hours back in 2003 at the Presque Isle Endurance Classic before I had even run my 3rd marathon? Cold, cloudy and drizzly all day. 350 miles in 7 days in Oregon this April? Pretty much the same. Hot, humid and sticky at numerous other races? Near death and debacles everywhere (Maui Marathon, North Face 50K, San Francisco 12 Hour Run, etc.) Since this was nothing more than a glorified training run with an official time, I knew that the time was now to ease back off.

The next few miles had me stopping at every aid station and drinking in as much fluid as I could without getting waterlogged.  Having done this, I would slowly begin moving forward at an easier pace watching carefully at the pressure I put on my calfs.  Perhaps if I had been still on pace for a 3:10 and a Boston Qualifying time, I would have felt the need to push it harder. Or perhaps if I didn’t already have 70 other BQs to my credit, it would matter.  But I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself, and healing is far more important than another BQ right here and right now. Even doing this self-monitored pace, I was fortunate enough to pass a runner which brought my count even in the second half. One runner passed me; I passed one runner.

From the 23rd to 24th miles I stopped twice at the same aid station on the out and back and took long luxurious droughts on the liquids provided. I saw Joanie one last time and realized I wasn’t as far back as I had thought I was.  But those breaks and then another walk break up the last little hill right before mile 24 kept any ideas of catching her out of my mind.

Heading down the long straightaway toward downtown Omaha, which we had run at mile 6 previously and, as I mentioned, had been part of my run just a few days before, I was beginning to feel like I really knew this section of town.  With about half of a mile to go I felt another twinge in my calf and came to a complete walking pace.  No way I was going to rush anything.  When the twinge abated I began jogging again and with .2 of a mile to go three people quickly passed me.  I mentioned that essentially no one else passed me and here is where three did in quick succession, including the third place female.  Having no need or desire to race them to the finish, I was happy to let them go.

Finishing in 3:14:21, this was only my 79th fastest marathon.  However, it is one I am very happy with.  I would have liked that BQ just to have it, but I would like many things just to have it.  I will take the good health and non-injured calf muscles instead. I will also take fond memories of a Marine, in his dress blues, putting an awesome medal, made out of recycled glass, around my neck.

I said at the beginning I had waited a long time to do Omaha and I was not disappointed. Could there have been more spectators on the course? Always. Could portions of the course been prettier? There is no marathon that could not be improved visually. Did the race put together a top notch course with a warm-feeling in a city which had much more to offer than I erroneously expected? Absolutely. Great showing all around, Omaha.

And if you get a chance, grabbing an extra-cheese pizza from Frank’s Pizzeria is worth the ten mile drive to the burbs.  Fantastic. (Thanks for the recommendation, Kevin.)

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