Monday, March 2, 2015

Phoenix Marathon Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10th; 3rd Edition 
44.3 miles run in 2015 races
Race: Phoenix Marathon
Place: Mesa, AZ
Miles from home: 1336
Weather: 60s; Cloudy; Windy

This recap is going to include a little bit of navel-gazing. Just putting that up-front for you.  Sure, I am going to talk about the Phoenix Marathon itself but this page is called SeeDaneRun, not SeeAllYallRun so a little self-indulgence should be forgiven. Plus, this race was four years in the making for me. Yet, at the end, it was almost a disappointment.

But first, let me talk about the actual race, meaning the one all of you will experience if you come to run the Phoenix Marathon. This is a top-notch event. I will get to all the good things in a minute. But let me get my one and only complaint out of the way: the name. Except for the first two miles run in Usery Mountain Regional Park, the entire race is run in Mesa, AZ.  (Although an interesting feature of google maps is how, if you type in a city, it will show you the city's "boundaries."  Often those boundaries have odd slices carved out of them for what are some municipal reason or another.  In this case, as you can see, there is a tiny portion which may not technically be in Mesa. Or it may be. I don't know. Damn you internet! You give me even more things to waste my time looking up. But I digress.) I know Phoenix is a cooler moniker, logo, and has name recognition but if I had my druthers, the alliteration alone would make me want to call this the Mesa Marathon.

That, however, is my only complaint. In other words, color me impressed. Starting the day before, a
well-organized and put together expo, everything involved with the planning and execution of this race seemed  top-notch. The course itself is a solid course but one runners must not take too lightly.  There is indeed a downhill factor but many think downhill gives far more than it does. In fact, it often exacts a toll from the foolhardy who mistake human running legs for automobile tires and think they can coast down the hill. Let me break down the elevation for you.

Two of the "girls" from my new book, Running With the Girls
The first two miles are a solid downhill. Running in the dark (the race starts at 6:30 a.m. sharp and I mean SHARP) it can be hard to judge one's pace. When runners streak out like roadrunners, that makes it even more difficult. After making a right hand turn, there is, on basically every elevation map, an almost imperceptible upward bump. It looks like nothing.  For all intents and purposes, it is nothing.  But you absolutely will feel it. I promise. Then it is two more miles of the same sort of downhill. At this point, of course depending on your speed, the sun will be climbing in the East.  If you are fortunate like we were on race day, you will get a cloudy sky. A temperature right around 60 degrees is what we got as well. Far from perfect but about the best you can hope for in Arizona in nearly March.  

For approximately the next two miles you climb up a slow gradient with a few steeper sections here and there. However, once you see the 6th mile, you know that you are virtually running flat or downhill for the rest of the race. While better than uphill, this might not be as glorious as you think.  Over the next four miles, you will continue to take back the uphill and add a little more as you lose roughly 300 total feet of elevation. At mile 10 you turn out of the neighborhood streets you have been running on and head due south for a mile. Crossing over a busy intersection, I have never felt safer in my running life. Along with plenty of police officers a line of those water-filled barriers escorted runners across the highway.  It was like our own Roman Phalanx. Nothing was getting through.

I want to make a little note that the mile between 10 and 11 is mildly uphill.  Again, it looks like nothing on an elevation map but knowing it is there will help your psyche very much. After that you have a right-hand turn and three straight miles will take you under the literal halfway point arch. Then another 90 degree turn south takes you another two miles on blocked city streets. At mile 16, you make a right-hand turn and spend the next four miles chugging along Brown Road. Not 100% flat (you go under an overpass and back up) but about as flat as one could ask for.  Whether you should ask for it or not is a point I will make later.

This takes you to mile 20 where you make a left handed turn, and complete the little "boot" of the course.

Hardly an exorbitant amount of turns, this section was probably my least favorite. That probably has just as much to do with me being tired as the turns or anything else, but I recall wanting to be done. Catching up with some of the back of the pack half-marathoners can be frustrating a bit (congestion) but also exhilarating (passing people like they are standing still.)

The crowds throughout were not exactly overwhelming but they were definitely outgoing where they were.  My favorite marathon sign in quite some time was:
"Don't be a Seahawk. RUN!" around mile 6. Also, the superhero aid station between 21-22 was pretty uplifting as well. In addition, the Mormon community was obviously out supporting the race and the elders in a couple of different places on the course, with fresh-pressed white short sleeves and name tags on shirts were a welcome sight.  The LDS know how to organize!

The final 5k is pretty straightforward and once again about as flat as you can get. You make a couple of turns here and there and the next thing you know you are entering the finish area. As you take the final .2 on a slight bend, ideally I would like to have it straighter, just so I can see the finish.  This is a little nitpicky but I will explain why in a minute. After that, you have a really well-put together race finishing area with plenty of food and drink and places for the wounded to relax, reconvene and recover. When I was done, I spent a few hours here talking with people I have chased, people who had chased me and basked in the camaraderie of runners having vanquished beasts or having been devoured by them. I saw one young chap, obviously distraught when I finished and upon talking with him realized he had just had a bad day.  As did many, actually.  Which leads to my race...

I last ran a sub-3 hour race, coincidentally enough, in Phoenix in 2011.  At that time in my running I was churning out sub-3s with a fairly regular effort.  In fact, I had done one just the week prior in Mississippi, which itself was just one week after 6 hour race in San Francisco which I won outright.  The remainder of 2011 was spent training for my 350 mile run up the Oregon Coast in April of 2012. When that was completed, I expected to take a little time off, get healed, and then continue the sub-3 hour streak which I had started in 2006.  Then I wrecked my bike fairly bad. For all intents and purposes, that ruined 2012 for me. The streak was over.

In 2013, in spite of a staph infection which put me pretty close to losing my foot, I got back into the swing of things and nabbed a 3:01 in Washington on very little training.  I assumed it was a one year hiatus from sub-3s and I would be back in the saddle. A nice new PR in the half-marathon during what was basically a training run for my Dane To Davenport told me all signs were go. Unfortunately, that event simply wiped me out and the best I could must was a "slow" win at the Seattle Locks Marathon.

Setting the Fastest Known Time for a marathon run around a cruise ship in January of 2014 had me thinking I would be good to go for sub-3s all year long. But 2014 was one big, gigantic waste. First I had a horrible flu, then I partially tore my achilles. The best I could muster was a 3:06 which I basically did on zero training.  A nice moral victory but I didn't care about moral victories. But as 2014 drew to a close and 2015 started, I felt ready to take it on.

January held for me long training runs I used to never do. I wanted to double down on my usual training just to make sure when I toed the line for Phoenix I would be as ready as possible. I didn't feel unstoppable the morning of the race but I felt like I had a good shot at running 6:52 per mile for 26.2 miles. That was really all I wanted: a 2:XX:XX. I cared about nothing more than that.  The rest of the year would sort itself out after I simply ended the drought. Which takes us to the race itself.

Fireworks started our run after a very pleasant and festive gathering of runners at the start. There was a general buzz of excitement as we milled around using the bathrooms, taking pictures, and getting ready to tackle 26.2 miles. I was ready to run.

I won't bore you with mile splits but suffice it to say the first four miles went better than expected.  The next two mile splits up the worst hill of the course weren't too shabby, either.  I knew this would be the hardest portion of the course but the rest would not be easy.  All that flat later on would wear me out. I am unsure why but a completely flat amount of miles almost always takes its toll on me. That is why races like Chicago have little appeal to me when it comes to trying to set a new personal best. I have gone into races just as flat, in good shape and rarely had good results.

Down the backside of the big hill took us to mile 8 and I could see I was doing far better than expected.  I let most of the rabbits go out, knowing that many would burn out long before the race was over.  (Backing this up is the fact that I had just the 90th fastest 1st half of the marathon and the 46th fastest second half, even though I slowed down.) I did take advantage of the continual downhill; not putting time in the bank but tackling what I do best. I run downhills very well, even though there is definitely a law of diminishing returns.

As we hit the tenth mile, coming out of the shelter of the neighborhood housing, one of my pre-race fears struck me: literally. Wind blowing north stood many of us straight up. I tend to like to run alone, but within ten yards or so of other runners. I like the elbow room.  However, this often doesn't happen. Being 6'1'' I often get a conga line of runners behind me, especially if there is wind.  Here, however, as I battled the wind by my lonesome, I heard a cacophony of feet. Much to my surprise a line of about six runners came up behind me and passed right by. I figured it was better to work a little harder to fall in line than it was to work a lot harder to run by myself. For the next mile I did the former and I felt great.

I did my best to stick with this group of guys even as we got out of the wind right before the halfway point. However, running a 6:39 mile at a time when I needed basically nothing but 7 minutes, made me make an executive decision. I might be feeling good here but I didn't need a 2:57. I needed one second below 3 hours and nothing more. So I eased off the throttle. The downhills were over and it was time to settle into a pace.

I hated seeing the guys go, especially when I realized that we would be running another 2 mile straight stretch into this same wind from miles 14-16.  But I couldn't think about that right now. I had to remember the immortal words of Gold Five. I hit the halfway point in 1:28:53, giving me 67 seconds to play with over 13 miles. That was just two seconds slower than the half-marathon training run I ran at the Heart Breaker Half two weeks ago. I was feeling good about my chances.

Turning south however at mile 14, the wind bit back again. I had two female runners of contrasting size and style catch up to me and sort of sit down in front of me. They seemed to have enough energy to get with me but not enough to pull away. I will use any wind block that wants to help me out, regardless of gender and when they chose their positions, I let them do so. Fortunately, at mile 16 we got out of the wind. The next four miles were critical. For some reason, once I get to mile 20, for the most part, I am golden. Everyone else seems to fear the "wall." I see it as the jumping off point to taking it home.

I passed the time on this long straightaway by watching the women in front of me. The shorter "stockier" female would bounce around a great deal, from side to side. She would surge and get in front of the taller girl and then either slide to one side or the other, letting the taller girl pass. Then she would repeat. Almost always she would slide in behind the taller girl and then slingshot Ricky Bobby Style out there other way.  I wanted to yell "Shake and Bake!" but didn't have the energy.  In fact, I had lulled myself into a false sense of speed watching these two. Even though I was staying right with the women, matching their strides, they were actually slowing. The last 2-3 miles had me losing time I couldn't afford to lose. In addition, I knew this part of the race was pretty darn flat. As I mentioned earlier, I don't run flats very well.  In fact, most don't after a certain point without at least some change in terrain. It is way too much of the same muscle usage. So I was doing my best to try to focus on trying to use different muscles, keeping my stride the same but working on mechanics the entire way.

Finally, as we neared the turn to head south again right before mile 20, I knew I either needed to pass these women or get right behind them. I wasn't battling the wind alone. However, they seemed to have worn each other out fighting for pole position, so when we made the turn and I slide right by them. I could see remnants of the group of six in front of me from earlier but they were more spread out. I was able to catch up to a few of them as I also noticed many people who had passed me earlier in the race. Some were quite distinct like a really tall guy wearing a white bandana type headpiece. It was similar to what you would wear if you were running in the hot desert.  I wanted to ask the guy if he felt it helped but he had headphones in.  Plus, I thought I might be bad etiquette to ask how a person you are passing how their gear is working for them. It might come back to bite me in the butt later, even though I was just curious. Fortunately, the wind was not as bad right here or maybe I was delusional. I was able, however, to leap from runner to runner. Slowly and surely, I moved forward.

Because of the cushion I had at the half I knew I could run roughly 5 seconds slower per mile and still get under three hours. Unfortunately, I seemed to be using that five seconds every damn mile. The superheroes I mentioned earlier actually gave me a boost and I ran my first sub 6:50 mile in more than a few. However, in a race where I am on the cutting edge of times, whenever I run something which is a tad faster than I think it should be, I rarely think that I am doing better. Almost always I think the mile marker must be a tad off. Even though I know mile markers are not certified it is always nice when they line up with your own watch.  In fact, at almost every mile marker a chorus of watches from the runners around me would beep.  Either we were all spot-on or we were all off together. Regardless, it was comforting to be the same as everyone else. A couple of quick turns had me a little confused as to exactly we were until we hit a straightaway and I saw the 23rd mile.

When I hit the 24th mile, I seemed to have surged and had a few more seconds to spare. I almost paid dearly for this hubris and should have never thought I had any time to spare. The problem was I absolutely needed to use the bathroom and those spare seconds afforded me, in my head, the opportunity to hit the john. Blessedly, the portapotty at mile 25 was open. I think I was going before the door even closed.  My total time in the bathroom was probably sixteen seconds. I hadn't even bothered to latch the door.

With the last mile to go I couldn't do the math.  What did I have to run to get under 3?  Did I have it in my
legs to do so? One guy passed me.  About two hundred yards later, two other guys passed me.  Half a mile to go and a gentleman with "Mexico" on his shirt and another female who I had not seen for many miles slid right by me. I decided to use their pacing to take me home. Undoubtedly they too were shooting for sub-3.

I silently cursed at some half-marathoners hugging the wrong side of the road.  It is indeed their race too, but couldn't they telepathically understand how I needed to run zero more inches than necessary?  We made the final turn and this is where I sorely wish the finish was more straight. I saw I had to travel the last point two of a mile in about 75 seconds. That was going to cut it way too close, even at the pace I assumed I was going.  Sure enough, when the clock and finishline came into sight, I had less than 20 seconds. I could tell I had about just that amount left of real estate to cover.

I turned on the jets, or what reasonable facsimile I have and gave it all I had. Another guy passed me but I cared not. I was only racing one enemy today and its red face was unblinking and unyielding. It had no remorse or conscience. So I had to make it hurt.

Passing over the timing mat in 2:59:57, I finally got what I wanted. I felt neither relief nor joy.  In fact, I was almost angry at myself for making it this close. It should not have been this hard to get this time. But I had it.  Nobody could take it away. I finished 57th in what was a very fast top 5% of runners. I have only finished worse overall in a sub-3 hour race in Marine Corps (117th), RnR Arizona (103rd) and Pittsburgh (73rd), all races which had, at the time, many more runners.

In hindsight, I guess fate should have told me this would happen (you know - if I believed in fate.)  I have run four different marathons in Arizona and never run a bad one.  My first Boston qualifier was here in 2005. Three of the four marathons I have run have been under 3 hours. Two of those have been personal bests. I guess I just run well in Arizona. Given how poorly I run in heat, and none of these were races I would consider "cool" temperatures, it is just one of those anomalies of running.

Ironically, a 2:59:57 is not the closest I have gotten to running under 3 hours. I ran a 2:59:58 at the Martain Marathon for my second sub-3 ever. Thinking back, that sprint was even more of a mad dash than this one.  But the end result was the same: a time starting with 2. This was my 18th sub-3.  A few years ago I would have thought I would had run a few more by now.  Then again,  I have only run 5 marathons a year the past three years. Given all that is going on I am quite pleased to be running at all. The desire, however, to get faster remains.

I called this race my barometer race for 2015.  It would show me where I was not only on this day but in overall fitness. I am roughly where I thought I was and where I would hope to be. Now I must simply build on this and keep getting faster. I also have now had a Boston Qualifier every year since that race in 2005. 11 straight years. I also have started another sub-3 hour streak. I plan on making this one last longer than the first.

I would highly recommend running this race if not just for the relatively fast times you can run but for the overall excellent race organization. Hands down, this is my favorite Arizona marathon. Great volunteers, excellent aid stations, finely-tuned and of no surprise to be gaining more and more runners each year. Sincere kudos to those at the Phoenix (hopefully soon, Mesa) Marathon.



TFMM said...

Very nice made me feel like I was running the race

Joey said...

This was your best recap in some time Dane. Really enjoyed it!

Kelly(M&M) said...

Someone just posted this recap on a Phoenix Marathon discussion page. Thanks for all the details. Sounds like a fantastic race! Way to hit your goal!