When & Where: Oct. 18 2009, 8 a.m., Grand Rapids, Michigan Results: 3:41:02 – PR! (8:26 pace); 409/1554 Finishers; 78/634 Females; 8/90 Females age 35-39
Word of mouth is a powerful thing. After hearing nothing but positive experiences and rave reviews about the Grand Rapids Marathon’s fast and scenic course, high probability of running a PR, runner-friendly touches, and supreme organization, I decided to target the race for a fall marathon. Two days after crossing the line, I am happy to report the entire race experience lived up to its excellent reputation and certainly helped me progress and record another personal success in marathoning.
Of course, it wasn’t just the race. I needed a LOT of luck in the forms of decent race-day weather and good health, and both came through. And, oh yeah, there was training to do. After three very rewarding, fun, and successful years of working with accomplished DC-based runner and coach Mary Davison, I couldn’t pass up the undeniable advantage of 24/7 access to another talented coach and runner, my partner and now-husband Lloyd Thomas. Many runners would probably prefer to NOT have their spouse coach them, but this new joint venture turned out to be a seamless and comparatively small part of our overall relationship.
This training cycle began differently with a phase of daily easy-pace running to increase my weekly mileage base to 60 on 6-7 runs per week. Then we progressed through quality phases of hill repeats, intervals (my favorite), and tempo running (my absolute least favorite). I completed every scheduled run except for one due to a head cold, and stayed injury-free. Despite the challenges of juggling training with a very busy job and planning our wedding for the week before Grand Rapids, my motivation stayed high throughout as usual – I simply love training! For the first time, I ran the whole 26.2 mile distance as an easy effort, using the Road Runner Akron Marathon on September 26 as a final long run. I also used the Buckeye Half Marathon on Sept. 12 as an opportunity for some marathon-pace running and dabbled in a little multi-sport cross training to increase my volume of aerobic exercise, as well as to prepare for the Akron Women Only Triathlon Sept. 13. The only tune-up races I did were a July 4 5-Mile race, and two 5K’s in August and early October. Though these races were short distances, all were very encouraging: each yielded a PR and age-group award, and moreover, my 21:46 5K on Oct. 3 predicted a marathon time of 3:32 when I plugged it in to a race predictor.
With a previous marathon PR of 3:44:41, the thought of leaping to 3:32 sounded thrilling, but a bit extreme. I did feel confident that I could target a goal of sub-3:40 and decided to aim for a finish in the 3:37-3:38 range.
Race week arrived just as we said good-bye to our wedding guests. After all the excitement and busy-ness of the wedding, I was exhausted and diligently slept as much as I could the entire week. I was a little concerned about gaining a few pounds, because combining one of my very favorite things in the whole world, cake, with tapering is not so good for weight management. Between all the buttercream and some bad monthly cycle timing, I was definitely up a few pounds from my final bachelorette days, but still at a comfortable weight for racing. That is, until the carbo-loading phase began on Friday.
Normally I am not a consumer of any processed/refined carbs, and I think I overcompensated with two days of bagel, pretzel, bread, Gatorade, low-fat cookie, pancake, and pasta feasting. For past marathons I’ve followed a formulaic carbing prescription based on body weight and never hit the wall during a race, but did not like keeping track of how many grams/calories I’d taken in. This time I was trying to be more intuitive and ended up feeling ashamed, like I’d overindulged. I was bloated and uncomfortable, though lucky to not have any digestive distress. Carbo-loading is definitely an area in which I seek to improve and find a better way to fuel up to run without feeling so stuffed.
Other than the continual desire to unbutton my jeans, pre-race was relaxed and fun. Lloyd and I arrived in Grand Rapids Friday evening, and took race director Don Kern up on his open invitation to meet at the Hideout Brewing Company. We spent an hour sharing beer and stories before the busy RD had to leave to attend to one of many last-minute tasks. On Saturday we ran the beautiful Millennium Park section of the course and later shared a low-key, pre-race dinner with a half-dozen Kickrunners.com friends. I stayed up late catching up on grading so didn’t get a full night’s sleep on Saturday, but slept very soundly.
Race morning was uneventful and I felt relaxed and confident, although I was startled when we had to scrape the car before driving to the Start – it was cold, just below 30 degrees, and still dark. Luckily, one of the Grand Rapids Marathon’s very best attributes is the city’s palatial, gorgeous new YMCA that opens its doors for runners to warm-up, use real bathrooms, and keep warm until just before the race. I did just that. At 7:50 Lloyd and I strolled around the block to the Start area, where I took off my warm-ups, handed them to him, and jumped in the corral less than a minute before the gun went off. This pampered, relaxed start dramatically decreased the pre-race jitters I’m prone to at big-show, big-city marathons I’ve run and was definitely a factor in my race outcome.
It took less than 30 seconds to cross the Start mat and I never felt boxed in, even in Mile 1. Miles 1-4 on this year’s new course took runners over the Grand River twice as we toured downtown Grand Rapids. The sun was shining and there was absolutely no wind, so the city and placid river sparkled. The first footbridge was actually slick from lingering frost, so I was careful with my footing. Crossing another bridge back in the fourth mile, I enjoyed the sight of a sculpture of a large table and chairs that read “Love Life.” What fitting words for a marathon morning! I was also encouraged that my Mile 3 split showed I’d already found the pace for a 3:37 finish, according to my wrist band. Around Mile 4 I saw Lloyd and gave him my long-sleeved layer. I was comfortable and running cool in a short-sleeve technical shirt, shorts, thin gloves, and “Run Happy” cap to shield my eyes from any glare.
We headed southwest out of town, past an industrial area, along a wide, paved park path through fields of tall golden grass, and came out around Mile 7 on a 3-mile stretch of gently sloping, country road surrounded by trees in various shades of autumn regalia. It was the scenic, inviting kind of road you look at and think “I want to run on it.” I chatted with a few fellow runners in this section which made the miles rush by, but I wanted to focus on smart running: staying focused, taking tangents, and checking my effort level. By Mile 10 when I made it to Millennium Park, I was a solo act again. Lloyd was using the chance to cheer me on and take photos as a fun way to get some miles in, so I was able to see him three times by the time I entered the park where we’d run together the morning before. I knew its curves and small hills, which helped me cruise through confidently, still in time with my pace band.
Leaving Millennium Park, our road trip continued toward the river. Everything was still feeling very easy and I was having a great time. I started greeting as many runners as I could when passing and briefly chatted with a few, including a woman I caught up to at Mile 13 (1:47 in by now) who told me this was her 122nd marathon and all had been sub-4:00. Amazing! The course crosses the river and continues west on a road hugging the banks. With still water and surrounded by trees, it was like being on a beautiful run through the woods. I don’t need cheering crowds for motivation, but appreciated always seeing other runners, the aid station volunteers’ friendliness, and the spectators who were out in good numbers at more points than I expected.
Around Mile 15, the leaders were coming back in on the road leading me outbound. Watching each one fly by helped keep my energy and motivation up. I was still feeling fine and on 3:37 pace, with only a little feeling of starting to work. Mostly I felt joyful for getting such a perfect day and beautiful setting to give the marathon my all. At about Mile 17 I ran over a timing mat and was now heading back. I smiled at runners going out and could see where I was in relation to the one pace group I vowed would not catch me: Dubya’s Running Mates, the 3:44 group. The marathon features creative Celebrity Pace Groups based on finish times of the famous. If the group based on former President George W. Bush’s time caught me it would not only mean I was far off pace, this would also inadvertently make me a running mate of sorts! (Though I’m no G.W. Bush fan, let me be bipartisan by admitting I also certainly didn’t want the 4:58 Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Pace Team anywhere near, either).
At Mile 18 I was still squarely on pace for a 3:37, but realizing it would take a lot of focus to hold it. At the same time, with each mile beginning at 16, my conniving, loophole-seeking brain kept calculating how easy I could run the rest of the marathon and still qualify for Boston. I could significantly slow down from that point on and re-BQ. This was good assurance, but not what I needed to push me at this stage of the game. I needed to “forget” I could get a ticket back to Beantown with a very do-able sub-3:46 finish. I had trained hard and worked into excellent condition and had the perfect day to test my limits. I started fighting a bit of a mental battle about this, not coincidentally as my legs started feeling the first signs of fatigue. Remembering Lloyd’s advice, I fought back with a surge that pulled me up to a group of three women who I’d been eavesdropping on from 10 seconds behind. We chatted a little and I complimented them on their great pace and how fresh and energized they looked. As soon as I started running with them most of my fatigue disappeared and I felt a real energy boost. Unfortunately we separated around Mile 20 (2:47) -21. Those couple miles gave me a short taste of how beneficial running in a small pack can be, and I would really like to try it in a future race. I never fell far behind two of the women, who ended up finishing 20 seconds before I did, and one periodically turned around to wave which was so nice. I was also greeting and encouraging as many runners as I could, because I find it gives me such a boost in races to put out positive energy, even though it takes energy to talk in the later stages.
I crossed the river for the final time and now the task was to retrace my steps back to the Finish at the Y. My mindset was swinging wildly between “keep pushing,you trained to do this” and “c’mon, you can jog a 10 min/mile and still BQ.” I struggled to hold on to focus. I knew I needed to dig in, but couldn’t seem to reach deeper. Lloyd was in and out a few times in this section, once handing me Gatorade, but I was foggy-headed and completely consumed with the task of holding on to a good pace. With the past couple miles in the 8:30-8:45 range I wasn’t on a 3:37 pace any longer, but still grasping for sub 3:40. There were only about two miles left, but my legs were progressing from fatigue into heavy stiffness and my hands were so swollen my normally loose new wedding ring was tight. Moreover, my cheery disposition suddenly shifted into SuperGrump. I scolded Lloyd for lurk-running slightly behind me, telling him he either needed to run right by my side to help, or meet me at the finish. Then I furiously chewed out a large group of spectators slowly strolling across the course, forcing the runners to veer around them! I have never experienced such a sudden mood shift during a race, and along with the physical changes suspect there was some fuel or electrolyte imbalance.
Thankfully, I cheered up for Mile 25. Who would want to end a marathon, especially a marathon in which they were still on track to PR, in that state of mind? I was approaching a set of train tracks that meant only 3/4 of a mile remained. Spectators were cheering now: “This is your last turn,” and it was. The cathedral-like YMCA was just a couple blocks up and the white Finish banner was in sight! I hit Mile 26 at 3:39:17 and knew I couldn’t squeak .2 miles in in under 43 seconds. I felt slightly disappointed, but now scolded myself. I was in the last steps and seconds of a solid new PR, a re-BQ, uninjured, newlywed, and finishing my 8th marathon very successfully on a perfect day to run. I smiled wide and carried joy and gratitude across the line in 3:41:02, where I heard my new name announced and was greeted with a big, welcoming hug from race director Don himself. A few steps later Kickrunners.com friend volunteering at the finish, Tonya, was in front of me with a High 5 and congratulations.
Just a short, staggering walk brought me to the best reward, better even than the feeling of accomplishment or pretty new medal around my neck. Lloyd and I were just getting started on our long-distance journey as a couple the first time I BQ’d in 2007, and I had to leave him voice mail with the happy news. A few months later we met in Boston and stayed together for the 2008 running. Now we share a home, and were able to share the Grand Rapids Marathon, and he was excitedly running toward me to share the wonderful result of our training.