Thursday, April 24, 2008

Race Report: Boston Marathon
Even after my bonks – Matfield Green Death Ride in '97; Wildflower in '04 – I was pretty well recovered within 24 hours. Even after the untrained-for 50 miles of Autumn Leaves last fall, I was eager to walk or ride within a couple of days.

But Boston has left me whipped. Perhaps you saw the report on Infospigot, based on an exclusive post-race interview. I knew then, hours after the race, that I had reached pretty deeply to run the race I did. Three days of staggering around, now with a sore throat, have only confirmed that.

So the customary race report has been late in arriving, and what it amounts to, I'm not really sure. All I know is that the race, it was everything I hoped it would be, and more. It's funny – after all these years of doing triathlon, I finally have a date with Ironman, in June. Yet Boston snuck in there and stole the prize; it became the race of a lifetime.

The crowds were the best part. Families on their front lawns in the very New England towns of Hopkinton and Ashland. Non-official aid everywhere, often from children—little hands holding out orange slices or water and looking for high (or low, I guess) fives. Everyone cheering, shouting encouragement. Of course there were the screaming girls of Wellesley (and I remember one big bearded guy in a Raiders shirt among them), and the rowdies at BC, and there were the Newton Hills, Heartbreak merely last among them, and there was the long straight shot down jam-packed Boylston to the finish.

But I’ll tell you what I also will not forget: On my dazed, wandering walk back to the hotel after it was over, I struck up a conversation with a couple of typical-looking New Englanders, a slightly heavyset mom and her braces-clad 11-year-old daughter. They were headed to South Station, on their way home to the Cape after watching the race. Had they come into town to cheer on friends or relatives? Nah. 'We always watch the Marathon,' the little girl said. 'It’s just so great to see all the runners.' Then she asked me how old you have to be to run it, because it was something she was aiming to do herself.

When she does do Boston, I’m hoping she’ll be smart enough not to run a half-marathon PR two weeks beforehand – on a hilly course, no less. I did that, in Portland on April 6, and it cost me in Boston. After a very comfortable first half of the race – completed in 1:35:27 – I began to notice some aching in my quads. By the time we reached the hills, after 16 miles, they were seriously hurting. Not so much on flat ground and even on climbs, but especially on the downhills. After Heartbreak Hill (20.5 miles in), the course falls about 200 feet in elevation over the next three miles. I should have covered these three miles in 22 minutes. But my quads were so ravaged, all I could manage was 24:05. So there you are – two minutes lost.

I pretty much stabilized for Mile 25, but just as I approached the 40K marker (the marathon is 42.2K), my left calf began to cramp. I mean, serious Michael Chang at Roland Garros cramping. I remember thinking: This is the kind of thing that causes guys to walk it in. But I wasn’t going to have any of that, not in front of the screaming masses, the tens of thousands creating an overwhelming din that makes the whole experience weirdly hazy today. Not with 3:20 – my true goal – still within reach. I ran as hard as I could without letting the cramping get out of control. It was maybe 85 percent effort. I’d push a little harder on the gas, feel the leg began to twitch and seize, then back off just slightly. Just slightly. The 2.2K took me 10:50, a per-mile pace of 7:55. There was another lost minute or so.

But no matter: I had made it. I was rewarded for risking going out hard – which was a little scary – and for having just enough fitness not to fall completely apart before the finish line. My time: 3:18:52, nearly six minutes faster than my previous marathon best, and done on the tough, fabled Boston route. Let's see: 4,038 finished in front of me, and 17,924 behind me.

Afterward, I was happy, but in a sort of distant way. I think I was emotionally drained. In fact, I think that feeling masked how physically done in I was. I only realized yesterday, after returning home and weighing myself, how dehydrated I must have been out there. I was down about eight pounds. Eight pounds = a gallon of water. (The day was great, in the high 40s at the start as the fog broke up and sun came out, into the low 60s midway, then back down into the high 50s at the finish with the sea breeze feeling quite refreshing. It felt like a great day to run. But the sun took a surprising toll.)

So, wow, Boston, well, it was a complete effort. Yep. Boston taught me what a complete effort is. It brought it out of me. By its obvious greatness, it demanded such an effort of me. What a cool thing the Boston Marathon is. What an honor to have run it.

The splits:
1 7:55
2 7:12
3 7:05
5 7:16
6 7:10
7 7:13
8 7:21
9 7:16
10 7:21
11 7:11
12 7:14
13 7:15
14 7:19
15 7:33
16 7:29
17 7:50
18 7:58
19 7:47
20 8:07
21 8:37
22 7:59
23 8:08
24 7:58
25 7:50
26.2 9:37
The Man in Yellow
I heard some runners complaining about all the attention Lance Armstrong was getting at the Boston Marathon. It wasn't really a dig at Lance, although for some people it did morph into that. Mostly, people thought there might be other cool stories to explore beyond the famous bike rider. But the Boston Globe did capture many of those stories the day after the race, so I didn't mind seeing one about Lance's day. And reading the story, I was struck by how closely the views of a seven-time Tour de France champion running a 2:50 marathon paralleled those of a 3:18 plodder (me). Lance totally got Boston.

While he's scaled more challenging heights in the Tour de France, Armstrong was surprised by his first encounter with Heartbreak Hill.

"There's hills all around that area, so I when I went up one, I thought, 'Boy, that must be it,'" he said. "Then we went to the next one, and this guy's next to me, he said, 'Well, that was Heartbreak Hill,' and I thought, 'Well, that wasn't that bad,' but another guy said, 'No, it wasn't that one, it's coming up,' so we eventually got to it.

"But the very first one of that series of hills seemed to me to be the hardest. It's interesting because people always talk about Heartbreak Hill and everybody sort of led me to believe that that series of hills was so difficult.

"Then I had this period where everybody seemed to talk them down - 'They're not that big a deal, running the hills of Boston; don't worry about it.' They were wrong. They are harder and they do come at a difficult time in the race.

"For me, it's hard to run on the downhills. Perhaps my body weight comes into play; 175 pounds running downhill really takes a toll on your muscles, and then all of a sudden you hit another uphill.

"Where's the flat marathons? Anybody know?"

No one had an answer. But there was another question: Does he plan to come back?

"Yeah, oh yeah," Armstrong said. "If they let me come back. But there's a lot of other reasons to come back.

"I really love the event, the spectacle of a marathon and the challenges of a marathon. This is a landmark event. This was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a beautiful experience, but the crowds here made it 10 times what I expected."

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Want 25 Large?
It could be yours, if you've got a nifty plan to put it to good use in your community. Markham Vineyards in Napa Valley is behind the program. Check it out.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Race Report: 26.2/2
I don't like races that start before the sun is up. That's not news. But I have to admit, it is kind of cool to be home and showered at 9:15 in the morning, a half-marathon in the books.

The Race for the Roses is a local affair, starting and finishing at the Oregon Convention Center, just a few Max stops west of my house. I love to race and the proximity of this one made it attractive. Otherwise, with Boston coming up in two weeks, it didn't make a lot of sense. (Of course, if being sensible was a key consideration, I wouldn’t have done the Hagg Lake 50K in February, and, come to think of it, would have bagged the whole Boston qualification and dedicated myself to a proper Coeur d'Alene training program all winter.)

OK, so, up at 5:30 after four and a half hours sleep for some coffee and an Odwalla Sweet ‘N’ Salty bar. Out the door at 6. There was one lone soul on the Max platform, a young woman in running gear. We chatted a bit, then around 6:10 the train pulled in and we got on, finding a couple more runners already aboard. We shared our hope for dry conditions on a quintessential early-spring Portland day: cool, cloudy and damp, with a forecast for occasional showers.

If you’ve ever driven through Portland on I-5, you know the Oregon Convention Center: it’s that building with two wacky glass spires that you see alongside the freeway after you cross over the Willamette. I had never been in the joint and for no good reason had assumed it was a bit of a dump, but it provided tons of nice, warm, clean space for registration, gear drop-off and all that jazz. And there seemed to be tons of volunteers to help with every need, a credit to the organizers and beneficiary, the Albertina Kerr Centers, a local organization that assists families in crisis.

Most folks were still hanging out inside the center 10 minutes before the scheduled 7 a.m. start, which was directly outside. I got out then and jogged for a couple of minutes, did a few short sprints, and found a spot in the 7-8 minute/mile pace area. One of the guys around me identified himself as being from Indiana. Turns out he was here in Oregon visiting his daughter, who runs for Nike’s Oregon Project. Her name is Amy Begley, and if she stays healthy, she could be a threat in the 5,000 or 10,000 at the Olympic Trials this summer. Good luck to her.

A couple minutes after 7 we crowded toward the start, to ensure that we would have to spread out once the race did get going, but whatever: with chip timing, not a big deal.

Beforehand, I hadn’t really arrived at a strategy for the race. As I crossed over the timing mat at the start line, I remained unsure. I figured I ought to be able to go faster than I had at the Champoeg 30K last month, when I ran a 7:08 pace. But with Boston just two weeks away, I didn’t want to kill myself to do that.

In the first mile we took the Broadway Bridge over the Willamette, then did a little loop around and headed south, into the occasional gust. It was mostly gray overhead, but not entirely, and didn’t look too threatening. The temperature was somewhere in the low to mid-40s. I wore shorts and two long-sleeved technical shirts and felt quite comfortable as far as that went. But the runner in me wasn’t pleased in the early going. I was struggling to find a rhythm. I had ridden my bike for two and a half hours the day before, and swum for the fourth day in a row. And on Thursday, I had done a 15-mile run. So there was no taper at all for this thing. Oh, well; I was OK with the idea that it just might not be fast day, though I hadn’t completely thrown in the towel.

I passed the first mile marker in 7:22, then picked up the pace for a 6:50 second mile as we headed south down Naito, a big boulevard that runs just west of the Willamette. Mile 3 had a little bit of climbing (7:08) and Mile 4 a lot (7:30). But what goes up gets to come down, and this course gave back the elevation in a wonderful, gentle fashion, and the next five miles came in at 6:56, 6:44, 6:43, 6:59 and 6:38. Not only did the boost from gravity improve my time, but because the downhills weren’t steep and stressful, they allowed me to relax and settle into a groove as we headed through the Pearl and into the industrial areas by the river north of downtown.

We turned around between Miles 9 and 10 and faced more than two miles of pretty stiff headwinds heading south again. The last turnaround came just before Mile 12 and it felt so good to have the wind at my back. I picked up the pace—just a mile to go—and was cruising nicely. Then came the approach to the Steel Bridge. Normally, pedestrians go on the lower level of the Steel, but for the race we had a full lane on the upper level. Which meant we had to get to the upper level. Man, that hurt! It was probably only a 50-foot elevation gain, maybe 75. But the timing was exquisitely evil, coming about a quarter mile from the finish.

Finally to the crest of the bridge, I gathered my composure and tried to cut loose with whatever energy remained. Around Mile 7, I had realized I was at 7 minutes/mile pace. I didn’t think I could maintain it, but felt good that even if I slowed a bit, I’d still finish with a reasonable time. By the Mile 9 marker, now under the 7-minute pace and feeling pretty good, I thought maybe I could indeed do it. So as I headed off the Steel, knowing I was right on the cusp of making this goal, I went hard. I felt a little silly—there was a pretty good crowd on hand, and I here I was, a 45-year-old slogger pretending like he was Pre or something. But after 13 miles of hard work, I figured I owed it to myself to finish the effort.

A half-marathon is commonly referred to as 13.1 miles, but here's something to impress your friends with: it is actually 13.109375 miles. Doing the math, my official finishing time of 1:31:49 translates to a ... 7:00 pace. Mission accomplished. What's cool, too, is that my time was more than three minutes faster than my previous best at the distance, so I'm definitely getting fitter. All in all, a fun morning outing.

A few final random thoughts, and then the numbers: The hilliness of the course surprised me, but might turn out to be good prep for Boston. And: We've had a couple of downpours this afternoon, so boy were we lucky to get our hoped-for break during the race!

My time: 1:31:49
Pace: 7:00/mile
Age group place/finishers: 8/78
Among men: 69/670
Overall: 81/1910

Mile splits: