You know what they say - sixth time's the charm. Well, okay, nobody really says that, but apparently that was the deal. After five failed attempts to run a sub-3:05 marathon after September 2013 and qualify for Boston 2014 (Baltimore 2012, NCR 2012, George Washington's Birthday 2013, Rock N Roll USA 2013, and New Jersey 2013, to be specific), the Lehigh Valley Marathon was my last chance before Boston 2014 registration opened.
So I took, in a relative sense, no chances. After Badwater, I had two weeks of 50-ish miles, then stepped it up in the following four weeks to run 85, 85, 71, and 85 miles. Long tempo runs on Wednesdays, short, fast intervals on Fridays. Doubles most days, longer singles on the weekend (up to 2.5 hours on my feet at a time). You know, all of the fundamentals that need to be part of a program to run faster at a long distance.
I was pretty fortunate that after Badwater this year, I didn't suffer a total meltdown, and was able to put in that sort of volume without forcing it or suffering too badly. (Of course, if I really had to force it, or suffer a lot, this whole thing wouldn't have worked, anyway.) I was also fortunate that the vast majority of this training was enjoyable, and that I didn't have to drag myself out the door too many days (even at 6 a.m.).
So given all of that, even though I made the slightly risky decision to "train through" this marathon, in anticipation of bigger events ahead (more about that later), I was pretty confident that even coming in on 58 miles in the six days before the marathon, I would still meet my goal. And if not, well, I'd failed so many times in the past year that I could deal with it.
The lead-in to the race itself, minus the pre-race parking fiasco (maybe somebody should have thought more seriously about doubling the number of runners, to over 2000, as opposed to less than 1000 in previous years), was pretty hassle-free. Packet pickup thankfully did not involve a forced scavenger hunt through the expo to pick up all of the piece-parts of the requisite swag bag. There were plenty of low-priced accomodations in the near vicinity of the start of the race. The number of runners was reasonable for the layout of the course, and there was no fight to secure a decent position in the starting corrals. After a round of the National Anthem, and a round of "Face Down" by The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, off we went.
Within the first couple of miles, I was questioning my plan not to significantly taper leading up to this race. In my experience, tapering can fail in both the "too much" and "not enough" modes. Either you taper too much off of too little volume, or taper not enough off of too much volume, and either way, you feel "flat" to miserable during the race.
The good news was that I wasn't feeling miserable. But the bad news was that I was feeling "flat." I was moving up in the pack by virtue of being aggressive on the early downhills, but otherwise, I was just sort of plugging along. It felt like the average daily training run, except that my legs were moving slightly uncomfortably fast. Still, as long as I wasn't losing ground or slowing down too much, I reasoned that I could at least hang on.
For about the first six miles, nothing too eventful happened. Then we reached the gravel trail, which would be the majority of the rest of the race. Some runners love this kind of surface. But speaking from strictly a "speed" perspective, it's not as fast as pavement, and I could feel myself dropping back at the same effort level. This was a little bit disheartening, but at least it was shady and there was a good view of the river.
I reached the 12-ish mile relay exchange point at 1:21 and some-odd seconds, which, by my math, put me at just under 3-hour pace. This was the first time I had gotten any feedback on my pace, since I decided not to wear a watch. (Again, this is a strategy that can fail both ways - you can wear a watch and then be enslaved to it, not listen to your body, and push yourself to early failure, or you can not wear a watch, listen to your body, and drift off pace until you're too far behind your goal pace to catch up.) I wasn't feeling a lot better at this point, but I wasn't feeling a lot worse than I did at the start. So, more or less, all was well.
The race continued, mostly on gravel trails, with a few short paved sections, and only gradual hills here and there. As I pushed past 17 miles, I started catching some of the people who had gone out way too fast and were now paying for it. Eventually, I reached the 23-ish mile clock point (seriously, would it hurt to put the clocks in locations with clearly marked distances?) at 2:36 and some seconds. This left me with only about 5 minutes to spare under 3:05 if I didn't push all the way through to the finish, so I carefully stepped on the figurative gas for the last three-plus miles of the race and hoped that nothing would break.
As I rounded the final turn towards the seemingly interminable straightaway to the finish (they always seem that way, don't they?), I heard a man shouting "3 minutes!" Not wearing a watch, and not wanting to ask "3 minutes until what?" I assumed that he meant 3 minutes until 3:05, and broke into a wobbly-legged kick (yeah, definitely not tapered enough). I started thinking that maybe not wearing a watch was a mistake, and that just passing people a lot in the second half of the race wasn't a good enough indicator of my pace. The idea that I had maybe screwed this up one more time was not very appealing to me, but it was at war with a strong compulsion to just keel over right there, as there was not enough gas in the tank for much more push at the speed that I was pushing. As I got closer to the finish line, I realized that he had meant 3 minutes until the 3-hour mark, as the "2" in the front of the clock time came into focus.
But before this revelation could result in any sort of relief, I ran past the finish line, staggered forward, took my medal, walked about 50 feet, and collapsed in the grass for about 10 minutes. Finally, I had done it. But there was no catharsis. I just felt numb. (Emotionally, that is, although feelings of numbness were coursing through my extremities.)
It wasn't until after I had gone to the bathroom, grazed the post-race food and drink, and was sitting on a rock near the finish line, about half an hour later, watching the river rush in front of me, that I felt anything at all.
I felt thankful, not for the race result so much as the process that had gotten me there. The repeated failures, the struggle back to health, and finally feeling as though I could run again without being in constant pain or misery . . . the race result was really the culmination of all of this. It felt good to be back to a place where I had been before, but with a new, wiser perspective on it. And I felt thankful for everybody and everything that made this possible, all at once.
Looking ahead, I'm feeling confident that I can train through this race, pace 3:05 at the Baltimore Marathon next month, and then put in at least a PR effort at 24 The Hard Way at the end of October. The 24-hour race was my unofficial introduction into ultrarunning, and, since then, a good effort at a 24-hour race has repeated evaded me. But now I think I'm in a place where I'm ready to get closer to my potential in this event, and I'm excited to see where the next two months of training take me.