"I have never beaten a healthy opponent!" a chessplayer once observed. Likewise, no runner is ever injury-free, uninfected, or properly trained. Even the winner of a race needs a reason for not going faster. So it is with me on Sunday morning: coming down with a cold, suffering from a strained left quadriceps, unable to jog much for the past two months, just had a 'flu shot, feeling old and overweight, stayed up too late watching a lunar eclipse Saturday evening, ...
Excuses? I've got 'em! Expectations? Couldn't be lower!
Now begin at the end: shortly after noon on 9 November, having burnt off a few thousand calories during the prior five hours, I gather my little remaining strength and put on a show for the cameras and crowds --- grinning like a jackass and "sprinting" (relatively speaking) the final hundred meters to the finish line of the 4th annual Montgomery County "Marathon in the Parks" --- behind 213 women and 524 men, putting me in 738th place among 851 finishers, 66th out of 72 males in the 50-54 age bracket. My official time is just under 5 hours and 4 minutes. (My watch shows 5:03:34, since I didn't get across the starting line until about 20 seconds after the metaphorical gun.)
Homeward bound: Kindly officials wrap an aluminized mylar blanket around my shoulders and hang a finisher's medal around my neck. I swallow a banana and a slice of pizza, walk about stiffly, and am greeted by a friend and her daughter who had by chance seen me at the same point last year. (Hi Cindy and Misha!) Another friend shouts at me in the final stretch; he was there to cheer his wife at her first marathon. (Hi Bill!) Then there's the subway ride back to the starting point and the ~20 mile drive home, where I get ready to take a shower. My face feels gritty; I look in the mirror and see salt caked on my forehead. Dried sweat, a sign that the weather has been cold and dry, perfect for a long run.
Bottom line: It's a wonderful experience. Spectators are numerous and noisy. The MitP course, as always, is a pure delight as it ripples alongside Rock Creek, through the woods, up and down hills. (Subjective perception: mostly up hills, contrary to the laws of physics.) The organizers, course officials, and volunteers are uniformly helpful, efficient, and enthusiastic. A big Bravo! to all.
Flash back to dawn: The temperature hovers slightly above freezing as herds of runners gather in the starting corrals, sorted by anticipated finishing time, shivering in their skimpy shorts but soon to be sweating. Parks and Planning Commissioner Derek Berlage and US Representative Chris Van Hollen speak briefly and inspiringly. Then we're off!
My goofy preparation: In one hand I carry a GPS receiver; in the other, a water bottle. Around my waist is a pouch holding several energy bars, with an extra pair of socks tucked under the belt. (Last year's trot through the mudpuddles has made me hydrophobic.) I'm wearing my lucky fluorescent pink-orange shorts and my lucky loose-nylon-weave lacrosse shirt, both thrift-store purchases, both veterans of a pair of 2002 marathons, both historically proven to be non-chafing on delicate unmentionable body parts. Over the shirt I don a loose-fitting MitP long-sleeved jersey, planning to take it off if I get overheated. My hands are clad in cheap cotton gloves. My feet are protected by thick padded wicking socks inside a pair of new, but not too new, shoes. On my old bald head goes my lucky Gilligan-style floppy hat, vintage 1975.
In the beginning: The marathon commences comfortably and remains so throughout. My strategy is to keep a steady pace of about 11 minutes/mile as long as possible. I fantasize that I might feel strong enough to accelerate slightly during the second half --- achieving so-called "negative splits". Before the start I set my watch to beep every five minutes to remind me to take one-minute walks. I relax and chat with others who are moving along at a similar average rate. We pass each other repeatedly as our walk breaks phase in and out. (Hi Betty -- great to see you again!)
Happy trails: For the first phase of the race, the plan seems to be working. There are hills, but I can handle them. The stiffness in my upper left leg fades, and my stride actually becomes a bit smoother (or so I tell myself). I invent a new game, of complexity proportional to my mental ability at that point: cup-stomping. After each water stop, when the trail is strewn with discarded paper cups, I swerve to step on any that are uncrushed and near my route. Sure, it's not much of a game, but it's all I can come up with at the moment, and it's fun under the circumstances.
Midcourse correction: The path stays pleasantly puddle-free, with only minor exceptions which are easily circumnavigated. My half-marathon time is 2:24:43 --- which means that I reach the 13.1 mile mark a few minutes before the winner of the race crosses the finish line. I take some pretzels from a young lady and wash them down with electrolyte-replenishment drink from my bottle, which I refill at each water stop. My hydration is good, as witnessed by the breaks that I take ca. miles 12, 16, and 22. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," poet Robert Frost said. Many competitors take advantage of that observation when nature calls and latrines are not available.
Cruise control: On I go, still in relative comfort, increasingly tired but never experiencing anything like The Dreaded Wall that I hit last year. The tune and words "While strolling through the park one day," play on an intermittent tape-loop in my mind, followed by "In the merry month of November," which neither scans nor rhymes. I try to edit the playlist without success. Refreshment breaks are staffed by people dressed in increasingly wacky costumes who are clearly having great fun. I get a chuckle at one point by remarking that I had been clean-shaven when the race began. (My full beard thus suggests how long I had been en route.)
Carbohydrate consumption: I slow down and reschedule my walk-breaks to correspond mostly to the uphill segments of the course --- which come at ever-more-frequent intervals. A friend meets me with a candy bar at Mile 17 (thanks, Ken!). Another friend serves as a volunteer race official near Miles 20 and 22, where the course loops back and forth in Kensington. He also gives me candy (thanks, Carl!) and cheers me along. The sugar rush helps clear my thinking a bit. In addition to that nourishment I suck down four energy-gel packets (~100 calories each) and eat half of a peanut-butter-crunch energy-bar from my pouch.
Lucky Leathernecks: During the last quarter of the race I catch up with a couple of runners who did the Marine Corps Marathon only two weeks earlier and who are suffering the aftereffects. "I'm paying back my debt!" says one of them with a good-natured grin, as he instructs me not to walk with him and sends me on my way. I salute and obey.
Final blitz: With a couple of miles to go I compute that I might, barely, finish in under five hours --- if I can string together a few solid 11 minute miles. Fortunately, however, at the next mile marker that goal moves obviously out of reach and sanity returns to me. So I take it easy until mile 26 and only crank up the speed for the ultimate rush to the finish line. That last 385 yards takes 2 minutes 18 seconds, as I attempt to put on a happy face --- and achieve the fastest velocity that I manage for the entire course, by my calculations.
Comparison to last year: My time is about 8 minutes slower than in 2002, but my pace is much steadier and I feel infinitely better throughout the run and afterwards. Most importantly, my slowest mile is 13 minutes (and that included a potty break!). I'm faster than I was on every one of the final six miles of the previous MitP.
For any numerical analysts in the audience: a least-squares linear regression (omitting the final 0.2 mile segment) to the splits in the table below reveals what the rest of you already know:
That's far healthier than my 2002 MitP performance, where for the first 26 miles I averaged 11:15 minutes/mile but with a huge sigma of 98 seconds and a correspondingly bad deceleration parameter of 11.3 seconds/mile/mile. Maybe next time, with better training and carrying fewer pounds of body fat (not to mention GPS unit, belt pouch full of uneaten food, water bottle, spare socks, ...) I'll be able to run a brisker and more level pace.
The only tragedy: somewhere around Mile 17, alas, I suddenly realize that I have lost my 28-year-old floppy hat. I recall taking it off my head after half a dozen miles as I get warmed up, and then using it to insulate the hand that holds my icy-cold water bottle. Somehow I must have dropped it, maybe while unwrapping a candy bar. I drive back to that point late in the afternoon and walk along the trail looking for it, without success. I do observe that post-race clean-up was almost perfect. I pick up a couple of empty energy-goo packs and discarded water bottles, and find an intact lemon poppyseed Clif Bar, my favorite flavor.
It's a good day!
(see also CoordinateCollection (19 May 2002), GoodDay (25 Jun 2002), MarathonCoordinates (3 Oct 2002), Bless the Leathernecks (28 Oct 2002), MarineCorpsOrdnance (1 Nov 2002), Rocky Run (17 Nov 2002), ... )