"Just a long training run, with free drinks every few miles and a medal at the end!" Or so I tell myself in the days leading up to this year's 20 Feb 2005 George Washington's Birthday Marathon. But the subconscious seems to think otherwise: on the morning of the race I dream that I'm at the event and warming up by jogging around the neighborhood near the starting line. Suddenly I find that I've gone 10 miles away, it's time to begin the competition, and I can't possibly make it back in time. Besides that, for inexplicable reasons I'm not wearing any running shorts. (Fortunately my traumshirt is exorbitantly long.) At that point I awaken; it's 4am, far too early to get up.
But after that nightmare scenario, reality has to be good --- and it is. I meet a huge number of extraordinarily nice people, pace myself far better than ever before, feel comfortable throughout the marathon, and finish in 4:49:20 according to my watch, more than 20 minutes faster than last year and a new personal record for the distance by ~3 minutes. I also achieve at long last the elusive goal of "negative splits", with the second half of the race taking ~4 minutes less than the first half.
Before the event I encounter Steve (whom I ran with here last year), Amy (a fast ultrarunner who views today as a training run for future outings), and Ron Ely (aka "Tarzanboy", another fast ultramarathoner). Race officials are friendly and efficient. I swap my bib number for one designating the hour-early-start option for slower participants. Then I slather on SPF50 sunscreen to preclude another unpleasant ultraviolet catastrophe.
The weather seems relatively warm to me, with a temperature in the upper 30's and little wind. I'm wearing only shorts and a nylon mesh t-shirt. Everybody else seems to have on tights, gloves, jackets, hats, and other winter paraphernalia. So I succumb to peer pressure and fetch my windshirt and cap from the car. At this point I discover that I've forgotten to bring a water bottle or Gatorade to carry with me. Tough luck; I'll just have to drink at the aid stations every few miles.
I walk with a dozen or so likeminded self-declared poky runners to the starting line, and shortly before 9:30am we're off. Steve zips ahead and is soon out of sight --- he must have been training hard for the past year. I slide into last place and chat with a lady runner there for a while, until she speeds away. After less than a mile I'm getting overheated, so I take off my outer shirt and tie it around my waist. My hat soon joins it in strategic reserve.
During the second mile I fall in with a cluster of Annapolis Strider running club comrades: Don, Ron, Charlie, and Will. They're superb companions, full of jokes and good spirits as they set a perfect pace, ~11 minutes/mile with one-minute walk breaks every five minutes. Their plan is to cruise along in preparation for the HAT Run a month from now. Near them is a visitor from Portland Oregon named Art, a chiropractor whom I talk with until he decides to pick up the pace and move ahead about mile 4.
The Striders and I stick together for the entire first loop, miles 3-10. Everybody agrees that the weather is much warmer than forecast, and several of my fellow-travelers ditch some garments, to be picked up just before the home stretch. The shoulders of the road are littered with beer and liquor and soda bottles. About mile 7 I spy a discarded Pepsi container that promises a chance to win an Apple iTunes song. I pause to pick it up, unscrew the cap, and hooray! --- I'm a winner. This seems a good omen.
Shortly after we finish the first circuit the quartet of Striders begin to cut back their pace a bit. Since I'm still feeling frisky I decide to push on in solo mode, maintaining ~11 min/mi net pace, walking uphill segments and jogging on downhills and flat parts of the course. I catch up with Art of Portland shortly before mile 13, and when we cross the halfway point at under 2.5 hours we agree that there's a chance to break 5 hours total for the race. (Mental arithmetic is one of the first skills to depart during a long run, so this calculation is not entirely trivial.)
Art and I stay close together until the 15 mile aid station, where I proceed onwards while he pauses for a drink. The third and final orbit, miles l7-24 is mostly by myself. Fast runners who have started at the normal time, an hour behind me, are lapping me now, as are relay team members. Every time I pass through an underpass below the Baltimore Washington Parkway I hoot like a train whistle and enjoy the echoes. Besides two or three small cups of Gatorade every few miles during the event my progress is fueled by half an energy bar plus six hard candies.
The final two miles back to the finish line go fairly rapidly, in spite of a long hill at mile 25. I meet a runner named Paul and play leapfrog with him: one of us passes the other, then vice versa, as we alternate walking and jogging during the climb. Finally he takes the lead for good, heading in for a ~3:45 finish time. I have been guardedly optimistic about breaking 5 hours for some time now, but as the last miles go by smoothly I start to push a bit in hopes of making it under 4:50. I "sprint" (using the term loosely) for the last few hundred yards and succeed.
In the Recreation Center there's hot veggie chili and other food for the finishers. Prizes for winners are announced, to much applause. I sit with Steve, who came in ~10 minutes ahead of me and improved his time from the prior year by almost an hour. He introduces me to Keith from Philadelphia, a fast runner who qualified for the Boston Marathon this year and who has a delightful British accent to go with his friendly and encouraging attitude. We all agree that this course is a fine but tough one, with the hills making for times perhaps ~15 minutes slower than on a flat route.
As I return to the car for the drive home the first snowflakes of the day begin to fall. A few inches of wintery mix are forecast for tonight. In the parking lot I spy the race director, Pat Brown, and thank him for a wonderful experience.
"Raw Pace" (circles) = split information for each mile ... "smoothed" (plus signs) = pace averaged over adjacent miles ... "smoother" (filled area) = further re-averaged pace data
(see also Washington Birthday Marathon 2004 (23 Feb 2004), ...)