2009-11-28 - Northern Central Trail Marathon

26.2 miles @ 9.2 min/mi

http://zhurnaly.com/images/running/NCT_Marathon_z.jpgThe planets are clearly in alignment this month. Comrades Kate Abbott and Ken Swab improve their JFK 50 miler time by a massive 50 minutes over last year's results. At the Northern Central Trail Marathon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving I knock 24 minutes off a PR set just last month at the Marine Corps Marathon. Official time: 4:01:06.

So Sub-4 remains a goal, if the stars line up again. Maybe with a friend!

The NCTM, aka the Northern Central Rail Trail Marathon (NCRTM), is predominantly a fast, flat, out-and-back along what was once the Northern Central Railway right-of-way. Hilly rural roads for the first and last couple of miles connect the crushed-stone trail to the start/finish at an elementary school in Sparks MD, north of Baltimore.

(photo by Chris Farmer of ^z on a typical segment of the Northern Central Rail Trail Marathon course)

At mile 1 a runner near me breaks away from the pack to cross the road and kiss his girlfriend. "I'll see you at Mile 9," she tells him.

"Hey, what about me?" I ask. "Don't I get one?"

They both laugh. "We're just keeping it real," the man tells me as we run along together.

Today's conversations are all that brief: instead of a long chatty ramble with buddies I'm trying to see how fast I can solo. I remind myself along the way of strategic admonitions from friends: Ken Swab's "Run like a dog" mantra; CM Manlandro's "Fly & Die" motto; Steve Adams's "Gut it out" rule.

It's a near-perfect day for a speed test, sunny with temperatures starting in the lower 40s and rising to the upper 40s. Gusty west winds are only occasionally an impediment on the mainly north-south course through scenic Gunpowder Falls State Park. After a couple of miles I roll up my sleeves and get to work. But first ...

Before (and After)

Doug Sullivan and his friends in the Howard County Striders have arranged to carpool to the NCTM and kindly invite me along. At 0645 I meet Doug at the Park-and-Ride lot in Columbia and we cruise uneventfully. Nick Del Grosso and Hafiz Shaikh ride up in Doug's car. We compare notes on various races and discuss training, injuries, etc. During the return journey Greg Lepore, an archivist, chats with me about his information technology work at the National Archives.

Packet pickup is swift in the Sparks Elementary School auditorium. Before and after the race I see Jeanne Larrison, who's doing the relay. Ed Schultze and I sit together on the steps in front of the school stage. We pin on our numbers and attach timing chips to our shoes. Ed has had some major knee surgeries within the past few years, and this is his first attempt at the marathon distance since then.

Standing in line for the porta-johns, I entertain a nearby runner when I tell Nick that Kate Abbott and I had hoped to be pacers for the last 60 miles of Massanutten, then correct myself to say last 40 miles. "What?!" the eavesdropper exclaims. "Last 40 miles!?" We laugh together; it puts the upcoming 26.2 miles into perspective.

Bundled head-to-foot against the weather, Betty Smith greets me at the start. We talk about her Chi Running, Vibram Five Fingers shoes, etc. I expect to find CM Manlandro, who last summer had hoped to do the NCTM. But she was a bit injured after the New York City marathon, hasn't run much for the past month, and decides to skip the NCT, in spite of promising me she would run it with me back in June. (Yes, I plan to taunt her mercilessly about that!) A young lady doing her first marathon is nervous. We talk together for a minute, and then it's time to roll.

The Race

While waiting in the school I drink a cup of coffee and eat a Snickers candy bar. During the NCTM I fuel aggressively: a package of gummy-lump Clif Shot Bloks, 5 energy gels (many thanks to the volunteer who gives me two samples), and half a dozen Succeed! electrolyte capsules. Between aid stations I sip from a squeeze bottle of salted tea mixed up this morning. I quaff a cup of Gatorade at every opportunity.

After half a dozen miles of cruising at ~8:50 min/mi my legs start to get fatigued. I tell myself, "It's OK to feel tired!" and carry on. I reach the half-marathon point at about 1:56, continuing at the same speed.

On the way back I can't help but slow down; mile 18 is the last sub-9 that I log. About mile 20 the left leg suddenly feels weak; for a while I fear a fall. From mile 21 onward the old hamstrings and calves tighten and I'm on the edge of cramping. I pop S! e-caps aggressively and take 30-45 second walk breaks about every five minutes. At this point I compute that if I can maintain ~10 min/mi I've still got a chance to finish in four hours.

During the race I experiment with "watching my breath" in Buddhist mindfulness-meditation fashion: paying attention, deliberately and nonjudgmentally, to the present moment and all that it contains. I observe my tiredness and crampiness objectively. Does it help? Hard to say ... but I do more-or-less persuade myself to enjoy whatever happens. The waterfalls and old stone buildings and rocky cliffs are lovely sights; so are the other runners whom I follow and occasionally pass, or who pass me.

My One Complaint

"6:55? That can't be right!" I comment to racers near me as we zip by the first mile marker of the NCTM. It's far too soon for us to have gone that far. Several runners with GPS units confirm that "Mile 1" was more than 0.1 mi short. Other markers along the course are similarly incorrect, according to GPS. It's a certified course, but only after the race do I discover the official map and belatedly read the hand-printed annotation:

First mile is 601 ft short. The last two-tenths of a mile is 601 ft long. All other timing points are correct distance.

Well, duh! It would have been kind to tell competitors before they discover during the race, as I did, that their pace calculations are going to be seriously in error, especially near the end.

When the course leaves the NCR Trail and proceeds up Lower Glencoe Rd, volunteers tell us, "Only 1.7 miles to go!" My watch says 3h37m and I think I'm still roughly on schedule to beat 4 hours. But there are actually 2+ miles remaining, with hills to climb along the way. Not that it matters: I'm going as fast as I can while trying not to cramp up or fall down.

Mile marker 25 goes by at about 3h48m on my watch. Pushing hard now I pass Ed Schultze, doing great on his first post-surgery marathon. I compliment him on his speed, since he has been ahead of me all this way—and then he reveals that he started half an hour early! We cheer each other and I continue to "run" along the shoulder of the road, trying not to bump into orange traffic cones.

Mile marker 26: 3h59m, still no end in sight. Here's where advance notice of 601 extra feet in the last 0.2 mile would have been comforting, though it wouldn't have changed my result.

Finally I see the inflated balloon-arch above the finish line mat. Doug Sullivan is there, applauding and taking photos. I sprint across the sensor mat. My watch reads 4:01:07; the official clock says 4:01:20, but subtracting 14 seconds after the gun to reach the starting line gives me a chip time of 4:01:06, an average pace of 9:13 min/mi. First half ~1:56, second half ~2:05. Could I have beaten 4 hours with better pacing? Who cares? As Caren Jew says, "It's all good!"

^z - 2009-11-29