Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Race Report - Gasparilla Marathon - 3/1/09

Many of you know I was training to run a marathon at the Gasparilla race this last Sunday, 3/1/09 in Tampa so I wanted to tell a little story about my marathon adventure.

Looking back, my training for the marathon started in late September as my running with the 5:30am Saturday morning crew behind the Lifestyle Family Fitness became more consistent and the mileage started to creep up. Thanks to Silke, Margot, Paula, Matt, Laura, Rose, Sandy, Matt and the many others in the group who made it enjoyable and easy to wake up early to go for a run. Training continued and runs became longer over the coming months as I though about trying to break the 4 hour marathon mark and my only previous time of 4:09:58 from Chicago in 2005. I apologize for the very specific time, but I just don't feel right saying 4:09 and 4:10 is a vast overstatement of my initial marathon time, so 4:09:58 it is! My stated goal was to run the Gasparilla marathon in under 4 hours and my secret goal was to run it in 3:50.

In addition to the many memorable runs I had leading up to the race; my last long run stands out as an epic training run that taught me about speed, perseverance and mental focus. This was a 22 mile run with Dair, a fellow runner I met on the Suncoast Trail in my last month of training. Dair is a marathoner who routinely wins her age group and helped me hold a nice, steady pace during this long run. Over the last 5 miles of this run, she encouraged me to pick up the pace and explained that in the last 2 miles, you needed to "kick". Putting this into practice on the training run tested my ability to remain focused and to run hard and fast when my mind was telling me to slow down and stop. I actually felt like my limbs were going to fly in all directions and I used every trick I knew to remain focused (visualize the finish line, repeat a personal mantra, count your steps, pretend you have an giant rubber band pulling you to the finish line, etc.) as I ran as fast as I could to the finish. I ran that final mile a full 1.5 minutes faster than we had run the previous 19 and I was also only 2 beats shy of a new maximum heart rate. That is what Dair meant by a kick! Got it...I'll remember it!

Race morning came and I was healthy, hydrated and ready to run. It was cool and humid out and I hitched a lift with Mark and two friends down from Charlotte, NC, Errol and Matt. Thankfully Matt handled all the stress of driving in race morning traffic and finding a parking space near the start. We all walked toward the Convention Center and I took off ahead to check my gear bag and get queued up in the starting chute. The beginning of this race is a little tight with narrow roads and a bridge within the first mile, so I wanted to try to get into the front of the bunch. I saw my friends Tammy and Irene as I made my way in the crowd and stopped to stretch and get ready for the gun.

The mumbling of the announcer was followed by a nice National Anthem followed by more mumbling and we were off. Less than 2 minutes after the race clock started, I crossed the line and my fancy, disposable RFID chip registered my start time of 6:02am. The first miles were predictably slow due to the traffic and the bridge, but it really opened up after 2 miles and I started to lift the pace. It was noticeably humid and I was sweating pretty hard for so early in the race and started to think about drinking more to account for the humidity. I don't remember much about the first 10 miles, but I was running near my goal pace and I was feeling pretty good. On multiple sections of the course, you can see runners coming out on the same street you're headed in on and somewhere after mile 10; I saw the pace team running with the 3:50 sign coming out of the street I was entering. I was encouraged. I didn't know how much further ahead they were, but at least I saw them ahead of me and it gave me something to shoot for. I kept drinking water and Gatorade and taking my GU energy gels every 45 minutes or so as I had done on so many training runs and I was now feeling good and also a little hopeful.

Coming out of that neighborhood, I felt a few rain drops and noticed that the wind had come up a bit as we turned onto Bayshore Drive. Looking across the horizon, I could see it. It was coming right towards us. It was dark and wet and windy and I remember saying to myself, "I'm going to get wet!" I was right. The race changed in the span of 15 minutes as the weather moved in from the West. I was now running into the wind with a steady sprinkling of rain, not a downpour, but more than a mist. The wind is what I remember and I was blown side to side a few times and at times was running right into the wind. My visor blew off and I had to chase it down behind me twice before I decided to just carry it. I put a nice wet, black shoe print on the brim, but I think it will come out in the wash. To keep motivated, I try to find someone up ahead of me in the distance and pass them. I noticed a distinct salmon colored race top and a white hat ahead of me and I started to slowly catch up. It took over 2 miles to close the gap and I was struck with how strong this person was running and congratulated her for running so well and introduced myself. I explained that she'd been my "rabbit" for the last 2 miles and we started chatting as we ran a mile together. I learned that she had similar goals for the race and since she was running at almost exactly my goal pace, we decided to run together for a while. Her name was Cheryl and she was from South Carolina.

Cheryl and I clicked off a number of miles together in the wind and rain and I kept track of our splits. We passed the 3:50 pace group and that was exciting. We were still on pace with a few faster miles and a couple of windy slower ones to balance things out. There was one particular stretch that was very windy and we were running right into it. That was tough, but we kept pushing until we merely had a cross wind and finally a tail wind. I didn't announce that mile split and Cheryl didn't ask. We could see the 20 mile mark and we knew we only had a 10k left to run. I remember one of us saying "...only 10k left...no problem!" The mile markers didn't seem to come as fast, but my watch told a different story. We were still running very consistently and both of us were feeling pretty good. We hit the 22 mile marker and Cheryl mentioned that it would be OK if I wanted to pick up the pace. We ran together for the next mile, but somewhere within that mile, I lost sight of the salmon jersey and white hat in my peripheral vision. I was getting ready to "kick".

In the last 3 miles, there was a crowd of kids and adults lining one side of the street cheering for the runners. They all had matching t-shirts and I can't remember what it said, but I will always remember those kids shouting, hooting, making noise and calling my name as I ran past. I slid over and slapped a few wet and windy, high-fives and I ran past. I was now charged up for the "kick" and I picked up the pace as I entered the final 2 miles. I stopped looking at my splits and my heart rate and focused on running faster. I'm sure the rain and wind were still there, but I don't remember it. I remember what my wife Michelle said to me when my alarm went off at 3:45am. "Run strong and finish fast", she said. That became my mantra that I repeated over and over in my head as my mind was receiving all sorts of distress signals from my legs, lungs and heart. The mantra became my focus and I blocked out the pain and thought of my epic training run with Dair where I had learned how to "kick". I just kept running and telling myself to run strong and finish fast. I could see the finish line ahead. I didn't have to visualize it; it was right in front of me. I remember raising my arms to encourage the crowd to cheer and I ran strong and finished fast as the very wet spectators yelled for me. The finish is now a blur of a very heavy finisher metal, a Mylar wrap that kept blowing off my shoulders and a now bone chilling rain that chilled me to my core once I stopped exerting. I am very happy to say that my official time was clocked by that fancy RFID chip on my shoe as 3 hours, 45 minutes and 2 seconds, or 3:45:02. Almost 25 minutes faster than my initial marathon time and a full 5 minutes faster than my secret goal. I couldn't be more pleased with the results! For more results, check out http://www.tampabayrun.com/.

Thank you to everyone who helped me achieve my marathon goal. Thank you to my wife, Michelle for her patience and understanding as I spent many Saturday mornings running around Tampa and to the support and encouragement of my kids (Daddy, you going running today?) as I trained. Thank you to Paula and the constant support of the running group on Saturday mornings. Thank you to Dair for teaching me to kick and thank you to Cheryl from South Carolina for being my rabbit and for running so consistently and keeping me on pace for the second half of the race. Cheryl finished in 3:48:34 (great job!)

Congratulations to everyone who ran this weekend and thanks for sharing in my marathon adventure. I'll see you soon.


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