This race report begins one year ago when I crossed the line at the 2011 Shamrock marathon in a personal record (PR) time of 3:32 and change. 2 minutes off a Boston Qualification. No matter. I knew 3:30 really wouldn’t get me in. I was exhausted at the finish. Or was I? Could I REALLY have not made that 3:30 or did I mentally give up? As time wore on I wasn’t sure.
In a move that surprised nobody, the Boston Athletic Association has since, somewhat arbitrarily, chopped 5 minutes off all qualifying times for all age groups and genders. I was no longer 2 minutes from making a coveted BQ but 7. Hmmm. I can’t do that. Or can I? Over the following weeks I looked at my other, shorter race times and those of my peers. I looked at my training. The numbers indicated maybe I have a better marathon in me. Maybe . .
Let me step back a moment and point out that I am NOT built like a runner. At 5’11” and around 180ish pounds I am stocky when compared to other runners. Books by those that are supposed to know say I should be 30 lbs lighter. Those that know me say I would like like an anorexic skeleton. That said, there are definitely still a few pounds that could go away but certainly not 30.
Still I decided I had to try. The first thought was to hire a coach and go nuts. Running, running, running and more running. Heck, even if I got fired it would be worth it if I got that BQ right? Hmm. Perhaps not. I decided I would rather try by myself. The expense of a coach is certainly a point of argument but I still wanted to know it was all me. So I laid out a plan and signed up for what appeared to be the most logical choice of races: Shamrock 2012. It was in a good, cooler month, and it is a fast flat course that I was familiar with.
I started training diligently in November following a 6-day a week running schedule. After a summer of swim, bike, run, suddenly my body hated 6 days a week of running. More importantly, my mind hated 6 days a week of running. I took a drastic (and perhaps fatal to my BQ) step of eliminating one day of running but keeping a high-energy workout such as spin or a hard weight session on that day.
Training went on through a mild winter that only involved one 20+ mile run on the treadmill. The weather gods smiled on the remainder of my long run days and I had perfect training conditions for most outings. My runs were fast, and on target. There was an inkling of doubt on 2 long runs when I struggled to keep a hard pace at the end. There was another inkling of doubt when I could not find time during speedwork days at the end of training to squeeze in a proper set of 10×800 Yassos but had to settle for 6 or 7.
The last 20 mile run was a hilly, windy affair with a head cold. I still managed to finish the whole 20 miles with a friend in 2:45. I thought this was a good omen and felt ready.
Finally, race weekend rolled around. Janice and I departed in our rental car for the 6-hour drive to Virginia Beach, VA. The running community takes over the town for this event. On a weekend that features the beach and St. Patrick’s Day you might think it is a nasty, drunken affair but any college drunks are far outnumbered by runners and volunteers. The half-marathon sells out by January and the marathon not far behind though this year was not a sellout.
We arrived at the expo mid afternoon and I got my bib, shirt and did some shopping without really buying much more then a gel or two and a pair of socks. Then it was off to the hotel to check in. We go beach front at the Best Western Oceanfront. It is the closest hotel to the exit gate of the finish. I can finish the course, turn right, get a shower and then go to the conveniently close beer tent. We ate dinner Saturday night at Tautog’s. An interesting place a woman at the expo told us about. There is no sign, just a sailfish statue. They also do not take reservations for small parties. We got there at opening and waited in line to learn we were the first people not to get a table. But we were the first people at the bar for 2 of the 7 available bar stools. Thank goodness for that. We got a glass of wine and a menu and enjoyed a scrumptious meal.
Back at the hotel I laid out my various clothes and equipment for race day and also went over a water strategy with Janice. I am terrible with a capital “T” at water stops but can drink out of a bottle no problem. Since the full marathon goes South then loops back by the hotel I arranged with Janice to hand me a full bottle on the way by. This strategy worked like a charm. Finally, off to bed.
Race day dawned, a little cloudy with temps in the low 50s. Throughout the day, it would clear up to a sunny 60 something. It was reported to be only 54 but take it from someone who spent the afternoon in a t-shirt it was not 54 but much warmer. Anyway, where was I? Oh right, marathoning.
I enjoyed some breakfast and coffee at the hotel and made my way to the start with Janice at about 7:55. Race time was 8:30 and we were just a few blocks from the start. The preliminaries involved singing happy birthday to the race (it’s 40th), the National Anthem and an early start for the members of Team Hoyt, and the wheel chair runners. Finally, the 8:30 start for Corral 1 was sounded and we were off heading South on Atlantic Avenue.
My goal was 3:25 or better. This would at least let me have the chance at giving Boston my name. Was I confident in that time? Honestly? No. I knew how beat I was at the finish the prior year and that was 2 minutes off my 3:30 goal. A 7 minute PR in a marathon is enormous. While I felt my training had been adequate I DO NOT feel my food discipline had been adequate. The plan since November had been to lose those last few pesky pounds. While the holidays usually aren’t my enemy, high stress week after high-stress week had created nervous eating at work, and famished eating after long work-days at home. Still, the early miles were easy.
Mile 1: 7:37
Mile 2: 7:34
Mile 3: 7:43
Along about mile 3 something happened that will forever change my feelings about making or missing goals in a race. We passed part of Team Hoyt. I did this last year but was running as part of a vibrant race group and we chanted TEAM HOYT, TEAM HOYT, TEAM HOYT. While being part of the crowd, I didn’t take the time to think about Team Hoyt. This year I passed close enough by see Team Hoyt. I decided no matter what happens, even if I wind up walking across the finish line today, or some other race, I won’t be sad. At least I will get to walk across that line. There are many out there who will never have that chance.
Mile 4: 7:37
Mile 5: 7:41
I was going along nicely perhaps a hair fast at times but not overly so and I remember thinking around mile 6 or 7 how easy the pace felt. No effort at all so far. “Gosh, I hope it stays easy”.
Mile 6: 7:40
Mile 7: 7:45
Mile 8: 7:39
Mile 9: 7:43
Mile 10: 7:40
After turning back to the North, running through the military base and high-fiving all the soldiers & sailors we headed back up over the bridge (the only incline on the whole course) and out on to the boardwalk. Miles 11 & 12 took us straight into the wind.
Mile 11: 7:42
Mile 12: 7:44
The end of mile 12 took us back onto Atlantic Avenue where I grabbed a fresh bottle of water from Janice at the hotel and kept going. Things were looking good at the half.
Miles 12 to 14 are filled with people along the streets of Atlantic Avenue cheering and calling your name, ringing cow bells, blowing air horns, all truly cheering you on. And then you leave town for more open and desolate roadway. It’s at this point the landscape opens up and you feel the wind even more then on the boardwalk. It starts wearing relentlessly, slowing you down and you push harder. My body was starting to revolt at the pace. I was struggling to keep the miles below 7:50.
There was another problem: Too much coffee and too much time waiting before the start of the race. I’d peed as often as I could before we left the hotel and again walking to the start at the last un-crowded opportunity. But now, for the first time ever in a race I REALLY had to go to the bathroom. There are a couple porta johns near mile 17. I wasn’t so worried about stopping to use the bathroom but rather getting going again. BQ pace was beginning to be laborious and I was worried. But I remember the sage advice I got from far more experienced runners: “If you are thinking about going, go”. So, I stopped and used the facility. I came out just in time to see the 3:25 pace group go by. “Oh no”. I thought I had more cushion there. I set off in pursuit. For a few moments I gained ground. But my stop had cost me my momentum. My legs ached and complained of the restart. I tried to override and pushed myself on faster. And I watched as the 3:25 pace group and my BQ time got farther and farther away. I knew at that moment I wouldn’t catch them and I would not BQ. I gave up. I walked for a bit along the shoulder. It was the middle of the park and I thought how pretty it was.
I didn’t have a back-up plan. Having completed 3 marathons, I knew I’d finish. I also knew the BQ was a make-or-break and that if it was break I knew I would not have the legs or the will to try to PR either. I walked a bit and ran a bit at ridiculously slow paces. My left knee and hip ached relentlessly.
I was not alone. There was a contingent of runners who, like me, didn’t have the stuff to keep the torrid pace. There was the skinny guy in the green shirt who I didn’t speak to but made a connection with as we alternated passing each other in our attempts to run. There was the young couple that I had left behind earlier and now passed me but whom I passed a few minutes later. There was Team Caleb. Caleb was a decorated soldier who died in the line of duty last October. He and his young wife had planned to race this race together but in his absence, and with the company of his comrades she pressed on in the race in his memory. She was struggling. She and her companions would pass me, and then I would catch up to them as they tried to help her stretch away cramps. While I was miserable myself, I would return on Tuesday to my life of normalcy while she would return to an empty house and a missing hero and husband. I stopped and found the a little sample tube of Cramp 911 I got at an expo and gave it to her. I said “I don’t know if it works, but maybe it will help”. She thanked me and I left her with a “Go Team Caleb”. I thought later that I hoped she knew it was topical and not oral. There were many other asphalt warriors struggling toward the finish line.
All walk/run now. My left knee and hip hurt so terribly a dragging, limping gate was all I could muster. I had left behind the green shirt guy and Team Caleb and been left behind by the young couple who seemed to keep a nice steady solid run going. I at least had a new goal in mind. To finish better then Richmond. That was my first marathon and I had similarly fallen apart though for far different reasons. That was cockiness and naiveté. Today I had taken a risk to push the edge and failed. I was okay with today and felt beating my worst time was a worthwhile goal. That had been a looks-good-on-paper 3:53.
At least I was back in civilization. There were more and more people along the route again. I had inserted my headphones to try to get inspiration from the music and it did help however I did discover that contrary to a statement I made prior to the race, you can indeed run slow to Twisted Sister. Still, with people cheering and being able to run block by block instead of mile by mile I kept going.
Water stops were my new motivation. I sucked down my last gel at 24 miles and looked forward to every cup of Gatorade I could grab. Somewhere along the way, someone was passing out half a banana. I grabbed one and said “God Bless you”. I don’t think I have ever tasted anything so heavenly.
I could only run short distances before my left knee began to completely shutdown and stop working. I remember passing a guy who was hobbling along unable to put any weight on his cramped up right leg. I remember thinking “Boy I’m glad I’m not him” and then chuckling because I probably didn’t look much better.
Somewhere between the mile 25 and mile 26 marker I was shuffling along at a walk looking down with my hands on my hips and a young gentleman came by, looked at me and said “Come on”. I started running again and followed him to the last water stop where I slowed to a walk long enough for one more Gatorade.
Now it was on to the boardwalk and the trot past King Neptune to the finish. I could see the finish. I was running (sort of). Why the HELL wasn’t it getting any closer!? I chuckled to myself again remembering the sticker in the expo that read “Who the HELL moved the finish line”.
I removed the head phones to soak up the finish line. I can’t say I enjoyed the finish line. I was truly a beaten man. I was conscious of crossing the “warning” line and heard the announcer mispronounce my name. “From Reading, Pennsylvania Peter Gichens”. I didn’t care. I crossed the line, I think the most tired I’ve ever been at the finish of a race, my peripheral vision a little blurry.
Chip Time: 3:47:47
I located my wife in the crowd who was holding our Flip camera and managed a feeble wave. Somewhere I got a medal, and hat. I spied a bench and REALLY wanted to sit down but was told to keep moving.
At this point, urgent voices behind me shouted “Clear the way”! I turned to see volunteers carrying a collapsed runner and hurrying toward the medical tent. I couldn’t help wondering if he got to finish and whether anyone thought to grab his medal, shirt and hat. And then I thought, “I’m glad I’m not that guy”.
I got to finish on my own two feet. It was a good day.