Taking the Towpath to Boston

Several years ago Janice and I visited the Crayola factory in Easton, PA. Obviously the visitor’s center was designed for kids but it was sorta fun. While there we discovered the National Canal Museum basically just upstairs from Crayola. We spent an interesting afternoon there wandering among the hulls of old canal boats that, at one time, must have been built by the thousands. One impressive display showed the network of canals that covered the Northeastern United States at the height of the canal boom. Pictures showed the intense manual labor (think a lot of men with shovels) that went into building these miles and miles of canals. Basicanal_boatcally, before railroads and then highways and trucks, freight was moved around the country on barges towed by mules. Even now, almost any where you go you can find remnants of these canals with the Eerie canal being the most famous but there are still miles of canals here in Pennsylvania. The old, well-worn towpaths make excellent hiking, biking, and running trails.

This fact was not lost on Pat McCloskey, race director for an entire series of races including the Bucks County marathon that is run along the Delaware Canal towpath in Bucks County, PA. The Bucks County marathon is a small (less than 500 people) race that is a nice alternative to the big city fall races offered by Philadelphia, New York, and other more well-known marathons.

This has been a busy racing year for me. Looking back it doesn’t seem like I did that many races, but until November I had covered every major long distance including the half-marathon, half-Ironman, full Iron-man, and a couple 10 milers. I have also dropped my 5K PR times down far faster than I ever thought possible. Coming off a hard season of triathlon training I found myself at my lowest weight since my freshman year of high school and in the best shape of my life. I also was not suffering any chronic injuries or soreness like when I only focused on running. The time seemed right to attempt to qualify for Boston especially after learning that your BQ time is based on your age on Boston race day and not your age at the qualifying event. Hmmm. The next available Boston Marathon is 2016 since 2015 is sold out. I’ll be 50 (48 now). That buys me 5:00 extra minutes. Let’s go for it!

I signed up for the Bucks County marathon in the very last few days before it closed jotting down 3:25 as my planned finish time. Meanwhile I was making some changes in coaching. While I had been satisfied with my achievements with my former coach, I decided I’d like to have someone geographically closer so switched to Mark Kotarski of KET Fitness. Mark has been great. We sat down immediately and discussed past training and races, and go-forward plans. Even though the time leading up to the Bucks County marathon was short, Mark put together a couple weeks of training and taper to maximize the time and give myself the best shot at a BQ, something he will be going after himself in the months to come. I did several marathon pace runs to really get the feel for the goal pace. This was an excellent strategy and served me well on race day.

Race day was cold and cloudy. It was 29 degrees when I left the house race morning. Not bad. It wasn’t frigid, not windy and it would warm up as the day went on. While that may sound cold to non-runners, it is nearly perfect for a fast run. Attire was shorts, calf sleeves, gloves, and a tight-fitting Nike long-sleeved shirt that is my go to shirt that I wear when I’m undecided on what to wear.

Shortly after leaving the house, I was on my way to route I-176 and the PA Turnpike when I spied something in the road. What I thought was a leaf turned out to be a dove. I didn’t see it until too late and heard it thud underneath the car as I passed over top. Oops. I hoped killing the bird of peace on my way to my BQ attempt wouldn’t create bad karma.

The “dove incident” was the only hiccup during the drive and I arrived at the race site in plenty of time for good parking and speedy packet pick-up. I then sat in the car for a bit to keep warm. Despite limiting myself to one small cup of coffee, I had to pee 4 or 5 times before the race. Fortunately, with the small event there was no wait at the porta johns. I guessed that I was well-hydrated.

The course itself was just about as simple as it gets. At the start, you make a mile loop around the towpath park and then head out on the trail for 12.1 miles, then turn around and come back. The only agonizing part is passing by the finish and doing that last loop back through the park. Still, you can’t get lost here. The towpath has only a few bridges or roads that cross it. It is very scenic and I will make it a point to go back and run this course again.

Screen shot 2014-11-17 at 5.45.01 AM

I was bib# 47 and in wave 1. Good. No standing around. However, the waves go off quick here with one departing every 30 seconds. It is really important to properly seed yourself. The path is narrow and passing would be difficult if there were a big pack of mixed-speed runners.

After a very scratchy, hard-to-hear version of the National Anthem and a brief talk from Pat reminding us to loop the park on our return, we were off! It turned out I had seeded myself well and would run most of the course in or close to the same group of folks.

From a race day nutrition perspective I would be using my new found generationUcan products. This is the same stuff Meb used to win Boston this year. While I’m skeptical at best of the commercial nutrition products, after bonking pretty hard at Ironman Lake Placid, I started trying genUcan and have found that it seems to work well for me.  I had taken 2 scoops of orange in 16 ounces of water before the race and would be carrying 2 Ultimate Direction gel flasks with a chocolate in one and more orange in the other. I basically mixed a full serving with only 4 ounces of water to condense the calories into a gel flask. The gel flasks clipped to my Spibelt along with my bib. Sort of.

From a strategy perspective I had debated about going with music or not. There is certainly a motivational aspect to running with music that can help overcome pain, but as I have trained for triathlon where you are not able to run with music, I have become less and less of a fan. I don’t like the constant blaring in my ears and the music makes it difficult to think and calculate. The iPod and headphones are also just something else to deal with race day. Additionally, on my last marathon pace run, I had a very bad GPS signal which sent my pace on my Garmin bouncing all over creation. I basically ran on splits. To make this more accurate I found it better to calculate the 1/2 mile splits as I went along. I would be using a 3:25 pace band for this race so I didn’t need to worry about mile splits but decided at each mile I would calculate out the next 1/2 mile split as I went to be sure I didn’t overcook things too much. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do this math easily with music.

The first half-mile hit halfway around the loop through the park. I glanced at my watch and thought “Perfect pacing. Now just do that for 25.7 more miles”. We looped the park, went back past the finish and out on to the towpath.

Heading out
Heading out

There was a cluster of faster runners ahead of me that would spread out throughout the course of the day. There was one guy in an orange vest that I would follow or lead for the remainder of  the race. I carefully watched my paces calculating the half-miles as I passed each mileage board.

1 7:31.8 1.00 7:32
2 7:41.3 1.00 7:41
3 7:33.1 1.00 7:33
4 7:17.8 1.00 7:18
5 7:22.5 1.00 7:22

Clearly these were a bit fast since I was looking for a 7:49 pace. As the miles passed and I looked at my pace band I could see I was quickly 2-3 minutes faster than I should be. I felt good and kept running but figured I’d be paying for the early speed later.

Somewhere around mile 5 it occurred to me that I had to pee again. I felt good at the start and supposedly the stress of running keeps your bladder from “working”. Apparently my bladder hadn’t read this. I debated about ignoring it. After all I only had about 3 more hours to run. Then I debated about peeing while I ran but I’ve never been able to do that. Plus I was wearing white calf sleeves. That might look pretty obvious. Finally common sense took over and I realized I needed to stop and pee. Somewhere around mile 6 I spied a porta john and, as luck would have it, it was unoccupied. I put on a burst of speed, passed orange vest guy and detoured into the porta john. Pete’s 1st racing tip of the day: Don’t try to time how long it takes to pee. It only adds stress and slows you down more. Needless to say mile 6 was a tad slower. Oh well. I burst out of the door and kept running.

6 8:03.9 1.00 8:04
7 7:33.3 1.00 7:33

Along about mile 8 there is a set of steps to navigate. It sounds way worse than it really is. You don’t even have to stop running.

Coming back down the steps
Coming back down the steps

Remember my strategy of calculating the splits for the 1/2 miles? This required me to be able to see the seconds on my Garmin 310XT. Pete’s 2nd racing tip of the day: Be sure to set your running watch up the way you need it BEFORE the race. Typically I display 4 data fields including run time, pace, distance, and time of day. The problem is with 4 data fields the actual run time loses the seconds once it hits an hour. So around about mile 8 . . . bam. No more seconds. I thought about ignoring it and just running, but the exercise of mentally calculating the 1/2 mile pace, was keeping me busy. So I spent about a mile reconfiguring my Garmin screen on the run. This took some time to do since I also managed to lock the keys somehow and was even more impressed with myself when I figured out how to unlock them . . . all on the run. I thought this would have slowed me down but I think I actually ran a tad faster in that mile because I looked up and was right on the heels of orange vest guy. He seemed to be running a 7:30-something pace.

8 7:26.6 1.00 7:27
9 7:30.3 1.00 7:30

The remainder of the first half to the turn was more of the same. I grabbed a cup of water at the aid stations every couple miles, slugging it down and getting back to running. At 1:15 in, I started working on flask #1 of genUcan. About mile 11 the leader went the other way running hard. He would go on to win and set a new course record. He was flying and second place was nowhere to be seen. Things were going well for me but with a time surplus of well over 3 minutes from where I should be I expected things to start getting hard toward the end.

10 7:26.7 1.00 7:27
11 7:32.3 1.00 7:32
12 7:34.1 1.00 7:34
13 7:32.6 1.00 7:33
14 7:37.6 1.00 7:38

Somewhere in here orange vest guy seemed to slow down a lot. I probably should have taken the hint and done so as well but wound up passing him instead. After this, things REALLY spread out. It truly became like a long training run for several miles. There were occasional pedestrians but I could see no other racers out in front of me. That would change as the early, fast paces caught up with me.

The miles ticked by. 15, 16, 17. Mile 17 is always a key for me because suddenly you are down to single digits in miles left. 17 came and went. I continued to calculate my 1/2 mile splits almost always ending up a few seconds faster than I should have been. Somewhere between mile 18-19 I crossed the steps again not quite so spiritedly as the first time but still at a solid trot.

15 7:34.8 1.00 7:35
16 7:46.2 1.00 7:46
17 7:44.1 1.00 7:44
18 7:45.9 1.00 7:46

Realistically, I only required one packet of genUcan during the race but the chocolate makes a rather thick mixture with only 4 oz. of water and I could not get it all out of the flask so at around 2:25 I decided to start taking a bit of the orange mixture from my other flask.

The miles became more labored but my pace was still good. I heard footsteps behind me and orange vest guy passed me back. He was running well with a solid negative split and disappeared slowly into the distance. As predicted, I began to pay for those early fast miles and was now mostly running slightly below goal pace. Mile 23 was especially slow due to a slight equipment malfunction. Wanting a bit of gel, I reached down with my gloved right hand and wiggled the orange bottle loose only to feel the flask holster slip off the Spibelt and drop to the ground. I briefly debated leaving it and just pitching the flask but I knew I had a few minutes to play with so stopped and picked it up. It took an annoyingly long time to get it clipped back on to my Spibelt. Pete’s race tip #3: Tape the damn flask holder in place so it can not possibly come off during the race.

19 7:56.6 1.00 7:57
20 7:50.8 1.00 7:51
21 7:51.7 1.00 7:52
22 7:55.9 1.00 7:56
23 8:14.1 1.00 8:14

After this I really had to bear down to keep a solid pace. At one point, I grimaced and growled to myself “Come on”! Okay maybe not so much to myself. There were a couple pedestrians on the trail that sort of looked sideways at me and gave me a wide berth. Mile 24 was not bad. Within 2 seconds of goal pace.

24 7:50.7 1.00 7:51

I began picturing the finish. I focused on running with good form and not just grinding it out. I pictured Marinda Carfrae saying “You’ve got to be willing to hurt to the next level”. Mile 25 was right before the turn back into the park.

25 7:58.2 1.00 7:58

I knew I would make my goal of qualifying for Boston. I could have eased up and trotted a slow last mile but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to finish strong and erase all doubts of getting to Beantown for 2016. Once back in the park there were a few spectators and volunteers yelling encouragement. I was down to just a loop around the park or as the the race director had called it, the spiral of death. How pleasant. I pushed onward willing my tired legs to keep up the momentum. Mile 26 was just a couple hundred yards from the last turn and the finish.

26 8:04.0 1.00 8:04

I made the turn and could see the finish line and clock. 3:23 something. I knew my time would be a solid 3:23:xx as I was in the back part of wave 1 at the start. I slowed to a walk/stagger as I crossed the timing mat and accepted a) a space blanket b) bottle of water c) a clever finishers medal/bottle opener. I’ll admit to being a bit woosie and seriously thought about heading to the medical tent but instead took my bottle of water and slumped to the ground by a nearby tree. I sat there with the blanket wrapped around me sipping water and was asked by 3 different people if I was okay. “Yes. I’m fine”. And I would be. I just wasn’t looking forward to attempting to stand back up. At some point, I remembered to stop my Garmin. This is a regular occurrence for me.IMG_1090-1

Finally I climbed back to my feet and got a couple cups of Gatorade. I could really go for a cup of coffee. I found the food in the pavilion. It was a feast for a king. Pasta, meatballs, chicken, chicken broth, all sorts of things. And I wanted none of it. I wasn’t the least bit hungry. All I really wanted was a cup of coffee. Nada.

I made my way slowly back to the car. I had run well but now my left hip, knee, and leg were complaining bitterly. Small step, drag the left foot. Once at the car I started the engine and enjoyed the heated seats for a bit before putting my warm-up pants on (that was painful to do) and changing shirts. I was dreading walking “all the way back” to the finish to see the official results. I saw a guy with a finisher’s medal and trophy plaque and asked if the results were posted. He said “Yes”. His significant other offered that she had a picture if I wanted to see it. “Oh yes. Please”! We found my time: 3:23:10. A PR by 9 minutes and 4 seconds and nearly a full 7 minutes better than what I needed for Boston 2016. Who would have thought that the path to the Boston Marathon was a quaint, rural towpath?



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