Hail Mary

The school bus filled with tired runners rolled slowly along Route 380 toward Pocono Summit, PA. We were all sitting in the tiny bus seats wrapped in mylar blankets and sipping water. Each time the bus hit a bump, there was a collective groan from the rear as achey marathoners were relentlessly bounced on sore glutes, calves, and hamstrings. The bus was the post-race shuttle for the point-to-point Run for the Red marathon. I felt the finishers medal bounce against my chest and smiled. It had been an expensive day. No, I didn’t get hurt . . I mean expensive in that I’ll need a train ticket and hotel room for Boston next spring.

In my post-Boston blues, I had spent some serious time reflecting on what went wrong with my first Boston. At the time, I dismissed the idea of trying to jump into a late-spring or early fall (and certainly not summer) race to try to grab a coveted qualifying time for Boston 2017. I had already shifted my focus to 2018. I had mentioned how vaguely jumping in to some iffy-weather race in the meantime would be like a football team throwing a Hail Mary pass as time expires hoping beyond hope for a win. 9 times out of 10, Hail Marys fail. But it seems once in a while they work.

Even after registering for the Steamtown marathon in early October I began keeping my eye on the Run for the Red. The weather forecast was two weeks out but certainly looked promising. I e-mailed the race director and learned that the marathon never sells out and one could actually enter race weekend at the expo. Last year the Run for the Red had been a hot disaster with temperatures reaching into the 80s early in the day. This year the start time was changed to an even more appealing 7:00am. For a marathoner, this is awesome!

I began to think maybe this wasn’t such a stretch. I talked to folks that have done Run for the Red including the incredible Keith Straw

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Keith Straw

who paced a fast group in last year’s heat. He warned that the end had some tough hills but given cool weather shouldn’t be a problem.

Race day approached. The weather prediction was nearly perfect for fast running. At 7:00am temps would be in the hight 30s and never making it out of the mid-40s by race end. It was also supposed to be a little cloudy and we would have a tail wind.

There was another factor. I was signed up to do American Triple T the following weekend. My wife was not enthusiastic about the trip to Ohio and sitting around while I raced for 3 days. I was not enthusiastic about the long bike rides needed to prepare or during the Sunday 70.3 distance race. It seems that my scoliosis twisted back and the long bike rides do not play well together leaving me incapable of running. It wouldn’t be hard to talk myself in to sacrificing my Triple T entry fee for a chance to go back to Boston.

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This back does not like long bike rides

A quick text to my buddy Joe who owns a house in the Poconos confirmed I could stay there and the decision was made. I was throwing my Hail Mary and going to take a shot at a BQ. I wouldn’t have made this decision if recent workouts hadn’t indicated I had this in me. I have been watching my diet and am down a solid 4 pounds since Boston. I felt like the fitness was there otherwise this would be just foolish.

Sunday May 15th found me in the parking lot of the Pocono Mountain West high school. As I walked toward the building I bumped in to two local friends, Wendy and Joe Mastripolito whom I had no idea were racing. I guess when we all keep news of what events we are doing on the “down low” we sometimes get pleasantly surprised. We spent the pre-race moments together. Wendy had done this race before as well as 54 other marathons and was full of much more helpful information than I’m sure she realized. It is amazing how much you learn by talking to experienced runners.

As race time neared, we wished each other good luck and I headed to the start. I wanted to get in with the 3:25 pace group. My official qualifying time for Boston is 3:30 but you need way better than your qualifying time to actually get in. The BAA enters qualifiers from fastest to slowest until they hit their maximum number of 30,000 or so runners. Feeling capable of a 3:25 or better I knew 3:24:xx would get me in for sure. I planned to let the 3:25 pacer do the work and then hoped to have the legs to race ahead toward the end.

The weather report did not disappoint. As we waited at the start, the temperatures hovered at 38 degrees. A sharp wind bit through light running clothing and a drop or two of rain fell on my face. The race director did not have us standing in the cold long though. After a very good rendition of the National Anthem by a girls quartet, we were sent on our way toward Stroudsburg, PA.

The Run for the Red is a net downhill run. Those that have experienced the course at Runf for the Red will tell you it’s not a fast or easy course due to hills from mile 18 on. While this is fairly accurate, it would have to be very hot, or the runner very inexperienced on hills to consider this a hard course. The first 16 miles is almost entirely downhill with a few places it might be a bit too downhill. The careful runner needs to be aware of running relaxed and free here to avoid wearing out the quads. That is exactly what happened to me in Boston.

For the first 6-7 miles, I kept in touch with the pace group. I didn’t want to get invested in other people’s race, but striking up some conversation made the miles go quickly. Pacer Jessica was an experienced runner and good to talk with. She and another in the group had done Boston this year with similar experiences to mine. Yet another young lady was doing her first (and maybe only) marathon after coming off 3 knee surgeries.

As I chatted I stayed aware of my running posture. I had learned on a solid training run that when I tire, I tend to slouch on my hips and to shuffle a bit more than picking up my feet and pushing off. This is very noticeable in some of my Boston race pictures. I didn’t buy them but if I did I’d label them “Workin’ hard, barely movin'”. I’ve never been good at the whole mantra thing but during the Run for the Red, the mantra “Run tall, run strong, run clean” popped in to my head early in the day. I think the slouching was a large contributor to my hip issues in Boston.

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Pacer Jessica

Pacer Jessica did an excellent job of keeping us on track. I don’t think I looked at my pace all day. After 5-6 miles I stayed a bit ahead of the pace group where the road was clear and I could choose my line. This allowed me to stay on the tangents and also play the road camber to my favor. I glanced behind me now and again to make sure I was close to the group and not running ahead. I could also hear Jessica’s occasional encouragement of the group.

One thing I’ve never mastered in running is drinking from a cup. I either have to stop and walk a few steps to down a beverage or suffer the consequences and choke nearly continuously for a 1/2 mile. I have always been successful at using a regular plastic water bottle. Today I had chosen a 22 oz. sport-top bottle to carry along. Yes, a little heavy but it allowed me to run instead of pausing at needed water stops. It also allowed me to drink and take a gel when needed rather than timing around aid stations. I was able to toss the bottle and grab a new bottle at mile 16. This was a great hydration strategy for me.

The weather held true to the forecast, staying mostly overcast with occasional breaks of sun. But at mile 16 it suddenly started raining. It was not a deluge, but just a steady rain that kept up for maybe a mile or so. It actually felt pretty good. “Run tall, run strong, run clean”.

Mile 18 is where the course gets interesting and hills come into the mix. The first hill wasn’t bad considering the fear in the voices of some. After the steady diet of downhill I could see where a flatland runner might struggle, but hills feel like a good reset to me and allow the opportunity to work other parts of the body and fire the glutes as I hold pace up the hill. I passed several slower and walking runners and was rewarded with a good downhill on the other side. We would continue the rolling hills through mile 24. Repeating my mantra “Run tall, run strong, run clean” I passed quite a few runners here staying ahead of the 3:25 pace group all the while. The field for the marathon was not big, and there were no big groups of runners out there but rather one here, one there.

The occasional self-evaluation revealed I was feeling pretty good. No left-hip problems ala Boston and the chronically troublesome right hip only had some minor discomfort somewhere in the middle of the day. A quick repeat of my mantra had me running taller and this, along with the Rock Tape applied by Dr. Leigh Ann of Tri County Chiropractic of Exton had me running in comfort again.

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Expert Rock Taping of the hip from Dr. Leigh Ann

I knew something nasty was happening with the toes of my right foot but that isn’t unusual. Fortunately, they didn’t hurt but there was definitely liquid involved.

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Sometimes the toes must be sacrificed

 

Marathons are hard and the 7:49/mile pace began to wear on me at mile 23. Self-doubt crept in. A voice in my head popped up. “Maybe you should walk for a bit before something bad happens”. “NO! I didn’t come this far to give up on Boston with 3 miles to go. Shut up”! “Run tall, run strong, run clean”. I focused on raising my chest, a good push-off, and high heels. No shuffling. Without adding effort my speed stayed good.

At mile 23 I looked at my watch and it was right at 3:00 hours. I thought “Hmmm. This is going to be close”. Just then, I heard fast footsteps and saw Pacer Jessica next to me. The 3:25 pace group had disintegrated (this is not unusual . . most pacers hit the finish alone). She was putting on a bit of a surge to make sure she hit her proper time. At first the voice said “You can’t stay with her. Give up”. But the runner said “Run tall, run strong, run clean”. Not only did I stay with her but pulled back ahead knowing I wanted that 5 minute cushion to be sure to get in to Boston.

There is a bit of a hill at mile 24. It is short and stout and gave me the chance to take some of the load on my hill-climbing muscles. I hit the critical 24.2 and latched on to the idea that there were only 2 more miles. I can do anything for 2 miles.

The course was all flat or slightly downhill from here. We were also on the main streets of Stroudsburg. There was life and people all around. While there were no big crowds anywhere on the course (none on most of the inaccessible rural roads) in town there were the occasional groups here and there cheering us on. I no longer had the energy to say “thank you” but rest assured, every tiny word of encouragement helped. These were the difficult miles. My body longed to be done. I pictured collapsing on the ground at the finish and not having to continue to move fast. I pictured a 3:24 something on the finishing clock. “Run tall, run strong, run clean”.

The end is a bit of a tease. You turn off the main streets and into the roads of the Stroudsburg high school grounds. “Am I almost there”? No . . you still have to go through the school grounds and on to the track. It was getting difficult to hold on but I knew if I could I was easily break the 3:25 barrier. Pacer Jessica was behind me somewhere and I knew she’d be close to perfect.

I cleared the school building and saw the 26 mile sign as I entered the track. It seemed like the world’s biggest track. I glanced over at the finish and moved to the inside. “Come on now Pete. Run it in”. I heard my name announced with some relief. I had this vision of having a great day but somehow my chip not matching my name and the BAA not believing I ran a qualifying time. But that would not happen. I cleared the finish line with a chip time of 3:24:04. More than good enough to get back to Boston.

A volunteer hung a medal around my neck. I must have looked spent because she grabbed me by the shoulders, made me look at her and asked “Are you okay”? I smiled and said “Thank you. I’m just fine”. I took my blanket, bottle of water and collapsed happily on the infield turf. I felt a jazillion (that’s a lot) times better than the finish of Boston when I could barely move and felt a little fuzzy in the brain. The bodies around me had ice packs on and one or two looked like they might be deceased so I got up and walked over to thank Jessica for her pacing. While chatting, I heard another familiar name announced as finishing. “Shannon McGinn”. I’ve “known” Shannon McGinn for years as cyber friends but we’ve never actually met so I chased her down and got caught up while she waited for her coached athletes to finish.

For those who have forgotten what an accomplishment a marathon is, a woman came up and thanked Shannon. Shannon introduced her as Renee and said they had met at mile 12. Renee welled up with tears and said “I had a 10 minute PR”. She apologized for sobbing and Shannon and I reassured her that that was perfectly okay.

I left Shannon to watch for her athletes, double-checked my results, grabbed a chocolate milk from the food tent and donned warm clothes from my checked bag. I headed for the bus back to the start as a very happy runner looking forward to making a better showing in Boston. IMG_1775

 

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3 Comments

  1. Great review. It really is a fun course. My quads started singing at mile 15 and I totally loved the uphills parts. I kept reading that mile 18-23 were brutal, but I have to say they weren’t nearly as bad as I was expecting. As far as those last three miles, I told my husband that those last three are always all about guts. You just have to push through. Great work!

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