The Goal

Once the dust of Hellgate settled, I gave myself two running goals for 2016. One is to finish the Fat Dog 120 in August out in British Columbia. I am 0 for 1 in long races out West, so I’ve got a healthy dose of respect for and fear of this race. But it looks absolutely beautiful, there’s a good group going, and Keli and I may make a longer vacation out of it, so I’m really looking forward to it.

My other goal was to run a sub 3 hour marathon. I ran a 3:00:42 in Charleston in 2012 and then a 3:00:26 at Boston in 2013 and hadn’t tried to go faster since then. I’ve spent the last two years dipping my toes into and then fully immersing myself into the trail running / ultra world, largely leaving the roads behind. But the marathon does hold a special place in my heart–that’s what got me into running–and my PR seemed too close to the 3 hour mark to just let it sit there. I was only partially looking forward to this.

I picked the DC Rock and Roll Marathon to give it a go. The plan was to get down to business in January and February: eat healthy, do some marathon-specific training with some longer runs on roads, maybe some hill repeats on Joey’s hill (which the race would pass through). The reality was not close to the plan. No dedicated speedwork / hills to speak of; holiday food galore; weddings; travel, etc. I did have a good 3 week stretch with some solid runs, and I kept up running fairly consistently, but I tended not to rearrange my life in favor of training.

The Race

In the end, I arrived at race day unsure of how I would perform. On the one hand, I assumed my legs were generally much stronger than they were 3 years ago, but on the other hand, I hadn’t trained specifically for this race or for speed in general. I probably hadn’t run a total of 26 individual sub-7 minute miles in the past year. I wasn’t sure which side would win out, but I figured I had a decent shot, particularly since the weather cooled off and it looked like it would remain cloudy all day (it did).

My plan was to run the first half in 1:30, and then try to crank it up in the second half, and hope my legs and mind would carry me through. In my previous two 3-hour marathons, I’d given myself a good cushion at the halfway point, only to crash and burn in the final miles. Unlike my attempt at a serious training regimen, my race plan would be executed well.

I got some crowd support from my Dad in Rock Creek, made it up Joey’s hill at mile 6 just fine, got some more support from Keli, Melisa and other friends on North Capitol Street, and I’d shared much of the race from mile 4 onward with Robin and Martha, so things were going smoothly.

Martha and I bid a jealous adieu to Robin–she was running the half–where the two races diverged, and we came through the halfway point just a little behind 1:30. So far so good. Two pace bikes emerged and ultimately indicated that Martha was the second female. She seemed pleasantly surprised/cautiously optimistic. A few spectators let out a “Girl Power!” cry as we cruised through Capitol Hill, which presumably gave Martha power but conferred no benefits on me.

Soon after we entered the out-and-back section at miles ~15-17, we saw Aaron on his way back towards us. He was looking good (he went on to finish a solid 8th in 2:45), gave us some encouragement, and we continued on waiting to see how far ahead the first place female would be. Female #1 was looking strong when we crossed paths with her around mile 16, and though I botched timing how far ahead she was (my brain not good during the marathons), it was a good 3-4 minutes. Outwardly, Martha seemed content to hang back in 2nd, but internally may felt differently. We continued along our way.

Around mile 18, I noticed that a bird had pooped on my shorts, which is good luck? or not. But it was an appropriate metaphor for the current mood that was setting in. My legs were protesting a bit from the pounding of the roads, and I started to plant seeds of doubt in my head. During this stretch, I was doing my best just to keep up with Martha.  The race thins out a lot in the second half, and had I been running alone, I don’t know if I could have kept it up the pace (that happened to me late in the race at Charleston, another small marathon). So I fought a mile or two of pain, determined not to fall back. Ultimately, I took down a gel and some Gatorade, which helped a lot, and as we came through mile 20, Martha told me we just had to run the last 10K in 45 minutes to break 3. It didn’t seem quite “in the bag” as she noted, but it did seem very achievable.

good aim.

There’s a gradual ~0.5 mile loop at this point at the end of Anacostia Park, and as we were coming out the back end of it, I caught a glimpse of the lead female’s two pace bikes less than a minute up ahead, just before they turned the corner out of view. I wasn’t sure if Martha had seen that, but I kept quiet since 1) she seemed to be in the zone (it was a rare silent Martha sighting) 2) I figured at this pace, we would catch her in a few minutes and 3) let’s be honest, I was working too hard to talk much.

Sure enough, we crossed paths with the leader as we came to a U-turn around mile 21. Then as we approached Fort Dupont park around 22, Martha kicked it up a gear and pulled into first never to look back. By the time we crested the final peak in the park, second place was a good 100+ yards behind. We’d separated from each other a little bit by this point–Martha had a race to win–and coming down the descent from that last hill, I didn’t try to keep up.

By now, I was confident I would make it and I felt myself ease up just a tiny bit, still keeping under 7:00 miles. I would spend the last ~3 miles running alone with Martha just ahead. Somewhere between 24 and 25, I heard a voice behind me and turned to see Keli riding up behind me. We chatted a little but she wisely told me to stop talking and cruised alongside me, giving encouragement, until peeling off just before the finish.

1/2 mile to go. it’s gonna happen!

Coming down the final chute, the crowd gave me a huge ovation–okay, fine, maybe it was for Martha who was about to break the tape despite the efforts of the guy behind her (not me). But the roar was inspiring nonetheless, and I crossed the finish line in 2:58:07. hurray!

The Aftermath

I envisioned two scenarios going into this race: a painful suffer-fest in which I managed to slip in under 3 hours or a painful suffer-fest in which I didn’t make it under 3 hours. I didn’t imagine the possibility of a non-suffer-fest. Now, I’m not going to say it was easy, but apart from ~2 miles of pain and self-doubt, the race went incredibly smoothly and overall was, dare I say, very fun. And, soon after the race, I couldn’t help asking myself… could I go faster?

I think the answer is yes. I averaged 30-35 miles a week in the two months before the race and topped out at 51 miles. Most of this was quality running (trails with hills, harder running on roads, running a few miles on a full stomach after WUS). But there are people on the Strava doing much more mileage. Plus, with two big hills, the course is not a fast one.

So then… do I want to go faster? Again, the answer is yes, but I am not sure to what extent. This is a little bit of an oversimplification, but I’ve derived enjoyment from running in two ways: 1) the satisfaction of working towards a goal and achieving it and 2) the actual enjoyment of running (this isn’t a particularly profound thought, I don’t think).

Both aspects have always been a part, but the balance has changed a lot over time. In the beginning, I was very much focused on #1. I watched the Marine Corps Marathon one year, decided I wanted to run one and ultimately qualify for Boston. And I did (eventually!) and it was great. But I enjoyed going out for runs primarily because I saw them as a stepping stone to achieving the goal I set for myself.

The desire to set goals and work towards them is still there (uh, that’s what this post is about), but in recent years, the balance has shifted much more towards enjoying running for the sake of running. Short runs alone help me relax and clear my head, WUS is a welcome mid-week break, and weekend runs in Rock Creek are as much a time for socializing and animal watching as they are for training.

All of which is to say: there’s still a part of me that will want to push myself to go faster, but there’s a larger part that will probably be resistant to serious non-fun training, and would be very mad at myself if I got overzealous and injured myself trying to shave a few minutes off my marathon time. But, as I said, I actually had a lot of fun in the race, so we will see…

Congrats to Martha on her victory! Thanks for dragging me to a sub-3 finish. Sorry I ate your chips. The worst part is, they weren’t even that good.

Oh, that reminds of potential Goal #3: Get a Wardian-type record for running Hellgate in a birthday hat on my birthday…

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