Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Montana Marathon 2006 Race Report

A popular saying in Montana is "If you don't like the weather, stick around for 15 minutes and it will probably change.". The change wasn't quite that dramatic, but the high temperature in Billings plummeted from near 90 early last week to the high 40s over the weekend with a chance of mixed snow/rain forecast for Saturday night and rain showers all day Sunday with a nice, gentle 25-35 mph wind out of the NW.

I awoke at 4:15 Sunday morning to a light sprinkle and relatively gentle winds in downtown Billings. I walked the seven blocks from our hotel to the YMCA where a good number of the marathoners loaded onto buses to be hauled to the start line in Molt, to the west of Billings. The wind was much more significant out on the open plains surrounding Molt, which is literally comprised of a grain elevator and 10-15 buildings. The start line was next to the Molt Community Center, where we were allowed to go inside and keep somewhat warm in the 45 minutes we had until the 7:00 start. I tried my best to keep my nerves in check and used the port a johns outside a couple of times (I had to stop twice during Brookings to use the bathroom and I wanted to avoid that). About 20 minutes before start time I did some jogging up and down Molt's main (and only) drag in an attempt to get warmed up. Promptly at 7, the race director got everbody out of the community center and lined up and we were off.

My goal was to run a 3:25 (7:50 pace). The marathon course headed east from Molt back towards Billings, where it would end at Daylis Stadium. The first 10-11 miles were across the open plains, with pretty much nothing to see but wheat fields from horizon to horizon. Miles 11-16 featured several long, steep downhills as the course dropped from the prairies into the Yellowstone River valley. Miles 16-26.2 wound from the west end of Billings into the center of town where Daylis Stadium is located.

Miles 1-10:

86 runners finished the full marathon and there were also several relay teams so there were around 100 people at the start. The crowd spread out fairly fast as we headed east out of Molt. Fortunately, the stiff, cold wind was mostly at our backs. I tried to identify other runners who seemed to be running about my pace and run with them. This was harder than I thought and is reflected in my splits (see below) as I fluctuated back and forth from under to over my pace from mile to mile. At mile 2.4 we took a turn south for a 2.6 mile out and back before returning to the main road. While running south on this short detour, the wind was fully at our backs and things felt pretty good, even though it was a long gradual uphill. But, that meant that when we turned back north, we were heading straight into the frigid breeze for the next 1.3 miles. After turning back east onto the Molt Road, I tried my best to get into a groove and maintain a consistent pace; I had abandoned the notion of falling in with anyone by this time as the runners who I had thought were the most likely candidates had fallen behind during the out and back and the next runners ahead of me were going too fast. Maintaining my pace proved difficult though because the road was constantly going up and down. The hills weren't steep by any means; they were long, gradual uphills followed by equally long and gradual downhills, so once again my times fluctuated from too slow to too fast depending on the terrain. Also, at mile 10 I started feeling the first rain drops of the day.

Miles 11-16:

This is where things got interesting. I had run this portion of the course during my last 20 miler three weeks ago, so I knew what I was in for but that didn't keep me from overdoing it. The course fairly abruptly drops from the open plains down into the river valley with a few steep downhills separated by more gradual ones. My plan going in was to increase my pace somewhat on the downhills to about 7:30 min. miles and then shoot for a consistent 7:50 for the final 10.2 miles. This is where it all went to hell. I hit the halfway point at 1:42:14, a little faster than my goal pace and then I almost unconsciously ended up following the guy in front of me for a majority of the downhill stretch and when we reached the 14 mile point at the bottom of the last big hill my watch said 7:15 and I knew I had gone too fast. I immediately slowed it down back to my goal pace but the damage was already done.....(that's foreshadowing, in case you didn't catch it).

Miles 16-20:

Just after mile 16 we turned off of the main road onto a street that wound around the north end of a country club. This is where I really knew that I was hurting. As we ran along the north end of the club there were a few relatively small hills but they felt like mountains; my legs were heavy and not feeling too lively. As we left the country club and hit the west end of Billings, I managed to recuperate a little and actually hit mile 20 feeling alright. By this time the rain was starting to come down pretty good.

Miles 21-26.2:

Like I said, I actually felt alright leaving the mile 20 point. But then, just before mile 21 we turned north for a very short, but at that time, very tough uphill before turning right again to a flatter section of road. This uphill, although almost insignificant under normal circumstances, totally sapped the remaining energy I had. By the time I hit mile 22, my calves and quads were starting to hurt pretty good. I knew I might see my family and friends at mile 22.3 so I tried to keep going strong, but the rain (it was pouring pretty good by then) kept them inside. From that point on the thought that dominated my mind was that I wanted more than anything in the world to stop running. My legs were so tight that I couldn't concentrate on anything else. I kept telling myself that I would stop and walk for awhile at the next aid station but whenever I got to one, I just kept running because I was pretty sure that if I stopped I wouldn't get started again. From mile 23 until the end of the race is pretty much a blur. I felt like I was drunk.....my vision was getting fuzzy around the edges, I was feeling light headed and I kept catching myself starting to drift from the shoulder of the road into the driving lane. But my legs still hurt. I remember thinking "If everything else is fuzzy, why can't my legs just go numb too?". At mile 24, I got a brief burst of energy and told myself that if I couldn't make it 2 more miles without stopping I had no business being a runner. With about a half mile to go the course took a right turn onto a pretty good downhill stretch just before entering Daylis Stadium. I tried to muster up some energy and pick up the pace and finish strong. I did manage to pick it up some on the downhill but after entering the stadium I realized that I had to run about two thirds of the way around the track before reaching the finish line, and for some reason this totally drained my morale. I got passed by two other runners with less than 100 meters left and ended up crossing the line in 3:30:15, 19th place overall, and 4th in my age group.

My Splits

Mile 1 - 7:44
Mile 2 - 8:08
Mile 3 - 7:33
Mile 4 - 8:03
Mile 5 - 8:02
Mile 6 - 7:43
Mile 7 - 8:04
Mile 8 - 7:47
Mile 9 - 8:03
Mile 10 - 8:02
Mile 11 - 7:32
Mile 12 - 7:24
Mile 13 - 7:21
First Half Split - 1:42:14
Mile 14 - 7:15
Mile 15 - 7:42
Mile 16 - 7:48
Mile 17 - 7:54
Mile 18 - 8:23
Mile 19 - 7:45
Mile 20 - 7:26
Mile 21 - 8:29
Mile 22 - 8:35
Mile 23 - 8:24
Mile 24 - 8:50
Mile 25 - 8:58
Mile 26 - 8:58
Mile 26.2 - 2:10
Second Half Split - 1:48:01
Total Time - 3:30:15

The lesson learned:

Don't underestimate the downhills!! I think that if I hadn't pushed it so hard for that five mile stretch, it could have made a world of difference later on. One of the runners that I had started following during the first few miles and then written off as too slow and left behind actually ended up passing me with about 100 meters left. Looking ahead, I think that in order to further improve my times I need to do two things: 1) bump up the mileage and 2) drop some pounds; at 6'3" 220 I'm not exactly your stereotypical runner and I never will be but I can't help but think that 30 or so fewer pounds would help my speed and reduce the impact on my body.

As for the race itself, I thought that it was pretty well organized. Everything was on time and there were plenty of aid stations and volunteers. The mile markers were only spray painted on the road which makes it easy to miss one if you're on a different part of the road than the marker but given the wind, any other kind of marker probably would have blown away. And I didn't miss one anyway, so I can't really complain. And, of course, the weather could have been better but as far as I know there's nothing they can do about that. The technical fabric t-shirt was nice and the finisher's medal was unique for sure (it's a hand-crafted, hand-stamped, leather medallion on a leather lanyard). I also got a cool hand-crafted coffee mug but that cost me extra. Spectators were sparse, but that's totally understandable; I myself wanted more than anything to be indoors during the last six miles. The spectators who were there were very nice and supportive. There was some awesome bread from a local bakery and fresh fruit available at the finish, which I was in desperate need of at the time.

Well, this thing ended up being a little longer than I thought, but I needed to get it off my mind. I'm not sure how I feel about the race yesterday. On one hand, I'm disappointed that I didn't achieve my goal or a PR, but I am happy that I was able to push through the pain and keep going until the finish even though every fiber of my soul was telling me to stop and walk. I guess if running 26.2 miles was easy, everyone would do it and we wouldn't have anything to brag about.

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