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Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon (Part One)

April 6, 2012

It was the best of races, it was the worst of races. The running of the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll USA marathon took place on March, 17, 2012. The intervening time has given me some distance to really think about the totality of the race and the day as a whole. Here is my best effort at a rehash, in order to share the experience and offer suggestions so that we can all (myself included) learn from it. It may be long, but I promise it won’t take you as long to read as it does to run 26.2 miles.

The preparation

I was mentally ready for this race. Those who know me, know that I was fully in my zone for the week leading up to the day. Tons of water. Nuts about sleep. Plenty of quirks. I have run the marathon twice before, but both were longer than six years ago. The nerves quietly built up inside me as the event neared. For those whom my tense personality negatively impacted in that time, possibly given to short words or crankiness, I do apologize. My first mistake: This is a big deal. It is important. If all goes well, it is a great accomplishment. But it is still just a race. The more love that surrounds us going into it, the better we feel at the end.

Physically, I felt ready to run. For the most part. Due to left Achilles tendon problems early in my training cycle, I really backed off the total mileage. Focusing on the long run was my priority with two or three runs during the week. Speed work came in the form of Monday outings at my local running store which regularly turned into challenging tempo workouts. There was frequent icing and I became a hardcore user of KT Tape to help with active recovery.

Finally, about a week and a half before the race, I ran a full workout of Yasso 800‘s with confidence-building success. For those who are curious, this is a workout that entails running ten-800 meter sprints with a slow jog recovery between each. Both a brilliant runner and writer, Bart Yasso has found an astonishing relationship that generally allows results from this workout to predict marathon finish time. For instance, if you are able to run the bulk of your repeats at three and a half minutes, then you should be able to run a three and a half hour marathon. I was able to complete the half-mile repeats as follows: 2:54, 3:10; 3:06; 3:07; 3:05; 3:03; 2:57; 2:56; 2:56; 2:54. If the calculations worked, my marathon could have been estimated around the 3-hour mark, plus or minus my desire. Regardless, my body seemed to tell me that it was at least going to get me through this race.

Welcome board at the Rock 'n' Roll USA expo

The expo and race start

Visiting the expo on the eve of the race provided the necessary rush to transition from nervous to excited energy about my first marathon in quite some time. Joining me were my wife and our friend, who were both running the half-marathon. Walking through a tunnel decked out with the Rock ‘n’ Roll logo into the bib pickup area was much needed and invigorating. Another rush hit as runners take their bags across a mat which registers the timing chip and really gives the sense that it is really about to happen. I traipsed aimlessly around the expo for a while winning a very cool t-shirt from the Brooks Cavalcade of Curiosities, buying some extra rolls of the aforementioned KT Tape, and having a great catch-up chat with an old running buddy who was there working as a sneaker rep.

I went to sleep plenty early that night thinking my goal was a possibility. As it is for many of us runners, my ultimate goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, for which I need to finish in three hours and five minutes, a 7:03 minute per mile pace. For this race, given my training circumstances, I was going to be content to finish in the 3:30 zone. I knew it was going to feel good getting back into the big race atmosphere and hoped I could manage a solid effort.

Much to my surprise, our crew made it to the start line without incident. No parking catastrophes. Porta-potties were easily accessed, as was the bag check area and the starting corral. I stretched out for a few minutes before I finally crept onto the street where everyone nervously awaited the starting gun. An American flag the size of my apartment waved overhead as a service member provided a chilling rendition of our national anthem. At last, the race started. One last moment of levity came as a few runners were pushed in reverse back over the starting mat by race officials. Apparently, we runners in the second wave were a bit too anxious. After what seemed like a year, the rope fell and I was unleashed to the course.

The plan

My strategy was beautifully simple. I had a few pretty straightforward thoughts in my head going into the race. To combat my usual fast start (and late crash), I really wanted to go out comfortably. If I could hit the halfway mark at the mid-1:30 range then hopefully I could at least maintain or have a few extra minutes to play with towards the end. Next mistake: Be very careful when running a marathon on the same course as a half-marathon. It is easy to get unknowingly pulled into a faster pace. For this race, each bib had a different color. The runners I tried to keep up with early on had blue for the full marathon distance.

The second part of my plan was about hydration and food. My training runs had all been done without gel packs or water bottles. On some of the longer runs I would stop at a water fountain towards the end, but for the most part I ran on my body’s own stores of fuel without too much of a problem. So for the actual marathon, I wanted to wait a while before indulging in a cup from one of the water stations along the course. This was intended to prevent me from drinking too much and cramping. It would also keep me from soaking myself as a result of notoriously poor run-drinking form too early in the race.

Next mistake: Be flexible in your race plan. Things change. In my case, it was the weather. My training runs had all been on fairly sunny, crisp days of 50-55 degrees. That is to say, pretty close to ideal conditions. When race day arrived, it was almost 50 degrees getting out of the car at 6:30 a.m. That translated into almost 80 degrees by the time the sun was overhead. Given those conditions, I waited too long to drink. Though exactly when is unclear, it was probably not until after mile 8 or 9 that I had either water or Gatorade. It is conceivable that I waited even closer to the halfway mark than that. Whenever it was, it was a little bit too late.

The wall

When running 26.2 miles, there are going to be moments when your mind tries to make your legs stop. There were plenty of these moments for me that morning. Even though I was still feeling strong, the split where the half-marathoners broke off from the full-marathoners after mile 12 was definitely a jolt to my system. The half-marathon boasted over 16,000 finishers, while just over 3,100 ran the full marathon course. At the break off point it became noticeably quieter and the course spectators diminished considerably in number.

Then there was a left turn right past the 15 mile marker. We went from the picturesque National Mall, in view of the Washington Monument, directly down into a tunnel. For just under a half-mile the light was so dim that it felt like I was wearing a bandana over my eyes. The air was so heavy that it felt like there was a mesh net covering my mouth. A DJ blasted music from the end in an apparent attempt to occupy the minds and ears of us poor runners traipsing through this enclosed stretch. All that resulted was a deep bass sound pounding my heart into submission. While I ran hard through it, I definitely felt mental doubt creeping into my psyche. Next mistake: Whenever you have a tough stretch like that, it is important to try and mentally recover. I had trouble in that regard at this point in my race.

As my legs began to tire, I willed myself further. Mile 18 greeted the field with a smooth downhill followed by a turnaround that sent us straight back up the same hill. By the end of that section, the heat had taken its toll. The mile 19 water stop came at the base of a bridge over the Anacostia River that seemed to stretch into the clouds. As my arm extended for a cup of water, my legs decided they had enough. Walking up and over that bridge forced me into a momentary tailspin as my dreams of an ideal finish slipped away. Originally hoping to break 3:30, I began to agonize that I would not even finish in under four hours, so far from my goal. I even worried about the concern of my parents, who had so lovingly and selflessly sacrificed their weekend—as they have done for so many of my athletic events—to cheer me on to the finish line. My wife, who was my inspiration to run the full, would likely start worrying as well once she realized I was dramatically off pace. After months of training, I had just walked an entire mile. The whole race was unraveling quite quickly.

Was I determined enough to make it happen? Would my legs give way before my second wind arrived? Find out in the next post from Runner: On the Right!

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7 comments

  1. Your prose is beautiful, I loved it. Can’t wait to read if you finished.


    • Thank you kindly. My words hopefully flow smoother than my running form did that day!


  2. Really enjoyed reading your post. Can’t wait to read Part Two!


    • Thanks- very much appreciated. Part two will be out soon enough!


  3. So much suspense! Better not keep us waiting long for the other half!


  4. Hope you tell us how your wife did!



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