I don’t cry much. In fact, I’d say rarely if ever. My son, Bailey, commented several years ago that he’d never seen me cry and doubted he ever would. In light of that, I found it rather odd to be standing in the middle of a gravel trail 25.42 miles into a 26.2 mile race sobbing uncontrollably. When I say standing I mean standing as in standing still (aka not running towards the finish line less than a mile away).
To better understand how I got to that point, you have to journey back in time to February 2004. The day of the 2004 Austin Marathon. A day when the stars lined up (course, weather, and training) and I clicked off a series of miles that I didn’t think was possible for the 226 lb, 36 year old version of myself. I ran outside of my perceived ability in true fly OR die fashion and clocked my fastest mile of the race (7:46) on mile 26 in route to a 3:39:42 finish. 14 minutes faster than the prior year and a full hour faster than my first marathon in 2000. That was nine years and five months ago.
I managed to run my 2nd best marathon time three times in 2010 (a 3:49 in February in Austin, a 3:46 in May in the Poconos, and a 3:42 in October in St. George) but clipping that old mark was proving stubbornly difficult. The St. George effort failed with less than a mile to go when both of my quads locked up…right about the spot that I was standing on this course on that course. Of course.
A group of us ran the Tunnel Marathon in 2011 as well. I was poorly trained but I wanted to preview the course so I went. It was love at first sight and I vowed to return better prepared. I also decided that I would try and stay near the starting line. I don’t usually have a problem getting up early for races, I rarely even need an alarm, but this race requires quite a bit of up-front logistics due to its location. I found a ski cabin near the start that worked beautifully and was reasonably priced considering the complete lack of snow in July. Six of us ended up crashing there.
One final bit of learning from my prior experience was with my Garmin’s lack of satellite reception in the tunnel. This time around I added a foot pod that is supposed to kick in when the satellite reception is lost. I tested it out on Saturday and it worked splendidly (the pod creates other issues if you happen to use Strava but I won’t go into that unless you ask).
The weather was very nice on Sunday morning. We already had a pretty good idea that it wouldn’t last long. The race starts at 8 am and you lose altitude quickly so it warms up a bunch if you’re out there too long. We weren’t sure how all of our various Garmins would behave in the tunnel so I told Jerie I would run with her through the tunnel and let her know the mileage so she would know how to pace the final 23 or so miles. I knew that her goal pace was pushing it a little for me but decided I could slow it down after she was well on her way.
Miles 1 to 5 – Sorry data geeks, I’ve sworn off the heart rate monitor since mid-June. It was getting a little depressing watching my pace slow and my heart rate skyrocket once the weather turned. Jerie, Matt, and I ran through the tunnel together. When we split up just after exiting short of mile three we were averaging 8:02 per mile. By mile 5 I had “slowed” that average down to 7:59. 3, 4, and 5 are all nicely downhill so it seemed no matter how hard I tried to throttle it back I was running right under 8 per.
Miles 6 to 10 – Mile 6 had an understaffed water stop so I had to come to a complete stop to drink up. That is not a complaint, I knew that most of the stops were understaffed and had prepared for it. I was actually pleasantly surprised that most of them went very smoothly. I also made a pee stop at around mile 8. Paul and Stefan passed me while I was watering the moss so catching back up to them kept that mile split decent even with the stop. I can still see Jerie ahead of me which shouldn’t be the case. That means she’s doing a good job of keeping her pace but I’m most likely going too fast. Overall pace is now 8:03 per.
Miles 11 to 15 – I averaged 8:17 through here, cruising through the half in 1:45. Kel had made her way to 13.3 so I gave her some love and one very nasty shirt that I had peeled off right at the half mark. Running shirtless is something I’ve embraced lately when the conditions demand it…much to the chagrin of those around me (friend and stranger alike). Even after shedding enough tonnage to get myself close to 200 lbs the old bod is still not completely suitable for public display. My apologies to everyone who has had to suffer through this visually unappealing phase of mine. Still feeling good and enjoying the 8:08 overall pace through 15.
Miles 16 to 20 – I manage to average a respectable 8:35 pace through these miles and, thanks to some fast early miles, am still at an 8:14 overall. I have been fighting with myself for several miles at this point trying to determine whether I should bump the effort or continue cruising. Decisions, decisions. I’ve lost sight of Jerie but Paul passed me a few miles ago and I seem to be maintaining a consistent spread with him. It’s getting pretty warm in the less shady sections of the course but the sun is at our backs (as it is for the vast majority of the course when it’s visible) as we head due west to Tanner/North Bend. I decide to remain conservative and not push it just yet.
Miles 21 to 25 – It appears as though I’ve made the right decision. I feel very much in control at this late stage in the race clicking the miles off at an average of 8:44. I’ve run a bunch of 5 – 7 milers at home over the past several weeks/months where I couldn’t maintain that pace so doing it in the latter miles of a marathon was good for the psyche. I have my Garmin set up in a four-way split screen with the following data bites: time, distance, lap pace, overall pace. With each passing mile the lap pace is bumping the overall pace by a few seconds. By the time I finish mile 25 my overall has climbed to 8:20. I need to keep it under 8:23 to PR. That should be doable but (a) this is a marathon and (b) I’ve been in this very position at St. George just over two years ago.
Miles 26 to 26.2 – Paul is now about 25 meters ahead of me so I start to very slowly bring my speed up. I cut the gap down a little more and am in a pretty good position to try and sneak by him at the finish. I start to feel a little twitch in my left quad. It grows. I know a cramp is coming on so I start to throw counter measures at it. I slow down, I speed up, I cock my hips, I try to run harder with my right leg, I try lifting my knees a little higher, I try to exaggerate the push off with my left foot with each step…anything to hold off the inevitable. At 25.42 miles it locks up and I’m forced to stop. I dig my thumbs into it as hard as I can and then rub the full length of my thigh to get it to release. I’m bent over at the waist and notice that water is pouring off my head though I’m really not all that sweaty and I’m wearing a hat. It’s not sweat, it’s tears. I’m not only crying tears…I’m actually making moaning sounds to go along with them. A full on cry fest! I don’t know how long the pity party lasts but it couldn’t have been too long. It suddenly dawns on me that the very same set of circumstances (being so close to the finish) that has overwhelmed my normally stoic state could also be what ends up salvaging the day. I make the decision to run it in as hard as I possibly can regardless. A picture forms in my head of me peg-legging my way across the finish line, face contorted in a mess of wrinkles, whiskers, dried salt and wet tears.
All the while, Kel has made it to the finish line and is waiting for me to arrive. She knows based on my half split that I should be in PR range (3:39:42 being the mark). She cannot see me yet down the course but is nervously watching the seconds tick up on the official race clock. As it climbs through 3:36 and then 3:37 she sees me finally materialize on the horizon. Knowing I’m going to be very close she starts screaming.
I-90 goes over our heads at the 26 mile mark with .2 to go. I look at my watch and realize for the first time in the entire race that the “time” section only displays hours and minutes. It says 3:37 but I have no way of knowing if it’s 3:37:01 or 3:37:59. If it’s :01 I’m golden, if it’s :59 I’m hosed. I have no choice but to wring out everything I have left and hope for the best.
I cross the line and hit the stop button. 3:38:48, a PR by 54 seconds. Nine years and five months later.
It feels pretty good but I don’t have much time to celebrate. St. George is in 12 weeks and I need to shave off another 13:48 to hit the 3:25:00 necessary to qualify for Boston.
Click here for Garmin details.
Tunnel 2.0 was my 29th (and fastest) marathon and still 17th state.