Wednesday, December 03, 2008

11/30/08 Seattle Marathon

Oh, where to start, where to start? First off, the picture. That's my friend Bee, me, and another friend, Maniac Genia, just before the start of this year's Seattle Marathon. Genia is about to PR by almost 15 minutes - woohoo! More on her later!

How about a bit of history. I have run either the half or the full at Seattle every year since 2001. I never ran either race very well until last year. The course, particularly the half, is quite challenging. The weather can be rotten as well, which makes any race harder. Between my performance, the weather, and a couple other little things (post race food issues and some screwy chip timing issues), I've never really loved the Seattle Marathon. Yet I sign up each year. My opinion improved a bit in 2007 because we had good -though cold- weather and I ran fast. My 3:36 was just a couple minutes slower than my PR at the time. It also came the day after running a 3:37 at the low-key Ghost of Seattle Marathon, and three days after a yucky 3:55 at the Atlanta Marathon. Amazing how running a good race under blue skies can suddenly improve one's outlook. The post race food was still spotty and lots of people had problems with their chip times... but wahoo, what a fun day.

That brings me to this year. Once again, I ran Atlanta three days prior. This year, I ran a much better 3:41, felt great the whole day, and managed a negative split. Instead of running the Ghost marathon on Saturday, I opted for a new 5k. Alas, I messed up. Heading into race weekend, my goal for Sunday's race was supposed to be 3:30. I wanted to run the 5k at marathon pace to get my brain ready for the following day. Instead, I followed Bee for 3.1 miles, and she wanted to run faster than that. We finished somewhere around 21:30. Well, Bee did. I was a bit behind. Anyway, for a 3:30 marathon, I should have been sticking with 8:00 miles. Instead, I ran 6:55s. Ruh roh. This might come back and bite me.

I've written about the Seattle Marathon course before, but here's a brief summary. The course is a loop with an out-and-back in the middle that starts and finishes at an ancient stadium near the Space Needle. The first couple miles offer up a roly poly tour of downtown. Just after M2, the course jumps onto the (mercifully closed) express lanes of I-90. More roly polies. Through a tunnel, then at about M4.5, runners are treated with the flat out-and-back section across one of Seattle's floating bridges. Although a bad weather year can make this part miserable, it is my favorite. I love seeing the fast folks coming the other way, and I love high fiving and giving the shaka to people both faster and not as fast. It's possible that I love this section *too* much; it's easy for me to get caught up in the energy and emotion... and run way way too fast. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After turning around on Mercer Island at M6, the course shoots back across the water. A turn to the south leads runners along Lake Washington to Seward Park at M11. Once around the park and northwards back up the same road. At M17.5, the course passes under the floating bridge and continues north. Goodbye, flat section. Hello, hilly section from hell. Ok, that's a bit dramatic. I like hills a lot. And at first, these hills are not bad. Just hills. And the views keep on coming. Nice neighborhoods, trees, water. On a good day, the occasional mountain view.

M20.5 is the left turn onto Galer. This is the course's famous hill. It's only about five blocks long, but it is super duper steep. I can run it, sometimes, but I look like a duck. And at the top, the runner learns that it isn't actually the top: a left turn onto Madison and yippee, more hill. The actual top is right about M21. After a half mile of downhill to even out the legs, the course comes to the *real* asskicker of the race. Interlaken Boulevard. This is a twisty road through the Seattle Arboretum. Uphill. M21.5 to M23, relentlessly up and up. The twists in the road make for a bunch of false tops to frustrate the first-timer... especially after the similar experience at the top of Galer earlier. Even for the runner who knows what's coming, Interlaken is the total gut check section for this race. The hardest hill at the hardest point physiologically and psychologically in the course after having been beaten up by other hills since M18. Go go go.

The top of the hill is M23. Shortly after this, the course crosses I-5 for the first time and heads gently downhill to M24. For a person who has paced well, this is an excellent opportunity to fly. Me? I've never flown here. That tells you something. In a cruel twist, the course zips back under I-5 to the other side at M24. Briefly. This section treats the exhausted runner to a jaw-dropping view of downtown. And somewhat north of downtown, the space needle and the stadium. Finish line is in the stadium! Just before M25, it passes back over the freeway. Downhill. Downhill.

At M25.8, there's one final uphill. Ha. Left turn towards the stadium, through a tunnel, and then across the football field. Tons of folks are there to stare passively at you or cheer you on, depending. Sometimes if you want it, you have to work for it :-).

Huh. I promised a brief summary. I guess that wasn't. The course itself is not packed with spectators, though in a good weather year, a fair number of people turn out. And this was a good weather year. Freakish, actually. Usually, it is 30-40 degrees. "Good weather" would mean drizzle and light wind. This year, morning brought 51 degrees, no real wind, and fog. Usually, I'm bundled up in 3 shirts, pants, a raincoat, a ski cap, and gloves. This year? One shirt, those trendy sleeve things (which I'd ditch at M9), gloves (which I'd put away at M11), and shorts. Balmy! Not perfect, though. That fog really represented high humidity. I didn't get that at first; I would understand it well later on. Still though, it simply will never get better than this.

As I mentioned in my 5k summary above, my theoretical race goal was going to be 3:30. I had attempted a 3:30 a couple weeks prior in San Antonio, and if I hadn't been waylaid by stomach issues, I would have had it. Seattle is a harder course by far, but with good weather and the energy of running with friends on a course I know with my eyes closed, I figured I could do it.

I showed up somewhat early with J-Lo because she was going to walk the half marathon with a friend. After seeing them off, I had 30 minutes to get ready and chat. Lots of people I know run the Seattle Marathon. Then it was time. I lined up just to the side of the 3:30 pace group... not planning on running with them... Star Spangled Banner... and off we went.

The start of this race is crowded and stays crowded because just as the marathon crowd is stretching out, racers overtake the marathon walkers who started earlier. And then the half marathoners who also started earlier. For the most part, the half marathoners stay on the side. In fact, for a few miles on I-90, there's a concrete barrier separating that group from the full. I did everything I could not to zigzag around slower runners, but I was feeling really good. Everything felt great. I had eaten right. My stomach seemed ok. The day was pretty. I spied J-Lo and friend on the other side of the barrier at about M4. I called out her name. She called out my name. WOOHOO!

About that time, I passed Santa Claus. Yes, a guy was doing the full enchilada dressed in a Santa suit. He was also handing out candy canes. Ha. I bet he got hot!

Into the first tunnel. It was in here that I made the fateful decision: today would be Go-Fast day. My current PR is 3:28. I had originally thought about running about 3:30... nah. Let's see if I can handle a 3:25-3:27. Go fast! I started the zigzag process. Note to self: be careful, cocky runner - much energy is used whilst zigging; even more is used during the requisite zag.

The half marathon course does not head across the floating bridge. After they turned off, I didn't need to zig zag anymore. I was at the bridge, my favorite section. I pulled over to the middle so that I could see (and sometimes slap five) faster runners coming back and a few of the early starters who had made it here quickly.

It was like I shot myself out of a cannon.

The energy was incredible. The Seattle Marathon is not my favorite race, but this bridge out-and-back is almost certainly one of my top race-related experiences. There was Larry! This race was his 101st... of this year! Slap five, Larry. There were Maniacs Lauri and Q-562! Here came the guy leaders! And the first women. 1, 2, 3, maybe 4. And then, out of the fog, it was Maniac Annie. Last year, Annie managed a second place finish. She looked great this year, although she was incognito in red. Slap five, Annie. More people I knew went by. A couple people hooted for the man in pink. And I was passing all kinds of people.

Around the turnaround. Boom! And now I was facing a sea of people. I saw so many folks I know. And every time someone hooted or acknowledged a shaka, I seemed to speed up a little. It was so cool.

I came off the bridge at M8. My split for that mile? 7:15. Ruh roh. Way too fast.

J-Lo's friends were waiting to cheer me on at M9. I stopped briefly and ditched my sleeves. I used this opportunity to try to regain a bit of composure and control over my pace. I wanted something more like 7:55/mile. Ok, ok. Calm the hell down.

At M10, I saw Maniac David (a 3:15ish marathoner) standing on the side of the road. "Are you ok?" The single answer: "No." I didn't stop because he was standing with someone else who I figured was helping him, but I felt badly about not stopping. I hope David is ok.

M11 and into Seward Park. This is a beautiful park on the shore of Lake Washington. It used to be an island, but they filled in a land bridge and turned it into a little peninsula. It has the only stand of old growth forest in Seattle. With a three mile loop around the perimeter, it is wonderful for running.

I crossed the mat at the halfway point at 1:43. Perfect for a 3:25-3:27. I did the check-in with my body, like I always do. The answer was not what I wanted. I was achy, like I normally would be at M18. But this was M13.1, and I hadn't gotten to the hills yet. My stomach poked me too. It was weird. I was starting to feel crampy, but at the same time, my stomach/brain was screaming "Feed me, Seymour!"
Brain: Dude. You ran a strong marathon three days ago. You ran too fast yesterday. You ran over the bridge way, way too fast. Feel your shirt. It isn't rain that you could wring out of it. The hills are coming. And, oh yeah. Feed me, Seymour.

Crap. I ducked into the potty at M14, somewhat to do what is normally done in a potty, and somewhat just to regroup. I came back out onto the course with two goals: 1) stay strong and even, and 2) grab some extra Gu from the volunteers whenever it was offered.

I noticed that people were passing me now; it was clear I wasn't going to hold on to 7:55/mile pace. M15 was 8:20. Ugh. I needed to keep doing that for as long as possible, including through the hills. A few of these people offered up encouragement. I also officially met a couple people I "know" from various message boards. I caught up with Larry (he had been coming the other way when I saw him on the bridge) and I wished him well on #101 for the year. He was more concerned about me - that's Larry :-). What a nice guy.

Maniac Guy Yogi caught me in here. He asked if he could run with me for awhile. "Well, sure... no need to ask. But I warn you, I'm slowing down. You might not want to stick with me." We had a nice, brief conversation. And then slowly, Guy picked it up. I lost sight of him about 10 minutes later.

Just after M18, the hills started. Interestingly, despite the continued yuck signals from my brain and my legs, the hills didn't seem to add any extra pain and suffering. At first. There was a Gu station somewhere in here. Usually I pass these and go with the Hammer Gels I carry on my own. And usually, I finish with a couple spare Hammer Gels. But at this Gu station, I took two with me. And I ate all my Hammer Gel. Feed me, Seymour.

Another guy I "know" from a running message board, a fellow by the interesting name of "Luv Pre" found me in here. His PR is 3:35. "Hold what you've got, and you've got a shot at it." His response was simple, honest, and definitely apropos. "We'll see what Galer and East Madison say about that." He pulled away too.

M20 at 2:44. Just an easy 10k left. With big hills. Feed me, Seymour. I usually know that if I hit M20 around 2:45, I have a reasonable shot at a 3:35-3:40 finish. 3:35 sounded great at this point because it would be faster than my finish last year.

Left turn onto Galer. I caught Maniac Kurt. He had been running far ahead of me since about M10, but he was having calf issues now. Not good for hills. I wished him well as I duckwalked/jogged up the hill.

Left turn onto Madison. I was really struggling, and my pace was now hovering around 9:10/mile. Yikes. But I didn't feel any worse than I had back at M15. I guess my slower pace had compensated. I hit the top of the hill and enjoyed the brief downhill breather to Interlaken. The hardest part of the race.

Up. Up and up. Around the twisty turns. Up some more. I started remembering many of my previous experiences with this hill. None of them had been pretty, even during last year's 3:36. I started encountering back-of-the-pack half marathon walkers. When I had the energy to verbalize, I wished them well as I struggled by. They did the same for me. M22 was exactly 9:00. But M23 was a leisurely 9:31. Gah. Then the top. I hit the downhill. I didn't think 3:35 was in the cards any longer, but I was hopeful that the downhill would help me. Maybe a little.

As I headed towards M24 and the bridge under I-5, a couple guys passed me. One was a Maniac who I don't know. He seemed destined to lose me. The other was an intense guy in a yellow (but not Maniac) shirt. We leapfrogged. M24 was 9:17. Gravity helped a bit, apparently, but this was still ugly.

Down I-5, then back over. M25 was 8:56, and 3:30 exactly on the clock. Sigh. I would miss my 3:30 race goal, literally, by a mile. And unless I pulled out a canister of Roger Bannister, I was going to miss 3:35 as well. Feed me, Seymour.

I pulled by the Maniac who I don't know. I pulled by Yellow Shirt Guy. It felt like I was sprinting! I hit M26 and took the last turn towards the stadium. I was sure that I must have made up some time during that mile, but the 8:54 on my watch said differently. This didn't bum me out. I laughed.

Into the stadium and the thousands of semi-cheering people. About 20 yards before the finish, Yellow Shirt Guy pulled up beside me, slowly turned his head to me, and offered up the biggest grin I have ever seen at the end of a long race. EVER.

Was he grinning because he had a fun day? Was he grinning because he was going to outkick me? Who knows. What I *do* know is that it had a profoundly warm and positive effect on me. The last 5 seconds of the 2008 Seattle Marathon will always be remembered as follows: I gave the once-intense-but-now-grinning Yellow Shirt Guy a huge smile back, and then I waved him in front of me. It is possible I could have outkicked him, but I didn't want to try. That smile he gave me made my day.

I wanted to thank him, but at the finish, I spent a second talking to the guy who gave me my medal. When I turned around, Yellow Shirt Guy was gone. What a finish. Ha.

3:40. Well, I was able to hold my targeted finish time from M20 onwards. And I was faster than my Thursday race in Atlanta. Other than that, I swung for the fences and missed. No PR. No 3:30 either. And no 3:35, which would have beaten my time from last year. Nope. I was slower than last year AND I didn't run a marathon the day before like last year. Fooey.

The lesson is simple. Swinging for the fences is a fine thing, but it should be planned better. Maybe I could have done it after Atlanta. I think the 5k took just enough away from me. Plus, and this became really obvious when I changed clothes, it was incredibly humid. That never bodes well.

In the finish area, I saw Luv Pre again. 3:36 for him, if I recall correctly. Good job! In the food line, I saw Maniac Guy Yogi, who had pulled away from me so well in the teens. He had faded a bit, just like me. But he still managed a great 3:38.

And Maniac Annie? She won the race! How about that. And apparently, she completely missed the tape at the end. So she turned around and ran back through it. Go Annie!

Go everybody!

I spent the next day with a headache that I am sure is due to some combination of screwy electrolyte levels and running low on gas. Feed me, Seymour.

Remember Maniac Genia, in that picture at the top? As mentioned, she PRed. Here's another picture of me, Genia, Bee, and Maniac Amanda Cohn from the 2006 race:

As you can tell, it was a much more brutal day weather-wise. I was sporting the GI Joe look, obviously. She was sporting a baby. She ran that race very, very pregnant. I dunno what's cooler, running it pregnant or scoring the big PR. Let's go with both. Go Genia!

Next up: This weekend is the Sunmart ultra in Huntsville, Texas. I'm signed up for the 50 miler, but I'll probably drop to the 50k. I don't really enjoy 50 milers. Sunmart has a fun course and it is ridiculously well supported for an ultra. It has potties! Heck, they even utilize chip timing. But most interestingly, Sunmart offers more race premiums than anyone. Free shirts! A bag! A jacket! And that's just the beginning.

More on that next week.

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