ORN: 26.2 miles, 4:17:04, R/W 4/1 (mostly), 9:49/mile, new marathon PR
It all came together. A new mental paradigm on a flat course on a cool day led to breaking my personal best from 2006 by almost 4 minutes in the Wisconsin Marathon on May 4, 2013. It really has blown me away. So here's the whole story.
This race was fascinating in that it marked a conscious departure from my marathon strategies of the past couple of years. The new trajectory flowed from three recent observations...allow me to summarize.
While I ran the Maple Leaf Indoor Marathon in February, I had a nice long conversation with fellow Marathon Maniac Mark "Mad Dog" Janowsky. Among the topics was "how do you get these heart rate monitor chest straps to work?" I have had one for my Garmin for a couple of years but quit using it, as it had such inconsistent signals. "One word" said Mark "Gel". Indeed. He pointed me to Spectra 360 Electrode Gel which I found on Amazon and got a big honkin tube for less than $5 delivered. And, bingo, it made the necessary skin connection so I can now monitor my heart rate.
But how to use the newly available HR data? The second observation came during the Carmel Marathon two weeks before this race, the first time I've ever used the HR monitor during a marathon. I was astounded at how low my HR was, averaging only 118 bpm for the entire marathon and seldom getting even near 130. This was well below any "training zone" by the HR calculations I could find...I wasn't pushing my heart very much at all. Could I go faster?
These two dots led to direct conversations with my nephew John and work associate Mike, both very accomplished runners. I told them the info and they both said, bluntly, "Joe, you can run faster than you think you can." And they both pointed out that the slow miles I ran early at Carmel (jogging early, then two miles talking with Larry Macon) let me just get warmed up to subsequently run harder.
These three dots formed a line of thought leading to a single question: could I run a 4:20 marathon? I had run a 4:21:01 marathon in Portland in 2006 but had resigned myself to believe I'd never get below 4:20 again. Yet, with this new thinking in mind, I plugged the numbers into my pace chart and a reasonable plan emerged which blew away that assumption.
First, jog the first two miles without walking at a 10:00/mile pace. Slow. Hit the mile 2 marker with 20:00 on my watch. This is essentially a warm up. Second, take my first walk break then, pivoting to a run 4 minute, walk 1 minute pattern. Do the run segments at pace of 8:50 to 9:00/mile. Third, hold this for as long as possible. Fourth, if the energy was there, run the last mile or two.
I tried this plan during a 12 mile training on the Saturday between the Carmel and Wisconsin Marathons. It worked well. My HR never got above 130 and it seemed doable. So, that was the plan. But could it work only two weeks after a 4:29:49 marathon? I didn't know but figured I could only benefit from trying.
I've never been in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It's a 3 to 5 hour drive from my house, depending on Chicago traffic. Amazingly for a Friday afternoon rush hour, I sailed through the Windy City with little delay. I had mapped out where I wanted to stash bananas (more on that later), so first drove to the south end of the course, left one at mile 19, then drove the course to downtown Kenosha, leaving another package at mile 14. It was a beautiful marathon course, going up and down the Lake Michigan coastline. Between the beaches, lake views and gracious lake villas of folks with a lot more money than I can imagine, it was a very pleasant visual event. And flat.
I picked up my packet and then decided to explore the start/finish area. It turned out to be about 7-8 blocks from the stated parking area. I saw some activity and stumbled upon race volunteers from the local Kiwanis club cooking up some supper.
Being friendly Wisconsinites, they chatted easily and offered me a bratwurst fresh off the grill!! They had plenty (all cooked to text the heat for grilling the free brats for all finishers the next day, they assured me), so my carbo loading for this marathon was a nice, big, juicy sausage on a bun!! I asked my new friends about parking on race day. They smiled, pointed to a much closer spot yet told me I'd need to be there by 5am. I smiled back, said thank you, and headed to the motel to get some sleep.
Up at 4:30am, I headed back downtown to snag that parking spot and the local advice was perfect. I could relax, eat my now-customary race morning meal of oatmeal, turkey/cheese sandwich, banana and a Diet Coke. I watched the sky slowly and colorfully change over Lake Michigan until sunup just before 6am. Did you ever see a race porta pottie with such a view as this??
Activity picked up as the 7am start time neared. The temperature was in the low 40s with no rain...perfect for a marathon. I got ready and walked the short distance to the start line with my camera, when fellow Maniac, Andrea (on the far right here), spotted my shirt, grabbed her friends and said let's take a photo! Cheeseheads and maniacs all getting set to run. Makes sense, actually.
Even more cheeseheads lined up...the organizers had a special starting corral at the front of the pack reserved for anyone who wore something to do with cheese.
Over 4,000 marathoners and half marathoners lined up and off we went, right on time. Execute the strategy.
Part 1 was the first two miles. I tried really, really hard to jog slowly the first two miles. I went through mile 1 in 9:52 and did the second mile in 9:30. Not slow enough. But, you keep learning.
Part 2 of the plan was the most significant. I took my first walk break just past the mile 2 marker, reoriented my brain and prepared to execute the plan. To my pleasant surprise, I found it fairly easy to run at the prescribed 8:45+ pace for four minutes. The one minute walk got my HR back down below 90 and then it was lather, rinse, repeat. At the five mile mark, I was 28 seconds ahead of my prescribed target time.
About that time, I came alongside Andrea, the fellow Maniac who initiated the photo op above. She too was going to do a 4/1, asked if she could fall in with my timer for a while and did. Andrea and I had a great talk about racing but broader issues as well...we both agreed that while we enjoyed running, our lives were much larger than marathons. The course got a bit crowded from miles 6-9, as the the full field bunched together in both directions as we headed for the north turnaround point.
Around mile 8.5, Andrea encouraged me to carry on, as the pace was just a bit quick for her. The pattern continued, yet at mile ten I was about 19 seconds behind my projected 4:20 pace. Not a problem but the the traffic did slow things a bit.
Miles 11-13 had my only real low point in this race. It's interesting in that my mile splits remained consistent here in the 9:45 to 9:55 range. Yet, I sensed some fatigue in my legs and wondered just how much deep into the race I could hold the 4/1@8:50 strategy. Remarkably, though, as we left the south edge of Kenosha, a "second wind" arrived. I grabbed the banana at mile 14 and optimism returned. Back into rhythm and I was only 50 seconds behind my prescribed pace at mile 15.
The course continued south and we were approaching the turnaround where I had stashed the other banana. As we neared though, a surprise lurked. I discovered I had misread the course map the night before and my banana was on a road parallel to but about a quarter mile away from the road we were using!! I could actually see the exact spot where that tasty yellow fruit was hidden but it would have been nearly 3/4 of a mile for me to run and get it...I was not willing to give up a shot at 4:20 for that! OK, Joe, time to reorient. I decided to take on some Gatorade (something I never do) to get some sugars for the rest of the trip. Yet, for a guy who likes to plan things carefully, this was a problem.
We made the turn around and headed back to downtown Kenosha with a bit of a wind now quartering into our faces off the lake. The Mile 20 checkpoint had me still 50 seconds behind my target pace which was a real encouragement. My universal pace chart has an extra 30 seconds per mile built into the last seven miles. My miles were still clipping along in the 9:45 range, I was easily holding the run segments at 8:45ish, the legs still had spring in them and I knew if I could hold it, I'd go under 4:20 for a PR. I was passing people and not being passed. I also had the weird realization I was way older than anyone else I was running with at that point.
At Mile 23, I began to think about when I'd shift to a run-only plan. I hit the Mile 24 mark 30 seconds ahead of my target pace and decided to take one more walk break around mile 24.3. After that last breather, I turned off the beeper and focused on finishing strong. Mile 25 came through at 9:22, my second fastest of the day. I could see the final area and locked in, gradually accelerating. A right turn, 7 blocks to go on a sunny day by Lake Michigan with people I didn't know clapping for me...sweet. The Mile 26 marker appeared and with it the fastest mile of the day at 9:04. One more right turn and there was the finish line...a hard sprint to the end and, amazingly, marathon #38 was over in 4:17:04.
I felt terrific. I took about a minute bent over to catch my breath and then slowly walked through the finish area, smiling ear-to-ear, amazed, stunned, thrilled and generally trying to soak in what just happened. The atmosphere in the area was terrific, as the organizers had a big tent set up with music and food on a beautiful spring day. You can grasp a sense in this short video I shot.
I walked back to my car (still close, local advice is always a plus) grabbed my phone and camera to make some calls. My wife was astounded to hear from me so quickly...she knew it must be good news. Back near the finish line again, I saw Andrea soon after she finished, along with a buddy of hers with whom I had also ran for a while.
It was just good. You can't put it in a bottle but it would sure be nice if you could.
And there was one really funny thing.
When I crossed the finish line, while bent over catching my breath, not even having received my medal yet, I noticed the band playing for the crowd was doing a great cover of a famous Allman Brothers song. I stood up, still panting a bit, and quipped to a race volunteer "You know, I actually saw the Allman Brothers play that song in concert in the spring of 1972!" He was too young to recognize the reference and perhaps thought I was hallucinating anyway. But, no, it was true, I did see the band play some 41 years ago.
About 45 minutes later, after I had wrapped up chatting with folks and consuming my free post-race bratwurst, I was heading back to my car. The band had finished their gig and were packing their instruments. I walked over and told two of the guys how much I enjoyed their Allman Brothers cover. They appreciated that and then I mentioned I had seen them play the same song in concert in 1972. Their guitarist stopped, peered in at me and said "Whoa...that means you and I are the same age." I guess so...and he continued "And you just ran a marathon?" Yeah...I guess we all make our choices, eh??
Stepping back a bit
On a few days reflection, I'm still blown away by this race. I truly never dreamed I'd ever get under 4:20 again. It was only the alignment of the elements I mentioned above which laid out a plan. Then it took the rare confluence of a good plan with cool weather and a flat course, a rare but wonderful treat.
For the record, this is the second fastest marathon I've ever run. It was 26 seconds quicker than my first marathon ever in Bloemfontein, South Africa on August 2, 1980. We had one child at the time; I vividly remember my very pregnant wife waiting with him at the finish line that morning to watch me struggle home. My lifetime best came five months later on January 31, 1981 in Maseru, Lesotho when I went 4:16:14. I was 27 years old, had a toddler and an infant and astounded I had actually run 2 marathons.
On May 2, 2004, I began running again. A job change eliminated a daily 70 minute commute and I determined to use that time to run again. Racing restarted with a simple, 29:45 5K on Labor Day, 2004 and the rest, as they say, is history. (Will I try to break that 4:16:14 record? You bet...likely to take a shot next fall when the weather cools again. )
Thus, on May 4, 2013, nine years, forty pounds, thirty-five marathons and over 100 races after a re-beginning of running, I ran at age 59 faster than I had run at age 27. That little guy who was at the finish of my first marathon has done two tours of duty in Iraq, just finished nursing school and has three kids himself. That lovely lady in the denim maternity dress waiting patiently for me at the 1980 race still laughs at my jokes and means the world to me.
She has truly persevered. And it's for that I'm most fully grateful.