Name: X 

sunday, january 14, 2007

Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon 2007

Race: P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon
Clock Time: 4:20:22
Chip Time: 4:20:02

After almost a year of preparation, effort and worry raceday finally arrived. The good news - I was able to finish my first marathon. The bad news? It was a complete and total disaster.

My hope had been to at least get in spitting distance of the Boston Marathon qualifying time for my age group of 3 hours 15 minutes. I came in almost a full hour behind that at 4 hours 20 minutes and change.

The mile splits tell the story. I stuck with the pace group starting out which had me reeling in 7:20 min/mile for the first six miles or so. I got to the halfway point at 1 hour 41 minutes which put me at a 7:44 min/mile. By the 20 mile marker, which I crossed at 2 hours 55 minutes, that had slid to 8:46 min per mile. The final tally was 9:55 min per mile.

So what happened? I guess it was a perfect storm of bad luck and bad decisions. To figure it out it would probably be best to start at the beginning.

The Prelude

I spent the night before the race at my sister's house with her and my cousin Erin who were running the half marathon. We watched a few of the battle scenes from The Lord of the Rings to get psyched a bit then went to bed.

Things started off Sunday rather well. I slept soundly. My sister got me up at 4:30 a.m. and we were on the road by 5 a.m. or so. A friend of my sister's and his girlfriend came with us (he also ran the half marathon).

Now the weather last week here in Arizona was perfect. Cool bright mornings. You couldn't ask for better race conditions. Of course that didn't last. Over the last three days a cold front moved through and the temperatures bottomed out to 28 degrees for the start of the race.

We bundled up in throwaway clothes but arriving at the race site and stepping out of the car was brutal. My sister parked at the structure near the finish line but when we got there it was almost empty. I guess folks seemed to have waited a bit before heading out into the icy chill of the morning.

The buses they were shuttling us to the race start were heated so we hopped in and were OK. At the race start I grabbed a bagel to chew on. I had eaten two Clif Bars earlier and drank sparingly. I felt nervous but ready.

I found my corral - disturbingly close to the starting line - and we stood there for half-an-hour or so trying to ignore how cold we were. I waited until they started the elite racers at 7:30 a.m. and then got in the corral and shucked off my extra shirt, sweatpants and light coat. I kept my chullo and gloves on, of course.

The Arizona Road Racers pace guy for the 3:10 marathon was there and I set myself up about 30 feet behind him and waited for the gun. Of course we had to listen to the Phoenix mayor blather for about five minutes and hear the Star Spangled Banner (again, where was the flag, guys?) but they finally set us on our way at 7:40 a.m. sharp.

The Race

The start was chilly to the extreme but the adrenaline rush of getting going was enough to push through that. I felt very good going out. The pace was reasonable and the pack wasn't overly crowded even though officials said the total number of runners in the marathon was more than 10,000.

People were really cool in this one - none of the ego warriors pushing through the pack.

From the very start there were folks on the sides of the route cheering us on, heavily bundled up, of course. That these guys would come out in the cold to root for someone and give a cheer to all of us was really inspiring.

A pack of Jesus freaks were also on the start of the route with these gigantic signs admonishing us that we are bound for hell. I turned to the guy next to me and said, "At least we will be warm again."

The first five miles, a straight shot up Seventh Avenue, went relatively well. I felt pretty strong. I had a good pace and I felt in control. None of the injury issues that had caused me so much worry put in an appearance so I was starting to feel relieved. I actually allowed myself to enjoy the race a little.

The bands, which are such a big selling point for the race, were nothing special but it was nice to hear the music and know you were nearing another mile marker.

Just before mile five I passed what turned out to be the best band on the course, Steelin' The Night Away. They are an all female calypso steel drum band who were playing surf tunes. Great stuff. I was glad to pass them early enough to enjoy them a bit.

The exertion had overcome the cold by that point and when we turned East on Missouri Avenue there was even a bit of sun to warm us up a tad. Overall, I felt pretty good about my performance and my prospects for the race.

So, of course, everything started to fall apart.

The Agony Begins

It began when I started to notice that the pace guy was pulling away from me. At first this was because he didn't stop to drink and I would have to pick it up a bit to catch him after the water stations. But, at about mile six or seven I couldn't seem to get closer to that bobbing green number at the top of the stick.

Which was not good.

Then my ass began to hurt. And it wasn't a minor thing. It was a low thrumming ache that followed the gluteus maximus around the hip. It was not pleasant at all. I shortened my stride and tried to push through the ache like I would do with any pain that develops during a race but, instead of easing off, it started to spread.

Of course now I'm starting to get passed by folks. Not just a few people who were hitting their stride after starting at the back of the corral, pretty much everyone was going by me. I became the rock in the middle of the stream with every runner in the race flowing right on by as my stride began getting shorter and slower.

By mile eight it was clear none of this was going to get better and I was in serious trouble. Of course by that point there wasn't a hell of a lot I could do about it either. So I tried setting a reasonable pace given my situation. I was close enough to the half-marathon point that I let myself get tunnel vision and simply focus on that.

I gave up on Boston when the 3:20 pace group passed me and it became clear my race was deteriorating rapidly. The only thing that kept that from hurting as much as it should was the physical pain I was wrestling with.

The steady ache had, by now, spread across my hips and upper legs. Every so often my soleus or my calf would give a minor twinge but these were the regular muscle issues you get in a race. The hip crisis was an entirely different animal. I could feel every step throughout my lower body and I yearned to get off the hard road and onto a more forgiving surface.

Finally, the building I had scouted as the halfway mark came into view and I felt a weird feeling of relief mixed with total and complete despair. I had run as hard as I could under the worst conditions imaginable and I was only halfway through the thing.

(Quick aside: While it was nice having folks cheering on the sides of the road, yelling out incorrect miles to go is neither original or helpful. Although I did get a chuckle at the guy that yelled "Just 11 more crappy bands to go!")

Pain, Pain and More Pain

From that point on the race was one long interminable torture - an unending agony where every moment seemed completely unendurable except for the knowledge that the moment to come would be worse.

I saw one of the elite racers walking off the course at around the 14-mile mark. He was wrapped in a towel and had a look of pain and anguish on his face (I later found out he was felled by a stomach virus). I completely understood how he felt.

Of course, just when I thought things could get no worse, the race threw another little agony at me to endure. Bathroom breaks.

I don't know if it was because of my slowing pace or the crappy energy drink they chose or what but I had to go to the bathroom pretty bad after passing the halfway point. I finally saw a port-a-potty and hopped off the course to use it.

To stop - to stand still - was bliss. I could barely use the bathroom it felt so so good. And I knew it would cost me. I can still see that plastic handle and feel the amount of will it took to open it again knowing what lay behind that door.

I got out and started trying to run and it was as if my hips and quads were being hit by sledgehammers. I hobbled for a few yards and got to where I could limp along and, after about 50 meters I was "running" again.

And it wasn't getting any better at all. By mile 16 I was at the end of my rope, every step was the last ounce of my ability... and then, somehow, I was putting the next foot forward. The entire race had become reduced to simply putting one foot in front of the other.

But, it turns out, I actually had a decent race up to about the 16 mile mark. It wasn't a stellar time but would have put me in the 3:30 to 3:40 range. Yet, I knew it was completely over. I was shot and everything else would simply be survival.

Just Let it End

Everything beyond about mile 16 was a blur of exquisite pain and anguish. I used every mental trick I could to force my next foot forward and somehow I did it. The problem was that now I was starting to pay for my fast start.

I clearly had been on too fast a pace those first few miles and my glycogen reserves had plummeted. The gels I consumed weren't enough to help and as I got in the 20 mile range what little strength I had started to evaporate.

Despite that, I don't think I hit the fabled "wall." When I figured out I was in trouble I started doing what little I could with my pace and caloritic intake to keep that particular horror at bay. But the effort to take each step became Herculean in addition to the pain.

And now I had to force myself to stop counting miles and time. If I gave myself the luxury of enjoying the fact there were 6 miles left to go it was also inescapable that I had at least an hour left to endure of this hell as well. (Hey! Maybe those guys at the start of the race were right!)

Of course, after going to the bathroom once, I now found I had to do so twice more. Each time starting up again was more excruciating than the last. I would pass medical tents with runners lying inside and could only think how good it would feel to lie down and let the pain stop.

I also almost stopped to walk on two occasions but, somehow, picked my step back up just as I began to let myself drop into it. I don't know how I accomplished that.

At this point the only motivation that seemed to have any effectiveness were the two "finisher" shirts I bought at the expo. Earning the right to wear them was all that seemed to help push through the pain.

Moreover I knew there was one last horror left to overcome. When my sister and I scouted the course I could tell the long incline for the bridge over the Salt River was going to be a bitch. And it was. A long excruiating hill that never seemed to end. Reaching the top of the bridge and looking across the lake to glimpse the finish area more than two miles away was no relief for me at all.

Every step of the last four miles was an effort of unimaginable proportions. And even that became exponentially worse over the last two miles. I considered giving up each and every step. I was beyond even mental games and trickery and motivation and all of it.

The only thing left in the world was pain. And all I wanted was for it to end.

The Finish Line

Somehow I turned the corner on Sixth Street and forced my shuffling stride forward for the last .2 mile. Lots of runners passed me with that surge of energy accomplishment brings but I simply was trying to make it one more step.

One guy with a cramp in his left leg was limping to his finish in front of me. I sympathized completely. My cousin yelled at me from the crowd but I was too exhausted to wave back.

I crossed the finish line and slowed to a walk and had to compose myself to keep from crying. I'm not sure if that was because of the emotion of finishing or the sheer relief of the pain being at an end but it took me a few seconds to get ahold of myself enough to start hobbling over to the exit area.

The pain in my quads and hips and groin was excruciating. I could barely walk but I knew I had to because simply stopping was dangerous. The guy who cut off the timing chip from my shoe had to lift my leg up onto the short metal bar for me. There was a queue for getting your post race photo taken. I skipped it.

I stopped at the medical tent and got some ibuprofen. I didn't expect it to help tons but I was hoping it would work enough to get me home. I could barely think clearly enough to answer their questions. The volunteers were real nice folks. Very supportive. I never appreciated it more and was less able to thank them.

Standing in the line for the food was pretty bad. I couldn't move along but standing still was not a good idea. Twice when the line started moving forward I couldn't support myself and I almost fell over onto the guy next to me.

I made it out of the section clutching a banana and some cheap sandals they gave us and the plastic blanket thing they give you to stay warm. I had to walk around the speed bumps in the parking lot because I couldn't walk over them.

My aunt and uncle were there in the family area with my sister and cousin. They said we would just go to the car and leave given the shape I was in. I just nodded and tried to keep moving. Lifting my legs, to get over the curb and into the car, was terrible to experience. I just wanted to get home and lie in bed and let this disaster of a race be over.

The Aftermath

Needless to say, I'm not very happy with my performance. I worked too long and too hard to have such a terrible result. I clearly have put in too much effort over the past year for coming in more than a full hour behind my target time and in such a crippled condition.

So what went wrong? Well, the primary problem was the pain that started in my hips and upper quads. My theory is that the efforts over the past two weeks to handle my nagging psoas injury backfired on raceday.

The psoas itself was no more of an issue than anything else when the going started to get critically bad so it seems clear our efforts with it worked. But all the effort to work on the other muscles ended up being a mistake.

Not running in two weeks probably didn't help my attempt but I don't think the layoff itself was the key issue. The problem was having these muscles tenderized and then not working them at all prior to the race. So basically I was asking them to go from nothing to the most stressful conditions imaginable - that's just too much to expect the body to cope with.

Then there was the pacing screw up. I clearly didn't have a good perspective on my condition and going out with a 7:20 min/mile pace set me up for serious problems later on. Instead, I should have gone out with at most an 8 min/mile pace or slower. The bottom line is I refused to accept my inexperience with the marathon was going to be an issue and I paid for it.

I don't know where this leaves me for the future. I'm not going to let this experience keep me from still trying to reach my goal of qualifying for Boston. It is obvious I will probably never hurt to this extreme or perform this badly in the future. But it is also obvious that I need to reassess my training and how I intend to achieve my goals.

Having fallen so far short of what I wanted to accomplish is really a crushing blow. In some ways the physical pain I am in is easier to deal with that that. But the one victory - and possibly the most important victory here - was that out of the 10,224 folks who registered to run this race, I was one of the 8,127 people that finished. And I finished under the absolutely worst conditions possible.

I don't know how I didn't give in to the very reasonable need to stop and cease the agony I endured. I don't know where I drug up the strength of will to keep running after I had pushed through every threshold of pain I possessed.

Yet, somehow, I did. I ran 26.2 miles. I am, now, a marathoner. And that's where the next stage of this journey will begin.

Start: 7:40 a.m.
Surface: concrete/asphalt
Weather: sunny
Temperature: 29 degrees
Humidity: 43 percent
Wind: 6 mph
Location: Phoenix/Scottsdale/Tempe, Arizona
Shoes: Asics

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posted by kleph @ 10:00 am |

comment posted by: Joe Gringo on january 16, 2007 @ 9:52 am
First off, congratulations, you are now a marathoner, a fairly elite group. Trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon on your first try is a very lofty goal, you did well to finish, although your time was not what you exoected, you really should be proud. As a first timer watching a marathon what struck me was the will of everyone crossing that finish line, I really could have stayed and watched the last person cross, it's not about the time, but having the will (and stamina) to finish. Good job mate, you'll make the Boston Marathon in time, take the time to pat yourself on the back........a few times.
comment posted by: Chad on january 17, 2007 @ 8:39 am
Thanks for stopping by my blog and posting a comment. Congratulations on finishing your first marathon. From reading your report, I know the end result wasn't what you wanted, but just finishing is a tremendous accomplishment. Keep pressing on toward your goals. You'll make it, and I intend to stop by your blog and check up on your progress.
comment posted by: Jeff on january 18, 2007 @ 2:27 pm
I thoroughly enjoyed yoru re-cap of your marathon experience! And thanks for the words of encouragement. I'll check back in with you after my run in June. I can't help bt echo the comments of others - don't lose sight of what you did accomplish - it just looked a little different that you expected. Good luck on your next marathon!
comment posted by: john on january 18, 2007 @ 4:24 pm
Congrats on finishing. Thanks for the words of encouragement on my blog as well. This is your first, the next one you will know more about how your body acts under that kind of stress and you can plan better. I'm not going to say that every time it gets easier because it doesn't. However each time you figure out something better to do to keep going. 4-5 hours of running is not something that is easy for anyone. Keep tri'ing
comment posted by: rdt on january 19, 2007 @ 2:18 am
Congrats for your run. I can tell you that you did an excellent job and I am sure you will make it fr Boston next time. I met people who went from 4:30 first time to 3:30 in their second one. You just started to strong.My friends were running 10 min pace and arrived in 4:30!!! Meaning, if you had started with that pace, you had passed flying the last miles and you will be under 4:00 h for sure (based on what you are telling us). GOOD LUCK on your nex marth . I had the same feeling of disappointment but not everybody would arrived dying like us.
comment posted by: runliarun on january 19, 2007 @ 11:19 am
Are you kidding? This was not a disaster, it was a victory. The fact that your wrestled with the pain makes it an even more honorable victory. You were great. Marathon running is in essence a sport of endurance, and endurance is what you manifested.
comment posted by: Wilmer on january 22, 2007 @ 11:19 pm
Thank you for your word of encouragement on your blog. You were right; our first marathon stories are very similar. The last comment was right; the fact that we finished is a victory in itself, despite falling short of our goals. Now it's just a matter of building upon our experience. I will keep tracking your progresss; let's hope that we both learn from and avoid the same mistakes on our first performances!
comment posted by: bernie on february 19, 2007 @ 1:39 am
What an accomplishment! I really hope you are proud of yourself. Not many people can say they have finished a marathon, but you did it!. I also ran the marathon, my first. My primary goal was to finish under 5:30, which I did. Again, great job! Keep Running.........
comment posted by: Kim on january 24, 2009 @ 12:26 pm
I just ran the Phoenix marathon this past Sunday. It was my first one. I trained for months, here in LA - expecting to do well on this "flat course". Your words here are so validating. Thank you! Now I don't feel like a complete failure! I had hoped to finish at 4:20 or anything close to 4:00. I finished at 4:46. Thanks for sharing your experience.
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