The Instant Classic Trail Marathon has been on my radar since its first running two years ago. Even at that time, when I was absorbed in triathlons and not even considering marathons, the idea of a long trail race that was held in one of my favorite local parks was very intriguing. Then, on this weekend last year, I was running the Shamrock Marathon. Finally in 2013 the stars aligned and I was able to take my shot at this event.
Given my focus on ultras this season, and the fact that I only decided to sign up for this event less than two weeks in advance, I had a different set of goals for the day. The top priority would be to run it easy – to find a manageable pace and keep it there for the duration. I had no interest in racing or achieving a specific finishing time (I told my wife I expected to run about 4:30). I wanted to use the day to test out an ultra pace and nail down a nutrition regimen.
Less specifically, I really wanted to run a “fun” marathon – one in which I talked to other runners, enjoyed the beautiful course and didn’t kill myself with effort. I knew the course was challenging – it’s run completely on trails and is generally rolling with several significant hills. I wanted to challenge myself but still be able to jump back into training when it was done.
Lastly, as part of my ultra-running indoctrination, I wanted to complete this race as part of a process of mentally breaking down the aura of “The Marathon.” Now that I’m running longer distances, 26 miles doesn’t hold quite the same majesty for me as it did previously. When I think of 26 miles, it honestly seems somewhat short. But when I think of The Marathon, well, it just sounds so much more imposing. I wanted to approach this as more of a training run and get myself to move past the mental barrier of a distance that has held great significance for me in the past.
I’ll say at the outset that I nailed my goals and am extremely happy with how things played out. My finishing time of 4:06:35 reflects a pace of 9:24, a pace that I held steadily throughout the entire race. My first mile was 9:15 and mile 24 was 9:26, and just about every mile in between was within a handful of seconds of that pace (there were a few exceptions on the hillier segments where I slowed while ascending or sped up while descending).
The race: The weather on race day was just about perfect. Morning temperatures hovered in the high 40s and the sky was overcast. The rain finally started to come down as we stood at the start, and the difference between road runners and trail runners was illustrated when a guy nearby shrugged at the precipitation and gleefully said, “More mud!”
At the start the lead pack took off and I locked into my very relaxed pace. I was passed by many people and after a couple miles felt like I was in last place. I even turned around and could see no runners anywhere behind me. But I honestly didn’t care – I was here to run my (slow) race and wasn’t worried about everyone else.
The rain died down and the trail twisted, turned and climbed. We dropped into drainages, crossed boardwalks through wetlands and ascended long, steady hills. The half-marathon leaders blazed by after about 25 minutes and I briefly wished I could be one of them, running fast instead of making myself maintain such an easy pace. I eventually caught up to a few marathoners who seemed to be struggling already at mile 5, which made me sad for them. There was a lot of trail still ahead of us.
I played leapfrog with another guy for about a mile before we found ourselves running side-by-side. He looked stone-faced and serious and was breathing a little hard, and he didn’t say anything so I didn’t. But we continued to run within about 10 feet of each other, swapping places based on the terrain. Finally I said something (I don’t remember what) and he lit up like I had flipped a switch. It turns out that he was a very friendly guy who seemed eager to chat, and we ended up talking and running together for the next 12 miles. He was from North Carolina and had traveled to run his second marathon, and I got the chance to fill him in on the trails that awaited us since this park is my stomping grounds.
He was a great companion and it helped to have someone to pass the time with. We cruised along – I felt like I was gliding along without expending the slightest effort, but I noticed his breathing was elevated and his conversation wasn’t always, well, conversational. I had a feeling we wouldn’t still be running together later in the race.
There was a turnaround at mile 11.5, and for the first time I could see that I was not, in fact, the last runner. There were many people behind me. Somehow I had just fallen into a dead zone, where the fast people were farther ahead and the slow folks were a good bit behind me. In the ultra-running spirit, I made sure to speak to everyone I encountered on the out-and-back (which essentially was everyone in the race).
As my new buddy and I cruised through the halfway point, I felt on top of the world. Our time was almost exactly 2 hours, but I knew it was unlikely that I would break 4 because I wanted to keep an even effort, and I would add minutes when I would need to stop to refill my CamelBak. Even so, the running was just effortless and I was so happy to be out there. From experience, though, I know things can feel very different at mile 18 than they did at 13, so I was constantly expecting the soreness and fatigue to set in.
I stopped at 15 to put water in my CamelBak and mix in my Tailwind (which I’m completely sold on, by the way). After this, the miles just continued to float past, like calendar pages in a “time passes” montage from an old movie. I never had an instance of, “Ugh – there are so many miles left.” Even at mile 1 I thought to myself without a hint of sarcasm, “Only 25 miles to go!” I was enjoying every moment.
At mile 18 I was even able to retrieve a Band-Aid from my CamelBak and do a little first aid on a bloody nipple (a result of wet clothing from the morning’s rain) – all while I was running my steady pace.
The mile 18 fatigue did not hit. In fact, the course ran on pavement for about a quarter-mile and I naturally sped up when my feet felt that familiar surface. I lost my running companion here as I sped off (and, unfortunately, never saw him again). I was feeling amazing and pressed on toward mile 20.
Although I wasn’t tempted to walk as I passed into the 20s, I looked ahead to some hills that I knew were coming to plan a strategy. But it suddenly hit me – I was feeling strong and I had not walked yet. I had run through the water stops and up all the hills. This could be the very first marathon in which I had run the entire distance. That thought inflated me and I continued with purpose – I would not walk at all. I ran past miles 21, 22, 23 and was still awaiting that old, familiar feeling of fatigue. But it had not come yet. I was getting giddy, taking sips of Tailwind and saying to myself, “There you go, stomach!” I had never felt so good at this point of a long run.
At this point of the course, most of the big hills were done but the trail still rolled on what always seemed to be an upward incline. It was so easy for me to not stop once I had decided that I wouldn’t. I don’t know if this was a testament to my mental strength or just the fact that I wasn’t really that tired. Sure, it would have been nice to take a break, but I didn’t need to.
I was generally alone over the last 6 miles. It was a very solitary experience but the trail was so beautiful and peaceful that I never felt stressed by it. It was a very reflective time and I thoroughly enjoyed being out there. And the volunteers at the handful of water stops would absolutely erupt in cheers when I came into view, which was quite flattering as I was not sharing those cheers with any other runners. I did pass about 5 other runners during this last 6-mile loop – it was impossible to tell if they were running the full or the half – but those moments were quick and I was soon running alone again.
The last two miles passed just as quickly and I was very satisfied with things. I won’t lie – mile 25 caught up to me a bit as the course turned onto some hilly single track to finish things up. It was a little jarring but I continued to run through that and on to the finish, with a final kick in the mid-7s. I was amused to note that my finish time ended up being my second-fastest marathon by about a minute (I’ve only finished three marathons, including this one.)
Post-race thoughts: I am incredibly pleased with this race for many reasons. I stuck with my goal of running slow and steady, and was pleased to find that I could keep that pace throughout the entire distance. My fueling was spot-on. The race itself was fantastic – well organized and on a gorgeous course. It was better marked than many road races I’ve done, so even though I was alone for many miles I was never worried about finding my way.
After the race I was tired, but not sore. In fact, I reported to my regular shift at work only three hours later. The next day I felt great and completed a 3-mile recovery run without issue.
It’s nice to know that I can run – run – a marathon on training that consists of only 35-40 miles a week of mostly easy running, with long runs topping out around 13 miles. Obviously I’m not doing it that quickly – this pace was more than 2 minutes per mile slower than my goal marathon pace a year ago. But the endurance is obviously there, and that’s good news as I approach my next 50k.
Stats: 23/108 overall; 8/18 AG (30-39)