I want to start this report off with a little honesty: The idea of attempting a fast marathon still scares me after my experience at Shamrock in the spring of 2012. I had big goals and really put myself out there for that race, which came at the end of the strongest training cycle of my life. But on race day I crashed and burned, and it left a scar on my psyche that still lingers.
With two small children at home and a series of small injuries over the past 18 months, it’s been hard to make the commitment to train for another fast race. I am hesitant to invest myself on the front end, knowing that I won’t be able to put in the necessary mileage due to time constraints and always fearing that my injuries will flare up with the increased demands on my body. It’s easy to make excuses – I just don’t know if I’m ready for another let-down.
However, there are a lot of positives in regard to my running these days. Some of the post-Shamrock burnout and injury led me to a new approach at running that eventually introduced me to the world of ultra-distance. I love running long and slow, and I’m at the point where, if there’s a marathon in my town, I’m going to run it. I’m not worried about my time – I just want to get in the miles in a race environment.
So earlier this year I signed up for the Richmond Marathon without a real idea of how I wanted to approach it. I had a Pfitzinger training plan picked out but still wasn’t quite ready to commit to seeking a PR. But a few months later, my ultra-buddy Nebs reached out to see if I would be interested in helping him pace the 3:45 group. This opportunity would be perfect for my situation – I could run the marathon with purpose but not stress over chasing a PR. I jumped at the opportunity to add such an experience to my running resume, even though at times I questioned how easy a 3:45 marathon would be for me. I knew I could run 3:45, but I wanted to make sure I was going to be fit enough to lead the pace group without thinking about my own running.
I questioned my decision even more as I ramped up my training in the late summer. The heat and humidity crushed my paces, and I was barely getting through 14- to 16-mile runs at race pace (8:35). But I kept at it and the cooler weather finally came. About five weeks before the race I had a breakthrough run – I set out for 4 hours to see how I felt in the later miles, and ended up running almost 29 miles, crossing the marathon mark at about 3:38 and feeling energetic and happy all the way through the end. I had no more worries after this, and spent the next several weeks focused on getting in a few more long runs and otherwise resting my leg, which had grown increasingly painful. Race day finally arrived and I was feeling great.
The marathon itself was more than I could have ever hoped for. I enjoy being a part of the city’s running culture and, having been involved in some way every year since 2005, I feel an attachment to the Richmond Marathon. Serving as a pacer was a great opportunity to help other runners reach their goals, to be an important part of the structure of the race, to serve as a kind of running ambassador, and, of course, to get a free entry!
The weather was perfect, with chilly temperatures and overcast skies. I got drenched on my 1-mile run to the starting line but the rain stopped soon afterward. The starting corral was hectic as we introduced ourselves to the runners who lined up with us, answered questions and said hello to old and new friends. I hardly realized when the race began and was still holding the large 3:45 pace-group sign, which I had to quickly toss over the fence as we started shuffling off.
The opening miles were easy (of course) and from the start we were ticking them off with precision. Nebs – an old hand at marathon pacing – had put together a solid race plan for us and all we had to do was hit the marks. Once we found our pace out of the gate, it was easy for us to lock in so we didn’t have to give a lot of thought to how fast we were going. There was lots of chatter and lots of cheering. We even saw running luminaries David Horton and Bart Yasso along the way.
About 6 miles into the race I looked back for the first time and was dumbfounded at the number of people behind us. Who knows how many of them were attached to our pace group, but there was a tight group of hundreds of runners on our heels. It was a powerful feeling. The group was large for much of the first half of the race, and only started to shrink as we crossed the Lee Bridge around Mile 16.
Along the way I had the opportunity to meet and chat with several of the runners in our group. I talked with first-timers and old-timers, and a guy who had run marathons all over the world. I asked a man who was running with a photo of a serviceman on his back to tell me about him, and learned his sad story of PTSD. We saw Bart Yasso again, and then a third time, when he gave a hearty cheer to the 3:45 pace leaders.
Another part of pacing a marathon is accepting that the runners with you are in control of their own races. You’re there to set the pace, but they have to do the work. The faces in the crowd change throughout the day as runners drop off or catch up. Likewise, we got to encourage the runners that we passed, which happened more frequently as the race progressed. There were a lot of “death-marchers” as we got to the last 4 miles, but all you can do is offer a kind word and keep going. I’ve been one of the death-marchers before, and I was quickly taken back to that place as we passed them on Saturday.
The chatter in the group diminished around Mile 21 as runners grew more focused in the latter stage of the race. In a very personal moment, I saw coach Don Garber step out from the sidelines just in front of us to check in on a flagging runner, just as he had done to me in my first marathon a couple miles before I collapsed. But this was a different day, and I was still feeling great and still locked onto pace like a metronome.
The last few miles ticked by and a part of me was sad that the experience was going to be over soon. (Of course, the other part of me was ready to stop running.) As we made the last turn onto 5th Street we began to urge everyone around us to make their move. “Pass us!” “This is it – you made it!” Some people actually did speed up and pass, while others just looked forward with a dead-eyed resignation.
We crossed the finish line and immediately looked at our watches. I was amazed to see 3:44:59, while Nebs stopped his watch at exactly 3:45:00. The official race results were not as generous and gave Nebs and me a time of 3:45:02 and our fellow pacer, Michael, an official finish of 3:45:01. We got lots of high-fives and back-pats as we made our way through the finishing chute and into the post-race area. Our group came the closest to its target time of any pace group that day. We even got some very nice emails in the days afterward from folks who had run with us.
Despite my ease with the effort and the distance on Saturday, it’s pretty surreal for me to stop and ponder the idea of easily pacing a 3:45 group. When I last ran the full Richmond Marathon in 2007, I struggled mightily to run 4:07 and only dreamed of running sub-4. Saturday’s race was my second-fastest official marathon and my second official sub-4. I’ve run some faster solo runs in training this year but this was only my fourth official road marathon. Being able to pace the 3:45 group this weekend was another dream come true and a big item crossed off my running bucket list. I owe a big thanks to Nebs for hooking me up with the opportunity, and I hope to be at the starting line again next November with “Pace Leader” printed on my shirt.
After it’s all said and done, I still don’t know if I’m quite ready to make another attempt at a “fast” marathon, but this race energized me and has me looking ahead to some exciting things in late 2013 and into 2014.