If you know me personally, or noticed the links on this Website, you know I’ve been getting revved up to run the New York Marathon for many months now. I kind of slid into the training sideways… waited too long and then did some cross training, bought a wet suit, and participated in a couple triathlons. By the time I realized I would ideally be running 15 miles on the weekend, time had slipped away, so I ramped up way faster than the conventional wisdom says you should.
That’s my weekly mileage from the end of June to the middle of August… a steady increase to get me back to used to running longer miles. I do not recommend this as a good strategy for increasing your mileage. It worked for me because that came just a couple months after the Pittsburgh Marathon, so I was still in pretty good shape.
While I was getting the weekly miles up, I was also extending my weekend long run. It took me three tries before I managed to bag my first 20 mile run of the season. For the first attempt, I was running at a mile elevation and my pulse just wouldn’t stay down. The second attempt saw me trying to run 20 miles on a very full stomach (short rib, gravy, eggs, and a pancake). That didn’t work! Third try was the charm, and after that, there was no looking back. The next week was Reach the Beach, and then a week later Claire and I went out for a 23 mile jaunt through the New Hampshire forests along a rail trail. She rode her bicycle and carried water and snacks, I rocked the kilt from J Walking Designs. Teamwork!
The 23 miler was probably my best run of the training season. I kept the pace around 10:14, which is 44 seconds slower than my goal for New York. The last couple of miles I kicked it up a notch, and managed to finish the run with an average pace of 10:02. Not bad! No real soreness, no problems… and with six weeks to go before New York, I was feeling pretty good about my stated goal (run New York under 4:10:00).
But that left one long training run, scheduled for three weeks before New York. I had a choice here. I could go for another slower-than-race pace run, keep it around 10:00 per mile, or I could run a marathon. Why not?! The Baystate Marathon is a race held in Lowell, MA. One of their claims to fame is this is a race put on by runners for runners, with a strong showing of people who are going to try to qualify for Boston. It’s a fairly flat course with slow rolling hills. Because the race is in October, it’s after the weather starts to cool (when you’ve been doing all of your training in the warmer months of the year).
Around the same time, a friend told me that Strava and New Balance teamed up and offered a free pair of shoes to anyone who could run negative splits in the marathon. What does that mean? It means you run the second half of the race faster than the first half of the race. I like New Balance shoes; they’re one of the brands I regularly run in. I signed up for Baystate, and I opened a Strava account.
The morning of October 16 rolled around, and I woke with plenty of time to grab the breakfast of champions (Sausage McMuffin with Egg) and head down to Lowell. The morning was quite cool, around 42 degrees, but dry, and the sun was starting to peak over the buildings by the time I made my way to the starting line. I found a sun beam to hang out in, and was grateful that I had brought an extra long-sleeved shirt. I met up with Rob, and we found our way to the 10:00/mile pace sign in the starting corrals. My goal was to go a little faster than that, his a little slower. We sang the anthem, and the race started. Rob shook my hand, and we headed out, quickly separating as we both ran a disciplined effort.
My goal? 9:49/mile for the first 13.1 miles, then gradually pick up speed in an attempt to bring it close to my goal pace of 9:31/mile.
Why 9:49? That was my average personal best going into Baystate. In Pittsburgh, my average pace was 9:49, so I felt comfortable saying I should be able to do that without too much effort. I had practiced running 9:49 all week, going for runs around the office at lunch where I would try to hit that pace exactly. It’s hard… especially when hills make the effort harder and easier as you go up and down. But I worked at it, and was doing pretty well. I also knew I was going to take a pit stop, having hydrated just a little too much before the race. At every water stop was a port-a-jon, and there were lines at each of them. I passed them, not wanting to waste precious seconds waiting for someone to finish their business. Finally, at about 8.7 miles into the race, I came upon a jon with no line. As I pulled up to the door, the previous occupant came out, and I was able to finish my business without too much delay. That mile of the race ended up being clocked at 10:20, so for mile 10 I sped it back up a little bit to get back to 9:49 average pace. I held that until the 13.1 mile marker, and when I looked at my watch, I was pleased to see that I was perfectly at goal pace for the race thus far.
I was feeling great, too. My form felt good, my feet light, breathing easily, and my pulse had been hovering around 160 for the last hour, which is pretty good for half way through a race. I gently increased my speed so I was running roughly 9:30 per mile, and held that easily for several miles. When we got to mile 20, I smiled as I ran over the graphic on the course that showed the proverbial “wall” being broken through. What wall? My nutrition plan was sound (I had taken on 600 calories in food plus whatever else was in the Gatorade at the hydration stops), and I was feeling good. Hardly racing, more just like running. Mile 21 went down smoothly, too.
In the next mile, my calves started to twinge. If you’ve read my other marathon posts, you know this isn’t new to me. I get calf cramps at the end of marathons. I was hoping that proper hydration, plenty of electrolytes, and good nutrition would push me past this ugliness. Instead, I could tell that pain was coming. Little twinges started in both calves, up and down the calf. Not pain, but a harbinger of things to come for sure. Distracted, I accidentally ran mile 22 in 9:18. Too fast! I’d pay for that soon.
I learned in Pittsburgh that I could run or hobble through calf cramps with the same result… either way, the pain would be there for a while, and then it would subside. It didn’t seem to subside faster with one tactic or the other, so I knew coming into this race that I would not walk a single step, that if calf cramps came, I’d run through them as best I could. That strategy seemed to work for me in mile 23. I cramped pretty hard, and managed to run/hobble through it pretty well. I finished the mile in 9:45. I was worried… three miles to go. I was hanging onto negative splits, but I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. I also knew that without negative splits, there would be no PR this race.
So I chose to persevere. I’ve written about pain before, and I’ll do it again. I don’t know, there’s something special about distance running and endurance athletes. We are a unique brand of crazy. The next three miles were a series of increasingly painful cramps that traveled all over my calves. I used to think of a calf muscle as just a muscle. Now I think of it as a dozen distinct zones, any one of which can feel like it has a flaming ice pick embedded in it at any given point. When you run through the pain, you look a little bit like Pinocchio, but if you have no strings, you might as well run. And so I did. I’ll spare you the details. In a nutshell, mile 24 was completed in 10:03. Mile 25 in 9:38, and mile 26 was run in 10:31. By this last mile, I was crying out a little bit with every step.
I wonder what it was like to be a spectator near the finish line and see this 45 year old man come hobbling up. I was definitely “running,” but in a way that would cause you to question whether my joints worked properly, and based on my cries, I’m sure you’d question my sanity. The look on my face? Agony. Apparently this is inspiring… I don’t know that I’ve ever received more encouragement from the spectators at a race. “You can do it!” “Hang in there!” “Almost there!” Nobody would lie to me and tell me I was looking good, strong, or fast… but still, lots of kind words directed my way. And then, the final mile marker, and only 0.2 miles to go. I ran/hobbled this as fast as I could, just over two minutes, and I crossed the line.
As soon as I stopped running, my calves exploded.
Well, that’s what it felt like. The muscles in both legs seized violently. I started screaming as I tried not to fall down, yelling, “It hurts! It hurts! Oh no, oh, no, it hurts!” By this time, a nurse and an EMT had grabbed either arm and were trying to figure out what was wrong with me without letting me fall down. My calves were constricting so hard that I felt like a ballerina with my feet pointed. Once the nurse figured out it was cramps, she and the EMT kept me vertical and started moving, forcing me to take steps.
Yeah. Walk it off, tough guy.
About an hour later later, the calves had released enough for me to remember to check my watch. I had forgotten to stop it. So I pushed the button, which is the only reason I know that it wasn’t really an hour, it was only three minutes. What a baby! The EMT kept hold of my arm while I hobbled over to collect my medal. An endorphin rush was starting to kick in and do its job. My calves felt like they’d been stabbed repeatedly, but they weren’t threatening to pitch me face first on the asphalt any more. I collected my medal, got the obligatory “selfie with a stranger who just gave me a medal” picture, and started to wobble towards the refreshments.
I somehow missed the space blanket give-away, and I was starting to get cold so I headed towards the medical tent to pick one up. Just as I got there, my calves did it again. I think I may have uttered an expletive this time… not really sure. But the EMTs from UMass Lowell caught me, kept me from falling, and somehow managed to get me to walk through it again. I’m not ashamed to admit I wept a little (if one can use the phrase “a little” to modify the word “wept”). Once again, a gradual release. I quit screaming. I started breathing normally.
I decided to hang out with them for a while in case a third round came up. It very nearly did, but I managed to stretch the calves a little, and fortunately, that was the end of that. I went and grabbed a selfie with the time clock (the clock operator said I was the only selfie of the day – weird), then found Rob for our customary post-race pic.
The next couple of days were pretty epic. Monday was rough, but by Tuesday I was very sore. As the day wore on, my calves became more and more tender, my limp more pronounced. By this point, I was seriously worried about whether or not I had damaged my muscles in a way that would impact New York. When I woke up Wednesday, I remembered that I own a pair of CW-X recovery tights. I limped to the drawer, found the tights, and limped back to the bed. Put the tights on. Limped down stairs for some coffee. By the time I was done with my coffee, I was moving a lot better. Within the half hour, the limp was gone. I didn’t run that day, but I did walk a lot, and without a limp. Heck, since I had taken the day off, I even put siding on the back side of the barn.
I would have liked to have taken 4.5 minutes off my PR, but I will settle for the 1:58 I achieved. I don’t know if I am capable of running a marathon in under 4:10 in New York, but I am going to give it a try.
Until next time,