Friday, June 1, 2012

Thoughts on Running the Vermont City Marathon

“My time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance — all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson.”
Haruki Murakami, from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I finally ran 26.2! The Vermont City Marathon was last Sunday, and your RR&RS bloggers all took part. I was particularlly excited to run the VCM for two reasons: one, I grew up in the Burlington area, and running the first few races as part of a relay team were so fun that I wanted to experience the race in its entirety, and two, I know that Burlington knows how to throw a party. And the VCM didn't disappoint on the latter! The day will filled with incredible sights that I don't have the time to list now, but short list of some of the more memorable ones were: wall-to-wall people lining the streets of the city to cheer us on, a clapping drag queen on Church Street, Eric and Mo’s wives with their “Dads of RR&RS sign, seeing a view containing both Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump at once, and lots of bands ranging from the to the country rock ensemble on North Street playing “queen of hearts” to the random guys on the sidewalk strumming their guitars or blowing hot oboe riffs.

But all that was in the future. The three of us toed the start line filled with the confidence of a good eight months of training. So good, in fact, that visions of running a 3:30 filled my head, so from the gun, I ran with that pace group, luxuriating in my tapered legs, soaking in the crowd cheering us on, and enjoying seeing some of the old sights from my UVM days (Bove's, the beautiful house of the Fiji fraternity). As we worked our way onto the Burlington Beltway – an out-and-back on a closed freeway – the running started to get serious. Still feeling good, I slowly passed the 3:30 pace group on a downhill and sunk into myself for a bit, enjoying my music and trying to ignore the annoying footing on the canted freeway. Looking back on my splits now, I was running much faster than I had anticipated, but it sure didn't feel that way – I was cruising and feeling damned good doing it.

So I was surprised when I started feeling my calves around mile 10 as we turned onto Church Street. Not good. I've experienced this before in races: the calves tighten up because of the faster pace of the race and the extra pounding on the pavement. I slowed down and tried to drag my toes a bit in an attempt to stretch out the calves as I ran, but as we started south the situation wasn't getting any better.
My own personal cheering section!

One major highlight was mile 12, where my family gathered to offer me encouragement and water. After that, after this my race went sour. I knew I was in trouble because my calves were hard as rocks and not loosening up. I was drinking lots of water and Gatorade in fear of cramps. I was stopping  to stretch the calves. None of this helped. At the half-way point, I just tried to relax and enjoy the awesome scenery of the Adaronaks across Lake Champlain, and this distracted me enough to get me to the Burlington Taiko drummers situated at the foot of the course’s major hill: the assult on Battery.  Hearing the pounding of all of these deep drums was incredibly invigorating, and fueled what was a great run up the hill: it was actually a good rest for my calves. Unfortunately, as I crested the hill and started down North Ave around mile 16, I started experiencing sharp nerve pain in my right knee.
KBVCM Splits
I toughed it out for a while, but by mile 18, I was half walking and half jogging in an attempt to mitigate what was an electric nerve pain shooting from my knee. It was occasionally so debilitating that I literally couldn't run at all. Cursing my bad luck, I sunk into a dark place within myself as I struggled to keep moving, completely ignoring  the lawn parties lining the race route as we weaved our way through the suburbs north of the city. By mile 20, I was miserable and debating giving up. People were passing me left and right, and I wasn't even enjoying the families offering me water, oranges, watermelons and, in one extreme case, small cups of beer.

The turning point was at mile 22, when a guy in an oversized foam cowboy hat passed me, smiling and having a grand old time. This finally drove home that I wasn't going to achieve the time that I expected, and just needed to relax and focus on finishing. My dirty secret is that I’m a stubborn bastard at the core, so I vowed to keep moving the best that I could and finish the race even if I needed to walk the rest of the way. I felt like DeNiro chanting "I've come too far" in Midnight Run. So I soaked my head in a garden hose sprinkler, took a bathroom break, texted my wife to let her know not to expect me until after the 4:00 mark, and figured out a way to “run” that minimized the pain. This involved pumping my arms as hard as I could, which eventually lurched my legs into motion, and I alternated between this shuffling jog and speed walking for the last few miles. For this reason, the last hour of the race passed in a delirious haze - all I really remember is the pain, my thoughts as I struggled to keep moving, and a few more memorable scenes (incredulous joking with another slowpoke that we were doing this for Michelob; the woman wearing diamond-studded Mickey Mouse ears; an annoying sign claiming that "Pain is Weakness Leaving Your Body").

I wish I could say that I crossed the finish line and felt an incredible sense of accomplishment at my time of 4:15, but honestly I was just glad that it was over. I grabbed my knees and sucked wind for a few moments, tossed back a few chocolate milks and a banana, and worked my way over to my family, where the endorphins carried me through an over-loud and overcrowded “reunion zone.” It was a hot day and my kids were overstimulated, so we didn't partake of the end-of-race scene: we took some pictures and headed to my Mom’s house for BBQ and cold Magic Hat. Is there anything better than a cold beer in the sun after a long race?

It was a long race, and one that I enjoyed overall, despite the uncomfortable finish. Reflecting upon the experience, I've been pondering which concrete lesson to take away (as Murakami suggests above), and  the major one is how humbling running 26.2 miles is. I consider myself a pretty fast runner, and yet 343 runners passed me in the last six miles of the race! Still, I finished, which I didn't believe I could do even six months ago. I'm also surprised I let ambition take over my belief that running is practice, but next time i'll be more diligent about adhering to my pacing plan - really, just looking at the marathon as another long run. And there will be a next time, because at some point, i'm taking another crack at 26.2: I want to see what I can do with a healthy knee!

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

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