To fight my anxiety on the eve of the 2011 Fox Valley Marathon (only my second marathon ever), Becky and I rented the movie Limitless. Was hoping the title would pay off in some symbolic way. Not the world’s greatest movie by any stretch, but one minute into it I noticed that Bradley Cooper’s character was eating in a restaurant called Marathon Cafe. How bizarre.
Running a marathon on home turf where I do all my training turned out to be even better than expected. Had two consecutive nights of great sleep in my own bed and on my own pillow instead of a sleepless night in a hotel. Was able to wake up at 5:15 for the 7am start. I downed my now-standard pre-race meal of a toasted bagel smothered in peanut butter and topped with banana slices.
One final bonus of a home turf race: hitting the bathroom at home 40 minutes before the start meant I never had to step into a port-o-potty all morning.
In my ambivalent lead-up to the race, I barely checked the weather report. I did notice the night before, however, that it was supposed to be clear skies for most of the race and then start raining around 10am. I figured it wouldn’t be a problem running the last hour in the rain. It might even feel good.
But when I woke up on Sunday and headed downstairs, I could see that the pavement was already wet and it was misting. When my in-laws got there at 5:45, it was raining…even though the LIVE weather status had it as clear skies. Temps were supposed to be ideal: 55 degrees at the start and potentially climbing to 65 degrees by the finish. That sounded great to me!
As it turned out, the temps were perfect. Nice and cool, bordering on chilly but not quite. But the rain was really a pain. The gorgeous full rainbow positioned perfectly across the start line as we crossed the bridge prior to the race was just a trick because it didn’t stop raining until midnight. I will admit that it wasn’t a torrential downpour, but the waves of mist followed by steady rain were enough to soak my shoes a couple miles in. And that meant a whole lot of squishing sloshing and squeaking throughout the race. No blisters fortunately.
I pretty much got there just in time to hear the anthem, file into the corral, find the right pace group, swig some Gatorade, lather up the BioFreeze on my aching shin, and take off. Again, gotta love racing 15 minutes from home.
After bone-headed flubs with my Garmin three races in a row, I finally conquered that Achilles heel and was off. I even managed to turn it off at the right time when I finished!
My goal was to try to hang around or just in front of the 3:45 pace group for the first half and just run nice and consistent 8:30 min/miles. It looked like there were a ton of pacers with signs for just about every 5-minute increment, so that helped a lot (more on that later).
With 1,500 runners present for the full marathon, half marathon, and 20-miler, the organizers had decided to release waves of 100 runners at a time 30 seconds apart. The goal was to have the field spread out enough for everyone to fit comfortably on the narrow river path that we’d start running on around mile 5. Their plan was flawless! The runners seemed to be honest with their pacing abilities as I only saw about 25 people either pass or get passed in the entire first five miles. My compliments to all the runners on their honesty, too!
The Course and First 20 Miles
I never ran cross country, but at times it sure felt like some cross country runners helped put together the course. There were close to 20 different spots where we had to cut across wet grassy stretches between parts of the river path and various roads. It definitely made for some interesting footing at times, and I’m sure at least a few people probably fell because most of those wet grassy areas were either uphill or downhill. The course also took us across approximately 20 foot bridges which turned out to provide some nice views of the Fox River.
My plan was to run an 8:30 pace knowing most of my long runs had been done at that pace, or faster. Plus, I only needed a 9:00 min/mile pace to break four hours. Consciously holding myself back from running any faster worked like a charm. I didn’t want to blow up like I did in St. Louis back in the spring. You can see from my splits that I was still running that pace through about mile 21…which is when the engine ran dry. There were so many times that I thought to myself, “I could be running faster than this. Yeah, I could. But let’s just take it easy.”
The way that the start was handled really helped me stick to my game plan as well. Since no one else was being all pass-happy and I was clustered with a group of similar runners, we all just took to cranking out the miles and didn’t worry about keeping up or getting ahead. That helped me relax. In fact, there was a group of four people that I first spotted around mile 3 that I was still following when I hit mile 15!
I ended up skipping the first water stop and one other on the course, but took water and Gatorade at all of the rest of them while walking through. As a kid I used to be able to drink and run, but those days are long gone.
Although I regularly run on the Fox River Trail, miles 7 through 20 were on parts I’d never visited before. So while plenty of the course was familiar, it was still new enough to me at parts to give me something interesting to look at.
My father-in-law and Becky were able to make their way up and down the course really well. I think I ended up spotting them about 8 times (or even more…? I lost track) which helped a lot since they handed me my visor at mile 5 (I left it in the car at the start), gave me some more BioFreeze for my shin around mile 17, and generally seemed to be around every corner. It’s always so encouraging to see them. They would have seen me even more but for the fact that they stopped at home to check on the boys and my mother-in-law.
When we finally hit the turnaround at the very southern edge of the course at mile 13.6, I got the crowd laughing pretty good. I screamed out, “Is this where the homestretch starts and where we’re supposed to start sprinting for the finish?”
When I saw Becky at the start of mile 17, I was definitely getting tired. The rain in the middle miles had been pretty intense and my water-logged shoes kept feeling heavier and heavier. I knew I was starting to drift on my pace a bit (some 8:45’s were creeping in on miles 16 and 18). Somewhere in the middle of mile 18, the 8:30 min/mile pacer and a clump of runners passed me by. I took that as motivation to get my legs turning over faster for a bit. I ended up staying with that group for another 3 miles before finally cracking around mile 21 and watching them drift ever farther ahead.
The Final 6 Miles and Finish
While I had been keeping my 8:30 min/mile pace for the first 21 miles, I was finally gassed when I started mile 22. My legs started to lock up, and I was struggling just to keep turning them over. I wasn’t breathing very heavy like I had been in St. Louis, so I focused on just continuing to run, even if it was slower, as long as I didn’t walk. It was all the walking in St. Louis that kept me from running a sub-4-hour marathon.
I knew even if I was running 9 or 9.5 minute miles, I’d still be in good position to break four hours. However, I didn’t know that for certain yet because there were only two time clocks on the entire course (because of the rain??). Finally, around mile 22, I switched screens on my Garmin so I could know my total time. I think it showed that I still had plenty of buffer to break 4 as long as I stayed under 11-minute miles. No sweat.
Those final miles were very lonely. All the spectators had gone ahead to the finish, and there were few runners around me. Just the rain. And a waterlogged iPod Shuffle that stopped working at mile 23. That was fun… I just kept telling myself to keep running, no matter how slow and no matter how much it hurt. After all, walking didn’t feel that much better than running, so why not run?
Finally, I saw the mile 25 sign that signaled 1.2 miles to go. And there was a time clock. I knew I had like 17 minutes to cross the finish line to break 4 hours, so that was a huge relief. I also decided to finally take a non-water-stop walking break for about 30 seconds so I could recharge for a strong finish.
Again, the home turf advantage paid off. I had run that final 6 mile part of the course a couple of times before. It was comforting to know how close I was getting to the finish based on familiar landmarks, but that was a grueling 61-minute final 10k (I’ll have to work on that in the future…). Finally, the finish bridge was in site. I turned the corner for the final 0.2 miles. Some runner who had WAAAY more energy than me at that point came up behind me, slapped me on the back, and was screaming and urging me to finish strong right alongside him. I think I mumbled something back (and I hope it wasn’t rude), but there was no way I was matching his finish. He sprinted off and disappeared into the finishing crowd while I was still lumbering along. Becky got the great shot below just a few feet from the finish line.
For the past year, I’d had the goal of running a marathon in less than four hours. I just missed in St. Louis in the spring in my first ever marathon with a 4:04:53, but I finally nailed it on my second try. With a 12-minute PR, I finished with a 3:52:48!
I was hurting pretty badly when I finished and my legs were cramping up. Having worked for so many months and hours and miles to break four hours, and finally achieving it, I put on a fairly embarrassing crying performance that Becky won’t soon let me forget. I’ll have to work on that for my next finish…
Check out more of my pics from the 2011 Fox Valley Marathon.