Mistakes were made but goals were still attained. I think that’s the best way to look at my performance in the 2015 Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Going into the 2015 race, I had 2 primary goals. First, I wanted to run the marathon. I realize that sounds odd, but keep in mind that I still have yet to run a marathon without significant walking in the last 10K. Second, I wanted to finish in about 3.5 hours (8:00 minute mile pace). Unfortunately, I was not able to run the entire marathon distance without some walking, but I did meet my time goal.
In my previous marathon, the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon earlier this year, I arrived at the starting line significantly injured having fought off an ankle injury and a long battle with the flu only to find myself with severe achilles tendinitis the week before the marathon. That injury brought me a very painful PR, my first sub-4 hour marathon. For the 2015 Route 66 Marathon, I decided toeing the line injury free was far more important than having a perfect training log or a full race calendar.
I began training in late August for the November 22nd race. I originally wanted to run 4 times per week with 2 longer midweek runs, a shorter mid-week run, and the usual weekend long run. Strength training would be reduced to 1x per week to try to maintain as much of my upper body mass as possible (because vanity) and to build lower body strength. Because I was having trouble working the 3rd midweek run into my schedule, most weeks only included 3 training runs.
- Monday, 90 minutes
- Wednesday, 90 minutes
- Thursday, 60 minutes total body strength training
- Saturday, 13-20 miles
The 90 minute runs coincided with my daughter’s swim practice. I would drop her off at the pool and run from there to Tulsa’s trail system. Giving myself a 10 minute cushion, I would do an out and back route and whatever pace I felt like running that day. Early in the training cycle, I was often running only 8-9 miles in 90 minutes, but by the end of October, most of my runs were 10-11 miles.
For my Saturday long runs, I tried to change things up a bit as well. The biggest change was that I tried to run slower than my goal pace by 30-60 seconds per mile. To me, that approach seems counterintuitive, but people smarter than me who have run far more successful marathons than me swear by time on your feet so who am I to argue? I’m the guy doing 10K death marches at the end of every marathon to date so I thought I should take the freely available expert advice.
Divorcing my long runs from pace goals also allowed me to make some more minor changes. I frequently wore heavy trail shoes instead of my road shoes so that I could run up into Turkey Mountain as a way of getting in some extra hill training and further strengthening the lower legs. I also wore a fully loaded hydration pack on some runs (+10 lbs) but also experimented with using only handheld gel with water fountains on others. These water fountain runs finally gave me the confidence to run a race without carrying my own water.
Strength training consisted of the following exercises most weeks:
- Weighted Chinups/Pullups
- Bench Press
- Standing Dumbbell Curls
- Lateral Dumbbell Raises
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Dumbbell Front Raise
- Leg Press
- Standing Barbell Calf Raises
- Lying Leg Curl
Some of these exercises really are purely vanity. 3 years ago I was doing weighted chin-ups with 100 pounds, and my biceps were, needless to say, fairly large for my body size. Currently, I struggle to do more than a handful of chin-ups at 50 pounds. Bench press is basically the same, just me trying to maintain mass I worked hard to build a few years ago.
The rest of the exercises, I would argue, are useful to marathon training. Standing Dumbbell Curls do target the biceps, but they also hit the forearms, shoulders, core, and back to some extent. The lateral and front raises also hit the shoulders, back and forearms as well. This work can and will help maintain your arm swing through the marathon distance. Even with all of this work, I had some cramping in my forearms near the end of the Route 66 Marathon.
The leg exercises are those that I feel I can do without risk of serious injury. Unfortunately, my back continues to give me trouble with squats and deadlifts. If it didn’t, you would see both of those exercises listed here as there are few strength exercises as beneficial to overall strength and endurance as the squat and deadlift. These 3 exercises are what my home equipment allows me to do safely, without fear of injury.
The only thing all that unusual about how I do these leg exercises is the amount of weight I use on the calf raises. Assuming I’m not having any injury concerns with my calves, most weeks saw me doing 3 sets of 10-12 reps with at least 220 pounds on the bar. When you consider how much weight you want to use for calf raises, keep in mind you’re trying to launch 100% of your bodyweight with one calf while you’re running. So I weigh 165 pounds most of the time. That means the total weight I’m pushing on 2 legs is 165 lbs (bodyweight) + 220 lbs on the bar for a total of 385 lbs. Cut that in half to get the load on each calf, and you have 192.5 lbs. That means each calf is only lifting 30 pounds more than bodyweight which isn’t really that much when you consider the extra force you apply in running to counter momentum with each stride. Go heavy on your calf exercises. Your running will thank you for it.
Like I said, I wanted to keep my racing schedule a bit more subdued to help avoid injury. Missteps on the trails took their toll on me in late 2014 and early 2015, and I didn’t want to suffer any setbacks.
One thing I knew I wanted to do was test my 5K fitness if I felt healthy. With almost no speed work, I jumped into the Trojan Tough 5K at the last minute both to run with my wife and son as well as take a shot at a sub-20 minute 5K. There was a snafu in the route resulting in the race going 1/2 mile too long, but based on GPS data, I ran approximately 20:30 for the 5K.
The second goal was to do a marathon dress rehearsal by running a local half marathon. I ended up running the Jenks Half Marathon here in Tulsa 2 weeks prior to the Route 66 Marathon. My goal was to run 7:30 minute per mile pace or better using handheld gel with water stops as my fueling and hydration strategy. I ended up running a 5 minute PR of 1:34 which is around 7:10 pace.
This more minimal racing strategy basically worked. I may have missed one goal time, but both times I ran pointed to 3:30 being attainable while at the same time giving me the all important race day rehearsal that helps limit mistakes heading into a big goal race.
For the most part, I made it through training injury free, but I was constantly battling what I believe to be Hamstring Origin Tendonitis in my left leg. At the outset of every run, the dynamic stretching I do for my hamstrings would reveal tightness at the top of the hamstring that was never present in my right leg. During training runs, pain would show up if I tried to run too fast or climb too many hills. Because of the condition, I had to give up on hill training after my first attempt in early October. I also avoided speed work and limited tempo runs.
Pacing…why is pacing so hard for me? I’m getting better and occasionally have races where the pacing works out, and I’m still strong but tired at the end, but those races are usually shorter than marathon distance. At every marathon so far, I’ve crashed and burned somewhere in the 18-20 mile range.
Based on my experience using water stations at the Jenks Half Marathon, I knew I would need to walk some stations to be able to stay hydrated. I just couldn’t get enough fluid if I ran through every station. I sweat a lot, and a few ounces of water every 2 miles doesn’t get the job done. My assumption was that the 3:30 pacer would run most of the water stops so I wanted to set out at a slightly faster pace and let them catch me somewhere in the final 10K.
Much like the OKC Memorial Marathon earlier this year, my goal was to average 7:45 minute per mile pace as long as possible. If I had any gas left at the end, I could switch gears and start running 7:30 or faster. If I was spent, the 3:30 pacer would catch me, and I would try hard to stick with him.
Of course, there’s race strategy and then there’s…
All race days start for me about 3 hours prior to leaving the house for the race. With a race in downtown Tulsa at 8 am, that meant getting up at 4 am to be out the door by 7 am. The purpose of this long, excessively early morning is to make sure my stomach is settled and ready for the race. During that time, I eat the most bland breakfast you can imagine (hello canned chunk chicken and corn chips), hydrate, prepare my race fuel, double-check all of my gear, and waste a bunch of time watching television. After 2 1/2 hours of trying to stay awake, the last 15 minutes before I leave the house are complete chaos as I try to shower, dress, and get out the door to the race.
We left the house a little later than planned, but with my wife and son having done the 5K on Saturday at the same start time, we felt pretty confident about the timing. My wife’s work parking lot is across the street from the Corral D entrance with no road closings in between it and the highways so we don’t have to hunt downtown parking on marathon day.
With the weather forecast showing temperatures just below freezing at the start, I didn’t mind getting there pretty close to starting time so I wouldn’t have to wait in the cold as long. As it turns out, I barely had enough time to use the facilities, walk to Corral A, stretch, and work my way up to the 3:30 pacer for the start.
As I’ve said in the past, cold is not my friend. I know I run faster in 40’s and 50’s, but I don’t like running in the cold. I would choose slower times over colder weather any day of the week. As a spectator for the 5K Saturday, I was dressed in 3 layers head-to-toe, and I was struggling. Granted, there was a stiff wind, but the temperature was actually slightly warmer than what was expected for the start of the marathon.
Fear of how I felt watching the 5K prompted me to try hand warmers for the first time at the marathon. I think this is the only time I’ve tried something new on race day that wasn’t a disaster. The hands I could barely feel inside gloves on Saturday were relatively comfortable for the entire race Sunday, and for the most part, my body was never cold.
The rest of my gear for Sunday included:
Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, I spent a lot of time fretting over whether or not to wear tights. The forecast called for sunny and low-40’s by about halfway through the marathon so I decided to leave them at home and just run faster if I was cold at the start. That turned out to be a good decision as around mile 8, I almost warmed up too much. Tights would have overheated me in that section if I had worn them.
With what I was wearing, the first solution was uncovering my ears with the skullcap. It’s amazing how much heat you can dissipate by exposing your ears. When I warmed up a little more in the sun, I took off the skullcap, but those were my only temperature adjustments. The gloves and hand warmers stayed on throughout the race. I noticed some other marathoners dropped their hand warmers shortly after passing the halfway point, but they were obviously running faster than me and generating more heat.
So back to the starting line. I was about 1/4 of the way back in Corral A, positioned about 15 feet to the West of the 3:30 pacer, stretched, and ready to run. I had my Garmin on and prepped so I just had to hit the start button to begin tracking and pacing the marathon. When the gun went off, I crossed the first timing mat and clicked the Garmin’s start button. Seeing as I often mess up when I start my watch, I looked down again quickly to double-check it was tracking. The clock was going, but the pace and distance were doing nothing. I ran a bit and looked down again…nothing.
Knowing my pace was very important to my race plan, I decided to restart the activity tracking on the Garmin. How I managed to stay on my feet while I ran among all of those people, I have no idea. For my trouble, I was rewarded with…nothing. And as a software developer and general tech geek, I’m embarrassed to say that was the extent of my troubleshooting. Why didn’t I power cycle my stupid Garmin? Why? I made the decision not to stop and not to keep fiddling with the technology and just run my race.
By that time, my eyes had been down on my Garmin for a 1/4 of a mile or more. Runners were streaming past me because I was running slower than I intended coming out of the starting line. I had no idea where the 3:30 pacer went. I didn’t see him in front of me, and in the one glance I took behind me, I didn’t see him either. My Garmin failed, and the pacer was not within sight. All I had left was to run as close to 7:45 pace as I could and stick to my plan.
Within 2 miles, I saw the time and realized I was ahead of the pacer, but even though I may normally be pretty good at math, my run brain consistently fails 1st grade math. I tend to round everything to even numbers so dividing time by number of miles doesn’t really work out well for me if I’m targeting 7:45 instead of 8:00. I did find a runner I knew around mile 3 and found out I was probably doing about 7:30, and I would occasionally ask a runner with a watch what we were running, but it’s still hard to maintain without being able to check the watch a couple of times every mile.
On top of pacing issues from not having a watch, you have all of the hills. It seems strange to say Route 66 is a hard course when I know there are much harder courses out there, but in terms of major marathons, it’s more NYC and less Chicago in terms of overall elevation changes. Unlike NYC, Route 66 goes up and down more frequently to smaller degrees.
I’m not sure how you are supposed to run a steady pace when you’re never running level. My calves view hill climbs as a personal affront. If I’m not tired or hurting, it’s hard for me to ascend any slower than I run in the flats. At the Jenks Half Marathon 2 weeks ago, I went from a 7:30 mile mostly flat and downhill to a 6:45 mile mostly uphill at mile 6 of the race. That’s normal for me. On a short hill, I will often accelerate as I climb. It’s not the best way to extend my endurance, but it’s what my legs tend to do.
What goes up must come down, and I don’t think I notice descents in any race as much as I do Route 66. For two years now, I’ve run descents with the intent of sparing my quads because I’ve blown them out braking on downhills in other races. That means I try to run with gravity as long as gravity doesn’t force me to spin my legs so fast that I run out of breath.
Between climbing and descending, I’m often running a 7:45 climb into a 7:00 descent. It’s tough to get into any sort of rhythm on your pace under those conditions. I could tell I was all over the place because I was trading positions with many of the same runners repeatedly throughout the first half of the race. It’s obviously something I need to practice more.
I ended up running the first half in 1:38:14, the 2nd fastest half marathon I’ve ever run. That’s 7:30 pace, exactly what I didn’t want to do in the first half of the marathon. 15 seconds per mile doesn’t seem like a lot, but for where I am in my fitness, it’s huge.
Needless to say, I was concerned heading into the 2nd half of the marathon, but I felt really good. I knew I needed to get more water, but other than that, my legs were basically happy (excepting my injury), I wasn’t tired, and everything was generally working.
After the half marathoners peeled off toward the finish line, I started walking the aid stations to get more water. Other than that, I still kept my pace under 8:00 minutes even with walking the aid stations.
At 16 miles, I knew I was fading a bit, but my body was fine so I didn’t change anything.
At 18 miles, the wheels came off. My minor injury announced itself in a big way. I was coming down a hill and making a left turn to head North toward the University of Tulsa. My hamstring cramped severely right at the point of the injury. Honestly, I thought I might be done, but I cramped at OKC earlier this year due to injury, and I knew it might be possible to work through it.
Camber…when I cramp, that’s my first thought as to a solution. You can often run the camber in a way that will minimize the cramping if it’s only on one side. I tried running with the left leg higher, and it got much worse. I then hopped to the other side of the centerline and ran with the left leg lower. Yahtzee! I could run. There was the constant feeling of impending doom screaming from the top of my leg, but I could run.
My success was somewhat short-lived. I came out of the University of Tulsa headed South for the dreaded turn onto Cherry Street for two of the last and biggest hills. I had to walk a bit due to my injury, but for the most part, I was running.
I came up on a marathon maniac who pulled up with visibly severe cramps. I apologized and asked if he was alright. I knew the answer because I’ve been there before and was already battling the same thing. Another 1/4 mile down the road, and it was my turn. My other hamstring cramped.
Here I was, past 20 miles, right at 7:45 minute per mile pace, and I was cramped in both legs with the single worst 1 mile section of race ahead of me. Needless to say, there was a lot of walking, but I knew my family was waiting on those hills, and I hoped a quick breather and some water with them might get me going again.
I did a lot of high-stepping over the next 1/2 mile to try to stretch my hamstrings out without stopping my forward progress. I would run a bit and feel alright, and then they would seize up again. I knew from experience not to push them too deep, or the cramp would be so severe I’d be like Baghdatis trying to beat an aging Agassi at the US Open (yeah, tennis reference…get over it…life before running…click the link and watch the video).
When I got to my family, the 3:30 pace group finally caught me. There was no way I could go with them. They were cruising at about 8:00 pace, and I could barely walk, much less run. They were a little early, though, so I held out hope I might still be able to get in at 3:30 but at least under 3:40. For some reason, staying in the 3:30’s was important to me. I don’t even remember why.
After my family cheered me up, I was able to run quite a bit, but I would still walk a lot and stretch out my hamstrings as I went. The one time I got up a decent head of steam, we turned West into downtown Tulsa, and a 30 mph headwind gusted out of nowhere. The next turn was a short distance ahead so I walked to the turn and started running again.
That’s pretty much how it played out in the final 5K. It was a rough way to achieve my marathon time goal, but I’ll take it.
- Overall: 145th out of 2,590
- Division: 22nd out of 192
- 10K: 45:52
- 10M: 1:14:05
- 13.1M: 1:38:14
- 20M: 2:34:58
- Chip Time: 3:35:32
- 8:14 mile pace
So the marathon puzzle remains complex and elusive, but there are thousands in every race that would kill for a 3:35 finish.
In my 2013 Route 66 Marathon Race Report, I somewhat prophetically said that mid 3’s might be possible before age catches up with me and posed a question to myself….do I want it enough?
Let’s double-down. I might be able to cut my first marathon time of 5:55 in half before age catches up to me. Just in case you’re running and struggling with the math, that means sub-3. The only question is…do I want it enough?