Friday, October 26, 2012

Grand Rapids Marathon race report: How much is mental?

After several years of running mostly 50k to 100 milers, I was eager to run a road marathon.  It had been two years since I'd run one, and even that last one two years ago wasn't a "real" try because I'd had a stress fracture and hadn't run more than 3 or 4 times in the 10 weeks leading up to the race.  I ran 3:28 there and knew I could do better with some proper marathon training.

                    Last marathon:  the Marató Costa Daurada.  It was fun!  Which I suppose in the road marathon world    
                          means I was doing it wrong.

So, going into Grand Rapids, the idea was that I would do a few track workouts but mostly use my ultrarunning fitness and increased mileage to effortlessly run 3:20, feeling stronger and stronger from mile 18 to the end.

Ha ha!  In my defense, though, I'm not sure I ever actually believed this.

My 3:20 plan got called into question when I realized that my friend Tracy had a PR of 3:18:38.  I was a little nervous about moving my goal up even further, but it was awfully tempting to try for 3:18:37--I mean, that's not that much faster than 3:20, right??  Up until a week before my marathon, I still hadn't decided whether to go for 3:18 or 3:20.  And that's when Tracy really screwed things up for me:  she ran a 3:16:20.  This was now likely to be way too fast for me, so I (mostly) set aside the goal of beating her PR and decided to stick with 3:20.  But that 3:16 stuck in the back of my head.

Training had gone well, and a bit of luck with the weather brought perfect conditions at the start, which would continue throughout the race.  The race started with a 4.5 mile loop around downtown streets, ending up back near the start line.  This loop was flat, fast, and as scenic as downtown running can get, but what I was noticing most of all was that it was HARD.  I've always heard that the first few miles of a marathon should feel easy.  This didn't feel easy.  It felt like a hard track workout, and even though I was sticking to the pace I'd done a few race-pace training runs at (just under 7:30 minute miles), my heart rate was about 5 beats per minute higher than it had been in training.  By mile 3, I was wondering if it was time to panic.

One nice thing about a road marathon, I discovered, was that it goes by amazingly fast.  Before I knew it we were at mile 8.  I wasn't feeling any better, but I also wasn't feeling any worse.  For reasons that I'm sure made sense at the time, I took this as a sign that it was safe to speed up a bit.  Everything stayed roughly the same as far as pain and difficulty, though, which was encouraging.  I was looking forward to seeing Divesh at mile 17 and getting a cup of coke from him:

                                          Road marathons can be scenic!

  I got my coke.  I spilled about 3/4 of it on my clothes, which ended up being a good thing because the 1/4 that I did drink didn't feel so good to my stomach.

Then everything started going horribly wrong.  Cramps, brain fog, nausea...I slowed down to about 7:45 or even 8:00/mile, even though the road was completely flat and perfect for running.  I was frustrated--this was mile 18, this was where I was supposed to feel strong and speed up!--but concentrated on not losing too much time and hoped that things would improve later.  In the meantime, miles 18 to 21 hurt every bit as much as the end stages of a 100 miler, and in some ways I might even say they hurt more.  My neck began to hurt intensely and I was having trouble holding my head upright; I felt like I was going to faint because I was running too fast on too little food (I ate 2.5 Gu packets during the race and threw up at least part of one of them).  I had been having a problem with my right hamstring and right hip flexor for months and they felt like jelly at this point.

Eventually I had a minor second wind and pushed to the finish for a chip time of...

...3:16:19.  Which brings me to the point of this race report:  racing is far more mental than I would have ever previously thought.  I ran what felt like my absolute best effort, but it can't be a coincidence that this was exactly one second less than the Tracy PR I had in the back of my mind.  Instead, I think my brain knew exactly how much effort I had to put in to beat that PR and calibrated all of my perception of how hard I was running to match that effort.  Maybe the one-second difference rather than a five-second difference was a coincidence, but in general I think my time was 90% mental.  In this case, that worked out in my favor:  without Tracy's PR in mind, I probably would have gone about three minutes slower.  But in other situations, that could have resulted in a slower time than I was capable of.  It's a good reminder to be aware of any mental limitations I might have subconsciously placed on a race and to be as objective as possible about how hard an effort feels mid-race...