Sunday, April 23, 2017

Pacing Blue Ridge Marathon

1993 S.F. Marathon, my 1st
It was only 5 days after my inquiry April 2 about serving as "pacer" for the Blue Ridge Marathon that I received my confirmation for the April 22 race. I was to join a team of runners with Beast Pacing and pace the 4:15 pace. That is, I would run with a small wooden stick and "4:15" on the end of it so that other runners could follow me and finish the marathon in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Truth be told, I was not 100% sure I could do it - I had only run the 10K there and had not done a marathon for a long time. What was haunting me mostly, besides the 3 large, looming ascents up to Roanoke Mountain, Mill Mountain, & Peakwood Dr to Stone Mountain, was the fact that I had "hit the wall" hard during my previous 3 marathons. My first was a full-on, I-now-cannot-run, tears-down-the-face, crying break down where I hobbled from about mile 24 to 26 with what felt like a sprint at the end at about a 12-minute per mile pace during the 1993 San Francisco marathon. I again hit the wall again in 1994 during the Inaugural Walt Disney Marathon in Orlando - and once again ten years ago during Marine Corps in Washington, D.C.

Eastern Divide Ultra 50K, 6/18/16
Then there was the Eastern Divide Ultra (EDU) 50K last year. Not only did I hit several walls, but I literally stopped running at least 7 times. Let me spell that out: Of my almost 5 hours and 50 minutes of running/hiking, I was not moving - usually just frozen in the middle of the trail moaning in agony - for over 34 minutes while I waited for my legs to start operating semi-normally. My Strava data track had my slowest mile at 14:50 but looking more closely revealed 10 times where my pace was below 25 minutes per mile.

Jump forward to the night before this year's Blue Ridge Marathon. As a pacer I had done some homework. I knew my average had to be 9:44 per mile for the whole sha-bang. Not possible to maintain that up some of those mountains. I found a neat little doo-dad online ( which allows you to create a wearable band with mile splits based on a goal, AND it provides splits customized for the course based on elevation. Golden! I was getting there with my race band showing splits ranging from 8:20 to 13:28. So the night before, seeking further inspiration, I had been following Trevor's impressive April 17, 2017 Boston Marathon run and read his insightful post-racereport. He passed on a nugget.

I had heard, but my ego had ignored, Trevor's thinking-aloud comment made back in June 2016 as I passed him going up-hill during the EDU 50K at about mile 3: "Go right ahead ... " before the very first aid station. STRIKE 1.

I heard him again at about mile 8 as a group of us were flying downhill at a 6:20 pace when he announced, "The Blacksburg blow-up is about to begin ..." Ignorance is bliss, or so my ego tried to convince me. STRIKE 2. Ah the Oracle called Trevor.

This time, somehow, I listened more carefully. He passed on a nugget from Jordan in this little quote in his post about running Boston: 
"At mile 17, I started feeling low on energy, so I double fisted a couple of gels Jordan Chang style to ensure I wouldn’t bonk." 
Now Trevor says the "wall" is "socially constructed...(and I) just don't believe it exists" he posted.  Ok I got it: a strategy for mile 17 to give my body what it needs to run continuously.

I won't bore you with trying to reconstruct the race mile by mile. Let's just say I learned a few things over this last year, and from reading that post the night before Blue Ridge. Besides the (now) obvious plan of laying out your race clothes (and dry after-race clothes in a bag) and food ahead of time, I now have the ritual of making my (1/2-sized) breakfast and coffee the night before to save time and reduce the need for early morning-thinking. Gas up the car the day before too. And go pick up your packet ahead of time and scout out a good parking spot the day before. Take care of all the details, because something unexpected will always come up and it is nice to have more capacity to take care of those.

5:00 am race-day. I am up and getting ready: 1/2 breakfast and coffee: CHECK. Planned pit stop at the Ironto Rest Area. CHECK.  First unexpected hiccup.  "Traffic delay: left lane closed ahead at Mile Marker 122" read the sign. I text the pacer organizer to let her know of a possible delay. CHECK. I still arrive a few minutes before instructions, with time to meet the other Beast Pacers for the marathon and half-marathon, and to pose for a few group photos. 39 minutes to race start.

I drop off my drop-bag at the truck, and then realize I left some of my food in my car. Oh well - make due. Caffeinated shot blocks (my coffee substitute) in hand for breakfast #2 and a spare caffeinated gel in my pocket for later. Twenty-one water/aid stations await. GU energy Gels at mile 7, 16.8, & 22.8, supposedly. Ok, ready.

Running a 4:15 marathon for some is a stretch. For others not so much. For me it was sort of an unknown. Are you sure you wouldn't rather do the 4:15? I have that open as well."  I wrote back, "Yea either 4:15 or 4:30. Whichever you need - just not 3:15." Ok 4:15 it is.

My 3:21 ten years ago on a flatter course at Marine Corps (for which I had even hired a coach and 6 months of marathon-specific training), plus ten more years of life put me in a reasonable range for pacing at 4:30 I thought, so I asked for that slot. "

My "long-runs" had not been all that long as of late. 17 miles on Dec 31. 23 miles on Jan 15. Hmm doubt was creeping in. But I had gotten in some slow Saturday 14 milers and ramped up to 65 miles 2 weeks out, leading to my taper week of under 20 miles with 2 easy, cross-training workouts early in the week. Thursday and Friday were just short walks. I even drove to work instead of bicycling to rest up. By Saturday morning my legs felt good. Even my ego was behaving.

Leading up to the race, I had also talked to a few running friends. One experienced runner, Quinn Thomas suggested I "dial in" what a 9:44 pace feels like.  On most of my runs, I ran slow and got that down pretty well. As I got closer I shared my plans more openly with a few others. 4:15 became more comfortable - more do-able in my mind. That's over half the battle I think - believing fully you can do it. But I still had "the wall" lurking - and the fear of disappointing others who might be following my little orange "4:15" sign on a stick if I fell back and did not hit my goal.

STRIKE 3 would have been not listening to Trevor again. I didn't.

I finished my caffeinated Cliff shot blocks before mile 2. I drank a few ounces at pretty much every one of the aid stations; I took a calculated gamble, and after a little skepticism of trying the course drink ("Scratch"), I continued to go for it at each station with no stomach issues. I took my emergency stash-gel somewhere around mile 11. I even gulped down a mimosa at mile 13. I was moving along, mile-by-mile, just following my GPS and my mile-split band.

At one point I passed another runner stopped on the side in agony, trying to coax his calf into submission - cramping, no doubt. I could do nothing to help except to comment, "Just stay with it; It'll pass." Kinda lame. As I continued, I was thinking about the gels ahead, as advertised on the website. The next station had none. I grabbed a big handful of gummy bears since a volunteer looked at me blankly when I repeatedly asked for a gel; I snarfed up an orange slice. A bit later a bonus station had some chocolate candy something or other. I devoured a mini Snickers at some point. 

But Trevor's (Jordan's) "double gel at mile 17" advice still awaited heeding. I resisted but secretly I had decided miles before I was going do it. But at mile 16.8 where a tableful of gels awaited,  I grabbed not 2 but 3 gels, secretly rebelling again their sage advice.

Ok, Ok, 2 gels it is.

I finished them in about 45 seconds and held onto the gel #3. I was getting tired, but feeling pretty good. My ego was not enraged. A full 2 minutes later I fully rebelled against the advice of my mentors:  I took in the 3rd gel while waiting for the cramps to start.

They didn't. Some soreness, yes, but my pacing strategy had thus far worked and I only had a few sub-9 minute miles on my legs, so I was doing pretty well. At the last food aid station at 22.8 I grabbed more gummy bears (what are the white ones?) and yet another gel. Fuel.

From gel to gel, mile by mile, I following my plan. Pacing a race is usually something you hear about for part of the race, such as in the middle or at the last part of a race to "bring em home."  I had paced Pawel  Nazarewicz for 13 miles of his 80-miler at CrookedRoad in November 2016, but until a few weeks ago when I learned about Beast Pacing, I didn't know there were pacers that ran entire races for others to follow.

Beast Pacing, Blue Ridge Marathon, April 22, 2017, Roanoke, VA

I'll do it again.

I'll pace with Beast Pacing again. I'll listen again to my running friends, and consider their advice again. There are always people around that have good advice. I'm learning to hear such advice, consider it, and make it my own so it works for me. In this case, that 3rd gel at mile 17 was my version of the Trevor/Jordan advice, and it worked. My goal for my finish was 4:14:52. With Beast Pacing instructions that "acceptable pacing is coming within 1 minute of yo
ur assigned time," I nailed it. My actual chip time was exactly that: 4:14:52 with clock time of 4:15:23.

2 (or 3) gels at mile 17. YES. Golden. Thanks to everyone for their ideas, input, encouragement, and yes, advice.

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