Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Race Report: 2013 Colorado Marathon

Setting low expectations is, in general, not a particularly good idea. I’m a firm believer that stretch goals push one to closer to reaching their full potential and that as much as possible, a goal should be near the edge of what one thinks one can accomplish.

My plans for this year’s Colorado Marathon, however, were a notable exception to this philosophy. Had I not injured myself back in January, and had that injury not lingered for several weeks to follow, I might be writing a much different report today.

But those things did happen and I had to adjust my expectations accordingly. In 2006 as I prepared for the Rock-N-Roll San Diego Marathon, I had racked up about 430 running miles of training. This year, going back to October, I had only hit 297 miles and there was a large gap the covered around four and half weeks with absolutely no running at all.

With that as my backdrop, I was actually considering dropping out of the race or perhaps changing my distance to the half marathon. This somewhat pessimistic post more or less conceded that I would not be doing 26.2. But, as I have documented extensively since, I had an epiphany of sorts when I determined that I could still walk a great deal of the race and finish with a reasonable time.

All of this lead me to hope for a time of around 5:03 which would be only a tad slower than my 2006 time.

The rest of this story begins at 3:00 am on Sunday morning. Yes, you did read that correctly: I said 3:00 am. I had to be up that early because busses taking racers from downtown Fort Collins to the starting line in the Poudre Canyon started leaving at 4:00. Given the time I needed to dress, eat something and then drive from my parents’ home in Greeley, 3:00 was about the latest I could get up. Ending the day with a DNF because I could not finish the race is one thing; having a DNS because I MISSED THE BUS was completely unacceptable.

Despite the early hour, I felt reasonably well-rested. I had forced myself out of bed at 6:00am on Saturday just to make sure that getting to sleep that evening would be easier and it worked. I was asleep by 9:00 that night. Six hours is not a lot, but it was enough.

Upon arriving at the downtown city parking garage, I encountered more charter busses than I’ve ever seen in one spot. They were scattered about all over, on adjacent blocks, in front the main municipal building, you name the spot, and there was a bus. When I say charter, I do mean charter, not a fleet of school busses. These were the real deal, luxury coaches with soft seats and plenty of leg room. I ended up riding with a guy named Brian who was clearly in class well above mine. He discussed ambitions to Boston-Qualify and was planning to use this race as a recon in case he decides to commit to that goal. That makes sense because according to their own website, the Colorado Marathon has about 20% of its finishers reach the BQ standard.
Of course, I had no such ambitions, but I enjoyed our ride up the canyon and we had a good chat trading marathon war stories. Runners, I find, are generally a congenial group of people. If this had been cyclists…weeellll….

Getting to the bus departure early gave me peace of mind. But it also meant that I was dropped off at the Stevens Gulch picnic area at 5:00, a full ninety minutes before the start. And it was dark and cold. This shot is shortly after I arrived. That’s a crescent moon near the center. It was really that dark up there.

Another benefit of arriving early (I was on the third bus to arrive) was no line for the porta-potties. That turned out to be a huge benefit because as more and more busses arrived, the line got longer and longer. Typical of any race, there were people still there when the gun went off.

Of course, the sun did rise and with about 20 minutes to go until the start, I handed in my gear bag with the clothing and other items I did not plan to have with me on the run.

Given how cold it was and my desire to have a handy place for my phone and nutrition, I opted to keep my running jacket on. Besides, it was still cold (low 40* range I would guess) and I wanted to keep my upper body warm. A single UPS truck was assigned to the task. I would not have thought that would be enough (there were 1700 people registered for the full) but it was. A gear check is really essential in any long race, especially when the temperatures are low and you need to keep warm clothing with you as long as possible. Tasking a shipping company like UPS or FedEx with this task just makes sense.

I hate waiting around before a race as much as anyone, but even in the chilly air, this hour and a half seemed to go by fairly quickly. There was minimal fanfare at the start and before long, we were underway. This is what it looks like when 1700 people start a race in the Poudre Canyon:

I positioned myself between the 5:00 and 5:15 pace groups. I figured that was about where I belonged.

There was the usual slow moving pack as people got up to the line before they began running, but I did not mind. There were 26.2 miles ahead of me and a few seconds really were not going to matter.

This race used bib-based timing tags and I have to say it was a nice change from having to attach a chip to my shoe and worry about it falling off. I predict that more and more running races will continue to adopt this technology. Tri’s are another story. You really can’t swim with a bib on!

I was a little slower than I planned during my first couple of miles, but I attributed that mostly to being a in a pack. As it thinned out, I started running a little under 10:00 pace. The first aid station is at this iconic tunnel. We were about 2.5 miles in now:

These shots are a bit on the blurry side, but I was not yet at a walk break and I wanted to stay as true to my race plan as possible.

I grabbed a cup and kept on moving en route to my first walking stop after four miles. When I reached it, I thought about going on to five, but I decided I needed to stick with my plan. There were over 22 miles to go and my long runs from training informed me that I was going to be very sore and tired before this was all over.

So walk I did and I seemed to be about the only one. People passed me frequently but I gave it no thought. I was still moving.

When I reached the five mile mark, I was moving again and the next four miles were much like the first four. I felt a bit tired at this point, but basically pretty good. Going down hill but on a gentle grade is really nice. Your legs feel better and the cardio never really spikes. I stayed in my Z2 range during this entire time and even recovered into Z1 on the walk breaks.

Upon reaching the 10 mile mark it was time to run again and this was going to be my first real test. I had done a long run a couple of weeks earlier and struggled from the 10 mile mark onward. This was, in large part, due to the fact that I was running up hill. My home in Parker sits at over 6000 feet, higher than most of the town so I almost always end up running up hill to go home. Now I was going down and it was actually going well. While my plan called for a pace of about 10:30 through these miles, I ran under 10 on each of them.

The scenery, as it always is in the Poudre, was great. No industrial parks, Section 8 housing projects or blighted land on this course. Nope. Most of it looked like this:

Peaceful and serene. There were a few cars going up and down the canyon and a few cases where one lane of traffic had to yield to the other, but it actually was going smoothly and no one honked in anger, made obscene gestures or otherwise behaved like a jackass. The State Patrol was also running a couple of motorcycles up and down the highway and signaling runners to stay to the left of the cones that were placed at about halfway through the uphill lane.

The biggest problem I had through this stretch was the banked curvature. For any readers not familiar with canyon roads, they are built with a bank on steep curves. It’s not as dramatic as what you might find on a NASCAR track, but the same principal applies. It’s not the kind of thing you notice when driving, but you definitely feel yourself running at weird angles. Fortunately, as the curve begins to straighten out, the bank eases back to flat as well.

Shortly after the picture above, I reached the mouth of the canyon. It was now a couple of miles beyond the half way point. The final stages of the race were in sight and I was happy about this:

As you can see, I’m still wearing my jacket. It was still cool and now a breeze was blowing. Given that I was also walking some, it made sense to keep it on and stay warm.

The last section of the course that follows Colorado Highway 14 is a straight and mostly flat section that eventually intersects with US 287. I say mostly because there is a gradual hill on the last mile or so of 14. Along here, I did manage to see my dad who was volunteering for the race as one of the communication coordinators (he’s a Ham Radio operator). That was necessary because most of the canyon does not have cell phone service.

The climb out of Highway 14 continued as I headed south on 287 before finally flattening out. It had been 3 miles since my last walk break, but I decided to take one here. The climbs as well as the overall distance were taking their toll. What’s more, the next 1.2 miles or saw would see the biggest hill on the course. Known as Bagel hill for a guy who used to hand them out to runner, this one is about a 2.5% grade for half a mile. It’s also at mile 19 near the traditional “wall” for marathoners. I saw no need to burn myself out running up this one so I walked it until I had clearly reached the crest and then enjoyed an easy run down the back side, headed toward the town of Laporte.

Now I did two more miles before the next walk break. Running was getting harder and harder. I tried not to look at the distance on my Garmin, but it sure did seem to take a long time to reach the mile markers. Right around the start of mile 22, you are off the road for the duration of the race and on the Poudre River Trail which is an extensive bike path.

A short while after joining the path, you are on the same stretch of path used by the Horsetooth Half Marathon. The last time I was on this stretch, I was suffering the results of the first 9 miles of that race. While I was certainly in even more pain now, my outlook was better. It was clear that I was within striking distance of my PR. The faster than expected times in the early miles plus my first two walk breaks being about 90 seconds ahead on each, put me in far better shape than I expected.

This bridge (the picture is only part of it) is another scenic icon of the race. However, it bounces so if your rhythm is not in sink with the bounce, you could end up coming down kind of hard. I walked it and was happier for it.

I ran mile 23 but that would be my last full mile of running. I reached mile 24 and walked for a half, then ran the second half. Then I ran from 25 to 25.5. Now I was within striking distance and I liked the time I was seeing on my watch. I knew I would hit the sub 5:00 mark and I didn’t much care how far below that I went. I also had about 0.35 miles of drift between my watch and the course markers. Around 25.8, I started running again. The path runs directly to Linden Street. Make a left and you end up at the New Belgium Brewery, makers of Fat Tire along with several other fine beers. Turn right and you’re headed toward Old Town Fort Collins which is their downtown, pedestrian mall area.

This last stretch was further than I thought it was going to be but off in the distance I could see the blue finish arch. This is the point in the race where the sore muscles and exhausted cardio-vascular system are overwhelmed by the momentum and the desire to finish. Along orange crowd-control fences were throngs of spectators (even at this late stage of the race) all cheering. I stepped over a timing sensor and moments later the MC was announcing my name and home town and encouraging everyone to cheer me on—which they did enthusiastically. Everyone deserves such an ovation after completing such a task. My time across the line was 4:55:48. That was a PR by more than 5 minutes!

My Highlights and Low Lights

With a finishing time that was a PR, I was delighted. Scarcely more than a month earlier, I had resigned myself to not doing this one, only to not only finish, but beat the time I ran seven years earlier. I also stayed true to my plan except when exceeding it. Better still, the injury that prohibited so much of my training was hardly noticed. I felt a little pain early on but most of what I feel today is the normal sore muscles and ligaments that follow running so far for so long. The only low light was the fact that had I been able to train the way I intended, I think I could have cracked 4:30. I’m not dwelling on that, however.

The Race Review:

Next Time
Start Area Wait. I hate to offer a criticism when I don’t have a clear solution, but the start is a little problematic. I love that you get to run down the Poudre and the Stevens Gulch area is more than able to accommodate everyone. However, it if had been wet or windy, a mere annoyance could have resulted in people suffering hypothermia before the race even started. Perhaps the organizers already have a contingency for this. Perhaps not. Either way, they should.

Porta-Potties. You really can never have enough. Though the start area had something on the order of 25-30 units, that number probably should be increased by 10 or so. Making people wait in the line for 30 minutes or more is never a good experience. I was spared, but only because I arrived so early.

Course Maps. Like other events, the organizers should make use of one of the various online mapping tools out there. The fairly crude and basic map that is on the website gets the general idea across, but there are so many other, more detailed options available.

The Good.
There’s a lot more right with this race than wrong. Like other events that have been going on for several years, the collective knowledge that follows makes the experience good for everyone.

Course. Fantastic. Beautiful scenery from start to finish. Every mile was marked with a big banner and there were no confusing turns or twists. Anyone who is doing their first marathon should think about this one because the course is so forgiving.

Support. This was really well done. Porting bags from the start to the finish was easily accomplished with a bib tear-tag and a zip tie. UPS knows how to move things from one place to another and I had no problem getting my bag after the finish. Aid stations were adequately stocked with water and Gu Brew (as well as Gu gel at a few) and volunteers were standing with multiple cups to hand off. I ran through all of the stations with no problem.

Volunteers. They are the backbone of any event and these were world-class. My dad (a multi-year volunteer himself) noted that the people who do this event are always excited to come back. Whenever you run a race, thank a volunteer. They’re awesome and we’d all be resigned to training runs without races were it not for them.

Results.  Timberline Timing handles this race and they just seem to keep getting better. The decision to use bib-based timing is a good one. In addition, the finish area had a tent with laptops available for folks to look up their times. They even put visors over the screens since some of them were facing the sun. A couple hours after finishing, I got an e-mail with my complete results. This is all really fantastic. Why more races can’t execute on this critical function is a mystery to me.

Finishers Medal. Since this is the Colorado marathon, it seems only fitting that the strap is a series of state flags. The medal itself is a big sucker, far more than some of tiny little spoon-sized hardware I’ve seen from other races.

Post Race. The Old Town area is a really good place for all of this. Soon after leaving the immediate finish line area, I arrived at a tent set up by Whole Foods where volunteers were serving steel-cut oatmeal garnished with almond milk, brown sugar and berries. It really hit the spot and was far more palatable than some post-race fare like burritos which are probably too much for a sensitive stomach. After enjoying my oatmeal, I headed into a beer garden area for another reward:

Back at my parents’ house, my dad asked if I would do this one again. At the time, moving much of any direction was causing me a lot of pain. It’s hard to think about next year when this year was so hard. However, if I can train without hurting myself, I’d like to go back and get that 4:30 time. To be sure, that is a stretch goal as well. In time, I’ll know if this is something I’m going to do again.

For now, the focus goes entirely back to triathlons. In less than two weeks, I kick off that season with the Summer Open Sprint. I've been neglecting the bike and the swim a little more than I would have preferred but hopefully they’ll come back in good form.

Three weeks from today is the BolderBoulder which ought to feel like a casual stroll with my dog after yesterday’s events. That said, I’ll be running harder and there will be no walk break after four miles. I doubt I’ll beat last year’s time, but then again, I didn't even think I would start the marathon.

Thanks for reading such a long report (hey it was a marathon after all) and have a great week ahead! 

No comments:

Post a Comment