December 04, 2013

Race report on the 2013 Seattle marathon

I slept like a baby the night before the Seattle Marathon in the king size bed of the newly renovated Westin's 29th floor, only occasionally waking up from what sounded like creaking of the building's structure as it swayed in the wind.

The alarm went off at 6am. Tim made me coffee, while I ate my first Powerbar reluctant to leave the cozy bed.

It was dry but the flag on one of the other tall buildings nearby could not have been more taut.

I did not feel like running 42 kilometres as fast as I could. I never feel like racing a marathon when I wake up on race morning. Yet I was also glad the waiting was about to end.

Coffee. Love coffee. 

Time for a hot shower.  I did not want to leave it.

I stepped into my race outfit, containing more pink than ever. I am not a fan of pink but the colour seems to find me as of late -- a fuchsia and orange top, with candy pink shoes. I divided four gels over the top's two back pockets, put another two gels in the hip pockets of my running shorts, and carried the remaining two gels in a zip lock bag which I would slide into one of my gloves.

My race number 551 I pinned to the front of my top.

Given the wind, I decided against a hat, neither willing to chase nor lose it. I also decided against sun glasses -- it was overcast and it might rain.

Seven am. Another Powerbar. Some water. Breakfast done. Perhaps a touch later than I would have liked.

Tim and Luka are getting ready too. We leave the room, as planned, at about 7:30am. Race start is at 8:15am.

Downstairs we slide into the stream of runners and spectators leaving the event's host hotel, joining more on the sidewalks of 5th Avenue as the half marathoners fly by us in the opposite direction.

The temperature is mild. Cold enough for winter coats on spectators but I know I will be warm in shorts and tank top after a couple of kilometres at marathon race pace.

My stomach still feels fuller than I'd like. "You'll be fine," Tim says.

It's a kilometre, perhaps a little more, to the start line. As we approach it, Tim suggests I duck into a little restaurant for a final pit stop to avoid the usual line-ups at the race's portaloos. Good idea. Having just left the hotel 10 minutes ago, I don't really need to stop but mentally it is good to go one more time -- after all, there will be no toilet breaks for the next 3-1/2 hours.

Runners are everywhere near the start line but no one has begun claiming their spot yet. I look for a place to do a warmup but only run for a few minutes, maybe three, up and down 5th Avenue. Then I decide to go the start line. Tim and Luka are there, on the other side of the fence.

I am still wearing an old fleece sweater and a throw-away T-shirt. It feels chilly -- I am in shorts -- but it is far warmer than I had feared it would be for a December marathon. Runners are being motioned to come closer to the start line but few are willing to bite. I give Tim my sweater. He wishes me well, as does Luka, and says he is going to head down along the course to catch me there.

I am calm and nervous at the same time. The lack of a warm-up bothers me but not enough to do something about it now -- I prefer to stay put with just 15 minutes to the gun.

"Hey!"   

It is Ben, a triathlon coach I met at an IMJ Coaching camp in Boulder, Colorado, 2-1/2 years ago. We have since met at a few Ironman races, most recently in Whistler in August where both he and Tim raced.

Ben is a nice and positive guy and I enjoy chatting with him as we wait for the start gun. A Seattle resident, Ben knows the course -- he has run both the half marathon and marathon here before.

"What is your goal today," he asks. I briefly explain my layoff and recent return to running, adding that my speed up to the half marathon distance seems as fast as ever, but that I feel underdone in terms of long runs as they have not exceeded 32K.

Still, my plan is to start at 3-hour pace and see how that goes.

"Great, I am with you," he says.

It feels great to have an ally. While Ben is focused on triathlon as an athlete, I know he has run a Sub-3 marathon, in Boston.

I peel off my T-shirt and throw it to the side, set my watch so all I need to press is the start button.

Ben and I keep chatting, and all of a sudden the gun goes and the crowd moves.

Here we go. I do not want to start too fast, especially not on a course that is marked in miles.

Runners steam ahead.

"We'll see those people later," Ben says beside me. I hold back and we run side by side.

There is Tim. I wave, Ben shouts, "Hey Tim!"

I feel good, comfortable, and grateful that I am on my way.

Soon a woman settles in beside Ben and I.

We hit the first mile in 6:49, spot on for a Sub-3 marathon pace, and I relax further into my rhythm. It is hard to keep yourself in check at the start of a marathon, so much energy after a taper and the buildup to the big day you have been spent months preparing for and thinking about.

There are some rolling hills in the first few kilometres as we head out of the city onto the I90 expressway. We already have a small group going, with Ben and I, the woman who joined us in the first kilometre, later joined by another, and a couple of guys.

I press the lap button at 3 miles, 20:42, and only do a quick 3 x times 7-minute miles. Under 21 minutes so that's good. In fact, it is 6:54 per mile or 4:17 per kilometre.   

My Timex watch is not as easy for taking lap splits as the Polar watch I have used in most of the marathons. I know I won't be looking to press that split button every mile. But I do for the next two, with a 6:53 and a 6:47.

"Isn't amazing how small the world can be," Ben says beside me. I agree, and smile -- it is great to still be running together. But I don't want to chat, not at this pace, and feel bad about that. I hope he understands. 

By now we are out on the I90 bridge, spanning 2 miles across Lake Washington, and it becomes clear just how windy it is. For now we have a side wind that also provides some help.

But that will change when we turn around and retrace our steps. Even in a group of about 10, the wind is so strong my legs get blown to the side, and I have to be careful not to trip over my own feet.

I apparently take another split that probably covers miles 6 and 7 in 13:10; it's too windy to do the math, I just stick with the pace. That's a good thing as I now see I took 47:32 to cover the first 7 miles, or an average of 6:47 per mile, 4:13 per kilometre.

At mile 8 we leave the bridge, turning left onto a pretty, narrow road, Lake Washington Boulevard, grateful to find shelter from the brutal wind that had been blasting us for the past two miles. Even so, our little group is about to disintegrate, slowly but surely spreading out over the next few miles.   

I have a gel. I can't remember now if that was my first -- perhaps it was here, perhaps it was a mile earlier. I do remember feeling that I needed one, and another not long after that.

I am relieved the wind is gone, at least for now, but also am shocked to see a sign marking 15K -- my gawd, not even close to halfway. Ben had mentioned that the halfway mark is at the turnaround of this out-and-back stretch, so that is what I try to focus on.

I cannot help but worry about the fatigue that already seems to envelop me at this stage. I do not think about the hills ahead. There is nothing I can do to avoid them, and I know that nine-time winner Uli Steidl (who will go on to make it 10 later today) warned that you cannot expect to run even splits on this course.

For now, I just need to stay with the pace as best I can. The other two women seem to have fallen behind but I expect them to be right behind me. On the bridge I counted only two women ahead of us.

Two guys are running strong. And they move ahead. Ben does too. At the halfway mark one of them ducks into the portaloo.

As I run across the timing area, the clock shows 89:14.

Crap. That is almost a minute faster than I passed it in Vancouver last year, 90:09, which was then the fastest I had ever run the first half of a marathon.

(Side note: Of course there was a problem with the halfway point in Vancouver -- it was adjusted to shorten the course as the race was in progress. So, either I have gotten faster after my year-long enforced break from running, or it is an indication of how much extra distance I covered in the 2012 Vancouver marathon, where I finished in 3:00:29.)

No wonder I am feeling tired -- I am on personal record pace. But today this does not excite me. I wonder if I overestimated my fitness, and how long I can sustain this pace. Breathe and relax. Breathe and relax. Do the best you can do now. And remember, a year ago, you could not even run.

I settle into the discomfort, focusing on maintaining my pace as best I can. I can see Ben ahead of me, as the other guy seems to be tiring.

A few kilometres later I catch up to him, telling him, "great job, stay strong." The words are meant as much for him as they are for myself.

My big toes are by now telling me that my decision to wear the relatively new shoes was a mistake. It is the same model, just a newer edition, of the New Balance REVlites I have been wearing for a few pair now. I had worn them for the past two weeks including for a 19K run and thought that I'd be fine in them today. A mistake but nothing I can do about it do other than ignore the pain.

Spectators line the course in various places, and cheer me on. "Go girl!" "Third woman, looking strong!" I smile, wave at their cheers, soak in the energy.

Around the halfway mark I had been able see another woman up ahead, and held her in sight for a few kilometres. I no longer see her. I can still see Ben in the distance. He looks strong.

The hills begin. And I accept that they are here. I accept that my legs feel like jello on each uphill incline, and that my pace slows markedly. As soon as earth flattens out, I speed up as best as I can and gladly accept any helping hand gravity offers me on the downhills.

"What goes up, must come down," I encourage myself.

It is not until I see the results online that I find out I hit 20 miles in 2:15:32, or an average 6:47 per mile, actually having sped up from the average 6:49 I ran over the first 13.1 miles. I did not realize I had covered the first 32K faster than in any other marathon, reaching that point more than a minute faster than in the Vancouver marathon last year.

Not that knowing it would have mattered in the outcome -- I would still have slowed down over those final 6.2 hilly miles. But I am so glad that split was recorded there because it gives me great confidence about how well I have recovered in my return to running; holding 6:47 per mile, or 4:13 per K, works out to a 2:57:52 marathon.

Now it is a matter of staying strong, and working with those hills as much as possible. Others are hurting too. Some walk, and it is not only the marathoners who began their race an hour before us.

I revel in the challenge of sticking with it, even as I slow down to an average of 8-minute miles, or 5-minute kilometres, over those final 6.2 miles. After all, I am still passing runners, while very few pass me.

With two miles to go, I allow myself to look back, once, twice, three times -- I have held third place for more than half the race and I am determined to finish with it now.

Tim and Luka wait at mile 25. I smile, wave. One more mile.

I am so grateful. Smile, pump my fist in the air as I approach the finish line in 3:05:09 -- I am BACK!

***

I ran the first half in 89:14 and the second half in 94:55 to finish in 3:05:09, my second-fastest marathon.

Female winner Sheila Croft finished in 2:58:25, hitting the halfway mark in 85:15 and running the second half in 1:33:10. Croft twice ran past her house during the race, once at the six-mile point, and later at mile 15, according to the Seattle Times.“That’s my running route,” Croft told the Seattle Times. “I knew exactly what the course was going to be like.”

Uli Steidl, who won the race for the 10th time in 2:32:24, knows this course inside and out, taking 1:15:25 for the first half and 1:16:59 for the second.

Ben finished in 3:04:26.