Note: As usual, this being a marathon report, it’s a marathon, longer than my usual posting. Train well and you can get through it without hitting the wall.
I’m leaning on Neil Young for a theme for this race. Hey, hey, my, my. It’s better to burn out than it is to rust. I came, I went out hard, I burned out, but that’s pretty much what I intended (say what? read on…), and I’m happy with the results. And with that, the Marathon #10, the Mount Desert Island Marathon, is in the books.
First, the Executive Summary
The tally: 3:13:18, midway - 5th quickest – of my 10 marathons.
The rank: 25th place out of 602 finishers, 5th in the men’s 45-49 age group out of about 60.
The assessment: This was as far from negative splits as you can get. So what? I’m happy.
The damage report: Unscathed, save that blister on my thumb from the fuel belt bottles.
Next, Why Did You Do That?
What’s that, you say? I intended to burn out? Well, not entirely, but I intended to push my envelope and see what was in the tank, provided that that troublesome calf was ready to roll. And thankfully, it was, so I did. I was fully prepared to accept the consequences.
For some insight into this, I turn to the kids I coach for a moment. On the team there’s a young gent who typically runs strong, but clearly leaves time on the course. He flies across the line with strong sprint finishes and a smile on his face. I love his enthusiasm, but I’ve been coaching him to learn from these experiences about testing his body’s limits. Clearly he’s got some in the tank at the end.
And that’s what experience is all about. Racing is an iterative process. When you start, you don’t know what you can do. You don’t know how fast to push the early miles. You don’t know when the tank will run dry, when the wheels will fall off. You only learn by doing trying it.
The scholastic cross country season, when the kids are racing once or twice a week, is a perfect laboratory for learning limits. Each time you toe the line, the memory of the last race is mere days old. You can build that experience base quickly. Beyond school years, local 5Ks (a.k.a. barbeque excuses) offer a similar opportunity. You race perhaps once a month and you can get that feel for what you can do and how hard to push.
The marathon is a very different story. Unless you’re crazier than the typical marathoner, you run the it twice, maybe three times a year at most. There’s a long time between events during which your condition will, by definition, change, and in my case that change has been dramatic over the last year. With so few races, there’s not a lot of chances to incrementally tune your effort. You might work to knock off 10 to 20 seconds on each successive 5K, but if you work to knock off just a minute or two on each marathon, it’s going to be a while before you find your limit, or, in my case, work your way back down to where you think your limit is. You’ve got to go a little on the bold side, at least until you think you’re running near peak. Otherwise, face it, years pass, you age, your peak rises to meet you before you drop down to reach it.
And on that philosophy, I went out intentionally aggressive on a course that the race organizers warn calls for conservatism, a course they say runs more like an ultra. After all, last year I ran three sub-three-hour races, and this year I started with my stroll at Boston. Sure, my only hard goal was to leave MDI with a Boston qualifier for 2011, but for me, that’s 3:30, and that wouldn’t really be much of a step to get back to the low 3’s and prepare to see if a drop into the 2-zone might again happen someday. No, I needed to see what condition my condition was in.
Dawn Brings Joy – No Rain!
The weather was forecast had been downright frightful, with a Nor’easter coming in. But it took a page from my book and was late in arrival, and was replaced by the most gorgeous sunrise I’ve seen in a long while. Arriving in downtown Bar Harbor, we gathering runners found it downright comfortable. I stripped off the tights, and as it turned out, I guessed right. With a slight NNE breeze, the low-40’s air was chilly only during the brief stretches when we headed north.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so casual a start. It was refreshing. MDI isn’t a big marathon to begin with, and with a chunk of the field taking up the early start option, it was even less crowded, the most stress-free marathon start I’ve experienced. We up front types didn’t even see the need to crowd the line, as nobody was crowding us from behind. Mellow. A blast of the cannon, reminiscent of my first marathon at Cape Cod back in 2005, and we were off.
I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so casual a race, either. No jostling in the first mile. No frustrating fruitless hunting to link up with a pace buddy. We’d already chatted around at the start, so I went off with Ed, and we stuck together for eleven miles. It was truly enjoyable. The miles clicked away, up and down the hills, past MDI’s stunning mountains and seascapes, while we jabbered it up with each other and those who drifted in and out of our coffee klatch. Truly the joy of the run. We hit ten miles at 6:53 pace, 3 hour pace, which I knew wasn’t in the cards, but hey, it was time in the bank, and I’d see how far it lasted. Besides, the calf was holding out, and it would survive the day.
Pulling into Northeast Harbor around mile twelve, I backed it off, dropping the pace to the low 7’s. Ed hammered on, running negative splits for the second half, finishing an impressive 5th. I already knew I would find my tank capacity soon, and have some seriously hard work to do ahead.
Mount Desert Island is nearly bisected north-south by Somes Sound, the only true fjord on the east coast, deep and gorgeous. And ironic. Northeast Harbor – where we were – and Southwest Harbor – where we needed to be – are a mere mile or so apart, except for the minor detail of the Sound. Yes, you have to go around. So we headed north out of Northeast Harbor along the utterly gorgeous Sargent Drive, which hugs the west edge of Norumbega Mountain as it skirts the Sound (that’s Sargent Drive along the east side of the Sound, seen from St. Sauveur Mountain on the west side). The views of the western summits across the water are sublime. There are few places in any marathon that can compare to the beauty of this spot. It’s running nirvana, even before I add in how much I love this place, having hiked almost everything on the island many times over. Nirvana for the eyes, nirvana for the mind, but cold nirvana. Heading north, that slight breeze felt more then slight. At one point I swear I could feel the shrinkage.
Sargent Drive climbed away from the Sound, back to the main highway, which continued to climb gently but steadily. By seventeen, it was hard work, but all systems were functional. Nineteen loomed with what in my view is the worst hill on the course, a moderately long but rather steep pitch as the highway curves around the top of the Sound. It arrived, I chugged, and it was done, still holding my pace in the bottom half of the 7’s.
But in Somesville, the rollers started to win the battle. Passing my cheering section of one, I told my brother-in-law’s wife that I wasn’t in great shape for where I was in the race. I’ll forgive her for the “You look great!” and “You’re almost there” comments. Good intentions, even if she lied on both counts. Within a mile I walled out. Hey, hey, my, my. Burnt. Ashes, not rust.
Finishing the Battle
If Wineglass taught me anything last year, it is that yes, you can hurt yourself. Your mind is stronger than your body, and given free reign, it can and will drive your body too far.
By mile twenty-one, the tank was drained. My injured calf never failed, but the hills had taken their toll and really both calves were flat out empty. Though I was on pace for a nice 3-oh-something, I let prudence and reason trump raw desire. Through miles twenty two through twenty-four I took four or five one-minute walk breaks. Splits for those miles were ugly of course, but not all that bad, as I kept the breaks to exactly a minute to maintain the discipline to keep moving. I knew the time lost would blow me out of 3-oh and into 3-teen-something, but I also knew that not taking the breaks could have simply blown me out, period. I probably lost ten to fifteen places through this stretch, but lived to tell the tale.
Approaching Southwest Harbor was like coming home. It’s our annual vacation hangout, and I just love the town. One of my favorite runs in the area is Lurvey Springs Road, a gorgeous gravel forest road, which brings me out onto the highway at Echo Lake, so reaching that point put me on home running turf, a huge mental lift. From there, it’s not far to the final summit at mile twenty four and a half, and it’s a screaming downhill into Southwest. The last third of a mile or so into downtown is a slight upgrade, an ugly slap, but so what. Hammer it home, done.
With the walk breaks, I crossed the line in pretty good shape, but was wobbly enough to get the red carpet treatment of a large sturdy volunteer to hold onto and a fabulous wool blanket in the med tent. I learned long ago that the med tent is your friend and is well worth a visit. The volunteers are saints. My thanks go out to Cort and Ann for their fine repair services.
So, no 3-oh-anything, no age group prize, no great glorious results, but I’m happy: 25th place with a 3:13. Realistically I know that course probably adds five minutes, which adds a little more satisfaction. After the surgery, the break, the leisurely stroll at Boston, the summer’s battle to regain my condition, whether I ever return to the sub-three-hour zone or not, I’m back in the neighborhood.
Aftermath – What a Bullet We Dodged
The storm didn’t hit the island until nearly 3 PM, when I’d cleaned up, packed up, and was hitting the road. Heading home via the inland route, I managed to avoid it for another two hours. Good thing, as this storm brought the earliest recorded snowfall to many parts of New England, wildly flinging snowball-sized flakes. Once it and I converged at Augusta, the rest of the drive home was misery. All in all, I’d rather relive those ugly late miles than do that drive again. I spent plenty of time on the ride home contemplating what a different race it would have been had it arrived on time.
The morning after, I was feeling pretty good, good enough to get out for a few mile shakedown. The knees are a little tender, there’s a little muscle burn, and that pesky blister on my thumb from the bottles, but otherwise the old body withstood the punishment.
Six months to Boston!