Friday, October 27, 2017

Race report: Baystate Marathon 2017

I've never actually hit the wall in a marathon. Never even had the chance. I always cramp before I ever get to that point, and always in the same place, the vastus medialis part of the quads. After my last marathon disappointment, I headed to the physiotherapist who said in no uncertain terms: work on glute strength.

Well, three years later, here we are and I've just done marathon #7, the Baystate Marathon in Lowell. How did it go? Read on...


If you've been playing along for a while, you know I spent 7 years in journalism. Daily news reporting is sort of a non-schedule: news happens at any hour of the day or night. There was lots of shift work, and lots of 12-to-14-hour days during crises. I loved it, but it was kind of all-consuming. The point is, training through years of being a journalist, even before kids, was excellent training for fitting in the training around major stresses.

So when the husband's month-long work trip was rescheduled from November to September-October, I managed to deal. Just barely. I ran with the stroller. I ran at midday when it was 85 degrees out, in full sun. I had a neighbour babysit on Thursdays after D went to bed, and did the second half of my long run on a weeknight on the treadmill. In the end, my mileage for this training cycle totalled something like 640 miles over 18 weeks, not including the marathon: nothing spectacular, but a slow and steady drip drip of consistent work.

A note about time

The backstory: Back in 2014, I ran my 6th marathon at Gold Coast in Australia. While it was a gorgeous day out, marathon #6 was a crushing disappointment for me, due to debilitating cramps and likely under-training and under-fueling. Yes, it was a PR; but a PR by a single, hard-fought second, and way closer to the 5-hour mark than I wanted to be, or that all the race equivalency calculators said I 'ought' to be. In the three years since, I'd convinced myself that my inner 'turtle girl' was right - that I have no real business running marathons... but the itch to do so was still there.

When you have absolutely nothing to lose, you let go and become a master of total non-attachment. I let go completely of any marathon time goals. My process goal for Baystate was to train properly, stick to my race strategy, and see how it went. I even outsourced my training plan - I asked Coach Nicole from Community Running to write me a plan for a small extra fee, and we'd check in with a phone call every so often.

Somewhere along the line I said to her, "I know exactly how I want to feel during the race. You know the middle miles of a half marathon? With the sun shining and the wind in your hair, and you're flying along, feeling the earth return to you all the energy you put into it with every step? THAT is how I want to feel." And I believed it with every fibre of my being, and I knew that it was true.

I'd trained using a goal pace of 9:05, which roughly dictated my tempo and speed efforts, but by the time race week rolled around, I was so burned out from work and solo parenting that I honestly no longer cared if that was race day pace or not. (See: no time goals.) Plus, I tend to be on the slower side of race calculator predictions the longer the distance gets, even if conditions are perfect. Perhaps I'm just too chicken to race a hard half or full marathon. That's fine. I'll get there.

But not Sunday. I had every intention of finishing, and no intention of pushing hard.

Before the race

I drove up with my friend T, who was doing her first marathon, and we checked in to the Radisson in Chelmsford around 3pm Saturday before hitting up the expo at the same hotel. I'm not an expo-lingerer unless I spot an amazing deal on consumables I already use (gels, socks, etc). We wandered around for a bit, did our nails back in the hotel room, and headed out to dinner at Scola's Italian in Dracut. The portion sizes were so big, I had enough linguine + meatballs left for myself, husband and child the day after! Ahhh, America. We fell asleep around 9pm.

At 5am, T's alarm went off. I'm so used to waking at all hours and getting very little sleep that a 5am wakeup call was fine by me. Morning routine, totally practiced and utilitarian after weeks of 5.30am long runs. Instant oatmeal, coffee, nuun, wash face, visit bathroom, get dressed. Bodyglide, bra, tank top, shorts, socks, shoes, Garmin. Decided to run without visor, gloves, arm sleeves, or water bottle. 6:15 shuttle bus to the start. Drop off bags. Run into friends, take selfie, head in to UMass's Tsongas Center to wait, pee, eat a Luna bar. I felt - loose. Preternaturally calm. Totally zen.

By 7.45, it was already warm enough that I wasn't shivering in the start corral - so, a little warmer than ideal. So what? That's not something I can control. Plus no sleeves or gloves or bottle to weigh me down. I planned to start with 9:30s and hold that pace throughout. Anthem.  Pushrim start. And then we began.

Zen habits

Miles 1-5. 10:20, 9:21, 9:16, 9:32, 9:40.  Gel at mile 5. My plan was to take a gel every 5 miles and water at every water stop (about every 2 miles).

I started somewhere around the 10min/mile section of corral, and took the start very easy (10:20, mile 1). I chatted with people, including a woman doing her first marathon, and then had to pick my jaw up off the floor when we ran by her family and FIVE kids - the youngest were 5-year-old twins, I think. (Spoiler: she finished with me.)

I saw my fan club (Mr. GCA and D-money) who had driven up from Boston that morning and strategically situated themselves up the road from a giant playground. After I saw them the first time...well, what do you do with a toddler while mom runs a fall marathon? You go pumpkin picking, apparently. Now we have two enormous pumpkins and a toddler who has learned the word 'wheelbarrow' and uses it enthusiastically.

Miles 6-10. 9:29, 9:16, 9:37, 9:28, 9:28. Gel at mile 10.

Fall colours on full display. The course wound through mostly residential neighbourhoods until we got to the part along the river, heading northeast towards the Tyngsboro Bridge. At mile 8 I saw a teammate - hooray! - who shot the single happiest photo I've ever seen of myself during a marathon. It's pretty easy to be happy at mile 8.

photo credit: Tommy M. 

Miles 11-15. 9:38, 9:25, 9:53, 9:28, 9:38. Gel at mile 15. Surprise! Got the single salted watermelon gel I'd packed in my SPIbelt amid all the sea salt chocolate GUs I'd bought in bulk. It was a very tasty game of roulette.

I sang "Top of the World" to myself over and over in the exposed middle miles, and meant it.

Somethin' in the wind has learned my name
And it's tellin' me that things are not the same
In the leaves on the trees and the touch of the breeze
There's a pleasin' sense of happiness for me

I'm on the top of the world lookin' down on creation
And the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I've found ever since you've been around
Your love's put me at the top of the world

Why is nobody else running the tangents? People are weird. (For the record, I finished with 26.2 on my Garmin, and I think this is actually just really good tangent-running rather than a short course.)
Roadkill: Only two dead animals this year! The 'highlight' of last year's half was a flattened raccoon.
Slow and steady. If I'm Turtle Girl, I'm going to own it.

Miles 16-20. 9:48, 9:30, 10:04, 9:59, 9:53. Gel at mile 20.

I still felt good, like I was merely on an extended long run, but the lengthy exposed stretch around mile 18 was starting to get hot. I knew that I could certainly make it to mile 20, as I'd done on my long runs, and then I could re-evaluate how I felt beyond that.

To distract myself, I chatted with a senior gentleman. At my pace, there are always senior gentlemen, the sort of crusty gent who's been running for decades and is now basically enjoying life. This one told me war stories of marathons past, talked about running Baystate in its early days, and BQ'ed by finishing a few minutes ahead of me. When we got to mile 20, I said, this is the fun part now, isn't it?

Miles 21-23. 10:21, 10:16, 10:41.

I could feel my quads starting to protest, and gritted my teeth at mile 23 as the protest crescendoed into a full-blown revolt. It was warm now, and I knew from last year that the final miles were in direct sunshine. At each of the last few water stops I downed a full cup of Gatorade, which helped stave off the cramps for a minute or two each time.

Miles 24-26.2. 10:56, 10:39, 11:21, 9:37 pace for final 0.2.

With my quads cramping hard as usual, I was in no mood to walk and take a gel at mile 25 - I just wanted to keep shuffling on into the finish. Shuffle, shuffle. One foot in front of the other. All I had to do was not stop and I could be proud of my effort.

I didn't stop. 4:19:38.

The end

You guys. YOU GUYS. That is nearly 35 minutes off my last marathon time. The cramps didn't kick in till Mile 23, much later than usual, which I think is testament to being (mostly) properly trained and being pretty conservative. (A 22-miler next time, perhaps? Step-mill for cross-training? And some real lifting instead of just myrtls?)

I think what I'm happiest about here is that I finally feel like I'm beginning to run the marathon to my potential, my fitness and my training. I managed to stick with the race plan until the cramps really started in earnest. That decision to try and hold 9:30s, or rather a comfortable sort of just-a-little-faster-than-long-run pace, instead of pushing any harder, was the right one. I enjoyed the whole darn thing. Even the crampy bits.

Maybe one day I'll race a marathon - go out at a harder effort, endure discomfort for more of the marathon, see where it gets me. Right now? I'm satisfied with this.

A special message for Turtle Girl

*sings* I'm gonna get that turtle right off of my back -- BYE, FELICIA. It's been a long, strange trip from that 6+ hour marathon to this point. (Apparently when I PR, I go big or go home?) I am not a frequent racer, let alone of marathons, so each one is a bit of a milestone.

December 2009 - 6:18 - my first marathon. No idea what to expect. There was cramping. And walking. A lot of walking. 

December 2010 - 6:30 - total disaster, GI distress, threw up, never did eat or drink enough. Weirdly enough, caught up with friend who was also having stomach trouble, and we walked to the finish together.

March 2011 - 5:15 (Tokyo. -63 minutes) I don't recall the circumstances in which I signed up, because you had to enter the lottery well before December 2010, so I was somehow hoping to run two marathons ~3+ months apart...?? I'm not even sure what I was thinking. I think Tokyo was supposed to be some sort of casual vacation-run.

(Took a long break here to delve into the wacky world of triathlons)

December 2012 - 5:19:54 - another Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon

August 2013 - 4:54:18 (-20 minutes at Perth)

July 2014 - 4:54:17 (-1 second at Gold Coast)

(Had D-money in 2015. 2016-17: ran 5 half marathons; 4 were race efforts; 3 were under 2h, so, you know, pretty reliable.)

October 2017 - 4:19:38 (-35 minutes)

I'll bask in the glow for about a week. Where are my cape and tiara? Thank you, thank you. Then I'll recognise that this is equal parts valid and addle-pated, and then buckle down and start thinking about my next adventures in hobby jogging.

Thanks must go to:

  1. Husband, for taking the toddler during all of those weekend long runs and freeing me up to go do stupid sh*t like run 3.3 miles on the treadmill on Sunday afternoon so I'd hit exactly 50 miles for the week. Even when he abandoned us to do a month of fieldwork, he batch-cooked like two weeks' worth of meals beforehand. You're the best. Love you!  
  2. Community Running. Somehow track workouts are more fun in a giant group, even if you are generally DFL in the marathon group.
  3. And especially Coach Nicole. I asked her to write me a plan - essentially outsourcing all my planning and worrying, since I have quite enough to worry about. She did all the worrying for me, and then some. I'm pretty sure I gave her a heart attack a bunch of times during this training cycle.  
  4. Baystate organisers and the city of Lowell for putting on a good show. Did I mention the water and Gatorade at every stop were COLD? Also, people of the Merrimack Valley, you guys are A+ spectators, y'all.

Race logistics

Marathon finishers: 1,332. There's also a popular half marathon option, where I got my PR last year and sliced 10 minutes off my previous half time.
Course: Two loops - one big loop and one small one (if that makes any sense). Mostly flat, one uphill at the start, mini rollers. GORGEOUS fall scenery along the river. Somewhat exposed around miles 8-11, 18-21. The route is narrow in parts (down to half a lane or just a road shoulder), but the field is small enough that it's not a concern.
Start time: 8am (you get to wait inside the Tsongas Center at UMass till about 20 minutes before the start, so don't worry about packing a throwaway shirt unless it's freeeeezing)
Parking: $5 flat / day parking at 3 designated garages, free street parking throughout the city of Lowell on race day.
Transport: For the second year running, the organisers offered shuttles from the race hotels, both to and from the race. <- huge perk!
Course support: Fluid stops every ~2 miles. Both water and lemon-lime Gatorade supplied by perky, adorable high-school cross-country teams at each stop. GU gels at miles 7 and 17.
Swag: Long-sleeved gender-specific tech tee with thumb holes, hefty finisher medal with moving parts
Post-race food: Cape Cod potato chips, PB&J sandwiches, bananas, and 3 different kinds of soup - chicken noodle, minestrone, and vegetable
Photos: Free (!), by Capstone Photography


    Team gluteus medius FTW! Great job pushing through and staying so positive through it all. I had very similar feelings after I ran 4:21 at Santa Rosa - I finally felt like I ran closer to my potential and even managed to have fun doing it. Enjoy the post-race glow!

    1. #teamgluteusmedius ftw!!! :) I went back and reread your SRM recap a few times - we might be the same pace, but you're way better at the last 6 miles! Apparently I don't bonk - I just cramp. :P (I still think sub-4 for both of us is possible, btw.)

  2. Totally didn't have to blink back tears.

  3. I love this so much! I kind of jumped into your training for this marathon at the end so it was especially fun to hear the entire prequel. I've had cramps destroy races on me more than once so yay for the delay on those. Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it :) Alas, I've never run a marathon without cramps. The day I accomplish that I will shed tears of joy.

  4. Yay! Yay! Yay! I'm so happy for you!!!! Congrats on a huge PR!!!! Fantastic job!

  5. Nice job!! A great race no matter what but it will be awesome to see what you can do if you get the itch to race hard. :)

    1. I wonder, myself! I'd like to push the envelope with half marathons first and see what racing hard feels like there. :)

  6. Congrats on the race! I have also never hit the wall in 15 marathons because of cramping. I learned something new today about the glute training. If I ever get back in the game, now I know!!!