The last time I raced the marathon distance with the intention of going sub-3 was in 2018 at the Sugarloaf Marathon in Maine and, man, it was a literal $hit$how. There were no porta-potties in the last six miles and I clenched my butt so tightly that I didn’t need a glute workout for a while! Coming away with a 3:22 marathon, disillusioned, and a bitter taste in my mouth, I haven’t felt the urge or desire to give the sub-3hr marathon another shot until this year. The closest I got was at the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis in 2015, where I finished in 3:02:58 (my personal record). Six years later, after securing my Hardrock 100 lottery qualifier with a strong finish at Cruel Jewel, I had the space, time, and training opportunity to give the sub-3hr marathon another proper go.
I always have the athletes I coach ask themselves – Why? Why do you want to do this? For me, it has been (a bit) less about chasing this specific time goal but, rather, more about the training and the grinding process required to develop the level of fitness and speed to meet that goal. As I try to make my way up towards the pointy end of the field and onto podiums (in smaller races), I definitely see correlations between marathon times and lower ultra times. (Fast is fast, duh?) In general, the people beating me just have faster overall times in almost every distance so I aspire to develop (and try to maintain) that speed, fitness, and strength. It doesn’t come overnight but over months and years of consistently putting in these sorts of tough workouts, training cycle after training cycle. At this point, I have completed more hundred-milers than marathons but neither are taken lightly. Without the allure of the stretch goal of a fast marathon, though, it can be mentally hard to push yourself during the grueling, faster-paced workouts. I mean, why do it if you don’t have to? So, it helps to set goals, even if they may be somewhat arbitrary.
In the days leading up to the race, I was anxious, not recovering well, not feeling well-rested, and battling some toe tendinitis and plantar fascia tightness in my right foot. I decided to take the 3 days before the race completely off to "catch up" on recovering. Better to be undertrained and injury-free at the starting line than tired and over-trained. Evaluating my current fitness honestly, I gave myself an 80% likelihood that I could go around a 3:05. That last 5-10% chance to go sub-3required me to dig deep - real deep into a pain cave where I have only gone once or twice in all my years of racing.
Race day morning was a whirlwind. I forgot to swap my Altras out for my Saucony Endorphin Pros and rode the bus back to the car to get them. Luckily, I still had ample time to check my gear and get in a short, chill warm-up. Standing in the crowded wave A corral, I kept off to the side and a bit behind the 3:00 pacer, aiming to keep the sign he was carrying in sight as long as I could.
Man, I had forgotten what it was like to run a big, crowded road marathon. Talk about a clusterf***. It was a big contrast to the chill, sparse trail races and small-town road marathons I had been doing since Boston in 2018. Runners were funneled into lanes and bumping into each other, jostling for space and trying to hit tangents. In the second mile, someone stepped on my left shoe and popped the heel off so I had to veer off to the side to quickly fix it. I had to speed up a bit in the third mile to reconnect with the 3-hr pace group.
With the half-marathon sharing the course until mile 7-ish, the first few aid stations were utter chaos. There were no signs to indicate that an aid station was coming up; once one was spotted, a mad rush ensued to get a drink, with runners colliding into one another. I almost slammed into a few backs as runners suddenly slowed down to swerve over to the aid station volunteers for hydration. Forget hitting tangents – we were packed like sardines and there was little space to maneuver to the tangents without surging or slowing erratically.
Despite all this, the first few miles felt… comfortable. Not effortless but comfortable. Other than the first 2 miles, miles 3-7 were a bit fast (6:33, 6:39, 6:38, 6:38, 6:38) but I still felt in control and still nose-breathing (Breath-Right strip, FTW! They say nothing new on race day… pfssshhh.). After realizing the reality of the aid-station situation, I gave up and took the center line to stay clear of the aid-station madness. I had 2 10-oz bottles of Tailwind with me so I was still okay but I had to abandon my plan of getting water around mile 6/7 and take my Huma gel without water, which, thankfully, went okay!
Even after the half-marathoners split off from the full-marathoners, the 3hr pack and chase group still formed a pretty large group. With no way of telling when an aid station was coming up, it was still hard to navigate aid stations cleanly. When trying to get water at mile 8 or so, I throttled back a bit, not wanting to tempt fate with surging, only to see cup after cup taken out of the volunteers’ hands in front of me. I ended up at the end of the aid station cup-less. What the flying f….? The first time I managed to properly get water from an aid station was after mile 11. So much for my hydration plan.
Hanging off the back of the 3-hr pace group, we went through mile 9 in just over an hour, still slightly under 3-hr pace. It was around this time that my left hamstring started twinging a bit. While I was looking for the early signs of dehydration, this was definitely not a sensation I have felt before. It wasn’t anything severe but something I needed to keep an eye on. Doing a body-scan, I noticed that my left hip flexor and core was a bit tight. Fighting a touch of a side-stitch on the left side, I tried relaxing and stretching out that left core and that seemed to help with the twinging hamstring. I also took a SaltStick FastChew salt chew at the 1-hr mark, which also seemed to help with the hamstring.
Taking another gel at the half-marathon mark at 1:28:46 (6:46 pace), I noticed that my watch read 13.2miles, so I was already “behind” by 0.1miles, probably due to all the swerving and not taking tangents. For comparison, my watch read 1:27:51 (6:42 pace) for 13.1miles. Almost a minute behind in terms of distance but still marginally ahead of 3-hr pace (6:52 pace). I was starting to feel the effort though. Patience, calm, and control – just stay focused, keep in contact with the back of the pace group, and click off the miles.
Around mile 15/16, my left hamstring on-off twinging spree was joined by my some very unnerving left calf spasming. I have never felt anything like this before. It felt like electric eels were swimming around my calf and then up my leg to boogie woogie with my left hamstring. At this point, a small group of us were trying to surge up a bit to make contact with the pace group. Experimenting a bit, the only way I could stop this funky electric boogaloo from devolving further was to shorten my stride and ease off the gas a tad. Doing some mental math in my head, I had hoped that the first few fast miles gave me enough of a buffer. Calm and focus. Drinking more water was also helping a bit with the calf spasms. Due to the earlier hydration fiascos, I was trying to hit enough aid stations after mile 15 to catch up on hydration without upsetting my stomach.
I could tell that the “chase pack” was doing what it could to hang onto the pace group but it was starting to splinter apart. I no longer had a few people to tuck behind and draft off. We were taking the tangents so hard that, at one point around mile 18, a lady in front of me hung left so hard that she accidentally veered too far over and had to hurdle the traffic cone in the middle of the street. She didn’t quite clear it and knocked it over into the path of the group. What?! A steeplechase hurdle?! :P
By this stage (miles 16-20), I was concentrating hard on maintaining 6:50s, trying to stay in sight of the pacer, catching up on hydration, and managing my gait to avoid the cramps or spasms from devolving any further. Oddly enough, all the problems were on my left side but when I tried to push off more on the right side, things started cramping there a bit too, so I just left it. My pace was starting to trend towards 7:00min/mile. Every time I tried to open up my stride to edge closer to 6:50 and below, my hamstring and calf would start reacting. I took another Fastchew at the 2-hr mark and it helped a bit but couldn’t mitigate the cramps completely. I had already started seeing people slowing down or stopped on the side of the course and I did not want to be one of those people so I backed off just a touch, hoping that something could be saved for the last 5K. Focus and run the mile I am in. I hit 20miles just after 2:15 and thought – “Okay, only 10K left in 45minutes, about 7:10-7:15min/mile. I am still doing 6:50s so I have a buffer.” It felt like I was forgetting something though…
Around mile 22, I just couldn’t get my legs to turn over and I felt like I was fading hard. I tried pumping my arms as well to adhere to the adage – “The legs follow the arms.”, but my legs just wouldn’t spin and my left leg was not responding well to any attempts to lengthen my stride. I was trying to figure out what was going on and then I realized – “I still have my third gel, which means I haven’t taken a gel since mile 13.5. Oh no…”. My heart sank. I had been so preoccupied with catching up on hydration, managing my gait, avoiding hazards, and staying in contact with the pace group that I had completely forgotten to take my gel at mile 20. I immediately tore into it (without water) but, by then, it was probably too late. To make matters worse, I had been out of Tailwind for a while now as I drank more of it during the first part of the race due to compensate for skipping aid stations.
The little devil on my shoulder started speaking to me at that point – “You can ease off the gas and still come in around 3:05 easy. It will be so easy to take your foot off the pedal and coast it in. It will feel so much better. Your legs can’t move faster anyways.” I could be so close, though. What if that gel kicked in really quickly? What if I get a bit of a second (or third) wind? Keeping the effort honest, I hit mile 23 and 24 in 7:07 and 7:06, respectively. With the previous buffer, I could still be close? It was then that I recalled a quote from Meb Keflezighi’s book, 26 Marathons, that I was listening to on my drive from Louisville. The (paraphrased) quote was “At the end of the day, the final/end goal is to do the best you can with what you have, given the conditions and circumstances of the day. That is what it means by running to win.”
Arms pumping and legs attempting to turn over with a shortened stride, miles 25, 26 and beyond were just a fight against a glorious fade. I was breathing hard but I still had to control it as I knew that, once I went 1-1 anaerobic breathing, I had maybe half a mile left in me. I went to that point of no return once I saw the sign for Mile 26. Rounding the last few corners, with my heart pounding in my ears, I crossed the finish in 3:01:15. A 1:43min PR. Close but no cigar. (Technically, a BQ as well since I’m now in the 35-39 age group.)
Post-Race and Thoughts
Training – This has been one of my best training build-ups so far. The only other one that has gone better was for my 2019 Western States 100 and maybe for my 2015 Monumental Marathon. While I bombed some workouts, I completed (for the most part) some pretty cool and challenging workouts and most of the plan that I had set out to do. Even though I did less volume and fewer workouts than in 2015, I felt like I was slightly fitter going into this event than when I did in 2015. The reality is the older body just can’t handle three hard workouts a week like the younger body could so intentional quality is key. The result was, I feel, pretty accurately representative.
Gear – My main issue with my “gear” was bib placement. They (whomever they are) say never do anything new on race day. Ever since doing more trail races, I pin my bib to my shorts. Trail runners try to be cool like that. I pinned my bib to my shirt this time and that was a mistake. I pinned it too low and it interfered with me accessing my race belt for gels, FastChews, and my bottles. Next time, I should pin it way higher or, most likely, go back to pinning it on my shorts. On the flip side, it was the first time I ran with a Breathe-Right strip and it worked great for my nasal congestion!
Hydration – Knowing what I know now, I would seriously consider hand-carrying a small bottle of water that I could throw away after the first half or so. Even an additional small soft-flask would have been a good option to avoid the utter mess of the initial aid stations and still have the option of drinking water. The main issue would be how to juggle holding an extra bottle while taking in gels and FastChews.
26.5, not 26.2 – For future attempts at racing the marathon distance, especially when margins are extremely slim, I am definitely going to treat it more like a 26.5mile race and not 26.2miles. While the pace difference may not seem like much (6:48 vs 6:52), every second per mile counts. Technically, based on GPS, I did run 26.2miles in 2:59:53 but that’s not official and only highlights the margins that make or break the race. I think the safer margin is to aim for a 6:45min/mile race pace, which gives a 2:59hr race finish.
Racing against time vs other people – To me, there is an interesting contrast in mental dynamics when racing against the clock versus other people. The other time I pushed this hard was when I was running scared in first place in the 2019 Gassy Goat 40K. I was fighting cramps and trying to run away from 2nd place as fast as I could. However, there were times when I could still feel some space to ease off, even for just a tad, to recover something before I saw him and started pushing again. I feel like I push harder with someone chasing me and it definitely felt like I pushed harder (at least mentally) during Gassy Goat than I did here. For this race, I tried a similar mental tactic in the later stages of the race - to use other people as rabbits, as people I could chase down, but it was not quite the same. I think it has something to do with the arbitrariness of a time goal versus the distinct tangibility of a first (or X) place finish. At Western States, even as I was chasing the sub-24hr threshold, my margins there were significantly larger than they were here so I always felt like I had a bit of wiggle room to ease back a bit, regroup and then push again. Alas, when you are shooting for something that is just on the edge of your (current) capabilities, the margins can be razor-thin and you can feel like you are walking on a tight-rope.
Immediately after crossing the finish line, my vision was swimming and I was heaving against the side fence for a good minute or more. Honestly, I felt so conflicted and, while I felt like crying, I didn’t know why. By most measures, it was a good race and the weather was perfect but my first gut reaction, stepping over that finish line, was disappointment and/or frustration. Did I push myself hard enough? I was close but a few (key) mistakes or slips made about a minute and 16sec difference. Upon further reflection a few days after, yes, I am still a bit disappointed but no regrets. It wasn’t a perfect race but usually races don’t turn out to be, even the good ones. It’s okay to be a bit disappointed. It means I care but I think this race effort also means I’m closer, closer now than ever before.
Trail/ultra runner, Designer, Foodie, Rock Climber, World Traveler, Triathlete, Level 1 RRCA-certified coach, NASM-Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES)