Arizona Rock n Roll Marathon Blog: 1-15-12 "The Bucket List"
Have you ever had a little burning in the back of your head? No, I’m not talking about dandruff, I mean that one item on your bucket list that eats away at you because you know with some hard work that you could finally cross it off your list? After a little more than a year of concentrating on half marathons (we’re up to 27 states and on pace to run all 50 states in under 100 hours – woo-who!) and completing our first half ironman (double woo-who!) we decided to step up our mileage and take another stab at the elusive sub 4 hour marathon. We’re a bit of an anomaly in that we run 99% of our races and training runs together. We don’t always have the same natural pace, but we push each other to be better and honestly no run feels quite right or satisfying without Kristin running on my right side.
When we first talked about running another marathon we agreed that we would only continue to train as long as we stayed injury free and enjoyed our training runs. Unlike the first 3 marathons we ran, our running base was much stronger and we actually looked forward to our weekly long-runs runs with anticipation rather than trepidation; big word which hopefully means something like approached with sheer terror and dread :). And unlike our 1st marathon, where our goal was to complete 26.2 miles, this time we were in a race against the clock. In keeping with our goal of having fun during our training we found a 40 mile relay in Charleston, IL that was absolutely fantastic – great people, good challenging course and the most enjoyable 20 mile run we have ever done (the 2-person course record was just icing on the cake)! Not only were our bodies becoming stronger, but Mother Nature was also on our side – while we had a few spouts of freezing weather (on at least 2 occasions we ran more miles than degrees outside; do the math on that one!) the snow and ice Chicago is known for in December and January was basically non-existent.
The Race - It's a long recap, but its a long race too! :-)
We took a long weekend to visit my parents in Surprise, AZ (outside of Phoenix) and coupled the trip with the Rock and Roll Arizona Marathon. While it felt like every ache and twinge in our bodies was magnified the week of the marathon, we knew we had done the necessary training to meet our goal and were excited to start the race. The night before any major race we have come to grips with the fact that we likely won’t get much sleep, but surprisingly we both slept fairly well. In the morning, we were pretty rested and excited to see the forecast for the day was mid-50’s to low-60’s with clouds the entire day. I’m pretty sure we are the only people who travel to Arizona in the winter hoping for unusually cool and cloudy weather!
Race morning we were faced with a critical logistical decision. Marathon runners had the option of parking at the start (downtown Phoenix) and taking a shuttle back to your car post-race or parking at the finish (Arizona State University campus) and taking a shuttle to the start pre-race. Given that the half marathon, and over 20,000 expected participants, started and ended at Arizona State we opted to park at the start line and take the shuttle back after the race. Our experience with races led us to the right decision and we were parked with plenty of time to stretch and use the ‘facilities’ before the race. As usual, about 20 minutes before the race began we each took a gel with a last sip of water. What we didn’t know at that time was that the start of the race would be delayed 30 minutes due to “massive traffic” at the finish line and marathoners not being able to get to the start line. I’m glad we took that stress out of the equation.
After a second trip to the ‘facilities’ we gave each-other a pre-race smooch and excitedly crossed the start line. Less than 0.5 mile into the race, a gel from Kristin’s spi-belt (running belt which holds gels) fell to the ground. Kristin attempted to grab it but missed and shrugged it off. Normally, I would have just let it go too – but losing our nutrition so early in a marathon made me nervous. When I looked back and saw a clear opening, I took it and grabbed the gel. In no time I was back with Kristin and happy to have all of our nutrition in hand (literally).
At mile 1 we both questioned the necessity of a water station – even for a marathon this seemed really early and almost every runner around us agreed (almost no one stopped at this station). Around mile 3 we chatted with a woman from Michigan about what percentage of runners we thought were running the marathon with headphones. We settled on about 60%. When Kristin and I first started running, I used music to block out my surroundings, but as we have grown in running (and gotten more interested in triathlons - which don’t allow headphones) I have found that I really enjoy listening to my surroundings more than blocking them out. Kristin still enjoys running with headphones from time to time – especially on the treadmill, and maybe just to block out my voice ;-) – but I give her a lot of credit from running her first marathon headphone free!
At mile 5 we found our stride and were enjoying the run. At some point a few members of the crowd started yelling “Go Mike, Go!” I loved it but was unsure of how they knew my name until I saw the runner next to me had “Mike” written in large black ink across his shirt. I joked with Mike that I was going to run the entire race next to him to “steal his cheers.” Funny enough, we ended up running with Mike again from 12 to 15, 22 to 24 and even reunited at the finish line!
Our game-plan was to take our first gel just past mile 7, but given the delayed start our stomachs were pitting (i.e. feeling really empty) just past mile 5. At the 10k marker (mile 6.2), Kristin wisely said that we needed to take our gel early. Our experience had taught us that we needed to alter our plan because if you don’t maintain your nutrition and hydration early you have no chance of making it up at the end of a race.
At mile 8.5 we began a 3.5 mile gradual 160 foot uphill climb. Mile 9 provided the most entertaining cheer station on the course. A high school cheerleading squad decked out in full disco attire was dancing and cheering to the classic “Staying Alive” blasting from an on-course stereo. This course support was pretty great and helped us forget that we were still climbing a never ending hill.
Just past mile 10 we needed to use the facilities again. While normally we can ‘gut it out’ for a half marathon without a bathroom break, we knew we still had more than 15 miles to go and that a stop now would pay dividends at the end of the day. Luckily, two porta-potties were open when we arrived at the aid station, so our stop was quick, and without going into too much detail told me I needed to increase my hydration - which was critically important at this stage in the race.
Mile 12 felt great – we finally hit the highest elevation marker of the course and enjoyed a 75 foot downhill reprieve for the next mile. We crossed the half-way mark (mile 13.1) in ~1:54, which was about a minute faster than our plan but well within our goal. This was the first time in over a year that 13.1 didn’t mark the finish line.
The next 6 miles were an out and back which looped through downtown Scottsdale, which looks like a cute little town of shops and restaurants. We talked for a bit with a woman from Utah who had just run 18 miles in the Florida Ragnar Relay the week before (teams of 12 run 200 total miles over a 2-day span), which helped to distract us from a group of 6 bikers who were peddling along on their 'beach cruisers' talking with one of their friends running the marathon. I’m not sure why the bikers bugged us so much, but I think it was just frustrating seeing people leisurely biking along on the same course that we were trying to run. We also ran with our ‘old acquaintance’ Mike for a few miles and chatted about his family and our respective race endeavors. Mike seems like a pretty cool cat.
At the mile 15 aid station we grabbed a few cups of Gatorade and pulled off to the side of course to enjoy a package of crackers with peanut butter we brought along. While some runners think it is insane to stop for a few minutes to enjoy a snack during a marathon (from both a time and digestion perspective), we relied on the experience of our long training runs, which always included a stop at the local gas station to split a Gatorade and package of crackers before finishing our final 5 to 8 miles. The stop was really nice and time well spent.
After the aid station at mile 17, and sucking down another gel, Kristin took an extra second of walking to stretch her right leg. I didn’t think much of it at the time, we were ahead of our goal pace and sometimes one of us just needs an extra second or two. When the words “my knee really hurts” came out of her mouth I was immediately worried. Kristin doesn’t complain about much if anything, so for her to say that she was in pain with about 10 miles to go in the race was not good. I asked if she wanted to stop and walk and she said “No, just start off a little slower and let me see if I can get my knee to warm up.” I followed directions as well as I could, but when I looked over and saw my running buddy literally biting her finger and grimacing with pain I thought the day might be over. After seeing her anguish I said “I’m only going to ask once: should we stop and drop out of this race?” I said I would only ask once because we had discussed in previous races how defeating it is to have someone constantly asking “Are you ok? You don’t look so good.” Kristin looked me square in the eye and said “No, just keep going.”
Just before mile 20 we passed through a gauntlet of crowd support, which was completely awesome and very timely. Our bodies were getting tired and there were so many people on the road that we nearly had to run single file, which was more than ok with us as their energy and cheers really energized us. We crossed the 20 mile marker in ~2:58, a bit slower than our first half pace, but it told us we needed to run the final 6.2 miles in about an hour (~9:50/mile pace) to break our 4:00 goal. On a normal day this pace would hardly seem daunting, but after 20 miles and with Kristin’s knee flaring up I knew we had a good chance but that it would be close.
At mile 23 we approached the final climb (~60 feet over 0.5 miles) and Kristin grabbed her knee and cringed as she said “I need to stop.” Without a moments notice we slowed to a walk and I grabbed her hand to let her know that we were finishing this race together, whether it was under our 4:00 goal or not. After about 10 steps, Kristin said she was ready to run again and the last hill on the course was soon in our rear-view mirror.
Unlike the previous 3 marathons we had run, which all had aid stations every mile for the final 5 miles, the last aid station on this course was at mile 23.7 – a full 2.5 miles from the finish line. Luckily, Kristin had pointed this out pre-race and I developed a somewhat McGyver-esque plan to fill a quart sized zip-loc bag with a few cups of water at the last aid station and carry the bag for the next mile or so in my hand (we kept the empty bag rolled up in a pocket during the race, which worked really well). After taking our last gel and filing my zip-lock bag with some quality H20, we were running again - with me holding what must have looked like a prize gold-fish from a local carnival.
At mile 25 we were in stride with a pack of about 10-15 runners when we strategically pulled off to the side of the road and each took a nice sip from our make-shift water station. After finishing our water we looked at each other and without saying a word mentally exchanged the same thought “one mile to go, no more stopping, no matter what.” As we started running, I quickly glanced at my watch and knew that our 4:00 goal was in reach – one more mile…just keep going. Even though we were tired and hurting, we really enjoyed crossing the scenic Center Parkway Bridge and knowing we were close to the finish. Our self-made water stop proved to be a great idea, as we passed every runner from that original pack over the next half mile.
As we passed mile 26 (Kristin swears there was a mile marker, I just remember seeing crowd barricades and thinking we have to be close to the finish) we turned the corner towards the home-stretch to an incredible burst of crowd support and saw the clock register 3:59:42 as the race announcer excitedly called on the crowd to help the runners finish in under 4:00 hours. Fans and supporters were yelling and frantically flailing their arms screaming “Go! Run, Run, Run!” “You can still make it!” As we sprinted across the finish with everything we had, we looked up as the clock registered 4:00:01. One lousy second, right? Well, not really. Fortunately for us, the finish line clock begins when the first professional crosses the start line and our time didn’t begin until we crossed the start line almost 3 minutes later – so we actually finished in 3:57! We finished the race the same way we started with a little celebratory smooch!
Kristin battled some serious demons in this race, but through her determination and focus she was able to overcome every obstacle and persevere. I am humbled by her sheer will power and determination and I am so proud to have finished my 4th marathon with my best friend by my side. No matter what our future running endeavors hold, one thing that can never be taken away from us is that one day we ran 26.2 miles…in under 4 hours…together.