Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Earth Day Challenge Marathon, 4/25/10

As I pursue a marathon in each of the 50 states, I knew that there could be no other marathon to run in Ohio but the Earth Day Challenge. This is because it takes place at Kenyon College and its surrounding area, and I am a Kenyon alum (class of ’91). I also worked in student life there from 1994 to 1996. This meant that I’d have to do 2 marathons in 2 months, as I had already signed up for the Gasparilla Marathon in Tampa, FL on 2/28/10. No matter, though: Hal Higdon had an “8 weeks between marathons” training program for me to follow! And I always trust Hal.

I ended up traveling to Ohio on Thursday night even though the marathon was not until Sunday. That way I could visit with old friends, including former professors and colleagues. It also gave me lots of time to explore the campus since I had not been back in 4 years. It was a wonderful weekend of reminiscing and visiting.

But on to the marathon, as this blog is really about running. The weather all week had predicted thunderstorms on race day, and this was my biggest worry. I have always said that I’d run in any kind of weather condition but lightning. I like to reminder marathoners that “you can’t worry about what you can’t control” and certainly I have no control over the weather; however, I must admit that I was a little worried. I hadn’t done all of the training for nothing, and I wanted to finish the race. The pre-race instructions told us that it might be possible for race cancellation if the thunderstorms emerged.

The race had a marathon and a half marathon. As usual, the majority of participants were running the half: there were about 120 marathoners and 400 half-marathoners. We started together on the track at the athletic center on campus, and the sun literally came out as we were starting. For me, this was not a good thing. I don’t run well in the sun, heat, and humidity. And we were expecting all three. However, at that point I let go of any worries and just rolled with it. I figured I’d do the best I could given the conditions and that was all I could ask for.

The first four miles were in the village of Gambier, with many of those miles being on campus. At the .5 mile mark, we faced our biggest uphill. I had known about it beforehand, and my strategy was to walk up it. No sense wasting my energy before the first mile marker! That is pretty much what I did, though I did run up about the first 1/3 of it. Anyway, at the top of that early hill we wound up on “Middle Path,” which is a gravel path that runs the length of the main campus, for about a mile. This is sacred ground for Kenyon folks, as it’s kind of the epicenter of campus life. Everyone has to walk on Middle Path every day. I must admit that I got tears in my eyes as I took my first few steps on to Middle Path. It was finally coming true: I was running a marathon at Kenyon, my beloved alma mater.

Soon after that, we ran around the village of Gambier. Coincidentally, just as I ran by my friend Robert’s house (former professor with whom I had visited twice before the marathon), Robert emerged from his house to get the newspaper. What a wonderful unplanned surprise! And then right around the corner I saw Liz in front of her house (Liz was my supervisor when I worked at Kenyon). I saw many familiar faces throughout the race.

After the first four miles, the hills were totally over. We headed out to a paved bike path called the Kokosing Gap Trail that ran along the Kokosing River. We did an out and back on the western part of the trail, and then when we got close to the track where we started, the race was just about half-way over for me and the half-marathoners turned to finish on the track. I continued on to an out and back section on the eastern part of the trail. I remember when we turned around on the trail at the 8 mile mark some guy said “only 5 miles to go.” And I said “yeah right. I am running the full marathon.” I was nice about it. In fact I was in a good mood!

At the halfway point, I was running strong and feeling good despite the heat and humidity. Perhaps this was in part due to the fact that the western portion of the trail was very shaded. I looked at my watch halfway and saw something like 2:20 on my watch. Since I usually run marathons in even splits (same time for the first half as the second) I could see that I was on track to run a PR by quite a few minutes (as many as 12 since my PR is a 4:52). However, what I hadn’t realized at that point was that the heat and humidity would worsen, and the sun would become a factor. That’s because the eastern portion of the trail (which only the marathoners ran) had very little shade. The trail was surrounded by occasional trees, but much more so by farms. While the scenery was spectacular, the conditions left us out baking in the sun. I figured out pretty quickly that it was not safe to continue at my same strong pace. It was much more important to finish safely than it was to get a PR. At the time this didn’t bother me at all as I knew it was the right thing to do. Now that the race is over and I’m home, I am of course second guessing myself and wondered if I could have pushed myself harder. Oh well. I have 41 more states to run and plenty of time to get a new PR.

I decided to utilize a run/walk strategy, and walk in the sections that were totally unshaded. This worked out quite well, and I walked with a woman for a little bit. She has done the 50 states 3 times and it seems like she runs a marathon every weekend. It was nice to have some company for a while; however, she was struggling more than me so I moved forward without her. At other times I implemented a “walk .25 mile/run .75 mile” strategy. My strategy throughout the second half varied, but it all revolved around run/walk.

I knew that the turnaround point for the eastern section was somewhere around mile 19, and I was so glad to see that turnaround. The interesting thing about an out and back in a marathon is that you can see the faster runners coming at you; since we were on a narrow bike path you couldn’t miss anyone! The faster runners seemed to struggle in the weather conditions as well, which gave me some sort of solace. All aid stations had water and Heed (electrolyte replacement drink). One station had small cups of ice. I stuffed a cup of ice down my sports bra both times I passed that station. That helped A LOT!

Around mile 20 I saw that the dark clouds were rolling in and I thought I could hear thunder far away. By mile 22 it was clear that thunderstorms were rolling in. One of the race directors rode by on her bike to warn us of the weather. I asked her if I could still finish and she said “yes, but be careful.” It started to downpour, thunder, and lightning. The good news was that it made it about 5 degrees cooler, which was quite a welcome relief. It seemed like I was running away from the storm, so that gave me incentive to run faster. Eventually the storm subsided and the rain stopped. I had survived thunderstorm number one. The second one came about a mile from the finish. This one had heavier rain, but the thunder and lightning were not as bad. Again, it motivated to move faster and finish.

I knew my friend Deb from Kenyon (senior year roommate) and her daughter would be there to cheer me on somewhere towards the end of the race, but I wasn’t sure where. Knowing that I would see them soon helped me to go faster and to run more than I walked. I didn’t end up seeing them until mile 25.6 or so, which was just fine as it gave me that much more time to try to move quickly to see them.

I knew at around mile 25 that if I totally booked it as fast as I could that I could get in at a sub-5 hour time. However, I decided not to book it. My brain was really mushy at that point so I can’t accurately remember why I made that decision, especially because when faced with a similar situation at 2 of my previous marathons, I made the decision to completely book it and come in under 5. I guess I decided that I had many marathons ahead of me and this wasn’t my day to worry about the time. I was just grateful I had survived the thunderstorms and that I was able to run a marathon at Kenyon.

The finish line was three quarters of the way around the track where we had started. That seemed like the longest lap around the track I have ever taken. I did sprint in at the finish, even though I knew I would not get under 5 hours. But I got under 5:01! My official time was 5:00:46. Looking back, I am sure I could have made up those 47 seconds somewhere to get under 5, but I can’t worry about it now. I can only look forward. And I’ve got 2 marathons scheduled in the fall. Anything can happen!

I soon met up with Deb and her daughter, and we went to lunch after I took a shower. It was so great to have them there to share the finish with me! To have my Kenyon friend at the Kenyon marathon was just amazing. Later that day when I said goodbye to them I became emotional, as the enormity of the day finally struck me.

When I checked the results online that night, I discovered that I won an award for the top Athena time (this is a division for female runners over a certain weight range, I think it is 140 or 150 pounds). I was thrilled! I never thought I would get an award at a marathon, as I am a slower runner. I picked up my “loot” the next day, which consisted of a plaque, hat, and gift certificate. Later that day I found out that I was the only woman to enter that special weight division; however, I didn’t care!! I was happy with the award nonetheless.

The race was very well-organized and I *highly* recommend it to anyone looking for a small, eco-friendly, flat and scenic marathon. I’d go back to run the half but as for marathons, it’s on to other states for my 50 state marathon quest! Now I will take a week or two off from running so that I can have a social life before training begins again for my next marathon on 10/10/10 (10th state!)

My next blog will be about my February 28th marathon in Tampa, since I never wrote a blog about it!