Monday, October 8, 2007

Olympic Trials Here I Come

There is something about the St. George Marathon that will always be special to me yet I can’t put a finger on it. Maybe it’s because it was my first ever marathon. Maybe it’s because of the stunning beauty that greets you at Mile 14 as you enter Snow Canyon. Maybe it’s the world-class volunteer support and flawless execution of race logistics. It’s all of those things and more.

This year’s race was particularly special as I was attempting to qualify for the US Olympic Trials held in New York City on November 3. The “B” Qualifying time was 2:22:00 (5:25 pace) and the “A” time was 2:20:00 (5:20 pace). I had spent hours in the days leading up to the race pouring over last years’ splits (5:48/mile avg; 2:31 time) figuring out where I was going to pick up the 23 seconds per mile improvement I needed to qualify for the Trials. After studying the maps, my previous year’s splits and general knowledge of the course, my projected time, best case scenario, came out to be 2:20:04. Well under the “B” time of 2:22 giving me a buffer that I was mentally hoping for. That seemed too fast but those were the numbers I used on the wristband I created. While it seems tedious if not anal to micromanage splits over a 26 mile distance, it’s incredibly important when a specific time is desired and on a course as unique as St. George.

Race morning temperature at Central (5,200 elevation) was 36 degrees with a 10 mph wind mostly out of the west. The skies were clear with just a sliver of the moon and billions of stars. I got off the bus at 5:45 giving me one hour to ponder, pee and freeze…and then pee again. This was really the first year I took advantage of the bonfires. The bit of wind was just enough to make standing elsewhere completely unbearable. It’s fun to gather around the bonfires in the pitch black night listening to people talk about the upcoming race. Something I learned too late this year is that the elite runners not only get their own porto-potties, but they get their own fire pits. I noticed this only after throwing my clothing bag into the U-Haul. But it did help keep me warm in the final minutes leading up to the start of the race.

I exchanged pleasantries with the guys I would spend most of the next 2 hours and some minutes and then right on time, the starting horn went off at 6:45 am MDT. That first quarter mile into the early morning chill is always breathtaking. This year I decided to start with a long-sleeve technical shirt, a cap and gloves to help my body warm up. Man it was dark but I’m used to running in the dark winter morning of the Pacific Northwest so it wasn’t anything unusual.

First quarter mile felt pretty slow but came in at 81 seconds. Exactly on pace. There were probably 20 or so of us in the lead pack. Me and David Danley shared the early (meaningless) lead.

Mile 1 came in at 5:17. A bit faster than I wanted but not surprising given the adrenalin that comes with the start of any race. It definitely wasn’t silly fast like a 5:10 or something.

Mile 2 split was 5:33 which made me wonder whether or not the first two mile markers were placed precisely. But the average of the two miles had us right on 5:25 pace.

Mile 3 was 5:25. It marked the first water station as well as the first elite hydration table. I had hoped that someone would be there to hand us our bottles as they saw us come up but no such luck. I lost five or so seconds STOPPED at the table looking for my bottle. The good news is I got a good five or so ounces of electrolyte water into my system which is so critical. At the Eugene Marathon in April, I hadn’t put 5 ounces of fluid into my body until mile 7. But, next time I’ll be sure to attach something silly to my bottle to make it more easily visible. Shame on me. I quickly jumped back up with the main pack and this time stayed behind a few of the guys to draft behind them and benefit from the headwind you create when running at almost 12 mph. I still had the warmer clothes on as temperatures still felt a bit too nippy although a few of the guys had shed the warmer clothes including one guy who got rid of his plastic garbage sack that was making a ridiculous amount of noise.

At Mile 4 the pack was still largely intact. The split was 5:14. It was a bit of a drop in elevation and I knew I needed to take advantage of it with the mile-8 hill at Veyo. I was just about back on 2:20 pace by Mile 4 which felt good. No problems to speak of. The first signs of daylight were in the east but temperatures were still cold.

The Mile 5 split was 5:25 and it marked the next water station. It was time for some Gatorade. I grabbed two cups of it from the faithful volunteers and drank them both gone. As I’ve been able to increase the speed at which I run, I’ve learned that when grabbing a cup at the speed from a volunteer standing still, some of it spills out so it’s important to grab two cups to ensure you get enough fluid. I’ve also learned to make eye contact with the volunteer that I’m going to take the cup from so they know I’m coming. I even point right at them. While I had hoped for a faster split, I had five miles in the rear view mirror and I’m feeling great, I’m well hydrated and tolerating the cold.

Mile 6 has a pretty decent downhill. I knew from my race preparation that this needed to be a fast mile to take advantage of the downhill. The split came in at 4:58…the first of what would be several sub-5-minute miles. It was fast but it needed to be. I could ill-afford to stroll through mile 6 with the daunting uphill miles of 8-12 still to come. So I was very pleased. Cumulative time was 31:52. I was 20 seconds ahead of my wristband and 38 seconds ahead of OTQ “B” pace with one more downhill mile to go before the dreaded 8-12 stretch.

Mile 7 was in 5:05. Another fast mile that had to be. I shed my hat and long-sleeve shirt and threw them to my dad who was standing alongside the road as we entered the town of Veyo. This was also the second elite water station and this time my water bottle was handed to me. I drank 5-6 ounces of electrolyte water and was feeling very good about my hydration so far. Veyo is an important landmark in the race. Despite its tiny size, the town always manages to have people out cheering at 7:15 in the morning. Perhaps there are people crazier than marathoners. It also marks the end of what I consider to be Phase One of the marathon. The course has shed 787’ of elevation at this point and over the next four miles, we will have to gain 249’ feet of that right back, nearly 100’ of that coming in less than one mile. Miles 8-12, in my estimation, are where you have to be very smart about how you run and be patient or you will ruin your chances for success. I believe the race cannot be won from 8-12, but can absolutely be lost.

As we started Mile 8, which is almost entirely up Veyo hill, the pack had thinned. There were really only five or so of us with David Danley still courageously out in front of us all by probably 20 yards. I had planned to give back some time to Mr. Veyo Hill and run about 5:45 up it. As a pack we reminded each other to take it easy up the hill which we did. I crested the hill having finished Mile 8 in 5:54. It was a bit slower than I planned before the race but was exactly where I wanted to be when I assessed the situation entering Veyo.

While Veyo is pretty steep hill, I actually think the next three mile are harder because they give a false sense of security. They aren’t steep but their climb is steady and it’s really easy to run them too fast. Mile 9 came in at 5:45. I was aiming for 5:30 so this was the first mile I completely “missed.” However, I also was feeling very good and knew that I had run Veyo properly and that my time would come to make up for the uphill stretch. I was also able to get a good swig of Gatorade at the aid station.

By Mile 10, there were basically three of us, me, Nick Scheutze and Paul Petersen in the main pack with David Danley still braving it on his own 10-20 yards ahead of us. Mile 10’s split was 5:32, very close to the 5:30 I had down from my pre-race planning.

Miles 11 and 12 combined I had planned to hit in 11:05. I missed hitting my lap button at Mile 11 because I had to once again stop at the elite table to find my water bottle. I quickly recovered and rejoined Paul and Nick. When I hit the lap button on my watch at Mile 12, it read 11:22 for the two miles so I had given back 17 seconds more than I had wanted. Cumulative time at this point had reached 1:05:35. This was 35 seconds slower than Trials “B” pace and 16 seconds slower than my pre-race planning. I was slightly concerned but certainly not panicked. I knew the back half would be a negative split, I just didn’t know by how much.

Mile 13 is pretty flat. I picked up the pace a bit after being off pace through the toughest stretch of the race and wound up with a 5:10 at 13. At the half way point I crossed at 1:11:25 only about 6 seconds off OTQ “B” and now slightly ahead of my wristband.

With the toughest and slowest part of the race behind me, I was feeling as good as you could feel after running half a marathon. I knew my best was yet ahead. I had run the first half almost at OTQ “B” pace and didn’t kill myself doing it. But, another 13 miles is still a long way to go.

Mile 14 marks the end of Phase 2 and the beginning of Phase 3. It features the most beautiful stretch of running I have ever witnessed and at about the time I first saw the sun. At Mile 14 I’m still seeing my breath and I have my gloves on. Mile 14 is a slight downhill and I checked in at 5:11. I was three seconds faster than my wristband and six seconds slower than OTQ and closing fast.

Mile 15 and 16 are stunningly beautiful but brutal downhill stretches. Running the tangents on these two miles is critical unless you want to end the race having run 27 miles. You lose 450’ of elevation over these two miles. I missed the lap button on my watch at 15 because I was focused on the elite water station. Got my bottle and chugged another good dose of electrolytes in water. Threw the bottle down and bolted for two very fast miles. If remember correctly, this is where Paul and I finally reeled in David. The two combined miles came in at 9:48, way faster than the 10:20 I had planned for. My hill training was paying off as was my decision to take it easy from miles 8-12. All of the sudden I was now on pace for a 2:21 finish. But more goodness was to come.

Miles 17 and 18 were blistering as well. I grabbed Gatorade at 17 and plugged along. These two miles drop another 282’ in elevation. Mile 17 comes in at 4:58 and mile 18 at 5:06. I was now one minute ahead of my wristband and nearly on OTQ “A” pace with 8 miles to go. It was at this point where I started to feel the effects of the punishing downhills. The calves were aching which was good because it meant I was pushing off on the downhills rather than braking. But the pain in my quads and calves was beginning to make me feel limited in my ability to take a full stride without compensating for the pain. This was a point where I really relied on Paul to pull me through the next mile.

Mile 19 drops a modest 43’ feet in elevation and I could feel the pain and the lactic acid buildup try and slow me down. Mile 19 came in at a very respectable 5:14. I was thrilled because it was the first mile that felt like I was running 8-minute miles.

Miles 20 and 21 combine for a drop of 392’ in elevation drop. I didn’t take very good advantage of it on mile 20 managing only a 5:26. I knew I had to do better. I picked it up a bunch and turned in a 4:45 for Mile 21. That was a huge mental boost because it showed I still had something left with only 5 miles to go. Paul and I had reeled in David a few miles back and Nick had left us several miles ago and was in complete control of the race. I was now 1:15 ahead of my wristband and 2:30 ahead of OTQ “B.” I was now on pace to go sub 2:20 with 5 miles to go at a cumulative 1:51:14.

Mile 22 was a huge gut check. I was really hurting. Paul had pulled ahead was was still very much in reach. I knew he was probably going to beat me, but I really wanted to let him pull me through this very difficult time so I hung close. Thoughts of my intense training, my kids rooting for me at home and the people I had met virtually on the marathon chat page all helped me through this tough time. The thought of not having to pay for my trip to the Trials also helped. “A” qualifiers get all their expenses paid for by USATF. Mile 22’s split was a very hard earned 5:15.

Mile 23 was just as difficult but this is where you enter the city and from here, the crowds are constant and increasing in volume. It was also the next chance I had to see my dad and brother in law. I finally shed my gloves and gave them to my cheering father. Paul was very much in charge of second place at this point but he had really helped me through a very difficult stretch for which I was grateful to concede second place. The split was again a very hard earned 5:10. I was really, really hurting. The quad and calf pain was excruciating and I still had 3 miles to go. But I was reaching the point where only disaster would keep me from NYC. My main motivation now was two things: get the “A” qualifying time and break 2:19 which would give me the fastest marathon time for any Washington runner this year. While the “B” was getting closer to a sure thing, these last two goals were far from guaranteed. There was just too much race left to think I had these in the bag.

All I remember about Mile 24 is it sucked but I somehow managed a 5:09. I have no idea how. With two miles to go, I was at 2:06:48, 1:29 faster than my wristband and 3:12 below the “B” standard on pace for a sub 2:19 marathon. NYC was all but certain, but I had to fight to hold on to breaking 2:19 and not do anything stupid that would jeopardize 2:20. Nick was assured victory. Paul had locked up second and I had locked up third. I just needed to hang on and hang on is what I did.

Miles 25 and 26 were 5:27 and 5:26 respectively. Acceptable. As I turned on to 300 South to complete the last quarter mile of the race I began to really appreciate my accomplishment. The thousands of onlookers were cheering. I pumped my fist and they cheered louder. I was on my way to NYC. I managed to finish the last .21 miles in 74 seconds…pretty quick despite letting off the gas pedal a bit once I knew a sub 2:19 was assured. Finishing time was 2:18:55. Miraculous. I can’t even describe how I feel even two days later as I write this. It was a personal moment like none other and my proudest athletic achievement ever. 29 months after beginning my running career anew, I was on top of my marathon world, achieving something I hadn’t thought possible just 12 months earlier when I crossed the same finish line in 2:31. A PR by 11 minutes, a course PR by 13 minutes, about 30 seconds per mile.

And then to greet Paul and Nick at the end and see how happy we were for each other and the other four Trials qualifiers who followed was something I will never forget. And then to see my dad, also a marathoner, and my mother, sister and brother-in-law waiting there for me was something I simply can’t describe. They were so proud.
This race was perfect in every way. The weather was sublime. Finishing temperature was around 49 degrees, a far cry from Chicago’s weather the next day…the race I was originally going to use to qualify.

I am so blessed. God has blessed with a talent AND with the mental and physical toughness and determination to make that talent into something. I am so blessed.

I will be back next year. I think there is room for improvement. I’ll be 35 next year when I run St. George, but I’m going to add some weightlifting and some additional tempo running during my long runs to further condition my body and take a run at the amazing time Nick put up this year.

I am very grateful to the organizers of this race and particularly to the volunteers. There is no finer run marathon in America.

Unfortunately, my wife and four beautiful kids couldn’t join me on Saturday. But they will be there in NYC to cheer me on as I toe the line with this country’s finest marathoners…the ones we all read about.

3 comments:

ArmyRunner said...

Sean,

I was very impressed with your race at St. George and after reading your blog even more so on how you set out and accomplished such a great improvement from last year. Paul, who you ran with on Saturday pointed out your blog from our blog site FastRunningBlog.com. I enjoyed your post race story. You should stop in and check out Paul and some of the others bloggers at FastRunningBlog we have a great bunch of runners that really support each other. I too am very determined to take a stab at making some big improvements over the next year and see what I can push myself to accomplish. In that regard I would be very interested and greatful in seeing how you trained this last year to get to where you are at. Obviously you have done something right and it would be great to be able to see what worked for you. Well, if you get a chance my site on FastRunningBlog.com is ArmyRunner and my email is ted.leblow at us.army.mil. Thanks, and I hope to see you next year at St. George although I hope to be much closer to you at the finish. Enjoy your trip to New York!

Alexander said...

Sean:
This is Sasha. We chatted a bit right before Veyo. Did not get a chance to talk to you after the race. Good job!

P.S. My blog is at http://sasha.fastrunningblog.com/

Gilles said...

Congrats Sean ! I'm still amazed at your long race reports ... how do you remember all what happened during a race that long is a mystery to me :)
Good luck for the rest !