Top of Utah Marathon Performance Review ... Really LONG "Short" Story
Top of Utah Marathon
September 18, 2010
7th Marathon Completed
Boston Mountain High
A short story of training & racing to qualify for the Boston Marathon
I sat there in my car weeping with a sick feeling in my stomach. Like someone who just realized they had lost the winning lottery ticket, thousands of questions and "what-ifs" raced through my mind. As planned, I had just destroyed my previous marathon record by over 23 minutes, but a simple personal best was not why I had driven 17 hours to the mountains of Logan, Utah. In an cruel twist of fate I had just missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by less than 10 seconds. My heart was still pounding, my legs were still throbbing, and my toes were beginning to coil involuntarily from dehydration. But the most overwhelming pain was the emptiness I felt as I watched my ultimate goal of the Boston Marathon slip away. There was no one else to blame for the day's failure. Why didn't I push harder on mile 25? Why did I take two pee-stops? Would I ever be in this good of shape again for another marathon? THIS was supposed to be my day! THIS was supposed to be the race where I proved to everyone that I was a "real runner"! How did it all go so horribly wrong?
Starting line at 2009 Little Rock, Marathon
A New Focus
In early July, I had finally had enough. I had a noble goal of trying to complete 50 marathons in all 50 states after the age of 40, but to this point I had not been as committed as the task would demand. Along the way, I had set various time related goals for marathons, half-marathons, and 5K's, but I was nowhere near reaching them. During my 30's I had ran a few 5K's, and I ran my first marathon when I was 40 years old at Little Rock, Arkansas. And since then, I had churned out another 5 marathons in Nebraska, Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Minnesota. But although simply finishing these courses was a huge accomplishment for me, I wasn't progressing with speed the way I wanted. I wanted to be a "real runner". To be fast. To be recognized by my peers. I wanted to run qualifying times for the Boston Marathon over and over and over. In no way did I intend to diminish the accomplishment of someone running a 5K or a marathon no matter what the time, but I wanted to stand out and compete at an elite level of fitness. So after a series of disappointing races and various "latest and greatest" training plans, I decided to completely renovate everything about the way I was going about training for these races and qualifying for Boston. I did a lot of research on the world's greatest runners. I studied everything about them. How much they ran each week. How fast they ran each day. How many hills they ran in a training cycle. Did they cross train? Did they take days off? How much water did they drink? How did they taper before the race? What did they do for recovery and how much they sleep did they get ... EVERYTHING!
Weekly Running Log
First, I decided I was not logging enough weekly mileage. Most of the world's elite runners ran anywhere from 80-110 miles per week. My longest weeks at that time were only 55-60 miles, with the average week only totaling a measly 45. I focused on the concept of "Run longer, stronger, and faster." And I would really begin to push myself. I began to gradually increase my mileage eventually topping out at 78 miles three weeks before the race. And throughout the 10 week training cycle, I averaged about 70 miles per week. I ran 6 and sometimes 7 days a week. I ran in the rain. I ran in 100 degree heat. I ran in lightning & thunder (which I don't recommend - it's pretty scary). I even ran in hail one morning. It didn't matter. I was running all the time.
I woke up most mornings at 4 a.m. to start my day. But sometimes while traveling for my job I would roll out of bed at 3 in the morning in order to make early meetings. Many times I thought to myself, "I have to be the only idiot in this whole city running right now!" When you're running down the street in the middle of the night, you encounter a lot of nocturnal normality's, rarely seen on day-light runs. I passed drunks just getting home. I ran by sanitation workers and Krispy Kreme drivers starting their daily routes. I encountered groups of deer standing in the middle of the road. I watched in horror one morning as a deer was struck by a car while trying to cross the road in Lees Summit, Missouri. A coyote ran about 50 feet in front of me in Des Moines, Iowa. Police raided a house in Wichita, Kansas as I ran by. I got closer than I wanted to a skunk. I almost stepped on snakes. I ducked and dodged more than a few times as bats that were circling street lights clumsily fluttered toward my head. And in Omaha, Nebraska I ran under a highway overpass where several homeless people were gathered. I took a different route back to my hotel room that morning.
Michael & me at the 2010 Jackson County Triathlon
The Need For Speed
I also decided that I simply wasn't running fast enough during these early morning hours. While training for the 3 triathlons she completed this summer, my wife Michael often offered me tips from various publications she found useful. It gave me great new perspectives, ideas, and insight. For most of my marathons, I had used a modified version of an online training plan. This was a great "do it yourself" program that cautiously brought you along with a 4-day-a-week running schedule, with one mid-week day of speed work. The part of the program that didn't work for me was when I calculated the pace of my long weekend runs. The suggestion of this program was to run 30-45 seconds slower than your targeted marathon pace. This just didn't make sense to me. Maybe it worked for some people, but how was I supposed to do all my training significantly below my target race pace, and then somehow just "flip a switch" during the marathon and run farther and faster than ever? Was it magic?
I didn't junk the plan completely, but I tinkered with it just enough to get over the hump. I kept the mid-week speed work, but also added a tempo run on Mondays that usually averaged about 10-15 seconds faster than my target marathon pace. Also, I increased some of my weekend runs to 22 & 23 miles as opposed to the 18 & 20 mile distances I had previously been hammering out. And I tried to run a significant portion of 22 miler's under my target marathon pace. My thought was simple ... train faster = race faster!
Frankly, even though much of my excess fat was melting away from all the miles, I knew my abs and hips were not as strong as this race would require. They needed to be forged of steel, and I had plywood at best. In previous marathons I had done just enough core work to get by. But I knew that "real runners" didn't cut corners. Like most people, I don't just hate ab work, I would most likely substitute it for a root canal. Ab work doesn't let me eat what I want! Ab work makes working out suck! Ab work takes this stuff way too seriously! But I begrudgingly started plowing away with crunches, planks, and sit ups. I was like a machine. Most mornings I felt a tube of Crest that someone was squeezing from the middle, but I usually averaged about 1000 crunches and 500 push ups each week, with additional core work at the gym. And for the first time, you could almost see past the donut and pizza-fashioned girdle that I had sported most of my adult life. It was kinda weird looking at myself in the mirror. I was slowly transforming. I was beginning to look like a runner. At least a 41 year old runner. The hard work was starting to pay off. I was fitter. I was stronger. And I was faster than ever before. But would that be enough?
2010 KC Royals 5K Personal Best Time 18:46
I wanted to get an idea of exactly how I was progressing. So two weeks before the marathon I ran in the Kansas City Royals 5K to measure where I was physically. If you love the Kansas City Royals (and I am one of about a dozen people who do), this is a really cool race. The course starts outside of Kauffman Stadium and circles Arrow Head Stadium (home of the Kansas City Chiefs), wraps the parking lot, and then finishes on the Kansas City Royals field. You get to actually run inside the stadium and be on the giant scoreboard. I've been a life-long Royals fan and as silly as it sounds, this is probably my favorite race. There were only about 800 runners in this small race, but I finished 8th overall, and 2nd in my age group, with a personal best of 18:46, a 6:03 average mile. Now I will never win an Olympic Medal with that pace, but for me it was an affirming sign of my improved speed and endurance. But the most encouraging factor from the 5K was that I held back a little because of the upcoming trip to the mountains for my marathon. I wanted to make sure that I didn't get hurt or over fatigued during the race. I really think I could have run it under 6:00 per mile that day. But then again, most runners always feel like they could have given a little more after a race.
But I Live In The Midwest???
Looming in the back of my mind all summer was the constant intimidation of the 5500 ft mountain altitude of Logan, Utah. Logan is a small college town located in the upper corner of the state, about 90 miles North of Salt Lake City, in Cache Valley of Cache National Forest. I obsessed about it when I ran. I dreamt about it when I slept. The extreme elevation was almost mocking me. I had never ran at altitude before, let alone the most important race of my life. We used to jump off of the high-dive at the swimming pool when I was a kid. But one summer, a few buddies dared each other to jump from the 30 foot bridge at Stockton Lake. No big deal right? I mean I had jumped from that monster pool diving-board dozens of times. But when I stood on the edge of the bridge and looked down, I couldn't believe how far away the water was. The same feeling of panic often crept into my mind thinking about the elevation of Logan. I mean, it was just a marathon right? I had done it before. But for this race I would have to be fast. And not just fast, but Boston Marathon fast. A whopping 23 minutes faster than any other marathon I had ever ran ... all while being a freaking mile in the sky! Was I crazy?
2010 Top of Utah Elevation Chart
On the race website, the course appeared to be a breeze. Well, as "breezy" as 26 miles of running can be I suppose. The first 13 miles of the course were a gently slopping down hill 1-2% grade, and the second half of the race featured no more than a 100 ft incline at any point. Shoot, that was nothing compared to the knee buckling hills at mile 13 of Little Rock, or the 300 ft quad crushers at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. But the altitude! I did a lot of reading on how athletes react going from sea level to altitude for a race. My research did nothing to calm my fears. I found crazy stories of severe altitude sickness, dehydration, dizziness, and significantly decreased times and performance. Some home-remedy suggestions included over-dosing on Gatorade, breathing into plastic bags, taking little pink altitude pills, and sleeping in oxygen deprivation tents - none of which seemed reasonable or affordable. So I tried to stay focused on just increasing my overall fitness and running speed, regardless of living nowhere near a mountain range.
The summers are typically pretty humid in the Midwest. Maybe not Florida-humid or Amazon-humid. But for most of the race training cycle, the morning temperatures of my runs were about 75-80 degrees with 85-90% humidity. Many mornings the condensation built up like rain droplets on the face of my Garmin watch. Every stitch of clothing clung to the outline of my body as if fitting me for a second skin. My shoes became heavy sloshy sponges that squished around on my feet leaving size 12 imprints on the cool floor of my garage after a morning run. Just like training in the winter months when I pray for a day over 25 degrees, my lungs ached for a day of less than 60% humidity so I could actually breath air as opposed to water during my workouts. But while the constant steam-bath seemed to be an energy-draining curse all summer, it actually proved to be a huge blessing for the race. I actually found the mountain altitude to be a complete non-factor during the marathon thanks to the simulated oxygen deprivation conditions of my training. Most people have trouble getting enough oxygen at 5500 ft, but heck - I hadn't breathed much oxygen all summer - mostly H2O! I felt shortness of breath, shallow breathing, and complete fatigue and exhaustion after most of my workouts during the summer. So the clean, crisp mountain air was like bone-dry music to my lungs. It was like a weight had been lifted and I could finally take a long, deep, precipitation free breaths and run free and fast.
Google Earth image of Logan
Right on schedule with my obsessive personality, I began stalking the marathon. I spent the final few weeks of the training reviewing the Top of Utah Marathon course and learning everything I could about Logan, Utah. I used Google Earth to actually look at the houses and businesses that I would be passing by in Logan during the race. I studied the drop in morning temperature of Hardware Ranch in Cache National Forest, the starting location for the 26 mile run. I researched humidity and average rain fall of the area. I monitored the local wind-speed on TheWeatherChannel.com everyday to give me an idea of what the conditions would be like on marathon morning. I went to the Logan Chamber of Commerce web page and looked at restaurants, pet shops, and civic centers. Logan is home to Utah State University and I watched videos from the campus on YouTube. I didn't want anything about the city to be new, or something I hadn't seen when I got there.
I also navigated training courses at home that mimicked the race course. I calculated and recalculated my pace chart and ran it over, and over, and over during the early morning hours. I wanted to know my marathon pace by feeling it, not just by looking at my Garmin watch - which would end up being the most important thing I did during training. I've always had the theory that I run better while training at home because I'm familiar with the course and I know exactly what to expect. I tried to simulate a familiarity with Logan as much as possible. I didn't want any surprises. I was going to own this race. I wanted to know this city, its marathon, and the course like the back of my hand.
17 Hours In A Car
The Top of Utah Marathon was on a Saturday. Typically I like to arrive in the marathon city a day before the race and pick up my race packet, get something to eat, rest, and scout the course a little. But I arrived in Logan two days before so I could acclimate to the altitude a little. It took me about 17 hours and 4 States to drive there. 17 hours in a car by themselves would drive most people mad, but I really find it somewhat therapeutic and relaxing. While driving I sing, talk to myself, think about my kids, think about my wife, and listen to Serius Satellite Radio. But also I use the time to focus on my race plan and think about every detail I might have missed in the previous few weeks. The 6-1/2 hours across Nebraska on I-80 were pretty flat and uneventful, but when I got to Wyoming the mountains began to break up the monotony a little. I had never been to Wyoming or Utah before so the experience was unique and I enjoyed seeing the various plateaus, valleys, and wild animals of these cowboy states.
Bear Lake - Cache National Forest
During hour 15, just as I entered Cache National Forest, I spilled a bottle of water on my crotch. I was close to Logan that I thought I would just drive the rest of the way with wet pants. But I soon came upon a road-side park at Bear Lake so I pulled in to change into something dry. I had only seen about 3 cars in the past hour, but I noticed a car parked at the far South end of the lot with someone from the waste down sticking out from underneath like they were a shade-tree mechanic tending to a repair. "Huh, non of my business", I thought. So I proceeded to the far North end of the lot to change. I was confident I could easily slip my saturated pants off and and have the dry ones on before anyone even knew I was there. No one around except me, the bears, and this dude working on his car. But just as my water-stained trousers hit the ground and I was reaching for a clean-dry pair, I heard a voice say "Excuse me, can you help me?" I immediately panicked and pulled the wet ones back up and whipped around with a surprised look on my face. Standing about 10 feet from the hood of my car was young Asian girl. Apparently it wasn't a guy under that vehicle. Man, she really snuck up on me. I had to have looked really embarrassed after literally being caught with my pants down. I asked her to please give me minute, and told her that I wasn't a weirdo or anything, but I was changing into some dry pants thanks to my accident. Shocked, she turned around kind of embarrassed and said "Oh .. okay ... I didn't see anything!", laughed a little and milled slowly back toward her car as she waited for my help.
Fully clothed, I made my way over to her ailing Toyota Prius. She told me that she had ran over a dead deer on the highway about an hour ago and that his antlers had damaged the bottom of the car. There was piece of hard plastic from the under-panel that was now dragging the ground and she needed help removing it. To be honest, I was a little frustrated. I was in a hurry to get to Logan and I didn't think I had time to mess with her problem. I had a single focus ... my race. But she told me she was travelling from Seattle to meet some friends in Albuquerque. Plus she was about the same age as my daughter Madi. How could I just leave without helping her. Even with my mechanical deficiencies, I had to be a better option than a lot of the crazies she could encounter while travelling alone. I wouldn't want a complete jerk to just leave my daughter at a road side park with deer meat hanging off of her grill. So I told her I didn't know much about cars, but I would do what I could. I wedged my body under the tiny car as best I could and found a little deer fur on some of the bolts and springs. The only tools either of us had was my small utility knife with a couple of undersized screw driver attachments. So it took about an hour, but I removed the piece that had been dragging the ground. We put the broken piece in the back of her hatch-back on top of her laundry baskets and suit cases and she thanked me. As I drove away covered in dirt and road grime I thought, "Huh, that was unexpected." If you believe in Karma, you could say that running a good race was Karma for helping her. I just looked at it as something I had to do. I'm glad I had the chance to help her. But I was now FREAKING BEHIND SCHEDULE.
Signs everywhere in Logan
Calm Before The Storm
I spent the next two days in Logan driving, driving, and re-driving the marathon course. I think I drove the second half of it about 10 times. The first half was basically a straight shot down the side of a mountain. While it was beautiful with all of the leaves changing that time of year, there wasn't a lot to memorize. But as the course made its way into the streets of Logan, I wanted to make sure I was familiar with every nook and cranny. I learned that the hill going up mile 17 was a little longer than anticipated. I found out that I would pass a donkey tied to a post at mile 18. I made a mental note about the left turn by the baseball park that would serve as my mile 21 visual marker. And I drove through the finish line, imagining crossing in a Boston Marathon qualifying time.
The day before the race I tried to relax and get some rest while driving the course again. I stopped at a local running store, Runners North, and visited with the owner while I looked around. She told me that she had moved to Logan from a few years ago from Boston. "Huh, maybe that's a sign", I thought as I shopped. I had been focused on the Boston Marathon for several months and the first person I met in Logan, Utah was from Boston ... weird. I usually also try to go to a movie the day before a race and this would be no exception. I bought a ticket for "The Town", starring Ben Affleck. The movie is a story about bank robbers and was filmed in, you guessed it ... Boston. Okay, this was starting to get a little weird. The only thing missing now was Boston Cream Pie for desert that night. And if I could have found some, I guarantee I would have ordered it. But instead, I settled for my standard pre-race meal ritual ... large Papa John's Meat Pizza with light sauce.
View from my hotel room
Rise & Shine
Like most marathoners, I have a tough time sleeping the night before a marathon and this was no exception. I rolled around all night reviewing my pace strategy over and over. I had practiced it a hundred times and was confident I would be fine if I just stuck to the script, but a little natural doubt still crept in. At about 3 a.m., I sat straight up out of bed as if I had heard a burglar, and then couldn't get back to sleep. So I got up and milled around like a caged animal in my hotel room for a while before finally deciding to go wait for the shuttle bus which was leaving for the starting line at 5:45. Besides, there were limited parking spaces at Merlin Olsen Park in downtown Logan, and if I was the first one there I would surely get a good spot. I packed my gear bag in my typical orderly and systematic fashion. Water ... check! Post race protein bar ... check! Charged Garmin watch ... check! Good luck puck (a wooden puck with a laminated picture of my kids, wife, and dog) ... check! And out the door I went.
Although I was at the shuttle bus pickup early, the wait went by fairly quickly. I watched as thousand of runners parked their cars and headed toward one of the 20 waiting school buses that would shuttle us to the starting line. Most were dressed in running shorts, gloves, stocking caps, and jackets. The jackets they would shed at the 30 degree starting line or early on in the race. But many would keep the gloves and hats. After eating a banana, I grabbed my gear bag, locked my car and joined the march to board the waiting convoy. I put my headphones on and tried to relax with a little music. After all, we had 26 miles by school bus before we were deposited at the starting line.
Entering Cache National Forest
The Wheels On The Bus
As the yellow shuttle's diesel engine clanked and pinged it's way through Cache National Forest up the mountain to the starting line at Hardware Ranch, I was reminded of the countless high school athletic trips I had traveled by this same transport back in my glory days ... on what was probably the same year, make, and model as this bus. Knees punishing the person in front of you through the torn vinyl formerly spring cushioned seat. Rusty shocks jolting you to and fro and bouncing you off of the ceiling when the driver didn't miss the curb. Nervous chatter from all of the passengers in anticipation of the big event. And on this bus, as with every other marathon shuttle in the world, "marathon guy" sitting about two or three rows back sharing stories of all his previous marathon glories, as well as slipping in the fact that he is a high grossing salesman, with an attractive young girl who had the misfortune of the getting last open seat next to him.
My mind, however, drifted to the bulk of my training and my "peaceful place" with thoughts of my family. I thought about my last long run and how smooth and easy it felt despite the punishing heat and humidity. I rested my hands on my quads and was thankful that this was the strongest and healthiest I had ever felt for a marathon. I remembered my 5K personal best at Kauffman Stadium just two weeks prior and how I really could have pushed as high as 4th or 5th place if hadn't held back a little. I thought about my kids and how they both had wished me luck and texted me earlier in the morning, once again letting me know they loved me and were thinking about me. I focused on my wife and how she had worked so hard at 3 triathlons of her own this summer, man she was a trooper. And I thought about how it would feel crossing the finish line with a Boston Marathon qualifying time. I was prepared. I was strong. I was fast. Now all we had to do was park this bus and let me have at it.
Warm up tent at Hardware Ranch
It was about 30 degrees at Hardware Ranch and the Top of Utah Marathon staff had a huge circus-type tent erected so the runners could warm themselves before the race. There was a local news chopper circling overhead, and local police motorcycles with red and blue lights flashing were warming and revving their engines. Shivering, I made my way past a table of Gatorade cups filled with "last-minute" water as commissioned photo journalists documented the event. As Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" blared from an 8 foot concert speaker, I ducked into the dark tent to take the chill off. Once inside, it was shoulder to shoulder, and there was a mass of humanity huddled on the asphalt floor. Some were friends bunched together in make-shift tee pees under blankets. Others were lone runners completing some final stretching. And a few looked like they should be waiting at the end of the driveway for the morning trash pickup as they were cloaked in plastic garbage bags. But all were warm. The first few miles down the terrain would be chilly and this was the last chance anyone would have at something other than self-generated heat for a while.
About 15 minutes before the leather-clad Frontiersmen and Native Americans would fire their 17th Century style muskets to start the race, I decided it was time to fire up my Garmin. My Garmin Forerunner 305 GPS watch is one of the standard time-pieces in the running community, and had become my loyal companion and most valued training tool during previous marathons, and during the miles and miles of training across the Midwestern United States. I had learned to depend on the pace and heart rate it displayed to indicated just how fast I was or was not running at any given point. While these type of GPS watches are commonplace for novice runners like me, many elite runners and running purists do not use them. They get by with basic time-keepers, or simply by feel. I however needed my Garmin. With the exception of my physical conditioning and hydration products, it had become the most essential part of any success I had experienced. As I hit the red power button on the side of the unit, it made a weird, single-toned beep that I had never heard before. I looked at the display and it flashed a bunch of characters that looked like they were written in Latin or Martian and then went completely blank. "Huh, that was odd", I thought to myself. I depressed the button again. Same thing. This was starting to bug me a little. I hit it a third time ... nothing. I immediately panicked! I hit it again, and again, and again ... nope, nope, nope! "What the!" It didn't take a rocket scientist at that point to realize the worst had happened ... MY FREAKING GARMIN WAS DEAD!
2010 Top of Utah Starting Line
After mumbling a few verbally colorful descriptions of the situation to myself I began to gather my thoughts. "I'll just run with a pace group", I thought. Many marathons have experienced race pacers who hold signs with specific times such as 4:00 marathon, 4:15 marathon, 4:30 marathon, etc. These pacers give everyone in the race an idea of when they'll finish, just by keeping up with them. They are a great tool, but some people find them to be mildly annoying. The problem is that many runners often bottle-neck around the pacers and make it difficult to pass during the race. However, this race didn't have any pacers or pace groups. My face turned white as a ghost. I was without a watch. Without a pace group. And without much hope of qualifying for Boston.
With a combination of self-pitty, rage, dismay, and regret rolled up into one at an all-time high, I stepped in with the rest of the herd at the starting line and waited for the gun blast that would echo through the frosty mountains. "I would just run", I reasoned. "I mean, I did drive all this way and I could maybe get a personal best even without a watch, but Boston is out of the question", I rationalized. I was about 50 yards back in the pack at the starting line and as the muskets fired their, "BOOM!" In a marathon, if you're not within a few feet of the starting line, you do not just automatically start running when the starter gives the signal. Depending on how far back you line up in the sea of humanity, there is typically an initial surge, followed by an immediate slamming on the brakes, a group groan, then a slow walk, fast walk, jog, and then you eventually begin running. This process can take as much as a minute or more considering the size of the race. At the time, I estimated it took me about 10-15 seconds to cross the timing pad laid over the starting line. These pads record an electronic reading from a chip that is typically worn on your shoe or embedded in your racing bib number. They are used to mark an accurate race time sometimes down to the millisecond. So it stands to reason that your official race time (chip time) is usually faster than the overall time (gun time) started when the gun is sounded due to the delay in the congestion at the beginning of the race.
Down the mountain
As I started down the mountain I didn't feel the familiar adrenaline rush that usually accompanies my first few miles of a race. Usually I am so jacked-up with excitement at the outset of a race that I have a really tough time controlling my tempo and end up running a little faster than I want to. In Utah however, I was still fighting off feelings of disappointment through the first 5 miles or so. I asked a few people here and there what the time on their watch said to get an idea of the pace at which we were moving. I know that most runners would consider this pretty rude, and honestly, if someone would have asked me that same question, I would have thought, "Seriously dude ... man, get a watch!" So I looked for people that I considered harmless and who didn't look like their running was all that labored. Everyone I asked replied with a very friendly response.
As the on-line course had spelled out, the first half of the race was literally all down hill and I didn't really feel all that challenged. I had never ran down hill for that long before, and dare I say it almost felt effortless ... maybe even easy! I felt like I could have proceeded a little faster and still have gas left in the tank for the late stages, but I kept it steady and at a very manageable chug. When I crossed the timing pad at the 13.1 mile check point, I was about 30 seconds behind my pace chart plan based on the giant digital clock that ticked away and displayed the elapsed time as we passed by. This only served to confirm my pre-race thoughts of "no Boston qualifying time today". But I kept plugging along until mile 14 when yet another challenge for the Top of Utah marathon hit me.
Running through the Mountains of Utah
What, Pit Stops???
Not unlike most runners, I usually empty my bladder immediately before each race. But during this morning's Garmin distractions, I had skipped the Port-o-Potty meet-and-greet lines in favor of sulking over my stupidity in bringing a dead watch to the starting line. So during most of the first half I had been holding a belly full of Gatorade that was bouncing like a giant water balloon with every step. As a result, I'm pretty sure there was a little man stationed next to my bladder smacking it with a whiffle ball bat each time my heal struck the ground. I usually don't break for this reason in a race, but since my whole pace plan was effectively out the window, I exercised a pit-stop and took care of business. After about 45 seconds of freeing my body of unwanted fluid, and enjoying the wonderful art, poetry, and cleanliness of the road side john, I was on my way.
Once back on course I felt fine for about 3 miles ... until the full bladder feeling welled up inside me again. "What the ...?" Didn't I get it all? I mean I know I rushed, but come on! No way I have to stop again, or this soon! So I kept running. But after about a half mile, it was apparent that I was going to have visit a tree or some overgrown bushes for pee-stop #2. How embarrassing! This was getting ridiculous. But with visions of Boston now long gone, I pulled over and "let-'er-rip tator chip". This atypical stop burned another 30 seconds or so and I was soon back on track. This time I was determined. I didn't care if my urinary tract hurt so bad it made my eyes cross, I wasn't stopping again to use the restroom.
Through the streets of Logan, Utah
My legs and breathing felt pretty fresh for the rest of the race. And I couldn't believe how much of a non-issue the mountain altitude was. I felt like the U.S. Army vs. Libya. Like the Harlem Globe Trotters vs. the Washington Generals. Like David vs. Goliath. The resistance of the imposing elevation was simply not a consideration. I had dreaded this terrain all summer, but when I stepped in the ring against this mile-high foe, it seemed to back down and quit like a coward. And my legs, despite starting to feel a little tight and depleted at mile 21, had great energy and bounce in every step. I knew I was probably running a strong race, but without a current clock reading I didn't know exactly how strong. The seemingly millions of dress rehearsal miles performed in my training were starting to pay off. For the first time in a race, I was running by feel, and not simply by the minute and second hands. From my breathing, I instinctively knew when I needed to pick it up a little or back off a smidge. From the rhythm of my feet skipping across the pavement, I could tell I was simulating an accurate pace. And by passing runners right and left, mowing them down like they were walking - which some were, I knew this day was one of my better efforts.
I'm not too proud to say that I'm usually the one being passed in the late stages of a marathon. I have a bad habit of going out too fast and hitting the wall around mile 22 or 23. You're probably thinking, "Well, start slower dummy!" But for me this is easier said than done. I can usually push through the pain and lack of physical resources, but its always a grind. However on this day, just past mile 20 or 21, I met up with a runner and his little black and white Terrier who were apparently competing in the race together. It probably took my mind off of the typical sputtering my engine experiences at this point, but I found the dog to be a little distracting. The same distraction I feel when a husband is pacing his wife on the shoulder of the road on a bike. A little annoying for some reason. The four-legged endurance champion would speed up and run way ahead as if there were a Milk Bone treat calling his name, and then circle back around to his master and trot for a while. I probably ran within view of the team for about 3 miles before I passed them. But to the dog's credit, I never saw the little guy take any fluids or cramp up. - he just waved to the crowd and kept running.
The backs & butts of runners the only view for first 13 miles
As we ran the streets of Logan, there were the typical on-lookers and well wishers at every street corner. This was a welcome sight as the first half of the race in Cache National Forest had only offered beautiful trees, mountains, lakes, and the backs, butts, and rear view of hundreds of runners as scenery. Everyone along the course was so encouraging! And even though most were lined up to get a glimpse of their particular loved one, or favorite racer - just their simple applause, or "You can do it", made me feel like I was the only runner in the world and gave me a jolt of "stick-to-it-ness".
At the beginning of mile 25, we encountered the only challenging incline of the race. It was a small 40 foot hill just past a stop light intersection in the center of town, which if placed earlier in the course would have been a piece of cake. However, at this point even stepping over road kill seemed like a difficult task. I was very aware of the small hill thanks to my hours of pre-race investigation, and I attacked it with a good deal of my remaining energy still hoping for an outside shot at a personal best. I thought I was probably close, although at this point I had given up on asking the other weary runners about our elapsed time. There are so many things that run through your mind at this point in a marathon. "Only one more mile" ... "Come on, you can do it - Be Great Today!" ... "Just around that corner" ... or "Wow, that really hurts!" And after I topped the over-grown speed bump, I felt my right calf start to tighten a little so I stopped and walked for no more than about 15 seconds, just to stretch it out. Stopping was not part of the plan, but I could feel the muscle starting to knot up and I thought if I stretched it out I could finish strong. My plan worked and I was soon running freely again for the last mile or so.
Final kick to the finish line
As I chugged my way through mile marker 26, I rounded the final turn with only the .2 mile home stretch between me and the completion of my 6th marathon. All in all not bad day's work I thought to myself. I figured I was surely close to my personal best time, and this had been a very enjoyable marathon. As I made my way toward the finish line past the roped off fans shouting and waving homemade signs of encouragement, I could see another giant clock displaying finishing times. Exhausted and squinting from perspiration, it was a little tough to bring into focus, but with about 150 yards to go, I couldn't believe my eyes ... 3:20:33! To qualify for the Boston Marathon, I needed a 3:20:59. This time had been tattooed on my brain during the previous grueling months of training. And now some how, some way, I had ran fast enough that if I could cross that line in 27 seconds I was going to Boston! Instinctively, I began to kick with everything I had left. The encouraging cheers now grew silent to me and all I could hear was my ramped breathing and sweat saturated shoes striking the city street of Logan. I could feel my calf begin to tighten again - I didn't care! My heart was pounding out of my chest and I thought I might be one of those "over-do-it" 40 year old's who collapse in the final stages of a race - I didn't care! After everything that had happened, I still had a shot! As I neared the finish line I heard the announcer who was reading the names of finishing contestants say, "And all the way from Lees Summit, Missouri - James Weatherly ... wow he's finishing strong!" With one eye on the clock and the other on the finish line my feet struck the pavement harder and harder, faster and faster, like never before at the conclusion of a marathon. And with absolutely no fuel left in the tank, I flew across the timing pad and looked up at the clock ... 3:21:20! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Even with the excess seconds from the beginning of the race that would be deducted from my official time, I knew there was no way I was under 3:20:59. I couldn't believe it. In about 30 seconds my emotions had ranged from elation to defeat like that of the up-down, up-down mountain silhouette across the Utah horizon. I was crushed. I knew that I had missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by about 10 seconds or less. I must have had a pained, or maybe heartbreaking look my face because one of the volunteers at the finish line kept asking me if I was okay. "I just missed it", I breathed heavily. Not understanding, she asked me again, but I just kept walking. With my legs beginning to freeze up, and my vision becoming splotchy, I collected my medal and limped to my parked car waiting for me in that premium spot in Merlin Olsen Park. I passed the water. I avoided the orange slices, bananas, and bagels. I shrugged off the warm cartons of yogurt. I just walked to my car holding back tears.
2010 Top of Utah Marathon Medal
I sat there in my car weeping with a sick feeling in my stomach. I know it's not cool or macho to say that I cried. But I cried. For a while. I dried up long enough to call my son, daughter, and my wife. My wife answered. And as I began explaining what had happened, the flood gates opened and again I started whimpering. I couldn't stop it. My wife felt so bad hearing me in this condition that she started crying on the other end of the phone from Lees Summit. Man, what a sad pair! Right there in my car in Merlin Olsen Park, I was a 41 year old adult male blubbering like a child who had lost his puppy. I'm sure people walking by got a good laugh as they peered in through the windshield. To be honest I would have probably laughed too at a sweat-drenched grown man sitting in his car bawling. Either laughed, or ran away! But after her consoling words had reeled in my emotions, she suggested that I go back and look at the official finishing times which are typically posted somewhere around the finish festival. Maybe I snuck in under the gun she offered. I reluctantly agreed, certain it was no use.
As my stiffened legs creaked and rigidly labored back toward the event tents, I must have looked like a rigamortis-hampered mummy or an 80's dance-off challenger performing the robot across the grassy, pine cone littered lawn that led to the official race postings. I stared jealously at the collapsed runners lying on blankets and towels with adoring family members feeding them ice chips and fruit, as they admired their marathon completion medals. They all looked so happy and relieved as they recanted stories of their victorious day. I however, just wanted get my stupid official time and get out of there!
Post-race finish festival in Merlin Olsen Park
A True Gift
I approached the make-shift results board that read "2010 TOP OF UTAH MARATHON OFFICIAL RESULTS" in big, bold letters. My eyes fumbled through the dozens of stapled-up pages displaying freshly printed finishing times for various age groups. Male 14 and under ... nope. Female 25-29 ... unh-uh. Male 40-44 ... here we go. I scanned down until I found 13th place - JAMES WEATHERLY, LEES SUMMIT, USA. "Not bad", I thought. This was the highest I had ever finished in my age group. And then I saw it ... OFFICIAL TIME 3:20:59.3! Huh? I looked again ... 3:20:59.3 ... still there! This couldn't be right! That was a Boston Marathon qualifying time. My heart began to race again! I looked once more and the freaking time still read 3:20:59.3! I HAD JUST QUALIFIED FOR THE BOSTON MARATHON BY .3 SECONDS! "No way!", I mumbled audibly amidst the group of finishers huddled around the reports. "Did you do it?", a middle-aged woman asked me. "Yeah, I think so!", I replied. I backed away from the postings in utter shock. This didn't make sense. How did I qualify? Apparently it had taken me longer to cross the starting line pad than I realized and I had ran a Boston qualifying time with less than .2 seconds to spare. If my finishing time would have ended in a .5, the official time would have rolled up to 3:21:00, effectively disqualifying me. I don't believe in luck ... but if ever someone was lucky, I was a four-leaf-clover-holding leprechaun at a St. Paddy's day parade that day. And my pot of gold was my first ever trip to the Boston Marathon. After running "blind" for over 3 hours, 2 unexpected bathroom breaks, and walking for a few feet during mile 25, I had still punched my ticket for Boston ... with only .2 seconds to spare! Some scientists say that it takes about .2 to .4 of a second to blink your eye - I literally came within an eyelash of missing Boston. You just can't make this stuff up!
I did it! I can't begin to describe the feeling of victory and accomplishment that overwhelmed me. And, no - I didn't cry again. But I must have been floating on air as I made my way back to my car a second time. The post-race pain and resistance to walking in my legs must have been killing me by now, but i didn't notice. I grabbed my phone and called everyone again and gave them the news. I felt like a champion. I felt like I had proven myself as a runner! I felt a joy like I've only experienced a few other days in my life! I was on top of the world at the Top of Utah!
I woke up at about 2 a.m. for the long trip home on Sunday morning. The worst physical pain from a marathon usually doesn't hit me until about 2 days after the race. The first day after, I am usually just energy depleted and disappointed with my race results. Today, however, was different. Even though I was not looking forward to the 4 state, 1100 mile, day-long commute back to Lees Summit, I had a new a outlook on my marathon career. I felt invigorated. I felt new. Finally, I had ran a race I could really be proud of. One that I could tell my grand kids about. I had destroyed my previous personal best by more than 23 minutes - almost half an hour! And I had joined an exclusive group. I was in the minority of runners, both professional and amateur, who would run the historic Boston Marathon - and I had never felt quite this sense of satisfaction. I had been a little league baseball star, a multi-sport high school letterman, and college athlete, but this was undoubtedly the single greatest athletic accomplishment of my life. Heck, it probably ranked in the top 5 of anything I had ever done.
As my car cruised the long, straight shot of I-80 into the easterly sunrise, exiting Utah and entering Wyoming, I thought about what an amazing journey it had been. I could still feel all of the early morning summer miles in the sweltering Midwestern heat and humidity. I tried to calculate all of the crunches I had squeezed out - about 10,000. I smiled when I thought about the young Asian girl and her deer-dinged Prius, and I was glad we met. I made a mental note to CHARGE MY FREAKING GARMIN next time. I laughed as I thought, "Man, did I really cry over a stupid race?" I took a deep breath and thought about how surreal it was to qualify with only .2 seconds to spare. But mostly, I was glad I didn't have to make the 17 hour trip home after missing the Boston Marathon by a few ticks of the clock. It was a trip that I will never forget. Half of me was still in the mountains of Logan, Utah and the other half pictured myself running in the grandaddy marathon of them all. I was on one of the greatest highs of my life ... a Boston mountain high.