Race Report: Austin Marathon 2017

I think the prestige of Boston has made the road marathon the ultimate running event for non-elite runners. I’ve long had mixed feelings about this phenomenon. I don’t believe the marathon is the best goal for people who run to stay healthy. Not only is running 26.2 miles extremely difficult, it’s incredibly hard to train at volume, focus on speed, and still get to the starting line uninjured. In order to prepare for marathons, many coaches will encourage at least a five to six month training cycle, and I think the runners who set themselves up for success seriously take advantage of that time.

Some runners also race too much in my opinion. I try to be rational with choosing races, but even i have been wondering if i’m racing too much, considering my last “A” race, the North Face 50K, was less then three months ago.

Photo credit: Callum Pinkney

So here’s the challenge… In a road marathon, the mentality of runners like me is to race as smart as possible and finish as even as possible. My C goal was to nail a Boston qualifying time (for my age group the standard is 3:05) by breaking three hours.

This is different than a trail marathon, where qualifying for a prestigious race like Boston isn’t normally on the line, and I can take breaks at aid stations and hike up hills without as much concern. In a trail race, I’m generally more concerned about my place than my time. When racing a road marathon, you don’t stop. You run until you hit the wall, and then you keep running.

I was excited about racing in Austin, Texas. I enjoy organized road races since they provide a way to see a city from a unique perspective, especially since major roads often get closed off for runners. Last year I ran a personal record of 1:18:17 at Austin’s 3M Half Marathon, a net downhill course. Unlike 3M, the Austin Marathon course is a lot of uphill and downhill. Composing a big loop around the city, the course is effectively two long out and backs, where the “out” sections away from the river are mostly uphill, and the sections coming back to the city are mostly down.

The biggest factor for race day was definitely the weather. Austin’s hills already present a challenge for running a fast time, but realistically, it’s unreasonable to expect ideal racing conditions in the Texas capital. Ideal racing conditions are generally a clear day with cool temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit and little wind. Unfortunately, the forecast all week had been warm temperatures above 70 degrees, and precipitation with scattered thunderstorms. Not ideal!

The 80-90% humidity is more problematic than the heat. I have lived in New Mexico for the past four years, and I don’t remember a day that has even felt a little humid. Although living and training at 4,000 feet provides some kind of advantage when racing at lower altitude, I feel like humidity can challenge the ability to perform all the same as high altitude. The last time I raced in humid conditions, the Air Force Half Marathon in 2015, I bonked hard, collapsed at the finish line, and ended up in the medical tent.

Accepting that I’d be racing again in humidity, I made two prep adjustments. The first is that I knew my goal pace would need to be tempered, so I mapped out conservative mile splits of my best case and worst scenarios, about 2:50 to 3:00. Second, I became militant with hydrating, and for race day I decided to run with a 20 oz hand held water bottle. Between the choice of running with a heavy arm for three hours and having fluid on me the whole way, or not getting in enough fluid from the paper cups at aid stations, which will maybe provide 3-4 oz through the trial of not sloshing that fluid everywhere, the hand held option seemed to be a clear choice to me.

Race Day

Anna dropped me off at South Congress Street, about a mile and a half south of the start line. This worked perfectly as it gave me time to do a warm up jog to the start area, hit an empty porta-potty (which happened to be at the 1 mile mark of the course with no wait line), stretch and warm up, and find a good spot in the corral. I also had a chance to catch up with George Tan, a local Texas triathlete. George and I met while running together in a half marathon in Lubbock just over two years ago.

Love Austin’s Weirdness

In the past, I think I would be nervous out of my mind at this point…waiting for the start time, listening to the welcome speeches, paying tribute during the national anthem. But through experience, I’ve learned how to enjoy the thrill of a big racing event. Marathons are not sprints, thus I knew I wanted to start restrained and relaxed.

“Stay Relaxed.”

While racing, I like to use self-talk and reflect on an important thought or mantra which helps me. The first 10 km felt pretty smooth. I felt comfortable keeping my pace between 6:30-6:45 min/mile. Although the intent is to run my own race, I was cognizant that a lot of folks surrounding me were running the Half Marathon and thus pushing, so I wasn’t yet feeling competitive.

I wasn’t too interested in taking excessive risks, especially with pushing my pace early in the marathon. So I stayed intentional with running relaxed and holding a rhythm. The race didn’t disappoint with course entertainment-Taiko drummers, calypso drummers, a jazz band, sax players, rock bands, a DJ who kept yelling “let’s go!” I aimed to keep smiling and enjoy the experience of moving through the city.

On the fly, I figured out a hydration strategy which helped me through the humidity. At each aid station, while maintaining my pace, I would grab as many cups of fluid as I could from the eager volunteers, pour the fluid into my handheld, screw the top on, and drink as much as I could before the next aid station. Since the course was serving water and three flavors of Nuun, and it was tough to be selective, my hydration strategy turned into a pretty rad Nuun cocktail.

The uphill/downhill section south of the river, about eight miles, was a lot of fun. The downhill coming back was really deceiving and I had to be diligent with restraining my pace, especially on the downhill. The crowds were really huge on the bridge running back into the city which provided a good energy boost. And then the grind began.

“Run Strong.”

Mile 9 to mile 19 composed the second stage of my race. I knew this was the section where I would start to encounter fatigue and soreness, neither of which disappointed. This entire stretch was a gradual uphill north of the river. Moving through uptown neighborhoods, the course became somewhat boring and a little bit lonely after the half marathoners peeled away, but it was helpful for me to know who the actual marathoners were.

I like running uphill and I continued to feel comfortable, although my pace gradually started to slow down mile by mile until I was averaging a 6:50/mile pace. Dealing with the humidity, my clothes were drenched and it actually became a struggle just to keep my shorts on. I probably should have just tied them tighter, but they became so heavy that I continually had to pull the shorts back up and accept I’d be running with a wedgie. I was terrified of stopping for any gear adjustments, so my intent was to press on.

“Finish the Race.”

The struggle got real at mile 20 aka “the Wall.” After two hours of running at pace, the body reaches the end of its glycogen stores, sourced from carbs, and thus shifts to fat as the primary fuel source. On my core training workouts, I sought to get my body into this zone to try and build some efficiency. Invariably, really long distance remains my kryptonite. In the 50K I ran in December, after mile 20 I started to experience really sore feet and cramping quads. Today, my body actually felt fine but fatigue started to hit me like a bus.

It was great seeing our friends Katherine and Callum at mile 20, and my wife rallied an army of enthusiastic dudes who were cheering me on. I was hoping for some help from the course as it shifted to a long downhill stretch to the finish, but my pace slowed dramatically. Mile 19 was a 6:47, and then I fell to 7:04, 7:22, 7:11 from miles 20-22, and then further down to 7:42 on mile 23 which is the zone I stayed in.

As I saw the 3:00 pacer run past me, I knew that a sub-3:00 time wasn’t going to happen. I was really hoping for another wind, especially since the last mile called the “Manzano Mile” (named after Olympic Medalist Leo Manzano, the race’s honorary officia;) was timed and I can normally kick out the last section of my races. But that wasn’t to be. My last mile was my slowest and my finish time was 3:01:56.

“Celebrate!”

Upon reflection, the Austin Marathon was not a bad race for me. I finished about three minutes slower than my personal record, and I did not expect the last 10 km to be a breeze. Although I had a really tough time keeping pace, I never stopped running, I never bonked, and I felt conscious at the finish line. But I had nothing left. This marathon was much more about persistence and fighting to the finish rather than a race.

In the crowded finish area, I tracked down my wife using a friendly pedestrian’s cell phone, set up camp next to a light pole, and then promptly started my recovery protocol… compression socks, water, Hammer Recoverite, warm clothes, more water, energy bars. I was so tired I could have taken a nap on the sidewalk! Eventually, I got on my feet and walked to our brunch venue which was perfect for loosening up.

After capping months of time consuming training, I resisted any urge to convey disappointment with my result and to even mention future goals or race plans. I wanted to only celebrate this race. Although a little disappointed, I wanted to enjoy this achievement and appreciate my wife for all I’ve put her through, and for all the ways that she has supported me. So we celebrated at a local Texas spot called Max’s Wine Dive and met up with Katherine and Callum, my cousin Matt, George and his girlfriend.

Where do I go from here? Although I have a current BQ time, I don’t know if I’m going to apply to Boston for next year. Realistically, to get into the Boston Marathon, the minimum qualifying time is probably closer to 3:00. So many people will apply that the race organizers will cap each qualifying group at a different number starting with the fastest qualifiers. Thus it’s likely that many male runners under age 35 who have run a qualifier between 3:00-3:05 will not actually get into the race, and that’s okay. The pursuit of better times is a big part of this sport’s reward, specifically because results are a direct reflection of hard work.

Gear:

Shoes-New Balance Zante 2, Brooks Trail Socks, Nathan 20 oz handheld water bottle, Pearl Izumi shirt, Lifebeam Smart Hat (has an embedded heart rate monitor), Goodr Sunnies called “Whisky Shots with Satan.” During the race-4x Hammer Espresso gels and lots of Nuun. Hammer Recoverite afterwards.