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March 5, 2006

The Napa Chronicles, Volume 4

First of all, about the NWS forecast in the previous post: it was exactly right. Which leads me to wonder why our local forecasters are grossly incorrect at least four days per week – don’t they have access to Google Weather like the rest of us? But that’s another post for another time…

Napa was rainy. Napa was windy. The prevailing consensus was that this year wasn’t quite as bad as the horrific 2001 race, but “generally awful” seems an appropriate description. The foul weather persisted from the start of the race, and was fairly consistent in its intensity throughout the morning.

As for running a sub-three-hour marathon – I had pretty much given up on that idea the night before the race, knowing about the projected headwinds and otherwise inclement conditions. I figured that a 3-hour marathon in the storm would require something in the neighborhood of a 2:50-2:55 effort, which I wasn’t nearly in shape to attempt.

My revised plan was to run the race at marathon effort, according to my heart rate monitor. I would let the split times fall where they may, while still trying to work as hard as during a typical marathon. I had no idea how much time I would lose, but I thought this was the best approach for me.

I started very conservatively, running the first mile in 7:35 (3-hour pace is 6:51), the second in 7:15, and the third in 7:00. Wearing my 2-dollar poncho from the expo – by far my best investment of the weekend - and checking my HRM constantly, I plodded through the next mile in just under seven minutes.

Gradually as the miles ticked by in 6:52, 6:48, 6:58, 6:45, an unlikely thought occurred to me…I wasn’t that far off of 3-hour pace. I was generally keeping my heart rate where I wanted to, and running only a handful of seconds per mile behind. It was still early in the race, though, so I stuck with the original plan and didn’t concern myself with the splits.

I passed the halfway point in 1:31, and knew I was keeping things close. I also knew the toughest parts of the course were still to come.

The rain was heavier and the headwind became stronger in miles 16-23, but my pace didn’t slow too significantly. I was working extremely hard - and while I wasn’t losing much time, I wasn’t gaining any, either. With 5K to go I finally confirmed the point I had assumed a few hours before: I wouldn’t be breaking 3-hours today.

I kept a steady pace through the final miles, slowing only by a few seconds to finish in 3:02:25 (official time 3:02:55 – no chips at Napa). I quickly became hypothermic and started shivering uncontrollably while hobbling around the finish area, looking for a dry place to change clothes. It would be several hours before I felt like my core temperature had bounced back to normal.

So I didn’t break my time goal – but I’m really happy with this race for several reasons. In fact, I’d place it in the top-5 (out of over 30) marathons that I’ve ever done, for the following reasons:

1) I had the discipline to stay with my plan despite constant temptation to abandon it and attempt to make up lost time. I’m convinced that if I had tried to run any faster in the first 20 miles, I certainly would have crashed and burned again in the last 5K.

2) Starting Saturday night, I had an enormous sense of reluctance about this race. I had flashbacks to the 2001 race, and was simply dreading facing those kind of elements again. Especially once I conceded that a sub-3 shot probably wouldn’t happen, there didn’t seem much point to running an extremely hard race. But somehow once the race got underway, I was fully committed to giving my best effort. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but one of those things that just comes upon you like providence. I can’t really explain it much better that that.

3) There were several points – after the first 3 miles, at the halfway point, during the windiest miles 21-23, or after I did the math with 5K to go – where I could have just shut the motor down and cruised in at a more comfortable pace. But I never gave in to that thought, and stayed mentally tough throughout the course. I frequently think that my Achilles’ heel as a marathoner is psychological fragility, but today I was able to keep that particular demon at bay.

4) I ran a remarkably consistent race. After mile 2, all of my splits were between 6:45 and 7:05, except for miles 24 and 25 in 7:15 each. My first half and second half splits were almost identical. It was confirmation that I did the right thing in pacing by my heart rate instead of other factors.

5) Starting at the halfway point, I wasn’t passed by any other runners for the rest of the race. Not one. Although I wasn’t really going any faster - merely slowing down less precipitously than the others - it’s hard to describe what a great feeling it is to reel in one runner after another in the late stages of a marathon. I live for stretches like that.

6) I ran a very smart and strategic race, drafting whenever possible, and selectively picking the spots to bridge the gaps from one runner to another. I was constantly assessing my heart rate, the relative wind speed, the distance between groups, and other factors in picking my best course of action. In most cases, I guessed right.

7) I also prepared smartly for this race, and tapered the way I needed to, which wasn’t the way I had originally intended. The injury I had worried about earlier in the week never became a major factor, but this could have easily gone the other way if I hadn’t been extra cautious this week.

The only real downside from today’s race: that sub-3 thing. Unfortunately, today just wasn’t the day for me to run that sort of time. That’s pretty much all there is to say about it. I don’t feel like I could have done anything differently (aside from arriving in better shape, of course) today that would have resulted in a faster time.

I think it speaks to the fickleness of the marathon event, and how unpredictable the results can be for any given runner on any day. For instance, Saturday was a beautiful day in Napa – if the race had been yesterday instead of today, perhaps I run 5 minutes faster. Or maybe I would have been too aggressive and ended up running slower.

This race also illustrates the fallibility of placing too much emphasis on finishing times instead of less obvious measures of performance. In several ways, I feel like I ran a very strong race today. But as the days and weeks go by and I start gnawing on that 3:02, I’ll inevitably feel a bit of remorse that I couldn’t have eked another 2 minutes out of today’s effort. I’ll have to remind myself to read this post again in 3 months.

As far as my quest for a sub-3 at Napa goes…I’m not really sure where that stands now. I still think that I have a race day like that in me, but I don’t feel doggedly compelled to chase it soon. For various reasons, it’s not nearly as important to me as it was a few years ago, although I would still consider it a great feather in my cap if it ever comes to pass.

If it works out for me to go back next year, I may try it again. But if something else captures attention in 2007, I’ll be OK putting this race on the back burner.

For now, my immediate concern will be recovery from this race, then turning my focus to my top priority for the year: the Big Sur Marathon, exactly 8 weeks from today.

Finally, thanks to everyone who sent well wishes before the race. I carried them with me, and I think it does give some intangible boost to know that the bloggers are pulling for you.

In this sport, every little bit helps.

8 comments:

BuckeyeRunner 3/6/06, 4:24 AM  

Great post-game analysis! Many reasons to be happy with this race, and especially in that kind of weather!! Great job!

DREW 3/6/06, 9:11 AM  

Congratulations smartly run race. Sounds like you were dead-on right about keeping pace with your heart monitor. You'll be carrying this positive experience forward to Big Sur instead of having regrets or being worked over by a harder push.

I will always remember how wonderfully organized and beautiful this race is and I hope to get back, but my day did not go well. I'm now in a similar place to where you were after the 2001 race (although much slower). The weather and the hills and something missing from my training combined to make this a joyless experience for me, but I want another shot at it.

Rest, and then work hard for Big Sur. I'll look forward to another positive race report

backofpack 3/6/06, 11:46 AM  

Congrats on a solid race. And on the mental effort and discipline!

Anne 3/6/06, 12:05 PM  

There's a great deal of wisdom packed in this post that people like me should take to heart when we face our own demons on the course. I think you did a spectacular job Sunday and ran a very smart race. A very fast one by my standards, too. There's always another Napa, or whatever race you decide on to chase down that clock.

olga 3/6/06, 3:57 PM  

That was an awesome race you ran!! Being intellegent in approach and exsecution is one of the things few can do, and you did it. Under conditions - your time was great, but mostly you ran smart and paced wisely. Great report, congratulation on a fantastic finish!

robtherunner 3/6/06, 4:07 PM  

You should be happy with consistent splits like that and a well executed race plan. I am sure you will second guess yourself, but that is only natural. You'll get that sub-3 NAPA one of these days. Great Job!

Kim 3/7/06, 1:15 AM  

I was hoping that the rain spared you.
Sounds like you ran a damn good race!
Congratulations.

jeff 3/7/06, 4:58 PM  

thanks for sharing your experience, d. your consistant splits, running by hr, digging into that mental reserve...every piece you mentioned is something that i can use every time i line up. thanks for that.

congratulations on a very smartly run race. this reflects upon your obvious talent at the sport. best wishes for a quick recovery.

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