The whole idea of racing a marathon really started back last winter/spring when I had several friends and Every Man Jack teammates preparing for and then racing Boston. Plus, one of my EMJ teammates, John Kelly, became just the 15th person to finish all 5 loops of the Barkley Marathons. All of it was inspiring and motivated me to see what I could do in a marathon, something I’ve always wondered since I’ve been a runner my whole life. But, I had a triathlon season approaching and triathlon will always take precedence over a marathon.
After a good first part of the triathlon season racing, I decided to jump into a local 5k on July 4th. A few friends and I tried to (and did) convince as many local runners to race it to try to make the race fast and competitive, something that isn’t always guaranteed with how many local 5k’s there are these days. I had no expectations for the race because I had just come off my mid-season break and wasn’t doing any race specific intervals yet. I surprised myself by taking 2nd overall and running 15:32, which is only 22 second off my college track 5k personal record. THIS is when the idea of a fall marathon became real and not just an idea. My original plan after triathlon season ended at 70.3 Worlds was to focus on fast running and jump into some fall 5k’s to try to break 16 minutes; something I haven’t done in several years but know I’m capable of. Well, I accomplished that goal on July 4th. So, now I needed a new goal. Enter Kansas City Marathon. I still had three more important triathlon races left, so I didn’t fully commit just yet. I started putting a little more focus on my long runs prior to 70.3 Worlds and was going to see how I recovered after Worlds before making the final decision on whether or not to race my first solo (no swim and bike before it ) marathon or go race cyclocross and save the marathon for another time.
Obviously, I decided to race the marathon. I kept the fact that I was racing under wraps. Not because I didn’t want any additional pressure from other people, but primarily because this race was going to be an experiment. Only a type-A triathlete would think running a marathon as an experiment is logical or fun. My experiment was this: I wanted to see what I would run a marathon in while still keeping my triathlon approach to training. And I wanted to see if this strategy could be used for my next full IM training plan. That basically means it’s unlikely I’ll run 30 or more miles in a week. I didn’t ever set a limit on my mileage, but during a normal week of training for triathlon, I rarely run more than 30 miles a week. To date, I’ve run 30 more miles in a week only 4 times this year. So, my training was basically going to be one long run each week, 1-2 off the bike 2.5 or 3 mile loop at 6:00 pace or faster, and 1-2 easy recovery runs over lunch break at work. I knew I’d likely be under prepared and extremely naïve to a solo marathon, but I wanted to at least try and see how I would do.
The forecast leading into the race wasn’t looking pretty. Race day was mid-60’s at the start and warming to upper 60’s by the end. Fortunately, it was cloudy the entire race and no sun at all. However, the winds were sustained 20 mph with gusts of 30+, neither of which are ideal marathon weather. Another factor with this course is the amount of hills involved. The course had 1250 feet of elevation gain, which is insane. There are definitely easier courses out there (like Indianapolis Marathon that’s in a few weeks with about 150 ft elevation gain), but I chose this course because it’s obviously local and I didn’t want to travel. For reference for any triathletes, I’ve done 3 other marathons in Ironmans. According to my Garmin, IM Texas course has 233 ft of gain, IM Chattanooga has 1125, and Kona (IM World Championships) has 800 ft of elevation gain.
The first mile was nearly all uphill, but I actually felt relaxed and extremely comfortable, which was a bit surprising because I didn’t warm up at all before the race. Mile two was nearly all downhill. I had a tough decision to make during mile 3. I noticed two other marathon runners (10k, half marathon, and marathon all started together) were running the same pace as I was but they were running on the other side of the road. We were already running a bit quicker than I’d prefer (5:52 and 5:44 for mile 1 and 2) so do I go with them and let them block the wind or run solo? I ran this exact scenario by my dad (who has a lot of marathon and running experience) before the race on what I should do. It really came down to a gut call. Knowing that miles 3.5 to 14.5 were going to basically be all into the wind with a few crosswind sections, I ultimately decided I would sit behind them and just see how it felt for the next few miles. Mile 3.5 to 5 was a tough stretch. It was all uphill and into the wind. I knew I was pushing a bit too hard and thought about letting them go, but a few gusts of wind reassured me that staying behind them was the right thing to do and allowed me to save energy. I had to chop my stride a few times just to keep from running up on them and didn’t feel much of the wind at all. Once we crested the top of the hill at mile 5, we had a nice 2.5 mile stretch of nearly all downhill running; and really all the way to mile 9.5 was net downhill each mile with only a few short, small uphills. The downhills allowed the two of them (and me) to naturally start rolling and our turnover picked up. Miles 6-9 were: 5:48, 5:42, 5:45, and 5:37. With all of them being downhill (and mile 9 being mostly crosswind with little headwind), I wasn’t too worried about pace at all and honestly don’t even remember seeing a single one of those splits. I wasn’t straining to keep up with them and my HR was coming down (it was elevated higher than I wanted from 3.5 to 5 mile mark) to where I felt I should be for a marathon. Somewhere shortly after the mile 9 marker, I started having knee pain on my left kneecap. I’ve had this pain before; it’s a sharp, constant pain on the kneecap. I’ve only really experienced it in races when the course is really hilly (IM Chattanooga in 2015 and 70.3 Worlds in Sept), courses where there are long uphill and downhill sections instead of rollers. I didn’t have this pain on any of my 2+ hour long runs leading into the race that had similar total elevation gain as KC Marathon, but were rolling hills the whole time, not long hills. Basically, it’s just an imbalance of quad/hamstring weakness/tightness that causes the kneecap to track improperly causing pain. At this point, there wasn’t much I could do but keep running, so I did. At 9.5 miles we took a left onto the Paseo and started a 1 mile long hill back into the wind. This was the first time all day that I had to strain to stay with these two guys and physically started to struggle. I let them go and just ran my pace crossing the 10 mile marker in 58:30. Almost right after the 10 mile marker, there was a strong gust and I felt like I was standing still. I instantly regretted losing contact of those two but it also reconfirmed my decision that going with them allowed me to save a lot of energy since I didn’t have to fight the wind. I finally made it up the hill at 10.5 and had a half mile downhill to mile 11. The next mile and half were all uphill. Now that I was alone, I just focused on my form and managing the hills and wind. My pace for the next several miles (11-16) was all around 6:30, which I was perfectly fine with. My heart rate had come down a little bit more, and I knew both the pace and heart rate was sustainable for the rest of the race. Miles 13 through 20 were all rolling hills with no long uphills or downhills. I was relieved to finally reach 14.5 because I would finally get the wind at my back. I managed to keep things together through mile 16 despite my right quad hurting for the last mile or so, which I can only assume is from overcompensating for my left knee hurting the last 7 miles. I started to really struggle during mile 17 when the 6:30 pace I was holding was impossible and 7:00 pace felt horrible. Just after the 17 mile marker, I had to stop and stretch. My hips and quad were shot. I brought my knees up to my chest and hugged them, which felt really good. After a short 5-10 second stop, I started running again and it actually felt decent, which was a welcome surprise. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. Mile 18 was not a fun mile (7:22 pace) and I was in a world of hurt and not enjoying anything. I stopped again around mile 19 to stretch, which again helped for a few minutes after I started running again. I kept this trend going for 19-21, which were all 7:01 miles. I’d stop in each mile to stretch but was able to run decent afterwards, but the stretching breaks were starting to become less and less effective. By the time I reach 22.5 miles, I was done. I knew the next mile or so would be nearly all uphill and I could hardly shuffle my feet. I stopped around 22.3 miles at an intersection and used the light pole to do some leg swings (forwards and side to side), and a very weak attempt at high knees to try and loosen up the hips and legs. It didn’t work. I started running again but walked through the aid station at 22.5 and grabbed 5 cups of water. I “ran” mile 23 in 9:20. It was not fun to say the least. I even remember looking down and seeing 2:29:38 for my 23 mile split. I told myself I just needed 10 minute miles to break 3 hours. I was happy (semi sarcastic now, but definitely not in the moment) to run 8:39 for mile 24. Woohoo. Sub 10!! Mile 25 was far from enjoyable (7:35), but I was getting near the end and motivated to finish so I could stop. The last mile, more specifically the last .75, was agonizing. It was literally all downhill, and a rather steep downhill at that. While my pace enjoyed it (ran 6:30’s down this hill, mile 26 was 7:01) absolutely nothing else about this mile was enjoyable. I finally crossed the finish line of my first ever solo marathon in 2:54:37. Words cannot express how great it felt to stop moving and officially be done.
Ultimately, I had the race, time, and place I deserved. I cannot complain with a 2:54:37 marathon debut on a tough course with tough race day conditions. It showed me exactly what I wanted to know. While I do think what I did training wise is much better marathon prep than I ever did before any of my 3 full IM’s, I still don’t think it’s possible for me to run well on such little run training.
Mistakes were definitely made; pacing mistakes, nutrition mistakes, preparation mistakes. They all happened and had an impact on my result. But this was always an experiment for me. Time and place is what shows on the surface, but for me, I’m more than happy with my effort and result and believe I had a very successful, albeit painful, experiment. There were some very dark moments out there on the course, especially in the last 10 miles, which is a really long way to suffer in a marathon. I actually think nutrition mistakes were my biggest issue and why the pace dropped off quicker and more than I expected. I knew I’d fade regardless of the pace I went out in. This is longer than I’d ever run at one time, but I suffered far earlier than anticipated and the pace dropped far more drastically than I ever imagined. And looking back on it now, that screams nutrition (sugar, electrolytes) issues. I think I relied too heavily on the on-course nutrition; which were products I’ve never used before. Every 1.5 to 2 miles there was an aid station with water and Powerade. Aid stations at 7.5, 14.5 and 21.5 were supposed to also have GLUKOS gels. Why Powerade was the drink of choice, I have no idea, but I know one thing, my body does not like it. It’s probably the first time I’ve had Powerade in 15+ years. Unfortunately, aid station 21.5 didn’t have gels set out either. I started with a pack of GU Chomps, and ate those for the first 13 miles and it worked well. However, at each aid station, I was getting 1 cup water and 1 cup Powerade to help with electrolytes since it was warm. My stomach was not agreeing with something and since I use GU Chomps all the time in training, that leaves just the Powerade as the culprit. After aid station 7.5, I stopped taking in Powerade. Fortunately, I prepared a bottle of GU Hydration mix (watermelon flavor is wonderful!!) and told my parents to hand it to me next time they saw me. Around 13 miles, my stomach finally started to settle down. Up until that point, I was nervous, a lot. I planned to grab a gel at 7.5, but I didn’t see any there and had GU Chomps still so wasn’t too worried. At 14.5 I did get a GLUKOS gel and took it in mile 16 with the thought of getting another one in 21.5. However, when I got there, they didn’t have any gels sitting out. So I basically went the last 10 miles with no calories other than the GU Hydration mix I was getting from my parents. I think that’s the biggest reason for the 8+ minute miles around 22-24 miles. This is 100% my own fault and I should have relied on myself to carry all nutrition and not rely on the course aid stations.
I definitely have to give a big thank you to my parents and sister for coming to support me on this crazy endeavor. They drove around the course and saw me every few miles, which was quite nice, especially on the back half when I was suffering and nothing but negativity was going through my brain.
I know one thing for sure, I will not be running a marathon again anytime soon and the next marathon I run, because I know I’ll come back for redemption, will most definitely be a flatter race.