Doubt Creeps In: My Experience the 2016 Richmond Marathon

Why did I want to do this again?

That was one of the many questions in my head around the 23 mile mark of the 2016 Anthem Richmond Marathon.  I had lost the pace group, my legs felt heavy, and I found myself on a very long run that had seemingly lost its meaning. I passed through a water stop, politely declined a beer from the neighborhood cheering section, and tried to regroup as I plodded off down Fauquier Avenue.

I admit it, I want to BQ

After finishing my first marathon I debated whether I would ever run another.  That’s not an uncommon question among finishers; the marathon is long, lonely, and challenging and the training takes a sizable commitment no matter what your target pace. I was satisfied that I had finished, and was pleased with my time, but can’t say I really enjoyed it.

But I had been bitten by the Boston bug. I was six minutes  off the BQ time for my age group and believed if I trained better I could get closer. Worst case, I would put myself into good shape to qualify when I went into the next age group in five years. I didn’t have any particular affinity for Boston and have never even watched it on television. At this point in my life, a BQ stands as an objective symbol that you’re a pretty good runner for your age/gender. You either meet the standard or you don’t. In fact, you really have to exceed the standard to be secured a spot, so you have to be a little more than good enough to get it. There aren’t that many things so defined where you control so many of the variables needed to meet it. The standard doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, if you were all-state in high school or just started running a year ago. You meet and exceed it by enough, or you don’t.

Managing my expectations

As my training cycle for Richmond wound down, I tried to set manageable goals.  First, I wanted to beat the time from my first marathon in Wrightsville Beach. Second, I wanted to run a negative split (partly because I knew it was a good strategy and partly because Strava would give you a free pair of shoes if you could do it). Finally, if everything went right, I hoped I could run a time that would qualify me for Boston. I tried to keep the third one from dictating my race planning, but ambition can be a hard thing to tamp down.

At the starting line on race morning.

I devised a plan to stay around or in front of the 3:15 pace group to use them to push me. My training times suggested this would be possible, and I actually thought it would be a conservative strategy.

And we’re off

I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Crisp, but not too
cold to start, minimal wind, and not a cloud in the sky: a perfect fall day.  I felt nervous lining up for the start but soon enough we were on our way and I could focus on running.

I got caught up in the crowd at the start and went out a little slower than I wanted. After the first mile I caught the 3:15 pace group and decided to stick with them instead of running ahead. I realized it would be a long day if I kept checking the pace on my watch and their pace felt right. If I felt good around mile 20, I could surge and see where I ended up.

A shot from early in the race. Fall foliage was on display everywhere.

This proved to be a good adjustment. The pacers kept fairly even splits, gave encouragement and information about what lay ahead on the course, and being in a group across the James River proved very helpful in dealing with the wind on the bridge. I stayed with the group and let the miles peel away. I didn’t think about much as we ran. I focused on my breathing, the way the sun felt, and the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement. I surged on hills, and kept pace on flats and downhill sections. Our group began reeling people in, and as we crossed the river back into Richmond I felt good.

Letting doubt back in

As we neared the 20 mile mark I took stock and realized that if I could hold the pace we were on then I had a chance for a BQ.  For some reason, I don’t think this realization helped. Suddenly I felt pressure not to lose something as opposed to staying in the moment and running. The soreness I had been feeling became stronger, and I worried something was wrong. I didn’t cover a surge by the pace group after a water stop.

By miles 21 and 22 the gap had grown, and by mile 23 I saw them vanish around a curve for the last time. My legs felt like jelly and my head filled with doubts. Why had I slowed down?  Did I go out too hard? Did I not train hard enough? Would I have to walk? How far did I have to go? Why was I doing this at all?

Location Net Time Pace
10k 45:47:00 7:22 /mi
Half Marathon 1:36:53 7:23 /mi
20 Miles 2:27:38 7:22 /mi
Finish 3:17:11 7:31 /mi
Pace by mile, charted against elevation (green line).

My pace dropped progressively, finally settling at almost 8:30 per mile and closing the door on a BQ. For the first time in the race I felt defeated. Making things worse I’d entered a dead zone in between pace groups where for the most part I ran alone, except for the times someone I’d passed earlier caught up and went by me.

A backup only works if you want it

I shifted from wanting to run to just wanting to finish, which is the wrong mindset to have when you’re trying to regroup. Looking back, I see that I put too much stock on the BQ as a goal. We’re told to go into a race with A, B, and C goals to make it easier to regroup if we can’t reach one. That strategy works best, though, when you actually want them all and don’t view any as settling.

Not a silver buckle, but still pretty nice.

In the 2016 Western States 100 Endurance Run, Jim Walmsey had a lead and was on pace to break the course record through mile 93 when he took a wrong turn that sent him five miles off course and took him out of the top ten. He sat down on a bench and thought about what to do, then got up and pushed to finish in under 24 hours and get a silver buckle. It wasn’t much of a consolation, but a silver buckle in the ultra community is still a major accomplishment. He found something with meaning, something he wanted, and used that to get to the finish.

I couldn’t make an adjustment like that. My other goals carried less weight than I anticipated and offered almost no help in regrouping. I hadn’t trained for this moment, for wandering in the dark and finding my way back. Somewhere
in mile 25 I settled back in with the goal of doing the best I
could for the last part of the race. By the end of mile 25 I had started moving a little faster, and the downhill slope of mile 26 gave me some momentum for the final surge to the finish in just over 3 hours and 17 minutes.

Taking stock

Once my legs stopped moving I really, really hurt. Andrea and the kids found me in the finish chute, and I shuffled to the post-race area. Andrea knew I had been on pace for a qualifying mark and lost it in the last part of the race, but she tried to get me to focus on the positives. My kids were more concerned with who should be sitting in the stroller. I laid on the grass with my post-race beer and tried to rest.

As time passed I began to appreciate what I had accomplished. I ran Richmond about 4:30 faster than my first marathon and pushed off the wall until mile 22. This time around I trained harder, paid better attention to my nutrition, used the pace group during the race, and earned a solid time I can be proud of.  I still don’t know how I could have managed the race much better. I don’t think I went out too hard, but I possibly could have taken another gel in the last half to help fuel the last few miles.

It’s possible I could have also just dug deeper and kept my pace from falling as much as it did (just slowing to 7:40 per mile in mile 24 and 25 would have saved me almost a minute). As I move into this training cycle for the Pittsburgh marathon, I am trying to think about how to be mentally tougher. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of guidance for this. I need to find meaningful backup goals, and I need to work on strategies (like breathing) to regroup on the fly. There are probably other things I haven’t found yet.

I, like so many others, will continue to chase a BQ. I don’t know when or if I will get it but it is nice to have a dream that seems attainable. At the same time, I am trying to get better at appreciating the journey. Marathon training is a challenge, but I like the discipline it requires and the time I get to spend on the road. The long runs and workouts have become something I look forward to each week, as a place to unwind and let go of things. I believe running makes me a better person, and I am working to make that the driving force that gets me out the door rather than a qualifying mark. In the long run, I think that will serve me far better.

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