May 3, 2010


I find running a marathon to be a lot like eating at Pizza Hut. Every so often I crave it. Midway through I realize what a terrible decision I made. I finish out of shear stubbornness. Afterwards I vow to never do it again.

The marathon is a harsh mistress. Of the six previous marathons I have completed I would say two were good, two were mediocre, two were awful, and all were painful. I hoped this year's Illinois Marathon would be good. But we don't always get what we want.

Last year I ran the Illinois Marathon and it didn't exactly go according to plan. Six weeks later (and with a completely different outlook) I ran much better at the Rockford Marathon where I set my marathon PR of 3h09m. I then promptly spent most of the summer recovering from a knee injury. In August I reset and started over from scratch. I trained and raced well throughout the fall and winter, and by spring I was looking to run another marathon PR. My marathon training went very well. I was prepared.

Marathon Expo

The race day forecast called for rain (which didn't particularly bother me) and relatively high temperatures (which did bother me). I awoke on race morning to wet roads, muggy air, overcast skies, and a temperature of 64˚F... which at 5:30 AM was already too hot for running a marathon.

When the race began at 7:30 AM the humidity was 93%. After one mile of easy running I was drenched with sweat. I looked at my watch at the one mile mark, expecting to see a heart rate in the low 140's. It read 162. The good news was that my perceived exertion was pretty low. The bad news was that either my heart rate monitor wasn't working or the extreme humidity was having the effect on me I knew in the back of my mind it would. I chose to believe my heart rate monitor was broken and I cruised on.

Aside from the massive sweating, the early miles were really very easy. I ran much of the way with the 3:10 pace group. I ate and drank reguarly. At no point was I running hard... I could comfortably breath through my nose the entire time (though I didn't). The clouds disappeared, the sun came out, the temperature soared into the mid-to-upper-70's. Now, not only was it ridiculously humid, the sun was beating me into submission. Around the halfway point I started to feel terrible. Really terrible.

Rob at mile 11 of Illinois Marathon

I wasn't dehydrated, I had been drinking frequently. I wasn't lacking energy, I had been eating regularly. I wasn't lacking fitness, my training went superbly and both my long and short runs had been right where they needed to be. I wasn't tired, I stayed fairly disciplined in my 2-3 week taper prior to the race. I wasn't running too fast, I was absolutely certain I could maintain the current 7:10-7:15 minute per mile pace for much longer than I had. I just felt terrible. The combination of the heat and humidity was simply more than I could handle.

I desperately wanted to quit. I'm still not exactly sure why I didn't. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I guess I just don't like seeing a DNF next to my name in the results. Of maybe 150 or so races I've done in my life I can only think of one I didn't finish, and that was a triathlon where I got two flat tires on the bike.

I slowed down to around 8 minutes per mile, knowing the slower pace would be the only way I could finish. Then at mile 17 I just started walking. I needed to collect myself. About a quarter of a mile later I began running again, just a little over 8 minute per mile pace. I stopped at each aid station (one every mile or two) and walked through it while I drank vast quantities of water and gatorade. Then after I gulped down the liquids I ran on to the next aid station.

After the 20 mile mark, where most runners (including me) typically fade away, I actually started to come back to life. I had already hit rock bottom and I had nowhere else to go but up. I still walked through the aid stations, but I was able to run slightly faster between them. Finally, after reaching the top of the hill on Armory street, less than two miles from the finish, on streets I have covered dozens of times before, I picked it up. I ran the final miles around 7:30 pace. It was the first time in the race when I actually felt like I was running hard. It hurt.

I finished in 3h28m, even slower than last year when I thought I had a bad race. But whatever, I finished marathon #7. Looking at the results today I noticed the average finishing times seemed to be around 15-20 minutes slower than last year. Talking to and hearing from many other runners, I don't think anyone had a good race. The conditions were just too poor.

Illinois Marathon 2009 v. 2010
Blue: 2009 finishing times, Red: 2010 finishing times

So now I'm sore all over, sunburned like crazy (I chose not to wear sunscreen due to the supposed likelihood of rain which somehow never materialized), and a bit disappointed. If this were last year I would vow to run another marathon to redeem myself. But this isn't last year. And I'm not going to run another marathon to redeem myself. And I'm never going to eat at Pizza Hut again. Until I do.

Feel the burn

Many thanks to my parents for watching Will while both Melissa and I ran the marathon.


Juan said...

You still did pretty well. Congrats!

It was a very painful run for me too. I felt that my legs were going to start cramping, around mile 18-19. Then, from all the water, gatorade and gu's that I had, my stomach started cramping up at around mile 23.

Anonymous said...

You really did have a terrific marathon when you consider the BIG PICTURE!! 116th out of 4,600 is something to be proud of.

I'm sorry you didn't do as well as you had hoped, but you have much to be proud of.

You and Melissa have realized a lifetime of rewards in your short lives. Many of us will never know that kind of accomplishment.

We are very proud of both of you. In a week or two, you will see the BIG PICTURE and the amazing results you DID have!

much love,

Scott said...

Dude, I had almost the exact experience in the half marathon (which is like a marathon to my uninitiated self) - minus the walking and the sunburn. The morning heat and humidity were most unpleasant, though I was finished by the time you faced the worst of it. I trained my long runs easy - in zones 2 and 3 - and figured I could step it up to near LT on race day. I did, but I ran slower than my long training runs. How on earth does that happen? I'll join you at Pizza Hut next spring.

FFF said...

It's comforting to hear that you had troubles, too... Misery loves company, right? (Even across various training / skill levels!)

I was so so SO "trained up" for my first sub-4, but it wasn't happenin'. I held pace through about 15, then the wheels came off.

Love love LOVE the 2009 / 2010 finishing times plot. I was trying to do something similar, but my Mathematica programming skills are very limited. Fortunately, my Mathematica SALES skills are not! :-P

Sandra Cookie said...

The Pizza Hut analogy is spot-on! Great job - one always has to consider the conditions when evaluating their performance in a race.