My first marathon was in 1997 and the Boston Marathon was my fourth race. I had reduced my time each race and finished in3:05:11. It seemed to me that the magical three hour mark should be within reach. But as in life, good things seem to take time and effort.
The next race I scheduled was in Las Vegas. The course looked good for weather and elevation. The first 8.5 miles of the race are a little uphill, which takes a lot out of you and you start way out in the desert early in the morning so it is very cold. By the time you enter Vegas you are hot! I was on pace for three hours through mile 17. In fact, I thought to myself that this was the day….and then suddenly I got a sharp pain in my abdomen that almost stopped me in the middle of the road. It would not go away….I had trouble breathing and really struggled. Somehow I did finish, but by the time I finished it was 3:09:50. It was the first time in my running career that I had not bettered my time.
Not one to give up easily, I scheduled a marathon in Olympia, Washington again in May of 2001. Unfortunately, prior to the race I was starting to have significant knee problems. I went to a doctor that gave me a systemic injection of some kind of anti-inflammatory medicine. It worked wonders for about 24 hours and until about mile 17….then it became a big problem. I had a tough time finishing again and finished in 3:05:20. If I had known I was so close to my personal best of 3:05:11 I could have beaten that. It made me think about making sure I am aware of those kind of goals even though I knew three hours was not going to happen. The next race I schedule was for Portland, where I had run my second marathon. I trained differently this time. One of the techniques in training is to train your body as faster speeds. Speed training, interval training and repeats. By training your body to run relaxed at higher speeds, when you settle into your slower marathon pace, it becomes even easier and you can improve your pace. The pace I needed to maintain for an entire race was about 6:51 per miles. So in training, I would go to the track and run one mile at a time at around 6:00 or below to teach my body how to run comfortably at that pace and to develop my lung and circulatory systems a bit, lowing the anaerobic threshold.
Distance running is a paradox in many ways, as it is the ultimate in exertion, but you have to train your body to relax, because if you are tense, you don’t run as efficiently and burn up more energy. You have to relax everything. Your hands, your shoulders, your neck, your face and so on. You need to monitor this relaxed state throughout each race. So for Portland I was running lots of repeat miles and I was getting a bit faster. You also have to train at least once a week at high miles. Typically, my buddies (Tim, Jim, Eric, Kevin, Dan and others) and I would run one long one per week of at least 16 miles and up to about 23 miles.
The companionship created on these runs is something special. You talk about everything. Family, work, fears, joys, successes, failures and much more. More than once we had to stop from either laughing too hard or crying too hard. We shared very personal stuff. Very much a bonding experience. So for Portland, which I mentioned earlier, I actually went backwards and really started questioning my goal of three hours. Maybe it was not possible for me.? I ran 3:13 in Portland. This was September of 2001.
My planning was becoming more sophisticated. I was mixing in stretching, weight training, bicycling and other activities. I also was focusing on nutrition. For race day, you have to know when you will get each drink (typicaly every two miles) and what type of drink your body can handle. For me, I alternated between Gatorade and water. When I tried other sports drinks I got sick to my stomach. For Vegas I planned to go with my best friend, Gary. It was SuperBowl time also, so we would watch the game after the race.
I planned meticulously for this race. I had mapped out what to be thinking about at each stage of the race and also planted my Gatorade bottles behind rocks on the side of the road so that I could easily find them. Between Personal experience and reading, I determined I could make it to around mile 18 easily before my easy glucose sources in my body ran out. Then, you could feel your body transition to using stored fuels and it was much more difficult for the body. That is when people hit what is proverbially referred to as the wall. With that in mind, I calculated how many calories I would need for the final 8 miles. If I could take on enough calories during the race before mile 18 to get me through the final 8 miles, I could do it! However, to consume that many liquid calories is challenging. I believe I had a 20 ounce bottle of Gatorade every four miles. One has to practice drinking on the run. I did not stop to drink. While drinking, you are not getting as much oxygen during breathing so it is a difficult 30 to 45 seconds of consumption. I made myself drink it all. Gary delivered my last bottle at around mile 20 and the rest of the way I went with water provided by the race. Never pass up water. You have to be careful when getting the water because runners are so tired that they can bump into you and make you fall.
On this day, I learned the power of visualization. To relax, I was envisioning very calm water….and then also a metal cylinder that was turning in space and I just focused on those images as I was running. It helped my whole body relax. I dialed in my pace and relaxed. This race felt like the perfect race. That is unusual. I had no major problem. When I crossed the finish line, I had set a personal best of 3:00:43. I had missed the three hour barrier by 43 seconds! If I had run 2 seconds per mile faster, I would have achieved my goal. Regardless I was happy because I did not feel I could have run any better. While we were watching the Super Bowl after the race, a big fight broke out in the area and I could not move fast enough to get out of the way easily because my legs were so sore. Fortunately, the fighters passed us by.
I still had not reached the goal of three hours! My next attempt at breaking three hours was to be at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. I chose it because it looked like there was a big elevation drop. Made some major mistakes. Ate too much the night before. Bad to run on a full stomach. Unfortunanately, they bus you to the starting line way up in the mountains, I think near Custer’s last stand. The bus was late! That destroyed my preparation. Normally I warm up for about 45 minutes. Jogging, stretching, running a little faster, etcetera…all to get ready for the beginning. In this case, we arrived barely before the gun went off. It was at 5400 feet altitude and was cold. I had to take off my warm ups quickly and then basically started running. It was difficult from the start. Lots of hills and the steepst downhill I have ever seen. When I arrived at the finish in 3:21 I was in 34th place, but it was my worst marathon in a long time. I didn’t worry about it because I knew the other variables influenced the outcome too much. It was a very different part of the country to visit, so that was a plus. I remember driving around listening to a great radio station. All the songs I liked.
From there my next shot was to be the Motorola Marathon in Austin, Texas in February of 2004. Weather should be good and a relatively flat course. Could be the day. It actually snowed the night before, which was very unusual. I planned very well for this race and on race day I decided to follow a pace group that supposedly would help you finish at 3 hours. I had never done that before. Certainly removes the thinking part out of it. This race was as close to perfect as I could get up to about mile 21. I was running smooth and easy. I was on pace for three hours no problem. Suddenly I had tremendous pain in the sole of my foot. It was like landing on a stone each time my foot hit the ground. It was so painful I was unsure if I could finish. Notably in 2020 I had surgery for this foot problem courtesy of my friend Dr. Raúl. 16 years later. One thing I am good at is living with physical pain. Maybe a prerequisite to running marathons well? I had trained myself to run through anything, but this almost stopped me in my tracks. I somehow kept going but was slowing down. I could not prevent that. At mile 25 I started vomiting or at least dry heaving. I am sure I scared people as I passed them but I was determined to finish. I finished in my second best time ever 3:01:26.
Invariably something happens during a marathon and you have to manage the situation. I did the best I could. Frustrating because you can only run a few per year. Your body can’t take any more than that. For that race I weighed about 10 pounds less, so I think that made a big difference in performance. By this time I had read about everything there was about running, training, marathoning and so on. One area that was always of interest to me was how to best breathe. I picked up a book that helped me a lot. A guy named Miller explained how to breathe out heavy on your first step, and then go through steps 2,3,4 and exhale again. By blowing out hard you are forced to inhale hard and it ensures you will get more oxygen. That is the thinking. Next attempt scheduled for May 2004 in Olympia.
2 thoughts on “Trying to break three hours in the Marathon”
I have been enjoying your stories, Jim.
LikeLiked by 1 person