Twin Cities Marathon

Here’s my unabridged recap of finishing 2nd at the 2010 US Men’s Marathon Championship at the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon.

I could see my breath during my routine shakeout run before 5AM on race morning. It was calm and brisk out as I jogged in darkness through downtown St. Paul, but I knew in a few hours that the sun’s presence would raise the temperature to 40°F and create the perfect Fall marathon racing conditions.

I ate breakfast quietly back in my hotel room, having a generous bowl of Hemp Plus Granola with Silk. The previous evening, I had eaten copious amounts of pasta, bread sticks and salad at the athlete dinner. Aside from the 4 bottles of Cytomax Natural Citrus I had waiting for me on the marathon course, these meals were my sole fuel sources for the race. After a few cups of coffee (using my new French press travel mug that Ali got me), I felt equally nourished and alert. At 6:00AM, it was time for me to depart for the race. I kissed Ali goodbye, packed my bag and braved myself for the morning that I had anticipated for so many months.

At the athlete staging area, I went through my active-isolation rope stretching routine while listening to my ipod (beats from my “Marathizzle” hip-hop playlist ).  Around 30 minutes before the race, I joined former teammate and Flagstaff roommate Mike Reneau for an easy warm-up run, afterwards doing some surges at marathon pace to wake the legs up. With 15 minutes until race time, I switched into all my racing gear: my MarathonGuide.com singlet, my lightweight Smith Optics racing sunglasses,  CEP Compression socks and a newly-minted pair of Brooks Green Silence. The cooler morning temperature also called for gloves and arm-warmers to help keep me running warm and fluid.

The start  was uneventful for me. Once we received the anticlimactic send-off, I tucked in to a large group and observed as a few other athletes made their ambitions known by maneuvering to the front. Just as well, I thought, the real race won’t begin until about 30K.

Just as I had for the Rock’n’Roll Marathon in Phoenix, I came down from altitude less than 2 days prior to the race. Again, I knew that it would take the early miles to adjust to running at sea level, and that I should ease into my marathon effort naturally and establish a comfortable breathing pattern. The first few miles clicked off slowly, but I ignored my watch and followed my breathing while my muscles were also warming up for the race ahead. Passing 5K in 16:11, I was in a second chase group with many of the favorites, and could still make out the tête de la course down the road. We were winding our way by the Lake of the Isles, the first of four lakes we would encounter in the first half of the race. I knew I was in good position and out of trouble. Any energy I could conserve now would work to my advantage later on.

During the next few miles, we lost sight of the early leaders and we were still well behind the chase group, which I felt contained a few dangerous athletes (Reneau in particular). Cabada took the initiative to start organizing an effort to bring back the chase, and we traded miles to share the work. Simon Sawe and Mbarak Hussein were also very helpful in contributing to the effort. After grabbing my Cytomax bottle at mile 5, I took my turn up front. I usually refrain from talking during a race, but I felt that our communicating was vital in preventing a huge tactical error. I told Hussein that by 10K we should be in range of the group ahead.

Sure enough, we joined Reneau’s chase group between 10K and 7 miles. It didn’t require a major increase in effort to catch the group (we were 32:11 at 10K), and I suspected they had possibly slowed down. Even so, I realized that we needed to continue our gradual momentum forward and not allow the leaders too much more distance. Up the road and over 40 seconds ahead were Dave Jankowski, Seth Pilkington and Luke Watson– three athletes I felt were very capable contenders and needed to be taken seriously.

It was as if I were back in July, watching a long stage of the Tour de France. Was the break away going to survive today? Given the personnel of marathon veterans in my group (Reneau, Hussein, Sawe, Cabada and Reyes), I felt it would be very difficult for any athlete to run away from our group and live to tell about it. As it turned out, we continued our organized effort past Lake Harriet and on the rolling Minnehaha Parkway. I hardly took notice of the colorful canopy of trees that had caught my attention the previous day on the course tour. I was focused on the task at hand.

The half-marathon point was reached in 1:07:21. We had caught Watson and Seth while rounding Lake Nokomis with a few miles around 5:00 and were approaching a sharp turn back onto the Parkway. Staying in the front end of my group, I was unaware of any athletes falling back. As we made the turn, I saw a few others were laboring to keep up, including Simon “Skips” Sawe. At mile 14, we split 4:55, even with the slight incline running back on the Parkway. The pace did not feel any more difficult, but I resolved to keep patient for at least a few more miles. I took another Cytomax bottle at mile 15 to keep hydrated. Jankowski was still over 30 seconds ahead, although he no longer had anyone helping him.

It’s hard to recall who controlled the pace during the next 3 miles.  I ran side by side with Reyes, then Cabada and before I knew it our trio had pulled away from Hussein, Reneau, Sawe and Tyler Sygl (who we had been up front with Jankowski earlier). Dave’s orange jersey had become increasingly visible so we knew we were going to make the catch soon. I took over at 17 and was anxious to test out the legs. I didn’t realize until later that we split 4:47. I was still feeling fresh, and it appeared Reyes and Cabada were too.

During the stretch on West River Road, we were accompanied by a motorbike, which I learned later was doing live video coverage of the race until their camera died. Directly in front of the race was a trolley, which served as the official press vehicle. While I was aware of both their presences, my focus was on catching Jankowski and thinking about when I would try to test my competitors again.

At 30K (1:34:44), the catch had been made and our group of 3 was pulling away from Zap Fitness’ intrepid debutant. Now it was up to us to sort out our places on the podium. I still had a step lead at mile 19, as we turned onto the bridge to cross the Missippi, but I never picked up more than a stride on either Sergio or Fernando. We reached the 20 Mile mark together in 1:41:31, still with poker faces under our sunglasses. Once the infamous hill leading to Summit Avenue began, I knew it was again time to test out both their legs and mine.

I had prepared myself for running hard uphill all summer in Flagstaff. I raced up Snow Bowl Road, climbed up Jerome, had several training runs up Mt. Elden and would wring all the effort out of my legs each Sunday in long runs coming back up Lake Mary Road’s rollers. I worked relentlessly to make my own vulnerability in climbing a strength. Having studied the Twin Cities course and profile, I was well aware of how decisive the final 10K would be; the advantage would be given to the stronger hill runner.

At 20.6 I took my final Cytomax bottle. The station came a little later than I had wanted (I prefer not to take any drink during the final 30 minutes), but a few sips ensured I would not run low on electrolytes or succumb to muscle cramping. I lead the way by a step up the hill, and could hear Cabada’s heavy breathing over my own. As we crested the climb, I felt the increased effort but knew I was not alone.

I think any athlete having a dream of winning this race wants to taste the lead entering Summit Avenue. Still leading by half a stride, I was the first to make the highly anticipated left-hand turn. The crowd presence and excitement of leading encouraged me to dig into the slight upgrade. I knew Cabada was faltering but Sergio had given little sign of discomfort. Between 22 and 23, he moved even with me and then took over the lead. I responded as quickly as I could, but a gap was beginning to form.

Having often been asked why I train alone, I explain that the critical moments in the marathon come when you are by yourself and you alone have to decide whether to push forward or settle in. I like to think that working out independently has challenged me each time to make the conscious choice to push forward. Once gapped by Reyes, I was again left to decide whether I would fight or fold.

Miles 24 and 25 were agonizing. Both my legs and arms burned, and I felt I had to consciously focus on directing each stride forward and drive my arms without overreaching. With a mile to go, the gap was around 9 or 10 seconds and I knew I could not wait. I just kept grinding… past the growing crowds and with the State Capital coming into view.

As I barreled down the hill towards the finish, I ignored the sharp pains in my quads generating from the impact of each footstrike. I was in the highest gear I could manage, not only with the ambition of trying to run down the race leader, but in an effort to make sure Cabada did not employ his superior track speed to take away the final automatic World Championship spot. Even after Sergio took the final strides up and broke the finish banner, I continued to red-line my engine and reduce his victory to 7 seconds. As I crossed the line, I hadn’t even noticed I had run a new PR.

I was spent after the race, on my hands and knees. I only knew Ali was with me when I recognized her boots. I was escorted to the medical tent and then directly to drug testing. When it came time for the awards ceremony, I was over the heartbreak of finishing runner-up by 7 seconds, and smiling about my 2:14:09 PR and World Championship berth.

Looking back on the race, I really have no regrets with how I ran. I wanted to win, and I tried everything I could in the final third of the race (my body is telling me that now as I write this 4 days later). If anything, I had to use every ounce of energy in me to make Sergio’s victory a 7-second margin. And I’m extremely proud to have established a new personal best time (running a negative split on a challenging course) and also qualify for next year’s World Championships. In my second marathon, I have clearly made some progress. And I don’t believe this will be the last time I fight for a US title.

For now, I will enjoy my downtime and continue to reflect on my racing experience. At the same time, I am already hungry and looking forward to my next chapter in the marathon.

In closing, thanks again to my faithful family, friends and sponsors. Your support has carried me this far, and the best is yet to come! –JDE

 

The Jerome Hill Climb & Labor Day Weekend

I spent my Labor Day weekend running up and through the historic mining town of Jerome. Ali and I also had a few other adventures while exploring the Wild West!

Jerome, AZ sits snug on the Cleopatra Hillside about 60 miles to the southwest of Flagstaff. This historic “Wild West” silver and copper mining town dates back to 1883, and now a quaint downtown and artistic community remains amidst its ghost stories and folklore. Surely, Jerome’s panoramic view at 5000 feet and past reputation as “The Wickedest Town in the West” were enough reason for Ali and I to make the drive down early Sunday morning of the Labor Day weekend, but it was a particular event that peaked our (or rather my) interest: the Jerome Hill Climb.

My history in hill climbing– or more formally the sport of mountain running– is short and had humble beginnings. In June, my naiveté carried me half-way up the relentless 12% slopes of the Mt. Washington Auto Road before I experienced the most real form of mechanical failure. The renowned and quotable British commentator of the Tour de France, Phil Ligget, could not have described it better: “his effort is reduced to mere survival!” Having my unfavorable introduction to this new form of running masochism, I was left humbled but extremely motivated on that day. And I knew there was absolutely no way that I would abandon mountain running until I was at the top!

Looking over the course profile for my next marathon, Twin Cities, I recognized that I would need to become a stronger hill runner to be successful at this US Championship. So I worked in a few challenging, low-key hill climb races into my Summer training to improve my climbing ability. The first essay came in July at the inaugural RunFlagstaff Snow Bowl Road Hill Climb. After a practice run the week before (with Ali on bike), I soloed up the 7 miles of switchbacks and climbed over 2000 feet. I ran patiently and it was a much more controlled and sustained effort than my death throes up Mt. Washington. I felt good reaching the Agassiz Lodge Parking Lot, 2 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher and 1:30 faster than my practice run. I was excited with the improvement.

Now a month away from Twin Cities, and with my training volume at its apex, I signed up for one final ascent race. In its 40th running, the Jerome Hill Climb has evolved into a 4.4 mile race that gains 1100 feet in elevation. Starting at the Historical Park, the race course gently ascends into the downtown district and then heads up the severe mountain grades past the Ghost Town before continuing out on the winding dirt road to Perkinsville.

Even at a race distance of 4.4 miles, I stayed composed early on. I followed my breathing and worked with a steady, metronome-like cadence up the first mile. During the flat section I still maintained the same breathing pattern but allowed my legs to turnover quicker, while recovering and anticipating the hors catagorie slopes that became visible around the road’s bend. I had established a significant lead over the other runners and was still feeling comfortable. I waved when running by Ali, but seeing the upward road ahead had an unnerving effect. Luckily, my Smith Optics Pivlock V90 Sunglasses hid my solemn gaze.

After a dozen strides up, I had re-established a rhythmic connection between my breathing and my legs. Climbing requires more concentration and mindfulness (in contrast to the “autopilot mode” I might experience in a longer and flatter road race). There is constant feedback between the body and the mind. I’ve learned it’s not effective for the mind to override sensory feedback, but to manage it: to maintain an effort at my body’s limit without red-lining. As I have learned the hard way, the combination of ascending too ambitiously while racing at altitude is fatal; there is no point to recover and survival becomes the best possible result.

I followed the dirt road around the hillside, pressing but also enjoying the clear morning view. I could see the green patches of the Verde Valley, the Red Rocks in Sedona and Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks all the way up the Mogollon Rim in the distant horizon. It became clear to me why the Arizona Road Runners worked so diligently to continue hosting this race; it really showcases the State’s beauty. My focus abruptly shifted, however, as I was startled to discover the finish line chute around the following corner. I crossed the line in 26:45, and my Garmin 305 GPS Watch indicated I had run 6:05/mi pace for the 4.4mi climb.

A long run ensued after the race. I ran back down into town, changed out of my dusty Brooks T6 Racers and headed back up Perkinsville Road for about 13 miles. Marathon training isn’t over yet!

Then Ali and I went on our own “Tour of Arizona” after the race, heading to downtown Prescott for Sunday afternoon. We checked out the shops, craft fair and saloons on Whiskey Row (oh yeah and she also let me stop at the Public Library!). We rode back into the sunset that night, up the I-17, tired from our Wild West exploits. On Labor Day, I did an early morning workout in Camp Verde and then our adventure continued with a picturesque drive down to Fossil Creek. Here are a few photos from our relaxing Labor Day travels:

I hope everyone had a safe and relaxing holiday weekend! –JDE