Ultra runners are not normal. Ultra runners refuse to follow normal runner rules of training and racing. We ‘like’ to run 100 miles at altitude, 24 hours around a one mile loop course or dream up our own challenges. Some of my friends ran Boston backwards and then forwards this year. Why? Why not? Most of these ideas and races seem abnormal and impossible to most of the human race. Part of that is my drive.
The Twin Cities Marathon (Minneapolis/St.Paul) is labeled “The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America”. I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss was about. The only problem with this year’s race was the date. It fell just a week after my 100K race in Colorado that I knew would (and definitely did) exhaust me. Most people would let the race go and look for it again on the calendar next time around. It would just not be ‘normal’ to run it so soon after such a hard effort. So, I said to myself ‘Imagine if I could break 3 hours at Twin Cities on really tired legs. That would be cool’. And there, the idea was born. I called it the Sub-3 Experiment.
To put my fitness into perspective, just three years earlier P.U. (pre-ultra), I broke the three-hour barrier in the Chicago marathon for the first time. I crossed that line with such emotion after having that goal from a young age. I wondered how future running achievements could every top that moment in time. Oh, how narrow-minded I was!
Hypothesis: Mind over muscle (fatigue)!
Prediction: This is where I have to be really decisive? Yes, I will do it!
Me and Ryan represented Team Novo Nordisk for the weekend at Twin Cities. We walked from our hotel to the HHH Metrodome (where the Minnesota Vikings play) where the start would be. We met up with my NYC marathon maniac friends; Kino and Thunder who I seem to bump into as much away from New York as in it. We discarded our warm clothes and got ready to go to the start line.
After my best night of sleep before a race ever, I was in good spirits. This was probably due to the fact that the ‘race’ was more of a game to me. If my legs weren’t feeling it, I would slow down but still finish. I was here to have fun and enjoy the challenge I had set myself.
I did a final glucose reading before handing my bag in and was surprised how low I was at 110. A 110 reading is normally perfect for everyday life but not before 26.2 miles. I was well below my target I always set myself of 180. As I had a 32oz Gatorade with me, now seemed a good a time as any to get some in the system. A few gulps and then a few more. I ended up polishing it off. I decided why risk going low in the race, I could always hold back on my carb intake in the first few miles if I felt it necessary.
I went outside to temps in the low-40’s. Most runners where already in the corrals waiting. I got into mine and weaved my way closer to the front. As soon as it became more trouble than it was worth, I settled on a spot and waited for the usual proceedings of speech, anthem and gun.
Off we went west through downtown Minneapolis. I didn’t try to rush ahead, I just stayed at the pace of most around me and moved up when a gap presented itself. The city had a similar look to Chicago, just not quite the same masses of runners. I believe we were about 9,000 strong.
By mile 1, I realized just how far back I had started. I was only now catching up to the CLIF pacer group of 3:15 led by fellow ultra runner Harvey Lewis. He read out a 7:21 split for mile 1 (I needed an average pace of 6:51 per mile for sub-3). OK, so thirty seconds down but no big deal. I had allowed for a slower start until 2.5 miles until the road flattened out.
We ran passed a church with its Sunday service bells chiming and then turned ninety degrees left up a long gradual climb. I noticed Kino ahead and caught up to him. We small talked, wished each other luck and then separated again.
Within two miles, we were in the suburbs of the city with beautiful tree foliage either side of the residential street. OK, the artistic impression of the course was pretty accurate. We wrapped around our first of four lakes for the day at Lake of the Isles. My average pace at the mile 4 was now down to an average of 7/minute miles. I had been gradually speeding up and so far so good. I told my plan to Crazy Chris Solarz in the week and he warmed me the wheels may fall off as early as mile 2. After a 100 mile race he had done last year, the next weekend he ran a marathon and it was not too speedy for him. I had been warned by the master but I was pretty determined to give it a fair crack at the whip.
The course was very flat now as we headed south. Around the biggest lake of the day; Lake Calhoun, and I could now appreciate why everyone who lives here loves their lakes! The lake looked glossy from the sunrise and a range of yellow, orange and green-leaved trees wrapped around the perimeter of the lake as the backdrop. During this lake, I passed by the last official pacing group on the course (3:05ers) which proved a bit more difficult than I wished for but once through, the space ahead was open and I continued at my steady pace.
I clocked 43 minutes at the 10K electronic mat. More to the point, my pace was now exactly on sub-3 hour target. All I had to do was maintain it for another 20 miles! I was surprised how many cheers I was getting of “changing diabetes” and “diabetes”. I’ve been wearing my Team Novo Nordisk shirt with pride all year-long but I guess running in the mountains and remote trails doesn’t attract the same level of spectators as a city marathon. It was a pleasant change. I enjoyed the acknowledgment of people recognizing what we are trying to do; diabetes doesn’t hold any of us back.
I was consuming a cup or two of Powerade at every odd mile marker to make sure my 110 pre-race glucose wouldn’t drop any lower. It by no means should have after that Gatorade I consumed but I was feeling more on the low than high side in the early miles. I ended up grabbing a gel from my shorts earlier than I would normally do. I was frustrated that a low now would possibly affect my pace rather than my legs that were doing a great job. Well done legs!
From mile 8 on, I knew the course descended very subtly all the way until mile 20. I didn’t want to increase my pace dramatically but knew it would be nice to have a cushion on my goal pace before the long hill from 20 to 23. I glanced my watch again and saw 6:47 pace. I stuck with this pace over the next few miles as it felt manageable.
The race director clearly knew what he was doing with his lakes because he saved the best of the four until last (only 9,996 lakes still to see in Minnesota!). As we hugged the south bank of Lake Nokomis, there was a great view of Minneapolis behind, probably a good five miles away. The houses around the lake were no joke either. I guess, if your living the good life in this part of the world, you live by a lake!
As much as I was enjoying my views and the race, my bladder was not enjoying any of it. I had been holding out for a few miles now. I really just didn’t want to stop to go or the complete opposite and wet myself so I just thought if I kept running, the problem would just go away. Shortly before halfway, I took a detour into a porta potty and oh man, did I feel better after that! I got going again and noticed the thirty seconds of cushion time I had just built up had gone again but at least I didn’t wet myself. I’m not sure I physically could have. How do people do that anyway?!
I clocked my half split at 1:29:40. Things were shaping up for the perfect sub-3 race but I was still concerned if my legs were coming along for the whole ride. I had to hold this pace for the same amount of effort again and climb this hill positioned at the hardest miles in any marathon. My mind was wandering and doubting. I had to break the race down before I cracked. OK, six miles until the bridge over into St. Paul. Let’s focus on those six gradual downhill miles and nothing else I said to myself.
I had noticed I was passing people every hundred yards or less the whole race. This felt great. Not that I was racing anyone except the clock but there’s something immensely satisfying about running smart, holding back and finishing strong. Time would tell if I was holding back or already close to my max though. Nothing was a given. I’ve never heard many people anyone say “that marathon was an easy” and respected the distance and discipline required.
As we ran alongside the Mississippi River to our right, I knew the bridge was imminent. With just about a mile of Minneapolis real estate running remaining, I got a tap on my back from a tall runner. “I love your team” he said. “Oh, thanks…me too” I said. “Are you T1?” I asked him. He was indeed. I was impressed. I demanded he apply for the team immediately!
During the conversation, I felt a growing number of runners swarming around me as we descended down the road towards the Franklin Street Bridge. I wasn’t one to enjoy doing all the leg work with a light breeze coming at us so I pushed the gear up enough to breakaway and cross the river independently.
The view of the rowers on the Mississippi River with the tree foliage either side was picturesque to say the least but I would have traded the view at this point for no wind which was blowing me all over the place. As I reached halfway across, I felt my speed pick up again. In part because the bridge was now descending but also because I heard the cheers of a large crowd on the St. Paul side of town.
I ran though this noisy section and kept my pace high as I kept drawing more and more runners in who were now fighting hard to stay at their earlier pace. Mine had picked up again, now to 6:31. I questioned if that was too much but knew for every mile, I was putting a nice twenty seconds in the bank that I may need to spend again on the hill.
Though a 20 mile arch I went and I still felt good. Better than good, I was growing in confidence that sub-3 was just 10K away. I had about 45 minutes to cover the ground. I kept with my hydrating system of Powerade every two miles. The temperature was now perfect running weather now in the low 50’s and overcast.
I waited any moment for the climb to begin. I had built up two minutes of cushion since my pit stop. I knew I could sacrifice my pace back down to 7-minute miles going up, push for the last 5K and still be OK. After a small climb, the view surprised me. It was a long gradual down again. What a bonus! Where was this hill then?
I approached a small group clutched tight together. As we turned sharp left onto Summit Avenue, a spectator gave us encouragement “Good group here, work as a team up this hill”. Team? I’d only just met them! I stayed at my pace and pretended like they weren’t there. Sure enough, no one followed and I pulled away from them. I reminded myself, I had just climbed five mountains last weekend and this hill wasn’t going to be my excuse for slowing down.
Up ahead carnage was ensuing with a couple of runners staggering and walking the hill. I flew past them. The crowds were great here, a couple of rows deep in places and really had my back. The legs were now feeling a little wobbly. I could fee the pain of the marathon kicking in and feared my pace had fallen off. It had slowed but not by much; 6:45.
Summit Avenue was as straight as a dart. I focused on the solid line painted on the asphalt for a bike lane and used that as my personal line. I kept my effort fair for the miles that were left to cover. The risk of my legs not feeling it was too high so I maintained my 6:45 pace all the way to the summit of Summit to be specific.
Now I was passed 23 miles and I could see the road ahead descend again. Less than 5K to push. The crowd got louder as the legs began to get tighter and make their own kind of noise. Runner after runner, I kept closing the gap on the next one and charging ahead. I haven’t felt this good in the closing miles of a marathon since my PR at Marine Corps in 2011.
At mile 25, a couple of back to back hills presented themselves in front. I ran right through the aid station. I could drink as much as I wanted in 1.2 miles. In doing so, I blitzed through typical final miles marathon carnage; a guy holding his hamstring and another drinking from three cups of water. I knew now that I was not only going to break three but do it in style too.
With the final push uphill I looked up for the church in the skyline as I knew this would mean the home stretch. I was anticipating a tight left turn with a hidden finish but it was so much better. Down below the hill in the distance was the red and orange decorated finish arch. I realized I could cruise in but didn’t want too. I made every next step lighter and more powerful. Mind over muscle all the way home.
Across the line in 2:56. I keeled over and realized I was pretty dead. I bent over for an eternity soaking up my achievement. I didn’t want to leave the finish area. If their was ever a way to not PR and feel amazing, this was how to do it. I had achieved a big negative split of 1:30, 1:26 (something I don’t do nearly enough). The stats got better; nobody passed me after the halfway mark.
I waited for a while draped in my foil blanket. Thunder came in next with a 3:15 and we waited for Ryan and Kino who were both shooting for 3:30. The rain that was forecast finally came down momentarily. Shaking from the cold rain, it was time to get our bags and change into dry ASAP. My flowing running legs minutes before were replaced with stiff hamstrings, calves and IT bands. I was looking forward to a few days off.
The past two weeks, I have run two marathons and a 100K race in three different states (pacing Tiffany in the Top of Utah Marathon (3:05), UROC 100K in Colorado (16:57) and now Twin Cities in Minnesota). I’m tired.
I predicted I could do it before I started but honestly I had my doubts and even a few doubters. I kept the demons at bay and went after it like I always seem to do. Think you might lose and you already have. My plan simply worked because I had one. Some determination and gusto didn’t hurt me either!
Now for a short break before the home stretch of 2013; New York City and Philadelphia Marathons and then onto the trails once more for the North Face 50 Championships in San Francisco. What, you thought that was it?