I sit tonight in my usual blogging spot: butt firmly planted on the love seat and feet resting comfortably on the coffee table. It’s been awhile, I’ll admit. To see people commenting on the automatic race updates seems somewhat pathetic (pathetic in that they have nothing better upon which to comment), but I’m nevertheless grateful that I have a few faithful followers left in spite of my lack of motivation to do pretty much anything over the last few weeks.
You see, I’ve felt burned out. Since the Walt Disney World half marathon, it’s been a struggle to get up in the morning to do any sort of workout and it’s been even more of a mental struggle to log my runs (or lack thereof) and blog about them. Oddly, that all changed on Sunday. What’s even weirder is that it all changed on a day that I didn’t meet my goal. I mean, who would have thought that I would lose motivation after achieving my goal in the Disney half marathon by 49 seconds, only to gain it all back after falling over 3 minutes short of my goal in the Gasparilla marathon. I can’t really explain it myself, but here’s the story of my second marathon (with pirated photos for your viewing enjoyment):
It really all started last June when I crept out of my solo running shell and met Drew and Richie for a 10 mile run along the water. Drew had contacted me after reading this blog and beating me by over a minute in a local 5K, and I had been introduced to Richie over Facebook by a mutual friend. My regular readers know that I spent most of the summer running with Richie, while Drew was injured with shin splints and we never trained together again- though his story is slightly intertwined with my experience in this marathon.
After Richie finished the New York City marathon in 3:01:23, he convinced his friends Justin and Steve to run the Gasparilla marathon. Since I had been planning for this race all along, I joined them all on their Saturday long runs. In January, Richie developed a groin injury and was unable to continue training with us, but Justin, Steve and I pressed on religiously meeting every Saturday morning for long runs.
On Saturday, Justin invited us all over to his house for a pasta dinner. It was excellent with Meatballs and sauce from Mazarro’s Italian market. I had two servings and Alice made me pancakes later in the evening. In the morning Steve got up at 3 to cook pancakes, but I just had an energy bar. I met Justin, Steve and Richie at Steve’s house around 4:15 am. Together, we all drove over the Tampa for the marathon. Unfortunately, Steve forgot his Garmin, so we had to turn back. We were still there in plenty of time and each arrived in the starting corral with our respective pace groups: I in 3:20, Steve in3:30 and Justin in 3:40 with about 10 minutes to spare.
In the starting corral, I introduced myself to Chris, the 3:20 pacer. His wife, Lauren was the 1:40 half marathon pacer so they got to run together for the first 7 miles.
After a few announcements and the national anthem, we all start moving forward without much fanfare. There’s no horn, no gunshot, and certainly no fireworks like Disney. It’s all pretty low key – which is just about how I feel. I’m basically wearing my Disney outfit: shorts, a sleeveless shirt, a green St. Petersburg high school stocking cap, tube socks on my arms and the old white gloves I used to wear when I stocked the dairy at the grocery store in college. On top of that, I’m wearing one of Richie’s son’s old sweatshirts. It’s awkward and keeps slipping off my shoulders. I chuck it at the one mile mark. The temperature is in the mid forties. The wind is fairly calm and unlike Disney, there’s no precipitation.
I’ve got 5 Chocolate flavored Clif shot gels in my pockets. The plan is to take one at miles 5,9,14,18 and 22. They’re a little inconvenient at the moment. They swing uncomfortably against my thighs, but I’m mostly focused on keeping Chris in sight.
The crowd is thick and it’s hard to keep up with Chris simply because of the people. Mile one takes us through several sharp turns and over a bridge to Davis Island. Continuing around the residential streets of the island, the crowd remains thick. I know I don’t have the be right next to Chris, but on several occasions, he gets uncomfortably far away and I have to fight my way through the crowd to stay in contact. We’re slow through the first few miles mostly due to the crowd, but we begin to pick up the pace about 4 miles in.
I’m feeling kind of crumby for the first few miles of a marathon. The pace isn’t horrible. My legs feel fine. My breathing is steady. There’s just something weird. It’s a feeling like I’ve got a long way to go and I’d rather be back in bed.
We continue around the edge of Davis Island, running along Tampa Bay most of the way. The crowd slowly begins to thin out and after about 4 miles, I’m able to tuck in right behind Chris. Just before the 5 mile mark, I remove my right glove, reach into my right pocket and pull out my first gel. It takes about a quarter mile to get it all down, but it’s timed perfectly. As soon as I take my last swallow, we motor into a water station. I grab a Gatorade, take two drinks, throw it aside, then grab a water. I hold onto the water, drinking from it slowly over the next 200 meters. Once I’m finished, I throw the cup aside, put my glove back on and wipe the excess chocolate gel from my face. I’m feeling much better now.
Shortly after the five mile mark, we pass a house with two coolers set up at the end of the driveway. A young girl is sitting with the coolers, offering Gatorade to the runners. It’s pretty damned cool, but unfortunately not a scene that is repeated later in the race. Many in the group wave at her and thank her for coming out. Now that Chris’ wife, Lauren has taken her half marathon group about 20 yards ahead, needing to pull them back on pace over a shorter distance, our group has firmly materialized. From my vantage point near the front, it appears to be about twenty guys – female free for the moment – and moving as a pretty cohesive unit with sporadic conversation here and there.
We head back over the bridge toward the start area. The course has cleared out and our pack stands out pretty well now. We’re the first marathon pace group and we get a lot of “Yeah! 3:20 pace group, you’re lookin good” types of cheers.
10K into the race, we come down the bridge and make a hairpin turn.
“Go Brian, lookin good!”
It’s Richie shouting from the crowd. I raise my hand in salute.
“Feelin’ good, coach!”
Then, I tuck back into the group. A few seconds later, I’m surprised to see Richie running alongside.
“How’s it going buddy,” he asks. I’m a little bewildered that he’s just popped into our pace group.
“Going good,” I say awkwardly, “how are you?”. He doesn’t seem to hear me and shouts some more words of encouragement to me and the rest of the group before peeling off to wait for Steve. The other guys in the group ask me about him as we get a preview of the finish. I tell them about how we ran together all summer and his finish in New York, followed by the groin injury. It eats up about a half mile and we’re getting good crowd support as we pass the 7 mile mark.
Soon after, we split from the half marathoners who loop back around the finish for a short jaunt down Bayshore drive before returning for their finale. We’re headed into downtown Tampa. The streets are empty as we leave the cheers of the crowd and the music behind. Without the half marathoners, the field is now very spread out, but the pace group still represents a formidable pack about 20 strong. A young tattooed lady hangs about 10 yards in front of us as though running from a ravenous pack of horny teenagers.
As we run against the wind, one of the group members offers to hold the sign for Chris. Chris happily hands it off, making sure to mention he can hand it back at any time. I’m honored to be in the company of such a charitable group member, but I figure Chris can run a 2:47 and I’ll be lucky to hold onto 3:20 so there will be no sign carrying for me today.
Near the 8 mile mark, we get our first glimpse of the race leaders charging back toward us. They’re roughly 2 miles ahead of us at this point and looking mighty lonely. The top 4 or 5 runners are spaced over 100 meters apart and there’s very little crowd support at this point in the race. We cross another bridge and make a hard right turn. In the distance, I recognize Drew running alone back toward us. I hadn’t seen his name on the registration list, so I was worried he had gotten injured again. He’s looking pretty good and I shout some encouragement to him. He recognizes me in a few seconds and shouts something back to me.
We pass through a water stop and I make a mental note of it since I’m pretty sure we’ll soon be running through it again on the other side of the road. We make a hard right, cross the river again then make a hard left past the 9 mile mark. I can see a hairpin turn in the distance. It’s strange. There’s just a cone. There’s no mat to record our chips and no one even standing there. We could have easily skipped about 3 miles of the race. Everybody dutifully heads to the cone and loops around it. We’ve reached the northernmost point of the course.
On the way back downtown, we see the next pace group in the distance. I scan for Steve and find him about 15 yards ahead of the group. This is typical. He’s usually the one setting the pace during our long runs. He’s in pretty good shape so I’m not too worried. In fact, I might have suggested he start with me in the 3:20 pace group if it hadn’t been his first marathon. I yell at him, but he can’t hear me because his headphones are too loud. This too is typical.
We make a hard right. I remove my left glove, dig into my left pocket (gotta even out the load) and pull out another gel. I squeeze it in to my mouth and slowly suck down the contents. Meanwhile, we pass the 3:40 pace group and I see Justin tucked into the back.
“Yeah J-dog!”, I yell, but he too has his headphones on too loud and I get only a smirk in return. We make a hard left and we’re back at the water station. I skip the Gatorade and quaff only water this time. I slide my glove back on and wipe my face again. My hands aren’t necessarily cold, but these gloves sure are convenient for wiping chocolate off my face and snot off my nose.
Shortly after the water stop, we approach a woman on a bike (Bike lady). She services a few members of the group (food and water – get your mind out of the gutter) and then hops on the bike to zip ahead of us. Tattooed lady still comfortably sits about 10 yards in front of the group, relentlessly holding off our pursuit. We pass the 10 mile mark, head across the river again and back into downtown. The wind is at our backs and the course declines slightly. We all comfortably cruise through the next mile back toward the finish line.
Here, we merge again with the half marathoners – only now we’re merging with slower runners as our 7:38 pace colleagues in the 1:40 pace group are now only 2 miles from the finish. As we close on runners, the group parts like the Red Sea, isolating each runner briefly in the pack before reforming in front. We hear several comments from these runners:
“3:20? What?!? Huh? Oh shit, they’re running the marathon!”
These comments fuel me. I’m no elitist. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger the race, the better. I don’t care how slow you are. Jump into a race. Barring injury, you’ve got no choice but to get better. I was once where these runners were and I’m getting high off the fact that I’m where I am now.
I’m expecting to see Richie again, but he’s nowhere to be found. Later, I’d find out he took a bus to the 16 mile mark and fell asleep during the ride. We pass the 12 mile mark in 1:31 and change. I think about my Disney finish and how I was through 13.1 miles 2 minutes faster than I’m through 12 today.
“Piece of cake,” I think.
We head back across the start line, make a left turn and wind up on Bayshore Blvd. It’s just a long out and back now. The pack continues to engulf half marathon runners as we head south on Bayshore Blvd. Tattoo girl has also been absorbed by the pack and ejected out the back. Bike lady rides alongside, yelling encouragement at us.
“3:20 pace group!” she yells. “Looking steady!” Someone remarks to Chris that he’s going to have to answer to her if he doesn’t bring us home under 3:20. He laughs.
“That’s a lot of pressure”.
We’re past 13 miles and the course map indicates that there will be a water stop right at the 14 mile mark. We soon pass a water station and this worries me. That seems awfully close to the 14 mile stop.
Right glove off. Gel from right pocket. 14 mile mark. No water stop.
I’m feeling a little dry. I run along with an empty gel packet in my hand and chocolate gel on my face. It seems like a long way, but we hit another water station just after 15 miles.
Gatorade. Water. Right glove on. Wipe face.
Felling better, I run right alongside Chris with a steady rhythm. Shortly before the 16 mile mark, we pass another water station and I see Richie darting from one side of the course to the other.
“Richie!” I yell. He looks startled to see me.
“Hey! Brian up in the front of the 3:20 group! You’re looking great! You look comfortable! Want a gel?”
“Just had one.”
“3:20 pace group! Lookin’ strong! Take it home boys, take it home!”
Through 16 miles, we are looking pretty strong. I’m not sure who we’ve lost or who we’ve gained, but the size of the pack hasn’t changed much since the 6 mile mark. We have pulled in another woman. She’s tall, blond and not very talkative, but unlike Tattoo girl, she tucks in and maintains the pace. I think back to the 16 mile mark of my only other marathon at Walt Disney World in 2008. It was at the 16 mile mark that I sadly watched the 5 hour pace group disappear into the distance. I figure I can stop, walk the last 10 miles and still beat my 5:22 PR. That’s pretty cool, but I feel strong and I won’t be walking anytime soon.
We soldier on as members of the group point out potholes, warning those behind to steer clear. Bike lady continues riding alongside yelling encouragement. The course leads us away from the water into a neighborhood setting and we see the race leader charging back toward us. He’s more than 4 miles ahead at this point. We pass the 17 mile mark and the markers seem to be coming more slowly now. I keep my eyes peeled for Drew coming toward us in the other direction, trying to gauge if he’s on pace for a sub 3 hour time. It seems like a long time before I see him, but he passes just as I’m getting ready to pull out another gel. I shout some more encouragement and he shouts back.
Both gloves off. Gel from left pocket. 18 mile mark. Gatorade. Water. Both gloves back on. Wipe face.
We’re in Gadsen park. It’s the southernmost point of the course. We make our way around a lake up against the barbed wire fence of MacDill airforce base – home of Central Command. We’re past the 19 mile mark now. The group numbers about 15 and the tall blonde is still with us. We’re “out”. All that’s left is the “back”.
“I want to be crossing the finish line by myself staring at your backs,” Chris remarks as we leave the park.
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” I reply. It also sounds pretty feasible. My plan commits me to stick with the group through 20 miles, but I’m not feeling strong enough to make a move off the front at the 20 mile mark. I figure I’ll stick with them and make my move in the last mile. My quads are getting sore, but I’m in a great rhythm and it’s easy to ignore.
We miss the 3:30 pace group. They must be rounding the lake already. We pass the 3:40 pace group coming at us in the other direction and Justin is still tucked in with them. Through 20 miles, I still feel good. I feel comfortable telling the group that my previous PR is 5:22 and they they need only carry me to the finish in 3 hours for me to PR.
“I don’t want to jinx you,” says a fellow member, “but congratulations.”
I thank him as we wind through the neighborhood, passing many other pace groups coming the other direction in the process. They all yell their encouragement. We pass the 21 mile mark still a strong pack. We pass Richie shortly after.
“Right up front, Brian, looking great!” he says as he briefly jogs alongside. “3:20 pace group! Taking it home!” It’s like Richie is our personal announcer.
I’m definitely feeling it at this point, but hell it’s only about four and a half miles to go. I try to stay in the zone, and keep my legs moving.
“You’re looking great, Brian!” remarks Chris with almost a chuckle of disbelief.
“Thank-you, I reply,” trying not to expend too much energy.
At the 22 mile water station, the group breaks apart. I run through and it’s suddenly just me and Chris. I’m a little bewildered and I wait for the rest of the group to catch up, but they never do. I don’t know where they are.
I hang with Chris for the next two miles, passing another water stop. My gel remains in my pocket. My head is focused on the finish. I’m getting sick of chocolate gels and quite frankly, the whole process of reaching into my pocket and tearing the top off the gel seems like too much work. My quads are burning as we pass the 23 mile mark and it’s taking a lot of focus to maintain contact with Chris. I scoot across the road to grab some Gatorade and fall about 10 yards off the back. Chris looks back at me.
“Come on Brian!” he yells.
I pick up the pace and pull him back, but I only hang on for about a minute before my right calf cramps. My foot flails out and I work into an exaggerated heel strike to stretch it out. This seems to work, but I’m about 20 yards behind Chris again. When I try to increase my pace to catch up, the calf hints at a cramp again so I slow down.
Finally, near the 24 mile mark, the left calf goes into a crazy spasm. I have to stop briefly to stretch it, but I know that stopping for too long will tell my body it’s done running and once that happens…well, my body will be done running. I walk for about a minute, then get myself back into a jog for about a half mile before both calves cramp again. I walk for about 30 seconds, stretching out my calves as former members of my pace group begin passing me one by one. I manage to jog for a while with the goal of making it to the 25 mile mark.
Shortly before the marker, I hit a water station. I jog right up, grab a Gatorade and walk as I drink. Hoping the electrolytes will do me some good, I throw it off and jog again.
“Come on Brian, you’re almost there!” someone yells from the crowd. It’s encouraging and I pick up the pace, but my right calf cramps again. The change to my stride is ugly.
“Oh, he’s cramping up!” says someone in the crowd, “look honey, he’s cramping up!”. I just exaggerate my heel strike a little more to stretch it and try to continue. It all probably looks pretty heroic to the very encouraging crowd, but in my mind, it goes something like this:
“Why the hell didn’t you take your last gel at 22 miles? You dumbass. You just ruined your shot at your goal.”
I manage to drag myself back into a jog.
“Hey, it’s Brian!” I hear from the crowd. “Yay! Go Brian. Woo hoo!”.
I’m a little delirious and I don’t immediately recognize Richie, Steve and Justin’s wives cheering me on. Eventually, my brain starts to work and I raise my right hand in salute to them. It’s the last encouragement I need and my feeble jog pace picks up as I carefully pick my way toward the finish. Mercifully, I soon enter the finishing chute.
“Brian Darrow from St. Petersburg, Florida now finishing!” says the announcer. A small cheer rises and I stop my watch.
“Are you okay?” a woman from the medical team asks.
“I’m fine,” I reply as I stagger through the gauntlet of medical professionals to my long awaited medal. In addition, I receive a towel for finishing. Pretty cool, I guess. I wrap a mylar blanket over my shoulders, looking back at the finishing clock. I make my way around and back toward the finish just in time to see Steve and Richie come across the finish line together. Meanwhile, Drew pats me on the back and asks how I’ve done.
“I cramped up in the last 2 miles, but still made it through in 3:23.”
“Great job,” he replies.
“How’d you do?”
“I managed to finish.”
“Whoa man, you killed it! Congratulations!”
I shake his hand and then yell to let Richie know how well Drew did. Steve has finished just under 3:26 and Justin later crosses the finish line in 3:43.
It’s a great first marathon for Steve, an 18 minute PR for Justin and nearly a 2 hour PR for me!