On May 5, 2013 I completed my second full marathon in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. I wasn’t anywhere near my time goal of 3:50:00, but I was significantly closer to running the kind of race I want to. I finished in 4:09:56. Sure, it was about 20 minutes behind my goal, but it was serious progress from the 4:20:49 I turned in at the Ocean Drive Marathon — on a much more challenging course to boot.
This improved result was brought about by a number of changes I made to nutrition, but my gains were curtailed by repeating some mistakes with pacing. In this report I’m going to break down my race based on those dimensions rather than a linear, mile-by-mile, progression.
The difference in my preparation began three days before the race with nutrition. I wanted adequate fuel to avoid the wall while not having nausea in the middle of the race like I did in ODM. I wouldn’t say that I went out of my way to do anything special, but I just ate more familiar foods in the last 72 hours before the race. This was obviously easier because I was at home rather than travelling. My family just ate a few of the high-carb selections from our typical repertoire for dinner for a few days. Before the Ocean Drive Marathon I was eating restaurant food — delicious, high-quality restaurant food, but not necessarily good race fuel and certainly not food that I was used to pre-race.
The day before the race I had Pizza and wings for lunch. Through a long series of trial and error I’ve discovered that Pizza and wings help me stave off the wall before long training runs. Hey, it works and it also makes me happy which can’t hurt either before a big event.
Dinner was steak salad somewhat light on the meat. I made sure to do this meal early and kept it small.
Race day I woke up at 4:00 AM (3 hours before the starting gun) and threw back a jelly sandwich, a banana and guzzled some water. Aside from wetting my mouth I consumed no significant water after 4:30 as to avoid having to make a pit stop mid-race.
About 10 minutes before the starting gun I also tossed back my first Gu. I didn’t do this until the 5-mile mark at ODM. I then consumed either a Gu or Cliff blok about every 30 minutes during the race. This also differed from the ODM in that I was consuming Gu about every 5 miles on the mile.
While it’s true that I began to slow down to above a 9:00 pace shortly before the halfway point (when the course got hilly) I didn’t hit the wall seriously until about mile 24.75. Even at that my 26th mile was faster than the 24th or 25th despite feeling incredibly miserable. This was a giant improvement over ODM where I hit the wall firmly at mile 16.
I did get a bit nauseous in the final mile, but it wasn’t an issue. If I had the legs left for a kick then maybe it would have slowed me down, but that wasn’t happening.
In the Ocean Drive Marathon my plan was to start out a bit slower than goal pace and gradually drop down. That didn’t happen. I started out too fast and kept going too fast for a good 8 miles or so. I watched every clock in horror and felt powerless over my pace. I just couldn’t run any slower and I paid for it later.
The same thing happened at the Pittsburgh Marathon, but it was somewhat less extreme.
My principal plan to avoid going out too fast was to join the 3:50 pace group. This was foiled, however, by the fact that when I registered I must have done so with a goal time of over 4 hours which lumped me into corral D. Corral D’s first pace group is the 4:10 (around where I ended up finishing anyway interestingly enough). This meant that I was on my own to pace myself using the clocks and my phone.
My phone was about useless. I couldn’t see the display in the sun and fiddling with it was dangerous with the high concentration of runners in the early stages.
While I should have started out at about an 8:55 pace in the first mile I ran about a 7:00. With the disparity between my start time and the clock time confusing me, and my inability to see my phone display the rest of the race after the first mile was done almost entirely on feel. Due to nerves the initial 5 miles were all faster than I would have liked, although I was back up above 8:20 by mile 3.
In the future I’m going to invest in a GPS watch to alleviate this problem. It would be far easier to read and deal with in all race conditions.
Now what’s important to note is that even with the fast start my pace was overall more consistent start to finish. The fact that I did that on a significantly hillier course, especially after the first third, means that it was a dramatic improvement despite its imperfections. I’m happy to have made progress.
Photo by Franklin Chen
If you would have told me before the race that I’d run a hair under a 4:10 and be happy about it I’d have called you a liar. The truth is that I’m happy with the result simply due to realizing noticeable progress.
One of my two major mistakes, nutrition, was fixed to my immediate satisfaction. My other major mistake, pacing, still plagued me, but showed obvious signs of improvement. At the end I was still able to run with strength, albeit slow, rather than do the 12-minute shuffle-jog.
It’s worth noting my experience of the race itself outside of my performance.
Typically I’m not too interested in bands playing along the course, but was impressed with what my hometown had to offer. It seemed you were always within earshot of some tunes and it sounded darn good.
The spectators were typical Pittsburghers: loud, supportive, and awesome. They were encouraging from the start to the finish and I think it really did help keep my head on straight. They deserve a big thank you!
I heard rumors of trouble at one of the fluid stations, but while I was moving through the course every station was stocked and the volunteers were doing their critically important jobs to perfection. They deserve a big thank you as well.
I also loved running through so much of my hometown in one day, but honestly found it a bit disorienting at times. Perhaps it was just the vantage point of being in the middle of the street with all of the hoopla around. I am VERY familiar with Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, and the Strip District but it felt distinctly alien — almost like going back to a place from your childhood 25 years after the fact. In some respects it was almost like a dream.
I’m ultimately very happy about the experience. I’ll be back and intend to steadily get closer to a BQ. I probably won’t be doing another marathon until late next fall as I continue my quest for that BQ, but will be focusing on turning in some great half marathon and 10k times throughout the summer and early fall.