I guess it’s not surprising I knocked more than 23 minutes off my marathon time, running outdoors for the first time after two previous indoor marathons. Instead of grinding away the time and the miles, I felt like I was going somewhere, gaining on people, feeding off the energy of hundreds of supporters and thousands of other runners.
A major confidence boost from running with a faster pace team during last month’s Parlor City Trot Half Marathon surely played a huge role. I knew, having fallen off with a couple of miles to go in that race, that there was no way I could keep up with Joe and Stacey for the duration of Saturday’s inaugural Fort4Fitness Marathon. Their 4:40 pace group was the slowest option offered, and my previous best marathon time was 5:31:05.
As we lined up before sunrise outside Parkview Field, I really had no idea what my strategy would be. I was secretly hoping to aim for 5 hours, but I hadn’t been able to find the charger for my son’s running watch and have never gotten around to buying one of my own, so I wouldn’t necessarily know my pace at any given time without asking another runner.
The Old Fort cannon fired, and I glumly watched Joe and Stacey’s group move off without me. But a few blocks in I heard a guy who’d apparently run several marathons tell somebody that he intended to maintain an 11:30 pace the whole way. That would put him right at my 5-hour goal. I fell in near him for the first 3-mile loop, but didn’t want to appear to be a stalker. I also wasn’t crazy about getting roped into 5 hours of conversation with someone I didn’t know. (Previous experience has taught me that while this can be helpful, if the person turns out to be irritating it can be a huge energy drain.) I fell behind the guy when I walked through the water station back at the stadium, then passed him shortly afterward.
Loop 2: The 10K
I was getting warmed up, feeling strong, with no sign of the calf twinge I’d noticed earlier in the week. As we rounded the corner near the starting line for loop 2, I could see a swarm of 10K runners a few blocks ahead. Some marathoners had griped that the last three loops of this race would have us essentially following the courses for three other races being run the same day – a 10K, a half marathon, and a 4-mile run. It was a bit tricky to navigate a path through the 10K stragglers, but I got a huge energy boost from passing people. After a while I found myself following the weaving patterns of another marathoner, and I asked her pace.
“I’m aiming for 11:10, which would give me a 4:50,” she said. “But right now, trying to get around all these runners, I’m more like 10:50.”
She wasn’t pleased. But I was having a blast. I was also hatching a strategy on the fly. I decided I’d run as fast as felt good at any given time, but then walk through each water station, from wherever I picked up my drink to the last trash can. My goal was simply to stay ahead of that 11:30 runner, whom I hadn’t seen in a while now.
We finished the 10K loop, winding through incredibly supportive neighborhoods that had decorated for the race and were out in force, cheering and offering candy, the occasional beer shot or even Kleenex. At the corner of Bass and Fairfield, just before heading back downtown, we passed a cute boy band. They’d started playing before sunrise on our first loop through, and they were still going strong.
Passing by the stadium I got another big energy boost when Beth, a friend from our homeschooling days, handed me a water. She was manning the aid station in the marathon lane. Each time we’d be coming around now, the runners in the other races would be peeling off, heading into the stadium to finish, but we marathoners would head out for another loop.
Next up: the half marathon.
This was actually the prettiest loop, taking us onto the southern route of River Greenway, then through Foster Park and some of the city’s ritziest older neighborhoods. I could see the stragglers from the half marathon off in the distance, and I couldn’t wait to start reeling them in. This was a long loop, but it was easy to chunk up in my mind. Get through this one, and there would only be one 4-mile loop to go.
I probably felt the best of the entire race going through Foster Park, passing not only an endless stream of walking half marathoners but a few people I recognized from the marathon as well. I had no idea what my time was. All I knew was I was somewhere behind the 11:10 runner, whom I could no longer see, but apparently well ahead of the 11:30 runner.
By the water station coming out of the park, though, I realized how much I was relying on my short walk break. This time it was a little harder to get going, but I started off at a slow jog and then worked my way back into a better (yet unknown) pace. I tried not to focus on the mile markers, just thinking about working my way through each neighborhood, soaking up energy from supporters as if it were Gatorade.
It was getting tougher, but I wasn’t in any serious pain. If I could just keep up some kind of decent running form between water stations, I felt like I could make it.
As we made the turn into Oakdale, where we greeted by a hearty Santa Claus, I saw the 11:30 runner. Was he still on pace? I didn’t have the energy to ask him, didn’t really want to know the answer. I fell behind for a minute as I walked through a water station, then resolved to catch him.
I did, within a block or two. And then, as the 4-mile racers poured onto our course, I once again fixated on them, locking onto stragglers I could pass. Once more through historic Williams Woodland, where a guy on a microphone welcomed me for the third time that day. His neighbors offered shots of Heinken. One guy in historic dress rode around on one of those old-fashioned bicycles with the enormous front wheel.
Once more past the cute boy band, still going strong even if I wasn’t. Once more past the stadium, as the 4-milers and a few half marathoners made their way to the finish. Once again I gratefully accepted a drink from Beth. Last loop. Four miles to go.
The final four
It was just us marathoners now, and the streets were much lonelier. There were still people out cheering, though. I passed a woman who called out to me, “Hey, Bluffton!” She’d recognized me from the Parlor City Trot, where we’d both hobbled in together the last mile or so.
“Why is that everytime I run into you I feel like crap?” I joked, struggling to get the words out.
She and her friend were struggling worse than me, though, because they didn’t try to keep pace.
I was still trying not to walk except at water stations, but it took a mighty effort. I focused on my running form. One marathoner passed me, but he wasn’t the 11:30 runner. Did that mean, could I possibly hope, that a 5-hour race was still in range if I could hold it together? Or was he struggling, falling off pace?
As I turned onto Indiana Avenue, I was stunned to see there were still some half marathoners out on the course. Not as thick now, but it helped to focus on someone other than the marathoner who’d passed me. Once more through Williams Woodland.
All day long I’d gratefully accepted people’s support, not caring that they had no idea what race I was running. But now, in the thinning crowd, it was easier for people to pick out what our bibs said.
“Go marathoner!” someone cheered. “You’ve only got a mile left! You can do it!”
“Sure you don’t want a beer shot?” someone else asked.
I managed a weak smile. “Not now,” I said, “but thanks anyway.”
The cute boy band was packing up. They’d been playing for hours. Was it noon yet? I tried not to think about it. Just turn onto Fairfield, one last uphill. No more water stations. I refused to walk it.
Then, rounding the corner onto Baker Street, I picked up steam. I couldn’t see the stadium yet, but I could see the parking lot. Could hear the announcer.
I passed mile 26 just before turning into the stadium. The soft turf on the warning track of the Tincaps’ outfield felt like heaven on my tired legs. “Hey, I never hit the wall,” I thought.
But what time was it? I looked around, but couldn’t see a clock anywhere.
Finally I jogged down the first base line toward the finish line and saw the clock: 5:08 something.
My official time, I’d later learn, was 5:07:45. I’d missed my goal, but crushed my previous best time by more than 23 minutes!