The weather did not exactly cooperate. The evening before and the day of the race, a combination of warmer air and rain storms descended upon the Piedmont. Race day was bound to be muggy and wet. In addition, 70 percent of the race would be on fine gravel/dirt road trails, so the footing would be gritty, which is somewhere between muddy and crunchy.
No matter. Much of Ridge To Bridge Marathon (my upcoming attempt at qualifying for Boston) would be on unpaved roads, and I had to be prepared for any conditions. I had anticipated running in my Brooks Green Silence--a racing flat that offers some squishy cushion for marathons--but the conditions favored the Montrail Rogue Fly and its superior traction. I also opted for knee-length RaceReady LD compression shorts, which had the same mesh pockets as the regular RaceReady LD running shorts, but with added compression to stabilize my quads and hamstrings. After meeting fellow DARTers Todd Mayes, Clint Seimers, and Tommy Wagoner--all of whom were using this race as a marathon tune-up like me--I found my place near the front of the pack and waited for the start.
From the beginning, the race felt like exactly what it was: a strange intermediary in the large gap between a marathon and a half-marathon. At 18.6 miles, one is tempted to race at threshold speed as if it were a heavy half, but the distance is just long enough to flirt with the stamina depleting properties of a marathon. Since my goal was to stay as close as possible to my intended marathon pace of 7:01, I felt I should be working hard the whole time without bonking at the very end. Todd shot out ahead and out of view in the first quarter mile. Tommy took a starting spot behind me and intended to set a more conservative pace. Clint was near me at the start and overtook me in the first half mile.
As far as trails go, Salem Lake Park is very hospitable, even in the rain. The wide dirt road is well maintained and never rutted--somewhere between the consistency of Umstead State Park and the Davidson College Cross Country Trails in footing. Having run most of this course during the Frosty 50K ten months earlier, I was familiar with the two notable hills at mile 1.5 and mile 6.5; both of which I would revisit at mile 12 and mile 17. The rest of the course is seemingly flat when compared to marathons or halves like Thunder Road or Run For Green. What I forgot about were the nearly unnoticeable changes in elevation throughout the course that could not even be described as rollers. These little micro-hills would add up after a while, especially on slightly uneven footing.
The first 6 miles had the racers circumnavigate the lake going counter-clockwise. One of the funny things about running at Salem Lake is that no matter what side of the lake you are on, you always wish you were on the other side. Clint, who claimed to be setting the same goal finishing time as me (2:10) was nearly a furlong ahead of me at this point and was pulling away, so I ignored him and focused on another runner next to me named Nate. Atop the hill at 6.5, the surface changed to the smooth asphalt of the Salem Creek Greenway, and Nate and I sailed down the course's longest downhill and settled into a nice conversation. Nate's watch had died earlier in the week, so I happily provided him with mile splits as he was aiming for a 7 minute pace as well. The conversation made the 3 miles to the 15K turnaround go by in no time. Frankly, I was surprised I could hold a conversation while trying to maintain that pace for so long. I saw Todd on his return leg a few minutes before I hit the halfway point. Clint was a couple minutes behind and looking strong, and I was about a minute behind Clint. My split at the 15K turnaround was 1:05:20, almost right on target for my goal, but I would have to keep pushing the pace to stay near my intended time.
After the turnaround, I spotted Tommy still on his outbound leg but not more than two minutes behind me. He was making good time and appeared to be in good spirits. The 3 miles of greenway seemed to go by more quickly than they did on my own outbound leg. Near the hill that led to the lakeside trail, I saw Todd on the sideline cheering me on and making sure I didn't need any more gels. I checked my watch and saw 1:24 and change. "I'm done," he assured me. Still, it took me a moment to realize "done" meant "withdrawn," and not "across the finish line." I was worried that Todd might be injured, but I later found out that he just was still in recovery after his win at a hard-run Run For Green Half Marathon. I low-geared my way up the winding asphalt of the hill that joined the greenway to the lake trail and settled in to my 7ish pace for the hard 10K that remained.
Nate stayed stride-for-stride with me for the entire middle third of the race, even though we were pacing ourselves for a finish that was several minutes faster than his PR for this particular course. He must have been having a good day, because he pulled away from me for a long kick with 4.5 miles left to go. I affirmed that he was speeding up (rather than me slowing down), and let him go. Even though he was in my age group, and thus direct competition for me, this was not my focus race of the season, and assessing my ability to hold a 7 minute pace was the main goal for today.
Just as it had been at Frosty 50, traveling around the many fingers of the lake was getting a little old. Even at a fast pace, you crave to see a landmark ahead of you that is not another blind curve. After reaching the East tip of the lake and finally angling myself in the general direction of the finish, I knew I only had 3.5 miles to go, and I would have to do it in nearly 24 minutes to meet my goal. That's not too far off of my 8K/10K pace, but with 15 miles under my belt (and a 1.5 mile warm-up), I didn't feel comfortable trying to squeeze out that kind of pace for that long. I dug and dug, trying to be vigilantly consistent with my 7:0x pace, all while playing Math games in my head to predict what my actual finishing time would be. 2:10...not likely. Certainly under 2:12. 2:11...hmmm. New goal: go sub-2:11. Going 2:10:xx was almost as good as going 2:10:00, right?
I passed eight or ten other runners in my final miles. For the final hill at mile 17, I slipped into low-gear and slowed my pace, but I overtook two other runners in the process. I have finally come to realize that sacrificing a few seconds in a conservative climbing pace pays off in dividends when it comes to late-race energy. My watch showed a race time of 2:04 seconds before I reached the marker indicating one mile to finish. Alright, if I was going to go sub-2:11, I had to bust out a sub-7 mile for my final kick. I toggled my watch's view screen to my "current lap" screen; the final mile was the only data I wanted to see from here on out. I visualized the track where I do a lot of my intervals and went to town. Six minutes and a few more runners later, I made the final turn toward the finish and spied the digital time counter. It was going to be close, so as is always the case, I had no choice but to sprint. Final time: 2:10:56. Not bad. Clint destroyed his goal and finished with a smoking fast 2:07:50. Tommy also came in under his outside goal of 2:20 and finished with 2:19:24, kicking strongly for the last quarter mile. Todd got in a nice 12+ miles worth of workout, but he was the overall winner in Krispy Kreme donut consumption at the finish line.
|From left: Tommy, Todd, Clint, and me. Can you tell Todd didn't exactly just finish an 18.6 mile run?|
A 7:00 pace over 30K would result in a finishing time of 2:10:24, and my finishing time indicated a pace of 7:02, which is still withing the pace I would need to hold in order to qualify for Boston in one of my upcoming marathons (7:03 for a sub-3:05 finish). Given the wet, muggy conditions, I would consider this marathon simulation a success. I crossed the finish line feeling worked, but not bonked, and the following day, I felt as if I had run a hard half instead of a full marathon. This implies that I had a good deal left in the tank after 18.6 miles at race pace. At Ridge To Bridge Marathon, if I played the downhill conservatively, I might be able to save a little energy while maintaining pace and elongating the distance between me and the wall. Whether I qualify for Boston at R2B, Richmond, or not at all, I'll be back to Salem Lake in January for the Frosty 50 once again, hoping to break 4 hours for a 50K.