Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Peak to Creek 2015: The White Whale

Any marathoner who has finished between the times of 3 hours and 3:10 (I've had three marathons in that range) has had that fleeting thought: "maybe I can run a sub-3..."  That fleeting thought then blossoms into a stretch goal, then a hunger, and then an obsession.  There's an allure about having a personal best marathon time that begins with the numeral 2.
That's the White Whale I was chasing at this year's Peak to Creek Marathon, and that's why I haven't posted anything on this blog since Grandfather Mountain Marathon nearly three-and-a-half months ago.  Other than a couple of fun races that I did as tune-ups or workouts, I tunneled all of my focus into training for a sub-3 marathon at P2C.  Three years ago, when P2C was still called Ridge To Bridge, I ran my standing PR of 3:04:07.  After nearly matching that at Marine Corps Marathon last year, I figured I could make the requisite <3% improvement to achieve my goal as long as I put in the work and followed the same race strategy as 2012.
Fast forward to race morning.  Unlike the brisk and clear 40 degrees of three years ago, this year's P2C marathon would start in the mid-50s with dense fog.  I usually prefer a little cooler for a marathon start, especially since the fog was an indicator of humid air.  The fog also limited the visibility on course to less than 100 feet, so most of the picturesque views up on Jonas Ridge were shrouded in gloom.  Nothing to do but focus on the task at hand.
Me with Bobby Aswell at the start.  The fog in the background doesn't fully illustrate what the gloom actually looked like that morning.

As per most of David Lee's races, we started with very little ceremony.  I had corresponded with a handful of runners prior to the race who all were targeting 180 minutes, so we formed an informal pace group and held each other accountable for the first few miles (with everyone adhering to my conservative-early race plan).  The rolling 5.5 miles atop the ridge kept a favorably easy-going 6:55 pace, which was purposefully slower than the 6:52 needed for a sub-3 finish, but well within the margin that the mountain would help us make up.
After our second time through the aid station at the top of the mountain, my group of about six runners settled into a comfortable downhill in the <6:40 range.  The key here was to stay relaxed.  We reassured each other with friendly conversation and quick mental math at each split.  By mile 9, much of the group had broken up and fallen behind.  A runner named Ryan stayed with me, and he and I would be accompanied by a revolving door of sub-3 hopefuls as the race went on.
After 10 miles, there was a sneaky little uphill in the middle of the long downhill section, and while it wasn't much, it was enough to make one work after the complacency of a sustained downhill.  I was prepared for it and I had warned Ryan as well.  More jarring than the uphill was an especially steep couple of miles of drop that followed.  I did not even look at my splits for this section because I was too busy trying to step gingerly, keep my turnover tight, and not brake too hard by reflex.  In retrospect, I could have all three of those things better...
We passed through the half at just under 1:28, which was good as far as banked time, but I was already starting to feel a little beat up.  With a couple more miles of downhill left, I hoped I hadn't already sabotaged my legs for the long flat section that made up the final 10 miles.  When we hit the flat out-and-back at the bottom of the mountain, I settled into race pace (6:50) right away and did my best to ignore the growing rubbery feeling in my legs.  Ryan was in good spirits, so I did my best to project the same positive attitude.  At this point, with a little bit of cushion built up, any splits we clocked at race pace were just money in the bank.
Somewhere between mile 17 and 18, my GPS watch lost satellite connection, so I had no input for pace or distance.  "I've lost GPS," I said to Ryan in a level tone that a pilot might use to keep his passengers at peace when engine #1 caught fire.  Shortly after, his watch began to go in and out of connection.  We were flying blind, just like the real marathoners before the 2003.  From here on, we would run by feel, which was strangely liberating.  Luckily, the chronometer still worked on my Garmin, so I could see my race time and manually record splits at every mile marker.
The conversation between Ryan and me grew pretty thin as we passed through 20 miles.  I remember saying something like "...only 10k left, and we have almost 45 minutes to do it."  They were meant to be encouraging words, but there was an aftertaste of accountability to them.  Mile 21-22 is where I hit my lowest point.  I had been running hard for almost 2.5 hours, and there was just enough of the course left to make the remaining time--and growing pain--seem daunting.  I tried to rationalize things, maybe blaming low blood-sugar for my turn in attitude.  I tried to tell myself that I had done harder things before, but I was beginning to doubt if that was true.  "If you feel good," I told Ryan, "go for it.  I can hold this pace, but it's all I got."  Ryan did not move ahead.  On we went into pain.
Shortly after mile 23 is when my self-reckoning came.  "F*** this!" I said to myself.  I surged ahead.  My increase in pace may not have been all that dramatic, but I had a turn of attitude.  If the rest of it was going to hurt, I was going to make it hurt for less time.  Ryan faded back slowly, but he continued to run hard.  Over the next 15 minutes of running, other runners appeared ahead on the dirt road, steadily faded back to me, and gave me kudos as I ran past.  Thomas, who would be the 1st place Masters winner, overtook me in the last mile.  He was looking great, and my beef was not with him, so I cheered him on and let him go.
Brown Mountain Beach Resort came into view within the last mile.  This was the finish line, but I well remembered the last half-mile would be a loop around the whole of the Resort parking lot.  All I had to do was keep running and I would get my sub-3.  It seems so simple in retrospect, but it was truly agonizing at the time.  Upon passing the mile 26 marker, I realized I had a shot at sub-2:59, so I poured on whatever I had left.  Running form and poise went out the window for the last couple hundred meters; it was just a sloppy charge with the last ounces of gut I had left.
Official finish time: 2:58:55.  I found my White Whale.
I had gotten 10th place (3rd in my age group), but a handful of runners finished between me and the 3 hour mark.  Ryan was 15th place and came in at 2:59:48, the last runner to finish in under three hours.  We greeted and congratulated each other like long lost brothers.  Thomas joined us in the revels and credited us with his sub-3 PR.
Finished and totally depleted.
Sub-3, baby!

Fellow DARTer and Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell finished in 3:18, and fellow Umstead 100 alumnus Bill Weimer finished in cramp induced 4:21.  This course can be fast if you play it right, but no matter what, it leaves you beat down at the end.  I still have not run since finishing this race, and it took me three days to even feel like I could walk right.  It will be a pretty subdued season for me for the rest of 2015, including pacing a couple of races.  My next White Whale will have to wait until Boston in April!
Bobby and me again, post-race.  In pain, but not showing it!