Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Vermont City Marathon Race Report

The Vermont City Marathon was both the best and the worst part of my wonderful vacation in Vermont. My 32nd marathon (I know!) in my 20th state (I know!) was completely memorable. Even those parts I'd like to forget.

We went to the expo/packet pickup on Friday, late in the afternoon. Although the set-up was a little strange (go upstairs for your number, go downstairs for your shirt, visit the vendors all over), we quickly were able to retrieve the necessities. The goody bag was a backpack (in my colors of black and gray) with the race logo and was filled with this:

my first goody bag with maple syrup

nice sturdy bag to carry all my stuff

There were no advertisements, no leaflets, no coupons. All of that had been contained in our "e-bag" that we had received earlier. How very green of them, and I for one was quite thankful to avoid the massive waste. I had printed a couple of coupons that I intended to use and the rest of the items took up only cyberspace and not my trash.

The race shirt was quite a treat. It's a nice technical fabric, short sleeved bright blue shirt with all the relevant info and the logo. The other races (a 2 person relay and a 3-5 person relay) had another color shirt, so the full marathoners were set apart.

a race shirt I'll wear for running

The expo was pretty good for a small race. Yeah, I said small for a race that had about 3500 marathoners and 700 relay teams. I guess I'm getting so used to those megathons. I prefer this smaller size, it just seems that most races have 10,000 or 20,000 (or 40,000) participants. Smaller is definitely better. But I was talking about the expo which was indeed impressive for a race this size.

Heck, any expo where they're giving away samples of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and Cabot Cheese and Oikos Greek Yogurt and fancy Vermont peanut butter is a-ok in my book. Throw in vendors selling everything possible you could need for a race, often at a discount, I'm happy. We spent a lot of time there, not because we needed to but because, well, why not? We looked at clothing and sweatbands and watches and socks and assorted food and other races and had a good ol' time. I bought very little, but made sure to get my requisite running cap with the race logo (oy, like I need another running cap).

The race was using a type of timing device I hadn't seen before. It's like 2 little plastic strips on the sides of the bib, meaning nothing to attach to (or fall off of) your shoe. But it means no bending or folding the race bib either. I know there was a little trouble with the timing (just ask Sandy who really didn't massively PR at this race) but I don't know if that was related to the devices or something else. The volunteers at the counter explained the thingies carefully to make sure you didn't fold them or lose the bib.

The VCM provides a shuttle service to/from the race from various local hotels. Sunday morning we easily caught the yellow school bus (adults should never have to be subjected to those awful things) to the start area. Once there, it was unclear where we should go or where anything was located (including the start). It was very crowded with racers, families, pets, volunteers, assorted community members. I didn't see any signage at all but we did manged to get where we needed.

There were ample porta potties in a couple of areas. Bag check was difficult since there weren't any bags. It hadn't been made clear whether a cheapo bag would be provided or whether we should bring our own, so we didn't bring one. There were no bags available, except one volunteer took her lunch out of a plastic grocery bag and let us use that. My thanks go to that anonymous lady! This was one of the very few organizational missteps of the day; there was nothing about this that I could find on the website and nobody at the expo knew either. But for us, at least, it worked out ok.

The race area wasn't too well organized either. There were a few pacers standing around with their signs, the last of which was (I think) 4:30. Uh, right. The race was officially open for 6 hours and 4:30 was the slowest pacer? There weren't any signs showing where different paces should line up, so we went to the back. As did everyone else who was slower than a 4:30 marathon pace, so it got crowded. Knowing how slowly I've been running, I headed to the back of the back.

I was nervous. I was already warm, and jittery, and scared. My training for this race suffered from, in part, the 2 long-lasting colds (and the sinus infection and bronchitis) with asthma related breathing problems. My training also suffered from my not eating the right stuff all the time, and just not training enough. Sure, I got all my long mile runs done, but the short, strength building runs were highly absent. So yeah, I was nervous that I hadn't prepared well enough for this race. I knew I could do 26.2 miles, I just didn't know if I could do it in time.

The gun went off (or whatever it was, I didn't hear it as usual) and the crowd shuffled forward. Finally we crossed the mat and were off! My short-term plan was to start strongly enough to get me past the cutoff at 8.5 miles where you absolutely positively had to be running faster than a 13:25 pace, even with a bigass hill at the end. My long-term plan to to save enough from that to bank a little time in case I fell apart in the last miles. I intended to run:walk my normal 9:1 plus walking water stops through the half, then to reconsider and see what I could do.

Surprisingly enough, it started according to plan. The first bit was uphill, through the downtown area. We ran up Church Street which was thronged with people cheering while they drank their morning coffee and had breakfast. Crowd support, through almost the entire race except the freeway bits, was incredible. I normally don't care if anyone is out there cheering, but it can't help but make you feel good to see how much the locals enjoy and support this race.

Past mile 3 is the start of a long out-and-back section on a closed freeway. Many people were complaining about this section, but I thought it was pretty. The first half was a sharp downhill, but it's very obvious that the second half would be that same pitch uphill. I got to see the leaders of the race as I plodded along and they sped up the hill.

I was struggling to keep a decent pace going. My body and my brain just weren't into the whole "I'm running 26.2 miles" thing. I 9:1'd it downhill and then 9:1'd it back up again, and saw I was well within my time limit. I eased it back on the pace as I was flushed and nauseous and breathing heavy. This area had quite a bit of cant on the road but I was able to run straight down, then up, the middle which also served to help me cut those corners and run the tangents.

Before mile 9 I was hating the race and hating myself for getting into this. We ran back down Church Street where the crowd, while having thinned out a bit, was still cheering loudly for all the runners. For the next several miles I was seriously in doubt that I would finish the race. I was thinking this would be my first official DNF and I didn't care because Vermont is pretty and I could come back and do it right. I was hoping that I'd pass out, or that I'd fall badly enough to hurt myself enough to stop. I was thinking I could quit if I thew up, then I remembered that marathoners always continue on after they vomit so that wouldn't work. I saw a sign that said "beware falling rocks" and hoped that one would hit me on the head. Nice. Throughout this section I switched to a 4:1 with little effect.

All the while this was going on in my head I was moving forward, and enjoying my views of the city, the crowds and the other runners. Go figure. My appreciation for the water stop volunteers soared each time they helped me fill my water bottle and quickly sent me on my way. I took my gels, drank water and my Ultima moved on.

Somehow at the half point I got my second wind. It might have been the view of the Lake, it might have been the fresh breeze cooling down my fevered brow, it might have been the quiet flat path, it might have been all the fluids I had taken in. Whatever it was, I changed back to 9:1 and for the first time that morning knew that I would indeed finish the damn race, and I might even do it on time. Life was grand, life was wonderful, and I was out there doing it.

That lasted until I hit the hill at mile 15. All I could do was wonder what sadistic sonofabitch had designed the course with that gratuitous hill. I walked almost the entire 6 blocks of it, and even so was huffing and puffing and wheezing and almost crying (when I wasn't ready to burst out in obscenities at anyone who told me "lookin' good!"). I hit the top of the hill and was officially fried. With 11 miles left to go.

But what's 11 miles to me, I thought? That's a mere training run, a mere jaunt on the treadmill, a ... oh, who was I fooling. It was 11 more freakin' miles to go and I knew at that point that it would be unlikely that I'd finish in time (although I knew for a fact that I'd finish at some point). I did what any marathoner in her right mind would do: I continued on.

The day started getting warmer. The overcast skies were clearing and the sun was popping out. The temps felt like it was in the low 70's but it could have been cooler or warmer. It was very humid which was great for my asthma but not for my cooling system. An intermittent breeze drew cooler air off the water and was very welcome when it arrived.

The route took off through a couple of neighborhoods and even at that late hour, that far into race day, there were still people out on their lawns or at block parties or sitting with a hose full of cold free water to spray down hot runners. It was embarrassing to sadly trudge past these friendly cheering throngs, so I'd suck it up to look good until they were behind me, then start trudging again. My 4:1 deteriorated to what was probably a 2:2 at that point, but I was still running regularly.

When the route turned onto the bike path at mile 21-ish I knew without a doubt I wouldn't make the cutoff but it didn't stop me. Official or not, I was finishing. Although there were signs posted that the path was closed for the race, it's a busy route and many people were using it for recreation and transit so it was crowded. At this point I was telling myself NOT to fall, NOT, to throw up, NOT to pass out because it still wouldn't stop me, only delay me. I got to the point where I stopped looking at my watch and just ran when I could, walked when I couldn't.

There were several race personnel on bikes riding back and forth to make sure (1) that none of us laggards were dying on the path, and (2) that we were going to finish the race some day soon. They were kind, considerate, funny, and also annoying to a grump like me who just wanted to be finished, not to converse about how I was doing. Still moving forward, so I must be ok, right?

I was right when I had thought, 2 days earlier, that the changes in grade would irritate the bejeebers out of me. Walk up, run down, rinse and repeat. Run around that person, walk around the other. Get passed by someone else. Pass them again in turn. Drink more, breathe deeply, try to smile, move on.

I finally saw the finish area ahead, saw the crowded pathway leading to the finish, and tried to pick it up. Right after the 26 mile marker I had to pick it up; the beer tent was directly along the path and everyone inside was loudly cheering and clapping. What could I do but pretend I could run it all the way in? There were 2 tight corners to turn (at one of which I almost collided with a little girl who came to a stop right in front of me), then pound it on home. And I was done.

I don't remember exactly what happened next. I know I got my medal, got my space blanket (which I didn't need yet), got my water. There was a table with food but I had no interest in it. I needed to cool down and and steady my breathing. Sandy came to meet me and we walked around for a couple of minutes. I let myself start feeling the pain I'd been ignoring for hours but I couldn't remove the smile from my face. Then I remembered: free beer!

Not that I was interested in beer, but it's the principle of the thing. If there's free beer after a race I always at least take a sip. This time I was more interested in sitting down before finding the bus. Sitting down with a beer was just a bonus. The tent was starting to clear out so we got a table along the route to see the last few marathoners bring it in. No, I wasn't the last person!

Despite their stated 6 hour cut-off of services, I felt fully supported the entire route. Sure, lots of the later water stations had gone down to 1 table and they were sweeping up cups in front of me, but there were still lots of people handing out that water and cheering. The finish line fencing was being taken down but the finish line stayed up until the last person crossed. I don't know of the variety, but there was still at least a little to eat for the late finishers. There was certainly beer.

We had a wait for the bus, but when the last one showed up the driver offered to take everyone, whether they were on her route or not. All of the tired runners, all of the tired family members got that one last favor.

Overall impressions of the race? Incredible. One of the best organized of the races I've done. One of the best supported by volunteers. Some of the best crowd support I've seen and embraced more by the locals than any I've seen before except for maybe New York. The route had a few more twists and turns than I like but we got to see various parts of the town, the Lake, parks and businesses. The topography was varied from dead flat to grades to bigass hills. There were a few problems such as the disorganized start area and sweat check, the mile markers weren't too clear (I missed at least 3 of them), the rumors of ice cream at the finish were only that, and people were allowed to cluster on the finish route while others were still running. Other than that, it was a great race. I'm glad I did it. And glad I don't have to come back to do it again!

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