I’ve run all of my events on trails this year. And seven of eight of them had been ultras. But when my wife Kris qualified for Boston several months back, I got the itch to try doing a fast marathon again, just to see whether I could qualify, or even get close.
Another reason to shake things up is that I’ve struggled a bit with motivation in recent months. This is why when we were at a birthday party for a friend last month, I excused myself to register for the Tunnel Lite Marathon. When all the other guests were enjoying cocktails and food, Kris and I were huddled to the side with our smartphones entering our info.
This event starts just east of the Snoqualmie Tunnel, near the pass. We run downhill into North Bend, most of the way on a nice railroad grade, through the mountains. It’s quite beautiful, and it’s an excellent route to attempt a Boston Qualifier (BQ) as well.
I was confident that I could cover the distance. I’d done adequate weekly mileage, and some good long runs. But it would have been better to actually do some intervals, mile repeats, and tempo work to prepare. You know, actually train? But as is often the case, things got busy.
One downside of being on the marathon or ultra per month plan, as I’ve been for nearly three years, is that it’s a veritable treadmill. Other than the White River 50 miler, I’m usually pretty well trained to cover the distance, so I tend to get lazy about strength and speedwork.
Back before I started doing these marathons and ultras so often, I’d focus on One Race for months. I’d do more structured workouts, knowing each day whether I was doing long slow distance, speedwork, or recovery pace.
So when I lined up at the start, I had no idea what I’d get. I’d fly a bit blind too, since the band on my GPS watch had broken – I wouldn’t have a way to check my pace easily. Turned out that there weren’t mile markers until mile 14 here, so I really had no idea how I was doing.
When we ran those two early miles in the dark through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, it really was a fitting metaphor for my race plan. I kept my eyes straight ahead towards the light, and tried to keep a steady turnover.
Exiting the tunnel, I doffed my headlamp and began the trek downhill. We were on a steady (railroad grade) descent for most of the course, with the bulk of this happening over the first 21 miles. It’s kind of like running with the wind at your back, until your legs get trashed from the pounding. I paid more attention to form than I usually do – low glide, slight forward lean, and engaging my core as best I could not having done any actual core work in forever. It helped.
I started feeling the wear in my legs around mile 8 or 9. At the same time, I wanted to see what I might have in me. This course can do that to you.
I glanced at my watch when I reached halfway. I’d run a respectable road half marathon pace. If I could maintain the pace, I’d PR or maybe even BQ. Now things got harder.
We wound through the trees, over the beautiful bridges. I’d run this part several times before. I remembered coming around the corner near Rattlesnake Lake, feeling like I could fly. I also remembered my wheels coming off after taking this part too hard several years back, and having to walk most of mile 25-26.
When we leveled out a bit by Rattlesnake Lake, I gave myself permission to ease up a bit. By now we had mile markers, so I was taking my splits. I was hovering around 8 min/mile, sometimes less, not often too much more. I’d need to keep under about 9 min/mile in order to PR. Some quick math told me that a BQ would require pushing under 8’s for the duration.
And this is where things get interesting. I sort of told myself “I can’t”, lacking confidence in my training. It might not have been realistic, but I have to wonder what would have happened if I’d not been doing the math. I might have pushed myself so hard I had to walk. By now my hamstrings had spasms, and I was worried about that. On the other hand, maybe I checked out a bit too soon, thinking that the BQ was out of reach.
Ultimately I missed the BQ by about 5 seconds per mile. Realistically, I could have made this up by slowing down a tad in the early miles, so that I had enough left to push a negative split. I lost about five minutes in the second half. I’ll never know, but it’s good food for thought.
Those final five miles were tough ones. I held together pretty well until mile 25, when I walked a bit. My hamstrings were starting to cramp, it was getting warm. I crossed the finish in 3:31:54, over seven minutes faster than my previous PR.
This was one of those days I went out and surprised myself. I got better than the race I’d trained for. Next time I run down from the Tunnel, I might prepare more for it – would be interesting to see what that gets me.
photos by ross comer
charts and graphs for running geeks
This is the pace chart, taken from my Suunto Ambit. I don’t place much faith in it telling me that my peak was a 4:41, nor that my fastest mile was a 5:04. I think it more likely that I peaked just under 7, and my fastest mile may have been around 7-ish. Given that the late miles were all over 8 min/mile according to my watch (slowest was 10), I must have done a goodly number of sub-8 miles early on.
First half was about 1:43:26. That means the second was about 1:48:28, a positive split of five minutes. Strength and speed work are the best way to address that. It’ll be interesting to see whether being sooo close to a BQ motivates me to actually do that.