Monday, October 15, 2012

Freedomʻs Run Marathon Recap: The Gritty Details, Part 1

They say you never forget your first time.  And I'm sure I never will.  The short version: despite a tough course, I ran my first marathon in 3:52:50, finishing 4th in my age group, and 11th woman overall.  The long version is long; I have a lot to say.  Pre-race events can be found here, part 1 of the gritty details is below, and part 2 is here. You guys, I'm still walking on air.  But now its time to taper - Richmond Marathon is only four weeks away.

The Start

The sun was just peeking over the horizon when the race began at 7:00am - gorgeous.  Everything about this race was just beautiful.  And at the start, everything about this race was cold.  Cold, cold, COLD.  My toes were tingling, and because I was wearing a running skirt, my thighs were burning.  But these were the conditions, and I wasn't about to let some stupid cold weather get in the way of my race.

Miles 1-4

Even though I started out at the front of the pack, I didn't race right out of the gate with the speedsters.  I ran a comfortable pace for a quarter mile to warm up as we ran towards the Murphy Farm Outlook.  On the gravel road out, I could feel another runner coming up beside me.  As she passed me, I could tell right away she was a strong runner than I am, but she seemed to be running a pace that I could keep up with, at least in the beginning of the race.  Oh wait, let me backtrack and tell you my race strategy:

Race Strategy

The Freedom's Run Marathon course is mostly flat or downhill for the first 15 miles.  10 of those miles are on the C&O Canal tow path.  Miles 15-21 are holy hilly hell through Antietam Battlefield National park, and the last 5 miles are mostly flat with some rolling hills.

Knowing that I am not a strong hill runner, my race strategy for this marathon was to run fast on the flats (through mile 15) to put some miles in the bank early, pull back on the hills, and then pick it up again as we headed into Shepherdstown.  My initial goal was to run a 4:20 marathon, since I didn't know how killer those hills would be.

Then it dawned on me: I didn't bust my butt for 5 months to aim for a 4:20 marathon.  I've worked hard all summer, and I would be cheating myself if I didn't aim as high as I could.  So I decided I was going to shoot for a sub-4:00 marathon, still using my initial strategy of getting miles in the bank early.

Do you follow the same strategy every race? Or do you change your strategy based on course, weather, other life factors, etc.?

Back to the Race (Miles 1-4)

So back to...let's call her Strong Runner Girl.  As she passed me, I decided to keep up with her to see how her pace felt.  And to be honest, it felt good.  Early in my training I focused on my heart rate more than speed, so I knew what it felt like if I was running too fast, and what it felt like if I was running hard but not too hard.  Strong Runner Girl was running the perfect pace for me--hard but not too hard--so I planned to keep up with her until we hit the hills, where I knew there was no way I could keep up with her.

Around mile 3 the road began a steep downhill that went on for a little more than a mile.  I think this long downhill surprised a few runners, but I was lucky enough to have previewed this part of the course when DJ Research ran the Harper's Ferry Half Marathon earlier this year, so I knew that the downhill went on for a while.  (The Half Marathon course runs up the hill, though, and thats not even the toughest hill on the course!)

It was on this downhill that I passed Strong Runner Girl.  I like downhills and try to run them as fast as possible - bringing my hips forward, leaning into the descent, and really focusing on my turnover.  I knew this was a good downhill to run fast because it was so long, and I needed all the extra time I could get.

Once the road flattened out, we were running into Harper's Ferry town and over the Potomac River footbridge.  The view from here is spectacular, but I couldn't really enjoy it because the bridge was so darn slippery.  This was my least favorite part of the race.  I basically ran-walked this portion because I didn't want to fall flat on my face, or worst yet, my tailbone.

Potomac River Bridge, Harper's Ferry, WV
View from Potomac River Bridge
taken earlier this year

Mile 1: 8:39
Mile 2: 8:29
Mile 3: 7:44
Mile 4: 8:10

Miles 5-15

We descended a spiral staircase and got on the C&O Canal tow path, which is a mix of hard-packed dirt and gravel.  This section was stunning, with the Potomac River to our left and the beautiful fall foliage overhead.  It was also still freezing cold.  Cold, cold, COLD.  My hands and feet were still numb.  My legs were still burning.  I tried to open a Gu Gel with my fingers but failed miserably, and had to open the packet with my teeth.  I could barely squeeze my water bottle to squirt water into my mouth (I was running with the Amphipod Hydraform Lite Water Bottle. LOVE this thing).  But what could I do other than keep running?  So I did.

Around mile 7, Strong Runner Girl and another strong runner started passing me on my left.  Again her pace was perfect (I realized I'd been running too slow!)  Again I decided to keep up with her.  (I'm horrible at pacing myself.  Need more experience!)  The three of us ran together for a while, then another runner female showed up and joined our conga line, then another male runner, and the five us of pretty much stuck it out through mile 13.  We would jump frog each other on the trail, or the line-up would change dramatically after an aid station, though Strong Runner Girl was usually in the lead.

I saw DJ Research and Nugget at the last aid station on the tow path, around mile 12 or 13.  I had been so focused on the race, I completely forgot they were there to cheer me on!  At the Marine Corps Historic Half (my last race where they were there to cheer for me), I would stop to give them a kiss every time I saw them on the side.  Not this time.  I just blew them a kiss as I whizzed pass, and I could here Nugget crying, "Mommy!" as I ran off.  Ugh, worst feeling.

Soon after that last aid station, I lost Strong Runner Girl.  I don't quite remember what happened, but suddenly she was gone.  Most of the group was behind me, so I didn't feel too bad since she pretty much blew the rest of us out of the water.  But I had hoped to keep up with her at least until we headed into the hills.

Around mile 15, I saw a hoard of people running on to the tow path.  At first I thought they were bored high schoolers out to mess with the runners (why I thought that I have no idea), but then I realized this was the juncture where the marathon course and half-marathon course met up.  As a half-marathoner got on the tow path, he called out to us "Way to go marathoners!" and my face just lit up.  I was so focused, I pretty much forgot that what I was doing was quite an accomplishment.  Hell yeah! I was running a marathon!!

The half-marathoners were directed to keep going straight on the tow-path, while the full-marathoners were directed to get off the tow-path and head up the road.  Yes, UP.  The hill pretty much started as soon as we got off the canal path.  With my fuzzy math skills, I guesstimated that I had run 8-10 minutes faster than I hoped! (Yes, I owe Strong Runner Girl a HUGE thank you!)

Mile 5: 8:51
Mile 6: 8:40
Mile 7: 8:36 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 8: 8:19 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 9: 8:12 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 10: 8:15 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 11: 8:26 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 12: 8:26 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 13: 8:34 (w/ Strong Runner Girl)
Mile 14: 8:58
Mile 15: 9:33 (heading into those hills!)

Has a complete stranger ever helped you run/finish a race stronger than you thought you could?  Did you get a chance to thank them at the end? 

Gotta be up early to run, but stay tuned for the rest of the race!



  1. Looking forward to the rest of your recap! I'd say you were strong runner girl during the first half as well...just had some company! :)

    1. Thanks, Abbi! Thats so nice of you to say! Sounds like you had an awesome race too! A perfect run for the JFK 50!

  2. Such a fantastic time for your first marathon, Ama. And look at that elevation chart- yikes! I'm impressed!

    1. Thanks Laura! It was definitely tough course, but thats what made it all the more rewarding!

  3. Very impressive!!! Way to gauge yourself. So good. Your time is amazing. Excited to read about the rest of the race.