Inside a 2:16 Marathon: Part 2

The finish at the Houston Marathon

The finish at the Houston Marathon

I landed in Houston, Texas 2 days before the race, taking a city bus from the airport to an airBnB my former teammate Travis Morrison and I would share. He had run 2:19:48 and I was still at 2:19:51, he had run 1:06:23 in the half marathon a few years early and the previous spring I had run 1:06:28. Needless to say, I was planning on working together once the gun went off. We had run hundreds of miles together in training at North Central, including some really gut churning intervals and tempo runs. We spent the next day walking around to packet pickup and brunch with his girlfriend. My mind was not yet on the race, just on relaxing and letting what will happen, happen. I stayed off my feet as much as I could, something I failed to do in Chicago, and wasted most of the day watching reruns of Minute to Win It. 

For weeks before the race the weatherman was calling for some pretty horrid conditions. Even the days before the race it was forecast to be 15 degrees with a 20mph cross wind, probably bring the feel closer to 0. I made peace with the idea that I could potentially be running in extremely unfavorable conditions, but resolved to do everything I could to make the most out of it. After all I wasn’t running 130-140 miles per week just to fold in the face of a little adversity. 

I woke up at 5:00 AM for the 7:00 AM start. We were only a few minute walk from the start line, but because neither of us were allowed into the Elite corral we had to get there early without a bag drop to keep some warm clothes around prior to the gun. I stood at the kitchen bar of our airBnB sipping a cup of black coffee with a spoon of sugar. Still a bit dazed, but starting to really think about the undertaking of the next few hours. I never eat much on race-day, even for marathons, but I wouldn’t have access to personal aid stations on the course so I had a package of clif shot bloks (with caffeine) with my coffee, chewed some RunGum on the walk to the bag area and finally slurped down a lemonade flavored Huma Gel. I scrolled though my weather app one last time before deciding on my race kit. The weather was looking significantly more favorable: 34 degrees but the 12 mph wind was only going to be a factor from 14 to 18 miles, and a cross breeze everywhere else. I slipped on a white long sleeve under my Tulsa Runner uniform. My boss had felt so bad for me after Chicago that he offered to pay for my flight to Houston. This was about the only way I could repay his generosity. The long sleeve would keep me warmer than arm sleeves. I didn’t have a throw-away beanie so I ran in the warmest hat I had a thick, knitted, North Central College stocking cap. Since it was my favorite winter running cap, if I was going to start in it, I was going to finish in it. I pulled on some lose-fitting joggers and a quarter zip to wear to the bag drop but after that we were going to have to stand around in the sub-elite corral for 30 minutes before we were herded towards the line. 

Travis and I jogged in a 150m circuit for 7 or 8 minutes once we were in the corral. I never really worry about warm ups for marathons because it is not an explosive start and you have plenty of time to feel things out; but this set up was ridiculous. We laughed at the idea that we were second rate in the eyes of the race directors after we had both been in the Professional fields of Chicago; a significantly bigger event. But we also understood that the proceedings wouldn’t be any excuse for a poor performance. We were told to line up before walking down a narrow street to the back of the elite marathon and half marathon men and women. It became shockingly clear that we were not going to be anywhere near the line when the gun sounded. There was a choke point before the line and as the crack of the gun rang out I looked up to see I was still more than 10 rows of bodies behind the line. 

It was a mad dash in every direction. I shoved my way past a few of the elite marathon women and had to avoid running up on the athletes that had decided that they could settle into a pace just 200 meters past the line. I lost Travis in the mayhem but I wasn’t in a rush yet. I just wanted some space to run a straight line instead of having to bob and weave. As I walked to the corral, Travis and I agreed that an OTQ was the absolute top goal, we would run as a pack of two if that’s what it took. But I had my own personal plan that involved not looking at my watch. Instead to give myself an idea of where I was in relation to the 2:19:00 standard, I was going to look at the time at 13.1 and 18 miles. I needed to see 69:30 and 1:35:00. The rest of the race I would focus on the effort and doing everything in my power to run the best race I was capable on the day. If I am speaking honestly, I knew I was capable of the OTQ. I knew so many other runners that had achieved it that I knew it was well within my grasp, but by shooting for that time, it would allow me to run without overextending myself shooting for a 2:13 or some other arbitrary time (I knew I wasn’t in 2:13 shape, just making a point.) 

The first 10k was a blur.  I had shut off every evaluating process from my consciousness and found Travis, along with a maintainable rhythm. I took one of the two Huma Gels I had stuffed in the key-pocket of my shorts around 10k. We had split off from a few packs before joining a group of 6-8 guys also shooting for the standard. I ignored my watch which was set to automatically split at the mile markers and stared at the backs and feet of the people around me. I was shocked at how easy the effort was, but am seasoned enough to know that can be short lived. It is best to stay alert to any major pace changes, faster or slower. We picked up a few more bodies following the crest of the only hill on the course at 12 miles and I was so zoned-out (or focused depending on your perspective)I nearly missed the halfway clock which read 69:28. We were right on qualifying, with nearly zero room for error. 

We were approaching the windiest part of the course and the pace began to lag naturally. Travis and I looked at each other  for a brief moment and he swung out and started to move around the group. It sounds ridiculous but I thought, “I don’t want to run with these strangers when Travis is right there,” so I moved with him and by 14 miles we were on our own, more-or-less. It wasn’t all roses and sunshine at this point, though. While the wind wasn’t as bad as I had expected, I was hitting a rough patch. My legs were feeling heavy and I was getting the slightest burn of acid in my calves. As a heel-striker, I am more concerned when my quads start to go, but this was the first time all morning I was beginning to feel the race. I tucked in behind Trav as he dragged me for 4 miles through the wind. We were only passing people, no one joined us as we went by, it was evident that we were the only ones still moving aggressively. There are always bad patches in the marathon, but it’s long enough that the there can be positive swings back out of feeling cruddy. I wasn’t sure how long the discomfort was going to last or if I was going to be able to hang with Travis so I gasped “1:35 at 18 and we’re good,” as a reminder. We turned out of the wind and saw the clock at 18 and simultaneously as I saw 1:34:30, I started to feel my legs come back to life.

I pulled back onto his shoulder to be of better aide. I fed off his energy through my rough patch and now we were reconnected. I broke my own race plan when, with wide eyes, I saw we had just run a 5:00 20th mile. There was no doubt that we had momentum in a positive direction. But I was also a little worried about whether or not we were being too aggressive. I thought back to a statement by one of our old teammates in college, he said “[Travis] is a big, dumb animal.” Speaking to his relentless drive and ability to push his limits, but here at mile 22 I was hoping that we weren’t on a doomed path. 

Travis and I ran together the entire way at the Houston Marathon

Travis and I ran together the entire way at the Houston Marathon

We covered 30-35k in under 5:00 pace and my thinking, thought fractured at times, was trending towards the positive side of things. We were both still shoulder to shoulder at 23 and it would take catastrophe in the waning miles for us to not achieve the qualifier. It was right after 23 that Travis began to drift off. He was never more than 10-15 meters back, I could still feel his presence but without a doubt this was his rough patch. I was going to return the favor and drag his ass through the last 5k if I had to. I kept the pace honest and erred on the aggressive side but with the small gap in the forefront of my consciousness. At 24, I did a bit of quick math and deduced that there we were both virtually a lock. 

Just past the 25 mile mark, Travis found his second wind and strides up to my shoulder. As we entered the skyscrapers of downtown Houston, with only a 1000m remaining, we slapped hands. I thought to myself that this is one of those moments I can never take for granted. The short instance of reflection was jarring, I am usually in a cloud of pain and in the case of Chicago, my vision began to darken along the fringes. I could make out a silhouette of another runner within striking distance. We were only 600 meters from the line and I told Travis, “I’m going after him,” and made a small gesture ahead. What happened next shocked even me. I was winding up for a big kick like it was a track race, nothing like I had just run 25+ miles. I hit full speed as the finish archway came into view. I passed the other runner, and had Travis in tow, but I was still sprinting away the life out of me. I covered the last .2 miles in 4:30 pace. Just about 50 meters from the line I looked up to the clock to see 2:16:38. I threw up my arms in elation. I pumped my arms and nearly cried before the race was even over. 2:16:45 was my finish time, (later corrected to 2:16:40 on the chip time.)

I cross the line and felt a rush of emotion. The weight of the OTQ was lifted and I had improved my personal best by over 3 minutes. I went down to my knees, and eventually the ground. I held my head in my hands and couldn’t decide what I should be feeling at this moment. Travis finished just 3 seconds behind and was quick to pick me up by the arm. I immediate hugged him and said in a qualifying voice, “we did it, dude!”