On more than one occasion, when discussing running events and goal times, I have said to someone, “I would like to try and break 4 hours in a marathon”. This was a somewhat silly thing to say, since not only had I never run a marathon before, I had no plans to sign up for one either. But then I did my first one last March and finished it in 4:28. Considering I ran that one with a camera and spent 10-15 minutes of the 28 standing around, I still thought 4 hours that was a pretty reasonable goal. Even if I did limp the last four miles to the finish line. I figured I’d need two things: 1) find a marathon with a flatter course than the ones in Asheville, and 2) somehow manage to get thru more rigorous training without any injuries. With the tendency towards Achilles Tendinitis (right foot) and Plantar Fasciitis (left/both feet), I was never really sure how far I could push said training and if 4 hours was possible.
Apparently, it’s possible. I don’t need a flatter course, and I can do it by training perfectly for a half marathon and then faking the other half.
At least, that’s what happened at the inaugural 2013 Asheville Citizen-Times Marathon. I finished this very hilly course in 3:59:24, despite having to walk significant amounts of the final four miles.
(and despite a rather lengthy port-o-john stop around mile 11 – but we’ll skip the details there).
How (Not) To Train For A Marathon
For the entire week leading up to the race, friends would ask me the usual:
- How are you feeling?
- Are you ready?
- What’s your goal time?
My answers were:
- “I feel pretty good”
- “I’m perfectly prepared for a half marathon; the rest I’ll make up as I go along”
- “I’d like to finish in 4:30 since that’s what I did at Biltmore, but I’m really just doing this to say I did”
I made the crack about being trained for a half marathon in a joking manner, but it was really no joke. My longest training run leading up to the Biltmore marathon last March was 18 miles and I did a couple 15s, and numerous 10-12 milers. This time, my longest run was only 11 miles and everything else was in the 7-9 range. Three to four weeks before the race I was doing those consistently, and I felt really well prepared for 13.1 miles. I even joked with my friend Jane – one of the Thursday evening group trail run leaders from Jus’ Running – that I might go out and set a PR on the first half.
As for a goal time, what I said was the absolute truth, and pretty much the reason that I never trained beyond 11 miles. It hasn’t been a hot summer in Asheville – in fact it’s been one of the coolest on record – but it has been a wet and humid one. I’m just not a fan of running in the middle of summer, and with my feet hovering on the edge of injury all the time, I was really cautious about pushing the distances into double digits. With cycling as cross-training for endurance, and with no real goal time in mind, it seemed unnecessary. As long as I crossed the line and had fun along the way, that was all that mattered.
Despite my attitude about the training, I didn’t go into the event completely unprepared. For starters I knew the entire course, having run all of it by splitting it into segments 7, 8 and 11 miles over three weekends. I wanted to know exactly where every hill was, both up and down, so that I could be mentally, if not physically prepared. Also, I took steps (pun intended) to maximize the benefits of training even if I was minimizing the distances. The first step was to do the runs on Sundays, following long Saturday rides of 6-8 hours. That way I was sore and fatigued from the start of the run, as if I’d already been out. Second step was to run each of the three segments in the hottest part of the day. My thinking was that if I made the training as difficult as possible, it might seem easier (by comparison) on race day.
Depending on when you read this, the details of the three preview runs will either be forthcoming or are already up.
But let’s get on to the race… how the hell did things unfold that I ended up finishing a marathon in under four hours on only the barest of training? Well, the short, and rather smug, answer is: I started out running stronger than I expected and then kept going, crossing the line before my legs fell off.
You didn’t think I’d leave it to just a short answer though, did you? This is a marathon we’re talking about, so what follows is my more typical marathon length answer.
The Start to Mile 3
The race started at 6AM. Yes, 6AM in the morning… more than an hour before sunrise.We’d be running in the dark and the fastest half marathoners would actually cross the line before sunrise. Fun!
I did what I normally do for races within a reasonable radius of home, and rode the bike there as a way to wake up the legs. The temperature was supposed to go down to 50 overnight but was a bit milder, about 55. I wore just my running clothes – shorts/tech shirt/short socks, with a light jacket just for the ride over. I got to the start/finish area outside the Asheville YMCA just a couple minutes before start time, since I had a little bit of time to wait. This marathon was done as a wave start, with runners lined up according to estimated finishing time. Elite runners up front, progressively slower in the back. They actually corralled us and released each wave on 3 minute intervals (2 between A and B). I chose a 4:30 finishing time of wave F, which started at 6:14 AM
It would get harder and harder later in the race to remember to factor that time gap into my calculations as to how much distance/time/speed I needed to finish in 4 hours… once I finally realized it was a possibility. This is what my I have come to refer to as “The ‘Doing Bad Math’ Fatigue Factor”, coined partially by my sister.
As I stood around in the Wave F corral I noticed there were two sets of pacers, for 4:15 and 4:30 goal times. From previous experience I knew I had to start out ahead of these groups, because I’m not able to sustain a steady pace for 26 miles. I need to go out stronger and build up a buffer, then as I slow down they would catch me. I didn’t see any 4:00 pacers in the E corral, but I knew they were up there.
At 6:14 Wave F took off from the start line… and immediately they were going sloooooooooooow. Luckily I started up towards the front of the group so I didn’t get caught behind. I quickly started to outpace all but a few of the runners from this wave and within less than a mile started catching up with the back end of Wave E. The streets were closed to traffic and we had plenty of room, so this was quite fun… running through the dark with only street lights to see by and overhearing peoples conversations and the occasional beeping of HRMs and GPS units.
I moved up rapidly thru the E wave and assume at some point those blended in with the slower runners who started in the D wave. I felt like I was running fast, but not too fast. I didn’t bother to check my GPS for a pace, especially since it was dark out. I just ran. I felt really comfortable and my heart rate wasn’t overly high. The first couple miles are flat to rolling before hitting the long but easy grade up Kimberly Ave., which I have run quite a few times recently.
Then we hit the first steep hill… on Kimberly there is a short but very hard section of pavement that I had decided in advance that I would walk, no matter how strong I felt. This is only 2.5 miles into the race and the amount of time I lost by walking was inconsequential – and I kept my heart rate low. I watched as others kept running and gained all of 10 seconds on me, then I passed them a few seconds later on the long downhill that follows.
At 3 miles I was at 24:00, averaging 8 minute miles.
I decided not to decide anything about that. Way too early to do any kind of math predictions or set any expectations. I did recall my joke to Jane about setting the PR on the first half and laughed to myself.
Miles 3 to 7
At mile 3 the route starts into a series of relatively mild climbs and descents, gaining gradually up to Woodfin for a couple miles, then dropping down to Riverside Drive and the French Broad River around mile 7. The only exception to this is a wickedly steep section of only about a tenth of a mile long. Like Kimberly climb, I planned ahead on power walking this, and this time I held the same pace as those “running” next to me. Unless you are an elite runner, there is no time advantage to running segments like this, only a waste of aerobic energy. I felt an equal mix of admiration and empathy for the two (later found out there were three) guys who were racing in wheelchair division. These are incredibly strong athletes in their own right, but pushing chairs with your arms up double digit grades like that is extremely difficult. To make things worse, they have to use a criss-cross technique, cutting back and forth across the road to ease the grade. That means they have to navigate through all the runners/walkers. On the other hand, they get one hell of a rip-roaring downhill run on the other side!
As I was reaching mile 5 I noticed a guy up ahead running in long sleeves and wearing a backpack. I figured he must not be a competitor, but someone out on their morning run and doing it to coincide with the race. He was moving along at a pretty good clip though, and it took me awhile to catch up. Just as I passed him I hear… “Hey Kevin!” Turns out the guy in the backpack was my friend Marcos, who was indeed out doing a training run and also in support of his girlfriend Emily, who was doing the half (and I assumed somewhere up the road ahead of me). We chit-chatted briefly and then I took off on the long downhill grade towards the river.
By the time I reached Riverside Drive the light was coming up and I was still running strong. At mile 7 I was still under an hour, in fact just barely above the 8 minute/mile average I had started out with.
There’s something to be said for consistency. But… how long would this last? I had no idea, but the hard part of the race was coming up, and coming up fast.
Miles 7 to 11
As we hit 7.5 miles the route made a split. Those doing the half marathon continued straight on Riverside Drive, heading for some relatively easy rolling miles before doing the classic (notorious) Asheville Half climb up Lookout Rd. Beyond that they only had the comparatively much easier run up Broadway into downtown and to the finish line.
For the marathoners the hard part was just beginning… a series of long grades over the next six miles that, in training, had me cussing out the route designers and wishing bad things on them. Very bad things. This was where I had expected things to get very difficult and much slower. The upside was the weather and my mental appraoch. A few weeks earlier I had deliberately run these next 8 miles in full sun and a hot and humid 85 degrees. At this moment the sun was still behind the mountains, it was only about 55 degrees and dry… absolutely perfect conditions. I didn’t even think about slowing down, nor did I think about how hard the series of climbs would be. I just attacked the first one and took them as they came.
Like the first 7 miles, I felt relaxed and strong, so I crossed the bridge over the French Broad and started up Old Leicester Rd. keeping a good pace with no thoughts of walking. I made the turn onto Gorman Bridge/Smith Creek Rd. (which is it?) where the route continued to roll up and down. Then came two hard parts, back to back – first a short but steep downhill section on Riverview Church Rd… the kind that really burns the hamstrings if you don’t use the brakes, and tears up the calves and quads if you do. I went for broke and freewheeled down as fast as I could, sacrificing the hammies. I figured at this point one of two things was going to happen. Either I’d be able to sustain those downhills and make up a lot of time lost on the climbs, or I’d completely collapse and end up walking to the finish line. I decided by mile 9 that there was absolutely nothing to lose, and I was going to give it everything I had.
Just after the descent comes the seemingly endless climb up Adams Hill Rd. You know you’re in for some suffering when the word “Hill” is in the street name, and this is no exception. It climbs and climbs and climbs.. not like a parkway climb up to Mt. Mitchell or anything… but enough to really steal a chunk of time and wear you down. But I made it to the top of the ridge, and the reward for having gotten this far in just over an hour was watching the sun rise over the mountains to the east.
From there it was another steep downhill, pounding on the hamstrings, and then yet another one. With what may have been a too long, but possibly leg-saving port-o-jon break in between. Again.. I’ll spare you the details. The upside was that even with the hills and the stop, I was still averaging 8:30 per mile and now, despite my lack of training, I started to wonder… how fast could I run this marathon if everything continued to go OK? I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but 4:30 seemed almost easy and 4:15 was crossing my mind.
Miles 11 to 16
There was a brief break in the hills from Mile 11 to 12, down along the west side of the French Broad, but the flat was short lived. Next came Waynesville Avenue up into West Asheville. Similar to Adams Hill Rd. it just seemed to last forever. The saving grace on this one was that I was buoyed by the hopes of a good finishing time and I was willing to push myself pretty hard to get up it and onto the next descent. By now it was light out and there were more people lining the streets in places cheering us on. That helped even more. Nearing the top of Waynesville Ave. there was a course marshall directing us to a right turn, which appeared to be a nearly vertical wall. What?! Apparently there was a minor course change, and I wasn’t really happy about it. I had pushed pretty hard this far epecting things to ease off, and instead we’re running up one of the steepest grades in the race. Fortunately, it was short and in the long run (get it?) it gave us a long stretch of flatter road to get back over towards Michigan Ave. Which brought yet another long downhill stretch.
By this time we were nearing the halfway mark. As I approached the timing mats and clock, I saw it ticking off the seconds at 1:53 something. The official results say I had a 1:53:40 split.
Remember me saying I joked with my friend Jane about setting a PR on the half and then making up the rest? Well.. I was fairly close. My fastest half, on this race two years ago, was 1:50:18, just three minutes faster.
After Michigan the route turned right and immediately started climbing again.. this time up State St. This climb was long, but not as steep as Adams Hill or Waynesville. By now I was starting to feel the accumulated pounding of the pavement and fatiguing, but only a little bit. I still felt really good overall.
And then I got a huge mental boost.
As I got towards the top of State St., I noticed two guys in volunteer shirts and wearing tags on the back that said “4:00 pace leader”. Now.. I knew I had taken off ahead of the 4:30 and 4:15 pacers right from the start. And I knew I was on a very strong pace, at least for the time being, to be somewhere in the four hour area. But it was altogether different to see the guys right there in front of me. The State St. climb had hurt a bit and the next two miles was rolling through the residential streets of Westie, so I didn’t go after the pacers all at once. I was content to gradually reel them in. I held the gap on the steeper uphill parts and then gained on them going downhill. By mile 15 I caught up to them and said (kinda stupidly since they were wearing tags!), “Are you guys really the 4:00 pace group?!”
One of them replied, “Yeah, but were running about three minutes ahead of pace.”
If my heartrate wasn’t already as high as it was, my heart may have leapt out of my chest. If they were three minutes ahead of a 4:00 finish pace, I was even further ahead. I had started one wave back so I was six minutes ahead.
OK… chill! I told myself… better just calm down a bit. Time for some rational and realistic thinking. We’re only at Mile 15. I’m now 4 miles past my longest training run and there is a looooooong way to go still. Yes, miles 16 to 22 are nearly flat, but 22 to the finish get very difficult again and that flat six miles may actually work against me. I reminded myself to just relax, breathe deep, stay loose (as possible) and try to hang with these guys as best I could. If, and it’s a big if, I was able to stay with them up to mile 22, then I could start thinking about that 4 hour finishing time.
I actually ran a little bit ahead of them on the downhill section of Shelburne Rd. and then stayed just a little ahead of them for a mile or two after that. The pacee was the pacer.
Miles 16 to 22
As I mentioned, once we dropped down Shelburne, the route became extremely flat for the next six miles. First going down Hominy Creek Rd. and then onto the greenway along Carrier Park and French Broad River Park. Then onto Lyman St. contining along the French Broad River before making a couple right turns up onto Depot St. in the River Arts District. Most of this was part of my commute route into downtown Asheville from Bent Creek for three years and I know it blindfolded. I can sum up this section very quickly. I managed to hang with with the 4:00 pacers but it became increasingly more difficult to do so the further we got. My mile splits on this section are very consistent. We ran 17 and 18 at a little bit under 9 minutes and 19 thru 21 at a little bit above. I lost hold of them on a little rise halfway through Mile 22 and slipped to just 9:13. My cumulative pace rose from 8:41/mile to 8:46. I was still very much under the 9:03/mile that it takes to break 4 hours.
But things were about to get very difficult again. And by now they were very painful. My calves were tightening and my quads were burning. What seemed effortless up until about mile 19 was rapidly becoming laborious.
Mile 23 (.2)
Depot St. makes an abrupt change and becomes wickedly steep where it intersects with Livingston, and I had to walk the next section to Oakland St. I wasn’t the only one. I could still see my pacers just up ahead, and they were walking too, as was nearly everyone else around me. I knew it was costing me time, but I knew I had some time to give. As long as I could walk briskly and resume running as soon as I made the turn, I thought I’d be OK, assuming I could make up some time on the next descent.
Well… that didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped. I did resume running but had to walk once again on the top end of Oakland St. before turning onto Victoria. Damn! At this point I was still going to fight for 4:00 but realisticaly I was thinking 4:05 or maybe even 4:10 was more likely.
Now, I couldn’t be too upset with that. In fact, I couldn’t be upset at all. Remember… I had gone into this thinking maybe 4:30 would be nice but not even expecting that. I was just in this to do it. So anything in the low 4s was going to be a stellar result. That made me feel a lot better and helped me relax. As I dropped down the descent I had been hoping to make up time on, I realized just how much I had fried my hammies on the previous descents. It was painful to go down at just about any speed, but the pain got worse the faster I tried to run. I had no choice but to put on the brakes a bit.
This is where there was a second course change. I’m not even sure how it went so I won’t try to describe it, other than that it was a little out and back on a side street. At the u-turn the course marshall was saying “You have 3 miles to go from here”. I wasn’t sure if that meant exactly 3 miles or not, but assuming it did, with the clock reading 3:42, I had 32 minutes remaining (after subtracting the 14 minutes for my wave start).
I had some more downhill to do, and then back along the fairly flat section of Depot St. I glanced at my GPS and saw I was still able to maintain about a 9:30 pace. The Mile 24 marker went by and I had 25 minutes. Not to do 2 miles, remember, but 2.2.
And I still had to get up Clingman Avenue. This was the last long climb, followed by more uphill after the turn onto Hilliard up to French Broad. Like Depot/Oakland, I had to walk a rather lengthy section of Clingman. I just couldn’t keep going at a run. The heart rate was maxing out. I decided it was better to sacrifice another minute or even two, get the heart rate back down, and hope I had just enough left to push through the remaining rolling hills on Hilliard and the final uphill between Biltmore Ave. and Pack Square. After that it was downhill to the finish line. I estimated that if I could get to Pack Square with as little as four minutes remaining, I had a shot at 3:59.
Getting there was excruciatingly slow. My muscles were burning but even worse, I had developed an agonizing pain in my right knee, just like the final miles of the Biltmore marathon. I wasn’t limping like I was the previous March, but I was definitely hurting, and slowing down.
I checked my watch as I crossed Biltmore Ave. I can’t remember what it said, but I knew it was going to be close. That last hill up towards Pack Square seemed to stretch longer and longer in front of me. People were cheering. The few runners near me were also struggling to get to the top of the last climb. Everybody kept shouting “You’re almost there!”
If only they knew how little that helped! I’ve been “almost there” for over an hour now!
Finally I crested the last hill, and I was pretty sure I had done enough. I wasn’t sure exactly what the distance was to the finish line, but it was only a matter of a few blocks, all downhill. I could hear the PA and the crowd cheering at the finish line, even if I couldn’t see it I shoved aside the pain in my knee and ignored the tightness in my hamstrings and accelerated down Market St. The woman in front of me was also speeding up so I just locked my eyes on her shoes… just follow those feet, step for step, and you’ve got this.
I turned onto Woodfin St. – the home stretch. I couldn’t see the finish line right away but I could feel it. I finally turned the last bend and saw the clock ticking over from 3:58:59 to 3:59:00… 01… 02. I watched it as I approached, giving it just a little bit more, screw the pain. I was pretty sure I didn’t need to but I wasn’t taking any chances. I “sprinted” – ran as hard as I still could – now really favoring my right leg until I entered the chute at 3:59:…. something. I didn’t know what, and I didn’t care.
I did it!
I somehow, with only preparations for a half marathon, had managed to run a marathon in under four hours.
As soon as I stopped running everything started to shut down. The pain in my legs went from my toenails right up to my thighs. Quads tightened, hamstrings ached, calves tender. The knee pain had me limping noticeably enough that I got looks of sympathy and more than one person asked if I was OK. Yeah, I was more than OK. I got my finishers medal, a bottle of water and waited for my heartrate to come down. I shuffled my way over to the bike and put on a jacket. Then I called Julienne and said, “You’re not going to believe this…”
Unfortunately, since I had figured the best I was going to do was 4:30, I told her I’d be done around 10:45. I was done by 10:14 and she hadn’t gotten downtown yet. Oops. What can I say? I had absolutely no idea. Once I got a plan on where to meet her when she arrived, I set about finding some food and drink.
Now… where is that Highland Brewing booth?
Unfortunately, it was uphill. I think it took me longer to walk 200 feet up to fetch a cup of Gaelic than it did to run the final mile. But it was worth it! I saw the two 4:00 pacers nearby and went over to tell them I had made it and thanked them profusely. If they hadn’t been there I’m not sure if I would have had the confidence, or even the knowledge, to keep pushing. A few minutes later Julienne met me near the finish line and took this photo, which surprised me that I was still looking relatively coherent and lively.
Musta been the Gaelic Ale.
Not long after she took this photo, I said to Julienne, “3:59. I never have to run another marathon as long as I live.” Breaking 4 hours was something I wanted to achieve, I just never thought it would be on this particular day in the hills of Asheville, NC. Of course, now I’ll come up with a new goal… this marathon stuff is hard, but it’s rewarding. And except for those last few painful miles I’ve gotta figure out how to do better, it’s pretty fun too.
Later in the day the official results came out. 3:59:24 was the final tag time and I was 6th of 21 finishers in my (new) age group: 45-49. 101st overall of somewhere right around 400 finishers. Julienne and I posted a few things on Facebook and among the likes and congratulatory comments I wrote something that I think is one of the more important lessons I’ve learned from participating in endurance events, and life in general:
Every once in a while, EVERYTHING goes your way. It doesn’t happen often, so when it does, be ready for it and enjoy the ride! (er… Run!)