Three. Five. Nine. (Give Or Take 56)

Last fall I ran the Citizen-Times Marathon in downtown Asheville. Despite a lack of training beyond 8-11 miles at a time, I had what could only be described as the “best day ever”, and crossed the finish line in under four hours… a goal I’ve had in the back of mind since before I ever ran my first marathon. Last weekend I ran the Biltmore Marathon, also here in Asheville. Unlike the previous race, I had what can only be described as “very far from the best day ever”. It wasn’t the worst day ever… not even close. Crossing the finish line, no matter how long it takes, can never be described as a worst day.

So how long did it take? Well… nearly an hour longer than C-T: 4:55:47.

Which is also nearly a half hour longer than the previous year’s Biltmore marathon. Despite the course being easier and the fact that I didn’t run the entire thing with a camera in my hand, stopping to take pictures every few minutes.

My excuse list is long. The weather was horrid, just as it was horrid the previous year. I had a moderately severe cold the entire week leading up to the race. It was my third cold this winter. I’ve had chronic aches and pains in feet, heels, ankles, knees and just about everywhere else all winter long. It’s been ridiculously cold all winter and hard to run without straining the body. And I think the new shoes I got just after the Citizen-Times marathon suck.

Blah blah blah.

Now, despite all that… I actually had a pretty good race, but only up until about Mile 16. And dare I say it, I actually had… fun. Up until Mile 21. And even beyond that, when I was reduced to walking and limping for six miles in a bone chilling 40 degree rain, shivering and worrying about how I was going to fight off hypothermia, I managed to stay positive and mentally tough. I made the best of a bad situation, and persevered.

I also had the benefit of “watching” (via brief glimpses on out and back sections of the course) my sister have a really good run and finish with a really good time. And another friend who finished her first marathon. And the support of friends along the way.

Here’s the detail of how the race unfolded, starting with…

One Year Prior

Yeah, I’m going back that far, but only briefly.. just a quick recap of the weather from the previous years race. It was cold. Fucking cold to be honest. And windy. Fucking windy. We started out in the mid teens and the temp never went above 30. The wind chills were sub zero and single digits. Despite the brutal temps and winds, I had a really great time running fairly comfortably and taking pictures, up until about Mile 22 when some right knee pain started to hamper my ability to run without taking breaks to walk. I pushed on through it and finished in just under 4:30. Not bad for my first (real) marathon and considering my historic battles with plantar fasciitis, Achille’s pain, etc.

This year, when I signed up I said to myself, “The weather can’t possibly be any worse than it was last year.” Other runners, friends, spectators and families said the same. Especially since the race was two weeks closer towards spring.

One Month Prior

Well, as we all know, it has been a ridiculously cold and harsh winter, with all kinds of talk about Polar Vorexes, record lows, temps hovering around 20-30 degrees below normal for days and weeks on end. It’s enough for the idiots who can’t think beyond their own backyards to question, “Global warming? What global warming?” Despite that, I started looking at long range forecasts and seeing temps in the 50s forecast for race day. Sure, it bounced around, but at least that’s somewhat near normal. And the closer it got, but more the forecast held true. I fully expected we’d be starting out in the upper 30s and hitting low 50s by the time we finished.

One Week Prior

Although the forecast still moved around a bit, the days leading up to race day seemed to be somewhat consistent. Somewhere in the upper 40s/lower 50s for a high temp and dry. For both my sister and I, we thought this would be perfect. We don’t like warm. Especially after a winter of very much NOT warm. It’s hard to acclimate to 60s when you’ve come to think of 30s as “a warming trend”. In fact, my last run prior to the

And then I got sick. Monday night after the Jus’ Running group run, I started to feel the tell-tale tickle in the throat.

Oh shit.

My Monday night my throat was on fire and I was pretty much down and out for the next three days, with heavy sinus congestion and all the nasty shit that comes with a winter cold. Except my lungs. For whatever reason, the chest congestion and horrible cough stage never came. I stayed off my feet, and despite some heavy work tasks, managed to get some naps here and there, rest as much as possible, and save my energy. By Friday when my sister Kathy and brother in law Chris got into town, I was starting to feel my energy levels come back. Saturday I spent some time out and about, still taking it fairly easy but getting some good dinner, enjoying a few beers and trying to get back to normal. My head was still pretty heavily congested though.

Not only that, the forecast that was in our favor started to change in the last 48 hours before the face. What was a 10% chance of rain became 20%. Then 50%. Then 80%, then near 100% and the start of the rain shifted from Sunday night to Sunday afternoon to Sunday AM. The high temp dropped further and further, and by the time Saturday night rolled around we discovered the HIGH temp for Sunday was actually going to be midnight. It was 48 and would gradually drop as a cold front moved across the mountains.

Remember what I was saying about how the weather couldn’t possibly be any worse than the previous year?

Apparently it could.

One Hour Prior

I couldn’t sleep all night.. I tossed and turned and dozed a bit here and there, but between the cold and the nerves and the weather, I never got any sleep. The rain had held off, the roads were dry, but the radar was ominous. Kathy and I packed up our gear and decided that as long as we were in the 40s and running, even a moderate rain wouldn’t be too bad. Kathy and Chris headed off in the car to the Biltmore and I rode the bike over, as I have come to really prefer that little bit of leg work to wake up and warm up before a running event. I also wanted to use the ride as a measure of my lung capacity to gauge beforehand just how much trouble I might be in. As luck would have it, my lungs and head were mostly clear and I felt pretty darned good.

I met back up with Chris and Kathy when we all got to the event staging area, and we did all the usual pre-race stuff. Which mostly consists of standing around. Either huddled in a small group, or in a restroom/port-o-john line, or in the starting chute, nervously waiting for the starting gun.

And wouldn’t ya know it… 5 minutes before the start at 7:30, it started to rain.

The Start To Mile 5: Strong, But Conservative

Kathy prefers to start out a race fairly conservatively and I tend to start out fast, so I moved up in the queue quite a bit further than she did. I lined up somewhere between the 3:30 and 3:40 pacers, knowing full well that they would outpace me pretty quickly. I like to get clear of the masses and despite my cold and the unlikely chances of having a stellar race, I at least wanted to give it a shot and stay ahead of the 4:00 group as long as possible.

At 7:30 the gun went off. I moved out fast with the other runners near me and paced off the first mile fairly quickly. The lungs felt OK, I felt fairly strong, and I enjoyed the first flat mile. My split was right around 8 minutes flat, which was fine. Then we hit the first hill, which is about a mile long and builds gradually. I could tell right away that I was in nowhere near the shape I was in the previous fall, but still felt OK. The 3:40 and 3:50 pace groups went ahead of me, but I held steady with them on the downhill thru Mile 3. Then came the longest hill of the day, Miles 4 & 5 up to the Biltmore House. By time time we were nearing the top of the climb I could feel my lungs burning just a bit, and decided I’d better back off. 21 more miles is a LOOOOOOONG way.

About that time, a friend of mine, Chris (Power – I know a lot of guys named Chris), who was doing the half, came up past me and we chatted briefly until he moved on ahead and out of sight. I heard later he had a really good run and beat his own goal time by quite a bit.

Also about this time the 4:00 pacers passed me by. But not quickly… and I wasn’t too worried about it. Another 4:00 marathon was highly unlikely. About the only thing I was interested in was beating, if at all possible, the previous years 4:28.

Mile 5 To Mile 10: Movin’ Comfortably Along

Once we got up to the House things flattened out, went downhill and flattened out some more, and I was able to hold a consistently good pace for the next few miles. Just as I reached the end of run around the rectangular front lawn of the House, Kathy entered it. So despite being about a quarter mile apart on the course, we were only a couple hundred yards apart and within earshot. I didn’t see her, but just as I disappeared thru the black iron gates and headed towards the gardens, I heard “Go Dobo!” loudly enough that I jumped a little bit. I waved over my head and kept moving.

If she wanted to chat, she was gonna have to catch me.

I moved along at a pretty good clip downhill on Mile 6-7 and my split time at (roughly?) 10K was just under 58 minutes. Not stellar but given how badly this race could have started out, things were appearing, for the time being anyway, to be going pretty well. I was holding 9 minute miles and this was on the hilliest part of the course with more elevation gain than loss so far.

Once we hit the gravel down at Mile 8 and started along the river, I realized it had still been raining lightly the whole time. And I didn’t even care.

Mile 10 To Mile 15: The Chase

Up until this point I had not actually seen my sister. I assumed that I had pulled out more of a lead on her because I run downhill quite a bit faster than she does and all other factors being equal, we’re fairly well matched on level ground. I crossed over The Bridge to the other side of the estate just after Mile 10, and that’s where the Marathoners split from the Half Marathoners (new this year). At that point things got almost lonely.. so few of us were doing the full! I joked about it with the one other runner near me, “Where did everybody gooooo?!”

After Mile 11 things turn uphill again.. a long steady but mild climb up to Mile 12.5 all on a fairly smooth dirt/gravel road. As with Mile 5, I backed off the effort to preserve the lungs. At Mile 12.5 we do a short out and back on what last year had been a horribly rocky road with a nasty downhill and return uphill towards the end. I soon discovered two benefits right here… 1) the estate had smoothed out that road and it was much easier to run on, with much less risk of turned ankles. 2) we didn’t go down as far to the turnaround, thus avoiding the nasty hill.

After I made the turnaround it wasn’t long before I saw my sister coming up towards me. I figured she must be less than .2 behind and called out, “The turnaround is right ahead, and they fixed this road!”

Then I set about making sure she didn’t catch me right away.

At this point I should mention that prior to the race start I made note of all of the pacers in the 4:00 to 5:00 range so I knew what to look for. I noted it if was two guys, two gals, mixed, if they were wearing anything unique, etc. Although they start out with banners signifying the goal time, they ditch those once a few miles into the race. So I knew that two ladies running together not far behind Kathy were the 4:30 pacers. As they approached I called out, “You’re the 4:30 pacers, correct?” Once they confirmed, I said, as amicably as possible, “You just stay right there behind me then!”

They laughed.

Somewhere around Mile 14 we went through some pastures where there were many cows. This was noteworthy because the cows had lined up on the fenceline at both sides of the gravel road we were on and were just standing there, staring at each other. I joked with a couple other runners that it looked like we were interrupting a bovine game of Red Rover. Or maybe it was a West Side Story rumble? It was the west side of the Biltmore Estate after all. There was kind of an eerie vulnerability knowing that they were so close, and so huge. Just after I went through them some of them started mooing very loudly and more cows were approaching from the left side… I guess they were calling for backup?

I looked back and Kathy was getting closer to me and running past the cows just as they started to kick up the ruckus.

After Mile 14 we started to go downhill again and I held Kathy off for a little while longer, but as soon as we flattened out the chase was over. She caught up very quickly just past Mile 15. We ran together (sorta – she was going faster) up the next climb to Mile 16 and joked about the cows, the chase, the smoothed out road, etc.

Miles 16 & 17: Things Start To Go Wrong

At the water station near Mile 16, Kathy took a slightly longer walk break to get water/food down and I caught up for just a bit. It was at that point that I realized that my right knee had started hurting on that last climb. If prior experience told me anything, it was that I was in big trouble.

At the previous year’s race, the knee was fine until Mile 20. At Citizen Times, it was good until Mile 22 but even then was actually only mildly hurting up until the final mile or so. With 10 miles still to go, I was fearing the worst.

As I slowed down a little bit, Kathy moved further ahead, but not by a whole lot. Hurting or not I still go downhill faster than she does and held on until we crossed back over The Bridge. Just after crossing, I ran past my friend Chris (Neubert this time) taking photos. His wife Laurie was doing her first marathon and he and son Leo were there to support her.

As soon as I went past Chris, I started walking. I didn’t want to walk. I really didn’t want to. But I figured maybe if I walked and stretched out my legs a little bit, the pain would subside and I could resume running for a while. Which worked… sorta.

Miles 18 & 19: Things Get Worse

The walking only worked for about a half mile. As I neared 18 I started walking again. The dirt road at this point had started to get really muddy, and the footing was slippery, so I kept finding excuses to walk and lacked the willpower to push through the pain. Oddly enough, at this point my overall pace (while running anyway) was still not that bad and I hadn’t yet been caught by the 4:30 pacer ladies. If there was any way I could get the knee calmed down and resume, it was entirely possible to beat my 4:28.

Miles 18 to 20 were another out and back, where the Marathoners were also running along the same out and back with the slower Half Marathoners. That made things interesting since there were suddenly a lot more runners on the course again. As I was heading out, Kathy came back towards me after having already turned around. She was looking really good. So I cheered her on and told myself to walk a little bit further, then try running again.

Not long after the turnaround, the 4:30 ladies again came towards me and I again called out, “Hey now, no fair catching up. Stay right where you are!” It was unlikely.. they were closing in on me.

I mixed run/walk for another mile until Mile 20, which was especially cruel because the Marathoners had to go right past the finish chute and continue on for another six miles.

And at that point I knew I was done.

Mile 20 to Mile 24: Just Keep Moving

There was no denying it. I was going to walk the rest of this marathon. The knee pain had subsided with the walking, but what had really happened was that the pain migrated down into the inside/rear of my right ankle. Not the same as the Achille’s pain I regularly have to deal with – this was much worse. As I left the Antler Hill Village parking area, I heard a voice over my shoulder say “Hey Dobo, if you keep running I’ll buy you a beer.” I looked and saw it was my buddy Scott Williams, who was sitting in his car. I thought it was odd that he was there, because I didn’t think he was racing that day, but nonetheless, I called back “How ’bout I keep walking, and you buy me five beers!”

I was a little bit bummed to be walking in front of a friend, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I started to think about just how long it was going to take me to cover six miles. At a pace of 15 minutes per mile (optimistic actually), I was going to be walking in the 40 degree rain for the next 90 minutes. I shivered just thinking about it. As long as I had been running, I hadn’t even noticed the rain, except for the degrading road conditions and ponding in some places. I honestly hadn’t cared one way or the other. The cool rain was so much better than hot sun.

But as soon as I walked, my heart rate dropped, my clothes were saturated and hanging off me, and my core temp started to drop. Had I been thinking more clearly, I could have ducked off the course fairly quickly and grabbed a jacket from my bike, locked very close to the course. But I wasn’t thinking clearly.

Not much further, I looked back and saw the 4:30 ladies coming up behind me. I overheard one of them say to the other, “Look, there’s that guy”. As they caught up and went past, they tried to encourage me to run with them, but I just couldn’t.

I didn’t even mind so much. Despite how things were going, I actually had to laugh. I also thought to myself, “As bad as this is going, the last marathon was about as good as it gets, and you got your sub-4 hours. Just remember that day and soon enough this one will be over.”

Mile 21… cold, wet and walking.

Mile 22… cold, wet and walking. At about 22.5, Kathy came thru again.. this time she would be right around mile 24.5 she was now a full 2 miles ahead of me. And moving along really well! She called out, “Am I gonna make 4:15?!”

We have this joke between us about “doing bad math”. At some point fatigue and the effort overcome the ability to think clearly about remaining distances, paces and time goals. Since I was walking at a much lower heart rate and had plenty of time to think, I knew where she was, but not how fast she was going. However, the 4:15 pacers were only a few hundred yards in front of her, so I said.. they’re right up there…go get ’em! Especially since I knew the 4:00 pacer(s) and 4:15 pacers were running ahead of schedule.

I didn’t even mind that Kathy hadn’t asked how I was doing. It was obvious without her having to ask. Besides, as long as one of us was having a good day, I was happy.

Mile 23… cold, wet, and very close to shivering. Uh oh… if I got any colder I might be in danger of not finishing at all. I told myself that I could always resort to grabbing a trash bag at one of the aid stations, so I wasn’t out of options.

Just keep moving.

Mile 24… cold, wet, and smiling. I saw my friend Laurie for the first time and she had a big smile on her face. She had just gone through the Girls On The Run water station where we both had a mutual friend, Robin. We cheered each other on, and then as I went through the water station Robin had some encouraging words for me as well.

Mile 25… cold, wet, and… oh shit.. am I really going to slip past 5 hours?!

Mile 25 to The Finish: Race-Limping

You’ve heard of race walking right? Well, after I looked at my GPS and saw my current pace and the remaining distance, I was indeed in danger of finishing in over 5 hours. Now.. how this could possibly matter at this point I’m not sure. But I really didn’t want to see a 5 on that finishing clock. I considered my options. I tried running a few steps and the ankle, which was now hurting pretty bad even while walking, immediately protested. On the other hand, it was a good way to get warm again.

I decided to pick up the walk pace and try to hold 12-13 minutes. But that was still pushing the time limit. So I ran with a limp a little bit more and discovered that if I kept trying, my ankle would loosen up.. just a little bit, and allow me to go a minute or so. For the next 1.5 miles, I alternated between walking and running, limping noticibly, until I knew I was safe to get to the finish line.

There were a couple other guys near me that were also doing a walk/run/limp combo.. the “marathon shuffle” as we describe it. We were all quite a sight, just struggling to get it over with.

Once I got back into the village at mile 26 I sucked it up and hobbled at a sorta run for the final .2 and into the finish chute.

4:55 something or other.

I saw Chris (brother in law… geez there are a lot of Chris’s in this story!) first, then my sister, wrapped in her finishers blanket. Closer to the finish line was Julienne, all smiles. I think she was just relieved to see me finish, because she had started to worry a bit. Since Kathy knew I was walking pretty far back, she knew it was going to take a while.

One added bonus to the finish was when my friend Daphne – who just happens to be the perpetrator of all this Biltmore Marathon madness (check out the iDaph Events website for all of her crazy wonderful events) came out of the scoring area to flag me down and congratulate me on toughing it out.

I was so relieved to be finished, and so sore and limping, that we didn’t even bother with the post-race beer, courtesy of Sierra Nevada. I hobbled my way over to the restrooms, put on some dry clothes (once my fingers would move), grabbed the bike and hobbled to the car.

Final Thoughts

So… this marathon didn’t go how I wanted it to but at the same time better than it might have. Considering the cold (multiple colds), the ongoing struggles with ankles and knees and maybe some shoe problems, and the weather, I’m just happy I managed to get to the finish line.

I’m going to do another blog entry that analyses the difference between Citizen Times and Biltmore, but ultimately it comes down to this: If I’m going to continue to sign up for the occasional marathon or long trail race, I’ve got to figure out how to prevent the injuries and take the training up to the right distances. I faked it once and if worked spectacularly. I faked it this time and it failed spectacularly. Chances are good faking it will fail far more often than succeed.

Next year I’m gonna beat that 4:28!