I found my performance at the Illinois Marathon to be unsatisfactory. I enjoyed terrific preparation, but suffered from poor execution. I physically recovered fairly quickly so I decided to do something unprecedented (for me) and run another marathon only five weeks later. This marathon would be different. It had to be. I had a plan. And I was going to stick to the plan come hell or high water.
Melissa and I drove up to Rockford, IL on Saturday. The Rockford Marathon was quite a bit smaller than the Illinois Marathon. There would be just a few hundred participants in the full marathon (as opposed to a few thousand), while several hundred more would run the half marathon. We battled heavy winds the entire trip. When we stepped out of the car at the packet pickup location I briefly forgot what month it was. In addition to the awful winds it was bitterly cold.
We stayed with Melissa’s sister, brother-in-law, and nephew on Saturday night. We had great fun catching up and playing with two-year-old Logan.
The next morning I awoke a little before 5 a.m. I immediately checked the temperature, which read 35˚. This was going to be a long morning. I crept downstairs to eat a Clif Bar, two cinnamon brown sugar pop tarts, and a banana. Normally before a race my stomach is very upset, but not this time. I felt perfectly calm. I felt no pressure. This was a good sign.
By the time we stepped outside I was pleasantly surprised to find very calm winds and the temperature didn’t feel nearly as cold as I anticipated. I was concerned that it might be too cold to wear shorts, but it wasn’t.
We arrived at the race right on schedule. After a quick trip to the porta-potty it was time to start.
I wanted to finish with a time faster than I ran at the Illinois Marathon, but that goal was really secondary. My primary goal for this race was to run negative splits. This is the term used by runners to refer to a race when the second half is run at a faster pace than the first half. Running negative splits is easier physically, but it’s much harder mentally. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to pace yourself correctly in the early part of the race. I’ve been running competitively for 15 years and I’ve only been able to run negative splits in races just a few times… but these were my fastest races.
My target pace would be 7:15 per mile with a goal finishing in 3:10:00. I wanted to start the race around 7:25 per mile. I positioned myself 5/8 of the way between the 6:00 per mile sign and the 8:00 per mile sign. Before I knew it we were off.
I wore a yellow shirt so Melissa could spot me along the course. Unfortunately, a few others must have had the same idea.
I started very easy. For the first few blocks people were moving past me like I was standing still. 1/2 mile into the race I began to worry. They can’t all be running too fast, can they? I felt like I was running way too slow. This can’t be right. The first few miles of the Illinois marathon felt easy to me, but they definitely didn’t feel slow. This felt both easy and slow. I breathed a sigh of relief as I passed the first mile marker in 7:24. It was exactly where I wanted to be.
The first part of the race absolutely flew by. I was concentrating on breathing as easily as possible and running as efficiently as possible to save my energy. Around mile six, content with my easy start, I decided to pick up the pace a bit to hopefully start running closer to 7:15 per mile. I left the group I had been running with, never to see them again. After mile five not a single person passed me the remainder of the race. I can’t begin to tell you what kind of a confidence booster that is. Incidentally, not a single person passed me in either of my previous two races. This streak can’t continue much longer.
I saw Melissa out on the course around mile 11. She was kind enough to take the arm warmers I no longer needed. It was turning out to be an absolutely gorgeous day. Neither too hot nor too cold, it was perfect running weather.
By the half way point I had made up all the time I lost in the early miles. I was exactly on my 7:15 pace.
Once the marathon runners split off from the half marathon runners I saw relatively few people. Most of the racers were in the half marathon. At several points in the last half of the marathon I would go minutes at a time without seeing another competitor.
I saw Melissa again at mile 14 after flying down a fairly steep hill. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Rockford as hilly, but it’s far hillier than Champaign-Urbana. To my pleasant surprise, despite very little hill training, I handled the rolling terrain with relative ease.
Nothing went even remotely wrong until mile 15 or so when I began to notice a blister between the first two toes on my left foot. I ignored it as best I could, but the pain became worse and worse. I began to dread every step. By mile 16 or 17 I was fairly certain it was bleeding. Everything else was going so well, I wouldn’t let this problem stop me. I ran through it and eventually blocked it out. After the race I discovered the very large blister had completely ripped off and my toes were quite raw. It will take a few days to heal, but I’m not worried.
I couldn’t believe how good I felt at this point in the race. Mile 16 & 18 were the two fastest miles I ran the entire race (mile 17 & 19 were good also, but they were slightly uphill). I kept going faster and faster.
A slight hiccup came just after mile 22 when the course went onto a multi-use path through the woods. I ran for nearly a mile without seeing a single course marker, volunteer, or competitor. I had no idea whether I was still on the course and it was beginning to really freak me out. Did I just run this well only to screw up now? Luckily I was still on the right path.
It was becoming harder and harder to maintain my pace. By mile 25 I cracked and could no longer hold my sub-7:15 per mile average. I still finished reasonably strong, but I definitely slowed down the last two miles.
I crossed the line in 3:09:05. It was a 13 minute personal record for me. It was a Boston marathon qualifying time (the Ragfields are going to Boston). It was a negative split. Actually, I don’t know my exact 1/2 marathon split so I’m not certain. It was only 3-5 seconds different either way (which is fairly remarkable if you think about it). I guess it would be better to describe it as even splits.
I noticed when I crossed the finish line my timing chip didn’t cause an audible beep. It had caused a beep at all the checkpoints, but not at the finish line. This caused me to worry. I had just run a Boston qualifying marathon time, but if something went wrong with the timing system it may not have counted. I tracked down a race volunteer who was able to check for me, and indeed the timing system did not register me when I crossed the line. Fortunately, they got it all straightened out and my time does appear correctly in the official results (actually, it took two tries to get it right… but they got it right). The race timers were very helpful in getting the matter resolved.
Interestingly, since the marathon was so small (249 finishers), I ended up in 15th place overall and 3rd in my 30-34 age group. That was certainly unexpected.
So that was the story my 2nd marathon this spring, my 4th road marathon, my 5th marathon, my 9th marathon or beyond. I ran faster than I’ve ever run for such a long distance. I did it at a very even pace (only 28 seconds difference between my fastest and slowest miles, compared to a difference of 3:03 at the Illinois Marathon). I felt better than I’ve ever felt in such a long race. And with any luck, I’ll recover faster (the jury’s still out on that one).
I’ll leave you with a brief comparison of my performances in these two spring marathons.
My aerobic threshold is around 174 beats per minute. In the Illinois Marathon my average heart rate was 174 at mile 10. In the Rockford Marathon my average heart rate didn’t hit 174 until mile 24. My legs hurt as bad at mile 15 in the Illinois Marathon as they did at mile 25 in the Rockford Marathon. I just can’t get over the stark contrast between these two races when I had roughly the same level of fitness for both. If this doesn’t convince you to run even-to-negative splits in a marathon, I don’t know what will.
Many thanks to Melissa for her awesome support and wonderful photos.