Capital City Marathon Race Report by Mark Stone

June 2014. The marathon is less a physical event than a spiritual encounter. In infinite wisdom, God built into us a 32-km racing limit, a limit imposed by inadequate sources of the marathoner's prime racing fuel -- carbohydrates. But we, in our human wisdom, decreed that the standard marathon be raced over 42 km. So it is in that physical no-man's-land, which begins after the 32-km mark, that the irresistible appeal of the marathon lies.
Dr. Timothy Noakes, in the Lore of Running

Mile 18

Let me start by talking about Mile 18. By Tim Noakes' narrative, it is just beyond the 18th mile that we reach the climax of a story that we hope will have positive resolution at mile 26.2. I've now run three marathons. To me, mile 18 is the most revealing.

The 2012 Seattle Marathon was my first, and I reached mile 18 in 3 hours flat. But by that time I was already desperate. My left hamstring had cramped at mile 14, and would not relinquish until mile 22. By then I was on the edge of hypothermia from a combination of damp, cold air and sheer fatigue. I finished in 4 hours, 50 minutes, meaning it took me almost 2 hours to finish the last 8 miles.

For the Winthrop Marathon in 2013 I was better prepared, both mentally and physically. I hit mile 18 in 3 hours and 5 minutes, and felt in control rather than desperate. But I had benefited from 1500 feet of elevation drop to that point, as well as running in the cool shade of Okanogan National Forest. What lay before me was 8 miles of unrelenting sun, with temperatures rising to 80, across elevation-neutral terrain of rolling hills. I finished in 4 hours, 54 minutes, requiring the same time as Seattle to traverse the last 8 miles.

Which brings me to the present, and the Capital City Marathon in Olympia Washington. No sub-40 degree temperatures like Seattle. No 70+ degree temperatures like Winthrop. And no eager start foolishly burning fuel I would need down the stretch. I crossed mile 18 in 3 hours 6 minutes and 30 seconds, my slowest start to date. With a PR finish time of 4 hours 46 minutes and 17 seconds, that means I completed those final 8.2 miles almost 10 minutes faster my previous two marathons.

My fastest mile? Mile 14, at 9:40. My second fastest mile? Mile 18, at 9:46. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But this was a vastly better pacing effort on my part than either of my previous marathon efforts.

The Course

Olympia sits at the very southern end of the Puget Sound, and the Olympia waterfront is built along Budd Inlet. The course wanders along or close to the eastern shore of Budd Inlet before climbing inland to follow the ridge line back into town. There's a big dip just as you come back into Olympia, and then a commensurate climb that stretches through miles 22 and 23 before you turn towards the capitol building for a flat mile 24 and then a gentle downhill to the finish line. The long out and back along Budd Inlet crosses a number of small streams tumbling towards the inlet, and these create the defining terrain of the race. While not a hilly course overall -- the highest point on the course is only about 200 feet above the lowest point -- there are a half dozen or so big dips where the course drops 75-100 feet to cross one of these stream beds and then quickly climbs back up the other side. These steep descents and ascents, repeated over and over, make the course more challenging than your typical "flat" course.

Part of the appeal of the Capital City Marathon is the weather. Mid-May in Olympia is guaranteed to be just about perfect. This year the start time temperature was 50, the finish line temperature was about 65, most of the race was sunny, and just when the sun was threatening to yield real heat the clouds rolled in.

And I love how Olympia blends the elements of an urban road race with the intimacy of a smaller venue. Residents of Olympia really do come out in numbers to cheer the runners on, from the folks blasting "Staying Alive" out of the back of their SUV to the gal holding up the "Pain now, beer later" sign, to the couple offering Fireball on the rocks at about mile 23. Not a huge crowd, but a fun and enthusiastic crowd. The marathon only has about 300 runners, so when you cross the finish line the announcer has time to call out your name, number, and the town you're from. That's a refreshing change from a big race where you get quickly herded through, handed your medal, and then hastily shunted off to the side to make way for other runners.

Finally a note on history. Olympia is not an obvious place to host a 30+ year old marathon, but there's a story. Local resident Angela French was a promising marathon runner who had Olympic aspirations when it was announced that the 1984 Los Angeles Games would be the first to have a Women's Marathon. One question: where to hold the Olympic Trials to determine who would represent the U.S. in that first Women's Marathon? In part to support French, Olympia submitted and won a bid to be the host city for that first Olympic Women's Marathon Trial, and so the Capital City Marathon was born. This year, the 30th anniversary of the Los Angeles Games, Ms. French was there at the starting line to tell her story and call the start of the race.

The Game Plan

In an effort to avoid starting too fast, and to spread my effort more evenly over the whole race, I opted for a modified Galloway “run - walk” approach. The plan was:

  • Run the first 3 miles at a 10:30 pace;
  • Walk 2 minutes;
  • Run 2 miles at 9:45 pace;
  • Walk 2 minutes;
  • Repeat the previous two steps for as long as I could sustain it;
  • Switch to 1 mile run, 2 minute walk if necessary;
  • Reduce running pace if necessary.

My primary goal was not a time goal. My primary goal was to run a controlled race where I could finish feeling I had made a complete effort but where I had not suffered to the point of distress. Neither of my previous two marathons met that goal. In terms of pace, if the 9:45 run, 2 minute walk was sustainable start to finish, I would end up with a time of 4 hours 30 minutes. However, I was completely prepared to back off that pace depending on how I felt.

I'll note this was also my first race wearing a GPS watch, and none of this careful planning would have been possible to execute without a good watch to track my progress.

Finally, fuel and fluids: in a reversal of my previous approaches, I planned to hit every aid station for water and/or energy drink. It would help me stay hydrated, and help me keep my pace from creeping up. I also wore my fuel belt with a 10 ounce bottle of water and a 10 ounce bottle of Gatorade. For mile 10, 15, and 20 I had three packets wrapped up with a mix of banana chips, candy corn, almonds, and chocolate covered espresso beans. This part of my plan I was completely satisfied with. For a future race in similar temperature conditions I wouldn't change a thing.

The Race

Holding back from a fast start is so hard. The crowd is there, all the runners are together, and your energy is at a peak from the combination of training and taper. My efforts to hold back were more successful this time, and I found I actually liked the run-walk rhythm.

Through the first 10 miles I found myself catching up to and then dropping back from the 4:30 pace runner as I switched from run to walk. We chatted quite a bit through this stretch. He's a hard core ultra runner out for the day combining a bit of volunteering with what is for him an easy training run. We compared notes on local routes and races, and he really gave me confidence that I could aspire to an ultra.

After mile 10 we fell out of synch, and I could see him up ahead for awhile but I didn't catch up to him again. The next 6 miles were the hardest mentally. At this point you've left Olympia behind and you're out in the countryside. The landscape is beautiful, but the crowds are gone. And the runners are all spread out, so there were long stretches with no other runner nearby. This is also the stretch in which most of those steep “dips” occur. While I like to let the throttle out on the downhills and give my long legs a chance to stretch, by the time I hit mile 16 I could tell that the pounding on the downhills was beginning to take a toll.

Then along came Breezy (yes, that's what she said her name was). Purple spandex, pony tail flying, she passed me and said, "Tag, you're it!" Chicked again. About a half mile later I caught up to her. "I've been chasing you for miles," she said. Turns out this was her first marathon, and she was clearly having the time of her life. And she certainly lifted my spirits too. Even as she left me behind.

My 2 mile run, 2 minute walk pattern held up well until mile 19. At that point my legs were starting to feel heavy, and my glutes were burning from the pounding on those steep downhills. My pace had begun to slow, but not by much. Through the early miles I was maintaining 10:17 per mile, which is really a tad faster than I intended. By mile 19 I had slowed to 10:35, a little off where I hoped to be but still in line with the plan. Easing up to save something for the end seemed prudent.

About this time I caught up with Jeff. Built like a fire hydrant, and pigeon-toed giving him the look of a duck waddling when he ran, he was doggedly slapping out strides, but clearly struggling. He too was a first time marathon runner, and we ran together for a bit. I told him he should feel proud, because he was absolutely going to finish even if he had to walk the last miles to the finish line. That really did cheer him up.

We were now entering mile 23, and the start of the long, last hill. At this point many more runners were walking than actually running. I continued shuffling forward at a slow jog, all thought of pace and run-walk rhythm now gone. I would jog as much as I could, and walk the rest. Somewhere in my tunnel vision view of the world I was dimly aware that I had once again hit "the Wall", the point at which my body was depleted of carbohydrate reserves on which to draw. My previous journeys into this realm had left me defeated both mentally and physically, essentially unable to run. This time around I knew I was struggling, but I wasn't suffering. I kept jogging.

Jeff fell behind. I passed a few more runners. Then that blaze of purple; I caught up to and passed Breezy. "Tag, you're it" I called as I went by. She looked up and managed to turn a grimace into a smile, nodding in my direction. Then it was my turn to walk. Breezy passed me back, now jogging herself. I would not catch up to her again. Then Jeff pulled up even with me again. "How much more of this hill is there?" he asked, a note of desperation in his voice. I did him the kindest favor I could think of. I lied. "Oh, we're just about halfway," I said. It looked to me like we'd covered about a half mile of the 2 mile hill, but he didn't need to know that. We passed each other back and forth, depending on which of us was walking or jogging.

I walked the last 200 yards or so up that hill, reaching the "Mile 24" sign. Though the course flattened out, I was having a tough time pushing myself to start running again. Then the 4:45 pace runner passed me, the first pace runner I'd seen since Mile 10. The pacer passed Jeff just ahead of me, and that seemed to rouse him. He ran side by side with the pace runner, the pacer talking him through it, the rest of the way.

It was all the motivation I needed too. I had hit the Wall. But for the first time in a marathon, I had pushed through it. And I could run again. More slowly to be sure, but I kept Jeff and the pace runner in sight. I felt empty, spent, but not in distress. Somehow the ability to keep running was still there. The flat course turned to a gradual downhill, the road widened, and the crowd grew. I could see the finish line as we passed the park in front of the capitol building. I heard the announcer calling out my name, and I saw and then heard my wife and son cheering for me. With a smile that grew with each stride, I crossed the finish line.

Now What?

The Capital City Marathon taught me a lot. I learned that I can run a controlled marathon, start to finish. I learned I could encounter the Wall and still abide. But I also learned that, given my current approach to training and running, I will hit the Wall. And I have to think about that.

I the past 15 months I have set PRs at every distance I race: 10K, half marathon, and marathon. To do that I've run almost 2000 training miles; it isn't easy getting older and faster. But unless I change something fundamental, I'm not going to improve much further in the marathon. The answer may be something like HRM training; that's one path I'll investigate. The answer may be to run farther, not faster; that's another path I'll investigate. Gorges Waterfall 50K in 2015 is very tempting as a first ultra.

Yet surely there's a next marathon somewhere in my future. Because somewhere after the 32-km mark the irresistible appeal of the marathon still calls.

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