Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ridge to Bridge Marathon

The short version (i.e. warning - long post follows):

3:01:29 official chip time, 6:56 per mile pace (old best – 3:09:53 New York 2010)

1:30:00 first half, 1:31:29 second half (never run first half and second within 5 minutes)

2:16:53 at 20 miles, 44:36 for last 10K (never broken 48 for last 6.2 in previous 4, a few were 1 hr+)

11th overall, 2nd in 30-34 male age group (never won an age group award in a marathon)

Weather was close to perfect, maybe a little humid; low 50s at start, overcast, no rain; warmed up to 60s toward end

Course dropped about 2200 feet from miles 6 to 15, then another 500 or so to the end.  There were a few climbs, and few straight sections so my GPS measured this out at 26.55, but overall this was a fast course*

*assuming you don’t hate hills, and/or run like a fool and go out too fast

I told Megan before the race I'd get a tattoo if I broke 3; I think she is glad I just ended up with this ceramic mug


Thanks go out to Megan, first and foremost for indulging this time consuming and mind altering hobby of mine, putting up with my bizarre diet, and early bedtimes and wakeups.

My entourage and I

Thanks to the Wednesday UNC track group and weekend training partners – Ronnie W, Lew H, Jim C, Bart, Ken Becker (this year’s Ridge to Bridge master champ – 2:55!), and Doug H.

Thanks to Tom and Emily Maunz for the ride from the hotel to the start.

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy for staying off shore and staying away from Jonas Ridge.

My Goal

Going in, my goal was to break 3:05, or run as close to 6:55-7:00 as possible to build up some time in the bank.

It takes a certain level of type-A personality to get that close to 3 hours or under… ESPN sportswriter had an entertaining piece on the Boston Marathon several years ago:  “Now we're into the fourth-tier: average guys in superb shape, former college runners and females who aren't quite world-class. Every runner over the next 10 minutes looks serious because they've been training for the past few months to break three hours. All of them have a business-like, "Don't make eye contact with me" look going. These are the guys in college that A) hit on your girlfriend when you were away for the weekend, B) rowed crew, and C) drove Miatas.”

Former college rowers who drove Miatas and hit on your girlfriend when you weren't around

 I can’t say I fit any of these three traits, but it sure is fun to beat some of these guys.  When Paul Ryan said he ran a “two fifty-something” (and it turned out he ran around a 4-flat), he took a lot of grief on the net... partly because guys/gals who are under-3 (or close) are pretty freaking obsessed with running.  

I have no problem at all being the ‘fourth-tier”… for the record.  I’d also throw in this general pool of 2:50-3:05 marathoners:  really fast women who can win smaller marathons, faster masters runners who either started running later in life or used to be in the “third-tier” (i.e. former really fast young guys who could win smaller races, running shoe store owners).  

Note:  a race like Ridge to Bridge doesn’t get the "tiers one or two" (Kenyans/Ethiopians with toothpick legs who weigh under 120 pounds, really fast white guys who are sponsored by off-brand running shoe companies).  That's why I finished 11th.  After about 15 miles I was pretty much on my own in this one, by 20 there was no one in sight.

How did I drop that much time between marathons?

Through this cycle, I learned and put into practice 3 important things

1) Mileage in training matters
2) Nutrition during training and on race day matters
3) Knowing your limit matters

This will be part of a series of blog posts for a later time that any “running nerds”, first-time marathoners or people who has struggled with ‘hitting the wall’ may want to read.  I’m sure the 10 of you who read this can’t wait!

Breaking down the race

Any marathon can be / should be broken up into segments in your head.  For me, there are 4 separate runs within the 26.2.

The first 6 miles:  the warmup
Miles 6 to 16:  the second wind
Miles 16 to 20:  just before the pain
Miles 20 to 26.2:  the close

First 6 miles:  Warmup; here is what I told myself “get in a rhythm, check your splits carefully, do not go out too fast.”  In this race, this section was up above 3800 feet, on asphalt, and had a few rolling hills.  When I started sucking wind just a little bit going up one of the hills to stay with a pack, I knew I was going too fast and I slowed down.  Wise move.  All of my mile splits here were 6:51 to 7:04, or right on target.  

Miles 6 to 16:  Second Wind; these are usually the miles of a marathon where, if trained adequately, I feel the absolute best.  Add the fact this is where we had a 2200 foot drop, and was a particularly scenic part of the course, running under a canopy of colorful fall leaves, this section was a recipe for running way too fast and bonking early.  I settled in with another guy who was hoping to break 3.  I decided if he took off, I’d let him go, but thankfully we had some conversation and that kept me distracted from the fact I was racing.  I’ve never made small talk much during a race, but when running 3+ hours, you need to find ways to distract yourself at some point otherwise you end up over thinking everything about the run while running. My goal here was just to run 10 seconds a mile faster than my target 7:00.  I mostly stuck to that, hitting most all miles here in 6:45-6:55 (fastest was 6:37), and they felt EASY.  Scarily easy.

The elevation profile almost seems to suggest you’re running down a cliff, but honestly I found some parts of Turkey Creek to be steeper than anything here.  The difference is these were very long stretches of decline, more like the Umstead corkscrew from Cedar Ridge down to Reedy Creek, but instead that kept going for about 2-3 miles on end.  Umstead was the perfect training ground for this race.

A surprisingly good marathon action shot; side views are always best because they obscure my still terrible running form

Miles 16 to 20:   Just before the pain; it is easy to do something stupid here.  In New York, going up First Avenue, I put in a surge with 200,000 people screaming for me.  By mile 20 that day I was beginning my steady decline.  Admittedly, after coming down the hill, I was starting to border on ‘stupid’, dropping back to back 6:38 miles.  I had pulled away from my cam padre from the downhill portion, let one guy pass me and go ahead, but passed three others.  I hit mile 20 feeling a little stiff, but still felt like I had a lot in the tank for a final push.  I took a salt pill at 20 and went on feeling confident but cautious.

Miles 20 to End:   The close; some call this “The Wall”, and I’ve hit some form of that in every prior marathon.  I refused to call it that this time.  My 20th mile was 6:45, one of my faster for the day.  After that, this was the slowest part of the race, but my splits were more in the 7:00-7:20 range, as opposed to 8:00s.  I had a WTF moment of abject horror near mile 22 when a part of the course was curiously marked and I spent about 20 seconds trying to figure out which road to take (NO ONE was around, and I was in the middle of freaking NOWHERE).  When in doubt, go straight, which I did and within a few yards I saw the Mile 22 marker.  That was scary.  Also scary was that my Achilles started to hurt a bit around mile 21.  Had this not been the case, I probably would have pushed harder to get a sub-3, but my main goal was sub-3:05.  I didn’t want to hurt myself going balls out.  This was a good call.  I can barely walk up stairs today.

I finally hit civilization and heard Ken Becker and Megan cheering for me around mile 25.5.  The last part was a little cruel, as they had us run around a gravel parking lot to get the full 26.2.  At this point, I knew I’d be safely at around 3:01.  I crushed my old best, and finally had a good end-to-end marathon. 

Elevation and splits

Post race I didn’t feel awful or delirious.  I enjoyed the hamburgers and ice cream, and we sat out on the patio by the river than ran along the last 8 miles of the course.  It was a great day for me.  Today my Achilles still hurts and I’m sore as hell, but I expected that after all the downhill.

The long winding road to Boston qualifying

I’ve never run a good marathon before.  New York was my closest when I crossed the finish line thinking I had qualified for Boston by breaking my goal time of 3:10.  I ran well that day, but not great.  I went out in about 1:32 and came back in 1:38, with the entire 6 minute difference in the last 6 miles.  When you end a race that poorly, it is hard to feel awesome about it. 

The real insult came later when they changed the Boston application process and limited the spots to the fastest qualifiers within each age group.  After the fact, and after I had a chance to run another race, they lowered the qualifying time for Under 35 males to under 3:08-forty something.  I was nudged out by just over a minute.  That was frustrating, because had I known I needed to break 3:09, maybe I would have found a way to do it in New York, but then I didn’t even have a chance.  I didn’t run a marathon in 2011, as I needed a break from the idea of Boston qualifying.  I focused on shorter races instead.

Toward the end of last year, I decided to give it another shot.  I signed up for Tobacco Road, a local race in March on a flat course that I knew I’d be familiar with.  Just after Christmas, I developed a plantar fascia strain.  By February, I had also developed tendinitis in my knee cross training too hard.  I skipped the race, and didn’t get back in a solid running routine until early May. 

I searched for races on fast courses in the fall, and stumbled across this one called Ridge to Bridge that had the 2nd highest percentage of Boston qualifiers of any race in the country.  Best of all, it was here in NC (near Morganton), and was not completely on the asphalt, which made me a feel a little more comfortable with the various foot injuries I’ve had.  It seemed like the perfect race to get the 800 pound gorilla off my back (Boston qualifying).  I signed up within minutes of it opening, which was good since it filled up in under 20 minutes.  I was in for October 27.  From that point on, this was my single focus race with an end goal of breaking the new qualifying time of 3:05. 

When I crossed the line in 3:01-something, strangely enough, I wasn’t really thinking about Boston.  In fact, through most of my training, I hardly thought about Boston.  I shut it out completely.  I just wanted to run fast.  The marathon was a weak link compared to my times in shorter events.  Also, the new application process doesn’t guarantee me entry with a 3:01, if enough people qualify by breaking their age group cut-off by 5 minutes or more, then I’ll get edged out again.  This seems unlikely, but possible.  I won’t get into the ‘fairness’ issue here, but I’ll say that this system does give an advantage to the slower age-ground cut-offs.  It’s a bit easier to trim 5 minutes off of a 4 hour marathon than a 3 hour marathon, but anyways… so Boston isn’t a reality yet for me until I get my application accepted, plane ticket booked, and I toe the starting line.  That won’t happen until April 2014 so it’s the back of my mind until late next summer when applications open.

What’s Next:

2009 my goal was just to train for and run a marathon.  Check.
2010 my goal was to break 18 in a 5K again and lower my 10K best.  Check.
2011 my goal was to improve my half marathon best by a few minutes.  Check
2012 my goal was a legit Boston qualifier.  Check (for now…)

2013?  Focus on some 'key' local trail type races (Uwharrie, Umstead), maybe tackle an over-marathon distance race (nothing too crazy).  Not sure I'm going to chase sub-3, at least not in the spring.  Just not sure I want it that bad yet.  Good to stay hungry...  


  1. WOW. Amazing that you were able to run sub-7 after coming down the mountain. I wasn't able to do that in the HALF, my legs were shredded. Couldn't imagine doing another 10 miles after that, which is why I dropped out this race.
    Obviously your training paid off well. Congrats! Great report.

  2. Congratulations on a great race! That is certainly a helluva hill and you seem to have managed it perfectly. I'm looking forward to your upcoming posts about the 3 important practices that helped you with this race, because even though I'm slow as molasses, I am still a running nerd.

  3. Anthony - thanks. In all fairness, holding a good pace after SCREAMING down that hill at 6-flat pace would be much tougher. My race was a long grind, but I can imagine the half being acutely painful.

    Scott - worry not, there will be plenty of material to come for the running nerds... I'll need an outlet while I am on hiatus.