A few weeks ago, the Crazy Legs gathered for a post Blue Ridge Relay get-together. Coach Tino tells me that I can run sub-3 hours at the upcoming Ridge To Bridge Marathon if I follow his advice.
What do I have to lose? I haven’t run under 3 hours since the Boston Marathon in 2008, when I was in really good shape. Last year at R2B, I ran 3:03:18. So I was all ears. After all, I kind of consider myself “a sub 3 hour guy”; but c’mon, it’s about time I actually went sub-3 again!
My strategy for a fast marathon has always been to get all of the fast running done early, and then have a planned slowdown at the end, as I fatigue. Tino tells me to change it up. To go nice and smooth for the first 6 miles, along the “Ridge” of Ridge To Bridge. And then, to trust that the big downhill section of the race (9 miles) will put me in position to “race” the last 11+ miles.
So I made a plan. Seven minutes per mile pace for 6 miles; then 6:40 per mile for 9 miles; then 7 minutes per mile again, for the last 11 miles. This would put my finish at around 3:00:30. Surely I can make up 30 seconds somewhere, right??
Fast forward to the week before the race. I drag myself out of the car to do a run I don’t want to do at McMullen. Crazy Legger Dan H. is there and we run together. The conversation turns to having tired legs, and he says that he took an Epsom salt bath and his legs were rejuvenated.
What do I have to lose? So I soaked in an Epsom salt bath. Maybe it made my legs feel fresher, I dunno. It’s worth a shot. And I tapered. I tapered a lot. I ran a total of only 99 miles in the 3 full weeks prior to the R2B week; and then I ran hardly at all during race week. I have a plan, so why worry??
And then a few days before the race, I see some chatter on the Facebook. Tino picks Justin K. to beat me to the finish at R2B. Fine. I go and prepare a second Epsom salt bath and soak for awhile. I have my motivation now.
Before I knew it, it was race morning. We drove to the start; the temperature was in the low 30’s, expected to be in the 50’s at the finish line. I chose the old TrySports short-sleeved jersey that I wore at R2B last year, and some socks to use as makeshift gloves for the first few miles. Also I wore longer than normal shorts, calf sleeves for compression, and my Brooks ST-5 racing shoes. I was somewhat on the fence about whether to wear them, or my trusty Saucony Ride daily training shoes. My longest previous run in the ST-5 was a successful Charleston 15 Miler. They turned out to serve me very well on this day, too.
Soon after the start, I found myself running with Bobby A., who runs marathons and ultra marathons seemingly every other week. Actually, he ran the Medoc trail marathon last week, so I didn’t expect him to run sub-3 on this day; but he was keeping a good pace at the start. I also was trailing a Charlotte area runner named Courtney E. who it seems has vastly improved this year. There were so many Charlotte area runners at Ridge To Bridge; the word has gotten out about this race!
The first few miles took us through several Christmas tree farms, and along a ridge with open views of nearby Grandfather Mountain and other high ridges. It was a perfect clear day for a run; absolutely stunning. We ran almost to the Blue Ridge Parkway, then executed a 180 degree turn. A couple miles later, we took a left onto the downhill portion of the race. My goal for the first 6 miles was to run 42 minutes; my actual time was about 42:05, I believe.
Nine miles downhill awaited, with a couple of significant climbs thrown in along the way. An unpaved forest service road with blind turns, but non-existent traffic. I found that my prescribed 6:40 pace for this section was more difficult than I expected. By mile 11, I was nearly a minute off my mark. I knew that it was “now or never”; get back on my plan, or resign myself to a 3-hour-plus finish time. I threw in a mile at nearly 6 minute pace; it helped that it was probably the steepest downhill of the race. I was back where I needed to be….
And then Justin and Paul G. (Gonzo) rolled up on me. My Crazy Legs buddies appeared out of nowhere. Justin asked how I felt. I answered that I didn’t know. He correctly pointed out that it would be a whole new race when we reached the bottom of the hill. And then Gonzo took off ahead of us! I decided to try to keep hitting my marks. Justin and I ran together for a few minutes. Soon I realized that I would have to stop and pee (again!) before this race was over. I picked the 14 mile mark. Justin flew by me and gave chase to Gonzo and I was on my own.
Even so, when we hit the 15 mile mark at the bottom of the mountain, my watch said 1:41:something. My goal was to be at 1:42:00. Goal achieved: “Give yourself a chance during those last 11 miles”. Now could I do it? All I had to do was run 7 minutes per mile….
I felt good. The first couple flat miles were under 7. I had a few seconds in the bank now. Only a little more than an hour to go. “You can do anything for an hour, right?”
Mile 20 came and went. I didn’t hit the wall…. yet. But my pace was slowing. The miles were clocking in at 7:05…. then 7:10….
Again, it was “now or never”. My margin for error was just about gone. My thoughts turned to last year’s Ridge To Bridge, when my legs fell apart during this part of the race, and I dragged myself to the finish a few minutes over 3 hours. “Just give yourself a chance to do something good in those last couple miles.”
So I picked up the pace, which seemed wholly illogical at that point. Soon I caught up to Gonzo. Gonzo calls me “Silent Stan”, because when I pass him in any race I never say a word. “I knew it was you! Silent Stan! Go get Justin.” I told Gonzo to come with me; he said he couldn’t today.
Past mile 23; only a 5K left to go! I thought I had a chance now. If I could just stay consistent, I would get that sub-3. As I passed mile 24, I could see that I was gaining on Justin in the distance.
I went for it. I “went to the well”, and this time there was something there. I felt like I was rolling; only the equivalent of a few laps around a track…..9,8,7,6 laps to go….
Somewhere past mile 25 I was on Justin’s shoulder; he said “come on Stan!” I pulled up and said “come on, I think we can get it”. I’m pretty sure he knew I meant sub-3. I was also pretty sure he was hurting more than me.
Brown Mountain Beach Resort came into view, on the banks of Wilson Creek. The finish! Jinnie’s parents and my dog Roxy cheered as I made a right into the resort. We were directed around a huge loop before the finish. Could the course actually be 26.3 miles?? Did I really have this in the bag?? Go, go, go! Finally I saw the mile 26 sign and knew that I was safe. I crossed in 2:59:15. Justin was just a few seconds behind. Gonzo had hung on as well, and got a huge 15 minute PR with his own sub-3 hour marathon finish.
What a day for the Crazy Legs crew. Scott K. was the best of the group, running a personal best 2:51, only 2 weeks after he ran the Chicago Marathon. Justin, Gonzo, and I worked together to get that sub-3. Soon Coach Tino soared through the finish with his own huge marathon PR. Theoden J. was sporting his Crazy Legs singlet and achieved a big personal best. Smitty was allegedly “running easy” today, but glided through with a strong 3:17. Dan H. was close behind; but where was my wife?
Jinnie had decided on Sunday that she would run Ridge To Bridge. On basically no training. Good idea! At the finish line, Tino told me that she was looking strong and smiling at mile 15. I thought that in a best-case scenario, she might come in around 3:30; I hustled up to the resort entrance to wait on her. And there she was, way ahead of schedule, smiling and almost crying happy tears as she flew toward the finish. Shocking!
She ran 3:26:19, a TWENTY-ONE minute improvement over her only previous road marathon. Incredible. She qualified for the Boston Marathon with nearly 9 minutes to spare…..
Right behind her was Crazy Legger John S.; and then Emily H. came through with her own hard-earned Boston qualifying finish and personal best. What a day!
And there was much rejoicing. And soaking in Wilson Creek. And eating. I was a little disappointed to finish 11th overall and still miss out on an award; 4th in my age group! Jinnie scored a nice pottery award for her age group victory. (It turns out that I was the 10th male finisher, and she was the 10th female finisher.)
We finally made our farewells to our friends and decided to head up to the Parkway. We did some autumn leaf observing, did a short hike, and ended up at Mellow Mushroom in Blowing Rock.
Now, that was a good day.