Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Akron Marathon Race Report

I went into the Akron Road Runner Marathon with high hopes. I had more time to recover prior to this race than any other this year since Boston in April. I was averaging less than a month between marathons and ultras since then, but I had 7 weeks after the Burning River 100 miler to get ready for Akron. I felt like my body had recovered well, and I got some good training done. I knew I had not been able to do as many long runs and tempo run as I would have liked, but that's knit-picking...I felt good overall.

I had not run Akron before, and I did not know much about the course except that there are hills. I made it a point of asking everyone who had run both Cleveland and Akron how much slower their times were in Akron. The answers ranged from 2 to 7 minutes. Tossing the outliers left me with a rough 4 minutes slower. In retrospect, what happened next was more the result of optimism than mathematics, but I calculated that I could go for a 2:55:30 finish in Akron. Now, I ran Cleveland in 2:56:55, and adding 3 minutes for the tougher Akron course, should have yielded a 3:00 time. BUT...I though I was so much improved since the end of May that I could not only make up that three minutes, but take another minute and a half or so off. I think I chose that target because the course record for Grand Masters is 2:56:34, set by Tony Harbert last year. I knew Tony was running the course again this year, so I thought I had better try to beat his time by at least a minute.

The morning of the race, I picked up my friend Coach Glen at 5:15 AM, and made it to Akron with about an hour to warm up and get ready for the race. I met up with the super-fast SERC women Barb, Laura, Nicole, and Elizabeth, and we all chatted about the race while we warmed-up and stretched. I did some slow running, and some stride-outs, but could not seem to get loose at all. When I heard the 5 minute warning over the PA. I made my way to the start. I wished good luck to Kurt M., Rich O., Lloyd T., Vince R., and a few other familiar faces, then found a spot in front of the 3:00 hour pace group.

As I awaited the start, I continued to try to get loose. It just wasn't happening. The horn sounded and we began running. Not far from the start, I encountered Nicole, and we ran together for a while. I was hoping that having someone to talk to might help me settle in and find my stride, but no such thing happened. I was very conscious of being uncomfortable and struggling, even though we were holding a reasonable pace, averaging 6:18 and 6:21 for miles 1 and 2. Faster than my goal pace of 6:42, but not unexpected with the adrenaline of the start, and the fact that the major hills were later in the race. Somewhere around 3 miles or so, Nicole and I got separated, and I did not see her again. She went on take first place among the women in the half-marathon. I told you about those fast SERC women.

Judging by my times for miles 3 through 13, you'd think I was in a nice groove for the first half of the race. I was slightly under my target pace, averaging 6:38 for that stretch. The numbers don't tell enough of the story. I was forcing the pace, trying to shake off whatever funk I was in. I was convinced that it was in my head, and if I just pushed the pace to where I needed to be, I would settle in. In one regard this worked, that is, I did maintain the pace, but at a cost that I wouldn't understand until much later. My breathing was uneven, and I even felt slightly dizzy at times. Not unheard of but usually reserved for much later in the race. The second half was looming and I was not feeling good about it.

In miles 14 through 17, I stated to slow noticeably, averaged 6:49 pace. It did not help that the first few miles of this section were on the towpath, which is made of a soft, crushed limestone surface, not the ideal surface for running fast. I was relieved to get off of the towpath surface, but unfortunately that led into the hills.
As you can see on the elevation profile above, miles 18 through 24 are basically uphill. I averaged 6:54 through this part of the course, and I was struggling to hold on to that pace. The hills seemed endless. I was losing speed on my turn-over and shrinking my stride. No doubt I was paying for my efforts to push an uncomfortable pace through the first half of the race. By the time I got to the top of Heart Rate Hill, I was well aware that I had fallen too far off the pace. I tried to regain my stride as we went through the Stan Hywet grounds, but the hills continued for another couple of miles.

Finally at mile 24, we turned onto Market Street and headed back into town on a downhill grade. I ran the next two miles in 6:40 and 6:55 respectively, not fast enough to make up for all the lost time through the hills. Just before the 40k marker, the first of a series of calf cramps hit. I stopped and stretched until it ended, then started running again, but from that point on, if I tried to run any faster than about a 7:00 pace, my calf would immediately cramp. My choices were to slow down enough to eliminate the cramps, or pick up the pace and stop every hundred yards for a cramp. I chose C. Try to hold a reasonable pace, run through the milder cramps, stop and stretch when a bad one hit.

It was at this point that I saw Tony Harbert for the first time since the start. He passed me at a pace I thought I might be able to hold. I started to pick it up reel him in, but almost immediately a cramp grabbed my calf and I had to stop and stretch it out. Not to much farther, Steve H. was waiting for me, cheering me on and running beside me for a while. I was completely frustrated that I could not pick up the pace. I don't remember much of what I said, but thanks for being there and listening, Steve.

The finish couldn't come soon enough, and when I finally entered Canal Park, I was surprised to see the stands full of people. I saw the finish line and the clock said 2:58:15. By the time I crossed the field to the finish, it was 2:58:29. As soon as I crossed, I heard Sue calling my name. She was in the stands near not too far away, but they would not let her on the field. I walked over and gave her a kiss. Then, I saw Tony with a couple of guys helping him stay on his feet. I went over to see if he was alright, and he immediately recognized me. We hugged, and I told him he ran one hell of a race. He is one very tough man. He ran that last mile with everything he had.

I hung out in the dugout for a while, got a light massage, some food and drink, then left to go find Sue. We saw some of the other SERC runners finish, including Barb B. and Rich O., who both came in under 3:30. We hung out with the SERC crew for a while, then headed home where I had my first beer in more than a week.

This was the most frustrating marathon I have run. I never felt like my running was smooth. I never settled into a groove. I felt a step slow, and like I was not getting enough oxygen. On the positive side, I struggled through it all and managed a 2:58 on a hilly course. My task now: dive into the research and try to find the answer to this cramping problem. I loaded up with potassium, magnesium, and calcium for days before the race. I took Endurolytes and S-caps regularly throughout the race. I was very careful to stay hydrated. None of that prevented the cramps. I am convinced it has nothing little or maybe nothing at all to do with loss of salts, or minerals, maybe not even hydration.


allanjel said...

Very impressive! Even on a day when it is rough from the get-go you are still able to maintain and stay sub-3:00 and on a difficult course no less. Speaks tons for your physical and mental training. It's going to take a hell of a lot to slow you down!!

Ernesto said...

Great report Frank. Strong run despite the problems. I'll be interested in the insights you gain as to the causes of the cramps. Interesting that it was so tough with such a good stretch of rest, etc. Maybe you just got so used to running hard races right on top of each other that rest confused your legs!

Wyatt Hornsby said...

Frank: Quit depriving us and please post a Grand Canyon R2R2R report complete with photos!


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