A cyclist running a marathon
Tia has been a runner for a lot longer than I’ve known her. Having trained for, but robbed of the chance to complete by injury, a marathon in the years before her time living in the UK, and me having never run more than about 5k in my own time, it’s safe to say she brought the same in terms of running experience as I did in terms of cycling.
As cycling became a part of our lives, we also made sure to incorporate running as well, completing a couple of 10k races in London as well as the Sloppy Cuckoo half marathon in Philadelphia on a visit while we were still living in London. However, it never took the amount of time up as our cycling exploits.
After completing the Rome marathon in March 2015 in a respectable 4 hours and 4 minutes, Tia found herself in a bet with our friend Dave (aka House), a fellow runner, cyclist, Ultimate player - not in that order. Having also missed out on the 4 hour mark by a narrow margin, Dave and Tia shook on a wager which would be won by whoever first ran an official marathon in less than 4 hours.
A year or so passed, and with adventure in Asia and moving to the US occupying our energy, running marathons was out of our thoughts.That is until late summer last year when Tia heard from Dave - he’d applied for a ballot place in the London Marathon. Unsurprisingly, Tia was immediately searching the US for a marathon in a suitable timeframe to squeeze in before the London one, but also somewhere sufficiently interesting to visit. Somewhat more surprisingly, I said that I wanted to run it with her.
I had some serious doubts about my ability to run any kind of distance. All of my running attempts in recent years have been blighted by a hip/knee pain which made a lot of the training for the Philly half quite unpleasant. Early in 2016 attempting to run a handful of miles when riding was unavailable to me exacerbated this to the point that I was even kept off the bike for a couple of weeks, so how on earth was I going to train for a full marathon?
In the end, a summer of playing Ultimate in the MCUDL league based out of Princeton provided an unexpected cure. Instead of hurting my knee further, it seemed to strengthen whatever wasn’t working properly in my legs and hips and the knee pain disappeared within a week or two. However, Tia had been having her fair share of issues from old ankle and knee injuries, so we were far from confident at this point.
As the summer Ultimate season drew to a close, we tentatively started doing some regular running to gauge our ability to commit to something a bit more serious. November rolled around and having made it to the 10 mile mark pain free, we decided we didn’t have any excuses, and entered the Napa Valley Marathon, California, which would take place on March 5th 2017.
By this point, we’d already run a couple of months of training, but with 4 to go, we had a lot of work to do. Running 10 was hard enough at this point and we wanted to run 24 miles at least once before the race. Initially the training was fairly natural to us; we had the spare time in the evening and on the weekends to get the miles in, and equally importantly to recover. Almost without exception, our training runs were successful and we completed them in a good pace.
Traveling back to England for Christmas spelled the end of the ‘easy’ training. I managed to catch the flu on the flight over and Tia ended up with a nasty cold, with the effect that we could only complete a fraction of our planned training over the coming weeks. Soon enough though we were back running longer distances and pushing our miles up, but this time with something completely different holding us back. We were in the final couple of weeks before closing on a house and the effort involved in paperwork and preparing for the move was eating into our energy for running. Sure enough, we started to feel the impacts with both of us failing to complete a long training run at different times in the weeks before the race.
Four weeks before the race, we moved into our new home and suddenly training for, traveling to and running this marathon seemed like a low priority. We felt like we should be (and mostly were) putting all of our energy into working on the the new house, which we’d bought on the premise that we’d do a lot of renovation work on it ourselves. Training reduced to a minimum, and most training miles felt reluctant, and heavy.
But, the start of March came and we boarded a plane to San Francisco. We’d relaxed our goal, given our lackluster training, just get in under 4 hours, and set about the business of exploring California and enjoying a week off.
The day came and we drove at 4.30am in the dark and rain to the meeting location; Vintage High School, Napa. This marathon would be a rare treat in that it would be point to point - we boarded one of dozens of yellow school busses which would take us up to the start line in the next town up the valley - Calistoga. With me completely unable to fit in the school bus seat, we rattled up the road towards the start line with runners around us going through their pre-race fueling routines. One guy was eating half an avocado, other were eating branded sports energy bars. Unable to get our usual pre-run meal (eggs and toast had become the norm for us) we had a random assortment of fruit, yogurt and the baked goods our guest house had left us as an early breakfast.
As the duration and weight of the effort we were about to put in started to sink in, the other runners around us were looking leaner, meaner, more experienced, more focused than us. ‘Oh well’, we said, ‘we didn’t train so well in the end for this because of the house, so it’s just about finishing it and having a good time today’.!
With the rain still coming down, everyone remained huddled on the busses, with the exception of a quick walk to the queue of porta-loos, until 5 minutes before the start. Mercifully, the rain lessened at almost exactly that time, and we joined the crowd lining up at the start line. Rather than the endless queues of thousand of people starting in waves, resulting in a sort of trudge over the line and for the first mile, we joined the starters standing some 30 paces from the start line. As the dawn light was finally revealing the mountain side climbing up to one side of us out of rows of bare but meticulously neat grapevines, the race started and we began our long journey back to Napa.
From my limited experience, one of the most important things to get right on race day of a longer run is pacing. Go out too hard and you’ll be another one of those people who ‘hit the wall’ at mile 20 and ended up grovelling the last 6.2, crossing the line feeling like you’ve gone through hell, and finishing tens of minutes slower than you expected. With this in mind, I was feeling somewhat nervous as we ran our first 5, then 10 miles at a pace ~20 seconds a mile faster than what our longer training runs gave us reason to believe we were capable of. At this point, there were faster runners all the way up the road ahead of us, and slower behind so it wasn’t possible to make any guesses about how we were doing in comparison.
Tia, as I would later learn, had been doing the math and had decided that we should be able to just about squeeze in below the time of my boss (3h46m) if we keep close to our current pace, so decided on behalf of the pair of us that we’d be doing so. The miles started to tick down more slowly, the regular gaps between eating and drinking seemed more sparse and we could both feel the weight of our pace starting to weigh on us. As we ran we formed temporary groups with other runners. Some went faster than us uphill and we caught them again going downhill. One girl was running headphones in a race where they were banned, and so didn’t make much conversation. We overheard one girl talking about how she’d got her doctor to give her a cortisone shot for some trivial/non existent ‘injury’ because she thought that it would help her qualify for the Boston marathon. Given that she dropped off our pace at around mile 18, we took some pleasure in knowing that she didn’t.
My most concrete memories are regarding the physical and mental aspects of the run, but it was a scenic one too - beating any run on the road I can imagine. After the rain died at the start line, the sun actually came out, low and in our faces, so my memories of the first part of the race were of silhouettes of the runners ahead of us against the blinding glare from the wet road. As the race progressed, we got frequent views over endless vineyards backed by the low mountains rising from the valley floor.
As I feared, our pace started to suffer around mile 18. With the start a long way behind us and the finish a long way out still, our bodies were starting to feel the affects. The skies clouded over and we were treated to a sharp and stinging hailstorm. While we were only really running 10-20 seconds a mile slower, and still actually as fast as our training pace, the miles felt like they were taking 20 times as long to pass.
I once read somewhere that in Marathon, the real race starts at mile 20. Remembering how destroyed her body felt at that point in the Rome marathon (think wet, slipper cobblestoned streets), one of Tia’s training mantras had been that if she didn’t feel as bad as she did at that point with 10km to go in any run, then finishing that last 10km couldn’t be that hard.
So, with that in mind we pushed on, and as the miles ticked down increasingly slowly, we never the less found ourselves ramping up the effort and holding a slightly quicker pace. Runners we’d been with for the latter part of the race cracked and dropped off (in fairness, at least a few runners increased their pace and ran off into the distance as well) and we found ourselves passing dozens of people who were running out of steam in the closing miles. Coming into Napa, Tia was the one who ensured that we finished as well as we could. Tia finding a sustained increase in pace in the last mile or so already felt like like it was stretching my stride length and cadence to their mechanical limit, we flew around the final couple of bends, and in the closing quarter mile, Tia opened up a closing kick, passing at speed surprised looking runners. It was all I could do to follow her around those closing corners and Tia actually had to slow a few stride lengths to allow me to draw level so we could cross the finish line together.
To say that we were pretty tired at this point would be a gross understatement, but after a few minutes to get a bit of food and water in, we didn’t feel all that bad. From the time from our watch we knew we’d done much better than we’d planned, but it wasn’t until the official results came in that we knew our exact time of 3 hours, 44 minutes, 45 seconds, destroying not only our primary and my personal stretch goals (4 hours, and 3.50 respectively) but also our ‘wildest dream’ time of getting un under 3.45 and just as importantly, faster than my boss.