Monday, April 10, 2006

St Louis Marathon: Full and Excessively Long Race Report

ORN: 26.2 miles, 4:29:31 (chip time), 10:18/mile

One day later, I’m still pumped over finishing the
St. Louis Marathon, my first marathon in 25 years. I posted a short report yesterday with the essentials. Here I’ll describe in more gory detail the whole event. Mostly, this is for my own benefit (and for my kids to laugh at 30 years from now!) but if you enjoy marathon reports, perhaps you’ll like this one as well.


I drove to St Louis on Saturday, enjoying a perfect way to travel: sunny weather and a Cubs ballgame on the radio. After picking up my packet, chip and goody bag downtown, I drove the first five miles of the course on the way to my wife’s brother’s house, where I was going to stay. Stefan and his wife Lana were wonderful (fabulous!!) hosts and it was great to see them again. They also agreed to drive the rest of the course with me, which came within two blocks of their house and then shot out another 6 miles to the west. This was a very good thing to do. In driving the course, I was able to make a mental picture of both the terrain and the key milestones; halfway, 20 miles, etc. This turned out to be very helpful.

After a wonderful meal with enjoyable, substantial conversation Saturday evening, I got to bed reasonably early and, amazingly, slept pretty well. Which means the FIRST time I woke up was not ‘til 2am! Then 3am. Then a dream I had forgotten to set my alarm (when, in fact, I had two set). Then again at 4am…you get the drill. At 4:30, I got up, got ready, had some toast with butter and headed downtown.

At 5:20am on a Sunday morning, there are plenty of parking spots in an urban center. I found a free, on-street spot 150 feet from the starting grid and started what has turned out to be a very enjoyable pre-race ritual for me. Getting there early, I can get out and walk around and begin to soak up some of the atmosphere. I beat most of the volunteers there. I watched the timing guys set up the mats at the starting line. I chatted with the bag-drop volunteers. I listened to first thumpa-thumpas from the big sound system. All of this in the dark, an hour before sunrise. I walked four blocks farther east to the finish chutes and got a good mental picture of what the final yards looked like. THAT turned out to be helpful as well.

Regular readers of this blog may recall I was concerned about the temperature on race day. Being the geek that I am, I packed a digital thermometer and left it in a concealed spot under a tree while I walked around. I didn’t think it felt like the predicted 33 degree low. And, indeed, it was a full-blown 46. Much better.

As the sky gradually brightened, I got ready. I decided on one-less layer than originally planned. I got set and around 6:30, I did one final check on my set-up and headed for the start line, via the port-o-johns.

I lined up with a pacing group shooting for a 4:20 marathon, as my plan was to run at that pace through 20 miles and see what would happen over the last six. A very nice fellow named Noel was leading this group. He was a remarkably fit guy with a marathon PR of 3:23. We figured he could handle the pace. There were about 9,000 runners overall, with 7,000 doing a half marathon along with us. Many of them in our pacing group were attempting their first half. So, it was fun to offer encouragement and welcome to them.


Right on time, we took off. It was only a couple of minutes for our group to cross the starting line and we headed on the first section, a lollipop route. The crooked stick took us south, while the loop took us around and then right smack through the middle of the Anheuiser-Busch HQ and Brewery complex. Hey, this is St. Louis, right?? We ran through the famous iron gates. They had the Clydesdales out for us to view; wow, what huge, beautiful horses they are. Yes, the whole place smelled like beer. No, they did not supply samples.

Back in the Real World, we returned downtown and then started the real trek. Like most river cities, the topography of St Louis is of generally upward slope away from the river. We headed straight west and the climbs started. Long hills, two of which were a mile long. Of the remaining 20 miles, no more than 3 would be considered flat. Up and down we went.

Having driven the course the day before, I had a clear mental picture of what was in front of me, both the length and the pitch of the hills. While I felt really, really good early, I held back on the pace, knowing just how very far west we had to go before turning around. And knowing, at that turn around, we’d still have 10 miles left.

Splits and miles are not terribly interesting here. Particularly because a number of the mile markers were off by up to a tenth of a mile (several of us noted this). But no bother, my splits showed a pretty steady 9:45 to 10:00 pace through mile 23. My chip split at the half was 2:10:14, right on the 4:20 pacing group goal. And, one of the fun things about long runs came true again. After the first 5 or so, the miles really started clicking off. It would seem that we’d pass one, chat a bit and boom, there was the next one. Very enjoyable.

Up, up we went, or so it felt. Past St. Louis University. Through Forest Park and the last remaining building from the 1904 World’s Fair. Past Washington University. Through wonderful old residential neighborhoods. Through a thriving commercial area. Into more residential areas. And, finally, the turning point at mile 16. The high point on the course. Having seen it the day before was huge. And so we headed back downtown. 10 miles away.

Miles 16-20 were along one street. Midway, I noted the outside of my right foot getting sore, as if it was rolling outwards. Well, it was. The entire route to that point had us on the right-hand side of the street. The camber of that side of the street put pressure there and I was feeling it. So I searched for and found some flatter pavement. For a mile or so, I actually went on the sidewalks. Avoiding small children and dogs, it worked well. The foot cleared up.

We moved through mile 20, still feeling good. I was pleased with this, figuring any good miles past #20 would be a bonus. We wound back through Forest Park, up more hills (weren’t we supposed to be going DOWN now??) and kept the pace in the 9:50 range. Our pace group had stretched out pretty far and no conversation was flowing any more, even when I wasn’t alone. Concentration and determination reigned for all. Running had ceased to be social…it returned to being personal.

Up a hill and around a corner and Stefan was waiting for me. He told me he planned to be at this point and what a boost it was to see a familiar face. He snapped a photo and then ran and talked with me for a quarter mile or so. Bidding him farewell, I headed for mile 23.

At mile 23, there was one more long hill. Over half a mile long and my legs finally protested. No more pace group. I had to walk. Once at the top, it was tough to start running again. I knew this was when mind would win out over muscle. I was simply pleased such an expected moment of truth came as late as it did.

The race that had been a real joy so far now became tough. A long downhill past mile 24, which slowed to 11:17. Good, two to go. Then, one more wicked uphill. Walk again, no way I was able to run it. Near the top was mile 25. The split was 13:03. But I was moving. Down a short hill, then yet ANOTHER short uphill. Walk some more. Before I got to the top, though, I determined to run the rest of the way. I simply had to. Only 8 tenths to go. I was so close, I just HAD to run it in. With the Gateway Arch and a huge American Flag dead-center in front of me, I got moving and at that point the realization that I was going to finish really sunk in. All I could do was smile. Mile 26 clicked in at 12:19 and I opened up for the end.

The finish line was set up around two short curves, which gave one the illusion of speed (I use the word “illusion” here intentionally :-) ). I did the last 0.2 at a 9:37 pace. I could not quit smiling and finished with my hands over my head in celebration. My legs had gone to mush but my mind was still there.

I finished. I was a marathoner again.


I kept walking for a good 10 minutes after de-chipping and getting my medal. I then started to feel a little woozy and light headed, so got in the food line. The longer I was in line, the woozier I got. Then, the foot cramps set in. They hurt like crazy. I got my bagels, bananas and water and gimped to a seat on a park bench.

Which was pretty much where I remained for nearly an hour.

Wow, did it feel good to sit down, take down some fluids and wonderful, wonderful bananas, the magical fruit for runners. Slowly I began to regroup. It was a beautiful day by then, at 11:30am, and I gradually got back to normal. I walked over to the bag-drop trucks and got the dry clothes I had left. That clean, dry cotton long-sleeve T shirt sure felt good. More fluids and bananas. Lots of conversation with other runners who came and went in the hour I was there. I finally got the nerve to change into the dry socks I had packed in my bag. Foot cramps went away…no blisters on the toes, the paper tape having done it’s job. The foot powder I dumped in my socks at 4:45am was still there. Other than cramping earlier, the feet were fine.

Four bananas, four bottles of water, two sticks of string cheese, one bagel, two bags of potato chips and an hour of conversation later, I decided I was ready to head out. I had a four block walk back to my car and I was amazed that, even though sore and stiff, I was walking OK. Some of the late finishers were still dribbling in, but the huge event of the day was wrapping up. So was I.

I drove back to Stefan and Lana’s, had a wonderful soak in a cool tub, followed by a warm shower. I blogged briefly and headed out the door. Five hours later, I was home. Still pumped, I sat up and watched the Cubs finish off a three game sweep of the Cardinals. Life is good.

The published stats on the race: My time was 4:29:31, placing me 79th out of 122 men 50-54, or 1056th out of 1695 finishers overall.


I finally went to bed around 11:30. Laying there in the dark, still wide awake, it was mind boggling to think through the events of the day. At one level, it is really cool. At another, it is relatively minor. But at the deepest level, I was profoundly grateful to be in a position, a country, with the means and the health to attempt something as seemingly crazy as running 26.2 miles. I was deeply moved and humbled. Many are not able to do so. It is a picture of grace.



Darrell said...

You cracked me up with the digital thermometer, who would have thought to bring that!

I couldn't help smiling as I read the report form mile 24 on.

Well done, all around. Congratulations.

Brooke said...

Joe, I'm so excited to find your post. I also ran the St. Louis Marathon on Sunday but for was my very first. I finished just a few minutes before you at 4:25 and had thought many of the same things as the miles passed. I love your perfect descriptions from the weather to every step of the course. I was also happy it was not 33 degrees only wished I knew that when I left the hotel with one extra layer. We ended up with a beautiful day and course. I wonder how we got so lucky. The thing that I find most amusing is the fact that I also lined up by the 4:20's and Noiel and could have been right beside you and never knew.
Happy Running.

jeanne said...

Excellent recap! Thanks for painting such a vivid picture! And, you made me hungry!!

Well done!

Brooke said...

Joe, no that wasn't me in the blue singlet, but it was my Mother-In-Law. Her daughter had the other blue tank on. We all (my sister included) stuck together until about mile 13 then they broke off and headed to the end a bit quicker than I was ready for. The Mother-In-Law stuck with me and brought me home. Sounds like I am hooked on this marathon stuff. Planning one in December but have an adventure race before then. Which race are you planning for Oct?? KC??? if so heard it was hilly.

Running Chick said...

great race report...and more important, great marathon!

you truly did persevere through the joy and the pain. well done!

when's the next one? =)