Race Report: Atlantic City Marathon – My First!

This year, one of my goals was to run my first marathon.

I registered for the New Jersey Marathon in October, and eventually had my plans shifted to Atlantic City due to Covid. But happily, I was able to run a race.

Here’s my race report.

Training for My First Marathon

I wrote more extensively about training for my first marathon here. But this is a brief summary.

I started running (after a recurring knee injury and a lengthy hiatus) in April 2020. I spent the year building my base with easy running, and by the end of the year I was running 30 mpw and I’d set some baseline times in the 5k, 10k, and half marathon.

In early 2021, I started to incorporate some more intensity. I spent a couple months focusing on faster stuff for the 5k, and then I switched to a focus on longer, threshold running for the 10k and half marathon. By the time I’d time trialed a half marathon in April, I’d set new PRs in the 5k, 10k, and half marathon and I had increased my volume to around 40-45 mpw.

Once I committed to the idea of the marathon in October, I had to pick a training plan. I went with the Jack Daniels 2Q 18/55 plan. This seemed perfect given where my training was at – and my desire to keep slowly ramping things up. It involved two long workouts each week, and then easy miles spread across the other four to five days.

I took a few weeks to recover from my half marathon and build my base up to 50 mpw. By mid-June, it was time to start.

The Jack Daniels plan definitely kicked my ass. But I was able to complete a lot of the workouts. Early on, the sheer volume was tough but by the end of the plan it didn’t seem like a big deal to run 55mpw. Across 18 weeks, I averaged about 50 mpw and spent 6 weeks around that peak volume. I found I was recovering from the quality workouts much more quickly towards the end of the plan, too.

One of the biggest hurdles was the summer weather. I didn’t realize, early on, that I should adjust my paces for the heat and the humidity. So I blew up on more than one longer threshold or marathon paced run due to going out too hot. Next summer, I’ll be more prepared. I also had to do a couple runs indoors on my treadmill – which was not ideal, but I think it got the job done.

Another thing that helped was carrying gatorade with me on quality workouts. In the winter, I would (and still do) go out for long runs without anything to drink. But summer is a different beast. This giant tub of gatorade powder, along with these two handheld water bottles, made a huge difference.

I also knew that I needed to practice taking on nutrition during my long runs. Early on, I started with Welch’s fruit snacks – cause they’re dirt cheap. Towards the end, I switched to Honey Stinger gels – because that’s what would be available on the race course. They worked pretty well, once I got used to them.

Choosing a Goal Pace for my First Marathon

Often, I see people give this strange advice – don’t set a time goal for your first marathon. Why not?

I get it. Marathons are different from other races. And it’s easy to overestimate your fitness, go out to hard, and suffer at the end.

But if you’ve done a legitimate training plan – like Jack Daniels 2Q or Pfitz – then you ought to have some idea of what you can reasonably run.

When I first started thinking about running the marathon, my initial time goal was 4 hours. This is a logical break point – like a 2 hour half marathon – that separates “slower” runners from “decent” runners.

But I was impressed with how much I progressed over the spring, and I started to think that I could definitely do better than that. When I started the training plan, I was thinking more along the lines of a 3:45 goal time.

I had also time trialed a 10k in about 46 minutes in April. Then, in September I raced a 5k and set a new PR of 21:37. Along with some strong marathon pace workouts, I started to think that 3:30 – an 8:00/mi pace – was possible. Jack Daniels VDOT calculator is a great tool to use other race distances to estimate your marathon potential.

After hemming and hawing about it for a while, I planned to target 3:30. I wanted to start off a shade slower than 3:30 pace (maybe 8:05/mi) and then re-evaluate a few miles in. If I felt good, I’d push for 3:30, and if not I’d hang on for 3:35 or 3:40. As long as I broke 3:45, I was going to be happy with the outcome.

Travel Plans and Gear Prep for the Atlantic City Marathon

I live in New Jersey, so Atlantic City is just a day trip away. The plan was to drive down Saturday afternoon, pick up my packet, enjoy dinner, and then go to sleep early in the hotel.

I stayed at the Claridge Hotel. The start and end points for the race were right outside Bally’s on the boardwalk, so the Claridge was a really short walk. Caesar’s and Bally’s also would have been convenient (although more expensive), and there are a bunch of hotels near the boardwalk that you could stay at within about a mile of the race.

I had acquired some new gear for the race, and I packed it all up before I left on Saturday.

I wore a pair of these three inch shorts with zipper pockets and they worked pretty well. The zipper pockets allowed me to carry my phone (a Pixel 3, so a small-ish phone) and a handful of gels (four, I think?). I wore compression shorts underneath to eliminate any chafing from the built-in liner.

I would rather have not carried the phone, but I wanted my wife to be able to track my progress live. I shared my location on Google and that worked perfectly. I might need to upgrade my watch to handle that before the next marathon. In the meantime, I was running with my Garmin Forerunner 245.

I wore a generic racing singlet that I found on Amazon. It’s amazing how light-weight this material is. I didn’t have any issues with nipple chafing throughout the race due to the material, and for that I was thankful.

I wore a pair of New Balance FuelCell Prism v1 shoes. I’m a fan of New Balance shoes, as I have wide feet. The Fresh Foam Roav v1 are my daily trainers. I wasn’t ready to take the jump and invest in some real super shoes (like the New Balance FuelCell RC Elite), but the Prisms seemed to give me a little extra pep. I had worn them in my 5k race, and I really liked the way they felt, and I’m going to stick with them for my racing shoe for now until I need to upgrade / replace them.

Then I packed four honey stinger gels and some long Starter Crew socks – because my ankle length socks occasionally let the back of my shoes rub against my heel.

Packet pick-up was open Friday and Saturday evening. If I had been able to get in Friday evening that might have been better, because there was a long line when I got there on Saturday. But I queued up outside of Bally’s Beach Bar and eventually made it to the front. It started to rain, so after I got my packet I left – they let us pick up our race shirts the following morning.

My wife and I then headed over to Kelsey’s for dinner. After great food, a couple beers, and some amazing jazz music I was ready to head back to the hotel and try to get some sleep. I turned on the TV and dozed off somewhere between 10 and 11 with my alarm set for 5:30am.

Morning of the Race

My watch alarm went off at 5:30 and I popped right up. I’d gotten used to waking up by 6 for summer long runs, so this was a little earlier than usual. But for whatever reason, I was ready to go.

I put my racing gear on and walked down the street to Dunkin’ Donuts. I always drink a cup of coffee before my run, since it helps get things going. I also grabbed a toasted bagel with honey, which has become my new pre-race breakfast. I went back to the hotel to eat my bagel and drink my coffee – knowing I had plenty of time.

The race started at 8, so I spent some time drinking my coffee waking up, using the bathroom. I tried to get a late checkout, but when I called in the morning the front desk told me they didn’t have any left. That annoyed me a bit, but whatever. I left about 7:15 to head out, dropped my stuff in the car, and took a short jog over to the starting line to loosen up. I didn’t want to spend too much time warming up, and so I only did about a half mile and some leg swings.

I felt the urge to pee again, so I hopped on the line for the porta-potties. There were only two or three at the starting line, which seemed strange. I moved slowly but surely up the line, and I was able to get in and out with about five minutes to go before the gun.

I went down a bit further on the boardwalk to where the corrals opened up. They were packed. I wasn’t sure how many people to expect at the race, and while it wasn’t huge – it was definitely big-ish. The half marathon and marathon runners lined up together – with about 1,200 to 1,300 runners in each race.

I nudged my way about halfway up, but gave up on trying to get near the front. It was just too packed. I could see many of the pacers near the front (even the four hour one, which seemed strange), but I figured I’d catch up quickly enough.

There was a very brief opening ceremony, and after the national anthem we were off.

The Race Itself

I trotted along towards the front of the corral and the starting line slowly. It took me about three minutes to get up there and officially “start”.

We ran about a quarter mile up the boardwalk before turning north towards the Borgata. For the first mile, I was hemmed in by the other runners and slowly trying to move my way up the pack. This helped me start out slow, and my first mile ticked off at 8:04 right on target.

There was a guy in the back of the crowd live streaming the event. He must have been a fitness coach or something, and he helped hype people up. It was cool to follow him for a bit, although I eventually lost touch with him after a few miles.

As we ran through the city towards the Borgata, we took a ramp onto the highway and down through a tunnel. My watch’s lap pace said I was running something like 7:20 or 7:25/mi, but I assumed the GPS was thrown off by the tunnel. There was also a lengthy downhill segment in here going through the tunnel. I was trying to run by feel, and things felt good… so I wasn’t too worried. I figured I’d assess when I got to a clock with a split time (at 5k).

We got off the highway, and started to loop around Borgata to to Harrah’s to Golden Nugget. Somewhere around the Borgata, we passed the 5k timing mat – and I realized my GPS splits weren’t off by much. I did some mental math to account for the three extra minutes on the gun, and came to the conclusion that the 7:26 and 7:24 that my watch clocked for mile two and three were pretty accurate. Which meant… time to try and rein things in!

I went through the first aid station around 3 miles and took a gel with some water. My plan was to take a gel every three to four miles – lining up with the aid stations so that I’d have some water or gatorade to wash it down with. I managed to slow down a bit on mile 4 (7:58), before settling in to a groove of around 7:45/mi.

After we passed the Golden Nugget, we ran back towards the boardwalk a bit before turning east. The route went up New Hampshire Ave by the water, and we made a turnaround at the northern tip. The turnaround point was at around 7 miles. Somewhere around here, we hit an aid station giving out gels and I grabbed a couple for later. I was still a bit ahead of pace at the 10k timing mat, and mile 7 clicked off at 7:45. I was cruising along as we ran towards the boardwalk, and I started to think, “Wow, I can do a lot better than 3:30!” Famous last words…

It took us about a mile to get back to the boardwalk before we turned west for the long boardwalk section. Miles 8-11 all ticked off between 7:45 and 7:50, and I was feeling good. We went past the starting line somewhere in there, and I waved to my wife who was cheering me on. I smiled and waved.

While my pace was still solid, I was starting to feel like things were getting a little tougher. We passed the half marathon turnaround, and I was jealous of all the people who were about to be relaxing while I had another two hours to run. At this point, things weren’t quite as effortless as they had been originally. Mile 12 slowed down just a tad (7:52), and as I reached the halfway point I was starting to feel my stomach bubbling a bit. Uh oh…

Just before mile 13, the route left the boardwalk. There were a couple of porta-potties here, so I took the chance to duck into one. After a quick pit stop – I only lost two minutes or so – I was back on the road. We went a block north to Atlantic Ave before continuing west to the tip of the island.

I was starting to slow down a bit, but I figured if I could hold on to my original goal pace (8:00/mi), I could definitely beat my stretch goal time (3:30). I was way ahead of pace, right? I just kept telling myself to hold on, and things would be fine.

Miles 14-16, I slowed down a bit – around 7:55. We hit the turnaround point at the end of the island and headed back east. The next three miles (17-19), I managed to cling to my 8:00/mi pace – with exactly even splits to the second. But man on man, was it getting tough.

We had turned north for a small loop through the city. By mile 19, I was headed back towards the boardwalk, and I just wanted to be there and be done. I thought I had a little gas left in the tank to finish strong, but I knew it wouldn’t last long. At this point, I was still slowly picking people off. I was starting to see people struggle – stop to walk, stretch, whatever. I didn’t plan to be one of them.

I realized pretty quickly that there was nothing left with which to finish strong.

Mile 20, as we headed back towards Atlantic Ave, I managed an 8:05. But it fell apart after that. Mile 21 was 8:24. We turned east onto Atlantic Ave, and I knew I was getting close to the end. I tried to push a bit, and I managed 8:20 for Mile 22. Mile 23 we finally hit the boardwalk, and my legs felt so dead… 8:44.

With three miles to go, I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other and not slow down too much. I had lost all hope of running my target pace – and I was happy to stay south of 9:00/mi. Mile 24 ticked off in 8:43. Somewhere in here, I stopped for a last gel – even though I had originally thought I might stop taking them around mile 20.

At some point towards the end, I walked slowly through an aid station for some gatorade. That gave me a bit of life, but I was slowing way down. I ended up alternating between a shuffle for a couple hundred meters and then a “run” for a couple hundred meters. Mile 25 ticked off at the slowest – 9:13. I picked up the pace a bit after that and managed 8:57. When I caught sight of the finish line I tried to push myself – and still only managed an 8:40/mi pace for the end.

But I finished. 3:35:14 for the official chip time.

Not my A goal – but I was still damn happy with it.

What Went Wrong?

I’m pretty sure that if I executed things right – and had a little better luck – I could have hit 3:30. But unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.

I definitely went out too fast in the beginning. I kept thinking, “This pace is too fast! But it feels so good…” and that feeling is a lie. Adrenaline, fellow runners, and crowd support are real, and they’ll have you thinking that you’re in better shape than you are.

The weather also didn’t help. A heat wave had just broke. Chicago was the week before, and the weather there was horrible. Things cooled off a bit Saturday night after the rain, so when we started it was in the mid 50’s. But by the end of the race it had warmed up to the mid-60’s, it was sunny, and there was no shade. I think that contributed to me falling apart towards the end.

And then there was the bathroom break. It might have been unavoidable. Sometimes, I can go out for a good long run and have no issues. Sometimes, after 10-15 miles, I’ve got to make a pit stop. Heat and humidity always exacerbate this, so I might not have been able to get around it this day. But it might also have been what I ate the night before. I think I need to give some more thought to that moving forward.

I also wonder if the breakdown towards the end was inevitable, given my training volume and long runs. I had done a ton of 16-17 mile long runs, but I had only done one 20 miler. My peak mileage was only 55 mpw. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, I think bumping this up to 70mpw before my next marathon and including some additional 18-20 milers will go a long way towards helping me finish strong.

Back to the advice that you shouldn’t have a time goal for your first marathon – I still think that’s poor advice if you’ve trained well. If you did a beginner plan and just want to crawl across the finish line, then definitely don’t have a time goal in mind. But if you’ve put in the work, you should know what you’re capable of.

However, I would say, you should be conservative with this time goal. I let myself get carried away, thinking I could run below 3:30. If I had targeted a conservative 3:35 and stuck to that pace schedule, I might have been in a better position to close strong at the end of the race.

The alternatives are to run by feel – in which case you might sabotage the end of the race by going out too fast – or to just shuffle along – in which case you’re leaving a lot of time on the table.

Overall Impressions of the Atlantic City Marathon

Finally, here are some thoughts about the marathon itself for those who are considering running it in the future.

The location is great. There was a nice variety of scenery between the boardwalk, the casinos, and the city.

There are a ton of places to stay within walking distance of the start and finish, although you should definitely book these early. By the time my registration was transferred to Atlantic City, there weren’t a lot of hotel rooms left and the prices had been jacked up a bit.

The start and finish lines are at the same spot, and the course goes past them in the middle. This makes it real easy for your supporters to stake out a spot on the boardwalk and see you at multiple points through the race. If you’re real lucky, you can even find a chair or bench to sit on while you watch and wait. So bonus points for being spectator friendly.

Mid October in Atlantic City can be touchy, weather wise. It could be chilly, with a cool breeze coming off the water. Or it could be in the 60’s and 70’s, setting you up to melt. I made out ok (mid 50’s to mid 60’s), and it was definitely a helluva lot better than the hot, humid conditions I trained in during the summer. But if you don’t race well in the heat, you might want to look for a November race (like Philly).

There was great crowd support along the boardwalk, but there were fans scattered throughout the whole course. It was sparse at some points in the city, but other than the tunnel there really weren’t any dead spots. And at that point, you’re still running with the entire field of 2,000+ runners. It was nice to see people who had come out of their houses to sit on their porch to cheer us on, and some of the casino workers who stood outside to watch.

The aid stations were pretty well run. I skipped the first one or two, because there were so many people clumped together at that point. But after mile three, I had no problem swooping in to grab something to drink. There were a ton of volunteers, and it was clear where to get water and where to get gatorade. A few of the aid stations had gels available, and they were out on the table for you to grab and go. I brought four with me to make sure I had enough, but I probably could have gotten through with one to start and picked up enough along the course.

There were porta-potties throughout the course, and they were there when I needed them. My one gripe was that there were so few at the starting line. There was a short line for the bathroom, and it still took me fifteen minutes to get in one for a last minute pee. In retrospect, I guess I could have gone inside the casino but I didn’t think about that at the time.

At the finish line, they had some snacks – granola bars, powerade, water. I think hard pretzels. Nothing crazy or great, but I wasn’t really hungry anyway. I grabbed something to drink and forced myself to nibble on a granola bar.

We got a free beer at Bally’s Beach Bar, so after I’d sat by the finish line for a few minutes my wife and I headed in there for a post-race celebration. I think the free beer was Dogfish, but I’m not sure. Regardless, it was good. I forced myself to eat some food, and we eventually hit the road to drive home. At this point, I was already thinking about my next marathon…

Looking Ahead

I’m going to write up an entire post reflecting on this year and laying out my plans for next year. So more on this at that point.

But the short version is that I plan to run a fall marathon in 2022. At that point, I think I should definitely be in shape to run a Boston qualifying time – 3:10 for my age group – to qualify for Boston 2024. That’s the year I turn 40, and I’d love to run in then. I’ll have other opportunities to run in spring or early fall of 2023 if I miss the cut-off next year.

I have a plan, though, and I feel like I’m going to be ready…

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