Race Report: Redemption at the Erie Marathon

After my poor showing at the Jersey City Marathon in April, this weekend was my chance at marathon redemption. So what’s the verdict?

It was a split decision. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you the story.

Background and Context

This weekend, I ran the Erie Marathon. It’s my fourth marathon, and my last chance at a Boston qualifying time for 2024.

I ran the Jersey City Marathon in April, hoping to finish under 3:10. That would have qualified me for next year’s Boston Marathon as a newly minted 40 year old. But fate wasn’t on my side, that day.

After recovering from Jersey City, I put together an abridged training plan. You can read in more detail about it in previous posts on my training – Part 1 and Part 2. But overall, things went very well.

So far this year, I’ve averaged 65 miles per week – including my recovery period after Jersey City. During this training block, I averaged just over 75 mpw, and I peaked at 85 mpw twice. I put down some solid workouts, and I felt great whenever the weather was decent. The high volume of running I’ve done over the last year is paying off.

Banking on good weather, my plan was to start at 7:15/mi and shave that down to 7:05 or 7:00/mi by the end. I was looking at a 3:05 or 3:06 finish.

The weather wasn’t on my side, though, so I had to revise my goals a little bit. As race day got closer, it became clear that it was going to be warm and humid. Temps were expected to be in the mid 60’s, and the humidity was expected to be around 90%. My new plan was to keep things reigned in through 20 miles – sticking with a conservative 7:10 to 7:15 pace – and then see how I felt.

Leading Up to the Race

We drove out from New Jersey to Erie on Friday afternoon. We left around 3:30, but it took a little longer than expected to get out there. We had some traffic delays, and we spent more time charging my electric car than I had anticipated. So we didn’t end up pulling into the Springhill Suites until well after midnight.

But there wasn’t much to do on Saturday. I slept in a little, and after I woke up I drove to Presque Isle State Park for a quick jog. I wanted to scout out where the race was, and I did an enjoyable four miles. Afterwards, I headed back to the hotel, got cleaned up, and went down for breakfast. We went back to the park to pick up my race bib, and then we went to the beach to sit and relax for a bit. All in all, it was a great, restful day. After an early dinner, I got into bed, watched some TV, read for a bit, and then tried to get some sleep.

Race morning, I woke up at 4:45. Went downstairs to toast my bagel with honey and to sip some coffee. I finished getting ready, and we got over to the park just after 6. The park is closed to traffic on race day, so you need to park outside and walk in. It’s a nice warm up, but it’s a little creepy seeing a long line of people walking into a pitch black park.

Once we got to the start area, we scouted out a spot for my wife to sit and watch. Then, I went to warm up. I jogged about half a mile, just enough to loosen up. Then, I got in line for the bathroom. The main bathroom had a long line, and someone told us that there was a bank of porta potties just south of the starting area. I ran over there, and things went much quicker. I got done, went to check on my wife, and then I got lined up for the race.

The actual start corral was very small, so we lined up in the parking lot according to our expected pace. Then, with about five minutes left, we walked into the corral. Before I knew it, the gun went off and we shuffled towards the starting line. When I crossed the timing mat, I pressed the start button on my Fenix and off we went.

Part 1: Start to 10k

Things started off pretty smoothly. It was cramped in the start corral, and the first few hundred meters were tight. Eventually, things spread out a bit and I moved around a few people to find a lane to run in. I kept looking at my watch, trying to dial in the pace. I managed to split the first mile on target, and it was smooth sailing from there.

The first part of the race goes up a thin road on the northwest side of the island. It’s hemmed in by trees, but every once in a while you catch a glimpse to your left of the lake. It’s a great view. But otherwise, once we left the starting area, it was quiet. There weren’t a lot of spectators outside the water stops.

The water stops came every mile. Each one had a different local team – it looked like college runners or youth sports teams – manning the station. My plan was to stop at every other station – alternating between Gatorade (#2, 6, 10, 14, 18, and 22) and then water and a Gu gel at the next one (#4, 8, 12, 16, 20, and 24). I wanted to stay hydrated in the humidity, but I also didn’t want to overdo the Gatorade and get stomach issues.

By the second mile, I could feel the perspiration building on my brow. It was definitely warm, but with the controlled pace I felt ok. My heart rate was in check – hovering around 158. After looking back over my previous races, I decided that 160 was the breaking point. Once I started going over 160, things became unsustainable. So I wanted to try and stay below that till the latter part of the race.

Around mile 5, I spotted a small pack of runners that seemed to be running around my pace. I recognized one of the guys – orange jersey – from the start. I had overheard him telling his friend that he planned to run 7:10 miles. I figured I would track them for a while and eventually catch up.

My split at the 10k mark was 44:44 – a 7:12/mi pace. This was perfectly according to plan. If I ran 7:15/mi, I’d finish at 3:10 exactly – so as long as I was below 7:15/mi, I’d be building up a slight time buffer.

Part 2: 10k to the Halfway Point

Around the 10k mark, the course comes out of the woods and opens up. You get a nice view across the bay of the mainland, until you eventually loop back through the woods to the southwest part of the island.

I caught up to the pack more quickly than I expected, and I tucked in with them. There was a woman in the group, we’ll call her J, who apparently had a lot of fans. Every mile or so, someone would cheer her on by name. There was another guy in a bright yellow jersey. And then there was this older guy in the group who was a bit chatty. We talked a bit about our goals, and he said he’d driven up from the Richmond area. After a few minutes, he fell back and I settled back into running quietly.

Before long, orange jersey was falling off the back of the pack. His friend from the beginning turned around, asked him if he was ok, and he said to go on. We continued, and over the next couple miles the pack split up. Yellow jersey was often ahead of me a little bit, and J would hover in front or behind me. Other than that, things spread out and it started to get lonely.

As we got back towards the start area – around mile 11 or 12 – the crowds started to pick up. It was very quiet out on the course, but there was a nice crowd packed around the starting area. They cheered us on, and I got a little boost of energy from their encouragement. Before long, we were coming around the hairpin turn just before the halfway point. As I came out of the turn, I heard someone yell, “Good job New Jersey!” I looked up and saw Richmond going into the turn – so he wasn’t too far behind.

I felt great throughout this leg of the race. Heart rate was still under control. I split the halfway point at 1:34:21 – which was still spot on for a 7:12/mi pace. My GPS was slightly off, but at each mile marker I’d do some mental math and make sure that I was adding a few seconds of buffer between me and a 3:10 finish.

I came through the halfway point, waved at my wife, and ran on back to the quiet part of the course.

Part 3: Halfway Point to Mile 20

Somewhere around mile 15 or 16, things started to feel a little less easy. I was still on pace, although I wasn’t gaining as much time as I was before. But I was still hitting 7:15/mi or so, and keeping pace with where I wanted to be.

I was starting to have to work a little to maintain the pace, though. I started to count my paces to try and stay focused on my stride and zone out. It worked, and the miles kept ticking off. My heart rate was creeping up, and it settled in around 160 to 161. I knew this was a bad sign, but I hoped it was late enough in the race that I could sustain things to the finish.

Yellow jersey was still out ahead of me for most of this segment, and J continued to alternate between being just ahead of me and just behind me. We passed a few people as we came down the back stretch, but not too many. Towards the end, we reached water stop #6 – which had one of the more exciting groups – and the music pumped me up a little bit.

Otherwise, this segment wasn’t too memorable. I just plodded alone. But I stayed on pace – passing the 20 mile mark at 2:24:04. Right on pace – still 7:12/mi. I had already done the math, and 2:25 was on pace for 3:10, so I was almost a full minute ahead of target.

Part 4: Mile 20 to the Finish

This is where it got hard. Real hard.

I had initially planned to speed up around Mile 20. But I was just trying to cling to the pace and keep going. I knew we had 6 miles – 45 minutes to go. That was nothing, but it couldn’t go by fast enough.

My heart rate continued to creep up to 162 to 163. I was really laboring to keep the pace, but I kept slowing down. I’d glance at my watch, see the pace was slow, pick it up a bit, and then click on a split. I was finishing the miles in 7:15 to 7:20 – slowly losing time. But I knew if I only lost 5 seconds per mile, I’d still be ok.

In these last miles, it was clear that the weather was taking its toll on everyone. I was starting to pass a lot of people. Some were on the side walking, others had stopped to stretch. A few had slowed to a jog. One by one, I passed them and tried to stay focused on the finish line. The humidity was taking its toll on me, too, and I didn’t want to end up like them.

Somewhere around mile 23, I felt a slight spasm in my right calf. It felt like a warning light going off – like at any moment my calf could seize up and cramp. I tried to switch up my stride a little bit and stretch it out, changing up the way my foot was falling. The feeling went away, but it would come and go for the rest of the race. I knew that if I cramped up and stopped, I’d never finish on time. So I kept going, hoping for the best, and knowing that at any minute it could all come crashing down.

By mile 25, I was about ready to give up. I thought about stopping more than once. My breathing was labored, the pace was slipping away, and I lapped that mile at 7:30. J pulled on ahead, and when I tried to keep pace with her I couldn’t. I saw yellow jersey pull into a couple aid stations and dump multiple cups of water on his head. I’d pass him, and then eventually he’d surge past me. He was hurting, but he was determined.

As I started mile 26, I knew I still had a shot. I just needed to stay under 7:30 for the final mile. I couldn’t really pick up the pace, but I held on. I made the final turn at the hairpin turn, and the finish line came into sight. That gave me a little boost, and I sped up a bit. As I glanced down at my watch, I saw a 7:00 or 7:05 pace. Just keep it up!

Then, I got close enough to read the clock at the finish line. It flashed 3:09, and I was still pretty far away. I mustered every bit of strength I had, and I “sprinted” those last two or three hundred meters. Really, looking at my Garmin later, it was about 5k pace. But I was literally giving it everything I had. I blew past J, and I had already left yellow jersey behind at some point.

I watched the clock tick as I got closer, and I crossed the finish line just as it ticked to 3:10. I knew I’d started about 20 seconds after the clock, so I was pretty sure I’d made it.

For the full race details, check out the Strava activity here.

Post Race

I came to a stop after the finish line, and I could hardly breath. I found my wife, and she grabbed my bag of goodies from the volunteers. In between huffs and puffs, I stripped off my shirt and stumbled over to a nice piece of grass to collapse on. I looked down at my watch and saved the activity, just to make sure of my finish time – 3:09:48 (officially 3:09:47). Phew.

Me on the ground, cooling off after the race.

After a few minutes, I had caught my breath and guzzled down quite a bit of ice cold water. I decided to get up and walk around a bit to loosen up. I spotted yellow jersey sitting down nearby, and I gave him a fist bump for a good race. Then I wandered back over to where my wife was waiting for me.

J finished a few seconds behind me – she ended up being the 6th woman overall. She ran a solid race and did awesome. I saw Richmond’s results later, and he was a couple minutes back. So he let up a bit on the pace, but his BQ was 3:25 and he made that comfortably.

We hung around and watch other people finish for another 15 or 20 minutes, and I snacked on some chips. Then, it was time to make the slow trek back to the car. It seemed a lot farther this time. It was also uphill. What a cruel joke.

We walked along the course and saw some other people finish. As we passed the hairpin turn, I saw orange jersey coming through. He must have been finishing around 3:40 or so – he definitely wasn’t having a good day. And I’m sure a lot of other people weren’t, either.

We eventually made it to the car and drove back to the hotel. I got cleaned up, took a 20 minute nap, and then we hit up Bob Evans for breakfast. After I was fueled up and ready to go, we hit the road for the ltrek back to New Jersey.

Reflections and What’s Next

I had three goals coming into this race.

First, I wanted a PR. That meant beating 3:20. Second, I wanted to BQ. That meant beating 3:10. Third, I wanted to run a strong race with a negative split.

I hit two of those three goals. The negative split got away from me, but given the weather I’m still happy with the result. From the start to mile 20, I ran even splits of right around 7:12. My final 10k was a minute slower than my first 10k, but that’s not much of a drop off in pace. Had the weather been nicer, I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to execute better.

Another unspoken goal was to finish this race without making a pit stop at a porta potty. Mission accomplished. I think having dinner earlier, and sticking with pasta and white sauce helped. I also spent more time this training block using gels in my quality sessions, just to make sure I was used to them.

I registered for Boston this morning, but I’m realistic that my time may not be good enough to get in. The past two years, there hasn’t been a cut off time – and my only hope is that that trend continues. Given the fact that they just revised the standards in 2020 to make them more strict, it’s possible. But if we’re at even a one minute cut off, my 13 seconds won’t be good enough. And that’s ok. I’m happy I got the qualifying time, and it’s out of my hands now. There’s always next year, and I know I can shave off a few minutes with nothing but better weather.

I’m going to take the next few weeks to recover and ease back into running. I followed my usual marathon recovery routine and went out this morning to see how things felt. Although I was a bit stiff, I felt surprisingly good. Usually, I can only muster up a walk-run the next day, but today I was able to easily jog a full three miles. I could have kept going, but I stuck to the plan and finished at three. I think the volume has really helped, along with the experience of running several marathons. This is by far the best I’ve felt the next day after a race.

Once I’ve recovered, I have a few shorter races lined up. I want to work on my speed a bit and cash in on some of the investments I’ve made in my mileage. I’ve got a few 5k’s planned, along with an 8k and a 10k. My last race will be the winter 5k at Rutgers in December. After a year and a half focused on the marathon, I should be able to translate all that endurance into a nice 5k PR with a little focused training.

Then, I’ll switch my focus back to the marathon in the spring. If I get into Boston, great. If not, I’ll head back to Jersey City to get some revenge on that course. And I’ll probably also look for a spring half that I can run. I’m also happy that my time qualifies me for Chicago 2024 – so I’ll definitely be running that in the fall.

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