Friday, November 8, 2013

Guest Blogger: Joe De Flora, The D&L Heritage Marathon, 11/2/2013

The D&L Heritage Marathon is a cozy event nestled in the shale cut hills just north of Allentown, PA. It is an intimate race, with only 156 competitors this year, run on the paths along the Lehigh River. It's picturesque course winds through parks and neighborhoods, under a canopy of trees.

The course is fairly flat except for a wickedly steep hill at Mile 20. Once up the hill you are blessed with a long run on top of a ridge for a mile and a half or so before it drops you back down to the road. It's a point to point with the addition of two small out and backs. In other words, there are two spots on the course where the racers faster than you can offer you encouragement and likewise you can provide encouragement to the racers behind you.

I had signed up just weeks before the race day. I had run another marathon in October under the guidance of Coach Shannon and although I set a great PR, was well trained and in the best shape of my life, I yearned to do better. I decided that I wanted to run below a 4:40:00. Bolstered by Coach Shannon's faith in me and by the amount of conditioning I had, I decided to go for another marathon PR just three weeks later. The plan came down to an even paced marathon trying to average 10:15's and hopes of getting in around 4:30 or so, assuming that if I slowed down later in the race I would still have a sub 4:40:00 marathon.

Race Prep:
Once I registered, I received 5 emails from the race director providing all kinds of information including directions, last minute instructions and advice for spectators. I thought it was a nice touch. They have each runner check in at the race and check out at the end. The race committee is truly concerned about everyone finishing happy and healthy.

Day of the Race:
It was a cold and windy at the start with temperatures in the low 30's. All marathoners brag about wanting cold weather to run harder. Cold temperatures surely help but 15 to 25 mile per hour winds hitting you in the face don't feel great. So much of this race is on a tree covered path that some of the wind was blocked.

There were plenty of bathroom opportunities at the start. Both port-o-potties and a park building (heated) with real commodes. Yippee! It's the little things that get marathoners exited!
Check in was fast and easy. Runners and well wishers were standing around trying to figure out how to stay warm prior to the start.

Mileage breakdown:
The start is on a city street with 156 of us queued up in the blowing wind. Kim (GF) got to stand next to me and watch me start, which is nice send off.

This is a great marathon for spectators. Kim was able to see me at four points in the race given the layout and the help of the friendly volunteer staff. You can definitely see your runner at the start, the half way point, Mile 19 and then at the finish line.

I started out in a long sleeve tech shirt with another short sleeve tech shirt over it, to cut some of the wind, a running hat, running gloves and old track pants. Wind is a tough call in a marathon because you never know what to wear on your upper body. I figured I could ditch the pants, hat and gloves if I overheated. I saw several people who were under-dressed thinking they could tough it out and with the wind, and they were suffering. I also saw several people running in sweatshirts. I mean high school gym sweatshirts made of cotton, I guess they grabbed what they could at the start and planned on throwing it later.

Miles 1 through 5 - The first couple of miles wind through streets and by public properties until you enter the sometimes paved and stone dust path that make up most of the race. There's no way you are keeping stones out of your shoes during this run. Those little travelers seem to jump into that space between your sock and your shoe and hang on for dear life. Miles 1 - 5 averaging 10:15 pace, right on target.

Miles 5 through 12 - At Mile 5 I have to stop for a "water offloading break" near some nice rhododendrons. I knew I was well hydrated but stopping to pee always sucks until you realize that it takes about 1 minute and that isn't gonna change the race. It took me another two minutes to strip off my track pants which got stuck on my running shoes. The competitive Joe always has to remind himself that a minute or two shouldn't matter and before you wipe out trying to undress, take the damn pants off one leg at a time. I am cruising along at my race pace of 10:15 per mile.

I also meet Caroline at Mile 6 and we talk for over an hour. Hailing from Arlington, VA she's all smiles and like me, loves to talk and run at the same time. We're at the same pace and decide to run together for awhile. She encourages me to "go on ahead" if I need to because she is "running slow" this race. In the past month she had run a 100 mile ultra and the Marine Corp Marathon!

I tell her I didn't run any ultras but last night I went to a friend's wedding and had a few dances. I figure if I'm that fragile, where I have to lay around before the marathon, I probably shouldn't be running marathons. We chuckle about training and having a good attitude and try to enjoy the day. Her positive energy was contagious and we are laughing together for this portion of the run.

I realize I am falling off my pace too much and I ask her if she wants to pick it up a little to keep around my goal pace of 10:15. She decides to hang at her pace saying that she wants to get in under 5 hours and I should go for my PR. I see four women running in straight line across the trail, talking, about 1/4 mile ahead of us and I head out for them.

I ease my pace down to 10:10 to catch them. As I come up on them, one in the middle moves to the side like a gate opening so I can run in between them.

Joe: "Hi Ladies, how's it going today?"

"Great!" Tall Blond counters, "We're just four girls out for a long run and now we have a dude in front of us to watch!"

"Well I'll do my best for you," I reply, laughing. I pick up my pace to get in front of them. I can't shake the feeling that they are watching me run and wonder if this is what it feels like to be a hot chick walking in front of construction workers. What strange events these marathons are!

Mile 13.1 - I get to the half way point to find Kim standing there (I didn't expect to see her until the end) waving and she yells, "Where are your pants!"

Now, I had on shorts under the pants, so it wasn't like I was running in my undies. Kim figured I would take them off and carry them. I told her I dropped them because I hate to carry anything. I did give her my hat. I kept the gloves. It seems on cold days my hands get it the worst. My half marathon clocks in at 2:17 which is just a little off my pace but I'm in great shape.

Miles 13.1 through 18 - This is the first "out and back" I mentioned previously. It's a gradual incline that actually had me asking a course volunteer, "is this going up hill?" She replied that it was but it was "all down hill" on the way back! I was encouraged by several faster runners coming back from the turnaround. I love a sport where people who would normally be considered "kicking your ass" are actually encouraging your efforts. We all know what it takes to be out there. Marathoners are usually good sports.

The turnaround at Mile 15 was an orange cone at the end of a path with someone standing there telling people to "run around the cone and head back" Pretty funny if you ask me. I mean, where else would you go?

Miles 16 and 17 are fun for me because now I'm running downhill at a very slight grade and I get to encourage the people headed towards the cone. I notice my pace is dropping but I'm not sure if I should conserve my strength or push to keep it at 10:15. I'm now at a 10:20 to 10:30 pace. I opt for conservation, I cramped up pretty badly in the prior marathon three weeks ago and although I set a great PR in that race, I don't want to have to walk at all.

Miles 18 and 19 - my pace is definitely slower and has gone into the low 11's. I start trying to do math in my head. If I hang on for this long can I still achieve something in the 4 hour and 30's? Math is hard when you aren't running a marathon. It's impossible when you are cold, sweaty, hungry and running a marathon. At Mile 19 you pass by the finish line and can actually see the speedier runners finishing up. Again it was nice to get encouragement from the faster competitors.

Miles 20 through 23 are locally know as Heritage Heartbreak Hill. Why, you ask? Well, as you are running along this flat path next to the Lehigh River, you make a sharp left and head up a 30% grade for 0.3 mile.

Crazy, right? There's a team of people directing me up the hill and I ask with a serious face, "Are you sure about this?"

In reply I am handed a cup of water and told with a sarcastic smile that "it's the short cut". I love it!
Now Coach Shannon has run this race before and told me about the hill. She had me walking up a treadmill at full tilt to mimic the hill's incline so that I was prepared. I walked up the hill, easing into it, and the obvious strain of my Achilles tendons. It is weirdly exhilarating to climb that hill in this race and I was blessed with a panoramic view of the surrounding valley. I actually looked down and saw a train heading down river, next to a farm and some houses. Very pretty. Mile 21 was a 13:09. Not bad for chugging up the hill.

But I'm here to run. After a shakeout walk along the trail, I started running again. This was the only part of the run I wasn't happy about. The trail here was a hard packed and cut into the ground. In many places 3/4 crush gravel (you know, the big stuff they put on a driveway) was laid out. I felt like every footfall needed to be stabilized. Up ahead I saw a couple running. They had entered the trail before me and I set my mind to chase them down. I settled into a slower pace (I was getting tired) and plugged away at them trying to catch up. By the end of Mile 22 I catch them as we are all headed downhill to exit onto a road. The guy was ahead waiting for his girl to come down the hill. I asked the girl her how it was going and she said, "this sucks, it's pretty hard on the legs going down and I don't want to fall".

I jogged by her, excited that I had caught them. I ran up to her guy telling them that they inspired me to run faster to catch them. He laughed and we wished each other good luck. As I come around the corner I see a water stop and volunteers cheering for me. I wave my arms in the air which gets them even more excited and more raucous. They respond with lots of noise and cheering. Awesome! Mile 22 11:47.
Once I hit the road, it feels like I am flying. I'm back on asphalt and I chuckle as I realize, had I signed up for a true road race, I probably wouldn't be working so hard! I push my pace and end up learning a valuable lesson about pacing! Mile 23 10:39.

With my pace down under 11 minutes per mile I have a real shot at hitting my goal now. If I can run from Mile 23 to Finish at this pace, I will achieve something below 4:40:00 and set a new PR!

Miles 24 through Finish - I'm now back on the gravel path and heading into the home stretch. I focus on trying to pass runners and make it past two. The first runner was jogging slowly and I get charged passing him. The runner in front of him had stopped to walk and looked to be suffering. I asked him if he was OK, he seems disoriented. An official vehicle pulled up and took care of him.

Even though I am passing people, I am slower than glue out here. And we all know how slow glue can be. I realize that by pushing it in Mile 23, I really don't have much left. I buckle down and get a 10:45 out of Mile 24.

Now I'm headed into Mile 25 and looking for the finish line. I do the math once again and realize that I would need to get a lot faster for the last two miles to drop this under 4:40:00 for the race. I just can't do it. I get depressed, then I get determined to keep my time under 4:45! I realize that I have run two marathons in less than 30 days and will set two PR's. This is "go time". All of the training, all of the speed work, all of the mileage, it's time to dig! Mile 25 11:58.

I have one mile and a little more left and realize the tank seems empty. But I can finish with dignity and in a crisp manner. I tell myself that I can muster anything I need, I've done tempo runs, progressive runs, long runs, recovery runs and so called "easy runs" I remember that every time Coach Shannon told me "this is an easy week coming up" she would make me run shorter distances much faster and it makes me laugh. She coached me through muscle strains, plantar fasciitis, the flu and a complete change to my 46 year old body. I came to her a chronically injured and very slow marathoner and she molded me into a true competitor.

I focus on the finish line which I can see in the distance. As I get close I see the clock reads 4:44 something and I run for all I am worth. I just nip it at 4:44:47!

Post Race:
I'm tired. Kim walks up to me so excited for my race, she had a blast. She directs me to the warmth of the food tent. This race offers free catered food to the finishers and their guests. It's a nice touch.
I reconnect with Caroline who finishes about 15 minutes behind me. Still smiling and happy as can be. She's amazing.

I asked a race volunteer where the changing tent was and I was told that it "blew away!" with all the wind. You gotta love a small town race!

I was well prepared for both of my marathons by Coach Shannon and really did well. I scored two PR's within three weeks of each other and dropped my overall marathon PR by 34 minutes! In fact, once I started training with Coach Shannon, I set a PR in every race that I signed up for including a sprint triathlon, 5K, 10K, half marathon and two marathons! My marathon PR was set in 2001 over 12 years ago and this year I crushed it!

This is a well run and thoroughly thought out race which is great for participants and spectators alike.

Thanks Coach Shannon, you turned me into a marathon animal.

This race report provided by: Joe De Flora at Running Intentions

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