I love the NCR Trail Marathon. It is a fantastically fast marathon course that is a beautiful hybrid of Road and Trail. If you can tolerate miles and miles of relatively quiet, relatively spectator free Rail Trail of hard packed non-technical dirt through the woods with not much deviation of terrain, you can shine!
The course is ideal for fast times because you start with a rapid drop in elevation as you leave Sparks Elementary School for just over a mile until you reach the start of the Rail Trail. By mile 2 you are already on your way out to the turn around at 13.5 miles. The way out includes an almost imperceptible incline of 1% which on fresh legs does not impact pace. By mile 9, the "steepest" incline of the rail trail occurs, still almost visually unnoticeable, but it always is reflected in my pace as well as my mental dialogue. It is at this point, when I tend to start focusing too much on questioning whether I can hold my pace because suddenly easy miles start to feel a little harder. When things start to get "harder" in a marathon at MILE 9, that can be an ominous sign for me. However, it is not a bad sign if you know your terrain and even a 1% change can be felt. When suddenly an incline increases just slightly for a significant duration, things should feel slightly harder. That makes sense, so I need to remind myself to not worry and proceed at an even effort.
Once you hit the turn around that imperceptible incline on the way out turns into a very welcomed gift of a decline on the way back. After the half way mark of a marathon, any gifts are welcomed. With 9-13 being the "steepest" up (yet still barely noticeable), they then offer a mental and physical boost on the way back, encouraging a brisker pace from 13-18 when you meet the first little incline on the way back. The course levels out and rolls a teeny bit between 18-22 (again only perceptible if you are paying attention to this). However, it is good to know that the course is no longer as steeply declining because a fade in pacing could be interpreted as the wall creeping up, when it really is not. It is just the course.
Just past 24 you exit the rail trail and return back to the school on rolling uphills. The hill at the 25 mile mark is the steepest and cruelest of the hills. It is a bona fide hill. Get over that and it gets better, but still hilly. Each year, I pass many reduced to a walk here. I don't walk it since it is so close to the finish that I am motivated to suck it up and push through. Also it helps that I know we get a downhill right after the apex for recovery of both heart rate and pace. That down hills assists with my ability to tolerate the final rollers and climbing back up to the school.
I just love everything about this race. The only negative is the cold weather. The staging area is inside the school gym where it is warm and real bathrooms are available. There is a post race buffet of food, including Vegetarian, Dairy Free Winter vegetable soup, bagels, fruit, cookies, coffee hot chocolate, etc. The swag you get is alway special and well done, some years better than others. One year I received a cooler bag with a ton of zippered and mesh pockets that is big enough to store everything I need for an ultra run of any length, yet small enough to be carried with with a shoulder strap. It was the best swap I ever got at race and I have used it for 4 years now. In other years, they gave all runners jackets and vests, winter hats, etc... This year we received a long sleeve technical running shirt.
I have to say that I am so impressed with the race because prices are still relatively low in comparison to other marathons. I believed I paid $85.
As I have been noting here on my blog, after Tussey 50 mile, my body needed a break. I have been running lower mileage but I still logged over 3100 miles so far this year so far, even with a month of "rest."
I wanted to use this race as a "check in" race to see where I stand at the start of my new training cycle for Spring racing. Two weeks ago I ran a 60k with my guys but I used that truly as a long run, running to the 20 mile mark around 8 minute pace, then adding walk breaks allowing me to reach the 26.2 mile mark at about 3:40. I had hoped to be able to run faster that 3:40 today and would have been very happy with 3:30 or under. But to be completely honest, I wasn't sure I could break 3:40 today.
Last year I surprised myself with a 3:16 here, my second fastest marathon. However, my mileage over the month before was higher last year, I ran a faster Ashenfelter 8k last year, and I was also several pounds lighter. Right now I am the heaviest I have been all year at 118, but my body fat is on the lower side but could be better. My best racing happens when I am 114 and lean. I was 114 at the start of this race last year, so I knew there was no way I was running a PR today. Going into this my plan was to take the first mile fast, and then settle in to 7:30's and hold them for as long as possible. If I had a great day in me, I wanted to be set up for it to happen. If not, then the fade would be ok too.
I tend to run fast at the NCR also because the weather is often ideal for me. Each year it has been hight 30's to mid-40's. There can be wind, but the out and back helps mitigate that usually. This race is always the Sat after Thanksgiving, so this year being a late Thanksgiving brought us colder weather.
This morning it was 25 at the start, but wind was mild to non-existant. Sub-freezing is a bit rough for me. It took me 4 miles before I could feel my toes. My fingers were not happy. My first mile was 6:52, which at this race is a slow start for me at this race. I felt a very thin layer of ice on the roadway that made things a little slick. I was careful in the down hills to not slip.
Once on to the trail, my pace settled right to 7:28 for M2. I wanted to hang around 7:30's but I really did not like how "hard" 7:28 felt. I felt stiff and cold and running felt difficult already and I was only at mile 2.
Already I was concerned that this was going to be a really hard day. But again, with a low mileage month, a month of feeling not my best, a month of gaining weight back, a sluggish, slower pace marathon is to be expected. At this point, I just hoped to be able to run the whole thing! :)
By mile 3, the field has spread out and things got quiet... and that is when the music in my head started. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBumgq5yVrA And for the next many many many miles things felt amazing. Easy. Peaceful. I imagined all the weight on my shoulders being tossed away. I felt light on feet. I was flowing. My pace settled around 7:35 - 7:45 and I cruised mindlessly to the music in my mind without stress, worry, or concern. It was beautiful. This is why I run.
At mile 3 mile Garmin battery indicated it was low and would die soon. It remained for some time, but it would drop the signal and soon the data was meaningless. I kept splitting at mile markers anyway figuring the running time should be correct even if the mileage was off. But I wasn't too accurate with mile markers so that was off too. I just didn't care.
At 8 miles, I took my first gel which I pin to my waist band. I had a second gel in the back zippered lower-back pocket of my capris. I wanted to save that for 18. I took in Gatorade at every stop except for one. I deviated because I saw Christian, who ran about 35 miles of Tussey 50 miler with me last month, and I wanted to say Hi! He was handing out water so I attempted to grab a water from him rather than grab a gatorade from the other side.
At 9.5, my pace started to fade to 7:50-8:00 but I wasn't too worried. I felt more confident now than I did at 3 miles and I was just looking forward to the turn around. Finally I reach the relay transition zone and I passed the clock which could be 13 or 13.1, I have no idea, but it said 1:38. My watch had stopped registering distance. I knew last year I was at 1:35:30 here.
As soon as I hit the turn around, I got such a mental boost. My pace dropped and I felt even stronger than I did just miles before. I was back down to 7:30 or under and I was really happy with this as a great start to a new training cycle. I knew my pace was a product of the decline and hoped I was feeling this good at 20.
As I approached mile 18, I decided to take that gel. My fingers, still in my throw away cotton gloves never warmed up. I could not feel anything and I did not want to take them off. I reach back to the zipper pocket. I never used this before to store gels during a race. I usually put my keys there. I pulled on the zipper and then tried to extract the gel from the tiny pouch pocket. After a minute of complete and utter frustration and a complete inability to get that stupid little packet of sugar out of it's prison behind my back, I completely gave up... and that is when the music stopped. Ugh! and LOL at the same time. I could have been very upset by this, but this was not a goal race and I knew I was going to finish in a time I was happy with, gel or not. I still felt energetic so it was not big deal. I have also run 20 mile training runs at slow paces on 0 fuel or water so I knew I could run slowly even with nothing if I had too.
However, my mile 21, I felt that I was crashing and my paces was falling off. I started to feel heavy and sluggish. I thought about how I have probably lost tons of mitochondria in the last month so running out of steam makes sense. I was still splitting my watch and saw an 8:15, but I am not sure how accurate that was because sometimes I would miss mile markers or think I missed them and then split things at the wrong time.
At 22, I decided to try to get that gel out one more time. It was now that I realized that when I zippered the pocket open earlier, I had actually zippered it closed (and I had been running the whole time with the pocket open). When I closed it, I could not pop the gel out and because my fingers were so numb I couldn't figure out what was going on back there. But I did get it out at 22 mile and it helped to take it.
With 4 miles to go, I was now in survival mode. I looked forward to the hills just for a change and wondered if this year I would be reduced to a walk on them. However, that wasn't the case. I felt stronger on the hills than I did on the trail. I believe the gel helped.
I had a nice strong finish and came in at 3:24!
I am very pleased with this experience. I have a lot of work to do, but not as much as I thought. Today Spring Training Starts and my baseline has me at a 3:24 for 26.2 That is not a bad place to be :)
OA place: 59
Age Group 2nd