Finish time: 4:41:35
Splits: 2:11:05 (half); 2:30:30 (end)
Placing: 1385 out of 2354 (overall);
880 out of 1371 (male);
149 out of 205 (male division)
Goal 1: 4:45:00 (yes)
Goal 2: PR-4:32:04 (no)
Goal 3: Under 4:00:00 (no)
Inevitably, during a marathon you'll ride some ups and downs. Figuratively and literally. Months of training eventually distills to a day or two of meticulous planning, and you head out the door with your gear in place, your nutrition plan down to a T, and your splits mapped out down to the half mile.
But, as Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan til they get punched in the face.
The Baltimore Marathon was exactly that. Maybe all marathons are like that. I don't know. I've only run through three of them, and one thing that I've inevitably found in my limited sample size is that regardless of your goals, somewhere along the way there is a significant chance that your plan will go sideways. Finishing with your head held high is as much about how you deal with these setbacks as it is about you executing your plan to perfection and hitting your goals. For me, I got whacked with a haymaker on miles 22-24. Here's how it played out.
Even though I drive from Baltimore to DC every day for work, I decided to get a hotel room near the race the night before. I didn't want to be stressed at 5am fumbling through the dark to figure out where all my stuff is only to get stuck in traffic and to miss the start. Also, Fleet Week in Baltimore coincided with the marathon, and I knew there was going to be a ton of traffic.
I spent the evening before mapping out my plan. I outlined earlier that my "reach" goal was to finish with PR under 4:32, and my "basic" goal was to finish under 4:45. Deep down, though, I felt like I could really push it this race. I missed some long runs towards the end of training, but my runs generally felt great. So I put it in my mind to really try for 4:15. My plan was to get through the first 9 miles in 90 minutes, and then run the rest out at somewhere between 9:15 to 9:30 a mile. For nutrition, I was planning on eat 3-4 gummy packs every three miles and half a pack at mile 13 and a cliff bar at mile 18. For hydration, I was planning to stop at every water stop, alternating between water and Gatorade.
The night before was pretty chill. I got to the hotel and waited for Jess to take the train up from DC. I turned on HBO and watched Cast Away, which I forgot how great of a movie that is, and grabbed some dinner. When Jess made it in, we planned out where she was going to meet me during the race–miles 13 and 25.
Before the start
I got up at 5am, showered up, got dressed and headed out to M&T Bank Stadium (aka "Ravens Stadium"). The morning was pretty chilly, around 50 degrees, which was about 20 degrees below the coldest weather I ran in during training. No worries though, I came prepared with an ugly orange zip up that I planned to toss a mile or two into the race. I made it to the designated parking at Ravens Stadium without issue. In fact, I was pretty early, and crazy enough I ran into someone I knew from college that I hadn't seen in over ten years. Small world, indeed. I got to the start line at around 7, and the full marathon race (and relay) started at 8. So I kind of putzed around for a while, did a few warm up strides and lunges about 30 minutes before the start and hung out waiting for the signal.
Morning before the marathon:
One thing I gotta say, it's cool to hear the National Anthem before the start of every marathon, and this was no exception. Standing outside Camden Yards, one of the iconic venues in sport, hearing the National Anthem that was written about the defense at Fort McHenry just a few miles away, pretty cool.
Starting line, Baltimore Marathon:
Start of the race, miles 1-4 "all good"
10:50 min/mile; 10:51; 10:52; 9:46
The first four miles went fine, just as expected. I've said this countless times before, but it takes me about 3.5 miles to warm up. Regardless if I'm running 6 miles or 16, my body just seems to be plodding along for those first 3.5 miles until I get into a rhythm. I ditched my ugly orange zip up at around mile 2, and I was starting to feel good. Race day temperature warmed up a bit to the mid 50s, with low humidity and clear skies. It was an absolutely beautiful morning in Baltimore. The first four went north from Camden Yards up to the zoo. It was mostly uphill–according to the my GPS data it was about a 300 foot climb for the first four miles or so, which is kind of crazy to start a marathon. I made sure to hold back early, and I was aided in that effort due to the large crowd of people. It actually helps to have a lot of people around you, it prevents you from rushing out of the gate. The crowds were decent during the first four miles. There weren't too many people along the path, but those were there were excited to see the runners come through their neighborhoods. The Baltimore Police were encouraging as well. It seemed like most officers made an effort to cheer along the runners, and that was great to see.
Miles 5-8 "easy downhill"
9:39; 9:43; 9:37; 9:28
The uphill climb in miles 1-4 ended at the zoo, and the next four were an easy down hill. I picked up the pace initially to 10 min/mile, but decided to bank some time and let the hills carry me down. It was cool to run through the zoo. At one point, there was this zoo employee that was standing out there with a penguin and another with a parrot or something that was making this crazy monkey like noise when everyone was running by. Or maybe those noises were actual monkeys. I'm not quite sure. Regardless, we ran by some smelly horse stables, and exited the zoo and into Druid Park, over to Johns Hopkins, and then down to Charles Village heading towards the Harbor. A few people stopped in Druid park behind some trees to take a leak. I always think this is a funny site–in the last three marathons I've run, we've run by a park during the early part of the race, and you just see a bunch of dudes standing there peeing behind trees.
There wasn't much crowd support in Druid Park, but it picked up pretty significantly around mile 8.
Miles 9-12 "another day at the office"
9:30; 9:28; 9:25; 9:36
Miles 9-12 were the most familiar ones to me. This segment was pretty flat, and I moved on in my plan to try and hit the first 9 miles in 90 minutes. I was right on target, hitting mile 9 at 90 mins, 16 seconds. I was feeling pretty great at this point–I felt like I held myself back significantly during the first 9 and was executing my plan (including my nutrition and hydration plans) to perfection. These four miles took us from Inner Harbor down, around Key Highway to our offices at Under Armour. This segment was such a confidence booster just because I am so familiar with it. I've this route so many times during work–in the morning, during lunch workouts, after work, and even during some "run meetings" I've had with co-workers. It was cool to run by the UA HQ and just really great to see the presence and energy that the company showed up for the runners.
The crowds during this part continued to be amazing. Just a ton of local support, a lot of families and children were out to watch us go by and to high five us. The power of a high five is undeniable. Something about high fiving a complete stranger that you'll probably never see again, it gives you positive boost. It remains, for me, the absolute best part about running a marathon. Something about how for those several hours, strangers are just out there to help and encourage each other. It's so different from everything else we hear in the world. You get the experience that in a real, tangible way, we are all in something together, whether you are running or not.
At around mile 11, I saw this guy who seemed to be slowing down. I decided to run by him and chat him up. I could see on his bib that he was running a full, and I was thinking that if I could lift him up for a little bit, maybe someone will lift me up when I need it. He was a nice guy. He was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins originally from China. Like me, Baltimore was his third marathon, his first two being in Beijing. We chatted a little bit about the Beijing race and then nerded out a little about material science and electrical engineering courses. We wished each other luck, told each other to stay mentally strong and then parted ways at around mile 12 or so.
Miles 13-16 "wife power-up"
9:47; 9:17; 9:30; 10:01
Miles 13-16 felt the same as the previous four. The segment was relatively short, the crowd support was absolutely electric, and it just felt like a great day. Having hit my 9 minute 90 goal, my plan for the rest of the day was to stay between 9:15 and 9:30, and see if I could get close to that 4 hour 15 minute finish. This segment went back to Inner Harbor and across Fells Point to Canton. Jess was waiting for me at mile 13.5 and seeing her gave me a big motivation boost. It's funny how you can look forward to seeing someone so much, even though I had just seen her earlier that morning. Running is so much about psychology, and just knowing that there are people rooting for you can be enough for you to tune out the devil on your shoulder and keep pushing. I gave her a smooch, and went on my way with an extra bounce in my step.
Just past half-way:
I was still feeling good about my pace by this point. I felt like I was holding back, but was happy with how I was pacing myself. I knew that there were some serious hills on the back half of the course, and though I never ran them during training, I was anticipating a serious climb ahead and wanted to have enough gas in the tank to slay them.
Miles 17-20 "shits about to hit the fan"
10:13; 10:30; 10:21: 10:56
Let me tell you, the back half of Baltimore is no joke. Miles 17-20 were hard. Really fucking hard. It's not so much that the hills are really steep. Rather it's that the hills are slow grind that's relentless for many miles. The initial 300 foot climb in the beginning of the race is tough, but it's over after 4 miles, and it's followed by a downhill for the next 4 to 6 miles. The overall climb between mile 17 to 20 is "only" about 140 feet, but it's a motherfucker to deal with 17 miles into a marathon. Also, the crowds thinned out slightly at mile 17, but only temporarily, as the crowds through miles 18-20 were great. This segment went north from Canton, through the Milton-Montford neighborhood and up to Clifton Park. Admittedly, I know nothing about these areas of Baltimore, but there were a lot of local folks on their front steps to watch us come through. And there were a lot of little kids that were just happy as hell to high five anyone that ran by. Word to the wise–try to high five a kid when they are out there cheering you on. Even if you're tired, the joy on his or her face is worth it.
At mile 17, there was this super energetic runner that was trying is best to pump everyone up. It was great. He was such a positive guy. Kept on yelling out phrases: "let's go, we're going to finish this together, we're going to encourage each other, we're not going to stop, we see our prize up ahead, there's a glory that no one can take from us when we finish, it's a beautiful day to be alive, we're alive, we're healthy, we're here" I really liked that dude. I was getting too winded to stay with him, and I could tell that he was in good shape to finish strong, but as he was blazing towards his finish, he was trying his best to lift everyone up. My favorite line is when he'd pass people in the crowd and ask them if he should stop or if he should keep going. Everyone seemed to love that.
As far as the running went. I told myself to keep going strong. I was remembering what that guy I ran into at mile 12 said–you have to stay mentally strong. I thought back to my training, and in particular two days. Once when I went for an 11 mile run on a 111 degree day in the summer and once when I went for a 5 mile run after lifting weights for an hour. Both of these runs were brutal, but I did it to train for this race. I put in some hard work, and this is where I needed to run strong.
I'm proud that I got through these hills without taking a break. I also held myself back because I knew I'd need some more gas in the tank to finish up once the hills were done. When I got to mile 20, I actually felt great. My body wasn't really tired, and I wasn't out of breath. Even though I slipped my pace, I was ok with it to finish fast. And a PR was within reach.
Around mile 17 or so, all three races converged–the half marathon, the full marathon and the relay group. I snapped a picture of this, which looked way cooler in person than here:
Miles 21-24 "punched in the face"
10:56; 11:26; 14:18; 16:14
Mile 21 starts at the peak of the monstrous hills of miles 17-20. The segment involves a flat, but surprisingly difficult 1.5 mile loop around Lake Montebello before heading east to the Baltimore Museum of Art and then to Charles Village. It's a mental challenge because the loop is so large and mostly exposed to the sun. When you enter the loop, you already see people leaving it. Bastards.
I started mile 21 feeling ok about finishing strong. I had just finished the killer hills, and though I wasn't that familiar with the rest of the course, I knew that the worst of the hills were over. I still felt pretty strong and was confident I'd be able to climb back up to a sub-10 pace. I entered the lake loop, and the first signs of trouble started to manifest. I felt a small twitch in my right calf, but decided to run through it. When I crossed mile 22, I decided to stop briefly and see if I should stretch it out. I wasn't really sure what I was doing, and I didn't do an all out stretch or massage. For some reason, I felt like if I tried something crazy it would lead to some untended consequences, like another muscle cramping in a weird way. Plus, I was still able to run along and thought that it might just be a funk that I'll overcome. I slowed down my pace at the middle of 21 and 22 to see if that would help.
Then, it hit me. Really hard. It started when I took a step on my right leg and my right calf just started experiencing some serious muscle spasms. I had to stop my run immediately, made it over to the side and tried to do a stretch on the curb. It didn't really help at all. I could still walk, but I was limping badly. I looked at my watch and did some math. By the way, doing even the simplest math 22 miles into a race is nearly impossible. I had to count to four using my fingers. At the beginning of mile 22, I was about 3 hours 45 minutes in with 4.2 miles left. Other than this damn cramp in my calf, I was feeling really good. My hamstrings were tight and my quads were getting pretty sore, but I had plenty of energy to get through. I did some naive calculations and figured that if I walked for half a mile, I could push a 9:30-9:45 pace to the end and still finish with a PR. Oh, how wrong I was. I walked that half mile, and tried to restart my running. After a few strides, though, the muscle spasm came back harder than the first time. This was somewhere between mile 22 and mile 23. It came back so hard that I almost fell down, and I was worried that I wouldn't even be able to walk to the finish. I was afraid that my calf would fully cramp up and having experienced that after the Marine Corps Marathon last year, I knew that I'd be done if that happened.
At this point, I started to tear up just a little. Not because of the pain, but because I was thinking back to all of the training I had done and that I was going to end the marathon like this, feeling great but hampered down with this stupid cramp. Mentally, then, it started to become more than just the marathon. I was thinking back to everything that happened to me this year, the lowest lows to the highest highs, from my mom's cancer diagnosis and everything with that to Jess and I expecting our first child. How running and training for this race was the one thing that gave me a sense of control over all the craziness in the world around me. And that it was going to end like this, with me definitely not PRing, with me walking to the end, or worse, probably not being able to finish the race despite all the work. I walked that next half mile pretty dejected and beyond frustrated. I had planned everything, and then the plan fell apart. What was the point of training for six months, to run in all the places and types of weather over the year, for it to end like this. I was pissed at myself. I put my hands on top of my head, in the infamous "surrender cobra" pose, and just kept walking.
But then, somewhere around the end of mile 24, things started to feel a little better. Not much, but I no longer felt like I wasn't able to finish. I was still disappointed, but I decided that I'm not going to let this set back fucking define how I'm going to finish this race. I picked up my walking pace and then shuffled into a slow trot. And then something happened that I'll never forget. I was trotting along on the left side of the road, near the curb on West 29th Street heading toward the left turn to North Howard street. There was this guy standing in the crowd. He looked approximately my age, and he was one of many people cheering people along. I was slowly approaching him, and as I came to him he looked me dead in the eye and said "you got this, trust me, you got this. you're going to finish strong. keep going." I don't know what it was, whether he saw the disappointment or struggle in my face, but for some reason, the way he looked me directly in the eyes and spoke to me, someone that I had never met before and someone that I will probably never meet again, he gave me encouragement and it lit a fire underneath me.
This is where I'm going to go off on a tangent. There is so much goddamn negativity we see in this world. Turn on the news and all you read about is this shitty world we live in where people treat each other like garbage. Tune into news coverage this election year, and our body politic reflects back to us a distorted and crappy version of ourselves, and then we are told that we have to believe it, that we have no choice. It's exhausting to feel like we have to resign ourselves to be only self-interested. But then there are moments of clarity that come along and you realize that we're not always the shitty people that we're told we are. That when you strip away contexts in which people interact, there can be moments where people are just there for one another. During this run, we went from Camden Yards to West Baltimore. We ran through neighborhoods where people can live in completely different worlds and can have completely different grievances or perceived grievances aimed at them by society. But throughout the race, you felt that at least for a moment, when you passed someone on the street, you were happy to see them and they were happy to see you. Baltimore had great energy in that way, from start to finish, and I fell in love with this about the city.
This guy, who gave me the encouragement that he did, it was one of those clairvoyant moments in my life. That there are times when you can lift someone up, and you can be on their team, even if you don't know who in the hell they are. It doesn't take anything away from you, and it can cascade and amplify as someone accepts that from you.
Anyway, I thank you stranger, for giving me the boost when I needed it.
Miles 25-26.2 "finish up strong"
10:38; 10:58; [3:09]
I was on a high heading when I started mile 25. Yes, the pace was still slow, but damnit, I was going to finish this race running. I pushed down Howard Street towards Camden Yards. Jess was waiting for me between mile 25 and 26, and I wanted her to see me running while I came by her. I had sent her a text during my crappy miles and I told her that I was probably going to walk the rest of the way. It was a proud moment for me to be running towards her instead of walking. Seeing her there just amplified my energy to finish up strong.
I collected my medal, grabbed a bunch of snacks and water, and found a spot on the ground near a tree where I sat and waited for Jess to meet me. I sat there for a good 20-30 minutes, and we walked around the village at Camden Yards.
When we got in the car to leave, my left calf cramped up really bad, but Jess was able to stretch it out for me. When we got home, we ordered a pizza and just relaxed at home all day.
Overall it was a beautiful day in Baltimore and very well organized. I finished this marathon in 4 hours, 41 minutes and 35 seconds. I didn't PR, but I did hit my basic goal of finishing under 4:45. But you know what, it was a great race. I learned a lot about myself. This race was a perfect microcosm for the last year I've had. I hit some significant set backs and had some down days, but there was no way in hell that I was going to let those moments control how I respond. It's not about getting punched in the face, it's about what you do to fight through it. I couldn't get what I wanted in Baltimore, but I got what I needed.