The Short Story
Taking last week’s lessons into this race and knowing that this was a much flatter course than the BAA’s, I anticipated a new course record, and perhaps even a new personal record. Halfway into the race, I even thought I might finish in 2:00:00 or less.
I was partly right in that I set a personal course record of 2:03:38, but not a personal record (which is just over 2:02, set last year at the Big Lake Half Marathon).
The Full Story
I first ran this race (which is technically called the Bay State Marathon and Lowell Sun Half Marathon) last year when my friend Niels skipped the BAA and suggested we do the Lowell instead. I had run the BAA, but wanted to improve a disappointing time in that race, and I saw this as my last chance to do so in the year. I was pleasantly surprised by a well organized race, on a beautiful and fairly flat course and a cool and sunny fall day. Returning this year, it was all as I remembered it, with some notable exceptions.
The city of Lowell was exactly as I remembered….a charming and well appointed town, 30 minutes or so from Boston, a place that I’d want for my wife to see. I don’t really know what kind of city it is, but it’s worth visiting, full of pubs, boutiques, condos and restaurants nestled in old mill buildings and historic brick low-rises. Some of the streets were cobble-stoned. (Since originally writing this, I’ve heard that Lowell has traditionally not been a place where you would hang out at night, but that it’s transitioning).
Number pickup was at the Tsongas Arena as last year and the start of the race was a few blocks away down the street, but between the walk from my car to the arena and the start I got a good warm up in. I arrived a few minutes before the schedule race start, with just enough time to do a light stretch and turn in my bag.
As I walked to the starting line, however, I was confused by the fact that some of the runners were facing what I thought was the back of the pack, while the back of the pack was facing what I thought was the front. With the two groups facing each other, I wondered “Am I about to witness gang warfare?”
Then I realized, there was no starting line! Whereas we were all wearing chips on our shoes, there was no mat for us to cross. No one knew how far back to go in order to be at the start. Runners we walking back and forth looking for it and there were no course officials around to clarify matters. As I was talking to someone about the situation, we heard a gun go off without warning.
Without a starting line, it was impossible to know exactly where to start my watch. However, I noticed that the group had been divided into the Half Marathon runners (on the right) and Marathon runners (on the left) with a barrier in between, and that the Marathon runners had a starting line. So, I started my watch when I “crossed” the marathon start.
During the week, I’d managed to draw up a new “Time Budget” for each mile that would have me crossing the finish line just under 2:02, thereby setting a new personal record. I thought I’d try a feature in my Garmin watch, however, instead of carrying a piece of paper around, so that I’d be warned if I was running too quickly or too slowly.
However, it rained most of the week in my area so I didn’t have a chance to test this feature out prior to the race. So, just before the gun went off, as I was running to the Tsongas Arena and to the “starting line”, I ran a small trial and for reasons I don’t want to go into, it didn’t work. So, here I was with no time-budget-slip-of-paper and worse yet, no starting line.
I thought I remembered how I set the target pace for each mile….I just deducted 15 seconds from all of last week’s paces, so I figured this would get me pretty far, and that I would work out the rest. I knew the first two miles were supposed to be 9:45, the next two were 9:15, and so on.
In fact, I was a bit off, but I did remember correctly that the course was a double loop – the first was 7 miles and the second was 6.1. I also remembered that in each loop, the back 3 miles of each loop were very flat and fast, with a small (20 to 30 foot) elevation. So in the end, I decided that I’d ran slightly slower the first 3 miles (9:45, 9:30, 9:30), then faster the next 3 miles (9:30, 9:15, 9:15) the next 3. Then on the second loop, I’d cut 15 seconds off each of those times. This was actually a lot closer to the actual plan. And I came up with it while running the first mile.
Rather than taking you through each mile, I’ll tell you that I stuck to this plan during the first loop and that at the halfway point, I had run exactly a 1:00:00 on the nose. This was exciting because I was on track to run a 2 hour half, but a little troublesome because I knew it was a bit faster than I’d planned.
That said, I ran the second half of the race on plan again all the way up until mile 12. where suddenly I hit “the wall”. I was breathing as heavily as I ever had, my legs were cement and no matter how much I reminded myself I was almost at the end, I couldn’t go any faster. In fact, I slowed down to a 9:48 pace and then a 10:12 pace on the last mile. If I’d been able to run at the pace I’d originally planned (8:30 then 8:15), I’d have run the race in 2:01.
One of the things I like the most about this race is that the last tenth of a mile or so is ¾ of a lap on a track within a stadium. There is loud music playing, the previous finishers are cheering you on, and there is hot soup waiting. I had planned to sprint once I entered the stadium, but again, I had cement legs. That last bit of the race seemed to take an eternity and I was happy to finally finish in a new course record and the best time yet this year.
After stretching, drinking lots of water and retrieving my checked bags, I headed up to the food line, where they were serving hot, fresh, homemade chicken soup, minestrone, baked beans, pb&j sandwiches, bananas, rolls and candy. Soup is my favorite post-race food so this is my favorite post-race spread.
As I sit on the stadium bleachers munching away, I saw the winner of the marathon, who amazingly looked like he was running at the end of 26.2 miles faster than I was at the beginning of 13.1. He finished in 2:38 and change.
In the post analysis, I see that I lost my goal to have a new personal record in the last two miles. But it’s not surprising that without any additional training and a much more quickly run first 6 miles, I was bound to hit a wall. The good thing that came out of this is that I practiced some of my newly developed (in the BAA) Half Marathon tenets, and that I was able to keep a cool head in the face of a surprising situation and adapt accordingly.
Next race: Manchester City Half on November 4
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