Saturday, October 26, 2014. I ended a four-month journey that was preparing and racing a full marathon. In early June, I decided that this being the last year of my 20's, I was ready to take on this challenge. I had completed 5 half marathons in my past, and raced the Vermont Beast (Spartan Race) for 3 straight years and figured if I executed the training properly, I could take on 26.2.

This was after I had said publicly on many occasions, "I don't think I will ever feel the need to run a full marathon. It's not for me." But something in me decided that this was the time, and even if I only do it once, I was going to give it a shot.

So I thought about signing up for the early October Hartford Marathon. As it turned out, if I did so I would literally have had to start training that very day! So I decided to look for marathons nearby, later in the month of October. I then stumbled upon the Cape Cod Marathon website and it seemed a perfect match. First of all, it was in the town we often visit for a week in the summer. Secondly, it was one big loop which was appealing to me. Third of all, it was a small marathon, run by a local track club. After giving it a couple days of thought, I signed up.

Training

We're lucky that the internet is chock full of marathon training tips and guides. I choose the reputable Hal Higdon training plans as my source. I liked the amount of mileage in the "intermediate" plan, but liked that the "advanced" plans had speed work involved. I also knew that Thursday was my day off from work, and would have to be my day for long runs instead of the weekend, especially when the runs got beyond 16 miles. So I took the intermediate plan and basically followed this for 4 months:

Monday - Speed work. Alternating hill loops, tempo runs, and 800m repeats

Tuesday - Rest

Wednesday - Run at marathon pace (peak at 8 miles)

Thursday - Long Run (including two 20 milers)

Friday - Cross Train (usually P90X3 DVD or free weights)

Saturday - Easy Aerobic run (peak at 5)

Sunday - Moderate Aerobic run (peak at 8)

The way the long runs work, you increase distance for 2 straight weeks, then take a break and roll back the mileage. At my peak, I ran 47 miles in a one week. I also sprinkled in a Spartan Race Trifecta with a race in June and two races in September.

The key to my success was definitely making a plan. I can't tell you how nice it was every time I completed a run and was able to check off a box on my printed out marathon training calendar. When we visited the Cape in August, I was even able to run part of the course. My long run that week was the final 14.5 miles of the course. Being able to feel this out and visualize the ending was great for my training.

After the Vermont Spartan Race in late September I experience my first setback. I left the race with a bruised top of my left foot, a really bad rope burn on my right ankle, and also caught a cold the following week. That week, one month out, I had to take a break from training, but fortunately the rest paid off because I nailed my final 20 miler the following week.

About 6 weeks out, I changed out my running shoes. I have been training on the road with Brooks PureFlow (a somewhat minimal shoe) for 3 years now, and simply bought a new pair. I was dumb and got the same color as my old ones though, and at one point was nervous I would accidentally grab the old pair for the race! (fortunately this didn't happen).

Having mostly raced short distances in the past, I really enjoyed the speed work. My hill loops were either on the driveway to Talcott Mountain Park, or a hill loop I used to run in High School Cross-Country practice at Stratton Brook Park. As for the long runs, I was amazed how much they take out of you once you start getting above 15 miles. Strange things would happen - for example, my 15 was one of my best training runs, but then when I ran a half marathon distance the week after, I did poorly and felt sick after. My first 17 miler was brutal, but my first 20 mile was great for the first 19 miles before it started to get hard. There were some real dog days of summer in July that led me to have to walk/run most of the long run due to humidity. What this all taught me is that every day is a different day, and you never really know what to expect until you start moving.

One of the trickiest parts for me was the taper, and keeping my mind sharp. With less training, my mind wandered and I was nervous about getting sick again or injuring myself. I psyched myself out and had a bad misstep in one of my final training runs, fortunately not rolling my ankle too bad. I also started to obsess over nutrition. By the time I was one week out, I wished every day that tomorrow would just be the day of the race and I could get it over with! At that point I had finished my training and was so ready, yet it seemed so far away.

Race weekend

On Saturday morning, we drove up to the Cape. It was a nice, easy drive. We checked into our room - and by the way we had the dog with us. After eating a home cooked breakfast early in the morning, we were pretty hungry, but I had to get my final 2-miler in before lunch. I ran a 7.5 minute out, 7.5 minute back distance from our room. I suppose they put this 2 miler in so that your legs aren't stiff the day of the race. We went to an Italian place for lunch and I had a grilled chicken sandwich with a salad.

All week I had been hydrating. It's amazing, when you stay completely hydrated you feel so much more awake and healthy. I found getting up in the morning easier being hydrated as well as general feeling during the day. I picked up my bib and race packet, and liked that my number was 57 - Johann Santana's number as a Met, the only Met to throw a no-hitter. I figured this was a good sign! We relaxed all afternoon and I had pasta with light red sauce and chicken for dinner. I don't really believe in ridiculous carb loading the day before the race. In general, I had changed my diet during the training to be 60-70% carbs daily and I didn't change this the week of the race. I still had good sources of vegetables and proteins in the final weeks.

Though it was technically off season for the Cape, our place we stayed was full with other marathoners. Unfortunately, the runners next to us (two men and one woman) were loud and obnoxious. This did not make the dog happy, as every little stir make him start to play guard-dog. By 11:00, everyone was silent.

I actually slept great that night, regardless. I had one of those sleeps where I slept for 2 hours at a time, would wake up and then fall back to sleep immediately. My body woke me up before my alarm at 5:30 and I was ready to go. Knowing that I had "survived" everything - the training, the taper, and the final week - I felt like a million bucks getting ready that morning.

I immediately ate a Clif Bar at 5:30 - knowing that it had fiber and protein and wanted to give it 3 hours pre-race to get processed in my system. At 6:30 I had a banana and a little after I ate a plain bagel. I stopped hydrating around 7:45 (before an 8:30 race) because at that point I was good to go. I was wearing a pair of race shorts and a new tech t-shirt, which was looser than some of my compression gear I would have worn for a Spartan Race. We made our way to the town and I was by the start line with plenty of time to spare. The weather was pretty much perfect - partially cloudy in the mid 50's with a slight breeze.

The Race

There were maybe 1000 people at the start line, mostly marathoners with some relayers. A singer sang America the Beautiful which I thought was a nice touch. I was talking with a man I met, wearing a Hartford marathon when all of a sudden the gun went off, and I was running the Cape Cod marathon.

I decided to not go out too fast. However, I was amazed with how fresh my legs felt from the taper. Having only run half marathons, what felt "slow" to me was about 7:50 pace for the first mile. That was actually a really good pace for me and I think I should have kept it for longer than just one mile. You see, the course is evil in that the first 11 or so miles are basically flat, then the first big hill, then from miles 13-24 are non-stop rolling hills, with several memorable ones. They suggest going out slower than you think to compensate for the difficult second half.

Nonetheless, after mile 1, I settled into a 7:25-7:30 pace groove until about mile 15. I can't say how, or why this happened, but it just felt right and I was making great time. Miles 3-5 were beautiful and on the beach looking towards the Vineyard. We then hooked north into East Falmouth, known for its cranberry bogs. I was still going strong, taking all my water stops without slowing down, and approached the first big hill at mile 11. As it turned out, this was where my wife was supposed to meet me for the first time, but I was so ahead of my time, she hadn't arrived yet. I fortunately left a message with another spectator to tell her to move on.

I passed the half marathon mark at 1:39, which was faster than I raced one of my half marathon courses. I figured at some point soon I would pay for this, but I felt so good at the time, that I just kept running.

The first time I started to feel the brakes come on was around mile 16. In fact, I got passed by a few people I hadn't seen in a long time, and the girl who was running in front of me that was my "rabbit" for a long time started to make some headway on me as we approached a difficult hill in West Falmouth. We were running route 28A, which is a bit of a main road. At mile 16, we turned right towards the hamlet of Sippewisset and this would be where it reaily hit me. Knowing I still had 10 miles, doubts started to creep into my head.

Though my pace was slowing, I had definitely made some great headway with such a solid start and I was still on pace to finish well below the hallowed 4-hour mark. The question would just become how long could I sustain what I had been doing, and did I shoot myself in the foot by running so fast on the flats?

At mile 17.5 I started to walk during the water stops, which were about every 2.5 miles. Getting a little break on my feet was a good thing. I should also say that at mile 9 and mile 16 I took my carb supplements, which were Clif Shotbloks.

After running on Sippewisset Road (which changed names a couple times, but was essentially the same straight road), I came into the center of Woods Hole at mile 21. This was the second spot my wife was going to be. Seeing her and the dog was such a big lift, I thought I would be fine the rest of the way! All that was left was a loop around the Nobska Lighthouse, and a straight line home.

Unfortunately, I forgot that there were still some nasty hills to be had around the lighthouse. By mile 22 I had slowed significantly - I honestly am not sure if I was even running 9:30 minute miles at that point. At the mile 23 water stop, I stopped to walk and to my shock, I couldn't move again. I tried to get the legs moving, but had to walk it out. I let about 3 minutes of walking pass for me and was saddened that a few small packs of runners began to pass me. Somebody asked, "Are you ok?" and I answered "Yeah...I'm about to get moving again in a sec."

I took another round of my carbs, and told myself "Ok...you have to do this NOW." Though it was painful to start the running motion again, I was so glad that my body responded and I was able to start shuffling my feet, and eventually, run again. I had already run this part of the course in my training, but I was very disoriented and didn't know how close I was to various landmarks. However, soon I saw mile 24, then the beach on Surf Dr. that would jog my memory and when I saw the mile 25 sign, I knew I was going to be fine. I certainly wasn't flying at this point, but was moving consistently enough to finish and still get a decent enough time for a first time marathoner. 

The end of the race is brilliant - you make a left turn off the beach road and a street, a little less than a mile long, dumps you right back into the center of Falmouth where the large crowds can cheer you on for the final .2 miles. Finishing was such a relief. I didn't necessary feel any euphoria as some people describe, but relief pretty much sums up the emotion! 4 months of dedication is a long time and the fact that the race really went well, all things considered, was a great feeling.

My final official time was 3:41:08, and I finished in the top 15% of runners. It was definitely a tale of two halves for me - I did not do well in terms of matching my splits at each half marathon, but my overall time was good. Given that the course itself is an easy half and a hard half, this was probably inevitable, especially as a first time marathoner. To put some things in perspective, there were only 3 racers that broke 2 hours 50 minutes for the entire course and no one who broke 2 hours 30 minutes, which is relatively slow for a top pack at a Boston Qualifier marathon. So, to be perfectly honest, I'm glad I did so well and that the toughness of the course didn't really enter my brain until I was on the course. It could have been easy to get pysched out knowing there were hills. I'm glad I just decided to run on feel, and it all worked itself out in the end!

Having completed a marathon, I feel like I learned so much about marathon running that the training could never have taught me. Jumping from 20 mile long run to 26.2 was no joke, and dealing with some serious pain and a near-bonk status taught me a lot. This very well could be my one and only marathon, but I am ok with that.

A Quick Review of the Event

As for a review of the event, I have nothing but positive feedback. Every turn of the course was marked well and had volunteers and often police officers controlling traffic. Though the roads were left open to cars, it was never a problem of safety. The course is brilliantly designed to be beautiful and challenging. The Cape is just gorgeous in late October and you get to see all the nooks and crannies of Falmouth. Some people have written reviews that they need more water stations, but I didn't believe so. If the weather had been hot and humid, then definitely yes, but for a fall day, 10 water stops was just right. They had gatorade and water at every stop and portable bathrooms several times along the course. The finisher swag was pretty nice, as they covered you with a heat blanket and gave you a really robust, nice looking finisher medal with the logo and year. The t-shirt for entering was a nice cotton long sleeve shirt, and you could have upgraded to nicer technical shirts, but I was happy with the cotton one. The only issue was parking in the morning - they have you park at a local middle school, but the lot completely filled up and we had to skirt around the corner into another municipal building making it about a half mile walk to the start line, which wasn't ideal. Also, my wife had some trouble finding a spot to park to catch me at the finish line, but figured it out. Basically, there is nothing you can do about that and we made the best of it. My suggestion is to get there plenty early so you aren't rushing around to the start line.

I got a follow up email the day after the race and race photographs and results were up by Wednesday. Overall, an incredible, well-supported experience! I highly recommend this marathon, though if it is your first, make sure you are ready for a tough course.