Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mohawk Hudson River Marathon race report

Taper and obsession with weather

The 3 weeks taper leading up to race day is usually a challenging period for most runners. Despite most of the training going as per plan self-doubt always creeps in during this period. The phantom aches and pains do not help either. In addition to the usual stress in the  left glutes and left calf and occasional  numbness in the left foot I started to feel a little tightness in my right groin and right hamstring. Also sensed light blisters/roughness under both my big toes.  Having  had the best ever training period of  16 weeks   including rigorously focused stretching and strengthening during this period my main concern was race day weather.
Unlike most other runners my body seems to be able to handle warmer temperatures better than very cold  weather. I became quite obsessed with the weather and started tracking the Albany weather from over a month before the race. Of course meteorological science is not advanced enough to accurately predict the weather weeks in advance. And the forecast kept swinging between being sunny and rainy with temperatures varying from 16/8 to 11/0 Celsius. As a result of this I also started tracking the registration and weather forecast for the Wineglass marathon  in Corning on September 30th which I had identified as an alternate/backup race. Till 22nd September which was the last date of registration for this race I was too psyched up about the weather and  in two minds as to which race to run. However, after discussing with my coach Bill Pierce and close  friend and running coach Dhammo I decided to take my chances and stay with the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon on 7th October. While at the beginning of the race week the forecast for Albany was rains and cold temperatures from the 5th of October - 48 hours before the race- the forecast changed to cloudy (13/2 Celsius) with rains in the afternoon. I was highly relieved that the dreaded rain was likely to stay away even though the temperatures were still going to be too cold for me.  The weather in Southbury, CT also started to cool down the week of 1st October.  I became overly cautious and  wore additional layers of clothing to stay extra warm this week. Also gargled with salted warm water 2-3 times a day  and drank mostly warm water to protect my sensitive throat.  During this period I also agonised over my race day attire - whether two wear two layers or one and if two layers which one to discard and which one to keep for the entire race(between short sleeve and long sleeve). I did not consider running in warm up pants as I have never ever trained in them. 

Race Strategy

My training using the 'Run Less, Run Faster' training program was customised for a  per mile pace of 8:19 with a target marathon time of  3:38:03. Based on my last long run on 15th Sept ,when I managed 13.1 miles in about 1:47 and 23 miles in 3:14 ,my race strategy was to get to the half way mark between 1:47 and 1:49 at an average of between 8:12 to 8:19 per mile. And then get to 22 mile mark between 3:02 and 3:04 and run the last 4 miles as fast as I could to finish as close to 3:38 as possible. The goal was to stay ahead of the 3:40 pacer (8:24/mile) and within sight of the 3:35 pacer(8:12/mile) while keeping  a close watch on the average pace on my Garmin and not letting it slide beyond 8:20/mile.  It is very challenging to run even or negative  splits in a marathon as is recommended by coaches and experts. I have been unable to maintain even splits in most of my training tempo and long runs. During the long runs the per mile pace kept varying between 7:45 and 8:45 or so. Often I found I was running faster than target pace. On slowing down the pace usually fell well below the target pace.  My goal  for the race was to run the 1st half slightly faster than the 2nd half keeping the difference between the two halves to less than 3 minutes. The ideal split I was looking for was 1:48/1:50. In preparation for the race I deleted historic data on my Garmin and also arrived at the most comfortable strap position(5th hole).  Of course, whatever the training and race strategy everything needs to fall in place on race day - weather, stomach, rhythm, mental strength, shoe laces etc 

Day before the race

The last few days leading up to the race were fairly relaxed - short, less intensive workouts and a lot of World cup T20 cricket on the TV - streamed from Cricinfo. I managed to get about 7 hours of reasonably good sleep on most nights. My last aerobic workout was a 4 mile run on 4rth October. On the evening of the 5th I walked for about a mile and a half with my sister and brother-in-law in Kettletown State Park.  On 6th morning I did some light foam roller and stretching exercises. My sister, brother-in-law and myself left Southbury at 1PM after lunch and reached Hotel Albany at 3:30PM. Withing the  2.5 hours drive the temperature had dropped by over 10 degrees. The hotel lobby was buzzing with runners - waiting to check-in or heading towards/from the bib pickup at the expo. We checked in and headed to the basement to the expo. The bib and T-shirt collection took a minute. I confirmed that I had a reservation on the bus to the start area and enquired about the possibility of a train coming at the railroad crossing around mile 17.

Collecting the bib and T-shirt

Checking on bus,railroad crossing and weather

I talked to the 3:35 pacer Scot as well as Larissa the 3:40 pacer and based on the discussions decided to start with Larissa and stay ahead of her while keeping Scot in sight.

In the evening we walked a bit in downtown Albany and had a Pizza dinner. After checking that all my gear was ready including the  fully charged up Garmin  I read a bit and went to sleep at 9:45 PM. Slept reasonably well though I woke up a couple of times during the night. As usual I woke up at 5:30AM before my alarm rang. 

Race morning

With the outside temperature around 4 Celsius I decided to keep myself extra warm for the bus ride and the pre-race period. I left the hotel room a little after 6:30 am wearing warm up pants, a full sleeved running shirt,a half sleeve shirt, a half sleeve sweater , a windcheater, gloves and two layers of socks with sandals. I had my usual two bananas and a handful of pecans and almonds for 'breakfast' and carried 2 Gu gels with me.  At the lift waiting area I met Sri Bodkhe - an accomplished runner from MA who was running the MHRM for the 4rth time. We walked down together to board the bus to the start point. The ride to the start point seemed fairly short as Sri and I were busy chatting. We got there a little after 7 am.  In the start area the race organisers had thoughtfully arranged for fire in the four  fireplaces in the pavilion to enable runners to stay warm.  Sri and I hung out near the fire for some time. Soon after I changed into my shorts and shoes and removed one layer of socks and the half sleeves sweater and we joined the port-a-potty queue.  Apart from the target race time the main topic of conversation among runners was the number of layers they were going to wear at the start with the temperature still around 45F/7C. I was getting a bit psyched up as most runners were talking about timings between 2:45 and 3:30. Anyway at about 8:15 am I removed my windcheater and checked in my bag. After taking a leak again, this time in the woods, Sri and I went to the start line. Sri was in the front as he was looking at a time between 3:25 and 3:30.  I stood shivering along with Larissa the 3:40 pacer - it was a bit too cold for me. There seemed to be about 1000 runners at the start. Many runners were wearing full sleeves shirt as well as gloves. Just a few minutes before race start I decided to run in a single (full sleeves) layer and discarded my half sleeves shirt  There was not much fanfare at the start and it reminded me of  Runners For Life races. This race is indeed organised by Hudson river runners club. The race started exactly at 8:30 am.

The Race

As I took off I felt good despite the cold. After just a couple of hundred meters I decided to pull ahead of the 3:40 pacer and try and keep the 3:35 pacer in sight. After going through the flat city roads we entered the bike trail at mile 4. With a small field the race picked up pace from the get go. My first three miles were at 8:16 , 8:14  and 8:02 pace which means I was in touching distance of the 3:35 pacer. Just before mile 5 we plunged down a big hill and then entered the best part of the course - with the Mohawk river on the left and a canopy of trees on the right. I had to be a bit careful running over the damp fallen leaves which we encountered many a times on the bike trail. At this stage I was running a pretty steady pace as the mile splits below show. Though a fairly narrow bike trail the runners were sufficiently spread out so I did not feel crowded out on the route. There were aid stations every 2 miles with water and Gatorade. These were organised either by local high schools or running clubs. The volunteers in these aid stations were very enthusiastic in cheering and encouraging the runners as they held out their paper cups. I generally slowed down at every alternate aid station after mile 6 to take either water or gatorade. I had my first Gu Gel around mile 10 and the second one around mile 16. Miles 5 through 11 were fairly flat with some minor rolling hills. At mile 11 there was a steep downhill which led to the only big uphill in the course around mile 12.4. The hill took a bit of effort and it had an impact on mile 14 pace as well. I hit the halfway point pretty much on target at 1:48:xx. By this time the 3:35 pace group had pulled ahead and I could no longer sight them. Nevertheless I ran very well till mile 18 - in fact mile 18 was my second fastest mile of the race as I wanted to get on the other side of the railroad crossing at the earliest. While the race organisers had a timing mat at the railroad crossing to account for the delay in case runners were stopped by a passing train. I was thankful this did not happen on this race day - stopping for a few minutes  during a run usually impacts my rhythm and momentum. The possibility of stoppage due to a train crossing was one big disadvantage of this race due to which I thought very hard about selecting this race. Miles 19 through 21 were through town  - in this stretch we had to dodge traffic cones which is the only separation between runners and oncoming traffic. Though this stretch was flat this is where I began to lose it both physically and mentally. With no trees and open roads I began to feel cold even though the temperatures had risen. I  was glad I had not discarded my gloves something I considered doing half way through the race. I somehow lost focus and was getting bothered with the narrow area for runners and my pace began to drop considerably.  Up to mile 18 I ran faster than 8:20 miles except miles 13 and 14. From mile 19 onward the pace was slower than 8:25.  From mile 22 onward we were back on the bike trail heading to the finish at the riverfront park in Albany. Though I was keeping an eye on the average pace and reached the 22 mile mark in my target time of 3:03  I seem to have somewhere miscalculated the time/distance/pace and did not quite realise how close I was to 3:40  till the time Larissa - the 3:40 pacer -overtook me half way between  mile 25 and  mile 26 egging  me on to speed up to meet the 3:40 goal. I figured  at this point that my Garmin was probably a bit off. Though I knew 3:38 was not going to be achievable I was running under the impression that I would finish close to 3:39. However, the toes of both my legs were numb - not quite sure whether it was due to the cold or whether they were cramped. In any case the last mile and a half was a tremendous physical and mental struggle . The finish clock was just past 3:39:30 when I first sighted it and made the last frantic push to the finish line completing a few seconds behind the 3:40 pacer. And the display monitor just behind the finish line showed my (gun) time as 3:40:11. I was slightly dizzy and cold - so I was glad when a volunteer gave me an Aluminium foil wrapper along with the finishers medal. My sister and brother-in-law welcomed me enthusiastically a few meters from the finish line. As the detailed results were being printed and posted on a wall close by I waited anxiously for the sheet with my name to go up hoping fervently that I had managed a chip time within 3:40. I was mighty relieved and thankful to my stars when I saw my chip time of 3:39:57.  I had indeed met my goal of BQ'ing!! Albeit by the smallest of margins of 3 seconds.  Shaving exactly 9 minutes off my previous best at SCMM 2012 was a great achievement - however I was disappointed that I could not finish closer to 3:39 - it could so easily have been a few seconds on the other side of 3:40!!

Few seconds after the finish

Wrapped in Al foil - speaking to the wife

The mile splits as per my Garmin  which showed 26.35 miles and finish time  of 3:40:07 :
  1. 8:15.54   7. 8:14.32  13. 8:20.79 19. 8:24.72      25. 8:35.25
  2. 8:13.65   8. 8:17.28  14. 8:22.97 20. 8:34:47      26. 8:42.63
  3. 8:01.43   9. 8:10.82  15. 8:15.87  21. 8:39:02   . 35  2:56:12
  4. 8:15.53  10. 8:17.54 16. 8:15.21  22. 8:42.86
  5. 8:13.52   11. 8:19.92  17. 8:13:02  23. 8:33.35
  6. 8:11.76   12. 8.14.12  18. 8:07:33  24. 8:38.03

Official results:
  • Place: 239/922
  • Division:  18/74
  • Splits:   1st half  - 1:48:27,  2nd half - 1:51:42,  17.7 mi  - 2:26:36,  Net  - 3:39:57 , Gun - 3:40:11 
  • Pace:  8:25  (versus goal of 8:19)

Aerial view of the riverfront finish area


I had some chocolate milk and chips from the refreshment counter - did not feel like eating a whole lot. After a bit of stretching I walked up to the baggage bus and collected my bag. Then had some hot tea and slowly walked/shuffled  back to the hotel room (half a mile away) with my sister and brother-in-law. I had a quick shower before we checked out of the hotel room - I had managed to get 2 additional hours beyond the normal check-out time of 11:30 am for no extra charge. We then went for a 'celebratory'  buffet lunch at an Indian restaurant in Albany before heading back to Southbury. I spoke to  a few people during the drive including my coach Bill and a couple of cousins living in the US. While I was fatigued and quite sore I could not sleep during the drive. A lot of ifs and buts kept going through my mind - Did I not push hard enough in the last 5 miles? What if I had lost a few more seconds at one of the aid stations ? Did I run the first half too fast? Or should I have run the first half slightly faster - knowing that I would inevitably slow down in the last 5 miles?  It is normal for any runner to go through such what ifs post a race - in this case it was more so due to the narrow margin by which I met my goal of BQ. We celebrated in the evening with a couple of home made margaritas- nevertheless I could barely sleep that night. I kept tossing and turning and the race route, the aid stations, the finish timing  etc kept going through my mind the whole night!!

Closing thoughts 

Overall it was a well organised point to point race with a net elevation loss. There was very little spectator support during most of the route though a few people did cheer us on at various points despite it being a cloudy and chilly morning. The aid stations were well stocked and the volunteers there were very enthusiastic. Except for the road portion through the city between miles 18 and 21 the route is very pretty.

When I set myself the goal of BQ'ing in  2010 the qualifying time for 55-59 age group was 3:45. When the qualifying timing for 55-59 age group changed to 3:40 as a result of the changes made by BAA in February 2011 I pretty much gave up the thought of BQ'ing. However, during the retreat at Furman University in July 2011 after observing me for 4 days coach Bill Pierce stated that with  the right  training and focus on fewer races I should be able to achieve sub 3:40. I formally trained for the Hyderabad marathon August 2011 using the 'Run Less, Run Faster' training program and hit 3:51:48 - my PB at that time. I further reduced it to 3:48:57 at SCMM 2012 the second time I used this training methodology. Thanks to the constant and prompt guidance and inputs from Bill in my 3rd(and this time I followed the program with much greater rigor compared to the two previous times) I was able to go sub 3:40. I certainly could not achieved this without the constant encouragement and guidance from Bill. I do feel confident that I can better this time by 1-2 minutes over the next 11 months. The low-mileage, intensive FIRST training program works for me - so I see no reason to discontinue it and move to one of the numerous high mileage training programs that are available.

Training for this race has been the single most area of my life's focus since June 2012 and  I tried my best to balance this with other aspects of family life and not impact spending quality time with the family members. I am extremely thankful of their implicit and explicit support and encouragement towards this endeavor.

My sister and brother-in-law who hosted my for 7 weeks at Connecticut and put up with my maniacal work and exercise schedule had a big role in the success of achieving my goal.  My sister took great care of my dietary needs during this period. Plus they sacrificed watching the finals of the T20 world cup to drive me to/from Albany and were there at the finish line to cheer me and take pictures.

Others who definitely helped me along this journey are good friend and running coach Dharam who promptly responded to my mail and phone queries with his inputs, Dr Gladson of AttitudePrime who patiently taught me about 15  stretches which helped me get over the stress of my left calf and glutes and last but not least the numerous friends from the running group BHUKMP who were encouraging of my efforts all along.

I now look forward to a few weeks of easy training and enjoying a relatively relaxed 50Km race with no timing pressure at the Bangalore Ultra on 10th November . After the Ultra I hope to start a 7 or 6 weeks training program for SCMM 2013 the week of November 19th or November 26th with a target of a sub 3:38 again!!. 


Sridharan k said...

Enjoyed reading your blog Bhasker. Thoroughly impressed by your meticulous training and preparation. Congrats on your BQ.

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