Pushing to the end: For mile 26 I actually manage to drop back under ten minutes after having run a number of 11 minute miles earlier. I usually never speed up, but in this race, I never warmed up until the end. Photo courtesy of Lee Kauffmann
Two weeks after achieving my best marathon time (4:07:59) in several years at the Delaware Marathon, I went to the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, VT with the thought of attempting to run a better time. Maybe the thought was a bit foolish with only two weeks in-between, but you don’t know unless you try.
In checking the course profile, there were some serious hills, but the rest appeared relatively flat. Wrong! There were more hills than I bargained for. Complicating the attempt was the weather… but I’m getting ahead of the story.
I was going up with Ray Christensen, with the first leg of the trip to his family farm in the Catskills in New York. On Friday he picked me up just before three. We figured to cover the 220 miles with a stop for food in less than five hours What we didn’t figure on was the back-up from an accident on the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike. We virtually stayed in the same part of the road for an hour and fifteen minutes. We pulled in at the farm around nine, took some small refreshment and hit the hay.
The next morning we were off by nine. Ray’s mother, Claire, and a thirteen year-old niece, Kaylin, came along. Claire had never seen Ray run a marathon. The motive for Kaylin to come was perhaps just a couple days from home. Off we went in what was soon a steady rain, which made the driving fairly slow.
Getting to Burlington, we decided to hit the expo first. I had an extra mission since I had been reminded after calling home that I had forgotten my watch. Getting to the massive Sheraton Hotel, we drove to one side to park. Nothing was available, except the handicapped spaces. But we were in Claire’s car and she had a handicapped placard, which she deservedly used regularly. So we found a space, popped right in an out-of-the-way side door and moseyed on up to lobby past a huge swimming pool, which impressed Kaylin.
Getting our bags was easy, but none of the vendors had watches. On the way out, I asked someone where to find a sports store and we were directed to the big running store right in town near the race start. It only took a few minutes to get there and I jumped out while Ray looked for a parking spot. A few minutes later I was out and Ray was waving from up the street. He had found another handicapped spot. We decided that it might be a good plan to try to park there tomorrow for the race.
In rapid order, we got to our motel and checked into the rooms, Ray and his relatives went to church, and I cleaned up, put the number on my shirt, and checked my Ipad for e-mail. Shortly after their return, we went out for a meal. First we went to a pasta place that Ray had found online. But it was very busy and the wait (outside in the rain) would have been an hour. We left a phone number for a call back when a spot was open, but decided to find something else. We went out a road that was supposed to have a couple of other places Ray had written down, but we couldn’t find them. We drove several more miles and just as we were about to turn around, a restaurant turned up. It worked out great as it wasn’t busy, it had pasta and a big screen TV facing our way on which we got the bartender to tune in the Rangers-Bruins game (unfortunately for Ray, the Rangers lost). I ordered Mac & Cheese (that’s pasta, right?) and a couple of brews.
Between the driving, the food and the brews, I soon conked out once we got back to our rooms. The place we had was like a suite, so I had the bedroom and Ray took a rollaway. This allowed me to play music quietly on my Ipad. Getting to sleep by nine, I was awake at four a.m. and started to get up at 4:30. I always want my breakfast in my stomach three hours before a marathon. So I had eaten a couple of bananas and a granola bar before five. By then Ray was stirring and I started to make coffee. It wasn’t that good, but it was a stimulant and soon I was heading for the bathroom. Then I was good to go for the race.
Race day presented some unique weather for late May in Vermont. A massive Northeaster had parked itself over New England for days. Most of the rain was seemingly being dumped on Vermont, which had taken at least five inches over the last several days, causing local flooding. While the forecast no longer called for heavy rain, it was going to keep lightly raining and the wind was going to blow. The temperature wasn’t going over to 50 before noon. I decided to wear a long sleeve shirt with my short sleeve 50 states marathon shirt over top. Originally, I had cut holes in a trash bag to wear at the start until I warmed up. But I decided to wear the bag in between my shirts. I could still tear it out if I wanted to do so, but I left it on for the entire run.
At six thirty, we went to the room where Ray’s relatives were staying and gathered for the ride into town. Looking for the space Ray found the previous day, we saw that access was blocked. But in turning around, fortune presented a space right there on the street. Ray wanted to get going towards the start to position his mother and niece for watching and to hit the portajohns. I persuaded him to sit for another 15 minutes before going.
Once we did take the five or six block walk, we left his mother and niece at possibly the best spot for watching the runners go by several times. Then we got in the portajohn lines. Standing there, I was shivering, so I was glad we hadn’t left the relative warmth of the car earlier. Although Ray had fretted over getting through that line and into the proper spots in the race on time, we did get through with about ten minutes to go. We wished each other luck. Ray moved up to the 3:30 pace group, while I fell behind the 4:00 hour group.
I wasn’t figuring I could actually run the marathon in four hours, but I was hoping to hold on to them through halfway. But as soon as the crowd started moving toward the start line, the pacers were moving farther away from me. When the gun went off, it took me exactly two minutes to cross the start. By then, the pacers were 20 seconds ahead of me and were moving faster than I could go in the crowd. So I tried to settle into my own pace.
The first mile was mostly uphill, but being fresh, it didn’t seem that way. I saw the marker, knocked over, so that I couldn’t actually see “1 mile”. It was misplaced as my watch was at 10:30. At the second mile, my watch read 18:15, so I was on pace. Around then, Tom Jermyn, a local Delaware running friend, appeared and ran along with me for a few paces. His daughter lives in Burlington and he was out observing. He had seen Ray a minute or so earlier. Then he peeled off and I was on my own again.
The first five miles were actually done in ten seconds faster than the first five I did at the Delaware Marathon. We had curled back past the start and we now headed west out on a two mile out-and-back stretch of highway that was totally open. I soon started feel the effects of running into the wind. Wind is the worst element for me. I’m tall, so I have a lot of surface area to push through it, but I’m not muscular, so I can’t power through. The wind began to sap my will to run hard. My gloves were now soaked and my hands constantly stung with pain.
Going out this stretch, the leaders came by - going the other way. There was a pack of about five. Trailing by about 50 yards was a short black runner - more about him later. A few minutes later I saw Lee Kauffman, who had come up from Delaware to participate in the two- person relay, doing the first half of the course. About a third of a mile from the turn around there was a fluid station. I had taken fluid the first two stops, but passed on this one as I realized I wasn’t going to be doing much sweating. I saw Ray on the other side of the station, jostling, attempting to reach in for a drink. I called out, but he didn’t hear me.
After turning around to return into town, I was realizing that it wasn’t going to be my day. I consoled myself with two thoughts: 1. I was going to check off Vermont from the list of states in which I have run a marathon. 2. If I wasn’t running that fast (because I both couldn’t and didn’t have the will to try), then I wasn’t going to end up that sore and I could go on to the next event in relatively good shape.
One of the annoyances for a relatively slow marathoner was the fact that we were running with the relay teams on the same course. So at almost any given moment, people with fresh legs were streaming past, heaping on more discouragement. But as we approached the start/finish area again and the transition point for the second leg of the relays, I did notice an attractive young miss who had the words on the back of her shirt “Red Hot Red Heads”. She did indeed have a long red ponytail and green wet running shorts. I must not write any more about her as she was probably young enough to be my granddaughter. But more on this group later.
Next we headed through the downtown mall, a street of brick built for walking. There were lots of spectators and cheers here. Then we headed toward the half-marathon point on a southern end of Burlington. At some point in this segment, the next Red Hot Red Head came alongside me and commented on my 50 states shirt. In fact several people in the course of the run said something about how I could cross off Vermont. (The abbreviations of all the states are on the back of the shirt and I’ve put Xs next to the ones I’ve done.)
On most of the run south, we were several blocks away from Lake Champlain. But after the half-marathon point, we turned north and, for a while, we were running right along the lake. There the winds were at their strongest, approaching gale force, with clear whitecaps being raised in the water. After being exposed to winds this strong for several minutes, I would start to have a few toes become numb. I’d run through a more sheltered part and the toes would regain feeling, but the process would repeat again with more wind exposure.
The truth is that I knew from my one and only Did Not Finish marathon years ago in Frederick, MD, when the temperature was in the 30s and I was running through slush, that the one I was now running was just a bit more moderate and that I could get through with a few numb toes. As long as my entire feet weren’t becoming numb, as in Frederick, I’d be OK.
Next came another run through the center of town, taking on a pretty steep hill of about ¾ of a mile. It was steep enough that at one point, I started race walking, which was as fast for me as running up an incline that steep. Then it was another pass by the start, actually right in back of the aforementioned portajohns, before another last hill at mile 17. It was here that I had to detour between some trees, realizing that my early diligent taking of fluids had built up because I wasn’t sweating. The time loss didn’t matter since I had long discarded any goals.
On a better day, the latter part of the race, being all flat or slightly downhill, would have been great for running a good time. But I was still cold and not feeling like pushing it. One part that could be changed about the race was a short section in this area where we ran through 80 yards of woods to get from a parking lot to a road. The section was totally muddy. I know our shoes were wet, but this is a road race, not a trail event. Why have all these pairs of road racing shoes become mucked up?
During the last five miles we were on a paved path in parkland. The winds seemed to have diminished and I finally felt relatively warm. On those miles I gradually picked up the pace, from having slowed to 11:00 minutes a mile to eventually running the last mile under 10:00. I also found that running on a narrow bare dirt groove worn next to the trail was more forgiving on my aching legs and helped me stride a bit longer. Somewhere along here I passed the female running the last leg for the Red Hot Red Heads team. A statistic presented by the race organization showed, that in the segment from 20 miles to the finish, while I was passed by 21 people, I, in turn, passed 97.
During the last mile, we were along Lake Champlain again. But now the sun was out, the wind had lessened, and the mountains on the other side of the lake were visible. Pushing to the end, we turned off the pavement onto grass for the last tenth of a mile. Oops! It was grass before thousands of pairs of feet turned it into mud. I tried to run on the least used part, up against the retaining barrier next to the crowd watching. I heard the announcer apologize as he mispronounced my name while I was finishing. No big deal – I’m used to it. Done in 4:24:54, which is OK.
But then we had to walk straight through a puddle of mud. Really? Some mats couldn’t have been put down to avoid that?
Taking my medal and a water bottle, I headed for the reunion area, where Ray and family were waiting. Ray said I should go over and grab some food and a beer while they waited for me just outside the park. When I got to the food, I realized it was going to take a while to get through, so I passed on waiting. And I was getting cold, so the beer was not appealing. I did check the results. For some reason, the results for 60 year olds were all lumped together, instead of being separated into five-year groups. I was listed at 33rd. Later I found I was ninth out of 22 in the 65-69 men’s group.
Anyway, I decided to forego the refreshments. I wanted to get back to the vehicle and get warmed up. Meeting Ray, we all started walking. I realized that Ray’s mother was going to take a while getting up into town. So I suggested that I take the key and Kaylin and I would walk ahead and start the car. Kaylin sat in the front and that afforded me the opportunity to change out of most of my wet running clothes. When Ray and his mother arrived, we decided to leave Burlington because all the eateries were already packed with runners.
We went just a couple miles and stopped at a Denny’s for some lunch. Ray had a nice bathroom in which to change. We all had an opportunity to put away some needed calories. We told the waitress we had just run the marathon and she told us that her manager had had a runner stop at his house. While paying the tab, the manager came out and told me that story. One of the elite runners was from Kenya (remember the black runner I saw trailing the other leaders?) and he was not used to the cold. Somewhere after twenty miles he had had enough. He just decided to knock on a random door to escape the cold and it happened to be that of the Denny’s manager. The manager took him in. They contacted the race organization and, after 20 minutes, a car came and picked up the runner.
Having eaten, it was time to head back to the farm. But Ray knew that the Magic Hat Brewery was on the way out of town, so we stopped in. It was too late for a tour. The inside was a big tourist shop with a bar on one side. The bartenders were giving out two-ounce samples and there were six varieties. But that seemed like too much work. I bought a six-pack of Magic Hat #9 and had three on the trip back. As the owner of the Dogfish Head Brewery recently said, “Beer is liquid food!” and I was glad to be carbo-reloading!
It seems the clouds were just hanging over Vermont. As we crossed into New York, the rain stopped and we watched the temperature on the car indicator rise from the 40s to almost 70 by the time we arrived at the farm.
On Monday it was time for giving back to the Christensens for the free grub and a place to sleep. The day was gorgeously clear and dry. After hosing and brushing the mud off our running shoes, we left them in the sun to dry. Ray and I tackled separating bad barn siding from salvageable siding and pulled nails, keeping the really big ones for straightening and reuse as well as the old pounded-out pre-industrial nails. Yes the barn is that old. Ray’s brother Ken was building the floor for a chicken coop and it took the three of us to move it into position on the spot where the coop will stand. At lunch we each had one of the remaining #9’s. As we prepared to leave, I thanked Ray’s mother and said I expected Ray to bring me some eggs from the farm soon.
By three we were on our way back to Delaware and found the going much easier than the trip up. Travelers seemed sparse for the end of the Memorial Day weekend.
Here are some closing thoughts on the Vermont City Marathon:
- I feel the course could use some tweaking to avoid the muddy section and to eliminate so many twists and turns.
- There are really too many people on the road – marathoners, two-person teams, and five-person teams, about 6,600 in all. The course is too narrow for all these people. The marathoners seem to be getting little respect with all the fresh runners constantly going by them. Some separation is needed.
- The course is tougher than I thought. Even on a good day, there are some serious hills, plus other uphills that aren’t as obvious on the course map.
- Despite these criticisms, the events are well run and well organized. Burlington is worth visiting for more than a day. So plan accordingly if you decide to do this event.
Ray Christensen has written his own version with a number of pictures. See here: http://runmarathonman.com/vermont13.php