Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Race Report: The Louisiana Marathon (Geaux Run!)

This past weekend saw my triumphant return to marathoning! For selfish purposes, we will officially define triumphant as "I finished."

I had a reasonably healthy perspective going into the race. I'm only eight months removed from stepping on a rock and rolling my ankle so violently that I snapped the bottom of my tibia. I'm only five months removed from a total running restriction. And, I'm only three and a half months removed from week one of this particular marathon training schedule. I figured 14 training weeks would be plenty for a seasoned marathoner like me. This was #7, after all. 

I failed to account for the fact that the marathon doesn't give credit based on past history. That 26.2 mile ribbon of pavement just wants to know, what have you done for me lately, baby. And my lately wasn't quite enough to run a race defined by anything other than "just finish." 

The great news: the Louisiana Marathon is a jewel of a race. It had everything going for it: 1) within driving distance of home; 2) a state I haven't run yet; 3) flat and fast; 4) January in the south; and added bonus, 5) the Marathon Maniacs reunion race. All of that before I get to the fact that it's an incredibly well run race just the right size for this small-race-loving runner. 

My friend Mary and I headed down on Friday: while it's within driving distance of home, it's a full day's drive, and we pulled into Baton Rouge around 6PM ready for dinner and hotel check in. We were tired, and not that interested in making a production out of finding dinner, so we hit the Japanese sushi and hibachi all you can eat buffet next door to the hotel. I'm sorry to say, that is an indicator of what (in retrospect) were poor pre-race food choices. It was cheap, quick and filling, though, so in the moment, I was happy. After the weeks I've had at work recently, I was so looking forward to crashing on the bed, reading for a little while, and staring at the backs of my eyelids for as many hours as possible. 

Success! I slept uninterrupted, without an alarm set, and woke up a solid eight hours later. We eased into the morning, putzing around the room for a bit, then headed out for an easy couple of miles. It was a beautiful day; winter in Louisiana felt a lot more like Houston than Fayetteville, and we enjoyed the sunshine even with the little bit of chill there was on the air. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we didn't go quite as easy as intended, but hey - it was only a couple of miles, so what could it hurt, right?

As this is only the third year for the Louisiana Marathon and the total field on Sunday is still just a few thousand people, the expo / packet pickup didn't open until 11AM, and there was no maddening crush of bodies. Score.
We were some of the first people there, and I didn't start out on the best note: I went to get my packet, and it wasn't in the box. The volunteer hypothesized that they might have accidentally given it to another runner, and I would need to see about getting a replacement. Um, what? Not that I plan to be an age group winner, but won't that mess up my official time if someone else is wearing my number? I dutifully walked down the row to the Woman In Black for help, and ended up in the VIP room. There was no lost number - I'm a Marathon Maniac, my friend, which for this race makes me a VIP!! Suh-weet!!! I knew when I signed up there would be a Maniac photo and a lot of other Maniacs running, but I didn't realize there were the additional benefits of a beanie, a special medal ribbon, and admission to the post-race VIP area. Not gonna lie, I kind of felt like a Big Deal. 

Now having whipsawed from packet-mistakenly-given-away to you're-a-big-deal, it was time to hit the vendor booths. The very first one was for the Marathon itself, and they had some excellent swag for sale. Their logo is one of the neatest I've seen: a cypress tree and the bayou contained inside of a shoe print. Hard to get more Louisiana than that. Of course, I'm too cheap to buy much of anything, so I longed for a postcard, eyed the long sleeved tech shirts, admired the coffee mugs, and moved on. 

The expo had everything you could want: the local running store, local (and delicious) natural granola, booths for several regional races, a running-inspired jewelry vendor, and all the race apparel and running stickers/swag you could want. I had to swing by the Sweaty Bands booth to check out the new goods, but managed to back away slowly without parting ways with any of my personal wealth. I think that's a first for me at a race expo. When we got to the booth selling the race belts that hold a phone, your keys and (the holy grail) don't bounce, I couldn't pass up a good deal. Mary and I got the joint purchase discount, though, so really, I saved money by buying it. Shopper logic. Just trust me. 

And it's sweet: I wore it during the race and it is officially a must-have piece of gear for me now. No more leaving my keys in the gas tank while I run! (Don't judge. It's a small town with low crime and besides, it's a red Chevy Impala. I don't think they show up on the most-stolen list with any regularity.) Race day bonus: I can carry my phone with me the whole time, which means start line and finish line pictures. Given that I rarely have an entourage at races, I'm now officially winning. 

Having spent just enough money to minimally stimulate the local economy, we did some sight seeing on a micro scale outside of the River Center. A gorgeous day, we turned our faces to the sunshine, walked down to the water for a few minutes, quickly acknowledged our need to get off of our feet, and we headed back to the hotel where we relaxed and each knocked out some work for the rest of the afternoon. 
My lunch choice seemed good at the time: loaded baked potato and some cheddar broccoli soup. I'm lucky enough to not have food/stomach issues, so throwing down an overload of carbs worked for me. Come dinner time, my choices went downhill. We went to a great local place called the City Cafe with friends of friends, and thoroughly enjoyed the pure Baton Rouge atmosphere. Understandably, I wasn't willing to take a chance on gumbo, boudin balls or étouffée on the night before the race, so I made what may have been the worst choice possible: just a couple of sides - some butter-sautéed vegetables and mashed potatoes (that were out of this world, but still). Throw in some sweet potato fries picked off of my friend's plate, and that's my pre-race dinner of champions. 

No meat. No protein. Not even an adult sized food serving. Official fail. Didn't realize it at the time, but race day morning before mile eight, there was no doubt. More on that in a moment.

Race day morning: perfect. I mean, PERFECT. Check out this race morning forecast:
Wake up time was 5AM, which is actually sleeping in for me and Mary vs. a regular run day. Rice cake and peanut butter consumed; fully dressed; ready to go. 
Ten minute drive to the start line, free parking, and a two minute walk to join the group of runners. Added bonus: race belt with phone meant pre-race pictures!!
Since it was the Rendezvous on the Bayou, that meant getting a group shot of all of the Maniacs, too. As a VIP, it also meant private porta-potties. Runners talk about bodily functions and the availability of facilities with the same regularity and lack of sensitivity as a parent of a newborn. Private porta-potties? Reason for celebration. Standing in line for them, I even had a Maniac celebrity sighting: Steve Yee, Main Maniac #1, one of the founders of what I affectionately refer to as the Nerd Club for Runners!
my selfie skills need some work
Small enough race that there were no corrals, and I'm guessing a small enough race that most of the runners were not new to this rodeo, so no walkers at the front, ifyouknowwhatImean. I found the 3:45 pace group with the intent to hang with them as long as possible, and chatted with my fellow runners awaiting the start.
My distinctly Aggie paraphernalia from the Brazos Running Company got several comments, all of a good nature. Given that I was in the heart of LSU Tiger country, I thought that was gracious. Of course, most of the people who said something were self-proclaimed Texans, so there's that.

Then it was time - we were off. From the start, I felt anxious, strangely so given that I really thought my only goal was to finish. Ha - nice try, practical brain. Competitive brain ditched that idea as soon as I crossed the timing mat, and I unintentionally set myself up for frustration for pretty much the entire 26.2 miles. I hung with the pace group for quite a while; in fact, going back and looking at my splits, I made my classic, pretty much every race mistake. I WENT OUT TOO FAST. Um, hello mile 2.
I had all of 14 weeks of training that included approximately zero speed workouts. Okay, maybe two or three if you count unintentional tempo runs. In my practical brain, doesn't-matter-what-my-finish-time-is planning, I had decided that I wouldn't check my Garmin for my pace throughout the race. I would run my race, I wouldn't worry about going faster, and I would enjoy it for the sheer pleasure of running. What I didn't realize is, I need to check my watch because I'm an idiot and can't pace myself or avoid running too fast. You learn something with every race...

As I ran the course in downtown Baton Rouge, through the campus of LSU, and on Lakeshore Drive around University Lake where the homes and views are breathtaking, I more and more fixated on how lousy I felt. I knew I was going too fast; my heart rate was too high; it was mile 6 and I still wasn't in a rhythm. Still, I ran through beautiful Louisiana neighborhoods, on streets lined with live oaks, their limbs reaching across the course creating a canopy of southern charm. I saw crowds wearing a lot of purple and gold, cheering for the runners and their efforts. I tried to focus on the joy of the race, the privilege of my return to health, the novelty of my Louisiana race. By mile 8, my mind began its revolt, with niggling doubts that I even wanted to run this race today. 

I hung in there between mile 8 and 11, beating back the negative thoughts, but by the halfway point, it was too much. I succumbed to the physical meltdown and focused on the elation I knew would come at the finish line. I took a quick walk break for fluids at mile 11, picked it back up, but by mile 14 had eased into a run/walk pattern. 

Unlike Houston, when I only had to stop for fluids a couple of times, I was shotgunning Powerade and chasing it with water every couple of miles. On top of that, completely out of character for me, by mile 10 I had already eaten a Clif Shot Block, downed an entire Stinger gel by mile 12, and seriously considered another one around 16. Again, in the past, it's been a half or maybe a full gel around mile 18, and that's it. My food choices had definitely come back to haunt me - my elevated heart rate and the feeling of teetering on the edge of hunger during a marathon are terrible things to try and work through when you're not on your game.

As I made the turnaround and found myself in the home stretch, I had already been passed by the four hour pace group, so I knew that was out of reach for the day. I was unreasonably let down and even annoyed by that - it wasn't like I had trained with a time goal in mind. In fact, just the opposite. I had trained trying to give myself permission to "just finish" this one, because my ankle still isn't pain free and back to normal. The competitive fires aren't out, I guess, just banked for a while. Because I still want the sub-4:00 time. It just wasn't in the cards for that day, as the back half proved to be my downfall.
Despite all of the self-inflicted problems, the mental gymnastics to stay focused on the finish, and the steadily slowing pace, I did, of course, reach the finish line. Official finish time: 4:12:16. Eighteen months ago, I would've thought myself a superstar, running a marathon with an average 9:33 pace. This year, I was mildly let down and mentally hazing myself for my poor physical and mental preparation. 

I've been working all week on changing that attitude. I mean, I run for the bling, right? Not only was this an excellent medal, I got the added bonus of the Marathon Maniac ribbon.
And my life list includes running a race in all 50 states, right? State #7, done. Thank you, Louisiana. Or as they might say in Cajun country, "Mesi!"

More importantly, I think, this race reinforced that I run for me. I run for the feeling of accomplishment. I run for the conversation with great friends. I run for the need to work off the stress of my paying job. I run so that I can eat potato chips. I run to be healthy. I run so that I can wear the skinny jeans that hang in my closet. I run to show my kids that staying fit is just part of your daily routine, not a big production or major project. 

I run because I can, when just a few months ago, I couldn't. So thank you, Louisiana Marathon. You said Bienvenue and put on an excellent race to celebrate my return to the sport I love. In that, I am triumphant.

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