“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way”.
I have read that passage more than 100 times in my life, but never did I truly grasp its meaning until Sunday morning. Not to sensationalize a simple footrace. But the 2011 Austin Marathon was all of the above and more for me.
Amazingly all of that took place on a 26.2 mile stage in a performance that was over before 10:20 a.m.
This was the first marathon I have run in my hometown. I have always traveled more than 1,000 miles for my previous efforts. It was comforting to be at home, eat my own meals that I prepared, sleep in my own bed and even pat my dog Kayla on the head before leaving the house for the race.
As she panted at me I thought to myself, “the next time I see you Kayla, I will be a marathoner again.”
I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to eat my breakfast of a banana, bagel with peanut butter, a bottle of Gatorade, a bottle of water and a can of flat coke to make sure I had my caffeine for the morning. My stomach was nervous and I wasn’t able to eat my banana.
I had a big goal on the board and the pre-race nerves were strong. Dawn was kind enough to wake up early with me to help me apply my Pace Tat to my right forearm marking each of the 26.2 miles off in 6 minute and 52 second intervals.
I climbed into my brooks singlet, shorts, runderwear and ST4 Racers and received my last well-wishes from Dawn.
The drive down to the marathon start was uneventful and I parked safely near the Texas State Capital at 5:30 a.m.
I took the opportunity to read some pre-race thoughts and look at the course map a few more times prior to heading over to the start area at 6:15 am. It was now 45 minutes to go time and I had to make a decision.
It was 65 degrees already and the sun had not yet come up over Austin. The flags atop the Capital building were stiff with a 15-18 mph wind out of the South. We would be running directly into that wind up the long climb to the top of South Congress Avenue. 3 miles that would require us to climb 292 feet.
Essentially a 30 story skyscraper.
The wind would be howling at the runners over the last 8+ miles of the marathon as well. The final 10 kilometers all directly into the headwind.
After my last porta potty break I walked up to the starting area and saw my friend Scott who was holding the 3 hour pace group sign. I knew that the decision I was making to run with the “3’s” was going to prove to be a fateful one. It wasn’t a day for 3 hours. Not on this course in these conditions.
But I would rather try and fail than play it safe and never know what I really had in me.
I decided to go for it.
As the crowd began to press close together I took a moment as I have at every race since last year’s Boston Marathon and crouched down below the bodies. I rubbed my fingers over Dom’s initials on my shoes and told him I missed him. A stray tear rolled down my left cheek and I could taste the salt in my mouth.
I stood back up for the end of the National Anthem and got my game face on. Go time.
As the horn sounded the Austin Marathon starting line shot bright fireworks into the air from the overhead sign. I pulled through the start and felt the smoke, heat and small sparks hit my shoulders. We took the first strides out onto the course and my legs had shown up.
I immediately knew that I had a full arsenal at my disposal on Sunday. My legs had arrived, my heart was full and my head was fully committed.
It was the best of times.
As the runners wove ahead of me through the first two miles we were running a downhill section of the course. 6:51, 6:36 were my opening splits and the cadence felt smooth and easy. It was quite a feeling heading out onto the course with some of the best marathoners in Austin. I was hanging with them stride for stride, mile for mile and my breathing was relaxed, my legs felt great. My training was sound I thought, all that hard work had been worth it.
As we started up the hill at South Congress the two men pacing us, Scott and Roger were talking strategy and they decided to stick as close to 6:52 pace as they could to the top. They wanted to just “stay even” as they put it and the group pressed forward.
I felt great on the climb. My hill training had helped me for sure and again, I was able to tuck in behind Roger and match the group stride for stride. 6:41, 7:01, 6:46 took us to the top of mile 5, we were going to now make the turn along Ben White Boulevard and then run three downhill miles back into the city.
I took my first three Clif Bloks at the 5.5 mile mark in time to swallow them down and then tuck into the aid station to get a cup of water to wash them down. This was my first marathon running without my own water belt. I had raced the entire Austin Distance Challenge using course water stops to perfect my grab, pinch, sip and swallow technique while not breaking stride. All systems go as we approached the 10 Kilometer mark.
We chased each other down South Congress and clipped off three miles at 6:42, 6:40, 6:41. Even though our pace was quickening it was due to the topography of the course more than anything else. My cadence, breathing and effort all felt identical. I was locked in. I was doing it.
At mile 9 I started to notice that the air was heavy. The sun had come up over the previous 54 minutes and breathing was getting harder. It was an odd feeling as I was not short of breath or oxygen deprived, it was just the humidity and heaviness in the air that was causing me to feel uncomfortable.
This was the sensation I expected to feel around mile 18 or 19, not at mile 9. My brain started to tell me that I should back off the pace, but I wasn’t ready to give in just yet. I would stick with the group until we made it to the worst of the hills. Then I would evaluate my situation.
Mile 9 came in at 6:51, mile 10 at 6:54. We had started to climb and I was still with the pace group.
At the mile 11 mile marker I decided that I simply had to let them go. On a different day in different conditions I would have been able to stick with them. As the group pressed forward and I began to drop off the pace I was oddly at peace with the situation.
I could hang with the 3 hour marathoners. But today the course and the conditions were just not going to allow me to prove it. But deep down I knew. I was one of them.
As they started to move further and further away I started to feel very alone on the course.
It was the worst of times.
I had to make a decision and I had to make it fast. What was still possible? Had I gone out even from the start at 7:15 min./mile pace a 3:10:00 marathon would absolutely have been in my sights for Sunday. No doubt about it.
However, my perhaps somewhat foolish decision to stick with the pace group as long as I had would cost me that time as well I knew. I had simply burned up too much energy as we now entered the largest climbs on the course. I had a solid 9 miles of climbing ahead of me. I would lock in and go for 3:15:00.
3:15:00 would still allow me to check off three goals that I wanted desperately when I started this training cycle 20 weeks before.
- PR – I wanted to run my best ever marathon for Dom.
- BQ – I wanted to re-qualify for the Boston Marathon.
- KA – I wanted to Kick @SS. A 3:15:00 in those conditions would qualify.
I ran alone over the next 9 miles keeping my cadence even, my effort smooth and zipped in and out of every aid station for water and Gatorade. My singlet was sticking to my skin and I debated a few times taking it off and pitching it to the street.
The miles ticked by and even though my pace had fallen to the 7:30 range, I was battling as hard as I dared to push with so much time left in the race. I began to look at it as a 14.2 mile race when I reached the 12 mile marker.
Just continue to count them off and save something for that last 10 kilometers. At mile 20 I knew the course would finally tilt back in favor of the runners. If the wind would settle down, I could make back up some time hopefully. Just stay smooth, stay tall, stay fast.
7:03, 7:15, 7:35, 7:27, 7:23, 7:30, 7:51, 7:41, 8:13, 8:09.
My splits were sliding, but my spirits remained high. I was holding my own on the course with very few runners slipping by me. Slowly but surely I began to see more and more runners slowed to a walk.
The course was taking its toll on the marathoners. People were giving up.
As I made the turn at mile 20 and started to head from home there was only 10 kilometers left to go. The shortest distance I run on any day during training. A distance I had run hundreds of times in just the last year.
Time to go to work.
As mile 20 started I took the last of my Clif Bloks, drank some water and chased it with Gatorade. The fight was on and we still had a real shot at our revised goal of 3:15:00.
The wind however was now conspiring against me. It was simply howling. Blowing sustained over 15 mph with some gusts much stronger than that.
At mile 22 when we reached the Arroyo De Seco section of the course I was alone running through a wide expanse of a divided road. Three lanes wide on my side of the street, a grass median that was 50 feet wide to my left and another three lanes wide of street on the other side. There was nothing to stop the wind and no runners to tuck behind.
For the first time all day I actually began to feel a little bit sorry for myself.
Now any spectators must have thought that this guy in the Brooks singlet must have finally lost his mind. Who could possibly be laughing this far into the marathon.
It was either time to laugh or time to cry and I was going to save those tears for when I saw Dawn and Landry at the finish line. All I could do was laugh at the situation.
I continued to fight through the soreness and the pain that was starting to build in my hips and calves. I was getting close to cramping and would need to drink a lot on the way in, hitting every water stop and making sure I took in as much Gatorade as possible.
Splits over this stretch into the headwind slipped even further off of pace.
8:16, 8:13, 8:26, 8:28, 8:06.
It was the winter of despair.
Mile 26 to the Finish:
One mile to go. All right, 1.2 actually, but I knew that last 2/10 of a mile was mine. I just had to make it back to the top of the hill at San Jacinto and 11th street. I knew that climb was going to be a killer.
I couldn’t run another 8 minute mile and make my time. I needed to dig deep and somehow drop my time back to the 7:40’s.
At the half-way point of mile 26 the 3:15:00 pace group came upon me. I pulled up next to the leader and asked how they were doing vs. their time. He told me that they were about 30 seconds ahead of their goal.
Perfect I thought. Don’t let these guys get away from you and you have it.
My legs started to fire and I treated the climb up that final hill on San Jacinto as a hill repeat.
I made the right turn onto 11th and broke into my kick.
On my right out of the corner of my eye I saw my close friend Neil who is a trooper here in Austin. In full dress, Cowboy Hat, Sunglasses, holster, gun he was standing with the serious look of a lawman on the job.
As he saw me he broke character and yelled to me, “Go Joe, Push hard, Go!”
As I shifted gears again I saw along the left side of the course my friends Jodi, Jeni and Deb who had run the half-marathon and finished earlier. They were cheering like crazy and all I could muster was a wink of my eye to let them know I saw them.
My legs churned all the way down to 5:38 min./mile pace.
I crossed the finish line turning in a final mile of 7:46 and just that short burst over the final 2/10 of a mile.
It wasn’t enough.
3:15:01 was my official time. I had come up just :01 second short.
The timing clock had shown 3:15:08 when I hit the mat, I knew that I might have just missed my time as I thought I had started about :05 or :06 seconds after the gun, but I could not be sure. No matter I had run two great races on Sunday.
The first one I hung in with the 3 hour crowd for 11 miles. The second I missed my goal over the final 14.2 miles by a single second.
I had my PR, I had my Boston time and although it hurt quite a bit on Sunday. I think I won in a decision over Lady Marathon. She did not defeat me like she did at Boston last year.
As I took my first uneven strides through the chute running legend Bart Yasso was standing before me. It was a moment I won’t forget for a long time as he shook my hand and congratulated me.
Bart Yasso …. Shook my hand and told me “great job” after I posted my marathon PR. What a gracious man.
The finisher’s area was pretty crazy with activity, I got my medal and then heard my wife yelling our last name, “Marruchella!”
Joe might not do so much good with so many people around, but Marruchella will always get my attention. She’s smart like that.
She knew what my expectations were for the day and had a pretty good idea how I would feel about my time. A few more of those salty tears rolled down my cheeks, but they were a mixture of joy, relief, happiness, disappointment, a narrow miss and a great accomplishment.
I think that is the way most marathoners feel upon completing that event. Seeing Dawn and Landry made it all worth it. I had fought as hard as I could for as long as I could. I came to the race that day planning on leaving absolutely everything that I had on the course.
I could not have run a single second faster.
It WAS the best of times.
As it turns out not a single runner who started with the 3 hour pace group finished with our pacers.
Not. A. Single. One.
My time was good for 128th overall and locked up my position in the top 5 of the Austin Distance Challenge and a 2nd place finish in the Male 40-44 Age group. My good friend Brendon Cahoon ran a valiant race on Sunday finishing with a 3:01:04.
Looking at the results of many runners who ran Austin last year, including the back to back winner, most everyone ran between 10 and 11 minutes slower than they did a year ago in the conditions.
Many runners DNF’d on the course (Did Not Finish), including 4 of the leading 10 in the Austin Distance Challenge.
My time may not reflect it based solely on the numbers, but I ran a hell of a race on Sunday.
When I looked in that mirror to brush my teeth this morning I saw a different marathoner than I did one day earlier.
I’m a 3:15 guy now. The best I have ever been.
I’m not one to make predictions this far from my next race day. But if the weather cooperates in November when I travel to the ING New York Marathon and I can put together another 8 months of injury free training. Don’t bet against me on November 6th.
Dom, you told me to run this one for me on Sunday and absolutely kill it. I hope you enjoyed that final mile as much as I did.
That one was for you.