Posts Tagged ‘Austin Distance Challenge’

“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.

Pre-race:

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.

Lance Armstrong and Joan Benoit Samuelson pre-race

The Start:

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.

The Start of the Race

Miles 1-11:

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 belonged.

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.

Miles 11-20:

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.

Hanging tough at mile 14

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.

  1. PR – I wanted to run my best ever marathon for Dom.
  2. BQ – I wanted to re-qualify for the Boston Marathon.
  3. 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.

Course Elevation Green, My Pace Blue

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.

Miles 20-25:

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.

I laughed.

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.

Post Race:

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.

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Sunday’s Austin Marathon has been long circled on this runner’s calendar.  I registered for this race back in August just after I got off the phone with my friend Jason Richey who told me that Dom had lost his battle with Cancer.

Now six months later and the race is almost here.  Training is complete.  Preparations have been made, even my pre-race batch of pasta gravy has long been prepared to be warmed and consumed on Saturday night.  My first ever “home-cooked” pre-race marathon meal. 

That has to be good for a few seconds on Sunday morning.

The Austin Marathon also marks the fifth and final race of the Austin Distance Challenge.

The Distance Challenge as you may remember is a 5-race series comprised of the IBM Uptown Classic 10K, The Run for the Water 10-Miler, The Decker Challenge Half-Marathon, the 3M Half-Marathon and of course the Austin Marathon.

Results are tabulated after each race and a cumulative time is awarded to each runner.  There are overall awards presented for the top Male and Female Finishers as well as age group awards for the top 3 in each group.

Our 1:23:55 time at the 3M Half two Sunday’s ago shook things up among the “Leading 10 Men” heading into Austin, moving us into 5th place overall just a handful of seconds ahead of the sixth place runner.

Austin Distance Challenge Leading 10 Men

After more than 4 1/2 hours of racing, two minutes separates us from a place in the top three or falling back to 8th place.   This sport never ceases to amaze me that the difference between reaching a goal or narrowly missing it all boils down to a handful of seconds spread out in this case over 42.4 miles with 26.2 left to go.

When I signed up for the ADC I really had no illusions of placing in the top-10 or “winning” anything.  I just wanted to use the races to continue to push myself during my training period and gain more race experience.  Still new to the sport in many ways with my first race coming in September of 2006, I am at a bit of a disadvantage when I am out there battling the course, elements and other competitors.

This series has been very beneficial this Fall and Winter as I know that without it, I would not be entertaining the type of goal on Sunday that I am.

As for my the Male 40-44 Division I am sitting in a pretty good position for an Age Group award of some kind after the Austin Marathon.

Austin Distance Challenge Male Standings Age 40-44

The chances of catching my friend Brendon Cahoon on Sunday boils down to his car not starting on the way to the race.  Brendon has run beautifully despite battling some soreness in his heels and has his eyes on a sub 2:50:00 time on Sunday.  Michael Andre Ford has been running exceptionally well and I know is going to be taking aim at second place come Sunday.

There is a good chance that my “gamble” at chasing a 3:00:00 hour marathon time on Sunday may very well cost me in the ADC standings.  If I miscalculate my pace and abilities, I may struggle to finish the race strong and drop several minutes over the closing miles.  Frankly, that is not even on my radar for Sunday. 

In the words of Def Leppard in deference to another great rocker Neil Young:

It’s better to burn out than to fade away.

We didn’t push ourselves week after week, race after race, mile after mile to lay up short and play it conservative.  I don’t plan on doing anything foolish on Sunday if our goal time starts to slip through my fingertips, but I’m not planning on backing down either.

A couple of housekeeping items before Sunday’s race.

If you are wanting to track me or anyone else running Sunday’s Austin Marathon or Half-Marathon you can click HERE to be taken to the tracking page.  You will just need to enter the runners name or Bib Number.

My Bib for Sunday is 641

For you iPhone users, there is a free APP that you can download for your phone that is located HERE that will provide you with updates throughout the race and alert you when your runner finishes the course.

I was asked earlier this week if this really would be my final “Run for Dom” race.

The answer to that is,sort of”.

This will be the final race where I am accepting donations strictly for a race I am running.   Also the last opportunity for you to sponsor a mile during a marathon. 

There are 10 miles remaining that are still without sponsors if you are interested!  You can support Run for Dom by clicking HERE.

Now, I certainly have race plans after Austin.  I am far from “done” as a runner, and far from “done” honoring Dom.  His initials are on my race shoes for Sunday and will stay right there on every pair I own as long as I continue to run and race in his memory.

I will be looking for new ways in the coming months and years to carry on, notably in an effort to organize a race in his name each year back in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.  That is something that can and will live on long after I am able to lace ’em up and chase down new challenges.

So don’t worry.  We’re not going anywhere – but I will not be officially “fundraising” during my races going forward.

It is not too late to help however, so if you have been putting it off, now is the time to act.  I’d love to see all 26.2 miles on Sunday spoken for by race day.

I promise you this.  No matter what mile you choose to sponsor, I will leave everything I have out on the race course.  There will not be a single second that I “take off”.  You can help ensure an education for Dom’s children Sierra and Nico by clicking HERE or by visiting:

www.runfordom.com

Thank you for all of your support and generosity. 

I’ll be checking in on Saturday with some final pre-race thoughts. 

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

The most recent update to the Austin Distance Challenge was posted this week.

The distance challenge is the 5-race series that I have been competing in that will culminate with the Austin Marathon on February 20, 2011.

The further I progress in the race series, the more I am starting to appreciate how helpful it has been in preparing me for Austin. For first time Marathoners, this series is tremendous. I would strongly recommend it to any local runner of any ability level wanting to run Austin.

The race distances are challenging with a 10K in October, a hilly 10-Miler in November, a hilly half-marathon in December, another half marathon at the end of January featuring a fast downhill course and of course the Austin Marathon on February 20th.

Each race and distance poses a different challenge for the participants. The IBM Uptown Classic is a first-class 10 Kilometer race on a speedy course. There are some hills thrown in over the last half of the race to test the runners, where learning about pacing and racing is important to run a good time.

The Run for the Water 10-mile race was one of the more difficult race courses I have ever run. Climb after climb the runners test their strength and climbing skills while still “racing” over the 10-mile distance. Longer than a 10K to really let it all hang out, but shorter than the half-marathon, where runners could really put the hammer down to test their fitness level. I loved this race.

Race number three was the Decker Challenge Half-Marathon on December 12th. In its 32nd running, this race was absolutely as advertised – as one of the most difficult half-marathon courses in Texas. Hilly, windy, cold – Decker had a little bit of everything and really prepared runners for what the middle miles of the Austin Marathon will be like.

All throughout the series for runners who are new to racing, the Distance Challenge provides valuable lessons are to be learned.

What a large “race day” experience is like. How to handle water stops. How to dress appropriately for the weather on race day. What it feels like to run at 10K pace, half-marathon pace. Even what it feels like to struggle over the final miles of a hilly course. All great practice for the Austin Marathon in February.

All participants in the Austin Distance Challenge are required to register for, race in and complete all five events. If you miss one event, you are out of the challenge. Again, a great lesson in stick-to-it-ive-ness and perseverance. Every runner who completes all five events receives an Austin Distance Challenge Jacket and are eligible for overall as well as age-group awards, similar to what you would find at a single running event or race day.

After three races I feel pretty good about where we are right now. Seventh Place overall in the Male Standings, 2nd in the Male 40-44 Age Group.

Overall Standings after Race 3 of 5

As much as I would like to place in the top 10 at the end of the challenge or even take home an age group award, I am much more excited about “how I have raced” than the results from those races.

At IBM we were able to chase down a goal set during the hot Austin summer of running a sub 40:00 minute 10K time earning my spot in the elite amateur corral at this Spring’s Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, SC.

At Run for the water, I was able to really test myself in the hills of West Austin and start believing that I was in fact ready for Decker.

At the Decker Half-Marathon I again surpassed my expectations by running a sub 1:27:00 half-marathon on a tough, tough course. That effort earned me a guaranteed spot in the 2011 New York City Marathon which I will be able to run with my good friends Winston and Bob in November. That will also by Landry’s first ever trip to NYC, and an opportunity for my then 15 month old daughter to see a real-live Broadway show.

Next up on January 30th will be the 3M Half-Marathon my final run before entering the 3-week taper period leading up to race day. 3M is a course where a smokin’ fast time is very possible if I am able to stay healthy over the next month. Something sub 1:25:00 is certainly “possible” given the right conditions and a little bit of race day magic.

Male 40-44 Age Group Standings

We’re going to keep pushing to see if we can hold on to that number two spot in the rankings above, but I’m sure Michael Andre’ Ford is looking at the same standings I am looking to chase me down. As for Brendon Cohoon, a 2:59:00 runner at last year’s Austin Marathon, congratulations Sir!

You are simply crushing out there right now, I look forward to raising a glass to you at the post race Austin Distance Challenge party. Just some tremendous running you are doing out there – you give this aging Marathoner something to shoot for down the road.

Sunday morning. Decker Challenge.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep on Saturday night.

This particular race had been circled on my calendar ever since I signed up for this year’s Austin Distance Challenge. The course features a lot of monster hills, 845 feet of climbing over the 13.1 mile distance.  Coupled with a very “open” route over rural terrain around Decker Lake, the winds blow hard with very little to get in their way.

It’s a tough race.  One that would require a lot of strength, power and stamina to hold pace over the rolling course, but also a lot of mental toughness as well.

To race well at Decker, I knew I would have to trust that my training was sufficient enough to allow me to expend energy on the climbs, knowing I would be able to recover and climb again the next time the course required it.

Locking in to a race goal was very challenging at Decker as holding a consistent pace mile after mile is simply not very realistic.  North winds blowing 12-15 mph in the face of runners over miles 2-5, 10-13.1 sap energy and slow leg turnover.

Large hills at miles 4,6,8,10,11 and 13 also contribute to an uneven cadence.  I decided that I would try to settle into a “comfortably hard” pace over the first half of the course, push harder up through “Quadzilla” at mile 10 and then try to push even harder over the final 5K.

Far from an exact “pace goal” which I try to arrive at for each mile of a race.  I was going to run by feel and try not to leave anything on the course.

Pre-Race:

I woke up 3 hours before the 8:00 a.m. gun time to eat a bagel and banana, drink a Gatorade and decide once and for all what gear I would be racing in.  The weather forecast was calling for 41 degrees at the start, heading up to 45 by 9:00 a.m. when I would hopefully be 9+miles into the race.

Normally shorts weather, I was concerned about the wind chill effect around Decker Lake and opted for my running tights, an Under Armour long-sleeved shirt, Moeben arm sleeves, my medium weight gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm.

The “new addition” to my arsenal were my new Brooks ST4 Racers.  An early Christmas present from my Mother and Father-In Law, I was anxious to try them out over the half-marathon distance.  About 4 ounces lighter than my Asics Traners, that could mean as much as :04 seconds/mile in added speed.

Brooks ST4 Racers

That may not sound like a lot, but :04 seconds/mile over 13 miles, and we’re closing in on a full minute of race time.  When it comes to Decker, I was looking for every advantage I could find.

I left the house at 6:00 a.m. and drove out to the Travis County Expo Center.  Open to the runners, it was great to head inside, grab a spot on the floor to stretch and take advantage of the indoor restrooms and bag drop.  I ran into my friend Tom and his Daughter who would be volunteering at the mile 8 Water Stop.

It was great to visit with Tom who is running the Austin Marathon in February.  We would see him again on the course.

After a half hour of stretching and relaxing it was time to head outside and get used to the weather.  I ran a quick warm-up of 1/2 a mile, went back inside to warm up one more time and then headed over to the race start at 7:53 a.m.

After a tremendous live rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, I tucked in my ear buds, kicked off my iPod and got ready to rock.  I glanced down at the initials on my shoes, gave a quick glance skyward to let Dom know I was going to be needing him a little later on and tucked in behind a couple of taller runners.

Time to go to work.

Miles 1-4:

The opening stretch of the race took runners out of the Exposition Center grounds and out onto Decker Lake Road.  I was trying to find my rhythm, but began struggling immediately.  I felt like I could run either 6:15 pace or 6:45 pace, but couldn’t lock on to anything in between.

It took me the better part of a mile to settle in and at the first mile marker I had posted an opening mile at 6:24 pace.

A bit too fast as I was hoping to open with a stretch of miles around 6:35, but I was glad to have finally found my groove.

Miles 2-4 head straight up Decker Lane until the turnoff at Lindell Lane.  The wind was absolutely howling over this stretch.  I found a runner that was running a similar pace to mine and asked if he’d like to “work together”.  We took turns drafting off of each other over the next three miles.

Each 1/2 mile one of us would leapfrog the other and break the wind allowing the other runner to “rest” just a bit.  I could really feel the difference when it was my turn to lead. the wind was blowing hard.

It would blow harder.

Mile splits came in at: 6:24, 6:46, 6:38, 6:39.

Miles 5-8:

As we turned right onto Lindell Lane it was time to start to pick things up a bit.  I dropped my “drafting partner” and pushed forward just a hair.  I knew there was some pretty tough climbing coming up soon and didn’t want to go too hard too early.

I was feeling smoother and my legs seemed to have a lot of snap to them after resting on Thursday and Friday.  At the half-way point volunteers had placed a clock at the timing mat.

I ran the first half in 43:05 (6:35 pace), right about where my stretch goal of breaking 1:27:00 needed me to be.  There was a LONG way to go at this point with the largest climbs remaining, but it looked like a new PR and a sub 1:30:00 Half-marathon was well within my grasp.

As we made the turn off of Lindell Lane we faced the climb up to the top of the 130 frontage road hill.  It was long and seemed to stretch on forever.  I pulled alongside a runner who was falling back and tapped him on the hip as I was pulling even.  I nodded to him and said, “let’s go” and he fell in right alongside of me.

It was great having a fellow runner to match strides with and we paced each other right up to the top.  As we made the turn onto FM 973 – I pulled into the mile 8 water stop for a quick hit of Gatorade.  I saw Tom there and tossed my gloves to him asking if he would take care of them for me.

The air temperature was rising as was my internal body temperature.  Another 5 miles with my gloves felt like it would be just a bit too warm.  After I dropped my gloves I immediately felt my body temperature cool as my hands were out in the brisk winter air. 

Good call I thought, I was starting to feel the course take a little bite out of me.  But we were still running strong.

Splits for miles 5-8 were: 6:39, 6:33, 6:22, 6:21

Miles 9-12:

I stayed right alongside my new running friend over mile 9 and 10.  We got our first look at “Quadzilla” from the ridge at mile 9.  The climb that lay ahead over mile 10 was by far the steepest on the course. We had also turned gently into a cross wind.  It wasn’t directly in our face, as that would occur when we made the final right turn onto Decker Lake Road at the top of the hill.

But the wind certainly wasn’t helping either.  Things were getting tough for sure, but I noticed that the runners around me were starting to struggle just a bit.  Form was falling off, legs were grinding slower.

I was gaining.

At the top of mile 10 I made the turn and gave a little wave to my partner.  He made it to the top and it was time for each of us to decide how we wanted to run the final 5K. With a quick nod we parted ways and I started pushing.

Miles 11 and 12 were right into the teeth of the wind.  I was working harder and harder, but the combination of the uphill stretch and the stiff wind had me slowing.  I could feel my pace slipping, but I was not losing any spots to any other runners.  In fact there was a runner up ahead that I had been following for close to 11 miles, hanging about :30 seconds behind.

A little voice inside my head whispered, “go get him”.

I closed the gap over the next 2/10 of a mile and when we hit the mile 12 sign we were running stride for stride.

Mile splits came in at: 6:36, 6:42, 6:48, 6:58

The Finish:

The last mile featured what else but a final climb up Decker lane and then back uphill through the Exposition Center parking lot.

I kept searching for another gear, but the conditions were not showing me any “dividends” from my extra effort.  I decided that I would wait until the final 1/4 mile to go into whatever kick I would have left.  It should allow me to hold onto my track position and have a shot at a sub 1:27:00.

I looked down at my GPS and saw that I was still in the 1:25’s at this point.  I had a real shot at this I thought.

1/4 mile to go.  You can do anything for 1/4 mile.

I hit the final turn and headed for the finishers chute.  I did not know it, but Dawn and Landry had made it to the race in time to see me finish.  Dawn was able to snap the picture below as I made the final push to the finish.

Final Push - Decker Half Marathon

As I hit the finish line I looked at the race clock overhead.

1:26:45

In my second ever half-marathon I had set a new PR by more than 5 minutes at the Decker Challenge.

My time was good for 26th place overall, 4th place in my age group, finishing just :01 second away from an Age Group Award.

Did I have another second in me?  Sure.  Any corner that I took a little tighter, a quicker start, if I started my kick two strides earlier all would have made the difference.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter.  I ran a great, great race.

1st half – 43:05

2nd half – 43:39

Not a negative split, but I improved from the 32nd best time over the first half of the race to the 24th fastest time over the second half.  We were getting it done out there and it felt great to run a “best ever” time for Dom.

Three races, three PR’s since the Austin Distance Challenge began.  With two races to go I feel like I am living up to the promise I made in that finisher’s area at the Pittsburgh Marathon.Next time Dom, if you could, having the wind at my back at the end of the race would be my preference. 

You know, if you’re not too busy up there.  I miss you my brother, you would have loved it out there today.

The final race of 2010 looms on Sunday.  Race number 16, the Decker Challenge Half Marathon.

One year ago I was on the shelf.  No running at all as I was trying to fight my way back from shin splint issues.  I was still a few weeks away from getting my tri-bike, just doing some elliptical workouts at the gym to keep my fitness level up.

The Boston Marathon was only 4 ½ months away.  Pittsburgh just 5 months off.  I had a lot of training to do and very little time to do it.  Tension was starting to build as I knew that if I couldn’t “get out there” soon, I had very little chance of running two marathons in 13 days for Dom.

Twelve months later and I am in the best shape of my life.  I am running more miles per week at a much faster pace than I have ever run them before.  The last workout I “missed” was the day after the day Landry was born on August 31st.

Looking back to my first race of 2010, the 3M half Marathon, somehow I find it fitting that my last race of the year will also be a half.  The only two half-marathons I have ever run in my life.

After 3M I remember thinking how much I liked the distance.  It was much more “forgiving” than the full marathon.  I remember going out to breakfast with Dawn, Tedd and Sarah after 3M and feeling great.  Feeling like I could have raced another 3-4 miles no problem.

Joe @ Dawn Post Race – 3M Half Marathon

Finishing the half feels nothing like the final mile of the marathon. 

Closing out the marathon every step is labored, each stride and footfall hurts.  You are just trying to hang on, fight your way to the finish.  It is a pure guts race at the end, some of the most difficult strides you will ever take on a race course.

That being said, at 13.1 miles the half-marathon is still a “thinking man’s” or women’s race.  To run well you need to understand pace and strategy.  It is too long a race to simply go out fast and hang-on like a 5K or 10K.  You have to manage your effort over the early miles, know where the difficult parts of the course are and know when to push pace.

Nutrition, hydration, proper clothing, weather, all play a role in the half-marathon, underestimate the race and you will pay the price, no doubt about it.

On Sunday night I consulted with my coach (picture below) and talked about our Monday afternoon.

Dad & Landry plotting thier Recon Mission

We were going to head out to the Decker Race Course and “drive the route”.  I wanted to know exactly what I was going to be getting myself into on Sunday morning.  I had heard that the Decker Challenge was one of the most difficult half-marathon courses in Texas.  I had to see for myself.

Landry and I loaded up the truck with her diaper bag, an extra bottle, our course map and camera.

The drive out to the starting area at the expo center took me exactly 30 minutes from the house.  On Sunday morning that means we will leave about 6:00 a.m. to make it there 1 hour before the full marathon starts at 7:30 a.m. 

The half-marathon gun time is scheduled for 8:00 a.m.  The start/finish area is in the same spot at the Travis County Expo Center.  Plenty of parking and there will be a lot of area to warm-up prior to the race.

I drove the course with Landry riding “Shotgun” in the back of the Ford, and my first impression was – this is going to be tough.

845 feet of climbing over 13.1 miles. 

That is an average of 65 feet per mile, or between a six and seven story office building.  If you have not been training on hills prior to Decker, you are going to struggle; it is as simple as that.

Miles 1-4:

The opening mile takes place leaving the Expo Center as the runners turn right on Decker Lake Road.  Shortly after mile number 1 the course turns to the right and heads for just under three miles straight up Decker Lane to Mile Number 4.

I would describe this stretch as a rolling first 4 miles.  There are climbs at mile 2, 3 and 4 but there are also a few downhills mixed in to allow your pace to settle in.  I would call this part of the course more or less “fair”.  I will be looking to run these miles right around goal pace for the race.

As Runners reach the mile 4 mark, they will be making a right turn onto Lindell Road.  Strap yourself in, it’s about to get a little bit interesting.

Miles 5-8:

Lindell Road is a right turn off of Decker Lane.  The road is wide and smooth.  What looks like a beautiful TX “Country Road” is something entirely different just laying in wait.  As runners crest the first of a rolling hill section, it doesn’t look too bad.  But just past the mile 5 mark the runners will make a right turn onto Blue Bluff Road and get a look at the first truly large hill on the course.

The hill at mile 6 looks every bit as daunting as it will feel on race day.  It is a long, steep, difficult ascent.  The photo below was snapped looking back down the hill from the top of the crest.

The view from atop Mile 6

Runners will need to keep their heads down; their arm swing low and just put one foot in front of the other.  I will be giving back perhaps as much as :25 seconds to pace over this stretch.  There will be a big penalty for trying to push too hard up this incline.  This is not the hill to go “all-in”, as it simply comes far too early in the race.

At the top of the hill runners will make a left turn onto Bloor Road and have a nice downhill section from the 10K mark to almost all the way to mile 8.  This will be an opportunity to make up a little time from the earlier climbing, but more importantly rest those calf muscles that just worked so hard climbing up over mile 6.

Miles 8-11:

Just before mile 8 the course will make another right turn onto the frontage road that runs in front of Highway 130.  This is going to be another “mentally challenging” part of the course as the hill that climbs up over mile 8 looms ahead for the runners to see in the distance.

Mile 8 up ahead

Sometimes it is better not to know what is coming.  I have the feeling this is going to be one of those times.  The climb ends approximately half-way into mile 9 and is followed by another “recovery stretch”.

The climb along Frontage Road 130

Once again, it will be time to pick-up some of the time lost over the last hill, but more importantly to recover.  There are two hills looming over mile 9 and 10, and they get harder as they come at you.  As runners make the right turn off of the frontage road onto FM 973 – things are about to get interesting.

The first hill is short but steep, it will hit the runners right at the 9.3 mile mark.  It is followed by a downhill stretch which should relieve some pressure from the legs, but it also paints a frightening image as runners will get their first look at “Quadzilla”.

The climb at the end of mile 10 is every bit as advertised.  It’s long, it’s steep and it comes at a time when holding race pace for over an hour is starting to wear down the runners.  The good news is the race is almost over, only 5 kilometers remain.

Quadzilla

The bad news is the climbing is not over yet.

At the 10.5 mile mark runners will turn on to Decker Lake road to head for home.

Mile 11 to the Finish:

At the 11 mile mark only 2.1 miles of rolling hills remain.  No terrible climbs, but the closing miles are definitely not flat.  The last two miles of a footrace is when I try to dig deep and start pushing to the finish.

10K, 10-Miler, Half-Marathon, Full Marathon the message is always the same.  I glance down at my GPS on my wrist and say to myself, “you can do anything for two miles”.  After turning back into the Travis County Expo Center at mile 12.5 there will be one last hill to climb to the finish. 

It is almost as if Decker is kicking the runners when they are down.

Let’s hope that I have a little bit left in the tank on Sunday at Decker to close strong.  This part of the course will determine whether we are able to bring this race in under our goal time of 1:30:00. 

To run a sub 1:30:00 half-marathon will be quite an accomplishment at Decker.  I will be taking my final two runs this week very easy to arrive at the start with fresh legs.  This will be the first race that I run with my new coach looking on. 

I sure don’t want to let her down.

You can do it Dad!

Normally I don’t pay much attention to the name of the race I’m entered in.

Uptown Classic, Turkey Trot, Marathon, Half Marathon, Bridge Run they’re all pretty much the same right?

But when a race has a name like The Decker Challenge, it might be wise to pay attention.  The next stop on the Austin Distance Challenge for me is the half-marathon at Decker.  A week from Sunday, 8:00 a.m. at the Travis County Expo Center around Decker Lake.

13.1 miles is no short distance to race.  With the exception of the marathon, the half-marathon is pretty much “it” when it comes to middle-distance/long distance racing.  You may find an occasional 30K or 20-mile road race, but they are few and far between.  For many runners, running “the half” is as far as they can imagine going as let’s face it, the marathon is not for everyone.

With a 17-mile run in the books last Sunday and an 18-miler on the schedule for this Sunday, I must be able to go out there and crush that half-marathon right?

Wrong.

You see there is a big difference between running and racing

A training run like last weekend’s 17-miler was run at 7:08 min./mile pace.  That may seem fast, but “fast” for me these days is running somewhere down  in the 6:30-6:40 min./mile for runs of 12-15 miles.

It takes a lot of effort to hold a pace like that for close to an hour and a half. 

Challenging?  You bet.

But that is not what has me most uneasy about our race next weekend.  It is the course at Decker that changes the event from the Decker Half-Marathon to the Decker Challenge.

The Decker Challenge is one of the longest running and most well-respected races in Austin.  A windy course with historically poor December weather on the lake, can make Decker a tough race.  But it is the hills that put the “challenge” in the Decker Challenge.

Decker Challenge Elevation Chart

The way I like to put an elevation chart into perspective is to equate each 10 feet of climbing with a story in an office building.  The 849 foot climb at Decker is roughly the same as running up the height of an 85 story skyscraper, while covering 13.1 miles. 

Now that’s a challenge.

Another rule of thumb I go by is that if a hill has a “name”, it must be a pretty tough hill.

Hurricane Point – Big Sur Marathon

Gallows Lane – Litchfield Hills Road Race

Cardiac Hill – Peachtree Road Race

Doomsday Hill – Spokane, Washington

Heartbreak Hill – Boston Marathon

I could tell you a story about that last one.

“The” Hill at Decker appears to be the hill at mile 10, nicknamed, “Quadzilla”.

Coming so late in the race, with 5 more kilometers to go, it will be important to manage my pacing just right to run a great time on such a challenging course.

One of the reasons I decided to continue with my Hill Repeat Training throughout training for the Austin Marathon was due to this race as well as the Austin course itself. 

Most marathon training programs that include any kind of hill work recommend a reduction in the frequency.  Perhaps once every three weeks or so.

For me, it seemed that as long as I could still hit the repeats hard each Thursday and see improvement, it made sense to continue with that workout each Thursday morning.  When I get to my 20-mile and 21-mile long runs, I will back off the repeats that week to get ready for those key workouts.

After the initial 10 weeks of hill repeats this summer, I thought that I was really crushing the hills.  Getting stronger and stronger as the number of repeats reached 10X per week, and my speed up the hill increased.

What I’ve seen over the past four weeks however has me even more encouraged.  I continue to drop my average repeat times and am now knocking on the door of a sub 1:40 .30 mile repeat up a climb of 65 feet.

Hill Repeat Progress

I plan on passing on my hill repeats this Thursday as the Decker Challenge approaches, giving me fresh climbing legs for Sunday.

To further prepare I plan on driving out to the course this weekend to log a few miles.  I want to be able to visualize the hills and really “know” just how steep the climbs will be.  No surprises on race day.

Once Decker is in the books, just two races will remain.  The 3M Half-Marathon on January 30th and the Austin Marathon on February 20th. 

3M could not be more different from Decker, as it features a fast, downhill course.  That is a race where we will be looking to really make some noise.  Perhaps we can even make a run at a time of 1:25:00.

The goal for Decker?  Anything under 1:30:00 on that course would be a time to be proud of.  I’m not sure that the stars will align for us to run quite that fast.  The winds and weather that day will surely play a role.

As for the hills?  There is not much more we could be doing right now to get ready.

Afterall, It’s just a hill.  Get over it.

Sunday’s 14-mile long run at 7:08 pace wrapped up a great third week of training for Austin and took us one step closer to race day on February 20, 2011.  Monday’s training called for 16 miles on the tri-bike in the morning, followed by strength training in the afternoon.

This is the part of marathon training that seems to drag for me just a bit.  Still four weeks away from the first “real” long run of 17 miles on December 5th, I find myself looking ahead at this point toward what is coming next instead of looking behind me at all of the great training that is already in the books.

As much as my training schedule looks familiar stuck to the refrigerator door when compared to past training cycles, there are quite a few differences this go round.  There are more tempo runs sprinkled throughout the calendar when my legs are fresh and I am not in need of a recovery run.  Hill Repeats are featured on Thursdays in seven of the next fifteen weeks, replaced by pace runs on weeks where we are running 20 or 21 miles on Sunday as well as the final three weeks of the taper period.

But the real difference is the three race days that are on the schedule:

Thursday – November 25:  Hopewell, PA Turkey Trot 5K

Sunday – December 12:  Decker Challenge Half-Marathon

Sunday – January 30:  3M Half Marathon

The Thanksgiving Day 5K race in Hopewell, PA is the inaugural running of the event.  The race will start and end on the very football field where one Dominic V. D’Eramo, jr. did battle for the Hopewell Vikings.

Dom #13 Bottom Left

This was a race that will be pretty special for a lot of reasons on Thanksgiving morning.  Even though I will have to run home from the race back to my Mother and Father-in-Laws house, and probably throw in an extra couple of miles along the way to reach my 10-miles for the day, it will be well worth it.

For those of you in the Pittsburgh Area, I will be writing a feature about the race in a week or so with all of the registration details.  The race will benefit the Humane Society, so if you are looking to race, walk or simply meet-up with the Run for Dom crowd, we’ll be back together at the event for the first time since the Pittsburgh Marathon in May.

The remaining two races on the schedule are the next two events in the Austin Distance Challenge.

The Distance Challenge is something that I decided to participate basically “last minute”, but I am getting happier and happier about my decision as the weeks move on.  Racing is something that is going to help me really zero in on my pace for the Austin Marathon. 

The two half-marathons that remain are very, very different.  The Decker Challenge, one of the oldest races in Austin, features a traditionally very windy and extremely hilly up and down course around Decker Lake.  The 3M half-marathon is known as one of the fastest half-marathons in Texas due to its downhill course starting in North Austin and finishing a point to point route just past the University of Texas.

By the time those two races are in the books, I will have completed my three 20+ mile training runs and started my marathon taper.  I should be able to look back on the Distance Challenge and our performance at the 10K, 10-Mile, Half-Marathon (2) races and zero in on exactly the pace and race we are capable of for the Austin Marathon, barring any adjustments for health and weather.

As of the second update to the Austin Distance Challenge Standings we are currently in 10th place overall among all male runners:

As for the competitive 40-44 Male Age Group we are firmly in third place.  Still chasing a couple of runners ahead of us and fending off a challenge from the fourth place runner:

Male 40-44 Top 5

As much as I would like to run within the top 3 in the 40-44 age group and win a series award, the prize is truly Austin on February 20th.  We have set two consecutive PR’s running in the Distance Challenge, and the way things are shaping up, we might very well set two more at Decker and 3M.

As great as achieving those times would be, it really is all about Austin and earning another shot at the Boston Marathon in 2012. 

Stay tuned, it is going to be one heckuva run over the next 15 weeks.