Plans for a late summer 200k gave way to increased eldercare demands, requiring me to stay near Bismarck over the weekends for much of August and September. Unable to get away to Montana (Yellowstone 200k) or Minnesota (Hills of Wisconsin 200k), I looked for a substitute activity to fulfill an itch of ‘doing something big’ close to home. On a whim, I signed up for the Bismarck Marathon thinking it would address the ‘itch’ while providing an opportunity to evaluate my physical/mental response to a runner’s endurance event. I framed it to friends and family as 'an experiment', and besides, the cost for the marathon and half-marathon were the same, so I figured I’d just as well get the most for my money by going the full distance. It seemed a logical choice (at the time).
I registered on September 10th, six days before the marathon, thereby eliminating any opportunity to train. Moreover, my only preparation was to purchase a pair of Smartwool running socks and five Hammer gels at a local sporting goods store. I did nothing else. The experience was intended to test whether my body could withstand the stress of running 4+ hours with no real preparation aside from laying out my clothes/accessories the night before.
On September 16th at 7:30 a.m. I lined up with about 100 other runners at Cottonwood Park in cold, misty conditions with a light north wind. I chose the 4.5 hour wave, wanting to complete the marathon by noon, thereby assuming a pace slightly over 10 minutes per mile. Easy, I thought.
Easy enough through the first 12 miles. I cranked out a sub-10 minute per mile pace with no problems, and felt buoyed by the ease of the effort nearly half way through. Aerobically, there was no real stress given the slow pace, and (surprisingly) my knees, hips, and back felt fine. The large, supportive crowd was an emotional boost, and the rest stops along the route allowed for frequent refreshment (water or watered-down Gatorade).
Beyond 12 miles was a different story. First it was pain in my ankles, followed by my calves, then the balls of my feet began to go numb. Later, my upper back and neck became tense. My hamstrings were a mess 15 miles in, requiring frequent stops to stretch. By mile 18 I was at a 15 minute per mile pace, walking about half of the time. At this point my physical condition was similar to how I’ve felt at the end of 600k brevets. Numb feet, sore shoulders, tense neck… …essentially an exercise in pain management. People I passed early in the marathon were returning the favor. I was even passed by a member of the ‘Worst Pace Scenario’ relay team in the last half mile. ;-)
I finished, well outside my 4.5 hour goal, but - to place it in perspective - more than two hours faster than my fastest 200k brevet (James Canyon Jaunt, 2011). All-in-all, the ‘experiment’ was a success, as I came away with some useful insights when applied to randonneuring.
· Never once did I worry about my safety. The marathon followed shared-use trails for most of the route, limiting interactions with automobiles. What few roads we ran were either closed or closely supervised with crossing guards. This was nice.
· As mentioned above, the supportive atmosphere from onlookers and marathon staff was a big plus. This was especially appreciated in the last two (rather painful) miles.
· The experience was not ‘collaborative’, as it often is during brevets. Fellow runners generally kept to themselves, frequently in a ‘bubble’ fostered by a near-ubiquitous use of headphones. I don’t regard this as a fault of marathons (they are intended to be an individual effort, after all), it just sticks out as drawback for me. I like the idea of working together to achieve something significant.
· Never once did I get into a mental state similar to a ‘reflective zone’, allowing me to think deeply about difficult issues, professional or personal. No new ideas came to mind during the marathon.
· Post-event pain was decidedly worse following the marathon than either of my 600k brevets. Additionally, the upper back/neck issues required a trip to the chiropractor.
I’m thankful to all the folks who made the above insights possible, from the organizing committee to the many support staff. The Bismarck Marathon is an excellent event. Runners in central North Dakota are fortunate to have this marathon to look forward to each year.
With the marathon experience behind me, I’m turning my focus to wrapping up an eventful commuting year, a topic for a forthcoming post.