Jacksonville is this year’s marathon, the distance I’m sure I swore I’d never do again. I’m a short tracker, overperforming in 5ks and doing a lot worse as the distance gets longer. This was never more evident in 2010, when I decided that marathons are what runners do, and that I would try one. I threw myself into training that fall, cranking up my mileage until my IT band decided it was tired of being beat into submission. I hobbled around for most of a week after I did an 8k PR Saturday/26.2 mile training run Sunday, raced a 5k the next weekend and headed to Richmond with a gimpy knee. What followed was a bonk so epic that it makes Chernobyl sound like a minor mishap. Guarded the knee the whole race until mile 17 initiated a death march so painful and humbling that I thought I’d never recover. Whats worse is that the Strictly Running organized, 2 busload trip made the implosion a very public event. Trophy dropped me like a bad habit. I got ass slapped by Team Schmitz and was a spectator to most of my running peers (i.e. Rob, Brad, Jeff B, etc.) passing me the rest of the way.
Thus, this years training for JAX was basically to think of what I did for Richmond, and do the exact, polar opposite. I ramped up the miles more slowly, started earlier, backed off the speedwork, emphasized easy distance over pace. Tapered better. Took 3 whole days off my feet leading up to the race. Decided to follow the Team Schmitz GU/hydration plan.
The Longcreek training group (myself, trophy + K, captain marathon, buckleup, purvis, Mr/Mrs Diesel, Charley, Freight Train) traveled down to Jacksonville on Friday and Saturday. Captain did Boston this year and Purvis has done sub 3:20, so they really had nothing to prove, but the rest of us had some marathon demons to exorcise. Trophy may have left me for dead in Richmond, but fell apart 5 miles later himself. Diesel imploded into a tearful mess in Kiawah in 2010 and missed a sub 4 by less than a minute. Buckleup was running his first marathon but admittedly hadnt run in the past 3 weeks since our last long run. Jen, Charley, Freight Train and Karen were more wisely doing the half. We had a chance to tour the course ahead of time (except for the Diesels and their shopping addiction) , which proved that the race would be completely pancake flat. Almost literally no hills. I started worrying even about this, fearing the never changing terrain would wear out the same muscles…plus it was almost 80 degrees on Saturday. Luckily a cold front was moving in that night.
Sure enough, when we got to the start area about 6:30, it was about mid 40’s and windy. There were probably about 2000 people doing the full, half and 5k. I lined up with Trophy, Ken and Freight Train right next to the 3:30 pace group. Ken hadnt trained much for this race, so he was predicting super slow for him,despite his 3:07 PR. Sub 330 was my goal, and I was going to make doubly sure I didnt go out too fast, which was also a problem at Richmond. Course started with a 5k loop north of the start, then a huge out and back loop for the remaining 37k going south. The start was fairly congested, and it took almost 20 seconds to get to the start mat. Pretty chaotic in the early going, had to dodge quite a few people. I tried my best to keep things slow, and managed an 8:09 first mile, fairly close to what I wanted to do though a little speedy. I instantly started picking up the pace, and Trophy and I separated a bit from the others. We started hitting splits just under 7:50, which we thought was fast but OK, figuring we might need to bank some time early against the 8 minute pace we needed for the 330. I was hitting the water stops hard, because dehydration with cramps and nausea had destroyed me in last years debacle. It didnt help they were giving out half filled shot glasses of fluids. I took my Team Schmitz every-5-mile prescribed GU right on schedule. Felt OK in the early going, and pace started drifting slightly faster. I was starting to panic slightly though, because my left arch started to rub a bit. This escalated to what I knew was a blister by mile 9. Not a good sign, but I was probably willing to leave my foot a bloody mess to avoid a Richmond Part II. Started getting thirsty as mile 10 hit, and I was fearing a dehydration meltdown. Then, perhaps from some bizarrre divine intervention, a guy was at one of the houses on mile 10 giving out full water bottles. I thanked this hydration fairy profusely and chugged most of it down with some mandarin orange GU. Disaster averted. Trophy and I continued to drift down into the 7:30’s as we neared the halfway point. Crossed the 13.1 timing mat just under 1:42, which is actually 3 minutes faster than our Richmond half split (before wheels came off). It was a bit of a boost to get past halfway, and by mile 14 I had a strange surge of energy. Trophy asked how I was feeling, I told him “good”, he grumbled something less than good, and then I showed my empathy by abruptly dropping him. This was a critical point for me, as the first signs of my Richmond death march started on mile 14 as well. But this time I felt good..great really. I had to hold back a little as my pace picked up further into the 7:20’s. Others started dying near me, which added to the sense of speed. I was a little afraid, untrustful of when this burst was going to suddenly bonk out and leave me a crippled mass on the side of the road. As I hit mile 19 or so, I started to feel the fatigue in my quads, but also a glimmer of euphoria that this was going to be very different from last year. Passed Purvis at about 19.5 – he later said he had gone out too fast and paid for it. As I approached mile 20, I realized there was “just” a 10k to go, and Tig’s mantra that “the race starts at 20”. I was definitely laboring harder by this time, but was still holding pretty good 730ish pace. I had dedicated the last miles last year to family members, but really this had just made me want to cry and wish I was home (especially when youre cramping and doing a walk of shame). So this years mantra was decidedly more vulgar but definitely more empowering: F ___ Richmond. F the cramping, the pain, the walking, the embarrassment, the near puking, the shredded IT band… because it was absolutely, positively not happening again. It worked. Not that it didnt hurt. I was begging for each mile marker the rest of the way out. My legs were practically numb cinder blocks, but had become so locked in this pacing that they were churning out 7:35s like a metronome. Just maintaing pace made me feel like a champ, because the last 6 miles of a marathon is like a proverbial trail of tears. People walking left and right. My only disappointment was that I was vaguely aware in my end race fog that a sub 3:20 was possible if I picked up the pace. But that wasnt happening. My pace was miraculously staying the same, but my effort had increased 10 fold. The course takes a very cruel 1.5 mile loop right near the finish, and it took every ounce of mental fortitude to keep going by this point. Finally made it out of the loop and made it to the 26 mile mark just outside the finish line at the stadium, at just under 3:20. Threw down a very weak blue shoes kick, finally going sub 7 pace if even for just a few tenths. Hit the line at a gun time of 3:21:05, chip of 3:20:40. A PR by almost 32 minutes, 115th overall. Totally thrilled with this race, and such a redemption of my first marathon.
Trophy kept up the pace pretty well, and said he only lost sight of me after mile 19. He also finished way under goal, blasting a 3:25. Purvis recovered enough on a tough day to still get 3:32. Captain was just behind him in 3:35. We waited anxiously for Diesel for about 20 minutes until he came flying in at 3:55, meeting his sub 4 goal. Buckleup, despite running once in a blue moon, can still throw down a decent time, and finished his first marathon in 4:05. PRs all around for our half marathoners, Charley by a minute in 1:3x, Freight Train rolled into the station in 1:46, J-Ward rocked a sub 2 with a 1:59, and K crushed a 20 min PR with a 2:09.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Ward