Jack & Jill's Downhill Marathon (Northbend, WA)
Marathon #4, State #4
Finish time – 2:58:54
It's funny; I feel like I've been mentally writing this recap for over a year now. In a single race, I was able qualify for the Boston Maraton ("BQ") and run a sub-3 hour time - two goals that my training has been geared towards since early 2015. Now, about a year and a half after my dream was developed, this mission has been accomplished, and I can't wait to tell you all about it. Grab a snack and a beverage, this story may take me a bit.
First, you should know a bit about the genesis of this story. I ran my first ever race of any kind in January 2012; it was the inaugural MLK 5k (shout out to Chip Owens). I only ran this race because my former boss' boss' boss asked me to. I was roughly 45 pounds heavier than I am today and clinically overweight. I finished my first race, this 5k, in 37:31 (that's a 12:04/mile pace).
After feeling embarrassed with my performance and the fact that I was overweight, I decided to make some changes. I lost weight and along the way developed an interest in running. That summer (2012) I set a goal of being able to run 3 consecutive miles without stopping at any pace (as long as I didn't walk). By the end of that summer, and largely due to the breathing advice that I received from my good friend Jason, I was able to run 3 consecutive miles (very slowly but without stopping) by the end of that summer. This was the first pivotal shift in my developing running journey.
***I call this pivotal moment #1***
My running progressed from there. In 2013, I ran my first 10k and Half Marathon. By the end of 2013, I had started running with Black Men Run ("BMR") and found others who looked like me and shared my developing passion for running. Largely through BMR, I continued to develop my running ability and fostered many relationships within the running community.
After a few more 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons, I decided it was time to raise the stakes. In November of 2014, I ran my first marathon (in 3:57:06).
Then in early 2015, I came up with the bright idea of running in the Boston Marathon. I'm not sure exactly when I made this decision, but it was likely largely influenced by Margo's telling of her BQ run. If you haven't heard her recap her running experiences leading up to her first Boston run, you should; it'll be a worthwhile and inspiring listen.
I wanted to time-qualify for Boston, so I developed a plan - I would run 2 marathons per year and aim to improve my time by 10 minutes per marathon; that works out to a 20 minute improvement per year, subsequently putting me in BQ range by 2018 (the same time that my BQ standard would increase from 3:05 to 3:10).
I thought the plan was perfect.
I shared my plan with a few people, all of whom were very encouraging. Then one day, I decided to share the plan with a running friend of mine. I told this person that I was going to work and try to get my marathon time down to BQ standards (at the time I had only run the one marathon in 3:57). This person considered the 52 minute improvement that would have been necessary and asked, "how do you plan to do that?" I then told this person about the above mentioned plan. After a few moments of contemplation, this person's response was, "well I've spoken with others about this subject (of being able to BQ), and my feeling is that you either got it or you don't."
Then there was a moment of awkward silence, and this person walked away. That was the end of the conversation.
***I call this pivotal moment #2***
I learned two things that day:
1. Be very careful who you share your dreams with. Not everyone is rooting for you to win, even if they are sitting right there in your corner.
2. Never let someone determine your potential for you. The phrase "you either have it or you don't" is a lie. There's a group of people in the middle... People who don't have it yet but are on a mission to get it - the go-getters. That's who I was, and no one could tell me otherwise.
Very shortly after this conversation (February 2015), I ran my second marathon in 3:38:14 (shaving roughly 19 minutes off my prior time from just 3 months ago). I was ahead of schedule.
After my 3:38 marathon, I really started to believe. Others believed too, and they told me so. The encouragement helped. I started training for my next marathon with Maurya and Patrick. Having faster and equally aggressive training partners pushed my effort level to new heights. We were training together with the intent of running the Phoenix Marathon in February 2016. Our training runs together took me to an entirely new level of intensity. Our runs generally left me completely exhausted and thoroughly sore. The unapologetically competive spirit within our group only fueled my intensity even more. I learned to train hard so that my races would be easier.
***This was pivotal moment #3***
I ran my third marathon that November 2015 (The Marshall University Marathon) in 3:15:24. That was roughly 23 minutes faster than my prior time). I'm now way ahead of schedule.
I kept training. I added more miles. I ran faster training paces. Still training with my new training partners, I pushed myself to the limit. But about a month before my planned marathon #4 (The Phoenix Marathon in February 2016), I got injured. My destiny would be delayed but not abandoned.
After a brief rehab, I restarted my training with a new marathon on the schedule - Jack & Jill's Downhill Marathon. I chose it because it played to my strengths - it was a gentle downhill, and it was low-key enough that the field wouldn't be that large.
So on July 31st, 2016, I ran my 4th marathon. Exactly 17 months after my friend told me that I "either had it or I didn't." I shaved 59 minutes off of my initial marathon time and finished in 2:58:54. This one was for the go-getters!
Now let's talk about how I got it done.
The short of it is that I ran on the perfect marathon course, under unbelievably ideal weather conditions, with the best running company I've ever had during a race. Essentially everything lined up for me in a way so profound that there is no way I can fail to acknowledge God's grace over my run.
I was making this trip solo, and it was a quick in and out trip. I flew to Seattle on Saturday morning for a Sunday morning race. Then I turned around and hopped on a flight at midnight to arrive back in Atlanta early Monday morning. Since my family wouldn't be joining me on this trip they made sure to facetime me the night before the race and take turns praying that "daddy had a good race."
Lets get to the race itself.
First off, the course was AMAZING. To simply call the course beautiful does not do it justice. I normally don't sightsee during my races, but I couldn't help but notice the beauty of Washington's mountain. The course is on covered rail paths that cut through the Cascade Mountains. I felt like I was running on the set of Twilight... not that I've ever seen Twilight.. okay maybe a few times. Whatever, let's move on.
The first 3 miles (6:43, 6:45, 6:42)
The course literally cuts through the Cascade Mountains. The race starts with a nearly 3 mile run through a pitch black tunnel that has been carved through the mountain. Flashlights, of some sort, are an absolute necessity. The tunnel is cool, pitch black, flat, wet, and straight... So straight that you can see a pinprick of light once you get inside that gets progressively larger as you run through the tunnel. This growing source of light is actually the other end of the tunnel. Kinda cool.
I lined up right at the front of the pack, and we ran for approximately half a mile before entering the tunnel. This was just enough time to get into a comfortable groove from a pace perspective. This was important because most advice said that GPS would be lost in the tunnel, so there would be no aid to help you stay on your pace; it would basically have to be muscle memory and feel to gauge pace during the tunnel miles. I had both GPS and GLONASS activated on my Garmin and fortunately I was able to get pace readings the entire time. Although the elevation feeedback was wonky, the pace provided by my watch seemed to be spot on.
Once we got in the tunnel, everyone pretty much stayed in place and followed each other through. Since everyone in my pack had a light, visibility was actually very good as we went through. There were definitely some wet spots in the tunnel and water dripping from the ceiling, but it wasn't nearly as bad as other reviews led me to believe. For the most part, I stuck to the middle of the tunnel and didn't worry about position or doing any passing on the inside.
Miles 4 through 13 (6:41, 6:50, 6:36, 6:19, 6:24, 6:41, 6:35, 6:39, 7:04, 6:23)
Once we exited the tunnel, we were able to drop off our flashlights with a volunteer that waited just after the exit. This process was very smooth and efficient; they had a big box and we just chucked our lights in as we passed. I was in a group of about 6 people, and we were about 30 seconds behind the lead pack as we exited the tunnel.
It was shortly after exiting the tunnel that I realized just how jaw-droppingly beautiful this course was! Words won't do it justice, but we were essentially running along the side of a mountain, and as you looked over to the right, all you could see was the drop off of the mountain that we were on and the beauty of the rising peaks across the other side. I mean it was really beautiful; this coming from someone who rarely takes the time to soak in the aesthetics of a course while racing. But between the mountain views, beautiful trees, and amazing trestle bridge crossings, this course had it all... assuming of course that you don't have a fear of heights.
Now this course is marked as a gentle downhill course, and I must say that it 100% lives up to its name. The downhill nature of the course was so consistently gentle, that you never actually felt like you were running downhill. I mean truly. I never felt like I was running downhill, and the fact that I had absolutely zero pain in my quads is a testament to that. However, the course is absolutely downhill, and I could feel it immediately in the relative ease at which I was able to hold marathon pace during the first half. I was running at a 6:45 pace and my heart rate was under 160 (my max heart rate is about 195-200).
Not only was I benefitting from a beautiful and super fast course, I also benefitted from the best race weather I have ever experienced. Temperature in the mountain started in the upper 40's/low 50's, and the temperature when I finished was in the very low 60's... And it was cloudy the entire time with no wind. It was wonderful!!
Also, I benefitted from excellent running company. My pack of 6 stayed together for the majority of the first half of the race. Although we switched positions a bit from time to time, we all stayed within 30 seconds or so of each other the entire time. One of the guys I was running with (Frank) was a guy that I met on the bus before the race. I was lamenting about not having enough coffee and he kindly offered me half of his double shot expresso can, which I eagerly accepted. We chatted a bit pre-race, but we had no idea that we were planning to run such a similar time in the race.
I blazed through the first half of the course in 1:28:20 (technically, a half PR for me). I was a bit faster than planned, but because my heartrate was so low, I knew that I was okay. Heart-rate is a more objective measure of effort that is not easily subject to the mind tricks that perceived effort sometimes play on me.
Miles 14 through 22 (6:49, 6:46, 6:38, 6:48, 6:36, 6:54, 6:58 6:55, 6:49)
By about the halfway point, my pack of 6 dwindled down to a pack of 4, then 3, then eventually just two... me and Frank. The rest of the group fell off pace a bit. And I must say, I owe a huge bit of my sub-3 performance to Frank.
Frank came through the half about 20 seconds behind me, but caught back up to me by mile 16 or so and then we pretty much ran together for the majority of the remainder of the race. By now, I was over looking at the beauty of the course and was starting to focus in a bit more on the task at hand. I was still feeling very fresh, but I remembered just how quickly things can turn sour if I were to hit that dreaded wall. I had my watch set on quarter mile splits, and I constantly monitored my heart rate (which was still nice and low). Things were looking good.
Frank and I were talking a bit as we ran. He told me that he used to run in the low-2:40s when he was younger but that he hadn't raced in a while. I told him that I was shooting for my first BQ and that I thought that I needed at least 3:02 to be comfortable. At the pace we were going, he said, I should just shoot for sub-3, which I told him I was. At the time he said that he didn't know how much longer he could hold the pace, but that he would try to run with me as long as he could. I thanked him, and we ran; reeling in a runner every mile or so as some of the folks in the lead pack were dropping off in later miles.
Frank was hanging strong and would ask me how I felt every so often. I told him that I felt good, and that though I had some early signs of fatigue in my muscles, I still thought I had some juice in the tank for a strong finish.
By mile 22, he checked in with me again... my reply was, "it hurts!" His reply, "it's supposed to right? that's how we know we're working!"
Mile 23 through the finish (6:58, 6:47, 6:58, 6:47)
The last four miles of the course switch to a different trail which has the only major turns of the entire course. At this stage in the race, 90 degree turns were a bit difficult to handle. I kept thinking that a few more turns like this would surely lead to a cramp. Fortunately, that never happened.
By mile 23, the pain was so real! I mean so real!
I told Frank that I was going to let him take the lead for a bit and I would try my best to let him pull me through. He agreed, and off he went. I tried my best to hang on to him, but by mile 24 he had opened up a 10 second gap on me. It took everything I had to keep running sub-7 minute miles. I could see him just ahead of me, and I just continued to push with everything I had - by this point 6:50ish pace had simply become muscle memory. My body was just rolling along despite the pleas for mercy from my mind. It was around mile 24 that I experienced pivotal moment #4 in my running journey.
I was working hard, so hard that the pain was no longer isolated to specific regions. It's not like my right calf was hurting, or my left quad... no, everything hurt. My very existence had simply become pain by this point, and I could no longer avoid it. Normally in races, I try to distract myself when I experience pain... I'll repeat mantras or think of other thoughts, curse at myself, or try to remember some motivational quote or moment from my past. But this time, I tried something different. I didn't fight the pain - I simply embraced it. I worked with the pain... I let it wash over me and as it raged against my body, I raged right along with it. I had become pain. I'm not trying to be all esoteric here, but I can't think of another way to describe it. As the pain intensified, I just went right along with it... channeling the energy of the pain into the production of my legs.
During my flight to Seattle, I watched the movie "The Revenant." There's a pretty intense scene involving a man fighting with a bear. During this scene, the bear was shot by the man, at which point the attack of the bear only intensified. That is probably about how I felt... I felt like that bear. I didn't try to distract myself from the pain... I raged right along with it. I lived in the pain. And to a small degree, perhaps, I even enjoyed it. The hurt was not as much of an enemy as I've previously believed. At least not anymore.
Before this epiphany, there was a moment around mile 24 or so when I realized that I was going to BQ. I realized that I could back off my pace a bit and still finish under 3:02, giving me a very solid shot at going to Boston.
But then I thought about the sacrifices - month after month of 3:30am alarm clocks; the missed events and parties; the sacrifices from my family; my wife having to hold down the house solo during my 20 mile long runs; the run friends that logged miles and shared experiences with me; the people back in Atlanta who were probably watching their phones knowing that I should be finishing soon; my kids who prayed over me, my wife who gave me massages and pep talks when I was in the running lows of my prior injury; God who blessed me with the most ideal running conditions known to man; the old folks who make sure that everyone leaves lane 1 of my local track open during those zero dark thirty mornings; everyone who believed in me; ... everyone who doubted me.
No, I wouldn't give in to the pain. I would become pain... and like it. That was my realization.
So I ran the last two miles with everything I had. My splits (6:58 and 6:47) may have been similar to all of my prior miles, but they took so much more. While, technically, I didn't negative split this course, I've never even come close to running this even of a marathon before.
I remember the feeling of coming around that last bend and seeing the finish line. The blur of people clapping and cheering. The half marathoners that I was passing that were encouraging me, even as they themselves were approaching their own finish line. But what I remember most was hearing the announcer over the speaker say in a very loud and clear voice, "Da'Rel! YOU have just qualified for BOSTON!"
This was about 15 feet before I crossed the finish line, and I had a river of emotion immediately rush to the back of my eyes. But within a stride or two, I crossed the finish line, and as I slowed, the extent of the pain that I was running with fully washed over me. It was so intense that I immediately loss the emotions that were about to bring me to tears; now I was hobbling over to the side to rest. As I wobbled, a kind lady placed my finisher's medal over my neck... it felt so heavy. I knew at this point that I had definitely finished under 3 hours. It was the most amazing feeling I've had in my running career. The hurt, the pride, the gratefulness all blended together in one big ball of something. Something that I will always hold on to.
I finished my fourth marathon in 2 hours, 58 minutes, and 54 seconds.
4.5 years ago, I struggled to a near 38 minute 5k finish.
4 years ago, I ran 3 consecutive miles for the first time ever.
20 months ago, I ran my first marathon.
17 months ago, a friend told me that I either had it or I didn't
But today... today I qualified for Boston. All of my yesterdays worked together to bring me to this moment. And oh how sweet of a moment it was. I'm going to BOSTON 2017!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Hic Svnt Leones