Everything was perfect. My training had gone entirely to plan. Even with the increased workload from school, I was still finding time to get my runs and strength sessions in each week. Over the last couple of weeks I had completed my final long distance training run (20M) and slowly tapered off to conserve energy. I loaded up on carbohydrates the week of the marathon, going from 50% of my food intake on Tuesday to 90% on Saturday. I shook the cobwebs out with a final run of 4M on Thursday morning. I packed two of everything I could possibly need. The weather was holding up and projected to be in the high 40s or low 50s for the morning of the race, with some cloud cover. I had a strategy too. I was confident I would do well. There was nothing in my preparations that pointed to any kind of problem. Even my knee, which had flared up once or twice in a very minor way, was feeling good in the days leading up to the marathon. Like I said, everything was perfect.
I woke up around 4:15 on Sunday morning and started going through my pre-race routine. I ate a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, followed by some light stretching. My gear was all laid out, so getting dressed was a simple process. An hour later, after I was appropriately greased and layered up, I was all set to go. I said goodbye to Jess (who was barely conscious) and set off for the start area at Eakins Oval. For my first marathon, I was remarkably relaxed. There were no nerves or over-excitement. I had planned ahead with appropriate warm up gear. The idea was to ditch the stuff at the start line just prior to the race beginning. Good thing too – the morning was fairly cold. At the start area I dropped my post-race gear bag at baggage check and went to pre-race stretch area. I went through some basic exercises and was starting to get into the zone.
Just prior to the race start I noticed the pacers, with their signature red balloons. Unfortunately, I was in a really bad spot and someway behind both the four hour pacer. When I had registered for the race, I had filled in my expected finish time of 4:20:00, so I was assigned the appropriate starting corral. Trying to move up to the four hour pacer through the already packed corral would have been annoying, so I figured I would catch up to him on the road over the first couple of miles. That was my first mistake.
When the race started, we streamed down Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Unfortunately, Arch Street was relatively narrow which made it difficult to pick my way through the crowd. I passed the first mile marker at a little over ten minutes and felt my anxiety starting to rise. I passed Jess a block or two later, which helped to relax me a little. At that point, I decided to be more aggressive and start moving up. If I was going to meet my four hour target I had to get back on pace. Over the next couple of miles I made my way through the pack and eventually passed the 4:15 pace runner between the fourth and fifth mile marker. I was also running just under nine minute miles and had got myself close to pace for a four hour marathon.
Around six mile I passed Jess again, this time on Chestnut St and that gave me another motivation boost. My 10K split time was 56:05, not a super fast time by any means but within the expected range. From there, the course wound it’s way west through Drexel country and into Fairmount Park. There were a few hills that helped to stretch out the pack, and I took them in stride as I had done countless times around Prospect Park. I was hydrating regularly, and took on some additional Clif Bar shots for fuel, so was feeling pretty good as we exited the park and headed back toward the art museum. The thought of doing another 13 miles was somewhat daunting, but I fought off the temptation to turn take the half-marathon route and turned left to go the distance. At the half-marathon split, my time was 1:57:05. As a comparison, that was just off my time for the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in May.
Just after the half way point, I stopped to take on water and fuel, and to give my legs a break by walking for a short distance. By my math, I was about two minutes ahead of schedule and could afford a short break to re-energize before the second half of the race. After starting back up, the next three miles passed uneventfully. I still had not caught up to the four hour pace runner, but I was sticking to that pace myself and fought the urge to push too hard. I wanted to make sure I had something in reserve for the last couple of miles. Around 17 miles, the course took a detour from Kelly Drive and wound it’s way over a small footbridge and downhill into a park for about half a mile before performing a 180 degree turn and winding back to Kelly Drive. As I turned off the bridge on to the downhill path, the four hour pace runner passed me going the other direction. This was the first time I had seen him since the start, and it gave me a motivational boost. I made a mental note of the time on my watch, so I could see just how far back I was. Bear in mind that I had started a few minutes behind the pace runner and was holding to that pace myself, so any inroads I could make to the gap would take me under the four hour mark.
And then it happened … the pain shot through my left quad. Cramps like I have never felt before, so bad I could not straighten my leg. I tried to continue but was worried I would do some serious damage, so I stopped. Except I couldn’t stand, so I crouch like I was going to the bathroom. And there I stayed for two or three minutes until the pain subsided and I could stretch my leg out straight. I figured it was all part of the experience, and started off again – going uphill to the bridge and back onto Kelly Drive. By the time I got to the point where I had seen the four hour pace runner, five minutes had elapsed. In my mind, that was still possible and so I pressed on. At the 30K split my pace had dropped slightly but I still recorded a very respectable 2:56:03. The rest stop to get over the cramps had cost me a couple of minutes, but in my mind I was still clinging to the dream. However, the cramps returned with a vengeance, this time on my right quad. So I stopped and massaged, and waited. And then I started up again. And then the cramps returned and I stopped again. Every time I came to a slight incline of any sort, the cramps would hit and I would have to stop or at the very least slow down and walk. I can’t remember at what point I gave up on the four hour goal, but in many ways it was a relief. The reality of the situation had hit me. I was at more than seven miles from the finish and suffering from bad cramps. There was no way I was going to make my goal time and any attempt to do so would have resulted in serious injury.
From that point on I actually started to enjoy the race a bit more. At the 20 mile marker in Manayunk the crowds were cheering for the runners, handing out orange slices and beer! I’m not ashamed to say that I indulged in a small cup of beer. After all, everyone knows it’s rude to say no when someone offers you a drink. With a fresh attitude, I pressed on. I still wanted to finish with a good time, so I ran as much as I could. But just as I was beginning to get some momentum going, the cramps came back and I had to slow down. Admittedly, the remaining miles were a bit of a slog and at times I thought about packing it in. But after putting in four and a half months of training, there was no way I was going to take the easy way out. I struggled, I walked, and honestly if it had of come down to it … I would have crawled up that last hill. As I crested the hill at the art museum the crowds grew thicker, and urged me on. The cheered and yelled, “Go Jason!” (I had that emblazoned on the front of my t-shirt). I wanted so bad to keep running, and so I pushed myself past the mile marker and down the hill. As I swept around the final bend and the finish line came into view, I was overcome with emotion. At one point I could feel another cramp coming on, but using sheer willpower I held it bay – no way was I going to walk over the finish line. If ever there was a case of mind over matter than was it. My body had controlled me for the last eight miles, but this one was mine.
I crossed the line in a time of 4:21:30 and had completed the last 12 kilometer segment in 1:25:27 – that’s an average of 11:24 per mile. As I made my way through the finish area I was more relieved than disappointed. I didn’t really dwell on the time; I had finished my first marathon and that was something worth focusing on. The goal time would have been great, but more importantly was finishing on one piece. It was on later, on reflection and after talking to a fellow runner that I learned the cause of my cramps. It wasn’t my training or preparation – it was a basic mistake of deviating from a tried-and-trusted routine. Throughout my training regimen, I had stuck to a very strict routine. For all my runs over an hour, I took along some sodium supplements and made sure to take them every 30 minutes or so. Unfortunately, even though I had packed them, I completely forgot to take the supplements over the course of the marathon. Sodium deficiency is a major cause of muscle cramps in distance runners and I had fallen victim to it on my first marathon. Stupid really … something I had never paid attention to because it never happened to me.
Looking back now, I am a little disappointed that the cause of my problem was something I could so easily have avoided. But I’m not going to let that take away from the fact that I finished my first marathon, and did so in a relatively good time. Focusing on the positives, my time of 4:21:30 makes a very ripe target for a personal best next time out. And to cap it off, I get to put one of those 26.2 stickers on the back of our car.