Photo credit Amica Seattle Marathon 2013.
The Seattle Marathon was my first US race outside of California, and as such the first stop in a series of many more that I hope will take me, through the years, to each one of the fifty American states.
For some strange reason, the fact that this more of a geographical quest and exploration adventure means that I am not necessarily looking for racing achievements through these races. That's why the Seattle Marathon looked interesting, placed in December towards the end of the main training season; it would be a great way to finish 2013 after the Sydney and Morgan Hill marathons.
After a fun Thanksgiving, I went home to pack on Friday night for my three-day trip to Seattle. Getting everything to fit in carry-on was a bit of a challenge but it turned out well. Packed smart and light, I went to bed for a very short night before making it to my 7AM flight. The weather in Seattle was supposed to be rainy all week-end, but luckily it wasn't raining when we landed. I enjoyed a good first day in Seattle, getting used to the cold and walking around town.
I visited a few landmarks, explored the city and went to pick up my bib at the Westin. The expo wasn't as big as I expected, but it was reasonable for a race this size (about 10,000 runners total across all distances). They had a nice video preview of the course that I watched a couple of times to get myself familiar with how the hills looked like. After the expo, I decided to walk to the start/finish in the Seattle Center (under the Space Needle) and walk the first mile of the course to get myself familiar with the area. As it turned out, one of the Seattle bus lines was riding straight between the start/finish area and Alex and Adam's place, the two friends that were hosting me for the weekend (thanks again to them!).
In the evening, after a traditional pre-race beer, I joined Alex and Adam who were just coming back from London and we went out for an early dinner to complete the carbo-loading. Once back at their place, I got everything ready for the next morning and went to bed. I was a bit restless, as usual before a marathon, but quickly fell asleep after the short night and long day of travels, exploration and walking around. When I woke up, Alex was already up because of jet-lag. I went through my morning pre-race routine: bathroom, glass of water, weather check. Still no rain; I knocked on wood wishing it'd stay that way for the rest of the morning.
After dressing up in what has now become my "race outfit", I put on a garbage bag around my chest to stay dry and warm and headed out to the bus stop. I met a half-marathoner at the bus stop and we talked for a little while until the bus arrived. Stop after stop, the bus filled up with more runners and soon enough we all walked out of the bus, shuffling in the cold like half-asleep zombies towards the start line. I had about 45 minutes until the start at 8:15am; I kept hydrating and made a first stop to the bathroom. The wind had really picked up and I was turning into a plastic-wrapped Popsicle. I did my best to stay warm, dancing around to the sound of the music playing.
8am ticked off: time to go warm-up! I headed out for a slow jog to get the legs moving, which triggered another (more useful) bathroom break. I continued running for a few minutes, did some strides and a few stretches. I no longer felt cold and the legs were feeling good: I was ready. I made my way to the start line to find a pace group. Up until this point I didn't really have a strategy for the race. A sub-3:10 would get me top-100, which I thought would be nice. But I ran a 3:11 on the much hillier Morgan Hill course, so maybe I could do better today, on fresher legs?
I decided to go out with the 3:05 group and play it by feel. I didn't have strong goals today: whatever happened I knew I'd be proud of my race. Other than the wind and with the rain still nowhere in sight, the weather was perfect for running. This could be a good day. For some strange reason, we ended up being lined-up right at the start line. Where were the elites? To our right maybe? Regardless, it felt strange to be front-and-center at a marathon this size. I got an awesome picture out of it though (see header picture)!
The arm-cyclist went off, and a minute afterwards it was our turn. The pack started fast but our pacer did a relatively good job keeping the pace honest at the beginning. The first couple of miles were uphill on 5th Avenue; not the easiest way to start a race, but a good way to keep the pace in check. A good downhill followed and there again we made sure to not let our legs go ahead of themselves too much: we'll be needing these quads later on!
After coming up on the I-90 on-ramp with a good climb, the first 5k went by, wrapped up in a quick in 21 minutes flat. It felt as if the race hadn't even started yet. Soon after, we went through the long tunnel and hit the I-90 floating bridge on our way across Lake Washington to Mercer Island. The tail wind was majestic and propelled us into sub-7' miles without effort. On the other side of the bridge, a small uphill into the Mercer Island tunnel turnaround was waiting for us. I decided to take it easy on the uphill, still using as much tail wind as I could.
We were now heading back the other way, coming back down to the bridge with a fairly strong headwind. I pushed the pace a little bit and made the effort to rejoin the pack. I wasn't the only one to have this idea as the pack formed tighter in a diagonal against the wind. We lost a few seconds from the headwind, but at this point we already had a good buffer. On the other side of the bridge, we made a sharp left down onto 36th Avenue to join Lake Washington Boulevard.
For the first time in 8 miles we were finally on real, soft asphalt and the trees were protecting us from the wind. The miles were barely registering on the legs. This was indeed a good day. We hammered the next two splits really well, putting more time in the bank. Miles 11 to 13 took us around Seward Park, during which the pacer actually slowed down to make his half-marathon split time. A few runners stayed on pace but most of the group slowed down and followed the pacer, including me. I'm still not sure if this was a wise decision, but who knows? Giving back our so easily earned buffer mid-race? Maybe staying on pace would have made the end of the race even harder? It sure fell nice to take it easy for a couple of miles, enjoy the aid stations and the views of Lake Washington.
At the halfway point, our pacer stopped and passed the stick to the second half pacer. The pace immediately picked up to go back to 7'03"/mi. The "restart" was a bit brutal and clearly I wasn't the only one who felt it: a few runners from the group dropped off. Between those that stayed on the faster pace earlier and those that dropped off, the group had slimmed down quite a bit now. Still, we trucked along, making our way back up Lake Washington Boulevard. Still no rain and very little wind on this portion of the course. I've never felt so good at mile 15 of a marathon. I guess I would have, at Morgan Hill, but at mile 15 I was busy negotiating the main hill.
I realized my heart-rate monitor was completely off, showing only 65 bpm because my strap had slipped. I fiddle with it for a little bit and finally got it back to a stable read-out. I wasn't too pleased with the result. Even though I was feeling great and the legs were moving good, my heart-rate was already up to 170 bpm before the 20-mile mark. Obviously maintaining this kind of pace for so long was taking its toll. With the hills coming up soon it was time to stop chatting around and focus on my breathing. I managed to bring my heart-rate down a little, and more importantly to keep it in check around 170 during the first few gentle hills.
We passed mile 20 in a conveniently round 2 hours and 20 minutes, a perfect 7'/mi pace so far. Of course we still had to negotiate the hills ahead of us, but we were doing good. Although by "we", I mean the pacer, myself and two other runners, as this was all that was left of our brave 3h05 pace group at this point.
Mile 20 of a marathon is a very convenient benchmark point. With exactly 10k to go (the "20-mile warm-up to a 10k race"), it's a good opportunity to do the easiest math of the day. 45 minutes left, for 10k. Doable? Yes, no? The hills... It was a tough call and I started to feel like this would be really, really close.
The first hill hit, with a dead 100ft climb. Wasn't expecting that! Little steps, engaging the glutes, staying tall. The two other runners dropped back during the climb. On top of the climb, more uphill; lower incline but much longer on East Madison Street until the park entrance. I trailed behind the pacer a little bit, but stayed focus and made it through without loosing too much time. The first section of the park was downhill; a good, well-deserved and much needed breather! The pace came back down from 7'38"/mi to 7'15"/mi. Still not "fast enough", but the heart-rate went back down as well, which was good. At the bottom of the hill one of the two other runners had rejoined and the other one wasn't far behind.
As the hills hit us again, I realized I forgot to eat a GU around mile 20 as we were busy navigating the course and the hills! I had so far been pretty diligent, taking a salted caramel GU at mile 10 and mile 15. With less than 4 miles to go I took out the GU Roctane I was keeping for the last push. I would need all the help I could get now. That second hill section, with lots of turns, felt even harder than the first. I was loosing ground to the pacer and it wasn't helping my morale. I tried to remember that he only ran 8 miles so far and was on much fresher legs than me!
Yet, I was loosing precious time. When I passed the final 5k mark, my watch ticked 2 hours and 45 minutes. I wasn't sure how I could come up with a 20-minute 5k at the end of my fastest marathon... After one last gruelling uphill to go over the freeway, the course finally turned downhill and the Seattle Space Needle, the landmark of the finish, was now in sight. At this point I started being increasingly frustrated at the fact that my Garmin 610 wasn't showing the seconds on the total activity time. I had fifteen minutes to cover 2.2 miles. Or was it fourteen?!
This was close, but it started to look like it was going to be close on the wrong side of 3:05. With two miles to go I didn't want to have any regrets and started picking it up. This wasn't the time to quit. I didn't go this far, ran this long this fast to let it go. I saw the pacer at the end of the street and he had a significant lead on me. I wonder what his mile splits were; I'm pretty sure he realized he had to make up for lost time because I was now hauling at 6'35"/mi and barely catching up!
These last two miles brought up a lot of different feelings. Whatever happened, whether or not I made this 3:05 finish I had pretty much guaranteed myself a new PR and an exceptional run here in Seattle. Yet I was hungry for more. Boston could be right there, a mile away, if I managed to cover it fast enough. The downhill helped, and although my quads were hurting it didn't matter now. I saw more than a few amazed faces as I zoomed by other runners, pulling out of nowhere what is probably my best marathon finish ever.
Three hours ticked on my watch and I had three quarters of a mile to go. I tried doing the math, but my brain was too busy processing pain and trying to remember the last few turns of the course. The road started slopping back up through a right turn, followed by a left turn. And that's when it hit me: the underpass! I had forgotten about it. I had maybe a quarter of a mile to go, and I couldn't tell if I had almost two minutes, or just above one minute to do it. As I struggled on my way back up from the underpass, with the stadium now in sight, 3:04 passed on my watch. Less than a minute!
I dug deep and kept charging on. Damn that uphill finish! Left turn towards the stadium tunnel. Why is this so far away? Tic, toc, tic, toc. I passed through the tunnel and entered the stadium lawn, desperately looking for the clock. I didn't even look around to enjoy the stadium finish experience as I thought I would. My eyes were frantically looking ahead to the finish line and the race clock. When I finally saw it, it was already too late and over 3:05. I still made a decent sprint to the finish to bring it home in 3:05:50.
So close. So really, really close. As I collected my medal and a bottle of water, I stood there for a moment, both incredibly sad and happy at the same time. "How could this slip away from me by so little?" "What are you talking about, you weren't even planning on being this fast!". I sure wasn't. I thanked the pacer, congratulated a few runners that I passed on the finish chute, and made my way to the recovery area (uphill! Damn stadium!).
I come home with a new PR by a solid minute and a half from a very well executed race on the slipstream of my main season training. That BQ time doesn't have a chance at Napa in the spring. If winter training goes well, maybe even the 3-hour barrier will not stand. More than anything, this race was a huge confidence builder, giving me a glimpse into my potential in 2014.
Thank you Seattle, I hope I did you proud. 48 states to go!