Monday, November 14, 2011

The Richmond Marathon

An in-depth analysis of a first-timers marathon.

First, this report (and the one I link to in a moment) isn't for normal human consumption. If blood, sweat, tears, chafing, and swearing aren't for you, leave now. If they are for you, then you're just as messed up as every other runner I know, including myself.

Second, let me link to my race report over on DailyMile. It's a long read but it will give you my initial impression of the race and how I did. Once you've read that, then come back here to read more about those topics I forgot to mention or needed more room to talk about.

My DailyMile race report.

Okay, now that you've read that long, beast of a report, here's everything else.


Aside from this being my first marathon, this is also my first race in Richmond. Living close to the city, roughly an hour north, meant I could have stayed at home in my own bed. I opted to make it a weekend event and instead booked a hotel for both the night before and the night after. Based on a poor experience earlier this year running a half marathon in Williamsburg, I knew this would be a great chance to enjoy the moment.

The city of Richmond came across as fairly unique in my eyes. I've been through, into, and around the city nearly my entire life. But I never saw this much of it. And for the most part I liked it. There were many times where I felt like a country-bumpkin, especially with the number of homeless people and my lack of skills at city driving. But overall I liked the city. There were a ton of bikes on the road and most cars respected them, despite my disdain for a good 80% of them not using protective gear like helmets, lights, bright colors, etc.

I picked the Hilton Garden Hotel since it was close to the race start and since it had better reviews than the race hotel, the Omni. When race morning came, it was a short 2 or 3 block walk to the start line. By race morning there were already a steady stream of runners moving in that direction so it was easy to just join the crowd and enjoy the walk. Despite it being cold as all hell. Even after a few years in the Snow Belt of north-western Pennsylvania, I still don't like the cold that much. Although when it comes to running, I'd rather it be cold than hot. Anyway, it was easily in the low 30s and there was a steady wind that made it even colder. Not fun but I knew it would shape up nicely. Plus you can't really change the weather, only endure it.

With the finish line only an extra 4 or 5 blocks from the hotel, I knew it would be an easy walk back when I was done. I was half right. The distance was easy but there was a steady uphill to fight. I didn't know that until race day when I ran down to the finish to see how far it was. Things look a lot closer when you look at a map than they do in person.

One of my biggest complaints about the venue was the location of the expo. Having little experience in big races like this, I just assumed the expo and packet pick-up were close to the start/finish area. They aren't. You could get there by bike, but it would be a while. Even driving took longer than I would have liked but I managed. The expo was the typical race expo I've seen at other half marathons before. Lots of vendors selling their junk. Some of it is funny, some of it catches your eye, but as a whole it looked like junk. The only exception were the other races advertising and the local running store. You can always count on those to put out some quality stuff. I did like that there was a bib check system that let you walk across a timing mat to make sure your timing chips worked. I did not like that said timing chip was on my bib, but I'm just weird like that.

Another complaint was the lack of amenities after the race. Yes, they had water, my medal, a foil cape, and food, but I expected a little more. Maybe I'm spoiled by our local half marathon that dishes out hot soup and hot food along with the rest of the fancy swag. Oh well. Oh, and my first medal was losing the ribbon. The seams were coming out so I promptly went back for a replacement. Thankfully the 12 year old kid didn't give me any grief. Guess that thousand-yard stare makes people think you're crazy.

They also had no finish-line photo opportunities that I could see. There were a few spots on the course where you could tell photographers were set up, but none were labeled. Again, I must be spoiled by other races because the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon does that. They label their photographers on the course and give you a chance to pose for photos after you've finished.


From head to toe, I had the following gear:
- Saucony beanie hat
- Under Armour visor
- Switch sunglasses
- #DoEpicShit tech shirt
- Saucony arm sleeves
- Saucony gloves
- Generic tech jacket from Kohls
- 3 hand warmers (1 in each glove, 1 in my shorts)
- 2 Amphipod handheld bottles (large)
- 2 Amphipod flasks (small)
- chapstick
- RoadID
- Timex watch
- whistle
- Gatorade drink mix
- Nathan Catalyst drink mix
- BodyGlide
- North Face shorts
- Saucony calf sleeves
- Saucony socks
- Altra Instincts (shoes)

Overall, everything performed great. I pre-treated my feet with some Mission anti-chafe cream and that helped. I didn't feel any chafing on my feet until the last 5 miles or so, but by that point everything was hurting. I did end up with a blister on the tip of my left toe (the one next to my big toe) but I always have issues with that toe on both feet. And it was a small blister that was easily treated after the race and barely felt during the race.

I also pre-treated my primary chafe zone (my crotch) with BodyGlide as well as my armpits (a new chafing point in the past few months) and my nipples. Thankfully nothing really chafed that bad during the race. I reapplied BodyGlide to my nipples once around Mile 10 and my crotch about 3 times at various points. I also did not dump water on myself until very late in the race and did so sparingly to my head and neck. I knew from past races that this was a great way to cool my body off but also a great way to inflict serious pain from chafing.

My shoes worked out great. They're fairly new to me and only had a few miles on them but they have a wonderfully wide toe box. And for longer races where my feet swell, this is exactly what I needed. The minimal cushion was a bit hard on my knees but I expected that. My shorts weren't an issue, nor my shirt, hat, etc.

With the temperature starting out so cold, about 35F or so at the start, and ending so high, about 60F by the time I finished, I knew I would need to dress in layers. In fact, that's how I knew the race had started because there was suddenly a strip show taking place in front of me as people were suddenly flinging clothes to the side. Sure enough, I ditched my cheap and old jacket before the first half mile. Next came my beanie hat around Mile 5 or so. The bad news is it developed a hole at some point in the past month or so. The good news is I had no qualms in ditching it because of the hole. The ugly news is that I have yet to find a company that produces quality running hats that fit people with giant fucking heads like mine. At Mile 10 I was noticing that my sleeves were accumulating sweat. Which means my body is warming up and I need to ditch them. So I stripped them off. I was sad to see them go but I wore my old ones just for this scenario. Last to go were my gloves. I tossed those around Mile 14 I think. My hands are always cold so when they started warming up I knew it was warm enough to lose them. Again, these were older gloves so I was okay to see them go.

A bit of advice for those running their first marathon. Be prepared to ditch clothes at some point. Most marathons don't have the option of a drop bag like you'll find at ultras. So be prepared to lose your clothes. Dress accordingly. And cheaply.

Another bit of advice for your first marathon. You can show up in just your shoes, shorts, and shirt, and run without any other equipment. Richmond provided water every two miles and then every mile after Mile 20. That's plenty of water stops for most people. And each water stop also had Powerade (which I can't drink, but that's another story). They also had two gel stations. Not enough to run a marathon but I could have easily started a running store with the amount of clothes and gels I found on the road. Yes, many were squished or empty, but many gels were unopened (and un-stepped on). There were enough there to run the whole race without bringing any of your own. I never expected that. And while I expected to see clothes ditched here and there, I didn't expect the sheer number of items. Enough that it looked like empty cups at a water stop at times. And speaking of water stops, in the later ones be prepared to have sticky shoes for a bit. Some people can't run and drink.


Another thing for first-timers to look at is the course and the amenities provided. While I was disappointed to know where I was on the course when I got to Mile 22, it was an even trade with knowing where I was at Mile 10. But knowing what the race will provide for fluids and fuel was vital to me in this race. Had I gone and drank their Powerade, I would have barfed and likely not finished. Thankfully I took the time to test Powerade on my own and found that I didn't like it. Thus my need to carry Nathan Catalyst and Gatorade. The Catalyst was easy to use although it takes practice taking a tablet out of the tube and dropping it in the bottle without making a giant mess. I'd suggest you take the tablet out of the tube, close the tube, then put the tablet into an empty bottle. That way you won't splash and if you do, it won't ruin the rest of your tube. And if you use tablets like that, expect the shaking to produce a lot of gas in your bottle which may cause it to squirt out. Be careful. Also wait until all the fizz is gone or that gas will end up in your gut. Trust me, you don't want that.

The same tests took place with the fuel offered on course, Accel Gel. Thankfully I could stomach it. And thankfully I brought my own. I split my fuel between PowerBar gels and Hammer gels and they both worked. I wish I had taken more though. As I got into Mile 20 through Mile 26, I could tell I was running low on fuel. I did my best to take as much as I could but I didn't plan well enough for the later part. In fact, I had to take an extra gel on course and some beer and some pretzels to help close the gap in fueling. It helped but it wasn't enough. I also wish I had consumed more electrolytes during the race. As the temperatures rose and my body began to overheat, I could cool down some but I was still losing too much salt. While I could feel it on my face and could feel my pace drop, I think if I had pushed more fluids as soon as I noticed this, I might have done better.

Aside from the fluid and fuel deficit, my next biggest regret was music. I should have taken some but I didn't want to carry the weight of an old-school iPod or my phone. Plus, messing with earphones isn't something I want to worry about at Mile 20. But I think I could have pushed through those tough moments if I had my music with me. I'm a firm believer that music makes me run better, especially later. Same goes for flat Coke, but I can only do so much.

Other regrets include not taking in my surroundings more. There were a lot of wonderful views that I missed because I was so focused on running by them. For me, the best way to do a marathon is to do it two or three times. This way the first time you can focus on finishing and the other times you can focus on the view. I also wish I had exchanged more info with other runners. Which means I also wish I had simply talked to other runners more. A few exchanges here and there just weren't enough to replace the lack of music.


My recovery was way different than expected. I fully intended to be in so much pain I could barely walk the next day. Or even later the same day. It turns out I recovered just fine. My old high school cross country coach warned us to never get into a hot tub after a race. Apparently he knew some students that did and they turned themselves into limp noodles that could barely walk. And I'll agree with him, but only to a point. I think they likely overstayed the suggested time in the hot tub. A friend of my wife's ran with me a bit the week before the race and suggested my wife and I sleep in different beds the night before and that I should get into the hot tub after the race. I followed both suggestions and came out the other side much better. Not only did I have a good night's sleep (not really but at least I didn't toss and turn so much that I kept my wife awake) but I also had a faster recovery.

After the race, I went back to the hotel and loaded up on salty foods. I knew I was low so I recovered as best as I could. I put my legs up for 10 minutes or so, then rinsed in the shower before getting into the hot tub. The hot tub felt great but I kept my session to only about 10 minutes. I stretched some, then got back into the hot tub later that night after dinner. And dinner, by the way, was wonderful. Best damn burger ever. Do not overdo it on soda though, it'll keep you up when you need to be sleeping.

The next morning I was stiff and sore, but easily back to 80% health. My run that morning was short and slow but it felt great. I could feel all the kinks working themselves out and the muscles warming up. I should have gone longer but figured some down-time was well deserved. Now that I'm a couple days beyond the marathon, I still feel good. A bit stiff when I wake up, but easily moving like normal soon enough.


In my full race report, you'll see that I ran pretty even splits through the entire race. My second half was only about 5 minutes slower than my first half, and that's after a PR on the first half. And if you want to crunch numbers and do research, you'll see that I've been getting faster. How is that possible? Easy. I have a secret. The most well-known secret there is. I trained and I lost weight.

My training was pretty simple but haphazard at times. I tried to focus on my long runs and did my best to not skip them. If I had to skip a run, I'd try to skip the shorter ones. I did no pace work, no repeats, no speed work, no hill work, no fartleks, nothing. Yes, some of the routes I ran were hillier. Yes, some of the routes I ran were on trails. Yes, some of my runs were with faster people. But nothing was organized or planned. I just trained naturally and went with what felt right at the time. I listened to my body.

My weight loss is another well-known secret. I watched what I ate and exercised. All those fancy books out there with diets, revolutions, and everything else is a bunch of shit. You want to lose weight? Eat right and exercise. And by the way, eating right includes eating healthy foods and controlling your portions. I simply cut calories and lost the weight. And that weight loss helped me get faster. I never thought I could run as fast as I have in the past two months. And that confidence boost feeds even more weight loss. I guess another way to explain it is to think of it this way. Imagine running a marathon with a 5 pound dumbbell in each hand. It's going to hurt like a bitch and you'll be slow. Drop those weights and that's how I ran faster.


I thought I yapped long enough it would probably make all those English teachers out there happy if I put a Conclusion in here to let you know I'm done. Richmond was fun and I'd easily suggest it to anyone looking for their first marathon. The venue was nice and the route was scenic. People were pleasant and I had a great time. Focus on your training, gear, and weight. The training will teach your body what to do in the race. Dropping weight will help you go faster. And the gear will make things easier for you. And don't forget to have a recovery plan in place. Know what you're doing when you finish or you'll stand there with an addled mind until they close up shop. It helped that my wife was there to guide me back to the hotel but it was also nice to know that I could make it back if I needed to. And have fun. For crying out loud you're running a marathon. It shouldn't be work, it should be fun. So have fun! And try not to have any regrets. But if you do, use them to put forth a better effort in your next marathon.


Michael said...

Very nice recap. Totally agree with many points. Beautiful course with nice views, friendly people but they give you nothing at the finish line. You should try Shamrock… All you can have beer and Irish stew, a running hat and surprise gift. In 2012 they are giving a hoodie for their 40th year.
Anyhow, I liked the fact that you had a fueling plan and stuck to it. I was very impressed with your splits and specifically the fact that you kept a consistent pace. I compared your race to mine as we are at the same level and while I was ahead at the 10K and 13.1 marks, we were even at the 20 mile mark and then you passed me at the end. You can see my splits on my DM report of the race. I put a link to my Garmin page. Note that the stupid thing stopped twice during the race, so I did a few manual splits to sync with the mile markers.
I have had a terrible time with fueling in the past, which culminated last month when I passed out at the finish line due to messed up electrolytes and lack of oxygen in the blood. *(lactic acidosis) – so my plan for this race was to just eat whatever junk they passed out. It was my 2nd Richmond, so I knew they would. I only carried 2 GU gels and 2 small packets of sport beans with me. Nothing else.

Neil Richard said...

Thanks Michael. Not sure I'll be able to do Shamrock since I have the HAT 50k in March. But it's on my list for the future. Our pace sounds similar but wow, some scary stuff with the fuel and electrolytes. Let me know if you need ideas on what to try. I've had good luck and bad luck with certain things. It's still a learning process but it gives me an excuse to go out and run more!