On Sunday Jan 30th I ran the ING Miami Marathon, my second-ever marathon. My finish time was 3:53:49. This was a PB, or “Personal Best” – not just on race time, but also for several other reasons. I broke the 4-hour barrier; I maintained a relatively steady pace throughout the race; I completed my longest race in Vibram FiveFingers; and I improved my previous marathon time by 45 minutes.
My main objective was to break 4 hours. To accomplish this, you have to run an average pace of 9:09 per mile. On shorter runs this is “conversational pace”, meaning you can run at this speed and talk comfortably at the same time. After 15 miles or so, however, it becomes very difficult to talk, or think, or in fact do anything other than just run. And after 20 miles, even your running starts to fall apart at the seams…
Because the last hour is the hardest, my race strategy this time around was to put as much time as possible “in the bank” up front, while making sure to keep enough energy to finish strong. My friend and training partner Richard’s goal was also to break the 4-hour barrier. Our pre-race plan was to stick together as long as possible and “carry” each other through the tough moments of the race, since this team dynamic had worked well on our long training runs.
If you are interested in the mile-by-mile account of my race, read on! I’m really writing this for myself so that I can refer back to it in the future and learn from my experience. But if you want to know how it feels to run a marathon, this is as good a place as any to start. Of course it’s long – but every minute you spend reading is twenty or thirty minutes that I spent running, so if I can do it, then so can you!
Before the race, Richard and I meet up with friends Debi, who is running her first Half Marathon, and Victor and Silvina, who have travelled down from Atlanta for the event. After some last-minute encouragement and coaching tips, we head for our respective starting corrals.
Mile 1 (9:35)
This year the heat and humidity are much lower than in 2010. Standing around at the start line is borderline chilly, but some jumping around and a good dose of adrenaline keep me warm. The flares go up over American Airlines Arena, and I shuffle towards the starting gate with 20,000+ other runners. Just when I think I’m going to be walking halfway to South Beach, the crowd thins and I pick up a slow jog…
Up over the first bridge on MacArthur Causeway, trying to find my pace, I weave between slower runners. I stick my elbows out to create a space to run in, protecting myself from the crazies who rush past from behind. No hard feelings – I know that they will be burned out and walking at Mile 10, if not earlier. We come down off the bridge, and as I reach dry land on Jungle Island I realize it’s already Mile 1. I’m on pace, allowing for the confusion of the start, and feeling good!
Mile 2 (8:18)
The second mile is a fast one. The descent from the bridge gives me some momentum – I am grateful for my repeated “smooth descent” training sessions on the Rickenbacker bridge. It’s amazing how a forefoot strike gives you speed when running downhill. Heading for the left lane where there are fewer people, I move over for some news motorbikes and police cars that zip by. To the right I see camera flashes from the cruise ships, and the sun pokes its nose over the horizon behind South Beach.
Looking over my shoulder, I see Richard just a few steps behind, crowded in the right hand lanes. We have talked about staying in contact for as long as possible and relaying each other, but I am already feeling that my body wants to speed up. I need to be running at 8:30 to 8:45 pace, in order to accumulate a time margin that will be useful 3½ hours from now… So a brief push takes me to Mile 2 and a strong split time.
Mile 3 (9:16)
What is it about Mile 3 on this course? Same number of lanes on MacArthur, same hundreds and thousands of people, running in a straight line… And yet somehow it turns out to be a minute slower than Mile 2. The only difference is the first water station, which must create a bottle-neck that slows the whole field.
When I turn around again to maintain visual contact with Richard he is nowhere to be seen. Of course with literally hundreds of runners all around me, this is hardly surprising. But I have a moment of anxiety because I was counting on the “team relay” to get me through the moments of fatigue that I know are waiting for me on the back side of this course. Time for an executive decision, and I decide to go for some aggressive time banking. My first marathon showed me how brutal the final miles of a marathon can be. Every half-minute that I gain now will improve my chances of hitting my target time. I pass mile marker 3 at the Fisher Island ferry, and switch to “solo runner” mode in my head.
Mile 4 (8:06)
The next mile is as unexpectedly fast as Mile 3 was slow. My first real interaction with other runners comes when a guy crashes into a traffic cone because he’s paying more attention to his iPhone than to what’s happening around him. Don’t text and run at the same time, it can be painful! Somebody else is already helping him up from where he landed, so I carry on running… I push up the bridge from Fisher Island ferry; speed down to Alton Road; pick a good line round the corner (dodging some adorable people who apparently only run once a year); and suddenly mile marker 4 is within reach, just past Monty’s.
The second water stop and portaloos are also here, and people start cutting all over the road. I put my arms out to create my “running bubble” – these are the moments when race experience is invaluable! Mile marker 4 goes by and while my time is great – actually it turns out to be the fastest mile of the race – I realize I need to stay calm. Nothing worse than burning all my energy too early in the race.
Mile 5 (8:25)
South Beach is a fun part of this marathon course. The field starts to spread out just a little, and Ocean Drive is wide enough that you can begin to run at a predictable pace. What a relief, after four miles of alternating between slalom and sprint! In addition there is a great crowd here, cheering us along. It is an amusing mix: half of them are residents, or supporters who are here deliberately to cheer their friends; the other half are club-goers who are making their bleary-eyed way home and can’t quite believe that they are seeing thousands of people running past them at 6:30 in the morning.
Ocean Drive is the place for me to set my pace, find my rhythm. At 8th Street I pass mile marker 5, and the infamous Coatman who, like every year, is running with his heavy overcoat and a bottle on a tray.
Mile 6 (8:58)
Leaving Ocean Drive, we make tight turns on to 14th Street and Washington. People run the same way they drive here in Miami – cutting across lanes and not caring who else is on the road. It takes an effort to stay calm, but aggravation consumes energy, and does not get you closer to the finish. I breathe deeply and re-focus. As we turn on to Washington there are even more club-goers, some of whom dash unpredictably across the road, or try to run alongside us for about 50 yards before giving out. We pass mile marker 6 at Lincoln Road, and from one block to the next, the festive South Beach atmosphere evaporates. This is where I really start to feel that I am in a long-distance race.
Mile 7 (8:31)
Shortly into Mile 7 we cross the 10K timing mat. Check out the photo – despite the crowd, this actually felt like an open road compared to the early miles of the race! Here I am timed at 54:20, average pace so far 8:45. This is very encouraging and gives me quite a boost. We run all the way north past the Convention Center, and turn left on to Dade Avenue. No more crowds, just hundreds of runners. Here’s where I really start to focus and tune out everything except my breathing, my stride and the roadway in front of me. At this point in the race I feel invincible and my biggest challenge is to avoid running too fast and burning out. We turn on to the strange little Prairie/Meridian loop, and mile marker 7 goes by, right next to some families who are camped out in their front yard, handing out banana and energy gel breakfasts to the runners.
Mile 8 (8:34)
Down the back side of the residential loop I see firemen handing out goodies by the side of the road, and even more local residents passing out water, gels and bananas. This community called Belle Isle seems quite proud to have the ING Marathon coming through their neighborhood! I’m now settling into a comfortable rhythm. Two weeks before this marathon event I ran the 15-mile loop of Everglades Shark Valley at an average pace of 8:38. Ideally I want to get back in that pace zone today, because I know exactly how it feels in terms of breathing and stride cadence, and my training makes me confident that I can sustain it for quite some time. As mile marker 8 comes up, the crowd starts to thin some more, and I settle into my rhythm.
Mile 9 (8:31)
We are on Venetian Causeway now, and it seems to zip past. The islands, the bridges, the views over Biscayne Bay… Everything seems to blur together – which is good because it means I am focused solely on running. I start to feel the little groin twinge that has been bothering me the last couple of months during training, but I concentrate on keeping my stride clean and efficient, and the ache does not develop into anything more for the moment. Around mile marker 9 the roadway splits on San Marco Island, and I am already visualizing my push up the bridge, after the toll booth one mile further down the road.
Mile 10 (8:36)
Shortly into the tenth mile I come up behind a runner with a back sign that says “50th marathon”. I cannot run past without finding out more! He introduces himself as “Kino” (Hideki Kinoshita). Despite never having run further than 5K prior to 2007, Kino has now run 50 marathons in 2½ years, raising funds and promoting awareness for pancreatic cancer research. His story is inspiring and well worth a read. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Kino tells me he is looking for a 4-hour finish today, but right now I am pacing a little faster. As we pass mile marker 10 I leave Kino to his own devices. I put down a strong kick over the bridge, bracing myself to face the crowds on the other side…
Mile 11 (8:19)
And here they are, the crowds. As we drop down off the Venetian Causeway bridge, we enter the “ING Cheering Zone”. It is a great morale booster to have thousands of people cheering and clapping. But one unfortunate side effect is that the running lane shrinks abruptly. From the full width of the road, suddenly you can only run three or four abreast, with spectators leaning in across your trajectory. It makes me think of the crowds who greet the Tour de France riders at the summit of the Tourmalet… And so to any spectators who took a hit as I blew past (and I know there were several), I sincerely apologize, but when you have another 15 miles to go, you cannot afford to break your pace!
The other tricky thing about Mile 11 is the water stop located immediately before a sharp left turn. Last year I saw two runners go down in this 100-yard stretch, and I plan to avoid that fate if at all possible. Elbows out, I look for a safe line through the turn, and get into open space as fast as possible… Net result of Mile 11 as I pass the mile marker is a strong time – most likely a result of all that adrenaline!
Mile 12 (8:34)
If Mile 11 is the most chaotic and risky stretch of this race, I think Mile 12 must rank as the most desolate and depressing segment. The north end of downtown Miami is not an attractive place by any standards; the spectators are mostly homeless folk, lying on their makeshift beds or standing in line for the morning soup kitchen. For participants visiting from out of town, I have to think that this is a side of Miami they did not expect to see – a stark contrast to the palm trees and glitzy nightlife that they imagined.
Mile 12 is also where half marathon racers start to put on their end-of-race push, so runners shove past from behind, and some caution is required. I stay to the right and look for open space. The crowds start to build as we approach central downtown. As mile marker 12 goes by, I see that I am still on a good strong pace. Everything is going to plan so far!
Mile 13 (8:33)
Finally, Mile 13 is here. This time last year (in my first marathon) I was already tired and ready for it to be over. Part of me wanted to peel off and take a respectable half-marathon time – it took significant willpower to buckle down for the second half of the course. Today, however, I have been looking forward to this moment since the beginning of the race! I am ahead of my pace target, feeling strong, and ready to tackle the real challenge that lies ahead!
Once we turn on to Flagler, the field splits in two, with half marathon finishers channeling off to the left. Those of us going the full distance can now relax and run on an open road. I suddenly realize how much energy I have been using to find a clear line, to create and protect my running space, and to keep my radar tuned for the crazies who run as if they were alone on the road. Now I can put all that energy to better use! Mile marker 13 goes by as we leave downtown Miami, and I latch on to a group of 3-4 runners who look like they are running at my pace. Strategy starts to come into play at this point, and having a group to follow will help me maintain the pace when my body begins to tire…
Mile 14 (8:33)
Last year my struggle began at the halfway point. Every mile that went by, I lost a little more control over the race, and came a step closer to running in “survival mode”. By contrast, this year I am still feeling strong, and I know I have plenty of miles still in the tank before things start to deteriorate. Immediately after mile marker 13 we cross the half-marathon timing mat, my time so far is 1:53:08. With a 4-hour finish in mind, I have built a solid time margin of seven minutes. Now I have to decide what is the best way to use them.
First though, I must deal with the “cheese-grater” bridge by Tobacco Road. I am grateful that I have put in 700 training miles on my Vibram FiveFingers. These bridge gratings with huge 2″ holes are tough to cross in minimalist shoes, but I flex my knees to drop my center of gravity, place my feet carefully, and make it safely across this 100-yard obstacle.
The roads are quiet leading away from downtown, which makes it easier to review my strategy for the rest of the race. As I push downhill from the bridge, I recognize that I will probably need to slow the pace a little. From last year, I remember all too well that the final 6.2 miles contain far more pain and suffering than the first 20 put together. As I come up on mile marker 14, I decide to back off the pace just a little. My new goal is to stay just inside a 9-minute mile, all the way to mile marker 20 at Kennedy Park. If I can maintain that pace, then I will have conserved my seven-minute margin “in the bank”.
Mile 15 (8:51)
Halfway into Mile 15, we cross the entrance to Key Biscayne and head southwards on Bayshore. First psychological blow – we see lead runners coming in the opposite direction, already at Mile 22 and going strong. Most of them will finish the full marathon inside 2:30. Some of the runners around me shout encouragement; personally, I try to ignore the fact that those athletes are running 50% faster than me, but do not appear to be making any significant effort…
Further down the road, just before mile marker 15, volunteers shout and cheer as they thrust water and energy gels at the runners – what an amazingly supportive crowd I have seen at every water station! It really goes a long way to keeping the morale up, especially in the longer, quieter stretches of the course.
Mile 16 (8:50)
Now I find myself on my home training ground. As we turn into the North Grove neighborhood I relax into my slower pace. I recognize every turn and every pot-hole on these streets, because this is where I have run maybe 100 times in the last two years. The course twists a little more, but I know the lines to take and my pace does not suffer. Mile marker 16 comes up on Tigertail, and my pace is on target with the strategy I set a couple of miles ago.
Mile 17 (8:42)
It always surprises me how long Tigertail really is. Mile 17 is uneventful and seems to take forever. I know my pace has slowed, but surely not that much? I am still in contact with the small group of runners I spotted at the halfway mark, and we chat briefly from time to time. I am beginning to reach the point where conversation consumes more energy than I am ready to spare. However, talking with fellow runners also helps pass the time on these quiet stretches, so there is a fine balance to be struck… I pass mile marker 17 at 2:27:13, almost 8 minutes ahead of my race target. So far my strategy is playing out nicely!
Mile 18 (8:31)
After three very quiet miles, where you basically have to create your own motivation, things start to get interesting again! Right after mile marker 17, Alex is waiting for me at the side of the road with a cooler full of “magic juice”, my own concoction of orange juice, water and salt that I vastly prefer over Gatorade or other sports drinks. Beth is right there with Alex waiting for Richard – and for the first time since Mile 3, I realize that I do not know if my running buddy is ahead of me or trailing behind!
Because I am ahead of my target pace, and still in control of my race, I prefer not to stop as I had originally planned – I know I will see Alex again at Mile 20 just after Kennedy Park, and I want to keep my time advantage intact as long as possible. I throw my empty bottles in her general direction, and sprint to catch up with my race companions of the moment. Fortunately Alex knows me well enough not to take it personally!
Peeling off Tigertail, we pass the Hare Krishna temple and approach mile marker 18. I see that my adrenaline buzz from seeing Alex has got the better of me. Despite slowing when I saw her, my pace is back to 8:31 – not good if I am to keep my race under control! I make a conscious effort to slow again.
Mile 19 (8:52)
Now the spectators are out in force, as we work our way back and forth through the residential streets into central Coconut Grove. Arriving at Cocowalk, we cross the 30K timing mat, and I register a time of 2:40:57 – average pace so far 8:39 per mile, and still feeling strong!
It takes me a couple of minutes to check my mental calculations, but as the crowds cheer us past Greenstreet Cafe, I am starting to feel confident that I have the 4-hour finish solidly within my grasp. Now all I need to do is make it to Mile 20 at the same pace, and then keep it together for the final six miles…
The slight downhill to Peacock Park at mile marker 19 should be easy, but the tree cover disappears and the sun is already strong at 9 a.m. I feel the water being literally sucked out of my body. Local knowledge helps, and I push hard, knowing that tree cover starts again just after the park. Also Alex will be waiting for me at the end of Mile 20 with fresh bottles of “magic juice”!
Mile 20 (9:12)
Like North Grove, Bayshore is part of my regular training ground. I know the terrain well, and am able to measure my pace against familiar landmarks. However, I am also starting to feel the effects of almost three hours of non-stop running. That groin twinge has come back to haunt me, and I need to concentrate on executing every stride cleanly in order not to aggravate the ache.
The distance, combined with the sudden sun exposure and attendant dehydration, make for a tough combination that starts to beat down my confidence and morale. As I push past Kennedy Park and reach mile marker 20, I see that although my level of effort has not changed, my mile pace has dropped by 20 seconds. On shorter runs this would not merit a second thought, but twenty miles into a race with a personal best at stake, this feels to me like the beginning of the end.
I realize I have to pull myself together and trust the stopwatch. My mid-race strategy has paid off, I now have more than 9 minutes in hand. This means I could drop my average mile pace to 10:40 and still finish inside 4 hours!
Mile 21 (9:23)
Immediately after Kennedy Park and mile marker 20, I see Alex and Beth for the second time. Now I stop and take on the fresh bottles of “magic juice”, but I decide not to eat any of the snacks I had loaded in the cooler, for fear of upsetting my stomach at this stage of the race.
I ask where Richard is, and the girls tell me he is 5-10 minutes behind. This means he is also on a 4-hour pace, but with a much smaller safety margin. We had discussed waiting for each other at this point, in order to work as a team for the last 6 miles, but I am worried that I will need every second of my time advantage in order to make my final 4-hour goal, so I press on.
The first small “hill” on Bayshore takes me up to Mercy Hospital. During training I had promised myself that I would push hard up these gradients, because letting them defeat me last year is what led to me walking certain stretches in my first marathon! So I push, true to my promise, and switch my breathing from every 3 paces to every 2 paces for the first time in the race.
The time has come to test my limits. Can I stick to my plan? Or will it all fall apart? At mile marker 21 I see that my pace has slowed, again – not by much, but by enough to worry me.
Mile 22 (9:25)
Still on Bayshore, we head from Mercy Hospital back to Vizcaya. Another gradient calls for a push, but I cannot do it. I prefer to conserve my energy and maintain a steady pace. The familiarity of the terrain is comforting, but my body is starting to hurt seriously!
As we approach Vizcaya and Key Biscayne, a steady stream of runners comes in the opposite direction from downtown. This time I am the “leader” at Mile 22, while they are seven miles behind me at Mile 15. This is definitely a morale booster, and reminds me that for all my pain and dehydration, I am actually on track to make my race plan work!
Mile marker 22 goes by and I start calculating – again – what is the slowest pace that will get me to the finish line in under 4 hours. A week or so before the race, I was telling Alex how one’s mental arithmetic starts to break down after running 20+ miles, and right now this is what is happening – I cannot visualize the numbers or make them do anything useful for me, so I give up trying, at least for the time being.
Mile 23 (9:47)
Out we go on to Key Biscayne. If the sun was tough leaving downtown Coconut Grove, here it is brutal. A full mile out to the Rickenbacker Bridge, and a full mile back, all without a hint of shade except for the loop under the bridge at the turnaround point. I know that this is nothing for the extreme athletes who run Badwater and other ultra races, but for normal people like me this is a major stumbling block that requires massive determination to overcome.
I dip my head to get maximum shade from my visor, and focus on efficient stride and steady breathing. Once every thirty seconds or so I do a visual check around me to gauge my pace against the runners I have been following the last few miles, and everything seems to be OK. I am dehydrating fast, but when I take sips of juice I can feel my stomach telling me to stop sending stuff down there…
Finally I reach mile marker 23 at the bridge, and I am relieved to see that I have not dropped too much time. Given how I am feeling, anything under 10 minutes per mile is satisfactory!
Mile 24 (10:02)
I slow my pace under the bridge to benefit as much as I can from the shade, and I take three cups of water from the aid station just after the bridge. One goes down the hatch, and two are dumped over my head to cool me down. Now I brace myself for another mile in the sun…
Based on what Alex and Beth told me, I expect to see Richard coming out on to Key Biscayne in the next five minutes, as he should be less than a mile behind me. Sure enough, there he is, waving at me from the other side of the causeway. He is looking in good shape – definitely looking much better than I am feeling! So now I start to wonder if he will catch me before the end of the race… I have 2½ miles to go, and he has maybe 3¼, so unless I completely fall apart, I decide that I should be able to hold my lead all the way to the finishing line.
I grit my teeth and try to get back into the survival pace that got me out to the bridge. Mile marker 24 takes forever to appear, but when it does, I see that I have just about held my 10-minute target.
Mile 25 (9:55)
Back on Brickell, and back in the shade, my serious push begins for the finish line. I switch my breathing back to every 2 paces, and draw on every piece of concentration I can muster.
Also I seem to be able to calculate again now. I realize that if I really go for it, I can get a gun time under four hours. (For non-runners, the net time is the time actually spent running between start line and finish line; and the gun time is your net time, plus the time it takes you to reach the start line once the starting gun goes off.) In this race my gun difference is about 5:20, so I need to finish in less than 3:54:40 net in order to get a sub-4 gun time – which looks so much better on the official race finish photo! Such are the stupid details that motivate you when you are in the 25th mile of a long-distance race…
I am so busy calculating all this stuff that mile marker 25 goes by almost without me noticing it. I have managed to hold my pace steady under 10 minutes, and the finish line is close enough that I can feel the adrenaline start to flow…
Mile 26 (9:44)
Of course, one forgets that Brickell feels like the longest avenue in Miami at the end of this marathon. The concrete is rough and full of pebbles, and my feet are starting to feel the pounding. The spectators are out in force, yelling and encouraging the runners. Cars are honking, vuvuzelas are blowing!
But all I can do is put my head down, grab a drink every couple of minutes, put one foot in front of the other, and repeat. I know I can do it, because my head and heart want that four-hour finish so badly; but every part of my body is screaming at me to stop. This is probably the hardest mile I have ever had to run – last year doesn’t count because at this point I was walking half the time.
Then the ground starts to rise, and without realizing it I have reached “Heartbreak Bridge” and the top end of Brickell! One more up-hill push, one more Vibram dance over the cheese-grater bridge, and mile marker 26 is mine for the taking.
Mile 26.2 (1:50) (9:09 pace)
The final stretch in a marathon – or indeed any race – holds a certain mystery for me. After so many miles of mental focus, physical exhaustion, and intense concentration, suddenly all of that evaporates, and I find myself just running. No more pain, no more sensation of pushing my limits – just a really cool, relaxed feeling as I sprint for the line.
When you think your body has used all its reserves, it is always capable of more… I know I have read about this phenomenon in various running books (in particular “Brain Training For Runners” by Matt Fitzgerald), but it never fails to amaze me.
Entering the final 100-yard straight, the clock over the finishing gate comes into view, and I see that I am going to break not only my original 4-hour net time target – but also my new 4-hour gun time goal!
I cross the line and resist the temptation to dive into the water barrel, I’m feeling so dehydrated.
Four hours. I did it. I planned it, and I trained hard, and I DID IT!! It’s one of the best feelings in the world… For about a minute I can’t quite get my head around it, and emotion takes over. Then I’m just happy!
Hanging out in the finishing chute, I cheer Richard across the line. He has managed to narrow my lead since Key Biscayne, enough to crack his own 4-hour goal, but not quite enough to pip me at the post! I greet another friend, Will, who also breaks his 4-hour goal. Victor finishes his half marathon in less than two hours; Silvina improves her half marathon time over last year; and Debi puts in a really strong performance for her first half marathon.
In my first marathon I was a much less experienced runner, and I fell apart after the halfway point. This year, I anticipated the tough back side of the race, prepared for it, and executed my plan about as well as I could have hoped to do. ING Miami 2011 will be my yardstick for some time to come!
At least one person has asked me, “What’s next?”. Right now I have no specific goal in mind, but this race has definitely reinforced my taste for endurance running. Whether it’s a 3:45 marathon, a Ragnar Relay, a 50K or a 50-mile race, or some other crazy goal, I know that I will soon have another target to aim for, once my legs have stopped aching from this one!
Thank you for reading this far – if you’re still here, that is – and please leave your comments below 🙂