Note: Daniel Weintraub, who blogged for us during the run up to last December's California International Marathon, checks back in with his report from Sunday's Eugene Marathon, where he achieved his sub-2:50 goal. (For a full report on the race, see earlier blog)
My favorite moment in the Eugene Marathon Sunday came as I was struggling through Mile 25 on the scenic Ruth Bascom Bike Trail along the Willamette River. As I passed what I think was the Eugene Water and Electric Board Building, a distinguished looking gentleman with a cane was standing on some steps, urging the runners on as we passed him by. "Looking good," he said as I neared him. "Good form." His encouragement brightened my spirits, especially at a time when I sensed that my form, which is never pretty, was uglier than ever. Then, as I passed the man, I looked more closely at him. And I saw his cane ended in a white tip. He was blind.
Perhaps despite his handicap this man could sense by the sound of my footsteps that I was about to finish my third marathon with a far better experience than I had during my first two.
My first and second marathons were very similar. I ended both with good times but was disappointed because I was on pace to do much better up to the 20-mile mark, only to crumble in the final miles of the race and finish short of my goals. After the second one, the California International Marathon in December 2009, I was determined that my next one would end differently.
On Sunday it did. I completed the Eugene Marathon in 2:48:32, accomplishing my goal of breaking 2:50 and bettering my personal best by six minutes. Just as important to me, I finished strong and was able to walk away from the finish without assistance.
The day could not have been better. The weather was perfect, overcast but dry, with temperatures in the low 40s at the start and the mid 50s at the finish. Almost no wind. This was the only day in a stretch of about 10 days in Eugene before and after the race where there was no rain, or rain in the forecast, and no wind. The course was also favorable: mostly flat with only two real hills, both before the 10 mile mark and neither as hard as the rollers in the early miles of CIM. After that we had only some bridge approaches and tiny ups and downs on a bike trail to deal with. The only downside of this course is that it is very turny, at times comically so. But at least it wasn't boring. After mile 18, most of the course is an up and back on a paved trail along the Willamette River, with trees, parks and gurgling rapids at your side. Very peaceful.
I arrived at the start with fellow Sacramentans Jenny Hitchings and Midori Sperandeo, who would go on to win the women's race in a record-setting time. I knew my friends Tina Moore, and Sam McManis from the Bee, were somewhere in the crowd as well but I could not spot them in the mob at the start.
The first part of the course was fast and I went out a little too fast, logging 6:20 miles and a few in the teens when I intended to stick to a 6:25 pace. My 10K split was about 45 seconds faster than it needed to be, and my half marathon split was a good minute faster than my goal. But my heart rate was in check so I decided to go with it. Things got tougher in the second half of course.
Around mile 16 to 17 my pace started to slow just a bit, in part, I think, because we had just completed the most turny part of the course, on some sidewalks in a park along the river that seemed to be going backward on the course and around in circles for a half mile or more before finally returning to the bike trail and a straight flat stretch. Mile 18 was my first that was slower than my bottom-line goal pace of 6:29. But I knew I had a good two minutes "in the bank" toward my goal of breaking 2:50 and I was only losing a second or two per mile to that goal, so I did not stress about it. I just wanted to make sure this was not the beginning of another collapse, so I didn't let my pace slip any slower than 6:31.
By this point in the race the runners were strung out pretty thinly along the course. For a few miles I ran behind a guy in a white cotton tee-shirt who had hand-drawn a cross and a religious statement on the back of his shirt. I don't remember what it said now, but at the time I was praising him and his God for keeping my pace under 6:30. Eventually he slowed and I passed him at about the 21 mile mark just before we crossed the river for the final time.
This was the crucial part of the race for me, the point at which I had cratered in my first two marathons. I felt that if I could get past the 22-mile mark and still feel strong, even if I was hurting, I would be ok. I took several deep breaths as I passed through 22 miles and willed myself to keep going fast, calling on all the strength and motivation I could muster. My quads were hurting and almost felt like they were cramping but I shortened my pace and tried to ignore the pain. I started to see racers in front of me who were faltering, and I was gaining on them. As I spied each one I vowed to pass them before the next mile marker, at 23, 24 and then 25 miles This was my motivation to keep going strong. I was actually able to avoid wishing for another mile marker to appear because I wanted to pass these people more than I wanted the race to end. This was an entirely new experience for me in a marathon. I think I passed 11 runners in the final six miles.
I kept picking people off and kept my pace right around 6:30 through mile 24. Mile 25 was the slowest of the race for me. It included a quick little downhill under a bridge that was more painful for my quads than anything else in the race. Then we had to climb back from the river, and we were running along an industrial area on the other side of the trail that was not very inspiring. I finished that mile in 6:37. At this point I knew I would break 2:50 unless my legs went into a full cramp mode, but I still wanted to finish strong and not keep fading. There were still two runners visible ahead of me. I went after them and cranked it up to what felt like a full sprint to my deluded senses. I finished mile 26 at 6:21, one of my faster miles of the entire race. I caught one of those two runners as we left the bike trail and re-entered downtown Eugene.
The race ended on the track inside Hayward Field, the historic University of Oregon track stadium made famous by the late Steve Prefontaine. As I hit the track it was electric, with fans and family packing the stands and cheering the runners on. I was still chasing the last guy I had a chance to catch, but the approach of the finish must have lifted his spirits as well, and he kicked it into gear and held me off. No matter. I crossed the line well under my goal, and after a brief bit of support from two friendly volunteers, I walked away from them, turned down the offer of a space blanket and headed for the food.
I was happy to make my goals but also to be able to finish strong and walk away without assistance. It is an amazing experience to be able to race a marathon and actually treat it like a race at the end, trying not just to survive but to pass people and earn a higher position in the standings. (I was 51st overall and 4th in my age group). I attribute my improvement to running a few more miles a week, and adding in a few more long runs with fast finishes, but also to increasing my cycling mileage significantly. I am still averaging only about 40 miles a week running and rarely run two days in a row. But I probably averaged close to 200 miles a week on the bike since January, and I did three bike races in April, including one a week before the marathon. I think the cycling kept me strong and built my endurance to enable me to complete the marathon the way I had hoped to. Even if you are not a competitive cyclist, I strongly recommend cycling not just for "cross-training" but as an integral part of your running training program if you want to get stronger and improve your chances of remaining injury free.