Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Sugarloaf Marathon: Wet and Wild!

Oh wow. That was a crazy experience.

Start line
I ran the Sugarloaf Marathon this morning in Maine with Greg and our friend Chad. We had registered for this race back in October, at which point I was targeting it as my spring goal marathon. But then, my plans changed (because I thought Sugarloaf might be too warm), and I decided to optimize my training for Shamrock instead, with Sugarloaf being "just for fun." But about three weeks out from Sugarloaf, I decided I wanted to actually race it, so my coach made some tweaks to my training.

Since my training wasn't optimized for Sugarloaf, I thought a PR would be a stretch, but not impossible due to the net downhill nature of the course. Also, my 3:15 PR is really solid, and I think I need to be very specifically trained in order to beat that. I hadn't done much hill training either, so I was at a bit of a disadvantage. All of this being taken into account, I figured a sub-3:20 would be a great accomplishment, and if not that, then simply adding another BQ to my name would be fulfilling.

I wasn't giving myself an "out" or setting the bar low, but rather being realistic about what I thought I might run. I was still planning to race it at 100% effort. If I've learned anything from running over the past 10 years, it's that a race doesn't need to be a PR to be a success.

Sugarloaf Marathon Elevation

Before the race: Friday
I'll try to keep this section short, even though I could probably write a short novel on it. Chad, Greg, and I flew from DCA into Bangor, Maine on Friday. And that's when all the craziness started. It took 20 minutes for the Uber driver to arrive, and when he did, he managed to turn a 36-minute ETA into nearly an hour. At airport security, they were training a TSA agent on bag scanning, so our line was moving five times slower than the other lines. Every bag was inspected for what seemed like an eternity. But, finally, we reached out gate with enough time to grab food and water.

Because Bangor is an international airport, I assumed it would be large. Nope! It was tiny. We reserved an Enterprise rental car and every other rental car company had a kiosk in the airport except ours. We waited about 15 minutes for our shuttle to arrive to drive us to the rental car place.

Once we had the car, we decided to explore downtown Bangor, which was actually a very small town. I wouldn't classify it as a city, although I guess it technically is. It was a delightful little place and we got sandwiches at a small deli. Then, we went to the supermarket, assuming it would be the last one we'd see for a while, and stocked up on bagels, pretzels, water, bananas, and sliced turkey meat. I knew the pasta dinner we paid for didn't have a "chicken + pasta" option (and I don't eat beef or pork), so the turkey was going to be the protein for my dinner.

Then, we made the two-hour drive to Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, where we had reserved a condo. The resort was located at around mile 10 of the race, which meant we drove the last 16 miles of the course backward to get there. The hills didn't look too steep-- just really long. We drove past the resort so that we could get a sense of the monster hill at miles 8-10. And that was definitely a huge hill.

Once we got settled in the condo, we researched a place to have dinner nearby called Tufulio's. Most of the resort restaurants and shops were closed because it's no longer skiing season. Tufulio's was so good and reasonably priced, that we half-heartedly joked about eating there the on Saturday night too, instead of the pasta dinner we paid for.

Before the race: Saturday
On Saturday morning, Greg and I did a shakeout run of about two miles. I felt "blah" during it, and then felt super tired for the next few hours. We ate breakfast at a delicious place called The Kingfield Woodsman, which is where most of the carb loading happened. I had a massive banana pancake with warm Maine syrup. Plus a few slices of freshly baked cinnamon bread. Afterwards, I found myself in
Shakeout run at the Sugarloaf resort
a carb coma of sorts and fell asleep in the car, followed by a nap back at the condo. All of this sluggishness did not bode well for the race, but I put it out of my head.

We spent the day playing Yahtzee. To play a full 6-game card of Yahtzee with three people takes several hours, so it was a good way to pass the time. Chad had an "all or nothing" approach to the game, which is similar to his style of marathon running. Throughout the day, the race forecast kept changing. It was supposed to rain, but when it would start and how much was a mystery. One minute we'd be excited because the rain was going to hold off. And then, the next time we checked, the rain was forecast to begin at the start of the race and be quite heavy. I kept debating over which of my 4 pairs of gloves to wear, and which of my 3 pairs of arm warmers!

Finally, it was time to get our race packets. The packet pickup was only open from 3:00-7:00pm on Saturday. A very short 4-hour window. I had never heard of a race having such a small window for bib pickup, but this race also offered race morning pickup. We waited in line outside in the cold for about 25-30 minutes. As I expected, there was no "expo" or any running items for purchase. Just the bib and the t-shirt.

When packing for this race, I intentionally over-packed for every single scenario. I thought about bringing a bag for gear check but decided against it because races always give you a back that can be used for gear check, right? Wrong. The bag they gave us with our bib was tiny and would not fit more than a t-shirt or two. I asked them what bag we were supposed to use and they said "any bag you want." Not having a bag, Greg and I decided to use a trash bag from the condo. Chad used the race bag, but only brought a few small items.

Normally I don't even use gear check service at races. But for a point-to-point race with cold rain that requires a shuttle back to the condo, I knew I would want to get out of the wet clothes and into warm dry ones immediately. I had a hoodie, gloves, a poncho, and pants to check. The trash bag fit it all, plus Greg's stuff.

Onto the pasta dinner. The pasta dinner was $27/person, so I expected it to be pretty good. I knew that I wouldn't be having a protein with my meal, and I was fine with that (because I had gotten the turkey). Once again, we waited in a long line and finally got our dinner. The plain marinara sauce for my pasta was very spicy, which meant I couldn't tolerate it. So, I ended up having a bagel with almond butter back at the condo. If I do this race again (doubtful) I will eat at Tufulio's and not opt for the pasta dinner. We played our final round of Yahtzee and then went to sleep.

Before the race: Sunday
I slept pretty well, and my 4:30 alarm actually woke me up. I almost never need an alarm to wake me up on race morning! I had set the alarm for 4:30 because the shuttle buses to the start line were scheduled for 5:45. I quickly ate my bagel and peanut butter (same breakfast as last night's dinner!), got dressed and packed the gear bag. I wore a tank, shorts, gloves, a hat, and disposable arm warmers ($2 knee high socks with the toes cut out). Greg and I donned Ponchos over our clothes and headed out.

The trash bag that we were using for gear check had a huge hole in it, so I had to get another trash bag from the hotel lobby. I am probably abnormally irked by the lack of a good gear check bag, and that's because I thought to pack my own but intentionally did not!

Waiting in line for the busses
We arrived at the shuttle bus pickup location (a very short distance from our condo) at 5:45. Once again, there was a huge line of people and no busses. We waited, and waited, and waited. Thankfully there was a bathroom inside the building we were waiting in front of. Busses kept arriving to transport runners to the 15K, which was closer and started later, but marathon busses were nowhere in sight. With a 7:00am start, we were all getting antsy.

Finally, at 6:30, several busses arrived. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Standing in line for 45 minutes in the cold isn't ideal right before a marathon, but I stood in Boston's athlete's village for longer and survived. In the rain, nonetheless. On the bus, I drank my Generation UCAN.

At 6:51, our shuttle bus arrived at the start area, which was a camp ground. Greg hurried to check our bag while I used a porta potty- with just 3 minutes to spare! They ended up starting the race 10 minutes late due to the shuttle bus debacle. This race has been running for over 30 years, so I didn't understand why lines were so long and how the shuttles got messed up.

I don't like to be so negative about a race on my blog, but I was really annoyed with all of these issues. I knew I needed to go into the race with a positive mindset, so I let go of the negative emotions at the start line and started to get excited. It was in the low 40's with very light drizzle. The heavier rain was forecast to start about halfway in. They had an actual shotgun at the start line, and at 7:10, it went off.

Miles 1-7
I had studied the course profile so I knew exactly what to expect. These first 7 miles would offer gently rolling hills. My plan was to be in the 7:35-7:40 range. I figured, if the second half is really that fast with all the downhill, I could run 7:10-7:15 and PR that way. But I definitely didn't want to go out at my PR pace and risk trashing my legs. This 7:35-7:40 pace was comfortable for me and it felt like an easy run for the first 7 miles.

I knew that Chad was going to start out at BQ pace for him (7:15) with his all-or-nothing racing strategy. Greg was planning to start out slightly slower than me. Chad bolted out and was out of site immediately, while Greg and I stuck around each other for almost a mile until I got ahead.

I tossed off my throwaway arm warmers at mile 3 because the temperature was ideal at that point and it wasn't raining. A few miles later, I removed my gloves and tucked them in my sports bra. Throughout these early miles, the road was closed to traffic and the crowd was thick for such a small race.

I was running with a group of about 4 women. I think they were running together because they stayed together as a group for a long time. Usually I am surrounded by men in races so it was nice to have a pack of women. I decided I would remember their outfits and keep track of them during the race to fuel my competitive mindset and keep me on my toes.

Mile 1: 7:40
Mile 2: 7:37
Mile 3: 7:38
Mile 4: 7:38
Mile 5: 7:38
Mile 6: 7:32
Mile 7: 7:31

Miles 8-10
Up the big hill! My left foot went numb. I have no idea why, but this happened to me in a 10-miler last fall and it eventually went away so I decided to ignore it. There was really nothing to be done. It was annoying, but I lived with it for the full mile until the numbness gradually went away.

I noticed that the road was no longer closed off to traffic. We were running in the right hand lane, and traffic was going in the left hand lane, but going in the same direction as us. Most of the vehicles seemed to be associated with the race. I didn't love running right next to cars, vans, and trucks, but I knew I needed to get used to it. It also started raining more heavily now, which didn't help matters.

This hill was very long and very steep. It just kept going and going. You can see it in the elevation profile above. I purposely did not try to run quickly up the hill. I told myself to just relax and climb it at a comfortable pace so that my legs would be ready to attack the downhills.

Lots of people passed me. Including that group of women. I told myself I would pass them on the downhills. I tried to ignore all the people passing me and just focus on my own plan. As I said earlier, I hadn't been training on hills for this race, but I am naturally a strong downhill runner. I was expecting Greg to pass me. He's stronger on hills than I am and my average race pace had slowed to 7:48.

Mile 8: 7:45
Mile 9: 8:45
Mile 10: 8:05

Miles 11-16
I was so relieved once we got to the top of the big huge hill! Finally it was time for the fast downhill race start. At the top of the hill, I took my Generation UCAN gel so that I could focus all my effort on powering down the hill. I might have been more aggressive on dry pavement, but I was a little cautious going down the first steep hill. My coach told me not to put the brakes on, but to roll down the hill. That would preserve my quads. I did not fly down the hill as fast as I had expected (I was thinking 7:10 or faster) but it was still fast, and quite a relief from the uphill.

Another issue with the pavement was that it was uneven all over the place. Many spots were heavily slanted/angled, and the pavement in general was torn up. If we had been able to run straight down the middle of the road, it would have been better. But now, BOTH lanes were open to traffic! So we were relegated to the shoulder. At times, I would come off of the shoulder and run in the middle of the road, but then a car would drive up behind me, forcing me to move back over. This was rough on my lower calf area.

I felt strong running down these hills but it wouldn't be fast enough for a PR. At mile 15, I realized that it felt harder than it should, so I figured I would probably be slowing down at some point. At mile 15, if I am having a great race, the hurt should be minimal and I should feel like that pace is definitely sustainable for many more miles to come. But I could already feel my legs complaining and I knew that the only reason my pace was so fast was because I was going downhill.

Mile 11: 7:41
Mile 12: 7:24
Mile 13: 7:36
Mile 14: 7:33
Mile 15: 7:28
Mile 16: 7:32

Miles 17-21
As is typical in a marathon, these miles featured the transition from feeling good to hurting a lot and wanting the race to be over. The rain was coming down harder now and the cars were more frequent.
The noise was jarring. I was trying to enjoy the beautiful scenic course, but all the large vehicles around me made that challenging. I tried to ignore the traffic, but you really can't do that when it's forcing you onto the shoulder with the crazy broken up pavement. I knew I was working really hard to stabilize myself on the slippery, bumpy pavement, and that's not something you want to have to deal with in a marathon.

I knew that mile 20 would be difficult because it was the first non-downhill mile. There were a few notable up-hills and I missed the leisurely downhill jaunt. Running uphill at this point was extremely difficult. After the race, Greg mentioned that he didn't have any issue with running up hill at the end of the race, but that the downhills were challenging. I still wanted to be going downhill because my uphill pace made me feel like a snail. I had my Honey Stinger chews during mile 20 and they seemed to keep me going through the rest of the race.

I kept expecting Greg to catch up with me because I was slowing down significantly, but he didn't. I also thought there was a chance I might see Chad, because he admittedly goes out too fast. But our order stayed the same. Nobody passed anybody.

Mile 17: 7:18
Mile 18: 7:52
Mile 19: 7:53
Mile 20: 8:33
Mile 21: 8:16

Miles 22-Finish
I needed something to motivate me. I was struggling and the urge to walk was strong. I started to calculate what I needed to do to get a BQ. I already have my 3:15 BQ for 2020, but to me, any BQ time is a huge accomplishment. As a 40-year-old, I need 3:40 to qualify for Boston. So when I looked at my watch and it read 3:05, I told myself that I had 25 minutes to finish. Of course, that math is totally wrong, but I stuck with it for the rest of the race. When I was at 3:15, I told myself I only had 15 minutes left to BQ, when in reality I had 25. My math skills were completely gone.

BUT. . . this served me well because it forced me to stay in the game for the last four miles. These miles were painful and felt like an eternity. I kept reminding myself it was all mental. I knew my body could get to the finish line without stopping, so I had to just will myself to do it. "All you have to do is keep going, and no matter what, don't stop!"

At this point, the average race pace on my Garmin was 7:51. But I knew that a 3:40 pace was 8:23. And yet, I thought I was on the verge of not BQing. I thought to myself "It's crazy that someone with a pace of 7:51 this late in the race has to keep running in the 8's just to finish at a pace of 8:23". But it never dawned on me that my math was all wrong. All the while, I was still on the lookout for Chad ahead of me and Greg coming up from behind. Lots of people were passing me, but I tried not to let that bother me. I was doing great!

Slippery Finish
With 1 mile to go, I realized- HEY! I have 10 extra minutes!!! And I could go sub-3:30! That whole time I was projecting my finish time to be around 3:38-3:39. But suddenly I realized I was on track to break 3:30, which was an amazing thought. I was doing so much better than I had realized! With that in mind, I looked at the runner next to me and said "let's do this together". So we both encouraged each other to run the last mile in fast. As I approached the finish line, it was looking like I would be on the border of 3:28 and 3:29 so I gunned it really hard to ensure a 3:28 finish time. I was elated that the clock read 3:28:xx as I crossed.

Mile 22: 8:32
Mile 23: 8:49
Mile 24: 8:37
Mile 25: 8:51
Mile 26: 8:45
Last 0.31: 7:31 pace according to Garmin.

After the Race
Shortly after crossing, I found Chad, who had finished in 3:23. I was offered Gatorade and surprisingly I wanted it and was able to drink it. Normally my stomach is way too upset after a marathon or half marathon to take in any fluids. But I welcomed this Gatorade- odd! Thankfully, we didn't have to wait too long for Greg, who finished in 3:34.

Chad and Greg went to get our checked bags while I waited under a tent. Pretty soon, the medical people approached me and said I needed a blanket and to go into a warm van. They said I didn't look good and I had to get warm immediately. I didn't think I was any worse off than anyone else, but I guess when you have hypothermia, you don't think clearly. And I was acting like I was drunk. I was also screaming in pain. Literally screaming, because everything hurt.

Chad and Greg held up a heat sheet for me to be able to remove my wet tank top and sports bra. I then put on my hoodie and a pair of dry gloves with hot hands. The medical guy wrapped a warm blanket around me and helped me into a warm van, where 3 other runners were being warmed. I felt guilty leaving Greg and Chad out in the rain. . . was I really worse off than them? I guess so. I stayed in the van for about 15-20 minutes, and Greg brought me hot soup from the food tent.

Even though I have a lot of negative things to say about this race's organization, the medical people were really good and the warm van was a lifesaver.

Finally, I was warm enough to leave the van. Greg handed me a fresh poncho from our checked trash bag and it was time to find the shuttle busses back. That was not easy. We had to walk through muddy wet grass and uneven surfaces (not easy post-marathon) and the busses were not readily visible. I was rapidly getting cold again and the effects of that warming van were wearing off quickly. We found a sign that said "Sugarloaf Marathon Shuttle Bus Stop" and waited there for a bit, until we realized that the shuttle buses were even further away. Sigh. I was cold and in pain and overall so miserable.

Once we boarded a bus, it didn't take long for it to fill up and we were off. The ride back to the resort was about 25 minutes, and when we got to our condo, the shower felt like heaven.

When I finally got around to looking at my phone, I saw a race text message that had my official finish time of 3:28:51, and said that I placed 4th in my age group. I'm kind of bummed that I didn't get a top 3 age group placement, but I guess it was a competitive field. And I did sort of bonk a little. I later looked up the race results and found that the 3rd place female in my age group was 3:28:43. She beat me by 8 seconds! Bummer.

Final thoughts and takeaways
I'm not going to analyze this one too much. I think I raced really well all things considered: the crappy weather, the lack of marathon-specific training, the lack of hill training, the uneven pavement and having to run on the shoulder of the road.

My coach summed it up well: It seems like you can BQ on any day of the week now! It does look like it got harder over the last 6 miles but that's just down to the non marathon specific nature of the training you did. That's always going to be the tough part of the race without that. I'm so proud of you for getting yourself to a position where this kind of effort is something you just do and have no doubts about.

Even though I was hoping for a faster time as I entered the race, my 3:28 felt like a dream when I thought I would be running 3:38 due to marathon brain. It's all about perspective. Considering it took me seven years to qualify for Boston, and now I can qualify with 11 minutes cushion without a proper training cycle. . . I'll take it!

Do I recommend this race? It depends. I liked the course, but I didn't like running alongside all that traffic and on the bumpy wet pavement. Avoid the pasta dinner (eat at Tufulio's), bring your own gear check bag, and find a way to the start line that doesn't involve a race shuttle. And know that if you need medical attention at the finish- they have staff for that. Be sure to train on hills.

Although a painful and at times torturous experience (after the race was much more painful than during the race), I'm glad I did this marathon. It was a great way to cap off the spring racing season before taking some down time.


  1. Wow! So much chaos in the beginning! Fun to read, though! Great work out there!

  2. Oh, man, can I identify with not being able to do math mid-race! I've had so many similar experiences. The race conditions sound challenging. I have run three marathons open to traffic, and each one presented challenges. One was in an area with such heavy traffic that cars actually obscured the race course markings, and I got lost! And another was a lot like you describe: deeply cambered uneven shoulder. I remember kicking trash out of the way and being so annoyed! Good work on the BQ and look at your age group this way - being only 8 seconds from 3rd is a big accomplishment.

    1. Oh gosh- getting lost would be the WORST. I'm starting to become a race snob. LOL. Thanks for the support!

  3. This race sounds a little bit like the Long Beach Island 18 mile run I've done here in NJ. At the halfway point, you're stuck on the shoulder and the road opens up to traffic but it is a straight shot north so it's not terrible (except when you want to run 1:54:00 and have a NW wind at 8 MPH in your face the whole time.) I never reached my marathon goal either that year though so whatever.

    This sounded like a poorly designed race and I think my Broad St. race was similar although it's hard to condemn the race people when a subway breaks down, who would have thought?) The course is awesome and I highly recommend doing that race in the future.

    As for your results, the hills seems to be haunting, I see that elevation profile and it makes me think of a 5K course I couldn't break 20 mins on because the last mile was 330 feet uphill and the downhill on mile 2 was so steep you could not cruise down it but had to fear falling over on your face if you did.

    This course actually looks tough even if net downhill and given my experience with sharp downhills in Steamtown, this is not a marathon I'd ever do. I also don't like what I read here about the course, traffic, etc. Who needs those hassles. I can totally understand why the rain and the course issues threw you off. It would throw me off too...

  4. Seems you had quite the adventure doing Sugarloaf and in Bangor. Congrats on running a sub-3:30 and BQT, especially considering the conditions. You have quite the tenacity to stick with and tough it out. Truly amazing