Sunday, March 28, 2021

Two Rivers Marathon Race Report

Yesterday morning, I ran the Two Rivers Marathon in Lackawaxen, PA. That's in the Pocono mountains in the northeastern part of the state, right on the New York border.

When the Myrtle Beach marathon was moved from March 6, I couldn't find another one that weekend within driving distance so I extended my training cycle by three weeks to March 27. I registered for the Tidewater Striders BQ Invitational Marathon in Chesapeake, VA, but I knew that at the end of March, there would be a 50/50 chance of warm weather. 

My backup plan was the Two Rivers Marathon. Instead of 4 hours south, this race was located 4 hours north and would be almost guaranteed to have cool weather in late March. As suspected, the forecast for Virginia was calling for temps in the low 60s and no cloud cover, which was a non-starter for me. I unfortunately have far too much experience bonking in weather like this at races of all distances. 

So I registered for Two Rivers and booked a hotel at the end of last week. I knew the course would be more challenging than the pancake-flat Chesapeake course, but as I said, warm weather is a non-starter for me. The Two Rivers course was two out-and-backs, up and down a long gradual hill. The net elevation gain was not all that high. Anywhere from 350-600 depending on which GPS mapping system you look at. In fact, this is similar, if not less than, what I run on my 20-milers.

I should note that this was a brand new course for 2021, USATF certified. The original course was point-to-point, net downhill, with a shuttle bus. But due to health concerns, they didn't want to use shuttle busses. I've found that in order for marathons to actually happen, the course has to change for various reasons. This was the case for the Harrisburg marathon last fall. 

Before the Race
Greg and I drove up to the Poconos on Friday morning. We picked up our packet outside at the race start and then drove the course. We realized that the course would not be closed to traffic, so we'd have to be careful not to get hit! As I said above, it was a long steady climb for 6.55 miles, and then back, and then out and back again.

Two Rivers Marathon Elevation

We met up with our friend Tricia for dinner where I had my standard eggplant parm without the parm. I made sure to eat enough so that I was content, but not to overeat like I may have done at Harrisburg. The wind on Friday was insane. The area had sustained winds of over 20mph with gusts that must have been about 50. The wind was loud outside of our room and I felt the whole building shake. The internet went out and there was no cell service, so it felt like we were in a horror film. I knew it was supposed to die down by morning, but it was a little unsettling going to sleep during a wind storm with a marathon on tap the next morning.

I slept relatively well and woke up feeling refreshed, relaxed and ready. This is definitely a contrast to my last two marathons. For Harrisburg I woke up with an anxious feeling. For CIM, I barely slept the night before the race AND two nights before the race! So I already knew I was a step ahead. 

I did have a dream that I was looking through the race results and I saw I ran a 3:26, but I didn't remember actually running the race. I woke up from that dream feeling relieved that I hadn't actually run a 3:26 and I still had the opportunity to reach my goal of sub 3:10. I woke up at 4:15 and before getting out of bed I played the chess.com computer at level 1600 (advanced) and I won. I was really excited about that! Off to a great start. 

Instead of my normal bagel with peanut butter and banana, I had an English muffin with a small amount of almond butter, and about 1/4 of a serving of Maurten Drink mix 160. I also had an entire serving the the Drink Mix 160 the day before the race to pre-hydrate. This drink mix contains carbs and electrolytes. Maurten also makes a Drink Mix 320, which has 320 calories per serving, plus electrolytes, plus 100 mg of caffeine. I mixed a serving of that to carry with me and sip on during the first half of the race. I had practiced all of this in training and was optimistic I would not face the digestive distress I had in Harrisburg.

In the hotel race morning
It was a 25-minute drive to the race start and we left the hotel at 6:15. The race offered a 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon, all on the same course. There were 227 finishers in the marathon and 218 in the half marathon. The exact same race was held on Sunday for those wanting to run the marathon twice, or the half marathon and marathon. This was not a new thing due to health and safety concerns, this race always runs on both Saturday and Sunday. 

We arrived at the race, parked, met up with Tricia and used the porta potties. The start line was open starting at 6:30 and the marathon runners could start any time they wanted between 6:30 and 8:15 to allow for social distancing. This had both its benefits and drawbacks. The benefit was getting to start whenever you felt ready, so there wasn't any anxiety about being late. And since I prefer cold weather, I was able to start on the earlier side (7:00) and avoid the warmer temperatures later in the race. The drawback was that you had no idea who you were competing against. They offered an "elite" start at 8:00 for those wanting competition, but you didn't have to start at that time to be declared the winner. It also wasn't something you had to qualify for; just a group of fast runners wanting to push each other. Masks were required in the start line area, but we were free to remove them once we started running. 

Tricia crossed the start line, and Greg and I waited a few extra minutes to make sure I didn't have to go to the bathroom one final time. We crossed the start line at 7:02, which was set up on a grassy area. We only ran on grass for a few seconds before exiting the park and getting out onto the road. 

The weather ended up being even better than expected. The forecast had indicated 10 mph winds and sunny skies, but I was pleasantly surprised that there was very little wind, and we had about 50% cloud cover. It was 44 degrees to start and rose to about 50 by the end. On my race weather scale, I would give it a 9 out of 10. To get a 10, it would have needed to be slightly cooler. 

I wore shorts, a crop top, disposable arm warmers and disposable gloves. (Disposable meaning they were $1 from Walmart). I started out with sunglasses on my head and there were a few sunny sections in which I put them over my eyes, but they mostly stayed on my head.

Miles 1 - 6.55
I started out feeling like this would be my day. The weather was close to ideal. I had slept well, I didn't have any anxiety or any feelings of indigestion. It was hard to establish a rhythm during the first mile. I was still feeling out the course and how it would be. I immediately noticed that the road was slanted and I either wanted to run on the very edge of it, close the the gravel, or be in the dead center. Anything in between was uneven. But I also needed to pay attention to the tangents, because there would be quite a few curves on the course. 

The first mile was all about settling in and getting used to running smoothly. I ran a 7:54 mile which was WAY slower than goal pace of 7:15, but I didn't judge it. I knew I needed to go out slowly because these miles were uphill, and they were the early miles. If the course had been flat I would have started out in the low 7:20s, but with it being uphill, I figured the high 7:20s would be about perfect. 

Greg ran a faster first mile than me but I caught up to him and passed him in the second mile. He didn't have a goal time in mind, but I knew he wasn't planning to start as fast as me. I ran the second mile in 7:32 and settled into that pace. I knew I needed to be patient and I didn't freak out that this was nearly 20 seconds per mile slower than goal pace. 

At any given time, I had about 4 or 5 runners in my sight. There were also runners coming back in the

opposite direction, presumably half marathoners or 5K/10K runners. There were more cars than I expected and it while they generally wove around the runners, some of them were not as accommodating.  I tried running the tangents, but I knew I wasn't doing a good job because I was prioritizing running on a non-slanted surface. 

Mile 3 was also 7:32. The hills were not steep but they were unrelenting. There was almost nothing flat or downhill in the first "out" section. The entire thing was run up a very gentle incline. It was the type of thing that if you encountered this incline grade in a race you might not really notice it that much. But when it's an incline the whole way, you definitely do notice it. Or at least I did! 7:32 ended up being my happy pace and I kept hitting that consistently for most of the way out. I ditched the arm warmers at some point during the 3rd or 4th mile, but kept the gloves. 

I made a mental note that mile 5 was particularly challenging. The incline felt a little steeper, and I did the math and told myself that if mile 18 was slow, that would be okay. I caught up to Tricia during the 6th mile and we chatted briefly. It was definitely a pick me up to see her!

Mile 1: 7:54
Mile 2: 7:32
Mile 3: 7:32
Mile 4: 7:32
Mile 5: 7:37
Mile 6: 7:32
Mile 7: 7:32

Miles 8 - 13.1
My nutrition/hydration plan was to drink the Maurten Drink Mix 320 in my handheld bottle every 15 minutes. This would provide carbs, electrolytes, and caffeine. I had practiced it on two of my long runs and it worked well.

I turned around and was excited to finally start picking up the pace. I passed Greg in the other direction and he had his phone out and was snapping photos of me! Aww!! What a dedicated Instagram husband!

At this point, I felt decent, but not as good as I would have liked. At mile 8 of a marathon, things should be feeling very smooth and you shouldn't be straining all that much. I felt like I was probably working a little too hard, but I trusted my training. I assume that the elites are working VERY hard the entire race, but they are trained for that. Not to say that I am an elite, but I as push myself towards faster and faster marathon times, I know that I am going to have to be uncomfortable for a longer portion of the race.

I had no idea what pace the downhill miles would bring, and I didn't want to force it. So I glided down the mountain by feel and it was definitely a welcome change from the uphill. I also was able to see a lot of runners coming in the opposite direction. Runners were all over the place-- on both sides of the road and in the middle-- going in both directions. And the car traffic started to pick up. At one point, this huge vehicle decided it was not going to give me much room and I almost lost my balance and fell of the side of the road into a ditch. As the car kept going ahead of me, I noticed it was doing the same thing to the other runners. Not moving over at all, and coming very close to hitting them. 

While I was thankful to be running a real race, I started longing for the day when roads would be allowed to be closed to traffic for races once again. But I was also appreciative that this was not the Harrisburg course. That course had way too many hairpin turns and that path had a ton of uneven pavement. This was definitely an improvement. And it was really beautiful by the river.

I flew through this section and brought my pace down by a good amount. All of these miles were under 7:20 and I started to think that the 3:10 was within my grasp. Probably not a sub-3:10, but a 3:10 by the skin of my teeth if I could keep getting faster. 

Mile 8: 7:18
Mile 9: 7:16
Mile 10: 7:16
Mile 11: 7:18
Mile 12: 7:16
Mile 13: 7:12

Miles 14 - 19.6
When I reached the halfway point, which was back at the start-finish, nobody told me which way to go. So I started going the wrong way. Finally someone pointed me in the right direction of how to pass back through the start line. That annoyed me a little but I tried not to get too flustered. I passed Greg on his way to the start/finish turnaround point and that was another pick me up. He later told me that I was about two minutes ahead of him. 

By this point I was done with my drink mix, so I had a Maurten caffeinated gel and it went down well. I was mentally prepared for this second uphill stretch to be very difficult. I was eager to see Tricia and when I did, that perked me up. Things started to get noticeably harder during the 16th mile. At this point I realized my goal was out the window and I would be lucky to get a modest PR. Whenever I have set PRs, I have felt amazing at mile 16, and I was not feeling amazing at this point. I was very focused on simply getting to the turnaround so I could cruise downhill. 

The climbing was exhausting me. I felt like I would never get to the turnaround. The course just kept going and going uphill and miles 18-19 were a real challenge. 

Mile 14: 7:40
Mile 15: 7:28
Mile 16: 7:32
Mile 17: 7:43
Mile 18: 7:42
Mile 19: 7:52
Mile 20: 7:57

Miles 20 - Finish
Mentally and physically it felt way better to be cruising back down the hill. But I was so exhausted from pushing so hard on the way out. I tried taking another gel during the 21st mile but my gag reflex had me spitting it out immediately. Mile 21 clocked in at 7:41, and I was too exhausted to judge it or think about what my projected finish time would be. I just kept pushing. I really wanted to beat that 3:26 in my dream and I told myself that if that was my time I would be really disappointed. Not that 3:26 is a bad time, but it's far off of my goal and slower than my last two marathons.

I used every mental trick I had in the book to keep pushing. I told myself I "trained for the pain" and I repeated it over and over again. I didn't train for it to be easy. I trained to be able to handle the pain. THIS is what marathoning is about. This final stretch is the real test of true mental and physical stamina. But oh my goodness was it painful. It was not the sub 7:10 pace that I had planned and it took everything I had to maintain the effort. 

I don't remember much about these miles other than that they hurt. And I did not want to be passed by Greg. It's not that I didn't want him to have a good day; but I just felt like that would be demoralizing to be passed. At CIM he passed me during the 24th mile and while I really liked seeing him, I had the internal dialog of other runners are speeding up and passing you. So It didn't matter if it was Greg or anyone for that matter, I didn't want to be passed. It motivated me to try and stay ahead of him and I pushed and pushed so hard to not let him catch me. 

I came upon a man at around mile 23 who really carried me for the next two miles. He set a good pace and he was very encouraging. Every time he noticed me falling behind he would tell me to "come on" and I eked out "I'm coming" and I found a little extra effort to stay with him. He was truly a lifesaver. I had someone like that in Sugarloaf in 2019. This guy and I helped each other out during the last 3 miles and it was just what I needed. 

Usually at this point I am counting down the minutes until the race is over, but I didn't even have the mental capacity for that. Every once of mental energy was focused on pushing and staying strong. But as I neared the finish, I realized I could squeeze in under 3:20 if I pushed hard.

I went into all-out sprint mode for the final bit and managed to cross in 3:19:30. Phew. Even though I didn't get my "A" goal or a PR, it felt nice to break 3:20 for the second time. 

Mile 21: 7:41
Mile 22: 7:42
Mile 23: 7:48
Mile 24: 7:47
Mile 25: 7:45
Mile 26: 7:37
Last 0.33 on my Garmin: 7:07 pace

After the Race
I crossed the finish line, which I was thankful was on grass, because I was able to immediately sit down on the grass. I turned around and saw Greg coming through! Yes! He finished exactly 21 seconds after me in 3:19:51. This was a PR for him by 29 seconds. And even though he just finished a marathon, he was thoughtful enough to go back and get pictures of Tricia!

As I sat in the grass, I chatted with some other finishers and waited for Tricia to come through. I was so

excited to see her! We hung out for a little bit and collected age group awards. Because everyone started at a different time, and they didn't want to mail awards, you were able to pick up the award for whatever place you were in at the time you finished. Apparently they ordered lots of extra plaques. My plaque say 1st place age group, but I was actually 3rd. 

What's crazy is that for women in the 40-45 age group, a time of 3:19 at a small race only got me third. At Myrtle Beach, which is much larger, I won 1st place in my age group with a time of 3:21. I think that this is because there are so few marathons to choose from that all the fast runners are showing up to the same small marathons! At Harrisburg, the overall female masters winner was around 3:19.

We said goodbye to Tricia and drove back to the hotel. I spent about an hour in the huge bathtub of the hotel which also had jets. It felt amazing. The weather was gorgeous for the rest of the day so we sat out by Lake Wallenpaupack and relaxed. 

Final Thoughts and Key Takeaways
This will actually require its own blog because I have a lot of feelings and reflections on how this went. The overwhelming feelings were relief that at least break 3:20, but disappointment that my training didn't produce a faster result. I ran 75+ mile weeks for 8 weeks in a row. I ran 800 miles in 80 days plus strength training and my body handled it really well. I crushed most of my workouts and hit paces I never dreamed of hitting. See training recap here. 8 weeks ago, I ran a 10-mile race that predicted a time of 3:10.

With Harrisburg, I didn't come close to my goal because of digestive issues. At CIM, it was lack of sleep and crazy humidity. But at this race, I don't really have anything to point to, except maybe the course profile. Most people I spoke with had a similar experience of missing their goal despite the great weather. Some people attributed to the bevel of the road, and others attributed it to the long uphill start. Maybe I went out too fast, but it's hard to imagine that 7:32 is "too fast" for a goal pace of 7:15.

I wish there was an easy explanation and something to point to, but aside from the course, there really

isn't. The obvious culprit could be my training and that I was over-trained. I could buy into that, but I was still hitting my paces just two weeks out from the race. But on the other hand, I did have to extend my training cycle by 3 weeks due to the Myrtle Beach cancelation. Maybe if the race was a week or two earlier it would have been a different story.

My coach attributes it to the hill profile and that the uphill start can really take a lot out of you early. I did experience this in the Hanover half marathon which had a very hilly start, and then I never really recovered from that once the race flattened out.

Greg made an excellent point about the margin of error being extremely small. When I first started marathoning, I would PR by huge amounts each time. But now I am approaching my lifetime peak. I'm 42, I've been running marathons for 16 years, and everything needs to align perfectly for me to reach a goal that is my absolute physical best possible time. The weather, the course, my sleep, digestive system, ALL of it. If I weren't so close to my lifetime peak (let's say I was in my 20s and had the physical ability to attain 2:45 at some point) then I wouldn't need everything to align to run a 3:09. I fall into the trap of comparing myself to other women who run sub 3:10- but they don't need to train as hard or have all the stars align. It's all relative to both 1)where you are in your journey 2) natural physical ability. 

When I ran my 3:15 in 2018, everything was perfect. The weather was a 10/10. The course was flat. I slept straight through the night. I had no digestive issues. And interestingly, I bonked my tune-up half marathon! That day in Rehoboth Beach was a unicorn and I need all those perfect conditions to get under 3:10 because I'm approaching the limit of what I am physically capable of.

My mind went to all sorts of dark places yesterday. And that's what made me challenge myself to probe deeper. Is the disappointment really about the race or is there something else going on with me? And I think there is something else going on with me mentally and emotionally. The lockdowns and cancelations have taken their toll on everyone. I am pretty sure I have been using this high-volume training as a coping mechanism to stifle feelings of despair about the state of the world. I think I expected this huge breakthrough race that would give me so much satisfaction that I would snap out of it and everything would feel okay again. 

Running is a healthy coping mechanism and I know it's provided many people with structure and purpose during this crazy time. And. . . post marathon depression is common because you work towards something for so long and then in an instant (or in 3 hours 19 minutes) it's done. I know that 3:19 is objectively an outstanding time and something I never would have though possible 5 years ago. It's a BQ by over 20 minutes. And I know I gave that race everything I had. I think once the dust settles I will have really happy, positive memories of this race and what I achieved. But in the spirit of total honesty, I feel unsettled and I know I have some work to do.

I'm extremely thankful to have made it to the start line healthy, and to have finished it healthy. The overall weekend experience was fun and much more exciting than if I had gone to Chesapeake. I do feel like I "conquered" something and I have yet another marathon experience to learn from.