Running Stories

Focused

October 6, 2013
Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon
Hampton Beach, NH

I took some time off from my running schedule after El Paso and before the start of the second half of my 50 state quest. During this time in my life, “time off” means I averaged just under 100 miles per month in March, April and May of 2013. It may seem like a lot of miles to some but trust me going “down” to 100 from 150 or 200 is a big deal (for me at least!).

After mentally struggling for various reasons during my last 3 marathons, my goal in this quarter of the year was to get my head on straight, rekindle the flame and simply get focused on the next training cycle. Running is both physical and mental. At the end of February, I was mentally tired of the grind and could feel it in my body.

In March, I hit the swimming pool and the elliptical machine a few times. The longest run of the month was 8 miles. I also made a pledge to work on my core and upper body strength in the weight room. The variety and new physical challenges felt really good.

April saw 2 double digit long runs – one 12 miles and one 10 miles but the start of a very special “marathon”. On April 18th, Mary and I enjoyed the arrival of our first grandchild, Amelia Marie Anderson. Nothing brings a fresh start into your life or rewards life’s journey like a grandbaby! On April 21st, I joined two good friends on a 5 mile run which was the first time we had all been grandfathers at once. I had finally “arrived” and punched my Grandpa running card! Life was awesome.

I backed off again in May by not running anything longer than 8 miles. My body was feeling great and my head was now looking forward to the start of another 16-week training cycle. The readjustment period had done what I had hoped.

Over the years, I have found that what I really enjoy is having a running plan that gives me time and distance goals. My “go to” plan is the Hanson Distance project schedule that involves running 6 days per week but with long runs no more than 16 miles. Counting back 16 weeks from my target date of October 6, I began the training cycle on June 16th.

This cycle would be a little different because I wanted to work on my mental and physical strength. Physically, I maintained 8-12 weight room sessions per month throughout the period. You would think that there would be enough mental strength training in simply getting out and completing each daily run. Past experience told me I needed a little more. For me, this little bit more was in pushing harder over the last mile of most runs. My training mantra became “last mile, fastest mile”. No matter the starting pace, I would mentally picture the finishing mile and when it arrived, I would push through the tired legs and fatigue to make each last mile also the fastest mile of that workout.

“Last mile, fastest mile” didn’t happen every time but gradually it occurred more often than not. There were some days that I knew I needed a rest. Listening to my body, I simply didn’t make the attempt to go hard on the last mile. This goal also helped me work on the start of each run. Rather than go out too fast in the beginning, I worked at maintaining an easier pace so I didn’t have to kill myself on the last mile. I was learning to run smarter and harder at the same time!

Personal records are just that, personal. I have never proclaimed to be fast nor have I entertained hopes of qualifying for Boston (publicly anyway; we all have dreams!). However, I do believe every runner can improve on his/her personal records. I began to see some of my personal best times fall by the wayside. From June 30 to August 13, I broke a personal record on 6 different occasions at distances of 4, 7, 8 and 9 miles. The focus on getting mentally AND physically stronger was paying off.

I slowly began to realize that there was also something else at play. Prior to each workout, I was thinking about how I wanted it to go, imagining what I needed to accomplish. I don’t know who said it first but I have read the quote in different variations over the years – “Believe it, achieve it”. I was learning that the body can do more IF the mind believes, really believes. Don’t just sweat. Don’t just run. Focus on the desired ending.

I missed one run out of the 96 different workouts in the 16-week schedule. Our second son, Andrew, got married on August 10th. Up late dancing (not drinking), I simply stayed in bed the next morning and made no attempt at a workout. It was during my run of personal records so I felt confident that one single day wouldn’t wreck all my past effort.

On October 3rd, the work was all behind me and it was time to pack for the trip out east. Delta threw me a small curve that night by calling to say our October 4th flight out of Traverse City had been cancelled. The government shut down had affected some FAA work necessary to land planes in the fall fog at our local airport. After some scrambling with an agent, Mary and I secured a flight out of Grand Rapids, Michigan instead.

We flew into Manchester, New Hampshire and spent the Friday night there and then drove over to Hampton Beach the next day. As the name implies, we were on the beaches of New Hampshire. Mary and I took a barefooted walk in the sand and dipped our toes in the chilly Atlantic Ocean once again. The beach was mostly deserted as the temperature was near 60 degrees, school had long since started in the area and fall colors were past their peak. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves. Mary, ever the shopper, scoured the beach for seashells worthy of taking home.

We stayed at a hotel named Ashworth By the Sea. When I booked the room, I cringed at the $200+ per night price but decided that we would be there only one night and might as well go “all out” since this was also a vacation getaway with my bride. Nothing about the Ashworth was “all out”.

We weren’t in our room until well after lunch. The room was small, the bed was old, there was no closet and the hallways were noisy with late night revelers that made for poor sleeping conditions. But, the sharpest cut of all for a marathoner who needed to hit the road after the race – there was no late checkout on race day. I resigned myself to “just one night”, kept a positive attitude and maintained my mental focus on the race and not the accommodations. I simply needed to remember the kids I was running for and all the negatives became small and insignificant. “Focus on a bigger picture”, I told myself.

The race expo was very, very small and easily navigated. The long sleeve technical shirt was very nice and prominently displayed the Smuttynose mascot although it was hard to tell what the creature was. Mary and I agreed that it must be a seal. I am sure there is a story behind the main sponsor, Smuttynose Brewing Company, but we never got it from anyone.

We had a pre-race pasta meal at Momma Leone’s on the Hampton Beach boardwalk. While traveling, there is nothing I like more than trying local restaurants. With the name “Momma” and “Leone’s” on the sign out front, I anticipated some great pasta. Regrettably, it matched the quality of our hotel – poor yet reasonably priced but still not what the homey sign and store front led one to expect. It didn’t matter. Once again, I thought back to the kids I try to serve and was thankful to have a hot meal. How many of them were alone and searching the cupboards for something to eat while mom or dad was out trying to make a living? Focus.

There was one positive aspect of our hotel. It was only 3 blocks from the starting line. Sunday morning, it was a chilly but leisurely stroll down the boardwalk. With a temperature just over 50 degrees, I was in a tee shirt but needed to stay out of the ocean breeze to keep warm.

Walking to the starting corral, I saw Dave McGillivray surveying the start area. Dave is the race director for the Boston Marathon. He and I had met in Traverse City back in 2009 when he spoke to our local running club. I had given a speech about Marathon4Kids prior to his keynote address that prompted him to give me a charity exemption to the 2011 Boston Marathon. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t remember me especially after all he had been dealing with over the months following the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon. However, when I reminded him, his face did light up a bit and we had a nice 60-second chat about my project and his marathon. I walked away wondering if he was helping out a friend or here to quietly work on some new security measure for his 2014 event.

Later, I crowded into a starting corral using others to block the wind. The race started at 8 a.m. on Ocean Boulevard near what the locals call the Sea Shell stage. The beginning was a little odd because we were running with our backs to the start/finish line in the opposite direction of where I knew the race course to be. We did a short loop around the block to pick up some distance and soon the finish line was properly placed behind the runners while we headed for the more rural parts of Hampton and North Hampton.

North Hampton was settled in 1639. After the separation of New Hampshire from Massachusetts, this part of the course was known as “North Hill” or “North Parrish”. One of the main attractions of the area is the Fuller Gardens. They contain 2 acres of formal flower gardens containing hundreds of tulips and 2,000 rose bushes on a turn-of-the-century estate. Don’t ask me why the course organizers didn’t incorporate this view into the race. A rose garden would have been very welcome!

I try not to talk much about my goal before each individual marathon. I guess I figured I opened my mouth about running 50 of them so I should not feel any pressure to predict a finishing number before each race. The individual goal is reserved for some private conversations between Mary and I. As I eased into the start, I thought about my goal of averaging 8:30 per mile. I was healthy, felt physically strong and mentally focused on the day. Coming off a period where I had been struggling at the distance, could I run another personal best marathon?

The first 6 miles were very consistent as I maintained a tight window of times from 8:18 to 8:26. I was able to maintain a nice open running line even though the field was inflated with thousands of half marathon runners. As I listened to the other runners, I learned that there were less than 1,000 marathon runners in the race. The pack would get very small when the two races split at mile 11.

The race was touted as the flattest race in New Hampshire. Having never run a race in New Hampshire and with no desire to come back for another, I was taking their word for it. It was far from flat however. The hills were small but they were there almost all day long. I tried to maintain a steady pace on the uphill and speed up a little on the downhill. I reached the 11-mile split while maintaining my starting pace with the exception of one mile at 8:32.

After the split with the half marathoners, the marathon course completed a second loop over about the next 12 miles. I am not a big fan of a double loop course but it did allow Mary to see me on the course in 5 different spots. She could cut the course and easily walk from mile 2 to 6, back to 11, up to 19 and finally at the finish. So, seeing the same neighborhoods and hills the second time meant I got to see the one face in the sparse spectating crowds that I knew. In the end, it was worth it.

There had been some very light drizzle since the start but at mile 15, it turned into steady rain. The temperature was nearing 55 degrees so I didn’t get cold. It was just a little bit annoying but didn’t seem to hurt my mental focus. Heading into mile 16, I was still just under my 8:30 goal pace.

In between mile 17 and 18, the course took a sharp left for a very short distance, maybe 20 yards, then abruptly made runners round a traffic cone to go directly back to the main route. This may seem insignificant to some but to me, it was simply stupid. At that point in a marathon, it is not comfortable to be running in stride, turn, almost stop to reverse course then get in rhythm once again. I get that the proper distance is important but this could have been done in mile 1 or after the split at mile 11. Regardless, I reached mile 19 in good shape even though I had posted my slowest mile thus far with an 8:51.

I had been drinking a protein/carb product called Succeed that I carried with me and mixed during the run. For hard calories, I used Honeystinger brand energy chews and also Honeystinger cookies/wafers. As my watch indicated, I was getting tired and losing energy. I knew the up and down of the constantly rolling hills was taking a toll that the food was not able to match.

Mentally, I was still very much in it. All day long, my mental state had been good. Like never before, I simply did not feel like 26.2 was “that” far. I didn’t let my head convince my body that running a marathon was a problem. As I got to mile 20 and slipped over the 9-minute mark for the first time, I was still focused on a strong finish. So many times, I had gotten to this point and found my brain to be demanding my body simply walk and slog to the finish. My focus on “last mile, fastest mile” during training seemed to be paying off.

Mercifully, the last 3 miles down Ocean Boulevard (Route 1A) were relatively flat. I just about took a shower at mile 23 when a wave came over the break wall. The wind was really picking up but it was at my side and not a huge factor. I had now been wet, sweaty and hungry for more than 3.5 hours. I could see the boardwalk area ahead. Mile 25 was the slowest of the day at 9:27.

With the finish line in sight, I passed Mary one last time with my eyes locked in a laser like focus on the finish line. It wasn’t my fastest finishing sprint but it was enough to earn a finishing time of 3:47:25. I missed my 8:30 per mile average goal by 9 seconds per mile BUT I still earned a new personal record. For the third year in a row, I had grown older but gotten faster at the marathon distance.

Hands on my hips, medal around my neck, I walked away from the finishing line feeling great. Tired, I was still willing to stand and more than willing to try a beer from the race sponsor while listening to some live music and visiting with Mary. I had no stomach for the lobster rolls being offered. They looked great but I simply have a tough time eating after a marathon.

This respite was very brief. Mary had stopped by the hotel on her way to the finish and talked with the maid (skipped the front desk and went to the worker!). If we were in and out before 1 p.m., I could get a hot shower before the drive to the airport. She didn’t need to tell me twice. I chugged the beer and started hiking back to the room in order to take advantage of the opportunity.

Leaving town, I started to think back on details of the event. The race was very commercial with little small town feel. It was almost like they said, “Let’s put on a race and make some money.” It had a distinct commercial feel. The volunteers were excellent and well organized. With the fall colors well past peak, the views were ordinary. The gray, overcast skies made the ocean seem cold, dark and uninviting. For me, in a perfect world, I would have held this race one or two weeks earlier. The biggest upside for New Hampshire is the people. Everyone we met and dealt with was friendly, courteous and welcoming.

I finished in 266th place out of 953 registered marathon runners. In my age group of 50-55 year olds, I was 24th of 79. There were 427 men of all ages who completed the marathon. I was behind 172 of them. Official time keeping tells me that I was 1:51:14 at the halfway point of the race. As I have written before, none of these statistics will land me in the record book or winner’s circle. But, each of them is mine and mine alone. When I look back at the effort I put into my training and the focus I put on getting better physically and mentally, I am more than satisfied with these results.

Will I run this fast again? How many more 16 week training cycles will it take to get to 50 marathons in 50 states? Will people keep following my trek across the country and continue to donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters? I have grown used to the fact that the end of a marathon generates more questions than it ever answers. As the Atlantic shore slipped away from me in the rearview mirror, my biggest question was, “Can I cover this distance again in just 7 days?” “Maybe, if I stay focused on the reason for the running.”