Scroll all the way down to the end of the post for the tl;dr version.
I’ve been training for the New York City Marathon since late June/early July. It’s been rough going. I never quite hit my workouts in this third hottest summer on record for the region. Despite the heat, I felt like I wasn’t progressing and left my coach during the 12th week of my training after the Parks Half Marathon. I’ve been winging it since then, running a Pfitzinger Advanced Marathoning-type training plan.
In my training schedule, this run was supposed to be a 20 miler with 14 miles at marathon pace, so I was going to treat the race as a supported long run. Based on the past week’s tempo run, I thought 8:00-8:10 pace would be marathon pace.
Achievable: Sub-3:00:00 (9:00 pace). Last week, I was able to run close to 20 miles in less than 3 hours. I thought that was repeatable.
Stretch: Sub-2:50:00 (8:30 pace). Since this was a goal marathon pace run, half of the course is downhill, and the weather was cooler; I could run a bit faster.
Personal Records: This was my first 20 miler so my time would be a personal record!
The course is an out-and-back on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Towpath (C&O) starting at the Carderock Picnic Pavilion in Potomac, Maryland and headed south towards Georgetown. This means, the course is downhill for the first 10 miles, and uphill during the second 10 miles. There would be aid stations with water and Gatorade at approximately every 2.5-miles. The trail is isolated, so there wouldn’t be any crowd support.
The race has a ban on headphones for award winners. Since this was going to be a supported long run, I opted for a playlist over the chance of winning an award. I modified my New York City Marathon playlist for a 2:50 finish.
The heat of this summer finally broke Saturday into Sunday. Thank goodness!
The C&O is managed by the National Park Service, which doesn’t allow race day registration. The organizers also limit the field to 300 runners. So, I registered about a month ago to make sure I got into the race.
There was a packet pick-up option for Thursday evening, but I waited until Saturday afternoon to pick up my packet at a local pub. On my way home, I got a salad from Sweetgreen. As the evening wore on, I wasn’t hungry. I went to bed at 9pm without any dinner.
The race started at 7am. I woke up 4:30am and saw 63 degrees on my weather station! Awesome! I still wasn’t hungry but ate a cinnamon raisin bagel and drank coffee before leaving the house.
I got to the race site at 6:30am. I parked and got out of my car to check things out. It was a little chilly! Yes! I noticed there was another lot closer to the start/finish line. I debated moving my car but decide not to be lazy.
I got ready in the car and then went to the bathroom. My gpsGI was upset, so went through the line twice. With 10 minutes to spare, I followed everyone else to the starting line. The sun had come up by then and it was a beautiful morning.
While waiting, someone from my running club saw me! We chatted a bit but he was running the 5 miler which was starting a little later. I wasn’t at the start for more than 5 minutes before we were off!
Early Miles – Miles 0 to 3
The trail was narrow at the start and there was a little jostling as runner found their place in the pack. From the start, a man carrying a black flag with some blue stripes weaved around me. And, I surged past a few runners and then moved to the far-right of the trail. I sensed some runners were pacing themselves behind me and would be disappointed when I started my marathon pace segment.
The first mile seemed short – something like 0.85 miles. I considered whether I should go by my Garmin or the course markers.
The scenery was beautiful! I don’t run this section of the C&O very often so I soaked in the sights – the massive rocks in the Potomac River, the locks themselves, and the small stone working building. I thought about stopping to take a picture but… It’s a race! Plus, the trail was so rather narrow and I didn’t want to abruptly stop for fear of messing up runners behind me.
I closed on the Mile 3 marker but my Garmin still showed the distance short of those signs. I hit the lap button thinking perhaps the course was mis-marked.
Overall pace (2.85 miles by GPS): 8:26.
Middle Miles, Miles 3 to 10
Immediately, I passed a few runners – a pair with one person in a DCRRC singlet and woman with “Jen” on her back. The pace felt hard but I kept motivated by picking off runners. I spot a group of runners that I guess are running 8:00 pace. I think about tucking behind them but I surged ahead. I was running alone for a little while. To help make the effort feel lighter, I concentrated on relaxing my shoulders and continuing to take in the view.
Finally, I started to feel hungry. I checked my watch and I was 35 minutes into the run. I waited until 45 minutes, about 5.5 miles in, I started my first Crank Sport e-Gel (Mountain Rush). I nursed it over the next couple of miles, which I took as a bad sign. I can’t eat when I’m red-lining.
By 6 miles in, I closed the gap between me and the next set of runners. When a tall, blond guy in a blue shirt closed the 6 mile marker, I count how far ahead of me he was. I counted about 10 seconds. I forced myself to stay with him even though the pace started feeling faster than marathon effort.
After 6.5 miles, I identified my first familiar sight – the Chain Bridge. It was nice seeing some familiar landmarks. A little bit down the trail, I reached the farthest point I had reached running on the trail from south to north – a tricky and uneven section of the trail.
I skipped the first two water stops but coming into Fletcher’s Boathouse, I wanted fluid – especially since I took a gel. But, I was right behind the Thin Blue Line Flag guy, so I slowed down a little to let him go through the station first. I got my water, and then quickly passed him and tucked behind Tall Blond Guy.
This section of the trail has less tree cover and the sun became a factor. I put my sunglasses on but they were fogged up! Since my club runs this stretch often, I looked for members over the next two miles but didn’t see any of them.
With a little over a mile to the turn-around, I saw racers coming back up the trail. I cheered the lead men and counted women. “Okay, I’m 1st, 2nd, 3rd…” The numbers kept going up. Then, there were uncountable clumps of women ahead of me! Where were all these women at the start?! Then, I noticed the different bibs and realized – there’s another race going on!
I was really tired at the turn-around. I figured I would slow down a lot on the way back. I took some water, thanked the volunteers, and prepared for some pain.
Splits (by GPS): 7:57, 7:59, 7:56, 8:00, 7:50, 7:54, 7:50.
Middle Miles, Miles 10 to 17
Just after the turn-around, the Tall Blond Guy pulled away. It wasn’t unexpected but a bit of a let-down since I had been shadowing him for so long. I prepared for a slow down to something like 8:20 pace but my Garmin wasn’t showing it.
Soon thereafter, a tall guy also in a blue shirt pulled alongside me. Between the two races on the C&O Canal Trail and other runners, I didn’t want someone running off my shoulder. I slowed down a step and let him pass. “Ugh, how bad is this going to get?”
After being passed by those two, I was still expecting my Garmin to show a drop in pace. I was shocked to see a split in the 7:30 range. Whoa! That can’t be right! Seeing that I wasn’t slowing down gave me a bit of a boost but I wondered if the reading was accurate. I slowed down for water again at Fletcher’s Boathouse, maybe 12.5 miles into the race. (In retrospect, my GPS started veering off at the 11.2 mark. My GPS stopped completely at the 14.2 mark.)
The encouragement of a 7:30-something split on an uphill was short-lived. Approaching the Chain Bridge crossing, I felt like my energy was fading and felt the late-morning heat on my back. At 1:45 minutes, just after 13 miles, I started my second gel (Vanilla Strawberry Slam).
By now, I was able to see the runners from the other race turning around and guessed I was probably one of the top 10 women, but reminded myself that this was a training run. Run your own race! Mostly, I couldn’t help but thinking they were doing it the right way – uphill first and then downhill!
I zoned out for the next mile or two. I passed some non-race runners on the trail. At one point, a woman asked me a question. I paused my music and said, “Excuse me?” She asked if I had seen any dogs on the trail. I saw the leash in her hand and assumed she’s lost hers. I replied no and kept moving.
For the next mile or two I set my sights on a woman in a teal shirt ahead of me to help me keep 8:00 pace. As I closed the gap, I could tell my turn-over was faster and I’d overtake her. When I did, it seemed it demoralized her a little bit.
During the last two miles, I felt like I was running with everything I had. What was I going to do AFTER the marathon pace segment! I told myself, Let those three miles take care of themselves. I suppose it was a variation of, “Run the mile you’re in“.
Splits (by GPS): 8:00, 7:36, 8:03, 8:12, 7:33, 8:09, 8:08.
Later Miles 17 to 20
I hit the lap button on my Garmin and settled into a much easier pace. I don’t want to run 3 more miles. But sure enough, it felt a bit easier as I pressed on.
The final water stop showed during Mile 17. I took some water even though I didn’t necessarily need it and got rid of my gel since I didn’t want it anymore.
In the final two miles, several runners I passed before the marathon pace segment passed me back – the DCRRC pair , “Jen”, and a few others. The competitive side of me wanted to pick up the pace, but I remembered I needed to run my own race! But, I picked up the pace a little about a quarter mile from the finish when a guy seemed to be racing me at the finish.
Overall pace (3.13 miles by GPS): 8:40.
I crossed the line tired but not completely spent. I talked with a few volunteers and fellow runners. This is a club race so the post-race food was standard runner fare – Gatorade, water, coffee, bagels, and bananas. I grabbed half a bagel and two cups of Gatorade. The walk to the car felt long but I ended up talking to “Jen” on the way, which was nice.
Later that morning, I checked Strava and a friend expressed concern about my race. My GPS dropped 14 miles into the race! It showed stopped by Sibley Hospital! I updated the data to let everyone know I finished all 20 miles.
My time was 2:42:07 (8:07 pace). I was 34th finisher, 7th woman, 2nd female master, and 1st in my age group (since there was a masters award).
The marathon pace segment was 14 miles in 1:51:00 (7:56 pace).
I was happily surprised by this result. I didn’t think I’d be able to hold 8:00 pace for 14 miles!
My confidence is back and I feel ready to tackle a marathon again in 40 days!
On the race itself, I prefer “event” races, (obviously since the New York City Marathon is my favorite race). But, I would definitely run this race again as a supported long run. The volunteers were supportive and the course is fair. (Considering the prize money, I’m surprised it’s not more popular.)
I ran this race – an out and back on the C&O Canal Trail – as a supported 20 miler with 14 miles at marathon pace. The hot and humid summer weather finally broke and temperatures were in the low 60s for the race. I thought Sub-2:50:00 (8:30 pace) would be a stretch but my time was 2:42:07 (8:07 pace)! The marathon pace segment was approximately 14 miles in 1:51:00 (7:56 pace). I was happily surprised by this result and felt better about running a marathon in 40 days.