Sunday, April 27, 2014

Illinois Marathon Race Report

Yesterday, I ran the Illinois Marathon in Champaign-Urbana, IL. Even though I live about 10 miles from the race, and work right on campus where the race starts and ends, I had never run this race before. Finally, I had enough pestering from friends and co-workers, and I decided to sign up. I also had another motive. When I registered months ago, I thought this was going to be my BQ attempt. I worked myself into reasonable shape last fall and early winter. With a good training program through the winter, I planned on running a fast marathon in April (< 3:25). Well, winter came between me and my plans. I won't say my dreams were shattered, but I knew a fast marathon wasn't going to happen when I was training 15-20 miles/week with no long runs. Snow, ice, and bitter cold temperatures derailed my training.

Nope, this race was not going to get me to Boston. But, it would be a test of my endurance and patience. Could I set an easy pace and maintain it throughout the race? Could I stay uninjured on the roads? This was my first road marathon in a long time...13 years. I'm an old trail and ultra dude. I rarely do roads or road races. Driving to the start of the Illinois Marathon, all I could think about was the pounding that 26.2 miles of uninterrupted road running would do to my body (and mind). Would I hold up? Could I actually run continuously for that many miles? I'm used to ultras where I walk uphill, run the flats, and gingerly negotiate the downhill portions of the course. River crossings require even more stealth and patience. Plus, there are always things to keep your running focused...tree branch here, rock there, roots, mud, water, animals, insects. Before you know it, 5 or 6 hours have passed and you've run 50km (31 miles). That's what I like!

Roads. Me not like. I find them boring. Monotonous. Unforgiving. Throw in warm temperatures and full sun and it was looking to be a long day for me. At the start, the temperature was 50 degrees and the sun was already shining bright. No breeze. The high for the day was predicted to be in the mid-to-upper 70s. My goal was to run just under 9:00 pace for the entire race. That would get me a finish time of about 3:55. Nothing spectacular, but still a worthy goal and a great training run for future ultras. Many friends predicted greatly varying finish times: 4:30, 4:15, 4:00, 3:45...sub-3:40 or faster. Let's see how I did.

In the starting corral (Wave C: 3:45-3:59), I lined up next to Van from Body n Sole Sports. He was running the relay and had the first 6.7 mile leg. When I told him I wanted to run "a little under 9:00 splits" he was happy. We ran together that whole first section just chatting about running and life. Kyle, another local runner, joined us and we basically took turns yo-yo-ing ahead of each other. The pacing was about right, maybe a little fast: 8:40s. When Van finished his relay leg, Kyle and I kept at that steady pace until he turned off for the half-marathon finish. We kept averaging 8:40s. After 13 miles, I was on my own. The crowd really thinned out and I wasn't around anyone I knew. I just kept running at what felt like an easy, controlled pace. Occasionally I'd see friends on the course (running or cheering), but it was pretty much me and my mind for those last 13 miles. It began to get hot around that half-marathon spot and I kept wondering when the wheels would come off. Would my stomach turn sour? When would my glycogen be depleted? Blisters? Achy knees? As these thoughts kept circulating in my head, I just kept plugging away. One foot in front of the other. Relentless forward progress. Ultramarathons had taught me that lesson...just keep moving forward.

All went well until about mile 23. I was finally getting tired. Really tired. I had no energy. I was hot. My legs felt stiff. I thought about walking. I only had 5K to go...but it seemed too far away. Welcome to the wall! I told myself to just keep churning out the miles. Keep moving. I did. It took much more effort, but I seemed to be holding pace. A little after 24 miles I was running up a hill around the Country Club. It took everything I had not to walk that section. It wasn't a big hill. It wasn't steep. Still, it beat the hell out of me. I shuffled up, finally crested that hill, and then started to go down. I gained some momentum and energy. When I saw the mile 25 marker, I knew I could finish without walking. Heck, I even picked up the pace! We ran back onto the University of Illinois campus and headed for Memorial Stadium and the finish line. Crossed the finish in a time of 3:47:35. Almost even 8:40 splits the entire way. I was happy. Hot, tired, and thirsty...but happy.

My 3:47:35 finish landed me in 327th place of 1685 finishers. The winner ran 2:20:34. The race was extremely well-organized, volunteers and race staff were friendly and helpful, and the course was flat and fast. The Illinois Marathon is worth considering. Maybe not as a "destination" marathon like the big city or international races, but it is a solid venue and a well-supported race.

A few thoughts on this road marathon experience...

Roads are MUCH faster than trails. That doesn't make them easy, just faster. I can't believe I maintained 8:40 miles for the full marathon. I don't run a single mile at 8:40 pace in a trail ultra!

If the weather was 10 degrees cooler, I think I could have run around 3:40 at the same easy effort. If I was also in slightly better shape, and pushed harder, I think I could knock off another 10 minutes. A 3:30 marathon is easily within my grasp. I need 3:25 for Boston. It's more than possible. Not easy, but possible.

I still don't like roads. I do appreciate them. And I respect them. They won't be my surface of choice for training or racing, but I can see a few more road races in my future. I'll be much happier when I get back to my local trails. Soon.

I'm recovering well. 24 hours after the race, I'm a little tired, a little sore, but things are generally OK. No pain. This is a HUGE confidence boost for me.

Training on trails makes a runner strong. The uneven terrain, the hills, the mud, the rocks and roots...all these obstacles forge a stronger and more resilient runner. You are hardened mentally and physically. Take that trail training to road races and you will succeed. You'll be faster.

Road racers are pampered. Aid stations every couple miles. Water and Gatorade. Gel packets. Port-a-potties. Marked turns with course marshals. Mile markers. Cheering spectators. No streams or rivers. No mud. No bush-whacking. Really?

I now have ultra/marathon #91 in the books. Next up is the "Run Under the Stars" 10-hour race in Paducah, KY on June 7.


Ragfield said...

Well done Chris. I've walked up that country club hill before…

Chris said...

Thanks Rob. That hill isn't exactly like being at Clinton Lake or Forest Glen, but it sure made me struggle!

ed said...

It's great to see you on such an upswing! Your discipline & ability to keep such a quick & even pace over a long distance shows you're attaining that speed & endurance combination everyone strives for.

Your report is thorough & very enjoyable to read, especially your perspective on roads & trails.

Hope to see you at RUTS.

Chris said...


I'll see you at RUTS! Looking forward to it. I am finally getting all of my running to work together. Feels right.