Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rock'n'Roll New Orleans Marathon

A while ago now (I've been behind), on Sunday February 2nd, I ran the Rock'n'Roll New Orleans Marathon, finishing in a time of 4:15:01, cutting 20 minutes off of my previous PR from last March. It was a good race and a nice weekend; the weather could have been better, but the course was better than I thought it might be. It was warmer than I would prefer (mid-60s) and very humid, making for a lot of sweat; the roads were almost all asphalt and in great shape, none of the broken pavement or cobblestones I was worried about. My body held up better than I thought it might- other than nearly debilitating leg pain, my feet fared well, no significant blistering, no dead toenails. My biggest concern was that I hurt my foot Friday evening during a short run after driving all day, but that wound up bothering me less than my right Achilles, which has had some flare ups recently. I had plenty of energy and was in good spirits, really it was just the legs that slowed me down. In the end, I would have liked to have gone a little quicker, and had more of a chance to experience New Orleans, but it was a nice visit, and a PR is never a bad thing. Also, I recently decided to try to finish a marathon in every state; this makes 3 states (along with Texas and Kentucky).

In the week leading up to the race, I ran stairs for 8 minutes, ran 5k easy, rowed for 20 minutes, swam 1 hour, ran 20 minutes on a treadmill, swam, and went for an easy run over to the expo once I arrived in New Orleans Friday evening. I needed to shake things out after driving 8 hours with only two short breaks. It was about 3/4 mile from my hotel to the first door of the convention center, but it at least felt like another half mile from there to the actual expo, in the farthest hall. I started walking but got bored and started doing strides. The expo itself was not crowded, and packet pickup was quick and easy. I wandered around a bit, tried on some shoes, but my only purchase was a couple gels I had been meaning to get earlier. When I left, as I was starting to run back to the hotel, I wasn't paying close enough attention, stepped on some broken pavement, and rolled my left ankle. I cried out such that a nearby security guard asked if I was okay. It hurt, but I think it was more shock that made me yell. After a few tentative steps, it didn't seem to be hurt badly, so I started jogging, very mindful of the surface. When I got back to the hotel, I was too interested in dinner to do anything with my foot. I walked a few blocks to the Palace Cafe and ate a shrimp dish. The only other person sitting at the bar for more than a couple minutes turned out to be a woman visiting New Orleans for the half marathon, which she had also done the previous year. We chatted some before I limped back to my hotel. I finally put some ice on my foot, but fortunately it really didn't look swollen.
I didn't get nearly as much sleep as I would have liked that first night for whatever reason, waking up around 7 Saturday morning. My foot hurt, but mostly at certain angles. Walking wasn't terrible, it was sort of like it needed to warm up and once it was moving it wasn't so bad. I had a pretty big breakfast at a place called Cafe Beignet in the French Quarter, a croissant sandwich and an order of beignets. I walked back to the expo hoping to find some cheap medical advice about my foot. Unlike many expos, there wasn't any booth with sports medicine experts; the organizers had a table designated for sports medicine, but there was nobody there at that time. I asked at the information desk, and was told that there was a guy with one of the running groups that has a sports medicine background. I went over, and he was nice enough to look at my foot. He didn't think it was anything too bad, and recommended I try a brace from one of the equipment companies there. I wound up getting one, and wore it for the rest of the day and the race. I went back to the hotel to give the foot some RICE (rest, ice/ibuprofen, compression, elevation). There was an annoying noise that sounded like they were jackhammering the room next door. It was actually in the lobby, but it resonated throughout the building, and was almost as loud in my room on the seventh floor. It wasn't so terrible in the morning while I was chilling out, but in the afternoon after I went out for a while and got pizza, and I really wanted to take a nap, it was absolutely maddening. I was dangerously close to damaging the offending equipment or just blowing the whole building up when I gave up and went out to wander the streets of the French Quarter at 2. That didn't help my mental state however, as the number of tourists slowly wandering the narrow sidewalks bugged me all the more. I was about ready to nuke the whole city when I saw a sign in a gallery for a show of Rembrandt and Dürer prints. The show had ended, but there were some still hanging, and more stacked up on the floor. They were really spectacular and were just the thing to soothe the savage beast in me. While the prints were for sale, my taste and my budget were very far off in this case. Because I couldn't think of anything else to do, I went back to the hotel at 4, and thank the stars they were done with the jackhammer. I was finally able to take a nap, even though it was brief. I didn't leave my room until the next morning, eating my leftover pizza (which was just okay) and some snacks for dinner. Once I did get to sleep (after some false starts as the mind started racing) I slept about as well as I ever do before a big race.

I woke up about 5 Sunday morning, well earlier than I really needed to considering my hotel was pretty much on top of the starting line. I had a highly nutritious breakfast of a blueberry muffin and Dr Pepper. A little later I had a packet of almond butter. I was kind of surprised to have a touch of nerves before heading down to the race at 6; I was fine once I got out there. There were a lot of people milling about; word was there were about 14-15 thousand runners between the half and full distances. I dropped off my dry clothes bag and got one last use of a port-o-potty before heading to the start corral around 6:30. When I signed up, I said my goal time was 3:45, which put me in corral number four. Since I wasn't feeling that confident, and really was shooting for closer to 3:59, I lined up at the back of the corral. I really have no idea what everyone else was thinking, because I would swear I passed a lot more people throughout the race than passed me. They were putting a slight gap between the release of each corral, but it went quickly. With handcycle, elite, and three more waves, I still started at 7:03 by my watch.
I kept myself from starting too fast, averaging about a 9:10 pace for the first three miles. I really considered that to be the warmup, and didn't feel totally warmed up until five miles in. Warmed up in my muscles, that is; it was relatively warm and extremely humid, so I was sweating almost from the start. Before the race I made a point of remembering my sunglasses; a mile in, I wanted to get rid of them. It was overcast and didn't show any signs of clearing, so I didn't need them, and with my sweating, they were fogged over. I put them into my belt pouch and didn't pull them out for the rest of the race.
The first eight miles were out and back along St. Charles Avenue through the Garden District, which reminded me of the Ironman Louisville run course, in that it was wide and tree-lined. St. Charles is very wide, with three lanes of traffic in each direction and a wide median which has a streetcar line. There were so many runners, the whole roadway was taken up, and some people were running on the median. This section, like most of the course, was dead flat. I held a steady, almost easy, 9-minute pace through this section. About 3 miles in, I saw the race leaders doubling back in the direction of the start, a mere 2 or 3 miles ahead of me; "I can still catch them," I joked to myself. Around mile 6 I started running and chatting with this one guy; I had finally figured out why he and some other people were carrying a drum stick (it was for the half marathon relay). When I was about mile 7, I saw on the other side of the street the last few "runners," trailed by the sag wagon. "I've just got to stay ahead of them," I thought to myself.
As we neared the start line on Poydras and headed toward the French Quarter, the weather changed. The temperature dropped 5-10 degrees and the humidity changed to a light rain. This was a welcome change for me. The visibility dropped significantly, but I could see further than I really needed to. I had my quickest mile of the day along Decatur Street in the rain- 8:41. The cool rain didn't last long, however. The sky was still overcast, but lighter; the humidity dropped back to a mere 99.5% (by my completely unscientific estimation). I was still running a decent pace, but I was starting to hurt. I hit the halfway point at about 1:57, just past the half/full split outside City Park. I didn't think I could maintain my first half pace for the second half, so I was pretty sure I wouldn't break four hours. With that realization, I figured that was a good time to take a little break and get in some water. I walked for about a quarter mile before resuming running. Mentally, this was probably the toughest section for me, not helped by the fact that it was close enough to the finish line that I could hear the festivities. It wasn't as close and clear as some races get (like Ironman Texas, which has the added insult of having to pass more than once), but hearing the announcer and seeing some half finishers made it tough to continue. Also not helping was seeing the real fast marathoners coming back with only a few miles to go as we skirted the park.
I can never get back to my original pace once I take a break; I was pretty much just looking to keep it under 10 minutes per mile from that point. I took a second, shorter, walk break at mile 16, just before crossing the levee (the only hills on the course were the few times over the levees) to run along Lake Pontchartrain. I wasn't going to slow down at the mile 17 aid station, but they had vaseline. I wasn't feeling any chafing at that point, but I was worried about it after getting it pretty bad at the 3M half marathon two weeks prior. I slowed down briefly to have a drink and lube up.
In my head, I was considering the turnaround along the lake (at mile 19) as the "halfway point." After turning back at this point, I said out loud something line "alright, halfway." Either nobody heard it or nobody wanted to spend the energy on a response. Frankly most everybody looked pretty low on energy. I actually felt good energy- and spirits-wise; it was just my legs holding me back. I gritted through it for a while before another walk break at mile 20. I took some long strides to try and stretch my legs. It helped, for a little while any way. It was around this point that some mantras popped into my head, including one from ultrarunner Scott Jurek, "Pain only hurts," from his high school coach. Another was Jens Voigt's infamous "Shut up legs!" "Embrace the suck" was the third rotating through my brain the rest of the race. At mile 23 I had another break, stretching my legs even more deliberately. I had the idea to try and have a strong final 5k. It started at a 9-minute pace, but was closer to 10 at the end of the first mile. I started walking again; at mile 24.5 someone had little cups of beer and I had one, hoping it might dull the pain. I don't think it really helped in that regard, but it didn't hurt, and there was a psychological boost.
I was determined to run from there to the finish. It was slow at first, around a 10:30 pace, but as the finish line got closer the pain decreased and the legs got lighter. In the park proper, my pace was closer to 9. When the finish line was in sight, I sprinted and according to my watch was going 7:20 pace for at least a moment before crossing the line. I got my finisher's medal, which is hung from a string of mardi gras beads, appropriately enough. One thing I would change about the race, however, is that I would have the finish on the track that was instead used as a meetup area.
The race was well-run. The aid stations were all well manned and stocked as far as I could tell. I was only drinking water (other than the sip of beer, but I don't think that was an official aid station), the only other thing I took was the vaseline. I got water from most of the stations, but skipped a few. I had a bunch of energy gels on my race belt, but the one I took at mile 8 was so unappetizing that I didn't really want to have another. I forget what point of the course it was, but I did have a caramel flavored gel later on the course; I have actually enjoyed that flavor previously, this time it was merely not terrible, which was better than the first one at least. At mile 17, when I had already slowed for lube, I took 3 aspirin (for the pain that was not yet debilitating) and 3 salt tablets. My nutrition may not have been ideal, but I don't think that's what held me back. I can't imagine that more water or calories or anything else (other than painkillers or, you know, stopping) would have helped the tendinitis and muscular pain I experienced.
As for the whole "Rock'n'Roll" thing, of having a bunch of bands playing along the course, I don't think it really enhances the running experience. Maybe it's good for the spectators and volunteers, but as long as you're actually running, you're not going to be within earshot of the band for very long. It was a little different along the edge of the park- they had a bunch of speakers all connected to the same source, so you could hear an entire song. My problem with that was they were playing popular music, most of which I don't care for. The worst of the music, to me, was one corner early on the course had a big speaker setup and while I was nearby was playing a song I cannot stand. I came up with the line, which I said aloud to nobody in particular, "If I had access to a time machine, right now I would use it to go back and prevent the making of this song." There were other less powerful sound systems along the course belonging to spectators. One, I believe, was playing the Rocky theme both times I passed, with quite a while in between. For the sanity of anybody hanging out nearby, I really hope I was mistaken and they weren't playing it continuously.
While I was running, I was wearing my finisher's shirt from the Austin Marathon, which prompted several people to ask me about it. I told them all it was a pretty tough hilly course. At least one person was disappointed it wasn't flat like this race. Other than those few comments, and that one relay runner, I didn't chat much. Most times when I run, I'm limited by my lungs and heart; this time it was my legs (and pain tolerance) that limited my pace, so I had plenty of air and energy to chat, just nobody to chat with. Not that I'm a chatty person, but it could have been nice to have the distraction.
After finishing I got some water before my free watery beer. There had been Girl Scouts cheering on course at the far side of the park; I didn't see them in the finish area though, they could have made a fortune selling cookies; I could have finished a box before getting back to my hotel. I recovered my gear bag and somewhat immodestly changed into my dry clothes. I really needed to get out of my sweat-soaked race clothes; I went behind a big tree in a sparsely populated area, and I figured since it was New Orleans nobody would care. It was much more of a walk than I really wanted at that point to the buses back to the start area, but at least there were a lot of them so there wasn't much waiting.
Back at the hotel I took a good long shower. I laid down to take a nap, but that only lasted about 2 minutes. That little bit actually felt rejuvenating, but more would have been better. I was half starved at that point; I wound up having ribs at a brewpub in the quarter for lunch. After wandering for a bit, I met up with a college friend at Carousel Bar, which has the gimmick of a rotating bar decorated like a carousel (hence the name). Scott was there supporting his wife who had also run the marathon; some of her friends had come in to do the half. After riding a bar stool for a while (which was very weird with a drink or two after running a marathon), we went to another bar. They put the Superbowl on ("Oh yeah, that's today"), but I don't think anyone was paying that close attention to it. We went to a burger joint after that for more sustenance; it was tasty but the music was too loud. They were headed to another bar where brass band Hot 8 was playing. I could feel myself fading, but I hadn't gotten much of a "real New Orleans" experience, and figured I should see some live jazz. It was really good (they were nominated for a Grammy), but I was beat. I was falling asleep and left along with a few others during the set break.
I woke up several times in the night before getting up for good at 7:30 Monday morning. Unfortunately I had to drive home and be at work the next day. I went to a place across the street from my hotel for breakfast. I ordered kind of a big breakfast of beignets and breakfast sandwiches. I ate every bite of it; the waiter said he was "impressed." It was pricey but delicious. The drive home was okay, nothing really happened. I almost drove straight to my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, but stopped by the house briefly before going to polish off a giant plate of food. In the days following the race my legs were pretty sore, but still functioning. I took it pretty easy the week after, but I firmly believe in active recovery. I was in the pool, rode the trainer, and even ran a little bit. My feet had held up really well, and I didn't seem to have done any permanent damage to my tendons or the soft tissue in my foot. In a twist of irony, I got a big blister on my right foot from running a 5k with my run group a week and a half later, but that was because I had forgotten socks and ran anyway without any lubrication.

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