The Under Armour Baltimore Marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival was to be my second marathon. The only point of reference that I had was my effort at the Marine Corp Marathon last year where I faded pretty hard over the last 6 miles. I still finished running, but much slower than the first twenty miles. I kept telling myself “You’ve put in a lot more miles since then and you have run a marathon before” to keep myself calm and on an even keel.
The alarm went off at 4:30 AM, awakening me from a surprisingly good night’s sleep. Being in my own bed was a huge benefit. I follow my normal long run morning routine of 2 cups of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal and a bottle of water. I took care of business and headed out the door at 5:20 AM. The race organizers provide plenty of free parking near the start line and race village, so at 5:50 AM, I easily slid into a spot no more than 300 yards from the start, which is on the street west of Camden Yards, where the Orioles play something that resembles Major League Baseball. Having a ton of time to kill before the 8:00 AM start, I sat in the truck and people watched while listening to Country Music. There was a lot of really bad parking. You can tell the drivers that routinely back into a spot from the ones that don’t. This provided me a good hour of entertainment. The most entertaining display was from the guy that got out of his truck with his buddies, hacked up a lung on the grass and then fired up a Newport as he pinned his race number on his shirt. I’m pretty sure he got roped into running a leg of the relay by his buddies.
At 7:00 AM, it was time to move. I got my shoes on and gather up my gels and headed toward the start. I needed to find a bathroom STAT as things were on the move. The Maryland Stadium Authority was nice enough to open the bathrooms at Camden yards for the race, so I was able to use a real bathroom, not a Porta Potty. That’s a nice touch right there. I run into my friend, George Elder, who was pacing a group for the Geico Pacers so I chatted with him for a few minutes. Then I did some light stretching and took a seat on the curb across from the 8:00 minute mile sign. I pop a Montana Huckleberry Hammer Gel at 7:45 AM as the MC introduces this dignitary and that dignitary who exhorted the crowd to get pumped up. *YAWN* Let’s do this already! I strip off all my Goodwill clothes at 7:55 and stand up and start to get loose. I find a spot in the crowd to wait for the gun. The mass starts to edge toward the start line, compressing. You can feel the tension rising, almost smell the adrenaline in the air, hear the buzz of excitement.
8:00 AM, it’s about 56°F with clear blue skies. You can feel a slight breeze blowing through the buildings of downtown Baltimore. We are off! Well, we are shuffling forward; we start to jog…STOP! The mass comes to a halt…no wait, now we are jogging again. I cross the mats about 40 seconds after the start. I ease into a slow run. The start area is on a pretty narrow street so things are a bit bunched up. There are 5000 runners in the marathon and 11,000 teams in the marathon relay, so there are a couple other runners around. This is fine as my goal for the first two miles was to run somewhere between 8:00 and 8:10 for the mile to ease into things. This goal is aided by the course, which is slight uphill for the first 3 miles. They go by in an uneventful 8:33, 8:09 and 8:08.
At mile four, we turn into the Baltimore Zoo, where we are greeted by handlers with Ravens. Go Ravens! A little further along, there is a handler with a penguin. Cool! I’ve picked up the pace on the rolling hills through the zoo and Druid Hill Park. I pass Druid Hill Lake and go back out onto the roads as we go through mile 5, 7:52 and 7:47.
Miles 6 through 8 aren’t real memorable. The field has made the turn from north-west area of Baltimore City and is headed back south toward the Inner Harbor. It’s slightly downhill and I have the cruise control on. I’m not really aware of the wind at this point. The run down St. Paul Street is shielded on both sides by multi story buildings. These miles pass in 7:50, 7:46 and 7:52, right on target.
Entering mile 9, the course has woven its way back to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where the crowd has swollen to incredible levels. The Baltimore Running Festival also features a Half Marathon, which starts at 9:45 AM at the halfway mark of the Marathon. The Marathon course runs past the start area, then loops back around to come back past the start area again, with the Half Marathon runners to the Marathon runner’s left. The half runners are all starting to line up. I think that race has about 8000 spots, so they create an instant crowd that whips itself into a frenzy as they are cheering the full runners as they go by. After passing by the first time, we head into the Federal Hill area of Baltimore where the residents have really embraced the race. There are people everywhere, signs along the road, chalk written encouragement on the road. It’s a fantastic atmosphere. I grab a handful of Swedish Fish from a youngster holding a big blue bowl of them. We are heading into Locust Point, the headquarters of the marathon sponsor, Under Armour. This is where we will loop back around and head back toward the start line of the Half Marathon. The turn is at mile 11. This area is pretty flat, but we are starting to feel the wind. I keep tucking in behind bigger runners whenever I feel it in my face, trying to get a little drafting action. 9 through 11 pass in 7:43, 7:48 and 7:51.
Turning back into the wind, we head back to the Inner Harbor. I can hear the announcer giving instructions to the Half Marathon participants. I catch the National Anthem. I hear the command to go shortly after I pass by the start line. The fields are separated for the first 3 miles on the Half Marathon, so that we don’t get all tangled up with them. We’ll merge together later and end at the same finish line. At mile 13.5, I see wife and kids and give them a High Five as I go by. At this point, I feel a little tightness in the top of my right calf, but I don’t think it’s anything to be concerned about. I trudge on. We head out of the Inner Harbor as we finish up mile 14. Bolstered by the crowd and seeing my loved ones, those miles pass by in 7:48, 7:43 and 7:47.
Now we head into Baltimore’s famous Fells Point area, known for its night life. I think this is the first time I have ever seen it during the light of day. Being along the water, the winds have picked up a bit, so I continue to employ my drafting strategy. Around mile 15, a familiar face pulls up next to me. It’s Jeff, who lives near me and whom I had met one time before when I was running. We chatted a bit about how the race was going. He was suffering from shin splints and not doing too hot. He introduced me to Tina, who he had been running with for a few miles. The three of us ran together for a bit before Jeff dropped off and implored us to go ahead without him. Tina and I continued together for a while. She was shooting for sub 3:30 to qualify for Boston. I lose her as we move through mile 17, where we have started the climb up to Lake Montebello. Miles 15 to 17 are a pleasant 7:50, 8:02 and 8:00, slowed slightly by the merging of the course with the half marathoners and the chit chat with Jeff and Tina.
Heading into mile 18, I start to think about my experience from last year. I’m comparing how I feel to how I remember feeling last year. “I feel better than I remember last year. I feel stronger. I’m not starting to fade. This is good.” The wind has really picked up now and there are some pretty heavy gusts. It’s uphill too, and my mantra through every uphill section has been “manage the effort, not the pace” and it’s been working for me. The last uphill brings us into Lake Montebello, which we will encircle before heading back toward downtown. It is wide open around the lake and the wind is very much a factor here. Mile 20 passes at the entrance to the lake. Mile 20 is where I started to fade last year. I do a systems check and everything feels fantastic. I duck in and out behind other runners as we round the lake. Mile 21 is near the end of the loop. A lady about my age in tall, green and white striped socks asks me what we have for time as we pass by the marker. I tell her “2:47” and we run together for a few seconds before I ask her “Are you going to be ready to turn it up when we start the downhill?” She responds in the affirmative and I think to myself “yeah, me too. I didn’t feel anywhere near this good last year at mile 21.” I’ve braved the wind and the uphill and passed the last three miles in 7:55, 8:00 and 7:55.
Mile 22 is a little uphill bump into the wind before turning south and heading down toward the finish. I cruise there here in 8:02, still doing my systems checks and starting to get a little excited about the prospect of finishing strong. We zig-zag through Charles village, taking us through mile 23 before making the final turn on Howard Street. I’ve started to pick up the pace. I’m feeling really strong at this point. Mile 23 passes in 7:53.
Mile 24 is a nice downhill stretch, but again with some cross and head winds. I bob and weave, duck in and out, and overtake runner after runner after runner and I crack off a 7:40 mile as we head into mid- town. Every systems check comes back with a positive response. I’m passed by a guy wearing nothing but shorts. He tells me I look really good, which I acknowledge with “I feel pretty damn good too!” He tears off with perfect barefoot running form. Must have been a relay runner.
Mile 25 is has a little uphill section as we cross a bridge constructed over the Jones Falls Expressway. Slowed a bit by the rise and the ever present wind, my pace rise to 7:57, but is no cause for alarm. I know we’ll soon be heading downhill and be protected by the larger structures of the downtown area. The crowd support is really starting to pick up now as both sides of the street are lined with vocal spectators, shouting encouragement as the runners go by.
At this point, I know I am going to be able to finish strong. I am feeling fantastic. None of the fade I felt last year. My legs are sore, but I don’t have any problems keeping them moving. The race finishes by running through the gates of Camden Yards, along The Warehouse and back on to Raven’s Way, just outside of M and T Bank Stadium. As I’m coming down the hill, I can see the gates to Camden Yards ahead in the distance. I am hammering at this point, feeling like a million bucks. I am dropping other runners at a rate that is impossible for me to keep track of. The crowds along the entrance to Camden Yards are fantastic, stacked 10 deep along the barriers that funnel the runners, cheering widely. I’m lifted by their energy as I enter Eutaw Street and complete mile 26 in 7:12 and I’m still picking up the pace. I can now hear the announcer calling out runner’s names as they cross the finish line, only .2 of a mile ahead. I’m ecstatic, knowing that all the hard work over the last year has paid huge dividends for me. I feel so smooth and strong coming down to the finish. A slight turn to the right and the finish is in sight. I’m buoyed by the presence of all the friends, family and fans that have come out in support of the event. I cross the line feeling like I could keep going. I head over to the finishers village, get my medal, grab a bagel and some water where I run into Tina. She finished about 90 seconds behind me. She got her BQ time and she thanked me for pulling her along for part of the way.
I’ve done it. I ran the last .2 at 6:55 pace to finish with a chip time of 3:26:52, PR of over 11 minutes. More importantly, I’ve run a marathon to the plan and finished strong, not in a fade. It comes to me a little later after I have had a chance to reflect on the events of the day. I haven’t just “run a marathon”.
I am a marathoner.