Oak Island marathon race report
Saturday, I ran the Oak Island marathon along the southeastern coast of North Carolina. When I arbitrarily came up with my silly idea of running a marathon or ultra every month of 2017, I was a bit worried that February would involve some travel, a blizzard, or fighting polar bears, and initially, I hadn’t found anything that fit particularly well into my schedule. Then, the universe did me a solid: the race company that puts on a series of beach half marathons in the area decided to add a full marathon JUST to their Oak Island race. I could check February off my to-do list! AND, bonus: the weather this weekend was more mid-spring than mid-winter, so we got to enjoy a beautiful day at the beach after the race.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The ensuing weeks between Frosty Fifty and Oak Island have been some of the best I’ve had in a few years, despite each week having at least one, sometimes two, very easy days. I’m seeing Stiner regularly again, and that is making a HUGE difference in recovery time and how my legs feel day-to-day overall. I’m a few pounds lighter than I was back in January and almost twenty pounds down from when I was setting powerlifting PRs in December, so that helps with, well, everything. The past week or so, I’ve actually been eating somewhat better (which is not saying very much) and sleeping closer to 7-8 hours a night (which is saying A LOT). All this to say that heading in to this race, I was feeling optimistic that it would go reasonably alright and confident that I wouldn’t find myself at mile 18 wishing I had gone out for that run on a random Thursday night after work instead of sitting on my couch with a pint of Ben n Jerry’s (because I HAVE dragged myself out every single time this year).
The day before the race, we had to drive down from Durham and needed every second and then some to make it to packet pick up just in time. We got our race bibs as they were packing up and then spent longer than we’d have liked getting a burger and fries from a decent-enough restaurant down the block. Serendipitously, our AirBnB was located a little over a half mile from where the race started and finished. We made our way there after dinner and were greeted by a lovely host and her adorable pugs. If you have never been greeted at a door by four tiny, affectionate pugs, you have not really lived. After getting our stuff in and settled, I went out for a short shakeout down to the beach and back. I spent a good minute or two by the water just staring up at the pitch-black sky, sending Ari snaps of blackness that was supposed to be beach and taking in the stars that you don’t get to admire near a city. Once back, it was my pre-race ritual of shaving my head and then a reasonably early bedtime, as the race started crazy early.
With a race that started at 6 am, that meant wake-up was somewhere around 4:30. Unlike many times in the past, I was up before the alarm and felt mostly awake and ready to go (thanks Amy for having the most luxurious bed to sleep on of any AirBnB we’ve stayed at!). I went to the bathroom, downed a Boost shake and most of a Quest bar, went to the bathroom, got dressed, went to the bathroom, got my shoes laced, went to the bathroom, got our stuff ready to go, went to the bathroom, and was off to the park. Even though it was only a short jaunt from where we stayed, we opted to park right next to the start so that Ari could chill out during the hour between when my race started and when hers did and so that after the race we could grab whatever we wanted immediately. It was still extremely dark with nothing but a few headlamps and the neon from the timing stuff at the start/finish lighting up the area. This meant that as I made my way to the start, with about three minutes to go, I had unlimited options for one last bathroom stop. With about a minute to go, I heard Brad Smythe yell for me to make my way up to the line, which at first surprised me (how did someone know my name?!) and then amused me. I gave Ari a quick kiss, she wished me luck and told to do it and go for the Olympics, and with that, we were off.
Right away, some guy blasted out and had gapped all of us jamokes by the time we had to make a left about 200 m into the race. I settled in to what felt like a comfortable uptempo pace and ultimately watched another three guys pull on ahead of me at a much less rapid pace. For the sake of this report, I will name them tri-guy (because he was wearing a triathlon-looking outfit), beard guy (because he had a solid beard and kinda looked like Jesus), and bad dog (because, shockingly, he had a singlet that said bad dog on it). With a dearth of street lights on the first four or so mile stretch of residential roads, I opted not to glance at my watch every few moments to see if I was “on pace” mostly because I didn’t have a specific pace in mind. Given how the 50k went and that training was going about as well as could be hoped for, I figured a 3:20ish would be a reasonable result, and if I had a good day, maybe I could stretch for a 3:15 (it WAS a flat course after all).
Comfortably in fifth, feeling relaxed, the first four seeming to continue to pull away, and with a few glances back on some of the turns noticing nobody really close, I was in a no man’s land that I actually relished in the early miles. I stopped to pee around mile 3.5, and in the thirty or so seconds that took, I didn’t see anyone coming up from behind. I was glad about this notsomuch because I cared about my placing but because I didn’t want to run with anyone. As the course turned out of the residential section near mile five, we hit the first of two bridges we’d be running over and back, this one the steeper and longer of the two (get it out of the way early, I suppose). As I made my way up, it was impossible not to notice the absolutely picturesque sunrise starting to take place to the east. So, silver lining on the bridge… perfect vantage point for maximum sunrise gawking. Alas, the gawking was kept to a minimum as there were miles to be run. Coming down from the bridge, I could barely see the leader, who was already almost a mile up, and the other three guys were strung out somewhere from a minute or so to several minutes ahead; the next guy back from me was a few minutes in arrears.
Only twenty miles to go, yippee. It was finally light enough to see my watch. Apparently I had been running just over 7:00 pace so far. So… not 3:20 pace. I had a brief but ultimately pointless mental conversation where I thought maybe we should ease back to which I rebutted myself figuring, hey, this feels alright, and worst case, I blow up later and jog it in, having gotten a decent workout out of the whole mess. The next few miles twisted through more residential areas and next to a golf course. Coming out, we made a left and ran toward one of the uglier lighthouses that dots the North Carolina coast (as Ari would later describe it, it looks like a cigarette. The three colors that comprise it are grey, other grey, and darker grey). This was a somewhat sad, lonely, and kind of monotonous out & back, but such is the nature of running near the beach. Some people were waking up and out on their porches, but most “spectators” here were just construction crews getting to their site. As soon as I turned around right before mile 9, I realized something I hadn’t yet considered… the last two miles I was running felt pretty comfortable despite the quicker-than-planned speed…oh, right, maybe because we had a tailwind. I was immediately greeted by the headwind I hadn’t considered, and it was a little more jarring than it probably ought to have been. It knocked me out of rhythm and focus for a few minutes, and part of my mind again was like, “well, that inevitable slowdown happened sooner than anticipated, huh?” Fortunately, my legs were not part of this conversation and carried on, re-establishing a rhythm and maintaining a pretty consistent speed.
As I closed in on halfway, I felt better than I really had any business feeling, but I wasn’t going to fight it and had made up my mind to just hold on. There was a bet-hedging part of me that was attempting (with limited degrees of success) to do the mental math on what I would run if I slowed to 7:30 miles, or 8:00 miles. I passed through halfway in about 1:32:20 (there was no mat or marker so that’s my best guesstimate) and allowed myself to entertain the idea that I was very likely going to get that 3:15 and possibly even 3:10. I really didn’t consider the possibility that I wouldn’t slow down some. I figured that was inevitable, and my only goal was to do effective damage control when it started, hopefully close enough to the finish that I wouldn’t have to death march for very long.
Right after half way, the course ran back close to the start/finish, and here was the only clusterfuck of the day. You see, the second half of the marathon course was just the entire half marathon course and covered a portion of the accompanying 5k as well. The half started an hour after we did, but the 5k… didn’t? I still honestly don’t know when it started nor exactly what the course SHOULD have been. It seems that there was supposed to be a turnaround point and that they were then supposed to make a left, or something, but none of it was well marked. I just know that it seemed like no one actually knew where to run. It was just a mess of people, some walking, some running, strollers, children, in all directions, all across the entire roadway. For about a mile or so, I did my best Frogger impression. Fortunately, I was able to navigate the sea of people relatively unscathed (I think I rubbed into someone as I was going past, but in my defense, agility has never been my strong suit). I did have to miss an aid station which, boo-freaking-hoo. At some point in this, I passed Bad Dog and I guess pulled away, as I never saw him again. Hopefully he was not swallowed by the tide of lost soles.
Once the crowds started to clear, I was feeling a bit re-energized knowing it was just down to the end of the island and back, more of less (more, actually, because there was another bridge detour). And now, despite being toward the front of the marathon, I was working my way through the back end of the half, so I never felt lonely again and had targets to key in on, work up to, pass, rinse, repeat, instead of just ruminating on having to run another 5 miles in a straight line. The sun was very much out now, but it fortunately didn’t heat up much, and that headwind that had shocked me earlier now felt more like a refreshing breeze as I chugged along. At sixteen, I actually stopped at the aid station long enough to get two full cups of water and some Sport Legs down; when I started running again only a few seconds later, I felt like I was shot out of a cannon.
Three miles later, I could finally make out the end of the line where we’d turn and head back for home, another mental boost. It was cool hearing all the encouragement from the half marathoners when they realized I was running the full, and it was nice having the energy (for the most part) to give some back. I hit 20 miles in just a hair over 2:20 and finally allowed myself to figure 3:10 was probably a lock and now maybe, juuuuuust maybe, a 3:05 was possible. I also allowed for the possibility that with 10k still to go, it was possible I’d still have that slowdown; I told myself I would be ok with missing 3:05 if that were the case, but that was probably a lie, and at any rate, I was feeling about as strong as I had all race.
I was excited for the bridge section because, one, it would break up the monotony a bit, and two, I figured I would get to see how far up Ari was. I thought that if I didn’t see her until the bridge, that would mean she was having a good race. And that’s just when I did see her – right as we both crested the top of the bridge, her coming back in toward the island, me on my way out. I also noticed that tri-guy had moved into third, probably 2-3 minutes up on me, and beard guy was now only seconds ahead. As I turned around to head back, I saw him continue to come back to me until, with about 5k to go, I went by. Encouragements were exchanged. I pulled away, not so much because I didn’t want a race to the finish but because I wanted to see if I could catch Ari before she finished. Turning on to what I knew would be a long, straight stretch to the end, it was nice to have something else to occupy my mind.
With maybe a mile or so to go, I finally caught sight of her LOUD and oh-so-short shorts (pot, kettle, nice to meet you). Doing that had allowed me to actually pick up the pace ever-so-slightly. By the time I went by her (after briefly considering a butt slap and opting for just shouting, “GO ARI!” because slapping her butt would involve veering across the road some, and I didn’t trust my legs to run in anything but a straight line), I was pretty sure that I was no longer going to blow up, or even slow down, that I had enough in the tank to finish, and that, barring a sea bird swooping down and attacking, I was going to run under 3:05. I could make out the finish line from over half a mile away, and it just sat there, taunting me; I logically knew every step brought me closer, yet my eyes told me it was just going to sit there in the distance forever. Fortunately, it did not, and I hit the last block and did what passed for a kick at that point. The last mile of the race was my fastest. I crossed in 3:03:38, good for 3rd place overall and a Boston qualifying time that will almost certainly not be far enough under. I had just enough time to down a water and jog back out to see Ari cross in a time that was only a minute off her PR. So that was awesome!
So there is my report that took about as long to write as it did to run the race. Good ratio. I went in figuring I was in somewhat better shape than, like, October, when I was a fat flump “running”/trudging/hiking around Medoc Mountain State Park and probably a teensy bit better than January, but to run a 3:03 off basically seven weeks of some easy runs is pretty damn surprising…and encouraging. How did that happen? I guess all the stuff I mentioned before about training and eating and not being a fat powerlifter actually have some sort of effect. I have a bit shorter turnaround time for March’s marathon, yet another date with the Umstead Trail Marathon. As anyone who knows me knows, this race holds a special place in my heart. I seem to follow up pretty good runs there with pretty terrible runs. Fortunately, I’m coming off my worst run ever there last year, so that hopefully bodes well for two weeks from now. In the meantime, it’s time to nom a burrito.
And here’s a prize for making it all the way to the end. Sorry it’s not a cookie:
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