As mentioned in previous blogs, I am on a quest to run a sub 4 marathon in all 50 states, and have joined the 50 Sub 4
group. They maintain a list of who else is on this quest, and how many states each person has completed. We just had our 38th finisher.
Let's talk a minute about this sub 4 hour marathon thing. Non runners, and perhaps some runners that don't (yet) do marathons, might be wondering, what is the deal with a sub 4 hour marathon?
Well, 4 hours is sort of a bench mark in marathoning. According to MarathonGuide.com
, in 2010, about a half million marathon finish times were recorded in the USA. The average finish time for men was 4:27, and the average finish time for women, was 4:54. So, running a sub 4 hour marathon solidly categorizes your athletic feat as 'above average'. Its also a nice number, and saying 'sub 4' like a verb rolls nicely off your tongue.
Of course, not all marathons are created equally. Some courses boast that they are 'flat and fast'. Others brag about being 'abusively challenging.'
When I chose the Scenic City Trail Marathon for my Tennessee, I knew that a sub 4 would be harder to obtain, and could even be out of reach. Trail marathons are always harder and slower than road marathons. They are generally hillier. They are often narrow single track which means passing is difficult, which means you can easily get stuck running slower than you want. Natural obstacles like downed trees, small streams can slow you a bit, having to go over, under, through or around them. Rugged footing with rocks and roots slows you down. Soft footing of a dirt trail, will also be slower than firm pavement. Trail marathons often require you to carry your own hydration, which slows you a bit more. Refilling your water bottle at aid stations also costs a bit more time than grabbing a cup of water on a road marathon.
I did a little research about the course, checked finish times from previous years, and concluded that I had about an 80% chance of being able to sub 4 in this marathon. Based on schedules, travel logistics, etc, I decided to give it a shot.
And for the record, sub 4 means UNDER 4 hours. It does NOT mean close to but a tiny bit over 4 hours. It strictly means 3:59:59 or less.
We arrived in Chattanooga about 20 minutes after packet pickup ended, which was okay, because this one does have packet pickup in the morning before the race. We checked into our hotel, grabbed a quick dinner, and checked the forecast for marathon day: Temps in the 60s and 70s, and 80% chance of thunderstorms all day. ALL day. I think my odds just went down to 70%.
We arrived at the marathon start, and to our pleasant surprise, it was not raining, and the weather radar looked decent. Of course this can change, but at the moment, things look good, though the humidity was about 100%.
The course is run around the water reservoir on Raccoon Mountain. The full marathon does 2 loops around. The start and finish are at a park area that has access to the ATV and hiking trails.
The first mile is on a paved road, which allows the field to thin out, and for all of us to jockey into position according to pace, before we reach the single track trail. In order to run a sub 4, I need to average no more than a 9 minute mile. A constant 9 minute per mile pace yields a finish time of 3:55:48, which is not a lot of wiggle room. One wrong turn, a wicked fall, or rugged potty stop can easily suck away those precious minutes.
There is one more challenge to running a sub 4 hour marathon on a trail. There are no mile markers. Most road marathons have every mile marked, and a numbers nut like me can keep close tabs on progress. In a trail marathon, the aid stations will typically be marked what mile they are, but unfortunately, this information is notoriously unreliable.
The first mile goes by in 8:20. Perfect. I have a 40 second cushion furnished by the one and only paved mile of the course. The field then bottlenecks onto the single track trail. I decide to simply hold my position for the next mile, monitor how I feel, and then re-evaluate when my Garmin watch tells me I have completed mile 2.
Mile 2 was just over 10 minutes. OK, not time to worry yet. Its slower than what I need to average, but we are just settling in. Passing is difficult on the narrow trail. We are like a string of brightly colored ants bouncing through the forest. Passing requires a polite declaration, and then the person in front of you sort of needs to yield a bit. Everyone seemed very accustomed to this procedure.
I also think to myself... if I don't go out too fast, I can make up time on the second loop, when the half marathoners are gone, and it will be considerably less crowded. Seems reasonable right? Yeah, maybe to those who haven't run marathons. Planning to run the second half faster than the first... is a LOT harder to actually do. Its like saying, let's leave for the airport late and figure getting through the TSA lines will be a snap.
I continue to monitor how things feel, and what pace I am going. I continue to complete miles in the 10 minute range. I feel like I am going faster than that, but on a trail you've never been on, in a place you've never been to, pace is extremely hard to judge.
We arrive at the second aid station in 59 minutes. My Garmin shows I've traveled 6 miles. Side note: Garmins watches, in perfect conditions, are only accurate to about 3%. In heavily wooded areas, my Garmin is always short compared to a known measured distance, and can be off as much as 6%.
If we are at mile 6, I am averaging barely under a 10 minute mile, we will be visiting Tennessee again. I asked a volunteer what mile we were at. They told me 8.5! Wow! I am doing great! Wait a minute. That means I am on pace to WIN the entire thing. I can assure you, I am not doing a 7 minute mile out here. OK, so I really only have a vague idea that the actual mileage so far is between 6 and 8.5 miles.
I decide to just keep running mildly hard, and enjoy the course. It is a very nice course. The scenery is nice. There are many fast sections where the footing is friendly and smooth, and the inclines and declines are gentle. There are rugged sections with steeper grades, and sections with technical footing. (For non-trail runners, that means bumpy with rocks and roots. We like to make it sound fancy.)
I arrive at the next aid station. My Garmin says 9.8 miles, and the volunteer tells me 12.2 miles. Looking at my elapsed time, if that 12.2 is correct, I have a comfortable cushion. Unbeknownst at the time, that 12.2 was probably incorrect.
We start our second loop, and the field is thinned out quite a bit, I can run my own pace uninhibited by other runners. I get to that aid station where last time around they told me 8.5 miles. I asked again. I got a very casual "oh its about 19 or 20 or so". Sigh.
My Garmin says 16.53. I decide that I should take my Gu when it says 17. I wait about 5 min, and look at my Garmin. It says 16.53. OK, I should Gu when it says 17. I wait about 5 minutes, and look at my Garmin. It says 16.53. Wait a minute. This isn't deja vu. The satellite gods have completely abandoned me. I still know elapsed time, but without knowing how many miles I have completed, that information isn't terribly helpful.
I continue to run what feels like a steady pace, which means I am probably slowing down. I arrive at the last aid station, and they tell me I have about 2.4 miles to go. I look down at my watch, which says 3:34. Crap! If I am running a 10 minute mile, which is a very reasonable assumption for the last bit of a trail marathon, that will give me a 3:58, assuming that the 2.4 miles is correct, which I do not have a lot of confidence in. This is WAY too close for my comfort.
So I kick it up a notch. A bit of adrenaline gave me enough of a boost to increase my exertion level. I hope it means I was running faster. This last section of the course was a tad cruel. We were within earshot of the finish the entire time, zig-zagging and weaving and winding all over the place. The footing was quiet challenging, and I had to balance wanting to run faster, and not wanting to take a fall that could hurt enough to cause a minute or two of recovery time.
Turning and winding and winding and turning, I just kept going, thinking "Isn't that final road to the finish around here somewhere?" It seemed to take forever. I could hear it! But I couldn't see it.
I kept looking at my watch. Was I going to make it? Finally, I saw a human on the course, and he said I had about 1.5K left. What? What the hell does that mean? My little brain estimated - just under a mile? Crap Again! My watch says 3:53 or something, and I cannot do a mile in under 7 minutes.
Either I heard wrong, or he was mistaken. In less than a minute, I finally made the turn from the dirt trail to a short paved trail, which led to the final short paved road stretch. (That's me in the background.)
Bill was at the junction where we got onto the paved road. I could see the finish line just ahead of me.
However, cones, and Bill both directed me that we had to take the long way around to get to the finish. Darn! Paraphrasing. My actual exclamation was a few notches down on the naughty word scale.
I kicked it up as high as I could. I removed my water belt and tossed it to the ground. My watch said 3:55:something. My perception at this point is pretty unreliable. Do I have 0.1 miles or 0.5 miles?
Fortunately, it was in the neighborhood of 0.2 miles, and I made it! With nearly 3 minutes to spare. Yikes. I do NOT like cutting it this close. But hey, it counts. I got my Tennessee.
We stayed a short bit at the finish, then headed off to some sight seeing at Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls, and Rock City.
We got a restaurant recommendation from Tracy White of Atlanta, friend of Anne Coffman from Wisconsin, both were running the marathon here. Tracy recommended the Marietta Diner in Marietta, GA, for dinner on our way back to the Atlanta airport. It was featured on the Food Network's Diners Drive Ins and Dives. We cut it kinda close there too. There was a 30 minute wait, and we didn't have 30 minutes to spare, so we ate at the counter. Yeah, not quite the same excitement as the marathon finish. And we shared I gianormous piece of coconut cake for dessert. That sat like lead on our flight back.
This was sub 4 marathon state number 31, and my closest margin to that 3:59:59 cut off. I am really hoping it keeps that designation.