My Dream of a Sub-4 Marathon Finally Comes True

State # 4: Sweet Home Pennsylvania

After Colorado Springs I decided to run one more marathon to round out the year, so I chose my state capital of Harrisburg, PA.  It was a smaller race that received overly positive reviews from runners, and seemed to come at a good time of year.  My girlfriend M. decided to accompany me as my sidekick for a girl’s weekend, so we loaded the car and headed west on a beautiful November morning.  The conditions looked ideal for race day, no rain in the forecast and cool conditions.

On the way down we decided it was crucial to stop at Hershey’s Chocolate World; Hershey has a great amusement park loaded with roller coasters, water park , and a zoo but the park was closed for the season.  Luckily the factory tour is open year-round and we decided to stop since M. had never experienced it before. The tour was much like the Small World ride at Disney World: educational, fun, but with free chocolate samples at the end.  We stopped in the enormous gift store and loaded up on treats, my favorite being anything involving peanut butter.  It was a bit of a headache to sort through which products I could have, but I successfully managed to walk out with a bag of gluten-free treats.

We lunched at a neighboring Red Robin, and to my surprise they were very accommodating to a gluten-free diet: they even had a dedicated fryer for their bottomless steak fries.  It had been months since I had eaten French fries, so this was an enormous treat for me.   They were very careful to take my needs seriously and the experience was awesome. The manager came to the table to talk with me about their careful food preparation and put me immediately at ease. Since my visit they have adopted the use of gluten-free buns for their sandwiches, but I must admit even the lettuce wrapped sandwiches were pretty great too!

Upon arriving in Harrisburg, we checked into the hotel and walked to the waterfront area where the packet pick-up was located. To my amusement, the swag bag was loaded with not only my race number and shirt, but MORE Hershey’s candy!   We spent the afternoon slowly walking around until sunset, enjoying the cool weather and interesting architecture. I  enjoyed feeding the squirrels some of my Payday bar, which was almost like a scene out of Night of the Living Dead…one squirrel cautiously approached me, and suddenly more and more quietly appeared out of nowhere, surrounding us and begging like dogs for treats. I’d never seen squirrels this tame and used to people, they practically snatched food right from my hand.

My prior research had shown that there was a 97% gluten-free restaurant in Harrisburg called The Wild Tomato.  The menu, was, by far, the most amazing I had ever seen.  Not only did they have gluten-free pizza, but they had pasta, garlic bread, and countless other options.  M. was excited to try anything new and gluten-free, and we ordered a feast worthy of a (gluten-free) king to be delivered to the hotel room to share.  I carb-loaded well that night, and managed to get a good night’s rest to top it off.

The morning of the race I had my typical race morning fare: a toasted Udi’s bagel with peanut butter and honey, a banana, and 2 cups of coffee.  How on earth did I manage a toasted bagel? Well, here’s a little tip for you when you want toasted bread on the road: bring a toaster bag (try a kitchen store or Amazon) and simply use the hotel iron.  I promise that you will have freshly toasted and safe bread every time.  Sure, it might LOOK silly, but it sure beats the gluten-laden buffet area that most hotels provide.  It’s a trick I use time and time again.

Race morning was crisp, cold and beautiful.  I had no expectations of how I would fare, but I stuck to a high mileage training program that maxed out at 72 miles a week.  I felt pretty good after having been gluten-free for six months, I had gained a few pounds back and felt strong.  M. and I chatted amiably with some of the runners as we lined up and stretched, waiting for the start.

The race gun went off after the National Anthem was recognized, and I waved farewell to my friend as I took off, with absolutely no idea what this race would bring.

The Race

Marathons are interesting.  No matter how well-prepared you are while training, race day conditions can make or break the race. Heat, humidity, wind, rain, terrain, all of these variables add up and either hurt or hinder your performance.  There are no guarantees. These are just the OUTSIDE factors, let’s not forget your own inner variables: hydration, nutrition, proper training, rest. If any of these things are off-balance, even by a fraction, it can bring your successful start to a slow crawl by mile 18. Then there’s the mental factor: you have to start off conservative, not bolt right out of the gate. It’s not a 5k, where you can go full throttle, but 26.2 miles have to be spread out so you can run comfortably the entire way. You have to listen to your body and make decisions depending on your goals: do I try to Boston qualify and possibly injure myself or do I want to finish a little slower so I can begin training right away for the next race? It’s an inner struggle, and sometimes you have to swallow your pride in order to make the right call for yourself.

With the Harrisburg Marathon I had no expectations at all. I wanted to enjoy the race and finish it, so I didn’t train properly for any sort of speedwork or a set finish time in mind.  When the race began I simply enjoyed a fall morning run.

The miles easily ticked by in the gorgeous autumn morning; the city of Harrisburg was quiet and there were not a massive amount of spectators on the course.  The course was more or less flat and took us through the quiet streets as the sun rose overhead.

Conditions couldn’t have been more ideal. It was cool, the sun was up with few clouds, and the course was flat and fast. I felt good. It felt good to run and be with other runners. You truly feel alive on the racecourse: this is the moment that you have been training for all those weeks and months.  It’s hard to describe until you experience it for yourself.
Hitting the halfway point during the race I saw that I had run my best half marathon time: 1:52. I was thrilled.  My past half marathons, at best, were around 1:55. Holding what I considered to be a steady and conservative pace, I was quite happy with this time. I chatted a bit with runners around me, we shared stories and words of inspiration. While the course was nice, going through some residential areas and a college campus, other sections were pretty unremarkable: we ran through some industrial areas with semi-trucks roaring past plants and factories. We even hit some course gravel trails, which I don’t think were meant for running, but for construction vehicles. Not exactly the most scenic course at times, but the final miles made up for that. Even the Disney marathon goes past a sewage treatment plant…every mile can’t possibly be memorable.

As the miles continued, I only had one snag, which was having to run up several steep hills through miles 18-20. They were in a beautiful park and the foliage ablaze with fall colors was a far cry from the gated industrial facilities, but the hills almost brought me to a walk. My 8:30 pace was likely brought to a 10:30 minute mile in those two miles, and of course it is right around the time where marathoners “hit the wall”: this is the point where if you were to stop, you just might not be able to start again. It’s best to push through that wall mentally and force yourself into a second wind.

Despite the hills, I was well on my way to run a marathon in less than 4 hours. And as the race continued, I realized it would become a reality. The final miles were run alongside the Susquehanna River, a gorgeous backdrop to a lovely fall morning.  The colorful autumn trees reflected upon the river’s surface like a fiery watercolor painting, as we ran back into the main section of the city.  I was elated with my pace, and encouraged each runner I passed that the end was in sight.  The final miles of a marathon really do feel like a group effort, as you pass others (or others pass you) you spread words of encouragement and strength to them to keep it up. It’s easy for well-meaning spectators to tell you you’re almost there, but to hear it from a fellow marathoner going through the same trials, it seems a little more powerful.

The final half mile along the canal involved running up a short hill to run across a steel bridge to the finish line on City Island. A quick glance at my watch showed I had plenty of minutes to spare, and I ran across the bridge with roaring crowds on both sides to a victorious finish. I threw my arms into the air with a flourish and screamed “Sub-FOOOURRR!” and cheered with the crowd. Nothing felt better. A dream I thought was a mere wish was realized that day.  I finished in 3:55.

M. was there with a hug and lots of enthusiasm. I couldn’t wait to call Chris and share my good news. And what better way to celebrate a sub-four than with another burger and fries? Rob Robin was on the way home after all!

My Results

Finish Time:  3:55:53
Overall Place: 242/ 698
Sex Place: 60/ 248
Division Place: 12/ 45

What I Learned

  • Taking it super easy the day before the race is crucial, and this can be tough if you are in an area with lots of walking and things to do. Save it for after the race if you can; I find my legs appreciate a good lounging around the hotel room kinda day with minimal activity. While M. and I did some exploring, it wasn’t the usual kind of mileage I would put in on a normal vacation day (Chris and I sometimes have walked 8-12 miles a day easily when on vacation in a big city like Tokyo or London). Take a nap, have a lazy afternoon, rest, hydrate and eat just a little bit extra. On the days leading up to the race I would eat things like sticky rice and potatoes for snacks a little more instead of lower calorie and low-carb snacks like fruit  or almonds.
  • Carb-loading should be done smartly. I don’t overload and gorge myself with food, but I definitely eat more things that I would be more conservative with on most days like candy or treats to build up a small calorie reserve. While each marathoner has different meal plans leading up to more morning, I avoid too much roughage like raw veggies.  The Wild Tomato provided an amazing spread that was mainly carb-based: roasted potatoes, pizza, baked ziti and garlic bread (with some awesome Hershey’s candy for dessert). Not extremely balanced and super healthy, but it provided exactly what I needed to do well on race morning! My diet is very, very balanced with lots of fruits, veggies, healthy fats and lean proteins, but race week a lot of those rules go out the window.
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