Baltimore is a strange patchwork of a city. I took a fairly challenging tour of it on foot on Saturday.
I didn't get in my long-long runs before this race, and I train almost exclusively on the flat, so I was completely unsure how my body would react to the hilly course. I've been working on my biking and swimming more this year, so my running seemed to take a back seat. I was hoping that the cross-training would help carry me through. If not, this run would just serve as my last long run before the New York City Marathon three weeks from now.
They've changed the course every year they've offered this race, I think, so it's difficult to generalize, but I knew this would be one tough mother of a course for me. The course profile promised two climbs up to 200-250 feet (60 - 75m) right at the beginning, a few rollers in the midsection, then another climb back up to 250 feet and two or three more 50-foot climbs between miles 19 and 23.
I had done a relay here the first year of the race, in 2001, and had the pleasure of running the anchor leg and getting to cross the finish line at 5:40:05, just a shade under a 13-minute pace. I said at the time that I would probably never see a "5" as the first number at the finish line again in a marathon. My dream goal for this marathon was to beat that relay time. Alternatively, my baseline goal for every race is to cross the finish line upright and smiling.
I arrived in town the afternoon before the race to attend packet pickup, which is held in Ravens Stadium right next to a tangle of highways. Even though I'm reasonably familiar with the city, I ended up circling around several times before I found the correct route to the free stadium parking lots. The race shirts were good-quality technical long-sleeved ones produced by the major race sponsor Under Armour, but unfortunately they selected transparent white for the marathoners shirts, which I'm sure I will only wear as an under layer. I envied the attractive colored shirts the relayers and half marathoners and 5K participants received. We were also given annoyingly sharp velcro ankle bands for their proprietary timing chips.
My favorite part of the marathon weekend was checking into a luxury hotel on the waterfront (hooray for cheap rooms from Priceline) with a stunning view of the harbor, all by myself (a rare treat for this mother of two-year-old twins!) and being able to indulge in a lovely room service dinner and a peaceful early night's sleep. I was even able to get a nice early room service breakfast at 6:15 and have some delicious scrambled eggs and sausage with the hopes that would keep me well-fueled for the first few miles (it did!).
Race day was bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky. I walked the 1.2 miles to the start next to Orioles Park and Camden Yards in comfortable 60 degrees. I liked that better than the varied forecasts which included rain, but dreaded dealing with the higher temperatures and harsh sun the skies promised. I brought along a water bottle which I decided to carry along with me on course to keep on top of my hydration.
There were pace group leaders in the crowd of ~3000 marathon runners at the start with their signs up for projected finish times, on up to 4:00, 4:30, and 5:00 hours toward the back. (I wished there were pace groups up in my finish time territory, because I would have welcomed some company and support, but alas, none). Then alongside the crowd, on the sidewalk, the organizers had sent out a group of (apparently clueless) teenage girls with pace signs in miles per minute, who were calling out to the runners to attempt to get them lined up according to projected pace times. The 9:00, 10:00 and 11:00 minutes per mile signholders were positioning themselves toward the back of the assembled runners - far, far behind the corresponding marathon finish times. I tried to point out to the signholders that this was the reason that people were politely ignoring them, but they couldn't seem to get it resolved correctly to coordinate the two different groups of pace signs by the time the race started (probably because they couldn't do the math quickly in their heads to get the signs synchronized). I don't think it created any problems for the runners, but it was a bit bizarre to watch the disconnect.
I met my friend *jeanne* who was doing the half marathon which started later, and who snapped a photo of me.
Then we started!
My plan was to stay steady, slow, and comfortable for the first half, walk the steep uphills and keep my heart rate under 165. That mostly worked. The first few miles were a steady incline and I jogged those in, enjoying the start of the day. The slopes seemed gradual and easy to run at this part of the race. But by the first mile marker I was soaked with sweat already! That did not presage good things for the 25 miles ahead.
The first 7 miles were a loop back to near our starting point. It was a study in contrasts - the mostly (90 - 95%?) white runners passing among the dwellers of a predominantly African-American city. Only a small proportion of the local residents seemed to pay much notice to the runners passing by and cheer them on. Most of the water table volunteers were white. I didn't notice any street signs along the route warning the local residents of the impending race-day street closures, and many of the stopped motorists seemed quite annoyed by it.
I've never seen a bigger police presence for any race, anywhere! They were great, and posted at every single teensy intersection!!! And apparently very well-instructed on keeping the cars away from the runners. I passed one runner down on the pavement (sitting up, he seemed okay, I offered him my water but he refused) but the police were right on top of it, radioing it in.
Back past the starting point we headed out on a flattish loop to the south, out around the circumference of Fort McHenry, site of the Star Spangled Banner that Francis Scott Key wrote about from a ship far out in the harbor while watching the bombardment of Baltimore. The huge (modern) flag over the fort waved in a breeze which helped our comfort quite a bit, but it was still feeling quite hot in the open sun. I kept up my fluids and took some gel and electrolytes every few miles.
We looped back to close to the starting point at the halfway 13.1-mile marker. Despite trying to keep my effort level comfortable so far, and only being 2 minutes behind my planned pace (2:50 at 13.1 miles), I was getting tired. The little devil on my shoulder was urging me to stop, call it a day, quit at the halfway mark. I tried to reason with the devil. The course continued past my hotel, I might as well stay on course until then, right? I can quit then. Stop bugging me. We continued around the harbor and by the time we reached the block of my hotel in mile 15, the voices had subsided and I had forgotten about quitting early.
It started getting difficult. From mile 16 through 19 going away from the harbor we had a rolling uphill that felt hugely more difficult than the first time around. My walk breaks increased in length and frequency. My time goals started slipping away from me. Okay, okay devil, shut up, I'm just going to finish this one. Let's see if I can make it in under 5:52, that would still be a PR.
Somewhere along here fellow runner Giddy introduced herself, and I could see she was having problems with the course too. She said she had blisters, and slowed for a while to talk to her husband. We leapfrogged for a few miles, but at least I felt like there was a sympathetic soul out there experiencing the same difficulties that I was.
We passed the highest point in the course out in an area of parklands and recreational fields, only to be met with two more uphills through mile 23. On one big open boulevard between miles 20 and 21 there was a long out-and-back, which felt discouraging because you could see the big hills and all the folks up ahead of you walking the uphills. The sun blazed down. My heart rates were creeping up into the red zone every time I tried to run. These were my slowest miles of the day.
Finally approaching the end of the out-and-back, the police diverted the runners and changed the race in progress! They directed us to cut the course about a block away from the previous turnaround. It probably gave me 2 to 3 minutes, but meant I wouldn't cover the true marathon distance, so I'll have to put an asterisk next to my results. Grrr! I was still on a sub-6:00 pace (although that was looking shaky), and they publicized the course would be open 7 hours.
The police at the intersections were kept busy watching the cars, and not the runners, and there were comparatively few volunteers on course directing the runners. I was tired. At around mile 23 I nearly missed one turn because the cones continued straight, and it was only after people on a porch started yelling at me to turn that I headed in the right direction!
Finally I came across Gummy Bear Man, who offered me a few warm chewy bodies from a big bowl. I exclaimed, "I've been waiting to see you all day!" to which he kindly replied, "Well, I've been waiting to see YOU all day!" In another few feet was someone shoveling up gummy corpses, and I said, "Oh, poor dead gummy bears", and the volunteer said cheerfully, "Oh, they had a good life, supporting the runners!"
Fortunately from mile 24 on it was a pretty steady downhill, and in the shade of the downtown skyscrapers I was able to pick up the pace again. It got weird in here. The streets were crowded with hundreds of people near some local markets, but very few seemed to notice the runners or cheer them on. I was working very hard here to pick up the pace to make a 6:00 finish, and I started to get annoyed at their indifference.
But then I remembered. This is why I came here. This is why I do marathons - not for applause or cheers, but to get to that point where I'm tested. When I'm at that point where I'm so tired that I don't want to go on, when I keep hearing that devil on my shoulder telling me to just walk it in. But I don't. I fight back. I refuse to give in. Aided by the downslope, I turned in my 2nd-fastest mile of the day.
Toward the end we were routed next to the fence at Camden yards, but I was working too hard to take much notice of the ballfield. Keep pushing hard to make that finish under 6 hours! Sprint for the line!
Finally I passed under the banner, over the timing mats, and stopped my watch. If I hadn't been so exhausted I would have burst out laughing. My watch read 5:59:59 - one second to the good, and exactly, precisely the same as my watch time at the Chicago Marathon a year ago! I guess I timed that finishing sprint well enough!
The finisher's area was pretty bleak. Nothing but WARM WARM cups of fluids sitting out (I believe there was both water and Gatorade at that time) and bags of chips and pretzels. No fruit, cookies, bagels, or anything else a little more appetizing. I was glad to spot Giddy again at the finish and congratulate her on completing the marathon.
I limped back toward the hotel where my car was parked. I trudged slowly and painfully past thousands of people out in the Inner Harbor area enjoying the fine weather. Out of all those people out strolling around the harbor, only one (a runner) offered me congratulations on the medal. These people didn't come here for the marathon, and didn't seem to take any notice it was going on.
That's all right. I knew that I had conquered that insistent devil once again, and wore my medal proudly home.
Update: Good news! I hope this is true - someone said that they actually corrected the course to the proper length, and everybody else ran LONG! :-) I'd have to drive back and look at the intersections to tell exactly, which I'm not likely to do.