Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rocket City Marathon Race Report

This weekend I ran in my target race for this season, the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, AL. Heading into it with a PR of 3:32:10, my goal was to qualify for Boston with a time of 3:15:00, the new standard for the 40-44 male age group. I knew I had little to no chance of accomplishing that, but I'll get to that later.


After following Hal Higdon's Advanced-II training schedule for previous marathons, this time I decided to try Pete Pfitzinger's 55 miles per week, 18-week schedule. Even though I felt adequately prepared for my other races, I wanted to change things up this cycle to see if I really was getting the most out of my training. In the end I'm not sure I felt any better on race day than I did previous ones, but that might be because I've grown more accustom to the training load. Anyway, I did prefer Pete's approach much more than Hal's, and if you're looking for an excellent comparison of the two look no further than Greg Strosaker's Marathon Training Plan Throwdown – Higdon versus Pfitzinger.

Applying Lessons Learned

In my previous attempts to qualify for Boston I ran into dehydration roadblocks. In my first marathon I had severe cramping starting at mile 19. I thought it was because I hadn't hydrated enough, so for my second race I focused on taking in more water and Gatorade. While that event went better than the first, I still cramped in the later miles and had to slow down a lot to keep my legs from seizing up. Frustrated, I researched the problem extensively and found it may have been more attributable to electrolyte depletion. As someone who sweats profusely during a race, my body was losing the nutrients needed to tell the water I was drinking where to go. With this knowledge I started experimenting with Succeed S!Caps, hoping they were the panacea.

Trying New Things

A few weeks into my training I visited PT Solutions and took a VO2max test. I did so to learn more about my fitness level and because I wanted to properly tailor my workouts, which were prescribed in relation to my maximal heart rate or heart rate reserve. I came away from it with a wealth of new information, some of which I wasn't prepared to receive. The good news was that I was in great shape and now had solid data to base my workouts on. The bad news was that science said my heart wasn't efficient enough to achieve my goal. I have to admit, reading those words planted a seed of doubt in my mind that I've never had to deal with before. Still, I persevered and executed my workouts the best I could. Although my VO2max could be increased through proper training, it was too late to do so this cycle.

Day Before The Race

Amanda, Dick Beardsley and Me
I drove up to Huntsville Friday afternoon, checked into my hotel and then walked across the street to join a running group for tour of the downtown historical sights. As I approached the host hotel I looked up to see Amanda aiming her camera at me. We were chatting for a few minutes when I noticed a man come out of the building that looked familiar. Someone I knew was supposed to be at the event. Under the guise of looking for the running group, I approached and then asked if he was who I thought he was. It turned out I was right and he was Dick Beardsley! He was very accommodating and friendly, and spent a few minutes talking with me and Amanda. We even got Amanda's husband, Tim, to snap a photo of us before he headed out for his run. Very cool!

After the stop-and-go historical tour I did a couple extra miles with striders and then cleaned up for the pasta dinner. The meal was typical and I enjoyed the company of James C., his wife, Penny, and Keith K. The best part of the evening however, was the guest speaker - Dick Beardsley, of course. :) He began with a 10-minute highlight video of the 1982 "Duel In The Sun" Boston Marathon, and then delivered a moving talk about how he got into running, the many obstacles he's overcome and what he's up to now with the Dick Beardsley Foundation. Since he was signing autographs after, I walked back to my room, retrieved my copy of the book Duel In The Sun, and then got in line. It turned out out I was the last person of the night, so I had the privilege of talking with him for about 15-20 minutes while he packed up for the night. It was a great experience and I was grateful he signed my book with a quote from his speech I found particularly inspirational:

"When you wake in the morning have a smile on your face, enthusiasm in your voice, joy in your heart and faith in your soul."

Race Day

Pre-Race Posterity Photo
One of the reasons I chose this race was because it's held in December and would be cooler than a November event. Well, the temperature was near perfect, but a stiff head wind was expected to be a challenge once we began the trip north at the turn. I wasn't looking forward to this, but lacking the superpowers necessary to change the weather accepted it as part of the deal.

After a brief warm-up just prior to the start I found Barbara, Amanda, James and Kaitlin in the crowd and wished them good luck. I then made my way towards the front, shed a layer I realized wasn't necessary and handed it off to my super awesome good friend/cheerleader/motivator/believer/attendant, Hilary. WOOT! Finally, I sidled up to the 3:15 pace group.

The first 16 miles of the race went very well. Adrenaline got me through the first couple of uncomfortable miles, but after that I loosened up and everything felt great. The Nike Pace Team leader, David O'Keefe, seemed to settle and surge some, but overall he did a great job of keeping us at an average 7:23/mile pace. I preserved my energy by talking very little and focusing on form, and made sure to hydrate and take my S! Caps on schedule.

It was near the 17-mile mark that I started to run out of steam. I wasn't cramping this time, but it became harder to maintain pace and I slowly watched the group pull away from me. Was it miles 15 and 16, the first ones running into the wind? Or could it have been the barely perceptible 1% climb over that same distance? I doubt it. In the end I think science prevailed and my heart just couldn't keep up with the demands. To paraphrase something Quinn Millington of PT Solutions once told me, heart rate increases over distance due to a decrease in fluid levels. Even though we take in fluids, it's difficult to maintain that base as we're racing. As fluid levels drop the heart pumps faster because there's is less blood to pump. And unfortunately, our hearts can sustain these demands for only so long. For me it appears I found that threshold just a tiny bit short of 26.2 miles.

The rest of the race was challenging, but at least I wasn't cramping like I did in previous marathons. I did get charlie horses twice in my hamstrings, but each time was able to quickly stretch them out and push on. My spirits were lifted a couple of times when I encountered Duane, Tim and Hilary on the course cheering me on, and goal bargaining kept me moving towards the finish. Do any of you do this? Once I realized I wouldn't make 3:15 I used last year's qualifying time of 3:20 as my carrot. Next I aimed for my future 45-49 age group time of 3:25. Finally, I resorted to shooting for a sub-3:30 and a PR. When it was all said and done, I finished in 3:27:09, which was good enough for 136/1150 overall and 29/146 in my age group.

After I crossed the finish line I was shepherded down the chute, given a space blanket, finishers cap and medal, and then taken inside by Hilary. In my post-race stupor she guided me to the food and then was kind enough to run to my car and retrieve a bottle of Nesquik. While she was gone I steadied myself against the wall, trying to force down some food. A woman to my right was near a cooler of water bottles, so I asked if she'd pass me one. She did, but by that point my hands were full and I just stared at it trying to figure out how to open it. Bending down and setting some things on the floor was out of the question, as were any other logistics requiring brain power. Lucky for me, a race volunteer had been watching me gaze at the bottle from across the room and rushed over to save the day. Small victories!

The worst part of the day began about 20 minutes after I finished. As I was sitting in the banquet room trying to refuel I got the dehydration shakes. I wasn't cold, but was trembling uncontrollably and got sick at one point. If I hadn't gone through the same thing after previous races I'd have sought medical attention. As it was, I kept forcing myself to drink more water until I finally stabilized about 45 minutes later. It amazes me that this occurred considering how careful I was about taking in water during the race. At many aid stations I was even taking in two cups of water.

Crisis averted, I showered up and joined Amanda, Tim, Duane, James and Kaitlin for a post-race celebration at Sam & Greg's Pizzeria downtown. Not only did we have a great time rehashing the day's events, but the pizza was great, too. I recommend you check them out if you're looking for a quaint, local alternative to the pizza chains.

Race Review

I  thought this race was extremely well executed and would recommend it to anyone that hasn't tried it yet.


  • Packet pick-up was efficient and the expo, though small, was adequate.
  • The pasta dinner was decent, consisting of the usual fare.
  • The guest speaker was outstanding.
  • The start of the race was well organized and took place on time.
  • Aid stations were spaced perfectly. Except in the late miles, where they seemed to be farther apart. Oh, wait. Yeah, I guess I was running a lot slower by that point. :p
  • Crowd support was good for a small race of 1500 registered runners.
  • The charcoal grey race shirt for men is pretty nice and I like the finishers' hat, too.
  • The finishers' medal is attractive.
  • The volunteer support was well coordinated and abundant.
  • The post-race food and facilities were excellent.


  • Apparently, the white version of the race shirt for women is a little too thin and transparent for their liking.
  • The course itself isn't all that scenic. It ran mostly through neighborhoods, and there was a 4-mile stretch along Baily Cove Rd that many didn't care for.


I said going into this race that it would probably be my last marathon for a while. The long training schedules I've been following the past year and half have have worn on me, and I'm ready to move on to other things. I plan on putting in roughly the same amount of miles, but with less structure. I'll probably be sacrificing faster race times, but I really don't care. On the horizon are a couple of half marathons, and in March I'm going to attempt my first 50-miler. At the 26-mile mark yesterday the thought of that was absurd, but already it's starting to sound like a good idea again.

Run Happy!


  1. Drew, this is an excellent recap that indicates great clarity so soon after the race. Your race was well-executed and your training has been very disciplined. I am proud of your attitude and inspired by your effort. Since you have shared this publicly, I assume you won't mind if I point others to it. Your approach and what you have learned is valuable information to many--and not just beginners. The base-building phase of heart rate training seems counter-intuitive, but of course running 26.2 miles is not a logical urge either is it? Congratulations on a stellar race!


  2. Thanks for reading and your kind words, Roxy. By all means, please share this with whoever you like. The more people suffer through base building, the larger the support groups get! ;)

  3. Wow Drew,

    I am so impressed with your recap. Blaming it on hypoxia, the only thing I remember about the entire race weekend is I hurt. I enjoyed following your training. You were disciplined in your training and race prep. I am doing my first ultra in January (baby 50K) so I will let you know how that goes. Be careful listening to science. It is fact, but not truth. Truth changes fact. I believe you will run more marathons and will qualify for Boston. That is truth.


  4. Great recap, Drew! And yes, I did plenty of "bargaining" in the final 10K! Btw, there's NO doubt in my mind you BQ in 2 yrs., if not sooner!

  5. All I got out of this was "Run Happy". ;-) You'll be surprised how much better you run when the pressure is off, I'm betting you find a marathon to do for fun and amaze yourself and us, again.

  6. Drew, really appreciate the super recap, man. When I was in your age group, my PR was (and still is) a 3:25. I'm certain you'll achieve your BQ time, taking it to the next level each cycle is a process worth working for. Hope to meet you sometime soon.

  7. I love it when people are crazy about Pfitzinger. I think his plans are GREAT! I'm in the same boat, as I went from Hal to Pete. :) In regards to Boston... you need to do some reading on elite athlete, Brian Sell. His a model for slow (but steady) progress, where he whittled his marathon time down year after year. Great motivation for people like us that don't PR every time. Keep up the good work!

  8. I appreciate the kind words, everyone. @Rebecca: Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to read up on his model. He was amazing in his prime!

  9. Congrats on the PR Drew (and thanks for the mention) - it sounds like you ran a smart race after a good season of training. As you know, VO2max can be improved over time but it's not a fast process. Good luck in setting and pursuing your next goal. Despite falling short of your highest goal, this is still an impressive marathon result.

  10. Great recap of this race! I'm going to look into Pfitzinger. Just completing Hanson brothers training after trying Hal's for my first marathon. I wanted something with a little more oomph. This weekend is my race, so the results are yet to be seen. Great time in your race too! I love your description of how our goals change with every mile of the marathon. We start to go through the list of goals, largest to smallest, and keep negotiating mentally until the end of the race.