Last Chance Marathon recap

This past year I did some volunteer work coordinating the pacers for the Seattle Rock n Roll Marathon and the Seattle Marathon and while recruiting for the different pacer legs I met some more runners.  One is Terry Sentinella who, like a lot of ultrarunners I’ve met, has a great and inspiring back story that’s worth reading. Anyway – Terry is the president of Skagit Valley Runners and race director for a marathon on New Year’s Eve called, appropriately, the Last Chance marathon. I hadn’t run a marathon in 2011 and told him I was thinking about it though I hadn’t really prepped at all.  So on December 16th the race reached the 200 entrant cap and he sent me a note on Facebook asking if I was interested. That night I was also deciding to sign up again for the 2011-2012 Club Northwest Winter Grand Prix series of 2 mile and 3k races and all of a sudden I had 28 miles of racing to do before closing out 2011! So, I started training (and by training, I mean tapering).

The race starts at Fairhaven Park in Bellingham, about 90 minutes from Seattle and I drove up the morning of. The weather was chilly (highs in the 30’s) but overall really not that bad – considerably better than the snow and ice that some people told me they’d had in past years. Checkin at the park was pretty straightforward and efficient. They had a large shelter reserved for the day and simple timing system outside.

Going into this, I knew this wouldn’t be a good marathon and also knew that I didn’t want to trash my legs because if I focus on the Winter Grand Prix I have a shot at placing in my age division, so I committed to trying to learn something about the marathon and simply “run 26.2 miles” rather than “race a marathon.” The course is a 6.5 mile out and back – once for the half and twice for the full. Terry’s family staffed an aid station at the turnaround and some volunteers from the Leukemia and Lymphoma society staffed another aid station about halfway out. For a mom and pop race like this with such a low registration fee – I have to say the aid and support were terrific and dramatically exceeded my expectations.

Anyway – on with the race recap…

Just before 8AM, Terry gave a short talk about the race then he lined up with us and at about 8 everybody was on our way.  I was a little surprised to see the leader taking everybody out at a fairly fast clip – this isn’t a competitive field or a fast course, so I settled into a nice comfy pace and was just out jogging with the group.  After winding through the parking lot the course runs about a mile on a paved regional trail before winding down through a ravine in Aroyo Park.  I thought this might be a nice sociable run, but nobody really seemed too keen on talking (I had accidentally followed the Chuck Bartlett advice of not brushing my teeth before the race) so after fumbling a while with a broken zipper on my vest and screwing with getting the headphones from my iPod out, I had Jonsi taking me out nice and easy and was soon enjoying the run.

After Aroyo park you come out on a mostly flat gravel trail which is very wide and easily handles a couple runners in both directions. To the right of the course is Chuckanut Bay and Bellingham Bay. It was kinda foggy, which was good because (I told myself) the clouds were keeping what little heat there was trapped low.

This was definitely the coldest race I’ve run in. a lot of people were really bundled up and I wore my 2007 Seattle Marathon pacer vest over a short-sleeved tech shirt over a long-sleeved tech shirt.  I also had my earband and gloves on, but stuck with shorts.  That was probably just about right for most of the run (but by midway I was feeling comfortable enough to ditch the gloves and earband). The whole time I just tried to keep staying relaxed and not pass too many people.  I had to stay focused and avoid race mentality – the last race I did was a 2 mile road race where I ran at about a 5:40 pace and I didn’t want to go faster than an 8:00 pace and regardless of how small it is or what my goals were, it’s hard for me to to pin on a bib, line up for a gun, and be in a race and not want to push.

About 43 minutes in, the leaders (most of them from the half but a couple from the full) came cruising back and I knew that I must be getting close to the turnaround.  Naturally I was still sizing up who I thought was in the full vs. the half and tried to get a sense of my placement, but there were a couple early starters making it hard to really keep track.  Anyway, we got to the turnaround and I took my time, had a gu, understood why the Mandarin Orange gu’s were on sale at the running store in Austin, had a salt stick, filled my bottle and left the aid station at 54:19.  I wanted to leave no earlier than 52:30 (for an ~3:30 final time), so that was fine.

By now I’ve got the greatest poet of our generation, none other than Kanye West accompanying me on my run.  This is a fun part of the run, too, because now I’m seeing a ton of the other people from the full and half.  I noticed two guys from ChuckIt I haven’t seen in a while and whose names I’ve long since forgotten.  Pretty soon I’m blown away by Kanye’s lyrical mastery.  What are you going to rhyme with “okay,” maetro? “okay“!!!  Indefatigable!  I’m feeling pretty good around now – a couple tweaks from earlier are shaking out and I started to appreciate the course:

Before long I’m getting back into Aroyo Park. I realize this will be by far and away my favorite part of the course so I try to enjoy it.  These descents and climbs twisting on single track and with a couple sketchy, muddy steps – just enough to add a little element of technical (and judging from the people I’d seen a couple miles back, enough to take a few people down) – this is fun and why I run.  And Kanye’s belting out my favorite jam from 808’s and Heartbreak and all is right.  Then I need to climb out of from the park on the far side.  Shit.  Guess this will be a little work.  It’s not a hard climb, though, and I’m still feeling totally good as I hit the paved trail back to the parking lot.

As I get to the midway point, some guy is screaming at me and the woman coming in behind me “HALF OR FULL?!  HALF OR FULL?!” while Kevin Douglas relaxes taking down times.  I wasn’t quite ready to respond but suspected the right way for me to go was the aid table / course and *not* the finish chute (I was right!) and I hang out briefly, grabbing a drink, some potato chips, and a wedge of PB&J before I fill my bottle and head out again – leaving the table at a 54:24 split.  The second leg is more of a mixed bag.  The first couple miles are fun, again, and Aroyo Park is especially fun – this time I’m seeing people I passed a couple miles ago who are clearly struggling just to get through the half. I’m not a sadistic person, but I bet it’s pretty universal to running that if you’re feeling strong, well ahead, and seeing people struggle that it raises your confidence.  Or maybe I’m sadistic.  Or maybe it was Les Savy Fav.  But I was feeling pretty great.

But by the time I left the park and got back to the paved trail it was clear that I’m going to see WAY fewer people out here now.  There were a couple people for me to keep my pace behind and I could tell I’d run a long time by now so I’m getting a little fatigued by the time I hit the gravel trail.  The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society had volunteered to support an aid station about midway on this leg and I’d run past them the first time, but this time I stopped for a few of their chips and some Chomps and chatted with them. They’re in good spirits and I’m still feeling good but I’m definitely questioning my decision to run a marathon on new year’s eve so I tell them they made the right decision to volunteer rather than run. Before long, I’m off to the last turnaround. The leaders in the full have passed me by now, too, and I realize the guy who’d been leading has slipped to #2 but I don’t have a great sense of where I’m placed because now the trail is starting to get a couple people on it who are running well, but aren’t involved with the race.  I’m probably about 12th though.  I stick with, but behind, a couple guys as we’re getting to the turnaround and I really take my time with the smorgasbord and company this time – runners who got to the aid station probably a full minute after me have left before I finally get going – this leg split 57:52 and my total time 2:46:36.

I know on the way back that I’m not going to get 3:30 and am feeling perfectly fine about that. I want to not trash my legs so that I can run fast at the 3100m race the following Saturday, so I’m hanging behind a couple guys who’d left the aid station before me. I notice Takao Suzuki is out kindly documenting the race and try to give him my best game face.

~21 miles into the Bellingham Last Chance Marathon (credit: Takao Suzuki)

There are a couple dips in the interurban trail where you descend probably 50 feet and climb back up.  These aren’t particularly easy and in one of them one of the guys I was following starts walking and this is when I decide that it’s OK to start pushing a little.  I pass him on that uphill and slowly start reeling in the next guy.  About 3 minutes later I realize he’s not in the race.  OK – next up…is that Leukemia and Lymphoma aid station.  Here I do pass the next guy who was ahead of me as he stops for some support.  Robyn has served me well the last ~45 minutes and as I’m getting back into Aroyo Park I can’t remember what I queued up next.  The surprise of a long playlist is one of the nice bits of variation you leave for yourself in something like a marathon or ultra. I should mention that for the most part I’m pretty opposed to headphones in races. I think it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to keep yourself and others safe. Despite this, in some particularly long races with low registration numbers, you can be out for at least an hour between aid stations with nobody around and it can really help break up some monotony, so in some long races where I haven’t thought much about my mile splits, I’ll wear headphones.

So now I’m probably ~3 miles from the finish and Terrible Love comes on.  I thought I’d queued up Monument to Thieves but it’s probably better not to go straight to the endorphin clinic and I start dropping the hammer anyway.  You’ve got a pretty clear view from one side of the ravine down the switchbacks of the course ahead and on the other side for the climb back up and I can’t see anybody ahead of me so I just push as much as I comfortably can and keep going.  This is the first time I’ve ever run this hard after 24 miles without some seriously debilitating cramping so I’m definitely appreciating that.  After getting back up to the trail after a bit I notice a couple guys ahead of me and realize they’re probably ahead of me in the race (later I’ll learn that I was 9th right here).  I look at my watch, project I’m probably a little over a half mile from the finish, possibly within striking distance of breaking 3:40, queue up my favorite song from High Violet and decide to catch them.

Getting close to the end of a marathon is a great feeling.  This is the fifth one I’ve done and it’s pretty different every time, but this is the first time I’ve been going out just to cover the distance and having sandbagged the first 26 miles probably made me feel even better.  As I caught the guys ahead of me I told them we were all really close to 3:40 and we were probably going to all make it or just miss it, trying to see if they wanted to go for it and if we could help push each other.  All three of us started pounding pretty hard but I wound up edging ahead and by the last turn to curve back to the finish I knew I wasn’t going to hit 3:40, but damnit, this was the finish and I was on a bloodbuzz.  So I almost killed some toddler who’s idiot parents let him hobble around on the last 100′ strip of sidewalk on the course (they were there for the race so they understood my situation and were not furious at me) and I crossed the finish in 3:40:37 – a 54:01 leg split.  The two other guys came in 8 and 12 seconds behind me, the guy I passed at the aid station was 5 minutes back, and the guy I caught in the ups and downs shortly after the turnaround was 12 minutes back.

I hung out for a bit after the race, chatting, eating snacks that other runners had contributed to the giant goodie table (doritoes, Christmas cookies, a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of tomato soup, one of Terry’s IPA’s, a Coke Zero, some Red Vines and a lot of stuff I’m sure I forgot) before changing and eventually heading back to the car and driving home.

So overall, I think this race was really, really good.  The field was small and though the course got a little narrow in parts in Aroyo Park, it seemed just about right and there was enough lead-up to that part for us to get stretched out and not have to fight one another for placement.  The gravel trail out along the main stretch of the out and back was easily able to handle groups up to about 8 runners or so.   The placement for the support made this much better supported than I expected (basically with support every 3 miles). The weather this day was chilly but totally OK (and apparently a LOT better than some past years).  Overall, I think I’ll have a hard time not wanting to sign up again next year.

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