State #19: West Virginia
The Marshall University Marathon
Sunday, November 10
When you look at a map of the United States, West Virginia looks small, and relatively close. When you live in northeastern Pennsylvania and decide to drive to the western side of West Virginia, you’re in for an eight hour trip. It’s also one of the most beautiful car rides I’ve ever taken, and the fall colors just make it that much better. The trip down was one of the most interesting and unforgettable experiences I’ve had with distance running. We live in the same town as Bart Yasso, and he is very active with the local running community. He makes a tremendous effort to get to know the local runners, which is how my friends and I are acquainted with him. He also happened to be the guest speaker at the Marshall Marathon, where we were headed last Friday. Bart was aware of this and contacted my friends and offered us a ride down to the race. That’s an offer we simply couldn’t refuse. While the scenery was stunning, the company and conversation made the ride fly by. He told us stories of the Boston Marathon before the esteemed race became the focal point of many distance runners, and of his time spent travelling all over the world for running. He listened to us talk about our goals and our training but didn’t offer advice unless we asked, and even then it was in a motivating and inspirational manner. What an experience, and what a cool guy. We pulled up in downtown Huntington around 7:30 p.m. on Friday, but the eight hour ride seemed so much shorter.
The expo and the start of the race are closer to the Marshall University campus, but we were staying at the Holiday Inn in downtown Huntington. It was a bit of a hike from the hotel and we were glad to be able to drive there. I recommend using the Holiday Inn because they offer a great rate and a 2 p.m. checkout for runners, which is a rare luxury. The expo was held at the St. Mary’s Conference Center from 12-6 on Saturday, and it was slightly difficult to locate. Some people complained that the expo was unorganized, but I really didn’t find that to be the case. There was a line to pick up your bibs/gear, and the local running shop set up a display right at the entrance. While you were in line for your bibs, you could browse and purchase their merchandise. After receiving your packet you could continue down the hallway to find representatives from a few other races with tables set up to advertise for their event. There was Bart’s station for his book signing, and a table with marathon specific merchandise (mainly footballs and winter hats) for purchase. At the far end of the center, there were two double doors that led you into the conference room, where they set up the guest speakers and the pasta dinner. My only recommendation for the expo would be to have a few more volunteers working packet pick up, because there was a long line of people each time I was present. I paid less than $100 for the race and got an Asics jacket, a short sleeved tech tee, a full meal (the pasta party) and a sweet medal. No complaints here.
The pasta dinner was held from 3-6 p.m and offered your standard spaghetti, tomato sauce, salad, dressing, bread, water and iced tea. It was free for the runners and the food was excellent. I’m new to the pasta dinner thing: I usually pass and go out to eat, but I’ve been to several of them now and this one was probably the best. It’s low key, but what more would you want before running a marathon? During dinner, there were several guest speakers: a physical therapist to talk about injury prevention, a doctor to talk about hydration, and Bart spoke about his experiences as a runner.
This race met and exceeded all of my expectations. Out of the 25 marathons I’ve run, I’d definitely list it among my favorites. If you talk to other race participants, they might not agree with me. They may agree that the course is pretty cool, but there were some issues that people were really upset about. Sure – there were some hiccups, but it’s a small town race, not a big city marathon with a huge budget. I prefer small town races, because I find the hospitality is unsurpassed and you can really experience the area you are visiting. Part of the reason I started this whole “50 state” goal was to travel and see our country, and I find that small town races are the ticket to seeing what a city/state is all about.
The start was near the stadium, and the complaint was that there was no official starting line due to some logistical issues. The race was chip timed and there were timing mats on the course and at the finish to record splits, but no timing mat at the start. I can understand why this might be an issue for some. In all fairness, if you read the race reviews posted on sites like MarathonGuide.com, you would know that this was also the case in previous years and could plan accordingly.The race director realized quickly that this was going to be more of an issue this year than it was in previous years since the race grew in size. He already issued a statement accepting full responsibility and is willing to work with people to adjust times if possible. I’m assuming you’d have to show your data from a watch or app of some sort, but I thought that was a nice concession. Bottom line: it’s a small town race, and mistakes happen. It was still an amazing day.
I started with the 3:25 pacer and we were relatively close to the front, so I wasn’t really affected by the starting issues. My watch was off at the first timing mat by less than ten seconds. But about those pacers: at the last minute, the 3:25 guy was told to pace our group. He was prepared to pace the 3:35 group. He was nervous about his “promotion” and verbally stated that he didn’t think he could do it, so I put my headphones in and just started running. By the half mile mark I knew I had to do my own thing if I wanted to run a 3:25. I looked at my watch; we were running a 7:23. A 3:15 marathon breaks down to a 7:26, so yeah. I’d say we were fast. If I’m going to run a 3:25, I can’t be too excited in these first miles. I need to slow down. I took a breath, slowed my pace and ran the first mile at a 7:41. Still too fast, but I warmed up (it was chilly) and got my feet into a steady rhythm.
I knew the goal pace for a 3:25 was a 7:49, so I banked a few seconds on the first mile and controlled my pace from that point on: 7:41, 7:49, 7:45, 7:46, and a 7:47. The course is pretty flat, but the first three miles have a slight uphill “grade”. I thought I was imagining it but I later reviewed the elevation chart and confirmed my suspicions. By mile 3, the rest of the course is “flatter” (the whole thing is flat compared to what I normally run) and more even. The first three miles were nothing spectacular: you run around the stadium and in sort of an industrial type of area, but it was a necessary route to get you to the scenic parts of the course. Right after mile 3, you enter a park and run next to the Ohio River for a short distance. Between miles 3 and 4, it is scenic, but you hit the streets again and onto Virginia Avenue. It’s not as pretty there, but the streets are flat and wide.
This is where I really got into a rhythm and felt like I wanted to take off. I had to really keep an eye on my Garmin to make sure I was behaving, because I felt like I was flying. The only mile that was slower was mile 7, and it was because I caught up to the 3:25 pacer. He apologized for going out too fast, and then asked me to hold his sign so he could take an energy gel, and my pace suffered for it. I wasn’t overly concerned because I was still ahead at this point: 7:46, 7:59 (with the pacer), 7:42, 7:49, 7:42. I had enough seconds banked at that point to even it all out. I handed him back his 3:25 sign, took my first GU of the race, and sped up a little so I didn’t get stuck with the pack. Mile 6 is where you enter and begin to run through a series of parks in Huntington. It’s a crushed limestone path, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s one of the most ideal running surfaces I’ve experienced in a marathon to date, but it isn’t very wide. The course takes you through Kiwanis Park around mile 6, and through Ritter Park around mile 8.5. The limestone path begins a little after mile 6 and lasts through the time you exit Ritter Park. It emerges in a historical neighborhood around mile 9.25, and you are back on the streets.I made the decision to would run that segment of the course a little faster to avoid getting stuck behind the pacer and his pack of runners, since he was running a bit inconsistently. I made the right choice. I didn’t feel like my legs belonged to me, and wondered how long I could keep the pace up for.
My legs still felt fresh and I was getting faster, knocking off the next five miles with a 7:37, 7:40, 7:36, 7:40, and 7:45. Around mile 13, we began the loop again and a strong headwind kicked in, so I took another GU around mile 14 to maintain my energy levels. I wasn’t sure if I should keep negative splitting because even though my legs felt good, the wind was so strong that I was afraid of burning out. I was still feeling very comfortable and we hit a stretch with a slight downhill grade, so I just went with my gut and ran those miles harder. Miles 11-15 was on the roads and looped you back towards the stadium to begin again, with a quick detour directly through Marshall University’s campus. I was surprised to find that there were zero students out cheering.
Miles 16- 20
We were finally back on Virginia Avenue and heading towards the Ohio River once again for the second loop. The wind was stronger than ever so I stopped negative splitting, but still felt good enough to hold a steady pace: 7:49, 7:45, 7:47, 7:44, and a 7:43. From miles 17-19, I hit a bit of a wall. I was sick of the wind and began to wish the finish line was closer. That changed when we re-entered the parks and hit the limestone path at mile 19. The wind was at our backs and the change of surface made me feel like I still had life left in my legs and energy to carry me through the finish. I began to worry that the last six miles were going to be a struggle until I hit mile 20. I realized that all of my miles (besides mile 7 with the pacer) were below a 7:49, and I still felt good…which made me realize that even if I slowed down, I was going to run a PR.
Miles 21 -26.2
The realization of a PR was enough to keep me fired up for few more miles. Around mile 22, the struggle to hold on to the 7:49 pace began, so I negotiated with myself decided hang on to an 8 minute pace. For the most part, I did: 7:48, 7:57, 7:59, 8:02, 8:08, 7:53, and 6:48 pace for the .2.
Mile 26 is the one and only complaint I have for the entire race. You are running down a stretch and end up at the Marshall University campus. The half marathon finish is straight ahead, but the marathon finish turns right and loops through the campus. There were no signs, but there were some spectators and volunteers. The spectators yelled, “Marathon finish, straight ahead! You got it!” but the volunteer yelled, “NO! MARATHON FINISH RIGHT, THROUGH THE CAMPUS!” The race’s overall field size is relatively small and I was way ahead of any expectation I had for the day, so I stopped dead in my tracks. I stood there and listened to them argue over where to go for about 10 seconds, and then made the decision to listen to the volunteer over the spectator. It was the right decision. This problem could have been avoided if the race director had clearly marked signs posted. The volunteers didn’t design the course, so it isn’t even a guarantee that they were correct. I was already around an 8 minute pace so stopping really made the pace on my watch look slow, so I took off and sprinted until I dropped my pace below an 8 minute mile to compensate for the confusion. As soon as I left the campus, there were two volunteers telling me to finish left, or take a right for loop two – another place where a sign would have been extremely valuable. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I was going in the right direction and turned the corner to head into the stadium to finish.
The Finish Line
Out of the 25 marathons I’ve run, I never really get too emotional at the finish (except for the finish line in Boston, but that’s a completely different story). I am always happy and excited (and very, very tired), but it was almost like I expected to be able to do it. Being injured and sidelined in 2013 taught me that I should never just “expect” a positive outcome, and that I need to be grateful for every experience I have. I’m not saying not to be optimistic – you have to be. The mental aspect of running marathons is often harder than the physical task, and you have to really believe you can do it to cross the finish line.
I rounded the corner and entered the stadium and sprinted across the field towards the finish line. Bart and his friend, Bill, were standing where the runners enter the stadium and cheered me on, along with the rest of the crowd. I had a huge smile on my face tears in my eyes as I ran across the field and towards the finish. I was way ahead of any expectation I had for this race and had to overcome a lot of set backs to even get to the starting line. Between the two bone injuries I had in 2013, I never in a million years thought it would be possible for me to get remotely close to a PR that day. But I crossed the finish line in 3:24:45, PRing by 7 minutes and 15 seconds. I finally broke 3:30, something that’s been a goal of mine for the past year and a half. My new PR was also a BQ -10:15, allowing me to not only register during week one for Boston 2015, but with the second wave of entrants. I was hoping to run a time at a future race that would allow me to register with the entrants that beat their time with 5 minutes or more. 10 minutes was a goal for another year. As I was crossing the finish line, what I didn’t know is that I just took 1st place in my age group, was the 6th female overall, and was the 48th overall finisher of the marathon. I am still on cloud nine. I feel very blessed, fortunate and humbled that I had the opportunity to run this race.
On to the really important things…there is a ton of food at the finish line: hot dogs, hamburgers, chocolate milk, bagels, bananas, etc. Awards were not given in a ceremony, but handed out individually. If you thought you placed you had to check with the officials and claim your award, which I really liked. I was already over the moon happy with my time and winning my age group was just icing on the cake. It was still cold and windy so all I really wanted was a hot shower, some warm clothing and to hit the road to begin the eight hour trek home. So needless to say, I wasn’t bummed about the lack of an award ceremony.
Spectators, Volunteers and Water Stops
It’s a small town race so there aren’t a ton of spectators, but the ones that were there did an excellent job of motivating the runners. There were times when I was running the course that I felt like I was doing a solo long run, but I didn’t care. I like small town races – I prefer them – and I know that comes along with the territory. There were water stops every 1.5ish miles, and no gels offered on the course (the race director told us that ahead of time). I made sure to force myself to drink at every single stop. I often skip a water stop here and there during a marathon. This time, I knew I was really moving and I would need all the help I could get, starting with proper hydration. The volunteers at the stops were all encouraging, pleasant and helpful. My only complaint about the volunteer situation is that they could use more volunteers at key turns in the race directing traffic, and more signs to avoid confusion. Overall, the race was well done, and is absolutely a race I could see adding to my calendar again in the future. The Marshall University Marathon was a success!