Race Review: Sugarloaf Marathon (Maine)

State  #23: Maine
Sugarloaf Marathon

20140520-093138-34298889.jpgState #23 is in the books! I couldn’t be happier with the marathon I chose for Maine. Originally, I was registered to run the Portland Marathon last fall, but had to bag it due to my stress reaction. Everything really does happen for a reason, because if I’d made it to the start of that race I never would have had the chance to experience the beauty of Carrabassett Valley. I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but this easily makes my list of favorite marathons.

20140520-092751-34071453.jpgIt’s a pretty long drive to get to Sugarloaf (about 10 hours), but that’s not a deterrent for me. I’d originally planned to take this trip alone. My husband and I decided to drive to his family’s lake house in upstate New York on Thursday evening. He was doing a spring project at the house, so I was going to continue north to Sugarloaf on Saturday morning. My friend, Kathy, decided to meet me in Bennington and run the marathon to celebrate her 40th birthday. We left on Saturday morning for the six-hour stretch to Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett Valley.

Getting There/Accommodations

20140520-092756-34076762.jpgWe left from Bennington, and it was a scenic and enjoyable drive. Less than half of the trip was on an actual highway, with most of the drive being on quaint back roads.  The longest stretch of the ride was on stunning Route 16, winding through New Hampshire and Maine. It’s not the route we would have taken if we came directly from the Lehigh Valley, but the drive was breathtakingly beautiful. Between the good company and the views of New England, the six-hour trip seemed to fly by.

We stayed at the Sugarloaf Hotel, which is right on the ski area and the host hotel for the race. The rate was good, and it’s easy to locate. Packet pick up and the pasta dinner are located at the base lodge, which right next to the hotel. The best part? Since the ski area is closed, the hotel is pretty much only open for the marathon runners, so a late checkout was offered. When we asked about it, the guy was so laid back: “Oh yeah, don’t worry about checkout. Aim for 1:00 pm? If that isn’t enough time, whatever. Stay as long as you want.” I can count on one hand how often hotels have allowed late checkout after a race, and even then it’s just until noon or so.

The “Expo” and Pasta Dinner

20140520-092758-34078809.jpgIt was really more just like packet pickup, and exactly what you’d expect from a small town race. There were tables set up so you could pick up your bib and a bag with your shirt. Interestingly enough, there was one vendor set up outside. It was a tent selling Sketchers. It’s funny how Sketchers are all the rage ever since Meb won Boston wearing them!

This course is a good one for people trying qualify for Boston, and I could tell by the atmosphere of the expo and pasta dinner that the field would have some serious runners. The dinner was a little pricey – $17 if you opted for the pasta dinner that you could register for with the marathon. Registering for the dinner got you spaghetti, meat or marinara sauce, bread, salad, cookies, and drinks. The Sugarloaf Hotel offered their own pasta dinner for $24, but it wasn’t advertised anywhere before arriving at the hotel. I pre-registered for the pasta dinner because it didn’t look like there were many local options. Once I was settled, I didn’t want to be traveling around trying to find food. It was a good decision ($17 and all), because the town had some cute restaurants but nothing that looked appropriate for pre- race eats.

Race Day

20140520-092755-34075284.jpgThe marathon offers shuttle service from different locations in the area, and staying at the Sugarloaf Hotel meant we got door to door service. Shuttles picked us up right at the hotel and dropped us off at the start of the race, which was right by Flagstaff Lake. It was a beautiful backdrop for the start of the marathon and the weather was ideal. Everything was so easy: plenty of bathrooms, easy bag check option and no frills. Just a timing mat and a guy starting the race with a gunshot to send us off on our 26.2 mile journey.

I had an idea of how I’d like to run the race if all the stars were aligned: I was hoping to run about a 7:30 for the first few miles, and then pick it up to a 7:25 through mile 20. Around miles 8-10, I planned for some slower paces because of the hilly terrain. I would resume my 7:25s as soon as the hills were over, and then turn the pace up a little to about a 7:20 around mile 20 if possible. I was shooting for somewhere in the neighborhood of 3:15. Here’s what really happened:

splits At this point, all I can really say is, WTF? I still can’t really wrap my head around the end result. My Garmin calculated my distance as 26.47 so it’s telling me I ran a 7:12 pace. In reality, it was a 7:17 for 26.2 miles with negative splits! At mile 26, I was still feeling great but the crazy camber in the road took a toll on my left foot and I felt a strange little sensation, almost like a cramp. When I felt it during the race, my thoughts turned to the Knoxville Marathon, where my friend ran the half marathon on some mysterious foot pain and completely fractured her foot. I decided to slow down. I knew I was somewhere around five minutes ahead of my initial goal so anything from that point on was just a bonus.

Back to how this all even happened in the first place. As usual, I went out too fast. I was running in close proximity to a few other girls and my friend, Kathy. I got caught up with staying with the pack instead of running my own race. When I looked at my watch, I realized I was faster than I’d planned and wanted to slow down. I don’t prefer to bank time during marathons and try to avoid doing so (although sometimes I get caught up in the excitement and it happens). Personally, it always results in dead legs and feeling like complete shit after mile 20. I dropped away from everyone and reminded myself that I trained to run a certain pace and to relax. Mile 2 only resulted in being 5 seconds slower, but it caused me to drop back from the pack, settle into a comfortable pace and run my own race. It was faster than the 7:25 that I’d estimated, but I felt exceptionally good so I decided to go with it. I negotiated with myself, with my new intention to keep these miles between a 7:15-7:20, at least until after I got through the big hills in miles 8-10. For the most part, I did – with the exception of mile 4 and mile 7.

The course was not closed to traffic (which wasn’t a big deal since the race is in the middle of nowhere) and so I was running as close to the shoulder of the road as possible. There was a girl on the course that took off at the start (I only remember her because she was wearing a windbreaker, which I thought was strange since it was relatively warm out) and I caught her at mile 4. I was behind her and went to pass her, but she sped up to keep me behind her. I wasn’t racing – mile 4 is way too early to play that game. The problem is, she would speed up significantly to keep me from passing her and then slow down. Eventually, I got sick of being stuck behind her and felt like the whole speed up/slow down thing was wasting too much energy. I picked up the pace to put some distance between us, resulting in a 7:10 for mile 4. She caught me again around mile 7, and we played that same dumb game again until she saw her family on the course and stopped to unzip the sleeves off of her jacket and get some fuel. I saw her one more time after the hill at mile 10 but then I shook her for good. My pace was a little faster for those two miles, but remained pretty consistent otherwise.

As the course crested the steep hill at the end of mile 10, it begins an extremely steep descent. Runners came blowing past me but I kept telling myself to hold back because my quads would pay for it later. I continued to run a steady pace through the half marathon point, which is when I really think the race begins. Once I hit mile 13, I was beginning the gradual descent that the course is known for so I adjusted my pace. I renegotiated and told myself to hold between a 7:10-7:15 through mile 20. That lasted through mile 16, and I began picking up the pace and decided to just go with it. At this point, I still didn’t think I’d be that much faster than 3:15 when all was said and done, since my Garmin was slightly off at each mile marker and I’d gone out faster than I’d intended. I figured I’d be toast by mile 20, when the rolling hills hit. Instead, I kicked it up a notch and added a few sub 7 minute miles to the mix and felt great, other than my foot cramp at the end of mile 25/beginning of 26. I still don’t know if it was the course, or if the odds were truly in my favor that day, but I felt incredible and I’m glad I went with my gut early on in the race.

My official time was 3:10:21, and I got 2nd in my age group:

Untitled-2Kathy PR’d by 11 minutes, running a 3:27, winning 1st in her age group, and qualifying for Boston by 17+ minutes! I’m so happy that she had such a great day and will be lining up at the starting line in Hopkinton with me next April. I was really impressed by the other runners in the small field at this marathon: of 504 runners, I was #52 overall – that means that 51 people ran a marathon in under 3:10. That is really freaking cool. Two women broke three hours, which is seriously cool. For such a small field, those are some fast runners.

20140520-093140-34300284.jpgBy the time both Kathy and I finished and had a few minutes to discuss, they already began the awards. The clock was still showing that the race hadn’t even hit the four hour mark. I was happy they started so early, but a little surprised since I figured there were still a good number of people out on the course. There were post race massages and a small food spread available. Bags were organized under a tent and it was easy to claim your belongings. The shuttles took you back to pretty much wherever you wanted to go: the start of the 15K, the Sugarloaf Hotel, or the marathon start at Flagstaff Lake.

20140520-092753-34073301.jpgIt was a very well organized event and we kept saying how easy everything was to navigate. The course was by far one of the most scenic ones I’ve had the chance to experience. The whole race follows Route 27, with spectacular views of Sugarloaf Ski Area, lakes, rivers, ponds, and mountains. There aren’t many spectators, but since it is point to point and not closed to traffic you often saw the same spectators several times. Your bib had your name printed on it, so people could cheer for you as you ran by. The volunteers were amazing, and they actually wore signs pinned to their shirts that said “Gatorade” or “Water”. A possible drawback to this race: the races (both marathon and 15K) finish in the town of Kingfield. If you are finishing in the neighborhood of 4:30+, there is a little more traffic on the route and it gets a little backed up in the final mile. The runners are already running on the shoulder and with cars and traffic, this area is pretty small and the surface is very uneven.

It was a successful day for both of us and an incredible weekend overall! If you are looking for a marathon in Maine, Sugarloaf is not to be missed.


Race Recap (DECA Dash 5K) and Ramblings from Running in Atlanta

Last week, I chaperoned a trip with 42 high school students in Atlanta, Georgia. Most of my travels typically revolve around marathons, but the purpose of this trip was to bring students to the annual national conference for a marketing club called DECA. As a chaperone, we are given a list of activities that are available for the students while we are in town for the conference and are asked to choose a few activities to attend and chaperone. Coincidentally, one of the activities was a 5K, hosted by The Finish Line. This year, the DECA Dash 5K was held to benefit muscular dystrophy. So naturally, I had to sign up to chaperone that event. I couldn’t let the poor kids go and run a 5K with no chaperone, now could I?

Several chaperones and a handful of students from our school signed up to participate, which added to the excitement. The start was walking distance from our hotel, and we met in the lobby to walk together. It was an early start, 7am. Usually, I am typically partial to earlier races but we spent the day prior to the race traveling and on our feet. I woke up pretty tired and slightly dehydrated, but still excited. I hadn’t run a 5K since November, and that was coming off of my stress reaction in my tibia and a successful marathon on sketchy training due to said injury.

The start was pretty similar to any other race, except for one little negative: the race started 10 minutes late. When people get all pumped up for a race but end up waiting around, it’s  a bit of a buzzkill. Eventually, we were off for our 3.1 mile tour of downtown Atlanta. I’ll be completely honest: I really wanted to either PR or win the race (or both) so I just focused on the road ahead of me and the people around me. Luckily, I got to see lots of the city by foot on my morning runs in the days following the race because I honestly couldn’t tell you much about what I saw on the course.

What I do remember is that it was rolling hills – nothing crazy, no steep climbs or intense descents. A cross country/track runner from our school started with me and we ran the first mile together. By the first quarter mile, we were still running together and were in the lead so we kept a steady pace to maintain our spots. When we hit the second mile, we slowed down a little because we also hit some of the rolling hills and had settled in to a reasonable pace. I noticed a third girl in relatively close proximity to us – she had on a sparkley headband and it caught my eye. She passed us so I turned up the pace a little, but the girl from our school didn’t follow me. I was hoping for her to catch me again towards the end so we could finish the race together. I passed the girl with the sparkley headband almost immediately and didn’t see her again.

20140514-074756.jpgI was almost certain I had the lead at that point, but I found out for sure when I rounded a corner and blew through one of the water stops. I heard one of the volunteers yell, “first female!” as I ran by and I got excited. The finish line was right near the Georgia Dome/World Congress Center, where the race began. The course rounded a corner and hit a final straightaway and I could see the clock. I knew I was going to finish sub-20, which has been my goal for the past four years. I just never run enough 5Ks to give it a good shot, and this came at a really good time.

My official time was 19:45, a PR by 44 seconds (previous 5K PR was 20:24) and I was 1/642 women and 21/1077 runners. The girl from our school came in second, beating the girl with the sparkley headband by two seconds. It was a great day. The other students and chaperones all crossed the finish line with smiles on their faces, and ran great races. I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off the trip.

20140514-074815.jpgThe rest of our time in Atlanta was super busy for the kids and the chaperones. Lots of late nights making sure kids were in their rooms by curfew, and early mornings to assist the students in getting to their conference events on time. It didn’t leave a lot of time for long miles, but I did get in a few general aerobic and recovery runs while in town. There are definitely some sketchy areas in Atlanta, but our hotel was located on Peachtree Street and accessing some nicer areas was easy enough. On the first day I had the chance to get out running alone, I found Piedmont Park. To get there, I just had to run down Peachtree Street towards midtown Atlanta and was able to easily access the entrance to the park.

20140514-074829.jpgThe hotel concierge told me I’d have the best chance of finding good running trails if I headed to Piedmont Park, and he was right. There was a short loop around the park, the “Active Oval”, and trails everywhere that led to the Atlanta Belt line. The short loop that ended up being my “daily loop” was a path that went around a lake in the park. Flat, shaded and peaceful. At the parks entrance, you could bear left and find the “Active Oval”, which was really  just like a nice, over-sized cinder track. The trails around the park took you through meadows and fields, and eventually I found the Atlanta Belt Line. The Belt Line is a 33 mile trail system that runs all over Atlanta. I got to run on a small segment of it the day I went exploring, and then ran back to Peachtree Street to return to the hotel.

The rest of the running I did wasn’t quite as leisurely because we were ultimately there for work and I was responsible for a group of kids. I managed to squeeze in a few miles around that pretty little lake in that gorgeous park a few more times before the trip ended. There is an Atlanta Marathon in March, but I’m not sure I’m too interested in that one for Georgia. I’d like to see a different part of the state when I return to knock it off of my list. I enjoyed running through the city and highly recommend doing a few miles in Piedmont Park if you find yourself visiting Atlanta.