Though it sometimes seemed like it would never get here, at long last the day of the Cape Cod Marathon finally arrived. And it was worth the wait.
Ruth and I left Arlington for the Cape on Saturday morning. We stopped along the way for lunch at Hoagie’s Diner. The onion rings, though not the ideal pre-race food, proved irresistible.
Once we arrived in Falmouth, we went to the Lawrence School to pick up our numbers and check out the expo. Then we checked in at the Inn on the Square. After we dropped off our bags, Ruthanne came with Kit and Andy to drive the course so we could check it out before the race. Everyone agreed that the “memorable” hills marked on the map didn’t look very difficult, at least not while we were seated comfortably in the car.
When we got back, Ruth and I strolled into the center of town. Our search for an early-morning breakfast spot failed, but we did find Adena and Pam, who were also out for a walk. They had decided to make the trip, not to run, but to cheer for all the SRR runners.
In the evening, Ruth and I had dinner with Ruth’s kayaking friend Di, and then we dropped in on the pot-luck dinner organized by Jesse and Urvi at the SRR rental in East Falmouth. At about 8:30PM, we went back to our room to settle in for the night.
We set the alarm for 5:30AM and went to sleep around 11PM. I woke up at one point when the refrigerator in the room went on and I thought it was the alarm, but I fell back asleep afterwards, so I got a reasonable amount of rest, which doesn’t always happen the night before a race.
When the alarm went off, I got up and went out to Dunkin’ Donuts, the only place that was open for coffee that early. Going out for coffee let me check the weather firsthand. Hurricane Sandy was still well offshore, so it was cool and damp, but not too windy. If that didn’t change when the sun came up, it was going to be a pretty good day for a race.
We knew our room had a microwave, so Ruth and I had brought our typical pre-run breakfasts from home in case we couldn’t find a place to eat. I had hot oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts to go with my anti-cramp banana, while Ruth warmed a pre-toasted English muffin and ate it with cream cheese.
After breakfast I took a shower. A pre-marathon shower clears my sinuses, leaves me refreshed, and helps me loosen up a little without spending any energy on a warmup jog. Then I dressed for the race.
Since the weather was comfortable, the only decision I had to make was between my sunglasses and my regular glasses. My pre-race jitters were in full bloom, so that was enough to keep me busy. Now that I’m older, I have to wear glasses in order to be able to read my watch during the race. I prefer to wear my sunglasses, partly because they’re lighter, and partly because I like the look, and that makes me feel faster.
Our hotel was close enough to the village green that we didn’t have to leave the room until 15 minutes before the race began. The sky remained dark and gloomy, too dark for the sunglasses no matter how many times I swapped back and forth. When it was time to leave, I played Nick Cave’s “Bring It On” for one more dose of inspiration, swapped back to my regular glasses one last time, and then Ruth and I walked to the start.
We arrived at the village green behind the pack of runners milling about, waiting for the start. Ruth got together with her crew while I wandered off to find a private corner for one last bathroom break. Once that task was completed, I jogged back to the crowd, trotting by Ruth and her friends to wish them luck before moving up into the middle of the pack. I introduced myself to another Somerville runner, who turned out to be Sean McDonough. Assuming things went as planned for Robert and Jeff, who were up front with the other fast runners, Sean and I would be competing to be the third scoring member of our Men’s Senior team. Sean and I chatted for a few minutes, but I moved away before we started. I was aiming for a 3:28, while Sean was trying for a 3:20. I didn’t want to be sucked into trying to keep up with him.
At 8:30 the cannon went off to start the race. I spent the first half-mile weaving around people waiting for the pack to spread out, and then I settled into my pace. My intention was to go out easy as a warm-up and run the first mile or two at around an eight minute pace before speeding up. Then my first split was a 7:30.
I told myself to slow down and take it easy, and I cruised through the second mile, letting people go by while settling into what was hopefully a more sustainable pace. Then I got to the end of the second mile and my split was a 7:28.
I shrugged to myself. Apparently that was going to be my pace for today. I didn’t feel like I was working too hard. I gave in and decided to keep going at that level of effort and see how it would all play out.
It was a pretty good day for a race, cloudy, with temperatures in the 50s. The wind was annoying from time to time, but it wasn’t too bad for most of the race. I plowed along steadily, walking through the water stops to make sure I hydrated, but otherwise holding to my pace, ticking off every mile well under the 7:56 pace I needed to hit 3:28.
Cape Cod, with about 1300 runners, is a very comfortable size. There were enough people running so I didn’t have to run by myself, but not enough to crowd the roads and get in my way. I always intend to run my own race, without worrying about what other people are doing, but after a few miles everyone settles in, I start to recognize who’s running near my pace and I start to measure myself against them.
When the pack sorted itself out, I found myself running with Sean after all. Since I was walking through the water stops we kept swapping places. I could see when I passed that he didn’t look happy, and then somewhere in the middle of the race I left him behind for good.
Every five miles, when I checked my time against the splits written on my number, the cushion between my pace and a 3:28 finish was growing. By the time I got past mile 15, I was feeling pretty good about my chances. My quads were starting to feel a little tired, so I knew a time was coming when the race would get hard, but I wasn’t there yet. I was pretty sure that as long as I didn’t totally fall apart I was going to reach my goal.
Part of what kept me going at that pace was the fact that I could see Hassan Haydar just ahead of me in a bright green shirt. I met Hassan in May, early in his string of 26 consecutive weekends spent running the Boston Marathon course. I knew he was doing the Chowdah Challenge (the half marathon on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday) so he wasn’t at his best, but he’s so much better than I am that it felt good to keep him within sight, and I only felt a little guilty for how happy I was to pass him somewhere around mile 18.
Some of those people along the way become random temporary new friends. I overheard one guy say he was a flight instructor at Hanscom Air Force Base. Ruth works there, and I’ve also spent some time at the base, so we had something besides running to talk about. When I walked through the water stops he would pull ahead, so there’d be a break before I caught up and we could continue our conversation. As the race went on, he seemed to have plenty of energy for talking and running but it got harder for me to keep up with him. He dropped me for good somewhere around 20 miles into the race.
The Cape Cod course can be tricky. It’s not that difficult for 19 miles, so it’s easy to get trapped into going out too fast. Then, at the point where even the easiest marathon starts to get hard, the course heads into Woods Hole and it goes from “just rolling enough to keep you from getting bored” to, as Ruth put it, “lots of snotty little hills”.
Each and every step was an effort, but this is where my experience and all those marathon-plus training runs paid off. I may not be as fast as I was when I was younger, but if I’ve learned one thing, it’s how to stay within myself and keep moving. I knew the pain probably wouldn’t get much worse before the race was over, and I knew that I had built a cushion that would bring me in under 3:28 as long as I didn’t do anything stupid.
My splits dropped from 7:30s and 7:40s to 7:50s and 8:10s. I did what I could to hold my form and make the best use of every downhill section, because I knew I was going to give back time on every climb the rest of the way. I started to play snippets of “Bring It On” in my head more often, to help keep me focused and driving steadily forward without worrying too much about how much farther I had to go. And it helped that I was passing people who were hit even harder than I was.
After Woods Hole and the lighthouse at Nobska Point, the course goes down to the beach and flattens out for the final miles. When I ran Cape Cod in 2002, I took advantage of the run along the shore to pick up the pace. This year, when I got out of the hills I ran directly into a 20MPH+ headwind. Unfortunately there was no one with me to share the effort of breaking through the wind. Instead of speeding up, my last few miles were my slowest miles of the race.
Even so, my time at the 25 mile mark had me entertaining thoughts of a sub-3:25 finish. When I turned away from the beach back towards Falmouth Center, I tried to pick it up for the last mile and that’s when my right calf started to twinge. Instead of pushing harder, I concentrated on staying relaxed and holding my pace until I passed the mile 26 marker and turned onto Main Street.
The calf twinges held off long enough to let me spend what I had left on the push to the finish. I crossed the line in 3:25:44. It might not have been the smartest race – my first half was probably five minutes faster than my second half – but I was very happy with my time.
I got my space blanket and my medal and made it my way through the finish area. Robert and Jeff greeted me excitedly as I left the finish corral. They told me that with my finish, SRR had almost certainly won the Men’s 50+ team title. I was glad to take my share of the credit, but it sure helped that my teammates had two of the top three finishes in our age group.
Hassan was only a minute behind me. He won his age group in both the marathon and the Chowdah Challenge. I continue to be awed.
Sean’s knee was bothering him, so he tailed off after I last saw him. He finished in 3:39.
While runners continued to roll in, I went off to our hotel room to put on warmer clothes and pick up my camera, Ruth’s jacket, and her post-race chocolate milk. Then I went back to the finish to take pictures and wait for Ruth to arrive.
Ruth was running with Kit and Alison with a goal time of 4:45. They ran together until somewhere around mile 17 or 18. Denise jumped in to run the final few miles and when she did, it became apparent to Ruth that the others were ready to go a little faster than she was, so she told them to go ahead.
Alison crushed the final 7 miles, running her fastest splits on the hardest part of the course to finish her first marathon in 4:36:52. Kit stormed across the line in 4:43:10, paced by Denise and Andy. That was more than an hour faster than her first marathon, and as she excitedly told everyone within earshot, “I didn’t walk!”
Soon afterward, Ruth appeared, arms pumping hard as she sprinted for the finish. The clock read 4:44:41 as she crossed the line, a PR by about 10 minutes.
After she finished, Ruth tossed up some water and GU that she didn’t need any more. A little nausea wasn’t going to keep her from getting there before 4:45. We shared congratulations all around and took some pictures with the group. Then Ruth decided it was either keep moving or risk cramping up, so she went off for a walk. When she returned, we waited as long as we could, hoping to see Ruthanne arrive, but Ruth got too cold to wait any more, so we went back to the room to shower and dress.
After we cleaned up, Ruth went to the local pub to see Sandy, not the hurricane, but a childhood friend that she’d reconnected with over Facebook. I caught some of the awards ceremony, then joined the ladies at pub to meet Sandy and split a post-race meal of a lobster roll and stuffed potato skins with Ruth.
Our original plan called for us to stay over Sunday night and head back home Monday morning after a nice, relaxing celebratory breakfast. But Sandy (the hurricane) made that a risky proposition, so after we said goodbye to human Sandy, we packed up, bailed on our prepaid room, and headed home.