I ran the Colorado Marathon in Fort Collins, CO on May 1, 2022. These are my notes on race preparation and execution (as usual, mostly written to remind myself about the experience in decades to come).
Official: 2:59:59. (One page shows 2:59:58.9, leaving me a full half second to spare!) 29/507, 6/?? AG
✓ Goal A: Sub 3 hours. (By the skin of my teeth!)
✓ Goal B: Sub 3:05 (2019 BQ cutoff for my AG)
✓ Goal C: Sub 3:14:16 (== π, my PR @ NYC in 2019)
We moved to Boulder, CO from NYC in February 2021. Adjusting to the altitude took several weeks, longer than I expected. I spent the next six months or so training for my A event for the year, cycling the Triple Bypass, with a combination of indoor sessions on TrainerRoad and solo rides, mostly up the local climbs. After finishing that event and coming home, I immediately caught a bad cold from my sick (daycare-attending) toddler. I was sick off-and-on for months; I was not fully recovered at my B event in October, the first-ever Boulderthon (though I chose to run the half — plus four miles from home to the start and two miles from the finish to home).
I spent the rest of the year building some aerobic endurance with easy runs based on the McMillan Base Training Plan Level 3, but I wasn’t terribly consistent with my mid-week runs due to work and family commitments. Consistency picked up a bit in January upon starting the McMillan Marathon Training Plan Level 4 Combo Runner, but I was still somewhat interrupted by work stress and parenting, especially with kiddo getting periodically sick. I stuck to the lower end of the recommended distances and times as this was my first “Level 4” training plan.
I started running my long runs with the Boulder Track Club in November 2021. This provided extremely good motivation for running a portion of those runs at tempo or race pace as I am among the slowest of the group. I definitely think my speed endurance improved by running with BTC.
After a half-marathon tune up race in March, concentrating on the first, downhill half, I hit my first 60 mile training week ever, followed by 57 miles a week later, before starting a taper.
I had two embarrassing training injuries of the cycle, but luckily neither of them were overuse injuries. The first was in the final few strides of a wintery morning run: with the source of a breakfast burrito and good coffee in sight, I slipped on some ice at a curb cut and face planted, busting my lip. (Not only did I injure myself, but I was left without breakfast). The second was a chemical hand warmer-induced burn to my right palm: I knew better than to hold HotHands hand warmers directly against my skin under gloves, but I did it anyway. It didn’t seem too hot at all while I was doing it and only one hand was affected.
Knowing that the Colorado Marathon is a net downhill race, I had intended to do more downhill preparation. I wanted to take some days off from work to ride the bus up to Gold Hill and run back home, which is 12 miles and over 3,000 feet of elevation loss. I also wanted to do more work on Magnolia Road, a classic Boulder run on a rolling dirt road at over 8,000 feet of altitude. None of this work happened. Winter training in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains can be tricky, especially during a particularly snowy couple of months.
If there is anything I would change for my next marathon training program, it would be to:
Be more consistent and take on more mileage. For me, this is easier said than done, given work and life constraints.
- This will get better as my daughter gets older and more independent (and less sick with a more fully developed immune system!). That said, I also want to cherish the time while she’s young and still adores me.
- This will also get better once we move into our house and build out our basement gym.
- During this training cycle, I took Mondays and Fridays off from running; I should probably drop the Friday off-day and add more easy mileage. This likely means sacrificing quality evening time with my wife, though.
- I should also increase the distance of the mid-week medium-long run.
Do more hill and altitude work.
Do more strength training. I subscribe to the belief that resistance training is extremely important for longevity and endurance performance. Yet, I have done no strength training since before the pandemic. Similarly, this will improve once we build out our basement gym.
I had also wanted to take a day off to scout the course, but I never got around to it.
Fort Collins is a little over an hour away from Boulder and the buses to the starting line from downtown were posted to board between 4:15am and 5am. Not wanting to drive in the middle of the night, I chose to stay at a hotel the night prior hoping that I could get to bed early and score some quality sleep. This also allowed me to pick up my race bib at the expo.
The expo was fine, mostly filled by merch from a local running store chain. One thing I should have done was have my ID checked to get a wristband for the beer area, which would have obviated me from having to carry my driver’s license during the race.
I had forgotten to execute on my plan to pack some PB&J’s, a standard long-run breakfast of mine. I went to Whole Foods, knowing that they usually stock pre-made ones. I was out of luck and they were out of stock, so I bought the base ingredients and made some in my hotel room.
I wanted to do a short, 20 minute shakeout run to scout the small part of the course in downtown Fort Collins and on the Cache la Poudre River multi-use path. This was fine; I should have been better prepared and manually curated a course that went through the finish line: it would have prepared me for the turns and slight rises of the last mile.
I got a high-carb, pasta-and-french-fries dinner from the hotel restaurant, which was delightfully indulgent.
I rarely ever sleep well before an early-morning race. While my conscious self knows there is nothing to be anxious or nervous about (I mean, this is just a race I’m doing for fun, right?), my subconscious clearly disagrees and gets giddy with anticipation and excitement. This night was no exception and I think I got maybe 20 or 30 minutes of intermittent sleep. This definitely affected my performance.
With COVID cases on the rise here, I decided to wear a N95 mask for the 45 minute bus ride up the mountain to the starting line. I happened to sit next to the only other person on the bus wearing a mask, and, unlike the rest of the bus, neither of us really wanted to chitchat, which was perfect for me.
Illuminated only by headlights, the bus ride gave a great preview of the route of the race: twisty and turny with a whole bunch of elevation loss. I tried to visualize coming down the mountain as we were going up it.
The sun had yet to rise by the time we got dropped off (and wouldn’t until 30 minutes prior to the start). I walked around the waiting area which was well-stocked with urns filled with hot coffee (!!!) and hot chocolate, and plenty of porta potties. I was on one of the first buses to arrive which I thought would be a disadvantage in waiting around in the cold longer, but provided the advantage of having no line to pee.
As the sky filled with the first light of the day, I reached for my prescription sunglasses attached to my shirt under my outer layers and they… felt floppy. I pulled them out and a lens fell to the ground. Not good. My distance vision is not particularly terrible, but it would absolutely be a negative distraction to live in a fuzzy sphere for 26.2 miles. I asked some of the race crew if they had any kind of tape, and they pointed me toward a first aid kit that I ultimately could not find. Then I had an epiphany: I had medical tape… on my nipples… to prevent chafing. I reached into my shirt, painfully pulled one piece of tape off, and used it to bound the frames as far out of my field of vision as possible.
It worked! And I looked ridiculous. But I could see!
After dropping my bag at the UPS truck and a quick half-mile warmup, I settled into the starting chute between the 3h15m pacer and the very fast looking group of Air Force Academy cadets all in the same USAF running kit.
The first thing I’ll say about the actual race is that the first half is absolutely gorgeous. The route follows the Cache La Poudre River down its canyon; the rapids of flowing water with its wonderful rushing sound is at one’s side for about 14 miles.
The road was closed in one direction to cars and the running course was protected by what must have been around 1.83 billion traffic cones.
The start, for me, was not very crowded. Just over 500 people ran the marathon, but the folks in the first few rows of the chute were well spaced and increasingly spread out as the race progressed. For the first time in my memory, I didn’t go out like a crazy person once the horn sounded. I found a group going at a slightly-faster-than-I-planned pace that protected me from the slight headwind blowing up the canyon.
The course is steadily downhill, with the largest sustained gradients at the beginning of the race. Weeks prior, I had decided that my race strategy was to intentionally make a positive split in order to bag as much time as I could using the decline to my advantage. I’m not entirely sure this was the right strategy (even splits might have been easier on the legs and allow higher power delivery later in the race). I later read a quote from running coach Mario Fraioli who said:
Banking time in a marathon — any race, really — is almost always a terrible idea. Be patient and methodical in your execution. Great racers, regardless of the speed they’re running, are the ones who slow down the least.
Unbeknownst to me prior to this marathon, it turns out that there are two types of elevation to worry about in a running race: hills (the obvious one) and road cross slope (i.e. the side-to-side cant of the road). There were only two or three minor hills on this course and their downslopes more than made up for the minor inconveniences of the upslopes. But the cambered road was the impactful factor at the Colorado Marathon: for almost the entirety of the section within the canyon, the road cant was severe. With the river mostly on one’s left within the canyon, it felt like it was necessary to constantly run up a hill to the right just to run in a straight line.
The last 10 or so miles are unremarkable: a bunch of highway that connects to a multi-use path before getting into Downtown Fort Collins to the finish.
According to my analysis of the data coming out of my Stryd foot pod, I hit a wall somewhere around mile 20 (32 km). I didn’t bonk or run out of energy; instead, I just ran out of power output. My quads were increasingly sore and activating them seemed to require substantially extra energy and motivation. Another factor was that the temperature had risen from a perfect low-40°F (4.5°C) with protection from the sun given by the canyon walls to a toasty 55+°F (12.7°C) with no shade.
By this point, I had built up a safety factor of over three minutes over a 3-hour marathon pace, so I knew I could slow down a bit and still accomplish at least two of my goals. I started to walk through some aid stations to try to give my poor quads a bit of a rest, but this was not very effective.
My lead over my goal time started to dwindle over the last couple of miles. I almost continuously calculated how many seconds per mile over a 6:51/mi (4:16/km) pace I could add safely to still hit my A goal. At some point, I started to repeat to myself: “If you finish in a few seconds over three hours, you will regret any slack you gave yourself right now. Push.” I would try to surge and muscle through the dull legs for a bit, before falling back to an unacceptably slow pace.
The final quarter mile has a quick succession of four 90° turns. By the first one, you can hear the booming, amplified voice of the announcer at the finish line reading off runner names. Knowing that I had only a second or two to spare to hit sub-3 — and that measurement inaccuracies could easily nullify that — I brought myself to a sprint around the corners and through the final stretch.
While trying to summon as much power as I could, wildly swinging my arms to try to generate additional torque, I looked up and got confused when I saw two RFID reader strips — one several feet before the big “FINISH” banner and one just under it — and two clocks with different times in the only part I cared about: the seconds. In the moment of total exertion, I couldn’t figure out which was for the half marathon and which was for the full marathon (or even if that’s how they were arranged). I crossed both of the timing mats and didn’t know on which side of three hours my performance was on. But I was really quite happy that I even finished (and didn’t have to run any longer) and that I crushed my B and C goals.
I sat down at a picnic table and had a banana. Once I assessed myself, I managed to peel myself off of the bench to go get a delicious, free Odell Brewing Company Mountain Standard IPA — nothing like a beer at 9:45am? — and to listen to some pretty fun reggae-pop being performed on the stage.
I walked over to the information tent to ask for directions back to the hotel, having left my pocket computer in my room. But I noticed that there were tablets on the table with the race results. It was here that I learned I accomplished my A goal — with the barest possible margin — and celebrated with an uncharacteristically loud “hell yeah!”.
It was also here that I realized I still had medical tape as a structural part of my sunglasses and I still looked like an idiot.
I hobbled the six blocks back to the hotel. I was able to get a slightly later checkout which allowed me to decompress and take a long, hot shower. After some food and a gift gathering outing, I drove back to Boulder. I opened the door to our apartment and, after providing 24 hours of care to our daughter, my wife exclaimed, “Great! You’re home! It’s your shift!” (mostly, but not entirely, kidding) and passed the responsibility of our sick toddler to me. Isla proceeded to refuse her afternoon nap; I think she was overly excited for me being home.
It’s hard parenting a toddler who likes to be carried in a three-story townhouse with blown out quads.
I’m not sure how much more I want to focus on running. I like it quite a bit, and it is a more money- and time-efficient exercise than cycling, but I also like other activities. Since I am registered for NYC again in the fall and now that I qualified for and might be headed to Boston next year, I figure I’ll continue to be running through next spring.
But, even then, and despite knowing that I haven’t hit my potential, I’m not sure how much more effort I’d like to put into chasing marathon PRs (especially without gravity’s assistance); it might be nice to just enjoy the experience of running through those courses and their famous crowds without any other pressure. At the very least, I’d like to maintain the capacity and capability of running a marathon below, say, 3.5 hours; maybe with some luck in the lotteries I can parlay that into running all of the Abbott World Majors over time.
One unaccomplished goal of mine is to beat 40 minutes in the 10k (40:26 PR in 2019) and to repeat a sub-20 minute 5k (19:38 PR in 2018). Perhaps I’ll focus on these distances with some weightlifting and an eye to translating speed endurance to the half and full marathons.
Overall, I think half marathons are more fun for me: less time commitment and not as mentally and physically taxing, but still a fun challenge.
I had a thought about trying a triathlon next year, which would require me to learn how to swim competitively. Given toddlerhood, I’m not sure that time commitment is in the cards. One day, maybe.
I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring Fort Collins. Old Town was cute and quaint; I would have liked touring around a bit more. The rest of the city is pretty spread out and car-dependent.
Elizabeth Hotel: The hotel was nice and I’d stay here again; I chose it specifically for proximity to the pickup location for the bus to the starting line, which was just on the next block. The most remarkable part of the hotel was that there were three wedding parties staying at the hotel with one wedding reception in the building, but I wouldn’t have known of it from my room tucked into a wing of the fifth floor. Had I slept, I wouldn’t have been bothered by drunken partygoers; in fact, the loudest noise source was the deep thuds of doors closing behind fellow runners leaving their rooms after 4am.