Sunday’s Tobacco Road Marathon was my fifth marathon, and I went into the race with some big goals but feeling very prepared. Saturday a large group of Omega Nation runners carpooled to Cary, NC to pick up our race packets, shop the expo, and meet up for a fun pasta dinner in downtown Raleigh. It was an early night to bed, since we all had to meet up by 5 am to carpool to the race. I spent the latter part of the evening reviewing my race plan and prepping my gear for the morning.
Sunday morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel; unfortunately, with the race still 2 hours away, I didn’t eat but still had a warm cup of coffee and some juice. Arriving at the race site at 5:30, we spent an hour hanging out in the car, staying warm, and trying to distract ourselves from the coming experience.
At 6:45, it was time to make our way to the starting line. 5 of us would be taking on the full marathon, and we were all pursuing the sub-4 goal. However, we each had a different approach, so we paired up according to strategy prior to the race and anxiously warmed up through our nervous energy. The starting line was at the bottom of a hill, so we stood aligned with the 4-hour pacer staring down the hill at the crowd amassed under the Tobacco Road banner. It was an awesome sight and certainly a great way to get pumped up before the race.
Some Omega Nation runners ready to take on Tobacco Road
My plan, thanks to the insight of my coach, was to start at a reasonably slow pace. A 4-hour marathon is a 9:09 minute/mile average, so she advised me to go out at a 9:20, then slowly increase each mile to arrive at a 9:05 pace, which I’d then sustain through the end. Dan decided my strategy was the most in line with his own, so he and I paired off, ready for the starting gun. Before I even knew the race had started, we started shuffling toward the line. In moments, we crossed it, and our race began.
I knew I’d have to consciously fight the urge to start at a quick pace, so the first mile was purposefully slow-feeling, and when my Garmin beeped a mile at 9:30, I was pleased. A few seconds slow here would not impact the race overall and would probably have a positive effect in the long run. We were barely warmed up, but mile 2 had a long descent, and before I knew it we were running right at the 9:00-mark. Dan and I quickly realized the error and backed off the pace to correct it.
Tobacco Road is a T-shaped race, with a short vertical section from the start, and a double out-and-back forming the horizontal. The half marathoners turn left at the T, while the marathoners turn right, splitting the pack early on and giving some much-needed extra space on the narrow tobacco trail. When we left the pavement to turn onto the rail trail, I felt an instant freedom; suddenly I was warmed up and ready to race, and we still had a mile or so to maintain a relaxed pace before settling in to race pace. This section of the course began as hard pack but quickly turned to a long paved section with a narrow hard-pack strip to one side.
Jim crossing the T to the second out-and-back section
These miles seemed to click by easily. By mile 5 we hit the target 9:05 pace, and I felt I could run this pace for days. However, it became apparent early on that despite the reasonable temperatures (mid-50s), the humidity would play a role in the day. Despite carrying a fuel belt with ample hydration, I chose to grab a water cup at the early aid stations to supplement my hydration, knowing I’d need to drink more than a normal run.
As we continued on toward the first turn-around, we steadily closed the gap on the 4-hour pace group ahead of us. My Garmin felt useless, clearly not coinciding with the mile markers on the course, so I paid attention to the gap, ensuring that it closed at a progressively steady rate, not wanting to push the pace to bridge to the group. Around mile 6 or so, we caught the back of the large group, and once we ascertained that their pace was hovering around my strategy pace, we relaxed and hung with the group.
Through this section of trail, I remember vividly the feeling of assurance and awe. I knew in that moment that I was exactly where I needed to be, doing exactly what I needed to do, and I felt lucky to be there. I teared up a few times just being present in the moment and acknowledging how much I love being able to participate in this sport. While this trail doesn’t boast much variety by way of scenery, I was overcome by the beauty of nature around me and my ability to run through it. There are no words to describe my joy in those miles.
Soon, though, it became apparent that Dan was not having the same day I was. While mostly flat, the trail did have some long, though slight, elevation changes, and maintaining exactly the same pace on those sections meant pushing through some sustained climbs and hoping to get some recovery on the descents. The pacer did an excellent job of keeping us steady and aware of where we stood time-wise, but it was beginning to take its toll on Dan, and he was fading.
After the first turn-around, I was still euphoric, and as the trail ahead cleared, I was able to move from the paved side to the hard pack, giving my feet a bit more cushion. However, I think that this strategy put my left leg on a slight camber, and toward the halfway point, my outer left leg became tight. Undaunted, I looked forward to the half marathon split, knowing that shortly after, we’d hit the cross-section of the T again, where fellow Omega Nation runner, Alice, would be joining us to pace us through the finish.
Dan and I approaching the T
We hit the half marathon split at the perfect time 1:59:31. My strategy was playing out perfectly, and aside from increased hydration and a tight left leg, I felt amazing.
Dan, on the other hand, was fading more quickly than I realized, or than he wanted to let on. He made a huge sacrifice for me in that moment, telling me that when I saw Alice, I needed to take her with me and go for it. He’d be falling back. Although I knew it was coming, it certainly toyed with my head to lose a partner like that. In planning my race, even through those first few miles, I imagined running every step by his side. He’s my mentor and friend, and losing him would prove more catastrophic than I could realize in that moment.
I did, however, get a welcome surprise at the T, seeing that Matt had walked from the start to give me a smile and a wave. I didn’t expect him to be there, and seeing him boosted my spirit. Alice bounced into the race, and we set off for the second half.
Ready for the second half!
Very quickly, though, the race changed for me. Gone was the familiarity of the pavement, and this out-and-back section had much more significant elevation changes, at least in feel. Emotionally, I felt downtrodden, no longer joyful and inspired but rather morose and exhausted. I was still with the pace group, but my energy level was fading quickly. I paid more attention to the course here, identifying which sections I would loathe on the return trip. We passed under an overpass, through a dark tunnel, and I felt disoriented and fearful, despite the brevity of it. I was taking on much more water and Nuun now, and I had to ask Alice to remind me to drink, feeling thirsty despite the unusually high quantity of water. I took water at every aid station now, and my bottle would empty in between. I had goosebumps, either from the beginning of heat exhaustion, or an actual chill in the air; I still don’t know which, but I made sure to get the Nuun in just in case. Fearing the ever-growing pain in the left leg, I switched to run on the right side of the trail, but it provided no relief. I was falling apart.
Still, I trudged on. Mile 20 was a long climb, which slowed the pace, but I grasped at the back of the pace group, unwilling to let them go. We picked it back up for mile 21, but then we hit our longest climb, and my spirit broke. The turn-around near mile 19 had given me the opportunity to check in with my friends, and as I watched them battle their own demons, I kept checking for Dan. The 4:15 pace group passed, a friend would go by, the 4:30 pace group, 4:45…still no Dan. By the time the 5:00 pacer passed us, and he wasn’t there, we knew he wasn’t on the course. Combined with my mental exhaustion, the pace, and the pain in my leg, I gave up. For 7 miles I had waited for my second wind, and it never came. With less than 5 miles to go, completely on target for my goal finish, I began walking.
Alice fought me hard, yelling at me, encouraging me, but I felt defeated. Even reviewing it after the race, I know that while my hydration and body played a role, this was a mental breakdown. I couldn’t refocus my mind on anything but how hard it was. Despite my weakness, I reassessed and told Alice the new goal was 4:05. I could make it in 4:05; I just needed to get off that damned trail. My feet burned. I felt as though I were running barefoot on the crushed gravel.
Unfortunately, even the end of the trail at about 23.5 miles didn’t improve my mood. The smooth pavement held the unwelcome addition of actual hills, and I continued to take frequent walk breaks. Finally turning into the finishing complex, it was all I could do to sustain a jog, and Alice’s frequent assurances that the finish line was near did little to push me on. It seemed never-ending, and I can only imagine how pained and drawn my face appeared to the onlookers.
Glorious finish line!
I crossed the finish line at 4:04:55, and immediately moaned in pain. My entire left leg, from ankle to hip, was in considerable pain. It was all I could to walk, and Alice would not let me lie down. The pain got a lot worse before it got better, and I felt it would never go away.
Stretching out the hip and grimacing
Eventually, of course, it did. When I finally found my friends, we rehashed the torture the trail inflicted on us and rejoiced in our victories. Seeing Dan, few words were spoken; a lot was conveyed in a glance. We left Tobacco Road licking our wounds while adorned with enormous medals. Appropriately, the medal is decorated with the massive train that seemingly ran over me.
Despite the pain and mental breakdown, there are many victories to celebrate in this race. While I didn’t hit my ultimate goal, I did set a major PR – over 23 minutes faster than my prior PR. I am proud that I was able to reassess my goal during the race and not completely give up on a time goal. It took a lot of effort to hit the 4:05 goal in the end, which I couldn’t have mustered if not for saying it aloud during the race. I’m also celebrating thinking on my feet; while I don’t know for sure that the left leg pain was entirely due to the camber of the trail, I did devise a solution to control what I could in the moment by switching sides. Despite feeling full and sick of water, I continued fueling and hydrating, which at least kept my body going when my mind couldn’t. Most of all, I have learned some things that will need to be addressed and remedied before I take on Ironman, circumstances I couldn’t have experienced or identified without this race.
Now the focus shifts away from marathon and toward the next milestone: Ironman Louisville! I will certainly miss the focus of marathon training, but I look forward to what true triathlon training will bring me.
What obstacles have you confronted in a race, and how did you overcome them?