Friday, October 17, 2014

Guest Blog - Josh Haney - Steamtown Marathon Race Report

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If there is one thing I've learned about writing a running blog it's that people much prefer reading guest blogs to my own. Four out of the top ten most-viewed posts on my blog were written by other people. So without further adieu, here is a guest post by Josh Haney about his race last weekend at the Steamtown Marathon.



Thanks to Bert for giving me another chance to guest-blog. I enjoy writing these because it gives me a chance to relive my good races (spoiler alert: I only ask to blog about my good ones), but I'm way too lazy to maintain my own blog. I was a teammate of Bert's on Team Blitz at William and Mary, though a far inferior runner, both then and now. Prior to this race (another spoiler alert!), my marathon PR was 2:55:43 from Shamrock Marathon in 2007, though I also ran 2:56 at Richmond in 2013.

On January 1, 2014, I set two running goals for 2014: win a race (hadn't done this since Junior year of high school) and run 2:45 in the marathon (a very ambitious goal coming off of a 2:56). At the time, I didn't really think either one would happen, but that's why we set goals, right? I actually achieved the first goal twice, both in local 5ks in April and June (16:55 and 17:42, respectively), which was really cool, which left the 2:45 goal.


Over the course of 2014 (and extending back into 2013), I've been fortunate enough to have the best training segment of my life, and managed to do some pretty high mileage (for me) and set a number of personal bests at shorter distances without dealing with (knock on wood) a single injury. Again with the help of RMRS’s Mark Lorenzoni, I've found a formula that seems to work for me, three weeks higher mileage (topping out at 82), with a lower mileage week to "absorb" the training (usually in the 50s). I've also been lucky enough to have a regular training partner for workouts and long runs, as Bryan Jenkins and I have gone to St. Joseph's Villa to work out pretty much every week, in snow, rain, and unbearable heat. Coming in to Steamtown, I knew I was in the shape of my life, even faster and lighter than I was in college.

Goals/Strategy for Steamtown:

For a while, I really struggled with what time to shoot for at Steamtown. Being a highly analytical and neurotic numbers person (I'm a CPA), the first thing I did when I finished a race this year was to plug my most recent race into the McMillan Calculator, hoping it would say I was capable of a 2:45 marathon. Only one race did (the aforementioned 16:55 5k). As I did last year, I ran two races, a half and a 10k, during my marathon buildup to judge my fitness. The first was the Patrick Henry Half in 1:20:07, which was a decent performance given the conditions (75 degrees at the start, 95% humidity), but didn't give me a great read on my capability for the marathon. The second was the Pepsi 10k, which I ran well and evenly, but didn't take any chances, finishing in 35:37. A PR, but not quite 2:45 material. I typically set my goals in sets of 3, so I determined my C goal would be sub 2:50, B goal would be 2:47, A goal (race of my life) would be 2:45. However, this presented a quandary; I didn't want to go out at 2:45 pace and blow up, wasting my fitness and jeopardizing my chance to run something really good for me, like a 2:47. Side note: I'm certain none of them pays any attention to the lists anymore, but I really wanted to pass Beiter, Sherif, and maybe even Ryan on the Team Blitz marathon performance list (this would require a 2:47:08).

To those of you unfamiliar with the Steamtown course (so 99% of people on the planet), the course has a net downhill of 900 or so feet, with over 700 ft of this drop coming in the first 10 miles. After this the course is pretty flat until some fairly significant hills between miles 23 and 26. With this in mind, I came to the conclusion that I would shoot for 1:22:30 at the half, using the elevation drop to decrease the effort needed to run that time. If I was feeling good at that point, I’d maintain that pace (increasing the effort), and give myself a shot at 2:45. If not, I would try to relax and maintain the effort to the finish sometime in the 2:47 neighborhood. I bought one of those temporary tattoos with race splits for 2:46:00, so I could easily adjust on the fly depending on how well the race was going (although I don’t think I looked at it after 10 miles or so). I also knew conditions would play a large role in my finish as well, and was told by someone that Steamtown often referred to how steamy the race conditions could be. 

Race Day:

So race day came, and the conditions could not have been better. 38 degrees at the start, 52 at the finish, very little wind (very important on a point-to-point course). Like all good marathoners, I’d been neurotically checking various weather forecast sites once the 10 day forecast became available, but until race day was actually here I could scarcely believe that they were going to be this perfect. I told Lara the night before that the conditions were so perfect that I had absolutely no excuse not to run fast.

After getting up at 5:00 and eating my traditional breakfast of a Clif Bar, banana and coffee, my parents dropped me off at the start around 7:00 am, at Forest City High School. I went inside and looked around for the one other person I knew running the race, Brian Flynn. I spotted him in one of the classrooms and walked right in and sat down with him on the gym mats that were on the floor there. Only then did I realize that everyone else in the room looked A LOT faster than me, and I realized that I was in the Elite Athlete room. People say fake it until you make it, so I pretended I was good enough to be there, and the guy standing guard let me stay (I watched him turn a number of other people away), although it was probably just because I knew Brian. After sitting in the room for a few minutes with a number of very fast looking people and a very nervous-looking Kenyan, we went out and warmed up. I only did about 5 minutes and a couple of strides; Brian decided to do a little more. After using the bathroom a couple more times, including once in the bushes near the school (we had very specific pre-race instructions not to pee ON the school), I felt ready to go.

The Actual Race:

So the civil war cannon (a nice touch!) went off, starting the race, and we were off down a steep hill and I tried to run as easily as possible and avoid getting trampled. About 20 seconds into the race I realized I still hadn’t started my GPS watch. No worries, I started it and reset the lap once I hit the mile mark. The first mile was very downhill and too fast (6:05), but it felt very easy and I was way back in the pack, so I wasn’t too worried, but resolved not to run that fast in the next couple miles. The next two were flatter, better paced (6:32 and 6:23), and very relaxed. I made a point to look around and smile at the crowds, which were large, loud, and very impressive for such a small-town race. There was a very large yellow lab right around the 2 mile mark sitting on the ground barking his head off. Exactly what Tony (my chocolate lab) would have been doing. Alexa probably would have been trying to get in the race. Once out of town, we were on a nice downhill rural road from miles 3-8, all very controlled, relaxed, and very downhill (6:23, 6:10, 6:08, 6:07, 6:23, and 6:14).

I spoke to a few of the other runners, looking for someone to work with, but everyone I talked to wanted to run somewhere between 2:50 and 3:00. Seriously, with all of the data on marathoning out there, why do people still try to fly in the first half of a marathon? I felt bad for one girl, who told me it was her first marathon and she wanted to run 6:45s. I told her we were running 6:05s at that point (this was around mile 7), so she might want to back off a little. She didn’t seem to appreciate my unsolicited advice, and kept running 6:05 with the little group I was with, so I just shut up, took my gel around 6.5 miles, and ran. I knew she would be hurting later.

Around 7.7 miles, we passed through the town of Carbondale and passed the hotel where I’d spent the previous night. I’d made the last-minute decision to have my parents hold a squirt bottle of Gatorade and a gel for me (I cleared this with the race director, for all of the rules sticklers out there). I have a lot of trouble drinking from cups during races, so the bottle was a good idea, and allowed me to gradually drink at least 8-10 ozs of fluid, which I was sure I would need later. After this I started to gradually move up in the pack, and ended up running miles 8-10 (6:14, 6:19, 6:14 – perfect) with a guy from New Jersey. In the short, clipped conversation that you’re able to have in the marathon, we determined that he had run for St. Christopher’s in Richmond, and we had actually competed against each other in high school! Small world! I didn’t ask, but I’m sure he kicked my butt back then. He said he wanted to run 2:48 or so, and after a while dropped off. He must not have gone far though, as I didn’t see him again for the rest of the race until he came flying by me with 200 meters left.

Miles 11-13 were uneventful (6:10, 6:23, and 6:15), as I would slowly overtake another runner, say hi and ask what they were trying to run, and then drop them very quickly without really meaning to. I tried to make a point not to pass too fast and waste precious energy. It was in this period I realized I couldn’t get over the fact that the pace felt SO EASY! I remembered the previous year feeling pretty tired halfway through the marathon, while this year it felt like Bryan and I had just finished our warmup and were ready to go start a tempo run. Coming up the halfway point, I was also having trouble doing math (1:20:00 + 20 seconds where I forgot to start the watch +/- the difference between my GPS and the mile markers, you get the idea), but thought I was probably somewhere close to my targeted pace. Then I saw the 13.1 clock tick 1:22:30 right as I passed it. I was so pleased with myself that I almost forgot to take my second gel, barely getting it down before getting to the water station just past the half-way point. Right after this I passed the last person I would pass for quite a while.

After I passed that guy, I could see pretty far down the course and tell that there was nobody in front of me for quite some distance. I was fine with this, as I had settled into a nice rhythm by myself in the 6:05-6:10 range. There was one downside though: up to this point I had done a decent job of cutting tangents on the course, but with lots of turns on the course and no one ahead to watch, I didn’t know which way to go to run the shortest distance. The pavement was clearly marked at the turns themselves, so there was never any danger of getting lost, but several times I guessed wrong and ended up on the wrong side, and ran farther than I had to. I could tell I was running extra distance because the distance between the GPS miles and course miles was getting significantly longer. Frustrating. Also, several times I got yelled at by cops to run turns wide when there was no traffic in sight; I just nodded at them and continued running the shortest distance I could. Oh well. Miles 14 and 15 ticked by in 6:07 and 6:06. I was rolling.

Around 15 miles the course hopped onto a crushed gravel trail for the next two and a half miles. I intended to throw my gloves to my parents when I’d see them at 16.6 miles, but I took the gloves off and my hands immediately felt cold, so I put them back on. 16.6 miles was the second designated viewpoint, so I passed what felt like a tunnel of people through the woods, cheering loudly. It was awesome. I managed to locate my parents in the crowd and took the other bottle from my mom. I’d told her to hold one gel and the bottle and give them to me the two times I saw them, but by them had determined that I only wanted the bottle, which I yelled to her when I took the bottle. Apparently this worried her. I had heard complaints about the footing here and figured my pace would slow a bit, and that would be ok since I’d built a little bit of a time buffer. I loved the trail though; I quickly figured out that the left side of the trail had less loose gravel than the right for whatever reason, so I stayed to that side. The trail ran along a small river (large creek?). It was really peaceful back here and I just felt like I was floating along, still in disbelief at how easy it felt. These were my fastest miles on the course (16, 17, and 18 were 6:01, 6:06, 6:01). I also remembered running a pace slower than this in my half, but remembered that pace feeling much harder than this. I felt like I should slow down, and a couple times I tried, only to quickly resume my 6-flat rhythm. So I just went with it and began entertaining thoughts of running something really crazy, like 2:43.

Somewhere in the middle of mile 18, the trail ended and I was back on the road. After I finished that mile in 6:01, I gave myself a stern little talking-to, admonishing myself to slow the heck down, even though I still felt really good. About this time I passed two guys who were looking pretty rough, so I took comfort in the fact that I obviously felt a lot better than they did. So I tried to say something encouraging, and kept rolling. Around mile 19 we went around a park, and I wasn't quite sure where I was supposed to be going so I asked a volunteer. He said "around the soccer fields". Thanks, that was helpful. I didn't know whether he meant around the fields (in the grass), or on the paved path around that. I stayed on the pavement; I think I made the right choice. Then after a short distance on a wood-chip trail, I was back on the road. Mile 19 was in 6:05, so apparently my talking-to wasn't all that effective. After this, my legs (particularly my quads) were starting to feel a little heavy, but I still felt worlds better than I have at 20 in any other marathon. Just run 6:10s, I told myself. So I did that, running 6:10, 6:11, and 6:09 for miles 20, 21, and 22. I took a gel at 21 and passed one of the wheelchair racers. I remember thinking how awesome it was to run a 6:09 at mile 22 of a marathon and still feel good. That's about all I can remember there, so that's all I have to say about that.

Coming up on mile 23, I could finally see a group of 3 runners up in the distance and I could tell I was closing the gap pretty quickly. By this time my legs were getting pretty tired, so I just tried to maintain a smooth, solid rhythm to prevent anything from cramping. At 22 I had calculated that I needed to run 28 minutes for the last 4.2 miles to break 2:45, something I thought would be no problem. That wouldn't end up being accurate, but my mind wasn't doing great math at this point. Mile 23 was 6:17 and I was starting to feel it a little bit, and knew that the hills were coming up soon.  I reached the group of 3 right at the base of the hill around 23.5 miles. Included in that group was Heidi Peoples, the 3 time Steamtown champ and 2:39 Olympic Trials runner. She was apparently pretty popular, because all I could hear from the crowd (quite large, I might add) was GO HEIDI, GO HEIDI! I imagined her staying with me and then blowing by me in the homestretch like Renee High did at the Patrick Henry Half. She must have been feeling worse than I did though, because I passed her pretty quickly and eventually put 2 minutes on her in the last 3 miles. I knew from looking at the course map that this was the most significant hill, so I figured after this hill I was pretty much home free. So I tried to push to the top, but my quads just weren't cooperating, so I crested the hill and tried to maintain down the other side, hitting mile 24 in 6:29. Not bad.

At this point, I was pretty sure I had a good time in the bag, but didn't really trust my in-race math skill either. I was hurting, but started thinking, ok, this is what marathons are supposed to feel like. One of the three people I passed a mile or so before stuck with me as I'd come by, and now I could hear him right behind me as I started the 25th mile. I'd noticed that he had a Penn State singlet on, so I'm not sure if he'd run for the team, or just liked the school, but I decided I really wanted to beat him. I tried to surge a little, but the quads just wouldn't respond, so I just tried to maintain my pace. Fortunately, I think he felt worse than I did, and I gradually started pulling away from him. Turns out I put 30+ seconds on him in the last mile. I hit mile 25 in 6:25, about 40 seconds better than I'd done for mile 25 of Richmond. Mile 26 is mostly uphill, and really hurt, but I just tried to keep my form and not lose too much time. 6:42. Not too bad. The guy from St. Chris came by me with about 200 meters, but I had neither the legs nor the desire to respond. Like Richmond, the last 1/4 mile is all downhill, so you can really roll if you're feeling good. However, my quads had decided they'd had enough of the downhill, so I just coasted down the hill. I was paying for my less-than-ideal tangent running, as the final distance run per the GPS ended up being slightly over 26.4. Oh well. I could see the clock around 2:44:30 and I put in a little push to make sure I got under 2:45. I did so comfortably, pumping my fists in the air as I crossed the line in 2:44:48 (2:44:46 chip time) like I had won the whole race. I probably looked like an idiot, but I was SO HAPPY.


Congratulations to anyone who is still reading this. With the possible exception of the 69 minute 10 miler I ran as a 13 year old, this was probably the best race of my life. This write-up feels to me like an very extended brag session, but it felt like everything on that day just went perfectly (as a cherry on top, my Cowboys pulled a big upset later that evening, upsetting the Seahawks in Seattle). I set a very ambitious goal, got great training advice, trained very hard and very well, and then executed my plan to perfection. I also had extremely good luck, getting perfect race-day weather on a fast course, and avoiding any injuries during the entire buildup. I remember talking to Cynthia before the race, and she told me she felt like it took her 5 marathons to get it right; I feel like I finally accomplished this with my 4th. Some lessons I learned and applied from mistakes made my earlier marathons: Shamrock (2007) – be very careful with your pace in the early miles, don’t run a 3 mile warm-up, stay off your feet the week before the race, Three Bridges (2012) – don’t run a marathon if you haven’t done the training for it unless you’re just trying to finish, run some races before the marathon to get some idea of your fitness, Richmond (2013) – you have to get lucky with the weather, be patient and wait until after mile 10 to begin to push the pace, marathons are a lot more fun when you run them intelligently.

Thanks to everyone who has played a part in this; I couldn’t have done this alone. First and foremost, to Lara, for her support and feigned interest as I babble on about training, workout paces, etc. To my parents, the best support crew anyone could ask for. To Mark Lorenzoni, for the excellent training program and long-term support that has led to me getting faster than I could have ever imagined. Finally, to Bryan Jenkins and Chris Motta, training runs (particularly workouts) are so much more fun and productive with someone else to do them with. Now it’s on to Boston 2015, where I’ll be joined by (and running far behind) Bert, Charlie, Trevor, Adam, and Chris Motta. I can’t wait!


Josh ran a great race and I'm very proud of him. It was a huge PR. When you get into that rarified air, it's more and more difficult to make big gains like this in distance running. But Josh is proof that hard work and dedication will pay off. Some of us come into our running prime later in life.

I look forward to running with him in Boston this April.

Disclaimer: To the company who took these photos, Josh is planning to buy them and I will replace these screenshots with the purchased images. Thanks!

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