Sometime last year I lost all of my good senses and decided I was going to run a marathon. The decision was not exactly out of the blue. I had been running regularly for several years, and had completed two half marathons last year. Being that I am a fanboy of the state of Colorado it was only fitting that I choose the Colorado Marathon to give my virginity to. This marathon is known for its natural beauty and smallish field, not its fanfare and crowds. This race seamed right up my alley. The Colorado Marathon is a one way race which follows the Poudre river as it runs into the heart of Fort Collins. With the race date set, I made a training plan based off of one of Hal Higdon’s popular plans. Then I set out to convince some friends to run the race with me. I was only able to convince one other person (Melissa) to do the full marathon, but managed to talk a couple friends into running a half marathon.
Seven of us, including our cheerleaders headed to Fort Collins the night before the race. We stayed at the sponsoring Hilton Hotel where we had easy access to the small expo. Our friend’s parents invited us to carbo load on a spaghetti feast at their beautiful home.
Sometime around 2:30 am I rolled over in my hotel bed. My thoughts drifted as I lay there partially awake. I wonder what time it is … I think it is Sunday, I don’t have to worry about the time… OH MY GOD! I have to run a friggin marathon this morning! And like that my sleep was over. I lay there and tried to rest for another hour or so. I actually felt relieved when my alarm finally went off at 3:45AM. I was up immediately and began the process of fueling up for the run. The first course was beet root juice. I read in a nutrition book that studies show the nitrates in beet juice give you a 2.8 percent performance boost. I cannot confirm this study, however, I can confirm that beet root juice tastes horrible.
It didn’t take long to finish getting ready. Melissa, who was staying in a different hotel, drove over to my hotel and met me for the ride up to the start line. As we twisted and turned our way up the canyon, I sipped my coffee and distracted myself by conversing with the man sitting next to me. His name was Jim and he was here from Wichita to run his third marathon. After what seemed like an hour the bus slowed and the headlights illuminated a line of porta-potties. Oh we must be at the starting line. The bus lurched as it made a sharp turn, nope I guess that was only the start of the half YIKES!! We continued up the canyon for what seemed like a very long time, and reached the marathon starting line just as the first signs of dawn appeared.
The marathon start was a picnic area along the river. Melissa and I sat at a table and prepped ourselves for the race. The temperature at this hour was brisk, but with a forecasted high of 84° I knew it wouldn’t last long. About 6AM we decided to use the restroom before the race start. As we walked towards the porta-potties we noticed that of the 1700 runners at the campground, 1650 of them were standing in a long line. Unsure if this was the weirdest race start ever or the bathroom line, we lined up at the end of the campground. As we waited in line we discussed our race strategy. Melissa was thinking she wanted to follow the 5 hour pace group. I was waffling between 4:15 and 4:30. We really wanted to run together so we agreed to start with the 4:30 group and play it by ear. We finally made it to the porta-potty around 6:25 AM (5 minutes to race start). I rushed through the bathroom and hurried to the road. In the shuffle Melissa and I were separated. I lined up with the 4:30 group, and looked around for Melissa as I put on my headphones, started runkeeper, and tossed off my sweat shirt.
This was certainly a smaller race than the others I had run. There was no music, no staggered start times, no loud announcer pumping up the runners. I took a few deep breaths of cool canyon air to calm myself and waited for the start. There was a crackle as a voice came over the PA and began to count us down. The race began to a chorus of beeps as hundreds of runners started their garmin watches.
It didn’t take long to fall into a rhythm. The sound of thousands of feet on asphalt mixed with the swollen Poudre river was soothing. I felt tight and a little out of breath, a flood of thoughts raced through my mind, was my training really enough to run 26 miles.. is that little feeling in my hamstring going to turn into a cramp … my right shoe may be a little too tight… A punch on my shoulder jolted me out of thought. “There you are, I lost you at the start!” Melissa said as she jogged up next to me beaming a smile of excitement. Alright I can do this, this is going to be fun. And like that, the first ten minutes thirty seconds and mile one of the race was gone. We were a little ahead of the 4:30 pace group, and the downhill grade felt easy. As we passed mile 2 (10:07), we really got warmed up and our pace quickened to a 9 minute mile. We began to drift further and further in front of the pace group. The first aid station and the first gel came and went. We chatted with other runners, listening to stories of other races they had run, and discussed races we wanted to do. Very soon the first hour was gone.
The temps were perfect, and I was feeling strong. By mile five it was clear my efforts to avoid dehydration was going to cause a bathroom break. Around 6.5 miles I spotted a national forest vault toilet with no line and ran over the embankment for a speedy pee. Maybe a half mile later I caught back up with Melissa. Before we knew it a big flag reading ‘mile 10’ came into view. Only a 5k and we are halfway done. We were still holding below a 9:45 pace and it felt almost effortless. This was very encouraging. My thoughts turned to Angela and Juli. I hoped they were also having a good race, I knew they would be past the halfway point by now. Somewhere even further down the canyon I assumed Nicole was pounding her way to a 10K PR.
Melissa decided she also needed to take a bio break at the next aid station, she would do her best to catch back up. She pealed off and ran to the bathroom line. That was the last I would see of her until the finish line. Somewhere in this section I passed a decomposing carcass of a deer. Shortly after passing it, the rancid stench of it hit me, and I fought to keep my last gel down.
I crossed the halfway point right around 2:10, was I really on pace to finish this thing in 4:20? I took extra time at this aid station. As I rejoined the steady stream of runners, the 4:30 pace group appeared next to me. I was unsure if my race time was off or if they had also banked some time in the first half. In either case I fell in with them determined to keep the pace in the last half.
Over the next few miles I enjoyed conversing with a few other runners in the pace group. The pace leader was a runner from Runners Edge running club. This was her first time pacing a race. Our pace (around 10 min miles), felt comfortable through mile 16. Somewhere around this point a guy stopped his truck to scream profanities at us. Apparently he was pissed that we were causing traffic slowness. In my experience as a runner and cyclist, the bigger the truck the bigger jerk the owner is. This guy had a very large truck!
Somewhere between mile 16 and 17 we came out of the canyon. It was now after 9AM and it was positively hot. The first signs of real fatigue began to appear in my legs and along with them came doubts of being able to hold the pace. nine miles is a long way to hold this pace…
I had a peanut butter gel at crazy ted’s aid station. I did not have enough water with this gel, and I left the aid station with a sticky sweet feeling in my mouth. Mile 17 had a mild incline which felt way harder than it should have.
Mile 18 contained bagel hill, the biggest hill of the race. Compared to hills I ran in training it was an easy hill, but after 3 hours of running it was anything but easy. We held a 10:09 pace into the aid station at mile 19. I was clearly getting dehydrated so I grabbed 3 waters, poured two over my head and drank the other. Still thirsty I also grabbed some sports drink. A little extra time in this aid station caused me to fall behind my pace group. They turned around yelled encouragements at me. I knew if I lost them I would not be able to sustain this pace. I dug down and surged to catch up.
“Anyone can run 20 miles. It’s the next 6 that count.” Barry Magee, New Zealander; marathon Olympic bronze medalist (Rome 1960)
This popular quote was on my mind as the 20 mile mark approached. Those final six miles are what set marathons apart from shorter distance races. Many runners hit the wall somewhere around mile twenty. The “wall”, is a severe glycogen depletion which forces a runner to drastically slow their pace often to a walk. As we passed the twenty mile mark I set a new personal record for distance. My hamstrings were beginning to ache with every contraction and real exhaustion was setting in. It was now 10AM and the the strong sun was beating down on the asphalt. It felt like it was 90 degrees out. I knew this next hour was going to suck.
I clung desperately to the pace group as we passed mile 21 (9:55 pace) by this point conversation had ceased. The runners around me all had a look on their face that was a combination of pain and determination. My calf, knee, feet, and hamstring all joined forces screaming at me to slow down. I knew there was an aid station at mile 21.5 and I resolved to stay with my group at least to the aid station. When we reached the aid station I was the definition of a hot mess. I again grabbed extra water and Gu brew, and walked for 30 seconds to drink the fluids. I watched as my pace group pulled away from the aid station and turned to cross the Poudre river on a bridge. I returned to a run, but simply did not have the energy in me to catch up. I knew then that I had little chance of making my 4:30 goal.
Mile 22 was an 11 minute mile which felt like at least an hour. All around me runners were replaced by zombies, all doing the same deflated painful shuffle towards the finish line. Somewhere in my head a voice began to whisper “If you walked from here you could still easily finish in under five hours”. My shoes felt like they were constructed from lead weights and broken glass. Everything in both my mind and body screamed at me to walk. Finally around mile 23.5 I succumbed and took a short walk break. Just a minute or two to get some energy back. Determined not to quit I forced myself back to a run a few minutes later. It was agony. The remainder of the race was a repeat of this pattern. No matter how hard I tried I could not hold a run for more than 1/2 mile. I simply stopped caring about my finish time and was now resolved just to finish. I passed a runner being helped up the trail by paramedics, and another runner retching in the bushes. I felt like puking myself, but I knew I had nothing in my body to throw up.
The temperature was now above 80° and a somewhere a grass fire was filling the air with acrid smoke. Step after determined step I progressed towards the 26 mile mark. Off in the distance I could hear the din of the finish line party, and somewhere on the sidelines a spectator yelled “Come on Keith PUSH! Run! you are almost there, RUN!!”
I took a deep breath of hot air and strained to force my dead legs back to a run. As I turned into old town the first real crowd appeared. Then the finish line came into view, and a surge of adrenaline dulled the pain. Soon I saw my friends Justin and Brian holding up some awesome signs. Seconds later I saw my other friends in the crowd screaming at the top of their lungs. It meant so much to have them at the finish line. A voice boomed from the loud speakers “Keith Ganger from Castle Rock, lets bring him in folks”! And with that I was across the finish line and it was all over!! I finished with an official time of 4:41:56
If felt SO good to have the finisher medal slipped over my neck. I met up with my friends and got some pictures as I fought back nausea. We stayed at the party for just long enough to see Melissa finish (only a few minutes behind me). We all wanted to get back to our hotels and begin caring for our battered bodies, so we did not stick around the finish party for long.