Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Space Coast Marathon – All the Gory Details

Maintaining this blog over the past few months has been incredibly cathartic for me so I feel an obligation to be brutally honest about what I experienced running the Space Coast Marathon on Sunday, even if some of it is a little embarrassing. So here you go . . . .

The race is advertised as Florida’s Oldest Marathon and has a great reputation locally for being well organized and picturesque. The race course is basically an out and back route following the Indian River, which separates the east coast barrier islands from the mainland of Florida. The race starts in the middle of the route at a quaint shopping district called Cocoa Village. I have driven within blocks of this area many times and never knew it was there, I will definitely return to check it out.

The half marathon ran south, following the river for about 6.5 miles and then doubled back to return to the start. The full marathon ran north 6.5 miles along the river, doubled back to the start/finish and then followed the half marathon course to the south. This was the first year the two races were separated in this manner and I heard that it was done in an attempt to reduce overcrowding. It was a good idea in theory, but it created a significant problem for the full marathon runners late in the race. I’ll get to that later.

I don’t have much to say about the first half of the race. It went almost exactly as I planned. My goal pace was 9:09 per mile in order to finish the race in 4 hours. The plan was to take about 3 miles to work up to that pace and then just try to maintain.

My split for the first mile was 9:25, close enough to the 9:30 I had planned. I hit my race pace in the second mile, a little bit early. My fastest mile was an 8:53 for mile 7 in the vicinity of the first turnaround, probably due to the excitement of passing friends as the course doubled back on itself.

I reached the midpoint of the race averaging 9:11 per mile, right on target, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. The course was beautiful with just a few gently rolling hills, nothing too steep, long or challenging. I was still feeling great.

I noticed over the next few miles that my pace was slowing down with each passing mile by about 10 seconds. I was still feeling good though and was not yet concerned. I was also beginning to feel the affects of changing conditions. It was a pleasant 57 degrees at the start of the race but now I was feeling uncomfortably warm. The wind steadily gained in intensity as the sun rose higher in the sky and I swear it somehow managed to change directions with the curves in the road so that it was always a hindrance. The curves suddenly seemed to be more steeply banked than in the first half of the race. None of these things would have bothered me when I was fresh.

I noticed a growing disparity between the distance measured on my Garmin and the mile markers on the course so I made a concerted effort to “run the tangents,” weaving back and forth in my lane to reduce the distance travelled around curves. The race had thinned out enough that I wasn’t worried about impeding other runners. Fatigue was starting to set in though and I soon found this to be too mentally taxing, preferring to hold my line down the center of the road.

Rather than rely on the Gu provided by the race organizers I was carrying two packs of Power Bar Gel Energy Blasts that I used in training. These are little gummy candies with each package roughly equivalent to two packs of Gu. There are 9 pieces per pack and I noticed in training that each piece is a small enough dose of carbs and electrolytes that I could wash them down with either water or Gatorade without upsetting my stomach. My plan was to eat one candy per mile beginning at mile 4.

Around mile 10 I noticed that my stomach was starting to feel full and heavy. I had been slowing to take water at every water station and eating my gel candies according to plan. I intentionally skipped the next water station and decided to cut back on the gels. This was probably a mistake because within just a few miles I was finding it hard to keep track of when I had last eaten. At some point late in the race I became so fatigued that it required too much effort to reach into my pocket to fish a piece out of the package. I think I eventually forgot I was carrying food altogether. I checked my pockets after the race and realized I hardly touched the second package. Looking back, I have no recollection of when I stopped eating.

I started to hurt around mile 15. I didn’t really notice it at first until I slowed to take in some water and realized that for the first time, slowing to take a drink did not provide me any relief.

My pace continued to deteriorate and by mile 18 I had my first split over 10:00. As I realized that a four hour marathon was no longer a possibility I started to adjust my goals. 4:10? 4:20?

I was beginning to struggle and told myself that if I could just make it to the turnaround at the southernmost point of the course I would be OK. Only 10k left in the final leg. I was willfully ignoring the advice I heard literally 1000 times while training – the second half of a marathon starts at mile 20.

Mile 20 required more than eleven minutes.

Within half a mile of passing the turnaround, Robert, a friend from the West Volusia Running Group and veteran of many marathons, caught up with me. We ran our final long run together in training for this race, nearly 24 miles, and I found it funny that I recognized the sound of his footfalls approaching me from behind. He caught me, faded for a minute with a cramp, and then passed. I struggled to match his pace for a few minutes but couldn’t keep up. As I watched him pull away, I remembered how I cockily believed I would beat him. I remembered our conversations in which I confided that I thought I would be able to finish the race in four hours. He never said anything to discourage me, but would always give me this knowing look, as if to say I had no idea what I was about to experience. He was right.

Shortly after that I was passed by the 4:15 pace group. Again, I struggled to pick up my pace to keep up. I was a little more successful this time which is reflected in an improved 10:52 split for mile 22, but ultimately had no choice but to watch them slowly pull away.

By this time, most of the nearly 1600 half marathon runners and about half of the full marathoners had already passed through this section of the course – twice. The next two water stations had run out of supplies. When I reached the first I saw a bizarre scene with runners gathered around the water table, some of them trying to lap water from the spouts on the sides of the Igloo coolers. In my already confused mental state, I couldn’t comprehend what was happening and I decided to continue on without stopping.

When I reached that next water station, there was a similar scene and I heard that the problem was that they had run out of cups. A volunteer offered me a pitcher full of water. I needed a drink, but I was feeling nauseous and needed to sip the fluid slowly. As I blankly stared at the pitcher in my hand I wasn’t able to even consider trying to quickly chug water from the pitcher and pass it on. I told her I didn’t care and I would take one of the discarded cups from the ground. She quickly sorted through a pile of crushed cups, found me one that would work, and helped me rinse it out and pour the water. When I turned around I realized I was now the guy holding the pitcher and I was confronted by a dozen outstretched hands holding salvaged cups. I quickly poured a few cups before realizing I was supposed to be running, so I set the pitcher on the table, and fought my way out of the crowd.

I hope I wasn’t too snippy with that volunteer, I honestly can’t remember. The problem wasn’t her fault and she was very helpful. I hope I thanked her, but again I can’t remember if I did or not. If she by chance is reading this – Thank you!

It was shortly after leaving that water station that I completely stopped running for the first time. I was spent. The sensation is difficult to describe but I had nothing left.

Just one minute, I promised myself. Walk for one minute and then you will be able to finish this damn race.

I spent that minute visualizing the short routes I ran in training – 5 miles on the Gemini Springs Trail, 5k around Victoria Park, 3 miles to the Debary Hall – all distances that I could easily complete. The race was almost over and the short distance left should be easy. At least that’s what I tried to make myself believe.

I dutifully started to run again when the minute was up but managed only a few minutes of a shuffling run before I had to stop again. I was devastated.

One more minute, just one more minute of rest.

This cycle continued throughout mile 23 which took me well over 12 minutes. Mile 24 was even worse. You can see my pace graph on my Garmin page here. This section of the graph has more peaks and valleys than the Appalachian Trail. I kept trying. I refused to give up, but I could not maintain a run.

I heard someone shouting my name and turned to see Leigh, another member of WVR, who showed up to support the racers and cheer us on. I was embarrassed that she caught me walking. She took this photo of me and was gracious enough to wait until I started running again before clicking the shutter. This lifted my spirits enough that I was able to continue running again, at least for a short time. She yelled to me that Jennifer, WVR’s organizer, was waiting just ahead.

Jennifer spent hours pacing runners in the last few miles of the race, encouraging them to the finish. She caught up to me near the end of the 24th mile, just after my last spurt of energy faded. I was again embarrassed at being caught walking and dug deep to start running. She ran next to me and tried to use humor to lift my spirits. After each joke she told I heard an odd sound escape my mouth - part chuckle, part exhalation, part grunt. The sound seemed to emit itself without volition, over and over again. It seemed I had even lost the ability to control my speech at that point.

With Jennifer’s support, I was able to complete the last two miles of the race without stopping, slowing only once to drink some water at the last water station. I even began to get faster with each mile. She left me with a final cheer at the 26th mile marker and doubled back to assist the next runner.

The final stretch was crowded with cheering people including my friends from WVR. The race ended on a columned sidewalk that encircled the finishing festivities. It made for a dramatic end to a tough race. I wouldn’t call it a kick, but I was able to speed up just a little as I approached the finish line. When it finally came into view around the curve in the sidewalk I felt myself start to get choked up.

I stopped running the moment I crossed the finish line and stumbled forward awkwardly, nearly falling and frightening a young volunteer who reached out to try to support me. Someone draped a towel around my shoulders and hung the finishing medal around my neck but I never saw their faces. I didn’t have the energy to raise my head. My struggle to restrain the emotion welling up left me gasping for breath and I reached out for a column to hold myself up. It took a few minutes to compose myself.

For the next hour I was miserable. I could barely walk. I was too nauseous to even drink any water. I made my way over to where WVR was encamped near the finish line to watch other runners come in, but I could not get comfortable. When I stood my legs complained. When I sat it was my back, shoulders and neck. I laid out my towel on the ground hoping to lie down and then realized I was unsure if I would be able to get down without falling over. I finally succeeded and in time began to feel human again. I even managed to shuffle around like a zombie in my bare feet in search of food and drink.

I continued to watch and cheer for runners as they came in and felt a bond with each and every one of them.

Will I do this again?

You may think I’m crazy but the answer is - hell yes!

I know I painted a gloomy portrait of the experience, but in some weird masochistic way this was one of the most glorious moments of my life.

There is also a small matter of revenge. I’ve come to the conclusion that “the wall” is inaptly named. A wall is impersonal - rigid but passive. What I encountered was very personal. It was animate and malicious - an evil thing singularly bent on my destruction that nearly bested me.

I will be better prepared next time.

413th Overall
53rd in Age Group


  1. Oh man, good for you. Sounds like an incredible challenge- and you DID IT!!
    (also sounds like insane torment. but again, good for you buddy! cheers!)

  2. Congrats and thank you for the honesty. I also have dilusions of 4 hours and appreciate your insights.

  3. Congrats on the race!!! Sorry you missed your time goal but for your first marathon I think you did awesome! This recap just makes me look forward to my first full even more :)

    ~Cristina (CLS89)

  4. Wow - that was a fantastic report! You painted a fabulous picture and I think I held my breath through most of it as I felt I was along for the ride and wondering what would happen next. Congratulations on finishing - and you definitely DO have to do it again --- so you can remember it all and laugh at the wall!

  5. What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it with us. Now I have to rethink my goal for my coming marathon.

  6. Great report, Bird. You're a hero, for sure!

  7. Rereading this again today, it's still impressive.