Last October, as a long season of trail running came to a close, I pondered the semi-unthinkable: Would it be possible to compete in and complete a marathon without the single-minded training regimen that is inevitably recommended by “the experts”? Training for marathons by traditional methods (60-90 training miles per week, for many many weeks) had only accomplished one result for me- injuries before I ever reach the start line. Well, I found the answer for this, when I raced in a marathon, and completed it, feeling great most of the way – the description of that race has already been described in my post entitled “Questioning Conventional Wisdom – A Marathon Story”.
So far this season, I have done a fair number of longer runs (up to 13 miles), but let’s face it – one’s conditioning can’t be as advanced in July as it is in October. Add the loss of training time due to a nasty cold, and worse than usual allergies, and well, my legs have definitely felt better. Nonetheless, I have always wondered if I would be able to enter, and complete a marathon, treating it as “just” a very long training run. Why did I think this was even possible? For one, there are a fair number of older athletes (*ahem* like me) who run in large numbers of marathons each year, and while they don’t compete for prizes, they appear to have fun chugging along at a more leisurely pace than the younger thoroughbreds. These people have to have day jobs right? An early summer marathon also might be a springboard to more, and maybe longer races later in the season. So, I set out to find a mid-summer marathon to test some new questions about physical limits.
It didn’t take me long to learn of a race in Waitsfield VT called “The Mad Marathon“, and I thought that with a name like that, it would be a perfect venue at which to attempt this latest experiment. There was one slight problem with this plan – a marathon with truly minimal training should probably be undertaken on a flat course, and this race has 1000 vertical ft of climbing and descent. Yikes! Nonetheless, there I was at 7 am Sunday morning…lined up with about 1200 runners (most of whom seemed to be running in either the half marathon, or as members of marathon relay teams) for the starting gun.
I knew I had to do things differently if I was going to survive this race. I tend to start of long runs slowly, and accelerate as the run or race proceeds. In this run, however, I knew that I was cutting it awfully close in terms of my abilities, so I picked a pace which I knew I could maintain for long distances, and stuck to that pace, no matter how good I felt at various times in the race. I also knew that for a sunny summer run, even in comfortable weather (and nature obliged with high temperatures in the low 70′s by the end of the morning race) hydration would be even more critical that usual. With this in mind, I forced myself to take water at EVERY water station, and walk through the station so that I could drink the full cup. As a curious aside, at the first water station, only about a mile into the race, the volunteer offering me my hydration seemed shocked when I drank the gatorade, and poured the water on my head! This is another old runner’s trick for staying cool on long runs, but apparently this particular volunteer had never before witnessed the practice. And speaking of the volunteers – they were great! Water stations were abundant, amply staffed, and I don’t think that I have ever seen a more enthusiastic bunch.
I am not going to go into the particulars of the race course, as it is well described on the race website linked to above. In general, it started in the village of Waitsfield, climbed up to the roads high on the east side of the Mad River Valley (where a few past runs, including one a few weeks ago have been posted), did a loop to the north towards Moretown, and reversed its course into East Warren, before plunging back into the valley for the finish line. I am going to share a few fun quirks of this well run race. At about the 9 mile mark, I approached a woman who seemed to be struggling on the second of many climbs in the race. She also had a sign on her back saying “Today is my birthday”. So, as I pulled alongside her, I inquired if anyone had sung the Happy Birthday Song to her yet that day. Hearing that nobody had, I asked her name, and sang her the song before passing her by. I hope you finished the race Barbara! Another fun little semi-surprise was……free beer! The catch, was that in order to get the beer for free…..you had to drink it at mile 24 of the race – beer at the finish line cost 3 bucks a cup! I loved the novelty of this, and despite the fact that I knew it would cost me a few minutes, I was running this as a “Timeless” race, so I couldn’t resist the temptation for at least a few sips of delicious cold beer, even with a few painful miles to go. I also thought it was funny, that due to Vermont liquor laws, I had to go stand inside the roped in area to enjoy this treat. Many thanks to my new friends from the Sam Adams distributor! Finally, the finish line had a little barn structure to run under as one crossed the finish line, and the race announcers went out of their way to welcome each and every finisher by name over the PA system, and say something about where they were from. The race participants also seemed to come from a lot of different places, for such a small race (only 271 finishers in the full marathon!) It seemed that a disproportionate number of the entrants were striving to complete a marathon in each of the 50 states, and they found this marathon appealing, since it was a mid summer marathon, a rarity, in a cool climate.
So, here I am, a day later, and I really don’t feel too bad! The legs are a bit tight, but I suspect I will be able to resume at least short runs in a day or two. I think I will call this experiment a success! Thanks to the organizers for putting together a challenging (hence slow) fun race. I don’t have any pictures of the race, but the race web page has a lot of nice shots up from the 2011 race, which will give one a great feel for the great scenery accompanying this race.
Jeff Byers is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Middlebury College. He also writes the Middlebury Trailrunner blog. We'll be periodically highlighting posts from his blog, but for more recommendations for trailrunning and cross country skiing in the county, head to his website.
This entry was originally posted on July 9, 2012.