Monday, January 31, 2011

My Houston Marathon Report--What I Learned About When To Make A Decision To Drop

Race Goals. I had essentially two goals in Houston, the most important of which was to qualify for a guaranteed starting position in New York (requiring a 3:38:00, a slight edge over my 2009 Chicago time of 3:38:22). The more challenging goal was to run a 3:35-something. Anything in that range (3:35-3:38), and I would be ecstatic. My workouts indicated this was possible, but I intended to play it conservatively. I wore two pacing bands, one for 3:35:00 and one for 3:38:00. Neither of which got a single glance the entire time.

Pre-race. The average temperature of my two longest runs this season was 20 F. Contrast that to 65 F at the start in Houston, soggy, muggy and we were promised bits of rain. The announcer warned we'd be routed to safety in the event of lightning within 10 miles of the course. I figured with the erstwhile rain, I'd be cooled enough and followed a "non hot" marathon pre-race routine. I had not had any water since I woke at 4:30 AM (Ok, I mean finally got out of bed, I didn't sleep), when I downed my usual 16 ounces. Hydration is good; port-a-sans stops are not.

The twin booms of the half marathon and marathon starting guns reverberated, and soon, I was off onto the wet streets of Houston with a steady rain that was seen more than felt.

I've broken into sections of the race that follow the "unofficial" splits that family / friends sent me from text messages / chip times as I crossed the various check points. My Garmin acted up before during and after the race, and I ended up losing all my data long before I could download it. I don't really remember many miles in great detail anyway, and it's best to take this in chunks.

5 K--25:02 (8:03 overall). My first real memory while running was my mouth being cotton dry, gasping dry, and I was parched. In the rain, ironically. I was on the farthest left of the field, knowing there was a 90 degree turn to the left coming up, but just before mile 2, the water stations were to the far right. I was wise to this trick, having experienced this in Boston--where I veered over, completely missing the water tables on the right, only to have them come up on the left and completely miss those too. Smarter runner... let the water come to me! Or, so I thought. Dumb runner, it never did. No water this split.

Despite the thirst, during this period the miles were seductively easy. I was trying to slow down, but kept finding myself below 8:00. The pace didn't feel right. It felt too slow. Maybe my Garmin was wrong--it froze on me earlier, but then I was figuring the gun time vs. my start time and decided it must be right. I needed to slow it down to 8:11.

10K--50:21 (8:06 overall). At last, mile 4 there was a second water station. On the right. Crap. Well, I managed to get over, but got the tiniest tablespoon of Gatorade and I nearly choked on it. It was mile 6 before I managed to grab two cups and downed them both without slowing. This would probably mark the beginnings of why this race was a struggle--it was warmish, quite humid, marked by occasional wind gusts and rain. I got behind on water and electrolytes, and never was able to catch up.

Still, I'm nudging the pace up (trying to get to 8:11 and hold--which means slowing down), but the miles feel like water. I'm effortless. My legs feel fluid, and I think this just might be my day.

There are a few gentle "rollers" usually in the form of overpasses in the first 10K. None of them in particular are worth mentioning, or even troublesome--but they are there and keep it interesting.

15K--1:15:49 (8:08 overall). The next 5K are really flat, and still, I am feeling wonderfully well, attempting to pick up fluid at every stop, but I now realize I'd probably fallen way behind and somewhere in here, I can't logistically manage water without stopping, so I skip a station. I'm finding the 8:11s more often, and running all of this at 8:11 or 8:12 pace, right on target.

20K--1:41:30 (8:10 overall). Still in a very flat portion of the course, I am getting warm but still feeling good, and managing my pace of 8:11 very well. This is perhaps my favorite part of the course, as we pass by lovely homes and Rice University.

Half--1:47:13 (8:10 overall). Just before we turn north on Weslayan, we cross the half-way point. I'm exactly on schedule, a few seconds to spare, but overall feeling good. This is the last checkpoint where I can say that.

25K 2:07:39 (8:13 overall). Just past mile 14 is the only prominent hill on the course, an overpass. Nothing terrible, but my plan was to let this mile go. I expected to gain 20-30 seconds on the mile and not try to make it up. As it happens, I crossed mile 15 in 8:28, just about on schedule. And I plan to pick the pace back up. But it doesn't come to me.

Instead, for the first time, I find the 8:11 pace requiring effort. And the nausea has begun. I worry, and hope this passes. I switch totally to water, not sure what's wrong, but I realize I'm not far along enough to be feeling this bad. I eke out an 8:12 at mile 16, and then, nearly throw up. I stopped looking at my watch, thinking, ok, it is what it is. If you can just run a comfortable pace in for the remaining 11 miles, so be it.

I pray for lightning.

The cramping began. First, in my calves, but soon spreading to one of my glutes and the nausea intensifies and the pain is intense. But, the pain isn't the real problem--the fact that the muscles are locking up is. My calves aren't even flexing anymore, and I realize I'm in trouble. Lightning doesn't come.

I take a quick walk break, and then start to jog again. I carry on like this, realizing at 18 miles that eight miles to go in this condition can be toughed out--but at what cost? At the very least, I'm worried something is going to tear. And I somehow need to get through the nausea, which is now making me dizzy.

30K 2:35:51 (8:21 overall) Somewhere in here I cross over 30K. I start walking again, give up on the lightning, and realize it's time for me to call it a day. I'm so far off of my goal, and the cost to actually make it to the finish will be exceedingly high. So high, at best, I will need a lengthy recovery and start over at zero for the season, and at worst, I might face a long-term injury.

I pulled over into the aid station near mile 20 for the long wait. So long, in fact, I think that the walk / jogging it in would not only have gotten me to the finish area faster, I wouldn't be questioning if I should have just done it. I have two hours to contemplate my decision. But any difficult decision is just that--difficult. I'm not sure there is a 'right' or a 'wrong' answer here, but this ultimately was a 'good' decision for me.

I wouldn't suggest that pulling over and calling it quits is a typical solution to a 'bad' marathon. In fact, in most cases, one should really press on. If you're truly in doubt, consider that the marathon isn't well set up to cart non-finishers back to the end, and you'll likely wait for a long time for the privilege. Walking it into the finish might be the best option.

I thought I'd wrap up with some conclusions about when you might--and when you might not--want to consider ending your "bombed" marathon.

When NOT to drop out of your marathon:

1. Your first marathon. This is a really important event, and it's an experiment of the distance. If you are a novice like I was, you've likely not gone more than 20 miles. Unless you risk serious, imminent bodily harm--pulling out of your first marathon will fill you with long-lasting doubts. You'll probably hit a point you wish you could quit. Don't do it.

2. Your goal is to finish. Sometimes, the goal is a very specific one--like Houston was for me. Other times, it's important for other reasons. When I ran Boston in 2009, I would have walked, crawled, hopped, pushed or dragged myself across the finish line, no matter what suffering or what my time was. Wearing my Boston gear for which I had worked so hard was essential for me. Likewise, if your marathon is plugging hole in a set (e.g., 50 marathons in 50 states, all world major marathons), you probably want to ensure you've leveraged your investment. If you want it, chances are probably 99.5% you'll pull it off, even if you think you can't at mile 20. Quitting is simply not an option.

3. You haven't done many marathons. The cost of dropping out of the marathon if you only have a few behind you is very high. It's a decision that will haunt you in ways you haven't dreamed. Unless you have quite a few solid marathons behind you, you're probably better off toughing it out.

"If you quit the race for reasons other than abnormal fatigue, the sense of failure with stay with you for a very long time and will increase the likelihood that the same thing will happen in the next race. Extreme fatigue is, by itself, not a reason to quit any race. Much of the marathon battle is mental anyway, and often fatigue becomes more bearable the nearer you get to the finish... Should you quit, remember, there is no second chance." The Lore of Running 4th Edition, Tim Noakes, p. 631

When the decision to drop out might be a good one.

1. You have a very specific goal in mind, and reason to believe you can attain it--and you're not even close. By dropping out early from the marathon, you can probably treat it as a tempo run and be ready to race again in just a few weeks. Finishing this race way off your target pace, draining your body to its maximum will prevent you from a successful marathon that is back on goal any time soon. Let's face it--the marathon season is a huge investment. You simply don't need another marathon "notch," but you DO need (or want) your goal.

2. Chest pain, severe injury (such as broken bone), shortness of breath, extreme dehydration or symptoms of heat stroke. You are risking more than your ego here. Best case--stop off at the medical tent and be evaluated. If your symptoms are serious enough, they won't let you back out.

If you've ever had to drop out of a race, I'd love to hear about it. My decision is barely 36 hours old. I'm only beginning to understand the ramifications--both good and bad.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

What Happened in Houston...

For those of you who were faithfully following my progress today in Houston, thank you. I thought I'd briefly update you on what happened, and later I'll write a more detailed "race report."

Briefly, I made the decision to drop out around the 18-19 mile mark and walked to the nearest aid station due to extreme nausea and cramping. I was very concerned that even if I could get past the nausea, I might be risking long term damage to my muscles, as I forced them to cooperate against their will. I had very marked goals going into the race, and I believe that it was more important for me to live to run another day to achieve those goals than it was to complete and make it to the finish line.

Yes, I could have finished this marathon. But, at a minimum, it would have cost me an entire marathon training cycle. Stopping when I did will allow me to spend this training cycle at another time when my body and the conditions are more cooperative. I made my decision that continuing today was not worth the cost to my body, and I can more quickly leverage my fitness to cash in on my goals in the nearer future.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Designing a Boston Marathon Age Distribution That Better Reflects Marathoner Demographics

I've finally had the Boston Marathon 2010 individual result data as well as some time to take a closer look, and I have some surprising findings. My goal was to take the overall finisher count (22,540) and determine what a "perfect" distribution of runners might look like, based on marathoner demographics. The data suggest that the younger age divisions are actually under-represented, and bloating occurs in the older divisions--most pronounced in the 45-49 age group.

Of course, this is my approach based on some assumptions and based on the data available to me, as well as the fact I am not in favor of dramatically increasing the number of available slots to Boston runners. I am in favor of a sufficiently "elite" (term used very loosely; most of us running Boston are certainly not elite runners) qualifying standard that the event doesn't sell out in hours (a point of contention for many, I know). So, my "perfect" Boston finisher field will assume the same number of finishers as we had in 2010. I do recognize quite a few more qualified and didn't start or didn't finish for various reasons.

The first thing I noticed is that the Boston Qualifying times don't match the actual age divisions in Boston for one group of runners. The qualifying times are split 0-34 years old and 35-39 years old, yet the actual age division is 0 to 39. I believe the age divisions should match the qualifying times, although I understand the reasoning is probably "open" vs. "masters." However, if that is the logic applied, it should be consistent. For the purposes of this exercise, I am assuming that there are separate age divisions for 0-34 and 35-39, due to the qualifying times (even though in practice, that is not true; I've created it).

In the 2010 Boston Marathon, there were 22,540 finishers, and it's these results on which I will be basing my analysis. I don't have visibility into who actually entered, but for the conclusions I will draw, actual qualifying times for entrants don't matter (I'm not making actual recommendations on the times; just the target distribution by age division). Also, I couldn't factor in how many bibs are given away or earned through charity partnerships, however, I'll make the assumption that these runners follow the overall demographics of other runners.

My purposes here today are to take that 22,540 finisher count, and see how each age division fared against a hypothetical "fair" distribution. Since it's my blog, I'm choosing fair in what I believe is an objective approach. I'm defining a Boston Marathon field (using the finishers count) that largely mirrors the running population demographics of today and has the same number of finishers as the 2010 Boston Marathon. While some may take exception to this goal, my purpose will be to point out what that Boston field "should" look like, vs. what it actually looked like in 2010, by age and gender division.

While I've seen varying statistics on male vs. female marathon runners (up to an even 50/50 split of male / female), I'm going a hard line route to quote the 2009 Marathon and State of the Sport Reports using 2008 data to find the goal male / female split for Boston. This puts our target Boston Field at 41 percent female and 59 percent male (the widest recent margin I could find). The math is pretty easy then for our 22,540 2010 Boston Marathon finishers, there should have been:
  • 9,241 females (9,474 actually finished)
  • 13,299 males (13,066 actually finished)
We're not too far off here, 42 percent of actual finishers were ladies, and 58 percent were men. But, let's be fair and a little more specific, one percent of the finishers who are ladies (or, 2.4% equal to 233 of the ladies) have to go to make up my perfect Boston field to match these demographics.

Now, one thing that has been pointed out by many, lay and official alike, is that the one age division where women outnumber the men is 0 to 39, and this is certainly one area that should get some attention. I begrudgingly accepted these facts until I looked at the data. Here was my next big surprise. My target Boston field isn't the result of the same number of participants per age division; that isn't fair (example: there aren't the same number of 65-69 year olds running as 35-39 year olds). Instead, let's look at the distribution of marathon participants, by age division, today:

I did have to split a few of the age divisions as follows. Not perfect, but I don't think it's too far off, especially considering the size of the 0-34 age group.

* Split 35-44 in half for each age group, 50/50
** Split 45-54 in half for each age group, 50/50
*** Split 55-64 in half for each age group, 50/50

Note that of actual marathon runners, nearly half of all ladies are 0-34 years old and a third of all men are in the same age group. I actually found that pretty interesting. Without examining the more detailed data, it had seemed the older age groups were getting short-changed at Boston, but the data actually says quite the opposite. Looking at these target distributions, here's what "my" target Boston field should look like, with the "Boston Distro Goal F / M" field showing the "target count" for each age division to create my goal finishing field:

Now, here are the actual Boston Marathon 2010 results, broken out in COUNT by AGE DIV showing MINIMUM, MEAN, MEDIAN and MAXIMUM finishing time, followed up by the Boston Qualifying time for that age group:

** Omitted because qualifying times are split in the 0-34, 35-39 divisions
From this data it isn't hard to calculate my target Boston field and the difference between actual and goal, which is this:

* Data is combined into a 65+ division
** Omitted because qualifying times are split in the 0-34, 35-39 divisions

Shown on a graph, you can see bloating (too many runners in a division) and under-representation (too few runners in a division) pretty clearly. It was startling to me to conclude that both men AND women are significantly under-represented in the 0-34 age division, and that it did seem that older age groups, especially the men, were bloated. This data suggests the qualifying time for a 0-34 year old male at 3:10:59 probably is too harsh, and that standards need to be toughened up a bit in other areas.

For the ladies, 40-44 is slightly bloated and 45-49 more so. After that we're talking about very few ladies at all. So, it looks like, in fact, my qualifying time IS TOO EASY (look, guys, you were right all along!). The male 45-49 age group was the most bloated of all, slightly edging out the bloating of the ladies of the same age.

Graph of Female Differentials: Above the zero line shows how many more ladies should be in my "target" Boston field. Below the zero line shows the bloating, where too many ladies were in the division:

Graph of Male differentials, as above. Bloating is shown below the zero line. Again, counts above the zero line are additional runners who should be in the division:

Today, I'll stop short of what I think the qualifying times should be, I'm sure this post will be controversial enough without it. Yes, I believe we should keep the available bibs approximately the same. I no longer believe the standards should be adjusted across the board, but I do believe that certain age groups stand to be loosened, while others tightened. I also believe this should be examined every few years, to keep with the contemporary demographics of marathon runners: maybe we age, maybe more females start running. Whatever it is, Boston will remain to me one of the most exciting challenges and goals I've ever met, and I hope it continues to be the much sought after goal by all determined marathon runners alike.