Sometime this spring I was considering a fall marathon to do which would give me a fighting chance at qualifying for Boston (as in “flat and fast”) and would provide a nice place to visit. Gary Heard suggested the Niagara Falls Marathon, so I thought, Last fall I did a marathon under the redwoods of Northern California (I missed Boston by about 7 minutes, alas!) and I figured Niagara Falls was about the only natural wonder that could rival the redwoods. Gary assured me the bridge to Canada was the only hill on the course so I was convinced.
Interestingly, I attended a summer running camp in Maine and one day I found myself eating lunch with none other than Bill Rodgers. Bill, ever friendly and down to earth, asked what are you planning on running this year. I said “The Niagara Falls Marathon. Do you know anything about it?” Bill said “Oh yes, that was where they had the 1980 Olympic trials. Nice course but watch out for the winds along the river.” This was my fair warning.
Joy and I flew into Buffalo on Friday afternoon and the weather was already what they call “variable”. The sun was out but the ground was soaked and we were told we just missed the hail storm. To add to my own sense of worry, I was just feeling the early symptoms of a head cold. You know, when everything tastes funny and you begin to feel a little scratchiness in the back of your throat. I was taking mega-doses of Vitamin C in hopes to keep the cold at bay for a couple more days. The evening news said there was an 80% chance of rain Saturday night and Sunday with temperatures in the 30s to 40s and brisk winds.
On Saturday morning, the weather was not so bad, so we took the boat ride that takes you right up to the base of the Falls. The “Maid of the Mist” it’s called, and I guess tourists have been doing this for about a hundred years or so. One good thing was that they gave us those cute little raincoats to wear, which I decided was much classier than a garbage bag to take to the starting line on Sunday. We met up with Gary Heard at the pasta dinner that night and most of the conversation was about what to wear in the race. I am the singlet and shorts type of guy, but I decided to bring tights and a long sleeve coolmax to the race depending on how it felt in the morning.
Sunday morning dawned and luckily it was not raining. It was however very cold with a hefty wind swirling around. Shuttle busses took us from our hotel at the Falls, back to Buffalo where the race started. >I met Donna LoPiccolo and Anthony Wilcox getting on the shuttle bus and we met Gary at the start line staging area (in an old hotel with all the bathrooms locked – you had to go out to the port-a-sans and stand in the freezing cold). The 4 person Flyer contingent was complete. As was the case the previous night, most of the discussion was about what to wear. Donna was a die-hard and was going with shorts. Two turns at freezing in line for the bathrooms convinced me to go with tights and a long sleeve, as well as a Lycra head band for my ears. I put on an extra long sleeve T shirt over the coolmax, and I was ready to roll.
The race start was preceded by the start of a Rollerblade Marathon, which was a neat idea, but those bladers looked just as cold, or colder that us. At 10:00 AM we got started. The starting gun failed to go off so the guy just said “GO”. 1500 of us were off. I love these small town races.
I soon discovered that it wasn’t quite as cold as I thought and I warmed up in a mile or so. I ditched my extra T-shirt at about mile 6, and the cold was never really a problem. Gary passed me about mile 1 and Donna and Anthony passed me around mile 4. My strategy was to stick to even or negative splits so I let them go and kept to around an 8:10 pace. We crossed the Peace Bridge to Canada at mile 5 and then I realized it wasn’t the cold, but it was the wind that would be the big worry. The wind would be in our face for about 20 miles, often rather stiffly. It was often times daunting to run into the continuous head wind.
I kept Donna and Anthony, who were running together, in sight about 10 - 20 yards ahead till about mile 12 when I passed them. In the mean time, my left hamstring started to bother me and it would continue to do so throughout the race. At last year’s marathon in the redwoods, this muscle bothered me a lot, so this was something I had been worried quite a bit about.One coach had suggested that if it bothered me I should try to change my stride every mile or so to relieve it.This didn’t work at all, so instead I had a plan to stop and stretch it out when it got bad. I stopped and stretched it for a few seconds from mile 10 to mile 20 - about 6 - 8 times in all. These little breaks actually helped a lot and rather than slowing my time down, I was able to pick it up a bit after each stop and maintained my pace rather well. My splits were rather constant and were generally between 8:05 and 8:15.At mile 16 I did an 8:21 and decided I needed to pick it up. So for mile 17 7:59 and my legs felt OK. At that point I knew I would make it. It turns out my first 13 miles were only about 30 seconds faster than miles 14-26. So that’s as evenly paced as I’ve ever run a marathon.
The last 9 miles were strong. The left hamstring was the only real hurt, but with the little stretch breaks and pacing just at the edge of pain it was under control. There was no "wall" at all. I attribute this to my training and to the fact that I was careful with hydrating and eating power gels throughout the race. There were tough head winds most of the way down the Niagara River. I felt during these last miles that my legs really had the “stuff” to do the job. I thought about all those long runs, the 22 miles in East Lime, the mile repeats on Monday mornings and those hot humid tempo runs with Gary in July and August. My legs remembered too and they did the job just great.
The last couple of miles my feet hurt - I just ignored it. After the race when I took my shoes off I found my insteps were red and imprinted by the laces. Too tight! The right 3rd toenail had a blood blister: I had felt it a little somewhere in mid race. This was the extent of my injuries.
When I first saw the clock it just turned to 3:34:00 and I was not surprised at all. I knew this was where I would be.With a 3:35 qualifying time, why rush!
After the finish came that great feeling of accomplishment that comes after a good race. I soon found Gary who had done his goal and later we found Donna and Anthony who had also had good races.
I think we learn something from each marathon. r plan no matter the wind or a head cold or a left hamstring. Some will say, “It’s all in the mind”. I would disagree – last Sunday a lot of it was in the mind to be sure, but a lot of it was in the legs as well. And it took many miles to put it there.
Gary’s time was 3:30, mine was 3:34, Donna’s was 3:41 and Anthony’s was 3:45. At the post-marathon celebration I also found I was 4th in my age group. How ‘bout that! I would highly recommend this course to anyone – just watch out for the wind.
I have one thought to leave to all of you getting ready to run New York next Sunday: “Hey guys, I’m done already!!”