"Just get me there - I've been working toward this for 4 years."
I'm not even completely sure who said this to me with about a mile to go in the race (maybe one of the John's that were with me?), but it may be one of the most memorable things anyone has ever said to me. Definitely during a race. All I remember is (getting choked up a little bit and then...) telling him that he would get there and to just stay right behind me. Moments later he was crossing the finish line under 3 hours and 15 minutes.
This story starts a couple weeks earlier with me reaching out to a local Phoenix friend, JT, and asking if he wanted to get in a long run on 2/25 since I would be in town visiting some family. JT said that the Mesa-PHX Marathon was happening that weekend and he was running the half with his wife, so no long run..but (and I'm glad there was a "but")...that he knew the person organizing the pacers for the race and they were still looking for someone to pace the group with less than 2 weeks until race day. One thing led to another and bing bang boom, there I was huddled over a fire pit at 530am on a 30*F desert morning holding a blue 3:15 pace sign.
I'd been wanting to get into pacing and do this in the past, but the other few opportunities just didn't work out with my training or racing schedule. This actually was perfect because my coach had scheduled a marathon length training run for 2/25. Running a 3:15 under normal circumstances isn't typically challenging for me, but you never know what race day can throw at you. I had also run 115 and 102 miles the previous two weeks including a 50 mile training run the Saturday before the race. I haven't ever pushed my legs that hard before and I didn't know if they would have enough juice in them to stay steady and consistent at the 7:28 pace which would lead to a successful 3:14:59 race. I was nervous. I didn't want to let anyone down and I didn't want to disappoint anyone who had been training for this race for months to be their goal.
I had run a 20 mile double (2x10) on Thursday with a quick paced run in the morning with JT in Phoenix around Camelback Mountain then another 10 Thursday evening in the mountains of Flagstaff plus another 10 miler on Friday morning hitting some other mountains in Flag. I was trying to take these runs easy knowing I had people depending on me on Saturday morning, but it was so hard to enjoy the quiet solitude of running in the Arizona mountains in all their splendor and not want to just GO.
Friday night after sitting through terrible Phoenix traffic to pick up my bib and pacer gear we settled back to the house and got ready for some delicious local pizza pie. Though, just about the time dinner arrived my stomach began to get upset (this is not normal for me). I was more nervous for this race than I generally get for my own big races. I guess that's what I mean by running for something greater than myself for once.
Race morning had arrived. With a 630am start at a point to point race the last shuttle had to leave the parking area at 515am; this meant that I had to get up at 230am to drive the hour to the parking lot in time to catch the shuttle. I also had to drop the brother and sister in laws off at the airport for their 530am flight back to Boston on the way. OH, and to further complicate matters, apparently AZ occasionally shuts down entire sections of highway for maintenance over weekends, which of course was the direction I needed to drive to get to the race from where we were staying.
Once I made it to the parking lot and got my things together, I hopped on the bus around 505 to get over to the starting line. It was about a 35 minute bus ride so I pulled my cap down over my eyes and began to nap for a few minutes. I was getting increasingly worried that I was under-dressed for the event. I bought some arm warmers the night before, but didn't have any gloves or sock cap and it was in the 30s!. At least my stomach was feeling better I thought. Everything for this race was extremely well organized and top notch. They even had a 1/4 mile long stretch of 3x wide fire pits leading from the buses to the start line! if you're ever looking for a fast early season marathon for the BQ or PR, this is the perfect course for it.
As we neared the race start I walked over to the line to look for my friend Tommy "Rivers" Puzey, who would be in contention for the win that day. He (as always) ran his heart out to an impressive 2nd place finish only days after placing 2nd at a huge race in Hawaii. His wife, Steph, tells his race stories the best. Rivs was even more cold than I was standing at the start line (he may also be one of the only other people out there with less body fat than I have) we hugged, shivering, trying to keep each other warm. Rivs said he wasn't feeling great but that he was going to go for it. Of course he was, that's the only way he knows how to go. After wishing each other luck he headed to the front and I began to introduce myself to some of my 3:15 runners. Here it was, here they are, I'm responsible for guiding these men and women to the finish line. This is my job today, my only job, I thought. Even if it would hurt my training in the long run, I was prepared to push myself to the very limit to stay consistent and smooth for these athletes.
Here we go. The first 4 miles were a nice down hill to get started. I told everyone that I planned on running a 7:25 pace to be safe, which was based on a GPS watch distance of 26.4 miles, which is common for marathons to be "long" by watch standards. The technical pace for an exact 26.2 in 3:14:49 would be 7:28 pace. We started out nice and easy but hitting the first 4 miles around 7:15-7:20 pace, right where I wanted. The next two miles were the only two up hills of the entire race and they were not bad. We backed off and hit dead even 7:36, 7:36. "Okay, we're through the hard part now, only 20 miles to go" I thought to myself. Everyone seemed to be a little chatty, talking about birthday races (2 birthdays that week), where they were from (Alaska!), the course, and nutrition, etc. Things seemed to be going well, but I wanted to make sure we were staying on pace. I kept nervously checking my watch several times per mile. The next three miles 7, 8, and 9, were a good downhill so again we were a little ahead of pace. From there I settled everyone down and we started aiming for miles in the 7:25ish range. As we approached the halfway mark I let everyone know they were running a good race and that we were about 1 minute ahead of schedule. I eased up for mile 14 so everyone could catch their breath, get some nutrition, and focus on the remaining miles.
From 15 through 23 we were cruising, ticking off miles between 7:22-7:26 pace. At one point as I was soliciting some encouragement from the onlooking crowds of people a woman said "let's hear it for the 3:15 group!" I thought, "group" and at that time, maybe mile 16 or so, I looked behind me and saw about 15 people in our group. IT WAS AWESOME! I am disappointed that I didn't get my phone out for a photo, but I wanted to focus on the miles and getting these athletes to the finish line. I was able to find a couple of photos from the race that show the group a bit at mile 23. They also show a nice pace line we had going there to conserve energy into a windy stretch.
The last 3 miles were a breeze and just solidified how much fun pacing and helping other runners was for me. I really enjoyed rallying the crowds up and talking to the runners to make sure they were feeling good. Once I approached the finish line I noticed that we were almost 2 minutes ahead of schedule! I think this was due to my pacing for our GPS watches to read about 26.4 miles, but actually they were very on point the whole race. Almost exactly at every mile marker our watches would beep or buzz in sync with each other. This almost never happens.
As I approached the finish and was about to cross, I looked over my shoulder to see a handful of runners that I had run with for some of the race so I turned around (much to the announcer's surprise) and went back for another runner to get him to the mat under 3:15 as I sprinted the last couple hundred yards back and fourth encouraging about 6-8 other runners to get to the finish line. Finally, I crossed the finish line in 3:14:56 - all smiles.
I can't help but wonder though, if starting out slightly ahead of pace caused some of the runners to fall off pace. If I had kept closer to a 7:25-7:28 pace, would more runners have been able to stick with the group longer? All the way to the finish? I hope I didn't let any of these runners down. I do know of at least 4 people who told me they got PR's (personal records) for the marathon and a couple that met their goals to qualify for the Boston Marathon, so all in all it was a great day!