Last Sunday I completed the ‘Chasing the Unicorn‘ Marathon along the Delaware Canal at Washington Crossing in PA. The good is that I completed the race, the bad, well let’s just get it out of the way, I missed my goal…by a lot. However, I’m not going to dwell too much on what turned out to be a great weekend anyway. In summary, it was one of my worst races but one of my best finishes. I’ll explain below.
I had signed up for this race based upon the fact that I PR’d earlier this year at the New Jersey Marathon and this included running the last 9 miles into what felt like a wind tunnel. I felt that I could do better. This race was created in 2013 by the Race Director of runBucks (Pat McCloskey) as a late summer chance for folks trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon in 2014. The unicorn is the symbol of the Boston Athletic Assocation.
You can read about my reasons for signing up in my previous post (‘Chasing The Unicorn…or at least trying‘). So with sights set on improving my PR I followed Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 2 plan. This was a bit of a step up from the Intermediate 1 plan that I typically use and had higher mileage and an extra 20 mile run in the program. Luckily it was a pretty mild summer in comparison to recent years so all those extra early morning miles were actually quite enjoyable.
Anyway, back to the weekend itself.
On the Saturday evening before the marathon runBucks hosted the Washington Crossing 15K which started at finished in the same place as the marathon on Sunday. My wife had run this race last year and she had registered for it again this year. My wife and I run a lot of races, some together and some separately. Mostly we run separately as one of us is always staying with the boys as these races are typically early mornings. This race started at 5pm on Saturday which meant that we could all attend the race as a family and my wife would have her own (very loud) cheering section.
So after a breakfast of Mickey Mouse waffles (the best way of carb loading) and a full day at Sesame Place with the family we headed to Washington Crossing to cheer my wife on as a family.
After the race had begun and everyone was off on their way the race director opened up the bib pick up for the marathon the next day so I headed over and grabbed my bib and race shirt. Then we sat around and waited for the first runners to come back in before taking our place along the finish line chute to cheer on Shari.
My wife beat her time from last year, running a nice pace and pushing hard at the end.
Of course she was then mobbed by the boys who had been without her for over and hour and were probably tired of me and the waiting around!!!
There was a pavilion at the park where the race director had set up a pasta dinner buffet for post-race and also as a pre-race dinner for tomorrow so we headed over to eat. You would think my boys had were prepping for an ultra-marathon the next day…but they do have good appetites for sure. We even had to make a dessert stop on the way home (although I may have partaken in that too).
Once home we got the kids to bed and now it was my turn to prepare for the marathon the next morning. Based upon the forecast and my wife’s feedback from her race I began to wonder if I should carry water for the race. It was August and I have never run a marathon at this time of the year. The course itself being a double out and back on a narrow footpath meant that water stations were somewhat limited and my wife told me that crossing the two way traffic for water stops might be tricky. With that said, better to carry water and not use it than to run and need water. I decided to race wearing my Nathan Speed 2 hydration belt.
I set out my gear the night before as usual. I planned to wear my new Buddha shirt that I received from my recent INKnBURN grab bag. The grab bag is a selection of shirts that are either no longer made, one off samples or some of their current selection. You don’t know what you are going to get until the package arrives. I was very happy with my selection and opted for a nice bright color. Who says running gear has to be boring. It wasn’t as if I was going to win this race but perhaps I could make the ‘best dressed’ list 😉
It’s strange and nice to have a race local and be longer than a 5K. I got up around my usual time when I go out for a long run in the morning and got ready, grabbed my Powerbar and headed out to Washington Crossing. I had stated that I was shooting for a goal time of 3:50 or better. I wasn’t going to qualify for Boston but I knew this was perhaps a stretch goal having only just run 3:54 a few months earlier, but I had trained hard and felt good going into the race.
When I arrived I saw all these elite looking runners and was feeling a little intimidated at first. The night before they had announced that about 30% of the field planned to run 3:25 or better. Eek!!! What was I doing here??? But as I made my way from the parking lot to the starting area I saw other runners who were ’50 State’ runners and ‘Marathon Maniacs’ that looked like they were there for the ‘taking part’ and not just for the ‘BQ’. I also saw a few other runners wearing hydration belts and packs so I felt comfortable with my decision.
It was a cool morning and as we got into the corrals it actually started to rain lightly which was a little unexpected given the forecast. There were about 300 entrants into the race. They had a small early group start around 6:15am and this consisted of some walkers as well as those that may not meet the planned cut off time. The full race was to start at 7:15am. Each wave included about 50 runners. The waves would set off 30 seconds apart so being in wave 3 was just 90 seconds behind the leaders (at the start line).
The course itself was a double out-and-back loop along the Delaware Canal Towpath from Washington Crossing, PA to the turnaround point in New Hope, PA. The path itself is a soft easy trail of mostly crushed stone. It is narrow in places, almost single file, but mostly you could have two-way traffic so we got to see the leaders 2 to 3 times depending upon your pace. The elevation is minimal and for the most part the course is in the shade.
Here is the ‘Map My Run’ version of the course from the runBUCKS website.
Okay, to the race itself, and also the reason it has taken me over a week to actually post the write up to my blog.
With all the confidence in the world I knew in the back of my mind going in that this was a stretch goal for me. I had reduced my PR already this year by over 4 and a half minutes and I was looking to do the same. I don’t have a coach so I follow a plan and to all intents and purposes I am the one who manages my day to day training. With that in mind all I can say is that I learn a lot from experience. This was going to be one of those learning experiences but I didn’t know that when I started out…
As we started out I quickly went to the front of my wave so I could get ahead of folks early on and make sure that I could maintain my run/walk Galloway intervals (4:00/0:45) without interfering with a big pack of runners. I knew that the canal was narrow and this may be a difficult task (in fact I did have to walk through some messy places to get out the way of folks during the walking intervals) but I seemed to be maintaining my pace with the same folks for the first few miles. I used the same intervals that led to my PR back in late April.
During the first 6-7 miles it rained steadily. This was actually quite cooling and not heavy like the rain I had to run in during The Love Run earlier this year (although it was about 20 degrees warmer which helped). As you can see from my initial splits below I was on pace (actually a little faster) for the first 8 or so miles. To hit 3:50 according to my pace band I should be pacing at 8:47 per mile. I was feeling confident although I noticed that my heart rate was elevated in the normal range but not returning back as normal during the walk breaks. I tend to reach 160-170 bpm’s during the run and it usually hits 120-130 bpm’s at the end of the 45 second walk. This time I was still around 150 bpm’s after the end of each walk break. At this point I hadn’t taken any caffeine or a caffeine infused gels so I wasn’t sure why.
It wasn’t until around miles 9 to 10 when I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. I developed a pain in my side, not so much a stitch but an ache. It was a little strange but I couldn’t get rid of it even with a walk break and some water. Thankfully I had my water belt on as the water stations were a little sparse due to the course constraints around the turn around. By mile 11 I had an ache in my stomach which seemed to be more of a hunger pain than anything but I hadn’t done anything different in preparing for this marathon than in any of the other marathons I had run.
I reached the half way point at 1:55 so I was still only a minute or two back from my goal time but I knew I was slowing. The 13.1 mile turnaround was being managed by Tammy, a fellow ‘Mickey Miler’ who I had met with at the race the day before and was volunteering today. It helped to see a smiling face to cheer me at the halfway point. I was hurting at this point. I knew that my goal was probably not going to be met and pretty much made peace with that. It was a stretch goal after all but I figured if I could maintain a decent pace for the second half I might still PR for the day.
The hard part about an out and back, especially a double out and back, is that you know exactly how far you are in to the race and how far you have left to go. I wasn’t tempted to quit at the halfway point even though I could have. That was never on the cards for me. I knew whatever happened I still had to finish whether I made my goal, PR or was struggling.
I struggled for pretty much the second half of the race. It wasn’t a case of the wheels on the bus go round and round…they fell off. Here are my splits for the remainder of the race. You can see the decline in pace. It is quite a drop from 8:30s to 11:30s.
I will be honest with you here. I never considered quitting, that’s just not what I want to do or set as an example to my boys. I did consider walking it in. I felt dreadful, empty inside, not in pain but not great. I just made sure I kept shuffling on. It wasn’t my best performance by any means. I set myself little goals in a hope to get to the finish. My heart rate was still high so I started to adjust my intervals to 3:45/1:00 and ultimately I ended up running 2:00/1:00 just to make sure I could keep going as the day got longer and the temperatures got warmer. My goals moved a little but I tried to make them attainable, for example, maintain the pace and break 4 hours. Once that goal was missed I set myself a goal of getting home in less than 4:10 and so on.
It was a little demoralizing but as I struggled in I noticed that no one was passing me. The faster runners had long finished (the winner ran 2:38) but I was still out there going forward. I knew I would eventually finish and as I had spoken with my wife the night before I expected to see my family at the finish line. I had told them that I hoped to be crossing the line around 11am (that would have been a 3:45 goal). My wife and kids were very patient as I missed that time by 30 minutes.
Finally, with about less than 2 miles to go I pushed as best I could. I could see the finish area across the park and buckled down to finish. As I was heading towards the finish line I saw that it was blocked by an ambulance. I younger runner had gone down less than half a mile before the finish line. My wife later told me that she was very worried it was me as she had expected me earlier and there was no news at the finish line other than a male runner had gone down. The EMS crew waved me around the ambulance and then I saw the finish line…and my family.
As I ran towards the finish line I heard my kids yelling out for me and jumping up and down with excitement. They had no clue as to how I was feeling at that point and there was not reason that they needed to know. As I ran up towards them they just beamed their big smiles at me. There was no one else coming in to finish at that time so I went over to the boys and told them to run in with me. I may have been feeling low over the last few miles but their being there for me totally lifted my spirits. We crossed the line as a family and I’ve never been happier to have finished a marathon. Goal or no goal, this finish is the best so far.
You cannot be that feeling. I may not have made my goal, I may not have PR’d, heck this was my slowest marathon (I ran 4:15), but at that moment it felt like my best. I totally got over any disappointment as this is a memory I will cherish. Having my boys run alongside me was absolutely awesome.
I made it through the finish line and got my medal and we headed over to grab the gear they had left when they joined me to run to the finish. I was beat. I think it shows.
So, I have two young boys who hadn’t seen me since the night before. I had no time to feel sorry for myself. They were all over me like a bee is to honey. They needed my attention more than I needed theirs so this was a very quick healing for any blues I may have been feeling at the time. No point in setting a bad example of being a misery in front of the kids. Get up, brush yourself down and know there are things more important than just PR’s. There will certainly be other races and many where my kids are not able to see me at the finish line. I aimed to savor my time with them. It really cheered me up. As you can see from the photo below I don’t look too disappointed. After all, I had still finished another marathon. That’s still something of an achievement.
We headed over to the pavilion where there was food for the runners (and apparently for my offspring who again ate like they had run an ultra-marathon). The race director had catered well for runners both the night before and after the race today. In fact, I’ve never eaten French toast sticks as post race food before but they weren’t too bad. A little carbs with a little sugar. I was happy.
After a little food and some time to relax we started to head back to our cars so we could get home. After all it was still early enough in the day to have a full afternoon of activities with the family. By the time we headed out I had really forgotten how bad I had felt during the race and was pretty much over the fact that I had missed my goal. It was as simple as that. Over and done. Move on.
At the end of this all I can look back knowing that yes, this was a stretch goal, but I still finished another full marathon. I am not disappointed. In fact I may remember this as one of my favorites just because I got to share it with my family. I remember back in January when I finished the Dopey Challenge. As happy as I was to finish that event I remember feeling a little sad at the finish line area as I had no one to share it with at that very moment. The support makes all the difference between highs and lows.
I’m not sure I would rush back for this event again (unless I feel like redemption). This is not a negative on the race at all. I had a goal in mind and I didn’t meet it. I used this race for a specific purpose and as I train here a lot (for free) I’m not sure I would return unless I felt like it was the right opportunity. This race is designed as a BQ race specifically so it doesn’t have all the fancy bells and whistles of other big races. The race director did an outstanding job both days. I may return for the 15K next year as that will be fun to race.
The rest of the this year and into next I am running races with my wife. I’m not looking to PR in any of these but looking to have fun and enjoy the experiences together. I didn’t know what to say about my experience in this blog post (again, that is why it took me over a week), but now a week out from the race and reading what I have written above it really does have a silver lining. I may never catch that Unicorn but for me that is not the most important thing. I came late to running and every marathon finish line is a victory, fast or slow.
Thank you for reading.
8 thoughts on “‘Chasing the Unicorn’ Marathon race recap”
Hi Ian, thanks for this great race report! You really brought the race to life — congratulations on persisting to cross the finish with your family. I’m planning to run this in August, and wanted to ask about the course. How ‘finished’ is the towpath – are there many loose rocks, gravel, and branch roots, or is it more like packed dirt? Is it easy to keep one’s footing or is it noticeably different from a typical paved road race? Many thanks. 🙂
Hello Iris. The trail is pretty flat and tightly packed. If I had one stone in my shoe for 26 miles it was small!! I saw only one person wearing gaiters. I don’t think they are necessary. My wife and I train there frequently. Your biggest issue would be red dust on your white socks 🙂
Wishing you good luck if you plan to run this. I may do the 15K the day prior.
Hi Ian, thanks for this — super helpful! Hope to meet you and your wife at the race.