Monday, February 14, 2011

New Orleans Marathon

This was my sixth go at building for a marathon, so I've become pretty familiar with the event and the required training, but there are always new things to learn. Probably my biggest takeaway from this go around is that it takes a steadfast commitment to running fast in training, a somewhat unpleasant proposition for the mountain jogger in me, and one that I think I was a little too half-hearted about. While I still feel like I had a decent build up, especially on the mileage front, if I were to do it again, I would definitely include a greater number of sustained efforts at marathon pace and fewer mile repeat type workouts.

But this is not always easy. From my house, I have limited access to flat, paved terrain, which makes it easy to ditch certain workouts in favor of mountain jogging sessions. That is just the reality of where I live - great training grounds for mountain courses, but terrible for road races. Anyway, on balance, I think I did about as much as was realistically possible, so really shouldn't complain about what ended up being a slightly disappointing run. After all, a 7 minute PR is a very positive sign. On to the report.

The Finish. All photos: Justin Mock

Firstly, I wish I could have spent a little more time in New Orleans, but with work and family obligations being what they are, this was very much a whistle-stop tour. I got in late Friday and then spent the balance of Saturday hanging out in the French Quarter with Top American and Nela. The French Quarter would have been a lot of fun had there been a quarter the number of people milling around, and if I wasn't running a marathon the next day. As it was, we walked around a bit taking in the scene and the architecture before sitting down to a disappointing jumbalaya etouffe at what looked like a nice restaurant (I'm disappointed 7 times out of 10 when I eat out, so tend to avoid it if possible). Justin and Nela opted for a bus tour in the afternoon, so I headed to a quieter part of town for coffee, sun and a little soak of New Orleans life.

After a pasta dinner out by the airport where I was staying, it was to bed for the 4:45 alarm call to meet Justin for the 5:30 ride into town. Sitting in the car, I was feeling pretty blasé about the work ahead and generally just a little disinterested. Justin and I weaseled our way into the elite/VIP area at the start after heckling Jurek who was in the pen taking pictures with fans. The heaters were a real treat as it was just a touch nippy in the pre-dawn of morning. Kim Smith was there looking skinny and sharp as were a bunch of Hansen Brooks runners. Not only would Kim go on to beat Justin by four minutes in the half, she would also set a U.S.-soil half marathon record (1:07:36). Impressive.

Shortly before the gun Brian Peterson, a fellow trail runner, introduced himself saying that he was looking to go 2:29. Having still not made up my mind on pacing, I figured I’d use Brian as a gauge as he was planning on pacing off his Garmin. If I could hang, I would at least have someone to work with after the five-mile marathon/half marathon split, beyond which I was fully expecting to run solo.

Easing into the run, things felt remarkably smooth, as they should on tapered legs in the early stages of a marathon, so it was all small talk, fun and games. This is always the pleasurable part of the marathon – people are chatty, the work feels easy and your goal is yet to be shattered by the inevitable effects of lactic-acid build up and glycogen depletion. The first mile was perhaps the easiest 5:49 I have ever run, and it pretty much felt like we were jogging. Through these early miles I was in a good pack, hanging two or three deep just drafting and chatting. Up to the half marathon turn off, the miles went: 5:46, 5:47, 5:46, 5:44. The numbers suggested the pace was maybe just a touch hot, but aside from a nagging right glute and right Achilles (which are nearly always nagging) the effort felt just about right.

All the while, I had been keeping an eye on Brian, who had maybe ten meters on me by mile five, as he was the only one I knew was in the marathon, and I also knew from his continued Garmin vigilance that he was still right there as the 2:29 marker. When the half/full split came, everyone in my immediate vicinity, with the exception of Brian made the turn, leaving me stranded in an island of solitude. Mile 6 hit at 6:14, so evidently I had fallen off the pace without anyone to work with, but I am also assuming that the marker was a touch long. Nonetheless, I upped the effort to make sure the next mile was safely in the 5-minute zone.

Miles 7 through 11 were run 100% solo. The long straight street that we were running on allowed me to keep track of Brian who was steadily building his gap on me. I gave thought to bridging to get on the 2:29 train but just wasn't feeling spry enough, so made the decision to keep the 5:50 pacing goal and see who came back to me. While my breathing was still super easy, my legs just weren’t feeling that peppy, a little crampy even. I popped a couple of E-caps somewhere in here to bump up the electrolytes and I also managed to get a gel down. Miles 7-11 went: 5:41, 5:50, 5:51, 5:48. Clearly, there would be no 2:30 on the day, but 2:33 was still very much alive.

Somewhere around mile 10 the marathon course rejoined the half (mile 5 in the half). I had been a bit worried about this section on the long haul up to City Park as I really didn’t want to be weaving around half marathoners for eight miles. Thankfully, we were on a divided two-lane thoroughfare for the full eight miles the two courses shared, so I got two lanes to myself (literally), while the half marathoners were bumper to bumper on their side of the road.

Mile 12 popped at 5:54 and mile 13 at 5:56. The 5:5x numbers back to back at equal effort output to previous 5:4x miles was a worrying sign to me that the slide was on, so going through the half in 1:16:48 (one second off a PR), I was beginning to feel like 2:33 would be a major result, with a 2:35 being a decent save. And then I split a 5:31 14th mile. I immediately wrote that one off as a short mile marker and got my nose back down to the grindstone.

Entering City Park

The miles up to the park, where I was expecting to see Justin and Nela and maybe run with Justin a bit, were unremarkable other than for the fact that I was desperately trying to hold on to my pace and failing: 6:08, 6:07, 5:58, 5:56. Shortly thereafter I was in the park and Justin jumped in to pace me for a stretch. He told me that he’d been double chicked, despite running an impressive 1:11:10. I was happy for him, but as I was beginning to feel increasingly sorry for myself, I was only able to mutter half-hearted words of congratulations on his PR. Justin pulled me through my last 5:xx mile, the 19th, which hit at 5:56. Soon thereafter he dropped off the pace (clearly it was too hot for him!) and left me to the misery of my own company.

Without my pacer I dropped straight back into the 6s, with a 6:04 20th mile on the way up to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. Along the shore there was an annoying distance-adding out and back that involved two 180 degree cone turns, which at this stage of the game were about as welcome as Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. Mile 21, which included one of the U turns and a complete stop over confusion as to whether or not I was still on course (I was), popped at 6:08. Ughh. Mile 22 was no better (6:08), but at least I was headed back toward the finish.

I can’t remember exactly where I saw Brownie in here on this out and back section, but it was probably at about mile 22.5 (20 something for him). After some quick math based on where he was and time elapsed, he – quite unbelievably – appeared to be well on pace for his targeted 2:54. I think I grunted at him and then got my head back down for the dull, painful grind of the last few miles. Somehow I was maintaining my new low-6-minute pace. While it wasn’t my desired reality, at least there wasn’t a complete meltdown underway.

Token kick for the finish

Mile 23 was a 6:07 with 2:16:17 on the clock. I needed an act of god for 2:30, a miracle for 2:33 and some good old fashioned guts for 2:35. I apparently had none of the above, and capitulated over the last three miles with a 6:13, 6:10, 6:15 finish. I put in a token effort at running the last .2 in 63 seconds for the 2:35, but came up way short finishing in 2:36:11 and tenth overall.

Marathons hurt.

Brian fell off the pace a little through the closing miles, but still ran an impressive 2:31:13

Having set myself a 2:29-2:35 goal spread, I could say that I’m disappointed with the result, but as long as I’m setting PRs then I really shouldn’t be complaining. My marathon times are still moving at a large-chunk trajectory, so I am confident that next time out I’ll be able to put up a coveted 2:2x time and feel that I can give the event a satisfied turn of the back. As a point of reference, in my six stabs at the marathon my times have gone: 3:28, 3:16, 3:06, 2:54, 2:43, 2:36, so I have to believe that there is still room for improvement.

A huge congrats to Brownie for his impressive 2:53 run and PR, and of course to Justin for a really impressive collection of 1s (1:11:11) in the half. I ended up beating Brownie by 17 minutes and change, which means that I have to beat him by 38 minutes in Salida in order to win our bet. It’s a taller order than I would have liked, but still within the realms of possibility.

A word on the course. As Justin pointed out to me post-race, the marathon course for Competitor events tend to be an afterthought to the half marathons. The half course in New Orleans is lightning fast with very few turns and probably no more than 10 or 20 feet of elevation change. The marathon course is also very fast and very flat, but there are a lot of turns which slow things down a touch. I think this race will attract a stronger field in the coming years as it gains a reputation for being fast, but for guys in the 2:20 - 2:40 range the current lack of depth makes for more of a time trial than a race.



1. 5:49
2. 5:46
3. 5:47
4. 5:46
5. 5:44
6. 6:14
7. 5:41
8. 5:50
9. 5:51
10. 5:48
11. 5:54
12. 5:56
13. 5:56
14. 5:31
15. 6:08
16. 6:07
17. 5:58
18. 5:56
19. 5:56
20. 6:04
21. 6:08
22. 6:08
23. 6:07
24. 6:13
25. 6:10
26. 6:15
0.2 1:14

Avg: 5:57.8

1st half: 1:16:48
2nd half: 1:19:23

1st 5: 28:52
2nd 5: 29:24
3rd 5: 29:25
4th 5: 30:01
5th 5: 30:46


  1. You got caught in no man's land which doesn't help for pace. Damned impressed Nick! I know you wanted a faster time but as you eluded to, it's a pretty impressive progression over six tries. Congratulations! And now enough of this flat stuff, time for some gnarly stuff.

  2. Stop it with this domination of all distances. I thought being an ultrarunner meant you only ran IF you got your shoes dirty. And I am sure Top American was sweating out the chance of having his 2:29 taken down on American soil. Great performance (as always!).

  3. Ah man, I could've gone a few more miles, didn't expect you to chat much, but wasn't sure if I was helping or hurting.

    Talked with Jurek at the airport and he also said his pacing was a challenge given some of the mile markers seemingly being off. Shared the sentiment on the half course and race receiving top Competitor billing vs. the full.

    Saw Kim Smith out doing a second run along St. Charles Sunday afternoon even.

  4. Disappointing or not, you're going to make us all look rather pedestrian at Salida next month!

  5. Nice job -- I don't get what race directors are thinking with multiple 180-deg turns. Now go have fun on the trails!

  6. Can't complain about a 7 min PR! Especially since the old one wasn't exactly soft :)

    Looks like you should be primed for a good season on the trails.

  7. The fact that you are probably the only one who is not totally impressed by your 2:36 and top 10 finish tells me that 2:2X will come some day. Now get your butt back on the trails!

  8. Hell of a race Nick. Congrats on that PR.

  9. A 7 min PR sounds awesome, even if it wasn't quite as you hoped. Go get some more long tempos (I suggest 16 mile runs with 10 mile tempo at 6 min pace) and you'll hold off the slowing at the end.

  10. Yet another voice in the chorus of congrats. Well done, Sir,

  11. Thanks guys!

    Justin - I didn't know if I wanted you to come along or not. I wasn't in a particularly good head space at the time, but in hindsight should have asked you to stick with me.

    Jacob - nah, Salida always has some good competition. Looking forward to that one for sure.

    Jon - totally right. I just couldn't bring myself to run the longer tempo/MP efforts for some reason, but those sessions should be the cornerstone of any marathon training plan.

  12. Great run, Nick!
    A couple revelations from your report were particularly interesting to someone like me who still has yet to break 3 hours:
    1. You run at 5:50 pace and still can breathe "super easy"
    2. Even at your level you are still cutting off 10 minutes with each subsequent marathon

  13. Oh so I tried Googling Kim Smith and her record-breaking run. But Google mainly gave me photos of the Hollywood star of the same name wearing bikinis.

  14. Felix - ha, yes, two very different curve profiles.

  15. Great run Nick! I think you showed us very well how to go for it, then exactly what to do when it's not going to happen, and still come out with a great result.

  16. Great race Nick!
    Nice PR and impressive training through the process.
    Now the fun stuff...trails!
    See you next week!

  17. Thanks, Tim. Yeah, now for the fun stuff indeed! Just a bit more road work to get ready for AR, but mainly trails for here on in.

    Really looking forward to this year. I think it's going to be yet another standard setter for the sport, and I know you're gonna be part of that. Look forward to catching up in Boulder.

  18. Awesome run Nick - I'm with Rob on his take on your performance. You didn't hit the meltdown you feared may come, and you learnt what you need to do to take your next marathon PR to where you know it can be. Lots of positives...and I'm looking forward to you coming out to Estes whenever you're ready and bagging Tony's CR!

  19. Terry, it's already penciled in for 2012. You got me fired up about it at Frost Giant the other weekend.

  20. Nick, a PR is a PR, nice work.

  21. Well done on the PB! and by 7 minutes - Nice :-)

  22. Wow, the trend of your marathon times is just awesome! I think I had already decided I need to focus back on shorter races to pick it up in ultras. There are many of you guys are living prove!

  23. Olga - thanks for the comment, and good to hear from you! Yeah, I don't think anyone has yet to really figure out how best to train for the longer races.

    I remember Geoff Roes put up a post a few months back stating that training for 100 milers is about getting out and spending time on your feet in rugged places and not worrying about training performance. A lot of people seemed to agree (probably because Geoff has had a lot of success), but I remain highly skeptical of that approach.

    Obviously you have to push out the longer 5-8 hour efforts in training, but a faster top end speed (and I consider marathon speed about as top end as one needs for 100 milers) is, in my opinion, as relevant for the 100-mile distance as it is for the marathon. I think Ian Sharman proved that to an extent in Texas. His marathon PR isn't blistering (2:32, I think), but he runs 2:3x marathons consistently enough that the pace is one he is accustomed to and comfortable with, and one that he was able to translate to a sustained 7:30 pace at the 100-mile distance. Obviously, if 7:30s are tough to hold over 26.2 (3:15), there is no way you'll hold it over 100 miles. Seems perfectly logical to me. Of course that formula changes considerably for mountain 100s where climbing, descending and technical running abilities are just as important, but it has to hold true to a degree.

    So, yeah, to cut a long story short, I think you are wise to focus on higher end speed in your training if you are interested in improving your ultra times.

  24. You won your age group. Not like Western where you could only manage second place...