Race Report: 2015 Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon

(Originally posted November 23, 2015.)

(This is it, the report from my first marathon. I still wonder if I could have run better, especially late in the race. Even worse, I feel like my struggles were more mental than physical. I’m really starting to believe that there’s nothing I could have done, and nothing anybody else could have told me, that would have fully prepared me for the last 6 or so miles of my first marathon. Even so, I still feel like I could have handled it better, especially mentally. If my body breaks down, it sucks, but I’ll get over it. If my mind isn’t strong enough, though, that really bothers me. Still, I finished it, the full 26.2 miles, and I shouldn’t downplay that. I set a really big goal to run a marathon, and I accomplished that goal. And as much as I struggled mentally late in the race, I never once considered not finishing.

I still wish I was a better storyteller, though, because I do think there’s a great story here, even though I can’t quite do it justice. I’m happy with my original introduction, though, so there’s that.

Regardless of my questions about my performance, I stand by what I wrote just after the race: It was absolutely worth it.

OK, enough hand-wringing, here’s the report.)

I’ve often heard a saying, and I have no idea what the original source was, but it goes something like this: “I’m not saying it will be easy, I’m saying it will be worth it.” I’ve thought about that many times over the last 16 months. I knew that training for and then running a marathon wouldn’t be easy. (I was right about that.) I kept going in part because I didn’t know for sure, but I hoped that it would all be worth it.

It was. It was absolutely worth it.

It was also tough. Tougher than I’d ever imagined. Still worth it.

This is a long one, but it’s a good story, even if I’m probably not up to the task of telling it well. So much for my theory that writing about my running for over a year would help me write a better recap. I probably waited too long to write it, and forgot about a few details. But this is what I’ve got, so here we go.

I’ll start with the easy part, the Expo. I finally have another expo to compare Thunder Road with. City of Oaks is a smaller race, so therefore, the expo was smaller. It was at the McKimmon Center on the outskirts of the N.C. State campus. The expo went from 4-7 on Friday and 10-6 on Saturday. I decided to come in to town early Saturday, and got to the expo around 11:30.

The race organizers had sent out an e-mail with everyone’s bib numbers Friday morning. That’s because at the expo, the bibs were organized by number rather than name. So instead of going to the S-Z volunteer, I went to the 1 to three hundred something volunteer.

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Like I said on Facebook and Instagram, it just got real.

My packet included a t-shirt and a hat. Another blue t-shirt. Well, I didn’t have a long sleeved tech tee in blue, so there’s that. Nice logo, though.

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I had seen on Facebook that they were giving hats to all the runners. Unfortunately, I have a really big head, and it’s pretty common that I prove that, when it comes to hats, “one size fits all” is a lie. My fears were confirmed when I tried on the hat and it didn’t fit. I ended up giving it to my sister. I forgot to take a picture of it, but here’s a picture I grabbed from the City of Oaks Facebook page with all 3 available colors. I chose the white hat.

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The race also had a virtual event bag, which had some fairly decent deals at some Raleigh area businesses, but they’re all about 3 hours away from home, so the deals about as useful for me as the hat that won’t fit. Still, for the locals, it seemed pretty good.

Raleigh Running Outfitters is the local running store for this expo, and they brought some merchandise. I saw that they had Adrenaline 15s for only $90, which told me that the 16s are out. Alas, they didn’t have a pair of 15s in my size, so I had to wait until I got back to Charlotte to get a pair for cheap.

I checked their selection of Gu, and they didn’t have my flavor, Strawberry Banana. Well, I had brought 5 packets of my own, so I’d be OK, but it was a good reminder to keep buying the Gu I want in advance.

The rest of the day Saturday, I took it easy, drank a lot of water, hung out with my nephew (He’s the best, he’s 19 months old, and he dressed as a puppy for Halloween), had pasta for dinner, and got to bed around 10. We had the time change Sunday morning, which meant everybody else got an extra hour of sleep, and I got an extra hour to toss and turn.

I don’t think you could say I got a good night of sleep by any objective measure, but compared to some of my other races, and considering that this was the night before my first marathon, I actually slept better than I expected.

I didn’t take any chances. I brought my own peanut butter (Jif creamy) and bread with me. I ate my usual two pieces of bread with peanut butter, a Clif bar, and a few handfuls of Goldfish. I washed it all down with water. I also took a pre-emptive Imodium AD.

The weather forecast had finally settled on mid 50s, overcast, light rain arriving around 10 or 11 AM. Because of the threat of rain, instead of riding with my brother-in-law (he ran the half), I ended up driving over separately, since my sister wouldn’t want to stick around with my nephew if it started raining. I was fully prepared to bring my car key with me, even if I didn’t drive, because I have to have it for my post race picture.

Two of my brother-in-law’s friends were also running the half. One of his friends lives along the course, and just a few blocks away from the start, so we drove over there and parked.

I walked past the starting line to get to the bag check. I got this picture along the way.

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Yes, the banner says “You Can Do It!” I also took a picture of the N.C. State Belltower, because it’s the symbol of my alma mater. (Go Wolfpack!)

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As I walked back to the starting area, I realized I’d need to hit the Port-a-Potties. No, the Imodium hadn’t failed, I had hydrated a little too well. I was waiting in line and I heard them sing the National Anthem. Right after that was done, I got in and did my business. I then hurried back to the starting area and got there just in time. They had signs along the side indicating paces. I found my brother-in-law just behind the 11:00/mile sign. I also saw the 5:00 pace group, slightly ahead of us. I tried to get a picture of the crowd in front of me before the start, but the picture got screwed up. Good thing I got that earlier shot of the starting line.

The next thing I knew, the race had started. My race would have to wait, though. Remember that picture of the starting line? Yeah, everybody had to go through that. It’s the width of 2 lanes of traffic. It took over 6 minutes for me to get to the starting line. I looked at the Belltower as I ran past it, and got a little emotional.

Miles 1 to 5

Splits: 10:53, 11:23, 11:23, 11:21, 11:50.

For this stretch, I ran with my brother-in-law. My plan had been to try to take the first two miles slower. That’s pretty much impossible when those miles are almost completely downhill.

Early on, we passed a church with a minister outside holding up a sign saying, “You’re beautiful.” I told my brother-in-law, “Everybody’s beautiful after .17 miles.”

The first aid station was just after 2 miles. I took Gatorade. Mile 3 took us uphill a bit, Mile 4 was generally flat, and Mile 5 had some small hills.

Just after the four mile mark, there was an aid station. I took my first Gu, and washed it down with water. I had to walk while eating my Gu, which is while Mile 5 was slower. My brother-in-law told me to go on ahead, and I didn’t see him again until after the race. It was good to have some company for a few miles, though.

Miles 6 to 11

Splits: 11:20, 11:11, 11:14, 10:56, 11:15, 11:09

Mile 6 had a few more hills, Mile 7 flattened out a bit, Mile 8 was mainly uphill, Mile 9 mostly downhill, and Miles 10 and 11 were slightly uphill.

At some point in this stretch, I felt around my flipbelt, and counted 3 Gu packets. One was missing. I thought I might have accidentally left it in the bag that I had checked. Crap. I knew there would be snacks at the aid station at mile 16.5/18.5 (it was during the out and back), so I figured I could replace my scheduled Gu with some kind of snack, and I’d still have a Gu left at 22.5 miles.

I understand the spacing of the aid stations during the out and back part of the race, but in this stretch, it was kind of odd. Aid stations were at 7, 8, and 9.5 miles. I took Gu with water at 8, and Gatorade at the others.

There was something that happened during Mile 8, but I’ll save that for the end.

Early in Mile 10, I checked my watch and found that, around .2 in, my pace for that mile was 10:20. Even though I was on a flat stretch and not really tired, I walked just to slow down my pace, since I knew 10:20 was way too fast.

During Mile 11, we got on the greenway and started the out and back portion of the race.

I was still feeling pretty good at this point.

Mile 12

This is where the course broke me.

My time was 11:19, and that included an aid station. (More on that in a minute.) The rest was downhill. A really, really steep downhill. I’m honestly not sure if I’ve seen a steeper hill during a run.

There were two problems with this. From a mental standpoint, I knew I’d have to go up this hill at around Mile 21. That made me pretty nervous. From a physical standpoint, going down a much steeper hill than I’m used to did a number on my legs. I didn’t feel it right away, but it ended up slowing me down.

At the aid station, someone was giving out Gu. I decided to grab one to replace the missing Gu. Vanilla Bean was the flavor I chose. I had never had it, but it seemed like the least likely to disagree with me. I ate a Strawberry Banana Gu (the flavor I had brought) and took some water.

Miles 13-16

Splits: 11:11, 11:35, 11:14, 11:34.

Mile 13 continued the downhill, so more mental torture, more pounding on my legs. Mile 14 had a mix of uphill and down, but nothing major. Mile 15 was mainly downhill, and Mile 16 was pretty flat.

At 13.1, my time was 2:28. Theoretically, that time could get me under 5:00, but I’d need to do the second half in 2:32. I was hoping to finish under 5 hours, but starting to think I might not quite get there.

There were aid stations just before 14, 15, and 16.5. I took water and the Vanilla Bean Gu at 16.5, and water and Gatorade at 14 and 15.

At some point during this stretch, I started to notice my right knee didn’t feel right. It wasn’t necessarily hurting, but it was a little stiff, and just felt off. It felt a little better when I stopped to walk, so I tried to take a few walk breaks. I’m fairly certain that the steep downhill in Mile 12 caused my knee problem.

Mile 17-20

Splits: 12:50, 12:26, 12:59, 12:57.

Yeah, I realized 5 hours was just not happening. I took more walk breaks, hoping that somehow my knee would get better. It didn’t actually hurt, which was good, but it still worried me.

The turnaround was at 17.41 miles according to my watch. All of these miles were relatively flat.

At 18.5, I got to the aid station with the snacks for a second time. I remember seeing bananas, orange slices, and some Halloween candy. (Yes, this was the day after Halloween.) This time, since I wasn’t scheduled for a Gu, I grabbed some Gatorade, some water, and an orange slice. I also saw a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in the mix of candy. I knew I wasn’t hitting 5:00, so I just said the hell with it and grabbed a peanut butter cup. A volunteer actually had to help me open it. It was delicious. If it upset my stomach, so be it. (As it turns out, I had zero stomach issues all day, even with the unfamiliar Vanilla Bean Gu in the mix.)

Then I got to Mile 19, and I was clearly struggling, but the universe decided that wasn’t enough, and it started raining.

Before City of Oaks, I had completed 17 races. Two races were on the same day, so that’s 16 race days. All of those race days had one thing in common: no rain.

First marathon, first time getting rained on during a race. Sigh. Luckily, it was pretty light rain, and the course had been completely dry before then.

There was another aid station at 20. I got water and Gatorade.

Mile 21-23

Splits: 14:45, 15:13, 15:07

Three miles. According to my Garmin, 237 feet of elevation gain. Egads. I didn’t even try to run up any of the uphill parts.

Aid stations at 21.5 and 22.5. I had my last Gu at 22.5 with some water. Water and Gatorade at 21.5.

I should probably point out here that I don’t think I ever really hit The Wall, at least not how I interpret what The Wall would feel like. I felt more like I just hit a pool of quicksand around Mile 17 or so, and things got gradually more difficult from there.

Mile 24 to the Finish

Splits: 15:21, 15:15, 13:30. (Last .34 at 10:04/mile pace.)

The rest of the way was fairly flat. There were some small hills, but after that last climb, they were like anthills.

Right at Mile 24, we turned on to Hillsborough Street. Except instead of turning left, towards the finish line, we turned right, ran about a half mile, then turned around to head toward the finish. That’s just mean. Mentally, I wasn’t doing so well. I was still walking a lot, even though the course had flattened out. It was raining, and I was exhausted.

After the turnaround, we were headed in the right direction. I was still pretty slow. Still tired (both physically and mentally), still wet from the rain.

There was one last aid station around 24.5. I got water and Gatorade.

At Mile 25, we got to the N.C. State campus. Seeing the campus buildings brought back memories, and that helped me through the last mile. I found the energy for a final kick, and I crossed the finish line.

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Yes, I’m a sucker and I bought an official photo. (The only other race photo I’ve bought was after my first half marathon.) The banner was changed after the start, from “You can do it!” to “You did it!” I’m looking to my left because a friend of mine from college was there at the finish line to cheer for me. I can’t put in to words how much that meant to me.

I got my medal and a bottle of water. I was completely drained, but just incredibly happy. My friend got a great picture just after the finish that really captures it.

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Next up: Post. Race. Beer. One of the selling points of this race (for me, anyway) was the official beer sponsor. Lonerider is a Raleigh brewery (Local, unlike Michelob Ultra) that distributes their beer across North Carolina, so I’ve had some of it before, and it’s pretty good (unlike Michelob Ultra). I walked over to the beer garden, and I went with Shotgun Betty, one of my favorite hefeweizens. It was excellent.

Food, on the other hand, was a problem. Because I finished relatively late, and I went to the beer garden first, and couldn’t leave the beer garden until I finished my beer, by the time I made it over to the food area, they were closing up. (Also, I think they probably closed a little early because of the rain.) I know they had some bread, and some Krispy Kreme donuts, but I missed that. The Papa John’s truck was still open, and because things were winding down, they gave me a whole pizza. I ate half of it. Under those circumstances, it was delicious. In retrospect, I should have gotten food first, because it was OK to bring food in to the beer garden, but it wasn’t OK to take beer out.

I have to give a shout out to the race volunteers. In spite of the food area closing up a little early, I thought the volunteers did a fantastic job throughout the race. They were always encouraging, always helpful (one helped me open the wrapper for my peanut butter cup), and were still cheerful even after it started raining.

Let’s talk about the medal. Holy crap, this thing is huge! It’s really nice, though.

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I used a Gu for scale in the first photo. The second photo is the back, and it’s tough to read, but it says “Esse quam videri – To be rather than to seem.” It’s the state motto of North Carolina. Also, the acorn spins. Definitely the best medal I’ve gotten so far.

As I write this, it’s been two weeks since the race. (It took me an extra week to get it posted.) My initial disappointment over my time has faded, and more than anything else, I’m really happy that I finished, that I set a really big goal, I worked hard towards that goal, and I achieved it. Like I said at the beginning, it was absolutely worth it.

My official time was 5:24:37. Definitely slower than I had hoped, but the course was a lot tougher than I expected. I’ve had races where I felt like the course beat me (OrthoCarolina 10K, Charlotte RaceFest). In this case, I felt like the course pounded me into a bloody pulp, chewed me up, and spit me out. It’s probably not a good course for a first marathon. Oh well, it’s done, and I don’t regret it.

One more thing, though. I’ve got to go back to Mile 8. My brother-in-law’s friend who ran the race lives on Mile 8, and I mentioned earlier that’s where I parked. Well, my sister drove over there with my nephew so they could cheer us on. (Side note, my nephew had a little bit of a meltdown later on, and that’s why they weren’t at the finish. It just means I need to run faster next time.)

As I approached, I heard my sister yelling my name. I looked over and saw her and my nephew. My nephew pointed at me and had a big smile on his face. OK, that was pretty cool. Right after I passed them, I heard him yell out, “B.B.! B.B.!” He can’t say P.J. yet, so that’s what he calls me. I laughed and kept going. As I was running along, I could still hear him, and I thought, “Man, that kid is loud!” I found out afterwards from my sister that he started running after me.

He’s on his way to being a runner, just like his uncle. I’m so proud of him.

And to close it out, here’s the obligatory post-race photo with my car key.

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