Tuesday, September 13, 2016

2016 Via Marathon

On September 11, 2016 I participated in my first Via Marathon.  The goal of this race when I had signed up many months prior, was to establish a baseline Marathon time so that I could work towards and Boston Qualifying time.  I had read that this was the 2nd or 3rd fastest race in the country, was net downhill, and was designed by a fellow runner, so I figured, this is the the one!  Alas, this was my worst marathon time to date, but those things happen and I shall be working towards the next event.

A lot got in the way even before the race happened.  As you can see from previous blog posts, I had already done two full marathons and several other races in 2016.  I spent most of 2015 preparing for those races and focusing on distances and back to back races instead of speed.  In early Summer I started a new Marathon training program from Runner's World to work on my time.  In July the company I worked for bought another software company in Nottingham, UK and I travelled back and forth three times in the following ten weeks.  This put a crimp in my ability to stay on top of my training plan and really do the speed workout and the long distances runs that I needed to get done.

Race bib and supplies for the run

The race is located North/West of Philly in PA which was about a 3 hour drive from my house.  I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn off Airport Road which was really nice.  It was close to several different locations for food options, and they provided both late checkout for runners (2pm) as well as a shuttle server to/from the starting line.  The weather was warmer than I would have expected for Allentown, PA in September, but it wasn't horrible.  The temperature was about 72F at 6:15am when I caught the shuttle from the hotel to the starting line with some humidity in the air.  There was a nice breeze and it was cloudy as the race start approached.

My TomTom Spark watch didn't cooperate at all and after the first 1.6 miles, I lost my GPS signal and ended up just turning off the watch all together (it did manage to calculate over 44,000 steps).  So unfortunately I don't have a map or elevation information to share.  The course is advertised as a point to point net descent course with a drop of 240 feet, but I tell you, with the trails and the steady inclines in some areas, it was a lot more challenging than I had imagined.  You can see an overview of the Map on Page 6 of the Athlete Guide.  Clearly part of this was due to my lack of training, but the Biltmore runs I had done in March were fair more challenging, and my overall time was significantly better.

As the day progressed, the weather didn't really seem to be a factor. It was warm, but was cooler than my training had been all Summer.  The majority of the course is actually shaded so even thought the sun came out after the first hour or so, the sun never really became and an issue.  I think what took the toll on me personally was a combination of not having my watch, so I couldn't race against my own goals, and the trails.  As bad as my times where, some of my splits according to the results page were actually faster in later sections of the course that weren't trail.

I don't run a lot of trails and I am not used to the extra punishment that can cause on your muscles and joints as well as the amount of mental fatigue paying that much attention to your footing.  While I hope no one was injured on the trail sections, I did have a runner in front of me tumble over a tree root.  He managed to get back up quickly and was on his way.  While the event staff actually did try to mark larger roots and rocks with blue spray paint, some of those marks were faded and of course some were missed.

The trail quality varied a lot throughout the course.  In some sections it was a combination of small gravel/dirt with medium sized rocks and roots in areas occasionally.  In some cases it was a really fine bluish colored powder, and in other sections it was as narrow as a car tire track.  As I indicated earlier, you really had to pay attention to your foot falls to ensure good footing and to prevent injury.

Powdered trail surface

The overall course was very scenic as it followed the river and canal mostly between Allentown and Bethlehem and then again between Bethlehem and Easton (where the race finished).  There is a slight out and back in Bethlehem across some train tracks and around a few historic buildings which actually provided a nice backdrop for race photographers.

Out and back in Bethlehem, PA

Race support throughout the marathon course was very nice.  Great volunteers were directing runners on which way to go, police officers and other folks were watching over traffic, and there were water stations about every 2 miles or so. There were two or three sections of course where it was over 3 miles between water stops.  I actually did feel myself slowing down here and I think that was really the only time I noticed the heat.  These sections were primarily on trail parts where getting volunteers into those areas with an ability to hand out water in the available space as well as deal with cups could have been a challenge.  So for future reference, it may be a good idea for some runners to have some fluids with them on the course.

The final mile of the course was really nice along the river into Easton with a slight hill near the end as you run a "fish hook" off the water and up into the town streets, back over the water via a bridge and into the finish chute.  Since I came in so late in the day, the party at the finish line was well underway with live music, runners relaxing in the park, and a half mile long "free beer" line.

Finish line

There was plenty of medical help at the finish for those that may have needed anything, lots to drink and a fast line to grab a pack of food before you headed into the beer line, if that is your thing, or just wanted to walk around and relax.

Since this is a point to point race, there were buses standing by to take the Marathons back to Allentown or the Half Marathons back to their starting line.  It did take a while for my bus to fill up and get underway for the 20 minute ride back to the starting line, but having someone pick me up at the finish line would have been challenging given the number of runners, spectators, volunteers and road closures.

Panoramic of the Steel Stacks

The race was very well run, from packet pick-up at the Steel Stacks in Bethlehem, PA to the actual event.  The Marathon and Half Marathon both start at the same time which is great since it allows first time half marathoners some extra time to finish.  The course was very scenic even though it ended up being more challenging than I had imagined.  Knowing what I know now about the course, I would certainly train a little differently in terms of the kinds of surfaces I use for training.

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