This past Labor Day weekend, I ran my 2020 virtual Boston Marathon. To be clear, this is not a post about how to set a PR in a virtual marathon. That’s a worthy article with unique tactics. Instead, this is a post about finishing and, ideally, enjoying the virtual marathon experience.
The primary goal was to finish the virtual marathon. My secondary goal was to maintain 8:00-8:30 pace miles. My marathon PR is 2:58, so my virtual pace should be comfortably slower.
My training for the virtual marathon was close to none. I was ready for the original April Patriot’s Day run. When the race moved to September, I was skeptical that it would occur. There is was no end in sight for COVID and certainly not by September. My motivation was low for serious marathon training. However, I was consistently running 30-40 miles per week. Far below serious training levels, but not zero.
I decided to run my virtual marathon Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. I would wake at 4am, eat a light breakfast, and be running at 5am. The goal was to be done by 9am. September in Atlanta is still hot and humid. In the morning, the humidity exists, but at least the heat is diminished until later in the day.
My course would run south along a busy road (on sidewalk) for 3 miles until I arrived at the Georgia PATH. The PATH is a network of over 300 miles of paved walking/running/biking trails in Georgia. (https://www.pathfoundation.org/). The portion of the trail I was running spanned east-west connecting Stone Mountain, Decatur, Centennial Olympic Park, and Georgia Tech. My course would run the PATH to Georgia Tech where I make the 13.1 mile turnaround. The PATH is a great private-public project in Georgia that allows for safe, multi-use trails throughout Atlanta.
There would be no water source along my route. Pre-COVID, the PATH did have a network of water fountains that have all been turned off now. Instead, I wore a 2L Camelback pack filled with Nuun electrolyte drink. For nutrition, I carried 6 Cliff Gels – my traditional staple for the marathon. I would hydrate every 2 miles and consume a gel every 30 minutes. Every hour, I would take two salt pills to replace electrolytes lost from sweating in the humidity and heat.
Easy, right? What could go wrong?
I stumbled out of the blocks for my marathon. I got up at 4am and had a light breakfast as planned. Then I fell back asleep… I wasn’t in the habit of running early in the morning and the couch got me. By the time I reawakened, it was too late to start. The family was up. The sun was rising along with the temperatures. Plan B was to move the marathon to the evening.
I headed out around 6pm after a restful afternoon. The temperature was in the low 80’s, but it felt cooler than most days the past few weeks. Humidity was above 80%. Sunset was around 8:30pm, so I packed my headlamp for the final miles.
Things were on track in the beginning. My only setback was 100% my fault. I made the classic mistake of trying something new the day of the marathon. I just received a new pair of socks. For some reason, I decided to wear them. Big mistake! The socks were weak in ankle fabric. After 9 miles, I had painful blisters on my heals and the back of my shoe was stained with blood.
At 21 miles, the wheels fell off. Famous marathon statement, huh? My hamstrings cramped. It wasn’t a glycogen-depleted “wall” feeling or elevated heart rate. Instead, I believe the hamstring muscles got fatigued. The muscles weren’t used to continual firing for over 3 hours. My stride was stiff and incapable of increasing in length. It felt like a tight band was holding my legs together. Around the same time, I drank the last of my water and ate the last of my gels. And, the sun set leaving the trail veiled in darkness.
I had five miles left. I stopped at the next “aid” station – a corner CVS store – to grab a Gatorade. Then, I put on my headlamp and began hobbling home. It was a frustrating and painful final set of miles, but, eventually, I finished at 3 hours and 46 minutes.
I had a hard time falling asleep that night. My legs were sore, but, more importantly, I was still wired from caffeine from the gels. The next day, my legs were sore, but nothing like a traditional marathon. By Labor Day Monday, I was fine.
In hindsight, I should have waited to run my virtual marathon the next morning. Even in the evening, the temperature was in the 80s which is a hot time for a marathon. Running the final set of miles in the dark was also mentally challenging and physically difficult to safely maneuver.
I’m also questioning my course choice.The out and back course I traveled had ~1,700 of elevation gain, which is about 2X the Boston marathon course. There are probably easier courses I could have chosen for a more comfortable experience. Of course, marathon specific training would have made this easier, so maybe it wasn’t the course! Self-supporting my fluids with a Camelback worked fine. Although, I can see a benefit in running a tighter, multi-loop course with stashed water bottles — less to carry and reduced chance of running out of fluids.
All in all, it was a good experience. Mentally, I feel stronger knowing that I have run the 26.2 mile distance alone and unsupported. I’m disappointment in the time, which has motivated me to look forward to the 2021 marathon season. Hopefully, it is safe to run by then and I can give the marathon distance another shot.