Celebrating Failure! #runKCM #beatyesterday

Many successful people will tell you that the key to succeeding is being willing to fail. Celebrating those failures can become a springboard to success. My family has had some fun around the dinner table with this recently. The kids have attempted to persuade us to take them out for ice cream to celebrate various “failures.” The RHSW gets the credit for introducing this topic, telling us the background story of the founder of Spanx, who credits this practice as formative in her success. Mock those Spanx if you must, but she’s a 45 year old billionaire. Her advice is similar to my credo: “Reach for what you cannot.”

I was reaching going into my fall marathon, Kansas City. I hadn’t raced a marathon in a year, after recovering from an injury in August 2015. My training had gone well, and tune-up races and workouts pointed to a good performance. I was targeting 3:10 – a minute faster than I ran last year.

However, I failed spectacularly. A 3:31 – my slowest timed marathon ever. What happened? The analysis is simple. I was unwilling to be mediocre, and weather conditions didn’t permit me to be excellent. The result: a crash and burn beginning in mile 18.

Ideally, I’d like it to be about 45F at the start of a race. However, it was 65F at 7am, with high humidity and 30 mph winds from the south. Not good. There’s a physiological penalty for anything over 60F, as your body expends extra energy trying to cool itself. And of course a headwind never helped anyone run faster. Did I know these things at the start line? Of course I did! I probably could have eased off the gas and run a 3:15-3:20 without incident, but I didn’t know what the day had in store at that point.

A side stitch struck in mile 18. We’ve all experienced them before when running, and we have a vague idea that they happen when you’re pushing too hard. They’re caused by a spasm of your diaphragm, which is a sheet of muscle at the bottom of your rib cage that’s part of what allows you to breathe in the first place. Push the pace too hard, and hello side stitch!

There’s no question I was pushing too hard with an ambitious pace. However, in the past I’ve always been able to ease off enough to keep going. When the pain set in around mile 18, I slowed my pace and started massaging it by digging my hand into it. I have no idea whether this is actually therapeutic or not, but it did make me feel as though I was doing something. Unfortunately, the pain got worse and worse – so bad I was hobbling, and practically doubled over. It was disappointing, but I soon came to realize I was going to have to walk until it went away. I walked the better part of two miles – some of them with a new friend – Matt, who’d hit the wall in his first marathon.


Surprisingly happy to be walking…

We got each other shuffling again and resolved to finish. I had to drop back to a walk again after getting nauseous and sent him on. The nausea passed quickly, and I started running again and ran to the finish. I did not want to walk 6 miles, or DNF, so I’m glad I got underway.

I wish I’d had this knowledge during the race, but my post-race research revealed a breathing technique that could have helped resolve the side stitch. Budd Coates, Runner’s World running coach, suggests: slow your pace; and exhale as the foot on the opposite side of the stitch strikes the ground. Not every step (you would probably hyperventilate). This releases the tension on the  side of the diaphragm in spasm. I hope I never have to try this, but now I know what to do!

So, how did I get to mile 18? Pretty fast. Too fast. I programmed a workout into my Garmin fenix 3 using the Smart Pacing 3:10 band they passed out at the expo. The bands are customized with mile splits that take into account the elevation changes of the course and the need to warm up intelligently and not go out too fast. You run a negative split. I programmed the mile splits into my Garmin with pace warnings set with the target pace as the upper boundary (too slow) and 30s faster as the lower boundary (too fast). Ideally, I think you’d like to be within about 10 seconds, not 30. However, I hadn’t tried this before and I didn’t want the watch alarming at me constantly. My first mile was just a touch over 30s too fast, the second was around 25s too fast. After that I settled into a pretty good range, mostly single digits faster than target pace. However, the cumulative effect of that was that I was over 2 minutes faster than target pace at the 12 mile mark. Everything before mile 10 was faster than the target split, mile 10 was dead on, and everything after was slower. Prior to mile 18 though, not much slower. At mile 17, I was still over a minute ahead of target pace, and at mile 18, just under a minute ahead. Of course from there, it just fell apart. You can’t walk two miles and get anywhere near your goal. In retrospect though, I doubt that a more faithful observance of the target paces would have saved me – I was simply running too fast for conditions – mine and the weather.

Around the 24 mile mark, the 3:30 pace group caught me. I’d already long since been passed by the 3:15 group and one other pace group while walking. At this point, I was running, and I decided I felt good enough to run to the finish with them – I managed about 2.5 miles at just over 8:00 pace. The pacer was a bit off (not his fault – I think the course was a bit long due to some signage/traffic control problems on the Paseo in the new section) and I might have run harder to the finish to get it under 3:30, but when the clock came into view, that wasn’t an option.


Surprisingly sanguine…

I felt pretty barfy afterwards. No elation at a goal achieved or age group victory (although as it turns out I wasn’t that far off). After about 2 hours of feeling sorry for myself, I decided to celebrate my failure. I also decided I was eager to run again! I toed the line thinking go big or go home, so when that’s your mentality you have to accept that failure is a risk!

Your Guide to Running the Kansas City Marathon / Half / 5K #RunKCM

The Kansas City Marathon is my home town’s fall marathon, and we’ll toe the line this year on October 15, 2016. I also ran it in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015.

The course has evolved over the years. It was initially run in 1979 as a point-to-point heading south from downtown. More recently the course has become a challenging but scenic loop. It starts and ends in the Crown Center district. If you’re coming in from out of town, look for a hotel there, or downtown. From Crown Center you’ll head up Hospital Hill, and then on to the iconic Liberty Memorial, Westport, Country Club Plaza, Waldo, Hyde Park and the 18th & Vine Jazz district, just to name a few. Trees and fountains (it’s the City of Fountains, after all) are plentiful. Crowd support is sporadic apart from the start/finish line, but there are pockets of real enthusiasm and the course is well-staffed with lots of friendly, supportive volunteers. KCM can’t bill itself as “flat and fast” – but it’s a beautiful, well-thought out course that follows the Chicago model of showing you the town.

KCM is indeed hilly. The gain/loss (it’s a loop) is right around 1000 ft for the course. For comparison’s sake, Boston, a point-to-point course, is net downhill, with just over 500 feet of gain and 1000 feet of loss. Chicago has only about 100! There are only two sections in the KCM course that spike your heart rate – getting up to the Liberty Memorial early in the race, and when you climb up into the Sunset Hills area after mile 10 or so. The stretch from mile 20 up to the Paseo is tough — mainly because of where it is in the race — but gradual.

The race is well-timed on the calendar for optimal racing temperatures. In my experience it’s always been in the 40s at race start, where average daily lows sit at that time of year (46 F). The average high on October 15th is 67 F – a temperature not typically reached before noon. Anything over 60 F starts to affect most people’s performance. As far as rain on your marathon day (not ironic, Alanis, just inconvenient), I’ve never experienced a rainy KCM. Precipitation starts to drop off in October in Kansas City, so the odds of rain are only 1 in 3. My good fortune can’t last forever! Tip: the start can be chilly. Dress in some clothes you were going to give away to charity anyway, and peel them off at the start line just prior to the national anthem. This clothing is collected and donated to a local charity. I’ll also cut the end off some old tube socks to make temporary arm sleeves which can be discarded at an aid station when temps start to rise.

I wrote the preceding paragraph about a month ago. Unfortunately, it looks like the weather will be uncooperative in an unexpected way. I got this email today:

Prepare for warmer than seasonal average weather conditions on Saturday
Greetings runners! While there is still time for the forecast to change, we wanted to make you aware that warmer than historical average temperatures are expected on Saturday for the 2016 Waddell & Reed Kansas City Marathon with Ivy Investments. If the current forecast holds true, you can expect temperatures in the 60-65 degree range at the start of the race with a noticeable wind from the south, and a high temperature around 80 degrees late in the day.

Well, that’s a bummer. The 10 day forecast looked much better. Can I get a “reset”? I’m probably going to have to readjust my goal pace expectations by at least 30 seconds per mile.


The course is 100% paved, a mix of concrete and asphalt on city streets. There are minor changes from year to year, often due to road construction or neighborhood considerations. This year’s changes include a detour beginning around mile 16, where it will head east for a bit before taking a different, hillier route back north to the Plaza. A couple of other sections are altered to accommodate this one. When I first started running this race, there were several turns in the last mile, but more recently the final stretch has been modified to get everyone out onto Grand sooner, putting the finish line in sight after you make the turn. It’s a big boost!

You’ll want to incorporate hills into your training – both ups and downs. Not only are they “speedwork in disguise,” but you’ll be running quite a few of them on this course. Nothing scary – no 10% grades – but you’ll be ready if you practice “even effort” on hills. Also, the race offers great pace groups at a wide variety of paces, and they follow the “even effort” mantra. In other words, it’s not just a fit 20-something with a GPS watch leading a group to the exact same split every mile. They’ve actually split up the entire course accounting for elevation change in each mile, as well as a warm-up period at the beginning. Another training tip is to train on the course. Familiarity breeds confidence. Those tough sections aren’t as tough when you know exactly when you’ll be through them. On race day, hitting the tangents can help quite a bit on a course that has a lot of turns. If you run with a pace group, they focus on this. Otherwise, if you’ve trained on the course, you’ll know how to set up for the next turn.

I’ve focused on the marathon course, but a half marathon is also offered. It follows the marathon course for the first 6+ miles into the Plaza, then rejoins it in mile 9 (just before 23 on the marathon course). There’s also a 5K and Kids Marathon, as well as a Team Relay. The presence of the relay runners is a good reminder that you need to set your own pace goals and not get caught up in what others are doing!

Kansas City is a great place for a marathon, and a great place to feast afterwards. For me, it’s usually one of our great BBQ restaurants. I hope you’ll join me in running this great race!