Report by (marathon winner) Gavin Finlay
Wrightsville Beach Marathon, 20 March 2016.
Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
On Monday 21 March, less than 36 hours after the Wrightsville Beach marathon, something terrifying happened. I could not run. Conor, my tyrannical two year old, was edging closer to the main road beside our local playground, Oval Park (Yes, it’s egg shaped). I hobbled as best I could to catch him, my quads refusing to comply. At that moment I cursed the marathon, distance running, the sacrifices and all the bloody training. The post-race high I’d been surfing since running the marathon in 2:30:58 the previous day, dissolved. I imagined the news headlines: ‘Local Irish man, too stiff after his marathon exertions, fails to rescue his son!’ Fortunately, in the end, he hesitated at the park’s edge and I managed to grab him. Limping, like a wooden marionette marathoner.
If the art of living is the art of avoiding suffering, why do we run? Why do we run marathons? Let’s not mince words, distance running is hard. Running, let alone racing, a marathon is damn hard. Yet millions of us voluntarily embrace this suffering. We’re strange, us humans. But, of course, it is worth it every time. That meditative ‘flow’ mid-race, resilience in the face of pain, and the sense of achievement are essential to living the good life. Oh, who knows? What I do know is that I’m glad distance running is part of my life, even though I hated the training sometimes. Like doing a brutal 15 miler medium-long run alone on a cold Tuesday night. Or a dreaded 7 mile tempo on my own. But it is worth it every time.
Race reporter Gavin leading the race!
To the race itself. This was the first marathon I’ve ran outside my native Dublin city. It was also a first for getting a shuttle to the start. At the ungodly hour of 6am I might add. In darkness. But it was also the first time I truly felt prepared and psyched to really race it. Pre-race prep didn’t really go smoothly. I awoke at 4am to scoff a bagel and jam. Back to sleep until 5am. Up, shower, stretch, beetroot juice, coffee, read my book, last-minute lace revision, and drove a comb across my beard (not my hair). Jogged over to the shuttle from the hotel expecting to board straightaway. Balls. Enormous queue. Panic. At one point I even considered running the few miles to the start line. It worked out fine though.
It was dark and cold for the 6:40am start which to be honest left me a bit tense. A few strides to stay warm. I downed a caffeine-fueled energy gel (perfomance-enhancer?) at the start line while chatting to a few (sub)elite half-marathoners. They were going out at 5:20-30 pace so I decided I could tuck in around 50m behind them for the first few miles. As all marathoners know, it’s vital to remain disciplined for the first half. I realised early on that I would be racing out front on my own – unchartered waters for me. On the one hand, I thought, ‘wow I could actually win this’. On the other, ‘okay, this is gonna be really tough. Thankfully, I ran with a 1:15 half-marathoner for a few miles which helped me relax. While having a conversation wasn’t part of my race strategy, such that it was, we chatted cordially about goals etc.; and how he had ran and loved the Dublin marathon; and the St. Patrick’s 5k, one of my favourite hometown road races. Serendipity, we never knew thee.
As we approached the long commercial thoroughfare, the brilliantly named ‘Military Cut Off Road’, (a reference to the Revolutionary War or the US Civil War? No, World War II apparently – why am I disappointed by that?), I reminisced about home and the British military road that slices through the Dublin-Wicklow Mountains, constructed in the counter-revolutionary aftermath of the 1798 rebellion. That thought quickly evaporated as I refocused on hitting and maintaining 5:40-5 pace in that moment. The only moment. Hard for a wannabe historian I assure you!
There was fabulous support here from the Wrightsville locals, with endless shouts of ‘awesome job’ (‘awesome’? Awe-inspiring? Really? We’re just running. Calm down. I think this word has been so diluted and has lost all meaning in the United States), ‘good job’ and ‘looking strong’. And then I heard my toddler screaming. My wife and kids were on this stretch which gave a nice boost at around mile 4.
I became isolated at this point but, it was here where I met the ‘leader cyclist’. Considering the headwind I was facing I tucked in behind him for the remainder, if I could. I even ended up striking up conversation with him, which turned down the volume on any negative thoughts that would surely have arisen otherwise. I now count him as a friend.
The route took a turn for the swanky and opulent. It snaked its way through an upmarket neighbourhood called Landfall at mile 7 that reminded me of Game of Thrones for some reason. There was good support from the residents – including families out in their pyjamas, dogs barking their approval, and what appeared to be hungover college wrestler meatheads. Check the watch: 5:40 pace and feeling comfortable. Ease up and do not hit the halfway mark faster than 1:15, I reminded myself. The plan was to run a 1:15-16 first half, and then a negative split of 1:14-15. Paul Duffy’s Sportsworld marathon record could have fallen and there were moments when I did believe that. It’s funny because when I started the 18 week training plan back in November, I was targeting a 2:34 at best. However, by the time race-day arrived I felt confident I could run a low 2:30s, and perhaps even dip under. Alas, it was not to be this time. Make no mistake, this was a pancake-flat course and so the opportunity was there to clock a fast time. That said, it was relentlessly bendy in parts, and a better runner would have ‘ran the tangents’ with greater economy. Also, running alone from the gun wasn’t ideal for a relative novice like myself. But it was a wonderful experience I will learn from, and a memory I’ll cherish.
Mercifully, there was no train-wreck in the latter stages. No catastrophic “bonking”. I was confident that my training and approach would inoculate me from those horrors. But of course, no matter how well you’ve trained, anything can happen on race day. I did slow down slightly around mile 18-20 but nothing too damaging overall, as I think I banked a few quick miles earlier on. After I swigged a gel, and knowing I was into the last 10k, I picked it up. The perceived effort was certainly harder, but all those long runs (and squats) paid dividends here and I stayed strong. I did wobble a bit mentally when I realised sub-2:30 was out of reach but the small crowds through the university campus section (UNC-Wilmington) provided much appreciated support. Still, I was happy with how I handled the distance and, more importantly, the pace. Those 5:50-55 miles brought my average pace down and, time doesn’t lie. Well, maybe it does because my watch got me at 2:30:58 while my official chip was 2:31:00. Anyway:) I crossed the line in 1st place, exhausted yet exhilarated.
Running and training for a marathon can be fundamentally solitary pursuits. Though I do like the solitude and self-responsibility it demands. Nevertheless, I’d like to thank Alan, Gene and Robert for their company and support over the last several months. Friendship and camaraderie helps a great deal. And Jason and the crew at Bull City Track Club for making me feel welcome here in Durham. My eternal gratitude to Emily and Myles, and the lads back in Sportsworld Terenure. The fitness and endurance to race this marathon was forged not just on the trails of Durham, but also back home on the streets of Dublin with you.
Splits (unusual mile splits given on their website!)
Mile 3.3: 00:18:55 00:05:44
Mile 11.8: 01:07:08 00:05:42
Mile 15.8 01:30:54 00:05:46
Mile 20.5 01:58:51 00:05:48
Finish Mile 26.2 02:31:00 00:05:46