Steamtown: The Best Midsize Marathon You’ll Ever Run

Finish lineThere are rare times in life when we plan and prepare and everything falls into place, just as we imagined. Then there are times when everything falls apart, no matter how much we have planned, often for reasons unexpected or beyond our control. And then still, there are times when we are our own adversary, allowing negative self-talk to get in the way of our success.

In running, I have experienced all three of the above over the years, and perhaps most frequently, the third scenario. Indeed, too often, I am my own worst enemy. This time, I wanted things to be different. I didn’t allow myself to sabotage my own race. I wanted to have a beautiful day, and that is exactly what happened.

I began my training for the Steamtown Marathon with the best intentions. I registered for it at the beginning of June, feeling fully rested and healthy following my February marathon in Austin. I chose Steamtown strategically, based on its small entry field (3,000 runners), mid-October date, its location in Scranton, Pennsylvania and close proximity to Virginia, and reportedly “fast” course. In addition, it would conveniently be six weeks before the JFK 50 Mile Run in November, for which I had already registered. Running Steamtown would provide the opportunity to get a quality long training effort in and still have plenty of time to recover and finish preparing for JFK. And if I was really lucky, I’d get into the best shape of my life and use those extra five minutes I’d get on my 35th birthday in August to try to qualify for Boston on Steamtown’s “fast” course.

Steamtown Screen Shot

All signed up and ready to train, June 2014.

My plan was perfect.

What I hadn’t completely considered when I registered for Steamtown was how stressful our pack-out and move from Matamoros would be. I hadn’t really thought about how I would manage to stick to my training plan during our month-long home leave cross-country road trip through 22 states in August. And for some silly reason, I hadn’t really considered that I’d have to complete a huge chunk of my training in the sauna that is Matamoros in the late spring and early summer, as though I hadn’t learned my lesson last year while training for the Mexico City Marathon.

Add to that mix an unexpected and unprecedented (for me) leg/back injury, apparently from overuse, forcing me to reduce my mileage by quite a bit and even take a couple of weeks off completely. I hadn’t considered that possibility either.

And so, after debating whether even to run the race at all, I decided to try something new. I decided to let go of any expectations I had and just enjoy the day. For some reason, there had only been three possible outcomes for this race in my mind: qualify for Boston; run a painfully slow and disappointing marathon with more walking than running; or not finish at all. I hadn’t considered the possibility that I could still run a great race without qualifying for Boston, and that I could actually have fun doing it. After all, isn’t that why I run in the first place? Because it’s fun and I like it? I wonder why I have to remind myself of that.

Fall in PA

Beautiful fall foliage in northern Pennsylvania. Just a sampling of the scenery I’d get to run through (minus the cars) for a good portion of the course.

As soon as we arrived in Scranton and I saw the colorful fall foliage, I realized there was no way I could not enjoy the day. It was then that I really began to feel excited about the race. M. and I went to packet-pickup, where I got my stuff and picked up a couple of pairs of shorts at the expo. Then we checked into our hotel, where I began to lay out my race outfit. We had an early dinner at a great little Brazilian restaurant and I ate just enough to feel full but not stuffed.

We spent the rest of our evening relaxing in the hotel room, playing with Frieda, and planning out our transportation and M.’s spectating for the race. I rolled out my legs on the foam roller and went to bed feeling at peace and excited. I didn’t quite get the sleep I had hoped for, but woke up the next morning on time and ready to run.

Sunday morning brought clear skies and 38-degree temperatures: perfect marathon weather. We marveled at the frost on our windshield, the first we had seen in two years. We drove to the race start, where I found an old friend of mine from Minnesota who was returning to her hometown of Scranton to run the race and visit her family. At promptly 8:00, the fire of a cannon got us off and running downhill from Forest City toward Carbondale. We were on a point-to-point course, headed for downtown Scranton 26.2 miles later.

With a net elevation drop of nearly 1,000 feet, Steamtown is often billed as a downhill marathon, with most of the drop occurring in the first eight miles. Sounds easy? Think again. In fact, the race website cautions runners to start conservatively, as it is not uncommon for runners to reach the halfway mark in personal best time, only to crawl through the second half, which includes three fairly nasty hills in the last three miles. That is, hills that wouldn’t normally be so tough, but running them on trashed quads after 23 miles of mostly downhill might make them feel like mountains.

I heeded the warnings as best I could, thankful for the crowded start which forced me to keep my pace in check. I had actually considered running without my watch and basing my pace on how I felt, but was glad I’d changed my mind, as I had to scale back my pace more than once, especially in those first eight miles. I could easily have run a 10K personal best, only to pay for it later in the race.

Once the crowd thinned out, we were running down a country road under a canopy of red, yellow, and orange leaves and I can’t remember a time recently when I felt more at peace. I was enjoying the moment, and felt like I could run forever. Best of all, neither my knee nor my leg hurt.

I saw M. and Frieda in Carbondale around mile 7.5, still feeling great and barely an hour into the run. I was making great time, but I tried not to focus on that. There were a couple of uphills that I wasn’t expecting, as they hadn’t really shown up on the course elevation map, but they were a welcomed break on my quads.

Mile 7.5

Waving to M. and Frieda in Carbondale, around mile 7.5.

With high school band performances and families hanging out on their front porches to cheer as we ran through small towns and cozy communities, the miles ticked by after that, each one as smooth as the last. The volunteers, many of them high school students from the greater Scranton area school districts, were plentiful and enthusiastic. Each cup of lemon-lime Gatorade came with words of encouragement and a smile. I noticed that the distance between the beep of my watch at each mile and the mile markers on the race course was gradually increasing. I tried to run the tangents as best I could, but with quite a few turns on the course, it was difficult. I cruised through the halfway mark in 1:50… ironically, exactly on pace for a Boston qualifier.

I saw M. and Frieda again just before mile 17, on a gorgeous rails-to-trails section of the course whose softer terrain was another welcomed break on my legs. I had started to feel fatigue set into my left quad- my weaker leg- and could feel myself slowing down. I had managed to keep each mile at or under 8:33 until this point, and thought that if I could just keep my pace under 9:00 for the rest of the race, maybe I could finish in about 3:45. I didn’t want to get caught up in pace and time, but as the end neared, I started to formulate a goal in my mind.

The fatigue in my quads- both of them now- grew stronger with each mile. I wasn’t prepared for so much downhill running, and it was starting to show. I reached mile 21 in exactly three hours, certain now that running 9:00 miles was really going to be tough. Hang on, I said to myself. Just hang on. I had taken in three chocolate GU packets and started on my fourth at mile 22. For the first time during the race, I felt nauseated as it went down, so I took half of it and tossed the rest.

Scranton

Downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania: The Electric City.

I pushed on, and nearly came to a complete stop when I reached the base of the first of the three hills-that-feel-like-mountains at mile 23. It was short, thank goodness, and felt much steeper than it actually was. I knew that if I stopped running, it would be hard to get going again, so I shuffled up the hill as quickly as I could. The downhill that followed was somewhat torturous and I tried my best to silence my screaming quads. At mile 24, the hill was about three times as long, three times as steep, and three times as tough on my tired legs. When I summited the final hill at mile 26, I saw M. and Frieda cheering for me. The streets were lined with spectators who shouted words of encouragement and congratulations. I saw the finish line ahead and picked up my pace as well as I could for the final downhill stretch to the end. I crossed the line in 3:52:11, with 26.37 miles clocked on my watch and a huge smile on my face. The last 10K had taken me an hour, but I didn’t care about that. I was exhausted and ecstatic.

Mile 26

Definitely a sight for sore eyes (and legs), at the top of our final hill.

I learned a powerful lesson yesterday about letting go of expectations, for better or for worse, and silencing my negative energy. I had the most fun I’ve ever had in a marathon and surprised myself with my third-best time. My quads are pretty beat up today, and it feels fantastic. (Just don’t touch me!)

Finish

Happy marathon finisher!

Thank you for reading!

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