Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

In Quest of the BQ
A Race Report from the St. George Marathon

By Jeff Burrus

The first recollection I have of any desire to qualify for the Boston Marathon was early in 2010. I had just completed the Texas Marathon Challenge (any five marathons in Texas within the same year) and the Marathons of Texas (Dallas, Houston, Austin in that order). Coach Al had sent out a list compiled by of the races with the highest percentage of Boston qualifiers. I figured that was a good list to work from in an attempt to establish a new PR at the distance and maybe even improve upon it enough to find myself toeing the line in Hopkinton.

Pre-race carb loading
The standard at the time for a male 40 to 44 years old (I was 42 way back then) was 3:20:59. My PR was a 3:39:42. I figured it would take a year or more to build up a large aerobic base, burn off 50 or so pounds of fat, and find the right combination of course and weather to make it happen. I was running a lot of sub 4 hour marathons and occasionally dropping closer to 3:50, but there is a whole lot of road between 3:50 and 3:20:59. I really figured that my best bet would be to make incremental improvements and ultimately use the fact that my time standard would relax a little when I turned 44 (Boston lets you use your age on their race day for the purposes of qualifying even if you’re technically a year younger when you ran your qualifying race). The time standard for a 45 to 49 year old in 2010 was 3:30:59.

By late 2011, a year and a half and 11 marathons later, I had neither PR’d nor BQ’d. It seemed like when I found a good course, the weather was uncooperative. When the course and weather were good, my training was poor. I never could get it all to come together.

Then something else happened. Boston changed the time standards, making it tougher to get in. The net effect on me was that turning 45 would not give me an additional 10 minutes; it only gave me another 4 minutes and 1 second (instead of increasing to 3:30:59, it only increased to 3:25:00…costing me 5:59).

2012 came and went without me running a single marathon. I realized about a third of the way through 2012 what was happening and began to do some serious personal evaluation. There is not a tremendous amount of quit in me, but I definitely saw myself on an unfamiliar path towards just that. I needed to switch gears, again.

After years of “running by the seat of pants,” I hired a coach. My running group dubbed her “top secret,” but her real name is Leah Skinner.

A few weeks after I bought my bike (May 2012), I was reading through the Austin Tri-Cyclist blog when I came across this article. Something clicked, and I reached out to her. We met for coffee, and I told her what I was wanting to accomplish. When I told her what I’d tried so far in pursuit of said goal, she very frankly told me “we” wouldn’t be doing it that way moving forward, and I hired her on the spot.

I control, or at least attempt to control, pretty much everything around me. In general, I find that life is better when I’m in charge. Better for me and better for you too. The thought of giving up control of my running was daunting. It took a while to embrace my new routine (integrating my new workout regimen into my existing commitments like toting the water for the Ship), but I was able to do it seamlessly, for the most part, after a month or so.

By the end of 2012 I was ready to run my first marathon in over a year. I ran Louisiana in 3:50:17. Not a 3:25:00, but 37 minutes faster than the last one I had done in October of 2011. Through February and March my paces on just about every run I did were coming down, way down. At the same time, my heart rate was coming down as well. The better I ran, the more I bought in. Even a control freak has a hard time arguing with the kind of results I was seeing.

At the very beginning of April, as I finished a short/fast run, my back was a little tight. The next morning I could barely get out of bed. When I was finally able to get up, I had the oddest pain radiating through my hip, over to my groin, and then cascading down my right quad. I could only tolerate the pain for a few seconds. The only way to relieve it was to lay flat again or to lean against something that allowed me to get my weight off my legs and onto my arms. I couldn’t put on my own socks or shoes. I struggled with it for a few days (popping eight Advil a day just to keep the edge off) and attempted to wait it out while it healed itself. Not a good plan. Oddly, I could run…but everything else was problematic. When I finally extracted myself from denial long enough to schedule an appointment with a doctor, I learned that I had herniated the disc between L2/L3. I took an oral steroid, which helped, but it quickly wore off as soon as I ran out of pills. I went to see Dr. Higginbotham and he suggested an epidural steroid injection (along with about a week to ten days of rest). The shot worked wonders, and I took the following week off.

My first run back sucked. I ran three miles at a fairly slow/easy pace, but my heart rate was elevated. I had been telling myself that being in as good of shape as I was in the time off would have little to no impact. Wrong. I had undone months of training…months and months. Tunnel was around two months away, and I was far, far from ready. I pressed. I tried to go back to what I was running and who I was running with, and it didn’t go well. I tried to run 20 with Jerie one Saturday morning and ended up quitting on her around Far West, walking to a convenience store, and calling Kel to come pick me up.

I decided to go dark. I would dial back and run what I could at the speed I could and see what happened. I started running either alone or by myself. What’s the difference? Alone = showing up somewhere where no one else was likely to be and running. By myself = meeting other people for a run but doing my own thing (i.e., not pushing or being pushed). It took several weeks for it to stop sucking. It took a couple of months for it to get fun again. By then it was Tunnel time. I knew I wouldn’t qualify there, so I decided to run exactly what it took to PR, and I did.

I immediately turned my attention to St. George. I had exactly 13 weeks, was feeling much better, and was running pretty well. There were originally 12 of us who got into St. George via lottery, but 7 dropped out for various reasons. There was another decent-sized group that either didn’t get in to St. George or wanted to run Twin Cities that same weekend, so there was a whole lot of marathon training going on within the group. Jerie, Amber, Michelle, and I ended up doing a lot of our runs together, many very early mornings both during the week and on weekends. We covered a ton of miles in some tough conditions (routinely 80 degrees and 90% humidity). I don’t recall a lot of rah rah motivating of each other, but there was an immense amount of quiet commiseration.

Those 13 weeks of long runs was like nothing I had ever done (or would have done, or even thought was possible). By that point Leah had coached me through two prior efforts. I thought I knew what to expect, but was sadly, sadly mistaken. As the plan took shape, I reacted with a well divided sense of fear and dread. Starting with Tunnel on 7/14, here is what the long runs looked like:

7/14 – 26.2
7/20 – 10
7/27 – 20
8/3 – 20
8/10 – 22
8/17 – 19
8/24 – 20
8/31 – 22
9/7 – 19
9/14 – 22
9/21 – 19
9/27 – 10
10/5 – 26.2

The buildup for the prior two marathons Leah had coached me through looked nothing like this. I’m still not sure where it came from. I think it developed from how I had responded (or not responded) to the prior routines. I never asked, I just ran. That was the whole point of hiring her in the first place, so I thought that questioning it or varying from it would be counterproductive. A couple of those runs were ugly. The 22 miler on 8/10 was probably the worst. The one on 8/31 was when I felt things starting to come together. By September, the girls and I were running some pretty hilly routes on some pretty brutal days at some pretty decent paces. On 9/14 we did a 22 miler that included both Mt. Bonnell and a 7:19 final mile.

At this point I’m feeling well above average and decide it’s time to take a peek at the weather forecast for race day. For the love of all that’s holy, I could not believe my eyes. Cool, dry, and a little breeze from the north (aka a tailwind). Must. Look. Away. I don’t dare look again until the week of and, lo and behold, it’s stayed the same or gotten a little better.

At this point, I have no excuses. The only thing that hasn’t really gone to plan is my fatness. I managed to get down to 205 pounds, but got very nutritionally lazy at that point. I had calculated that I needed to toe the line at about 190 pounds, but that wasn’t going to happen.

Once the race started, it wasn’t long before I achieved a deep and absolute sense that I would hit my goal of running a sub 3:25:00. By mile 4, I was doing a little mental math to determine what shaving 5 seconds per mile off my goal pace would do to my overall time. By mile 9, I was tamping down the kind of emotion that is typically reserved for the finish line (or mile 25.42 of the Tunnel). I made the very difficult decision to turn everything off and focus on nothing more than running effortlessly to mile 20 and then deciding how I wanted the finish to go. I’ve dreamed about the final 10k of St. George since I ran it in 2010. I even put in my race report back then how nice it would be to run that final section on the perfect day. This was that day.

My Garmin beeped at mile 20, and it was like waking up from the best dream ever. I had just covered 20 miles in 2:35:45 (7:47 pace) and was determined to run it in as fast as I could. So, yeah, like waking up from a kickass dream and then being able to close your eyes and go right back to the point in the dream you just woke up from without missing a beat. I didn’t run hard because I needed to in order to qualify. I ran hard because, as bad as it hurt, it felt so good. Pleasure spiked with pain and all that.

As the miles peeled away, I started thinking about my friends that were out on the course, or maybe already finished, and their goals. They all trained harder than me, and I felt a sense of pride in their accomplishments, knowing that Colin would crush 2:40, that Sean would make 3 hours rue the day(s) it turned him away, and that Amber would be able to put a PR in one of her pockets and a BQ in the other.

Hitting the “one mile to go” marker in St. George, I decided to wring out whatever I had left and was delighted to see 7:24 looking back at me as I passed by the mile 26 marker. I covered the remaining ground somewhat reluctantly…like the final pages of a really good book that you’re enjoying so much you don’t want it to end.

3:23:39. A PR by 15:10. A BQ by a margin of 1:21.

My 30th marathon and still 17th state…and another negative split.

Milling about the finishing area, I was struck by how good I felt. During my years of unsuccessfully trying to qualify for Boston, I had repeatedly visualized what it would be like. I always imagined it as some heroic race day effort where I dug deep and ran outside of myself. Where I not only made the unlikely likely, but the impossible possible. Where I overcame nasty weather, lackluster training, and excess body fat to prevail in some epic way that would be worthy of an urban legend AND a trip to the medical tent. But, no. The truth is that I really qualified on Steck at Shoal Creek, on S. Congress at Ben White, on Scenic, and on 10 Mile Mondays in the months and weeks leading up to this race.

The first half of St. George was about 50 seconds slower than my half marathon PR. The second half of St. George was about a minute and a half faster than my half marathon PR. The final 10k of St. George is faster than my 10k PR. I will run 3M in January and try to find a 10k in order to officially update those distances.

I’ll be in Boston to run the 118th Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014!

Jeff Burrus, originally from Katy, Texas, played football in high school and college. After about eight years of being out of shape, he moved to Austin with his wife, Kelley, and son, Bailey, and began running on the Town Lake Trail. His first race was the Capitol 10k in 1999, and despite the fact that other runners were passing him in costume, skipping rope, and drinking beer, he was hooked, and he signed up for the Austin Marathon the following year. He raced the Austin Marathon five consecutive years from 2000 to 2004, and moved on to compete in national events like the New York, Marine Corps, and St. George Marathons. From his first-marathon goal of finishing without walking, with a time of 4:40, he’s progressed to a 3:23:39 and a much-coveted BQ. Jeff works as a financial advisor at Stifel Nicolaus. Read more about his running adventures on his blog,

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