It’s certainly not the way I envisioned making my first USA team, but this is why I moved to Eugene. This is every runner’s dream, to make a National team and represent your country and I am excited for the opportunity.
Like so many other Americans, I did some traveling for last weekend’s 4th of July holiday. The destination, however, was decidedly un-American: Costa Rica. I was making my first trip to the small, Central American country thanks to an invitation to compete in the Correcaminos Half Marathon. So I boarded a plane in Eugene on Thursday and traveled to Los Angeles, onto Dallas, before reaching San Jose, Costa Rica – nothing says I am ready to race like a full day of travel!
The cliffs notes version of this story is that I won the race by 25-seconds, crossing the finish line in 1:05:41 (the full recap is below). For a whole heckuva lot of reasons, this win was incredibly rewarding:
First international race and win.
The race was contested in hot, humid conditions at 1300m altitude; none of which I felt prepared for.
I don’t speak Spanish and that made the normal tasks difficult, especially on race morning.
It’s been an up and down Spring, as I worked through some right foot soreness, and so I really didn’t know how fit I was.
The pesky tib posterior tendon!
The past few months have been unlike anything I have ever experienced in my running career. For the first time in 18 years of running, I was actually “injured”. Shortly after the Houston Marathon, I started to develop some tightness, stiffness, soreness on the inside of my right foot. I hoped that running would loosen it up some but it never really got better. I was able to run on it, but I just felt like I couldn’t push off and my pop wasn’t there. After the USA 15k Championships in March, I decided to take a week off to see if those tendons and ligaments would calm down. The time off definitely helped, but there was still some lingering pain on the bottom of my foot – similar to plantar fasciitis. Again, I could run through this and things were not necessarily getting worse, but they weren’t exactly getting better either.
I used some races in May – Cap City Half Marathon, Eugene Marathon, Rhody Run 12k - to try and race myself back into shape. I got better workouts competing in these races than I would have just doing tempo runs out along Lorane Highway and I was able to maintain some pretty good fitness.
The Spring roller coaster continued as late May arrived and so to did the Eugene grass pollen season. That immediately sent me indoors to the treadmill. Added to that was the removal of two upper wisdom teeth in early June and another missed week of training. I probably took more days of in the 12 weeks between March 15 and June 8th than I have missed in the past 3-4 years combined. It was incredibly frustrating, but taking the time off in June when I had my teeth pulled was ultimately when my foot pain began to dissipate. It’s been good and improving since then. Still, all of the sporadic training left me a little worried for last week’s half marathon.
Commence Costa Rica race recap…
After a long day of flying, I arrived in Costa Rica on Thursday evening. I had done almost no research on Costa Rica prior to leaving, so I was blindly traveling to this foreign country and had little in the way of expectations. One of the race organizers, Dinia Valenzuela, picked me up from the airport and dropped me off at the hotel. She spoke English and so to did the hotel staff member who checked me in, which was encouraging because my Spanish vocabulary is very limited. I went to bed on Thursday night thinking I had Costa Rica all figured out.
I woke to a different reality on Friday morning. Some of the other elite athletes were meeting for a run, so I decided to join them. There were two Colombians, a Venezuelan, a Panamanian, and two Mexicans. One of the Mexican athletes, my roommate Pedro, spoke English, but his English was just slightly better than my Spanish. We all introduced ourselves and then jogged over to the park for our training run. It was such an incredibly unique and interesting experience to run alongside them for an hour, listening to them talk and laugh, and have absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Every once and a while I would recognize a word or phrase and could add a laugh or nod, but for the most part I was incapable of communicating with them.
I hoped to be able to get out of San Jose and explore Costa Rica a bit, but I quickly realized on Friday that because of my limited Spanish speaking abilities, it was best for me to just lounge around the hotel until race morning. They were pretty typical pre-race hotel days: resting and eating, with a stop at the expo. The other athletes always made sure to include me in their meals and with each passing meal/day we got better at communicating through broken Spanglish and body language. By the end of the weekend, my charades game was on point!
We had a 4am wake up call on race morning so that we could catch the bus out to the start line. I owe another thank you to Dinia and Christopher Monge for helping me navigate my way to the start line; again, when you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to board the wrong bus and end up at the wrong place! I rode out to the start line with a bus full of pacers. Unlike in the US where everyone pretty much keeps to themselves, there were lively discussions taking place, which provided great energy and enthusiasm on board. We were also driving towards a beautiful sunrise over one of Costa Rica’s many volcanoes. I was getting excited to race!
The bus made it to the start line about 45-minutes prior to the race start time. Now, this is where being someone who just goes with the flow is actually beneficial. I usually begin my warmup an hour prior to the start of a race. We arrived 45 minutes before; no big deal. Now I need to find out where I can check my bag so that I can pick it up at the finish line. Want to do that? Join the other 3,000 people trying to do the same thing. It was chaos, ha! Once I got my bag loaded into a truck we had about 30 minutes before the start of the race. Time to warmup for a few miles. As the warmup began, I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom, but I can’t just duck into the bushes because, you know, #2. So I make my way back to the start area, but every porta-john line is about 30 people deep, so it becomes clear that this race will be run on a full tank – if you know what I mean.
8,000 on the start line.
After doing some drills in a nearby park, I decided to make my way to the start line. Because the entire street was full of ready-to-start runners, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it the start line by trying to squeeze my way through all of the corrals, so I decided to run around the block and that way. The problem with this plan was that the road was blocked off with security from that side, so when I tried to enter, they wouldn’t let me through. Another problem, the security guard was speaking to me in Spanish and I was trying to tell him in English that I was an elite and needed to be at the front. Luckily, the race director saw this conversation, came over and spoke with the guard and – boom! – I was through to the start line. The craziest 45-minute pre-race, ever!
When the race finally began, the pack of runners covered about 100m before making a hard left-hand turn. I rounded the corner and immediately ran into spectators who had not moved out of the street before the start of the race. Talk about a crazy start! I lost about 10-15 seconds on the lead runners right from the get-go. Since we still had 13 miles to run, there wasn’t any reason to go chasing after them right away, especially given the altitude. My experience with running at altitude is pretty limited, but I know enough to realize once you go into oxygen debt, getting out of it is pretty difficult.
With the race underway, I began to slowly close the gap on the leaders. Usually in races here in the States I know about my competition prior to the race and will have an idea of who might be capable of running what. This wasn’t the case here. I knew the Colombian Juan Carlos Cardona Rios had been to 3 Olympic Games and had a marathon PB of 2:12. I knew that Pedro Mora (Venezuela) had been to the London Olympics. But everyone else was a mystery to me. Honestly, it was kind of fun to run a race like this. It felt like high school again: I want to beat you, but don’t know exactly what the strategy should be, so I’m just going to try and be faster than you.
Once I caught back up to the main pack around the 5-mile mark, I decided to settle in until we got through the halfway point. By the time we reached 8 miles, it was down to just me and Pedro Espinoza Perez (Mexico). I was able to open up a gap on him just before 15k and basically ran the last 6k hard enough to keep a cushion between us. I’m really glad that he didn’t make a late charge because I think it would have been difficult to change gears once I passed 18k – that’s when I started to feel some of that Costa Rican heat and humidity.
The end result was a very rewarding win. These last few months have been tough and it just felt so good to be back out there competing and running with a bit of an edge. I was curious as to what my time equates to at sea level and found this helpful chart; I wasn’t as out of shape I thought. The weekend also gave me a greater appreciation for the road racing system that we have in America and will cause me to show more empathy towards foreign runners who come to race here in the US without much knowledge of the English language. I want to thank the Costa Rican running community for being so welcoming and providing such a great cultural experience. I hope this isn’t the last time I race in Costa Rica, but I know that I will come back to visit again regardless.
The most difficult hurdle for any athlete to conquer is fear. A full calendar year without a running PR manifests a little self-doubt. After my experience in Chicago, I thought being able to walk away from a marathon with a positive taste in my mouth would be the antidote.
Why not just fix things in practice instead of hopping right back into another marathon cycle? Well, I’ve never feared anything in training, and consequently, it’s hard to overcome any apprehensions without actually racing. The physical components of training come naturally for me; running is what I do, everyday. My training sessions have become such a part of my daily life that I don’t really put much thought into any of them – even the hard ones – I just do them and move on to the next one.
I had to race. Because I don’t care how many races you’ve run, there’s nothing routine about them. Races serve as your final exam and how you will be judged. No one ever gets nervous about the daily homework, but we can all remember the stressed feeling before taking a big test. And there are certain races/tests that cause more anxiety than others, like ones where you have to do well because a previous one went poorly. Or maybe you experience more pressure because you feel under-prepared.
That is exactly how I felt heading into last weekend’s Houston Marathon. Since my last race wasn’t what I hoped for, it was important to not follow that up with another dud. But my preparation for Houston was less than anything I have done for a marathon in the past two years. All of a sudden, it’s Thursday, I’m heading to Texas, and I’m scared to race. Why heck am I running a marathon? That was the question playing over and over again in my mind on the flights to Houston.
Even someone who has never competed in sport knows that my mind wasn’t in a good place three days prior to a race.
But a funny thing happened when I arrived to Houston. I saw familiar places and talked with familiar faces. I ran along the same path I’ve run on now 4 of the last 5 Januarys. I sat soaking up the sun in the park adjacent to the hotel and had dinner with my cousin and her family. The familiarity of everything reminded me that this was a test that I could pass, and all of the sudden, my nerves were replaced with excitement.
I spent Saturday afternoon pouring through my training logs from the last 6 months. Sure, my buildup over the past 10 weeks wasn’t as strong as it could have been, but I had a few good workouts during that stretch and a plethora of great sessions from my pre-Chicago phase. Maybe I wasn’t in a position to aggressively attack the race like I had been in Chicago or Boston, but I could find enough quality in my training sessions to realize I could probably still run 5:10 pace and if I was feeling good, break 2:15. By bedtime on Saturday night, I felt pretty good about the possibilities Sunday morning would bring.
Unlike some of the major marathons, the field for a race like Houston is a little thinner up front, so there’s always more of a concern that you will run alone for much of the race. Fortunately, fellow American – and 61-minute half marathoner – Aaron Braun was hoping to run similar times through the first half of the race. We wound up working together for the first 25k (15.5 miles) of the race. The early pace was comfortable enough for me that I began gaining confidence with each passing mile. At one point, I even thought that maybe there was a good performance buried in me after all.
We crossed the halfway point around 67-minutes and immediately my head began crunching the numbers: if I could run an even split race, I would finish up with something close to my PR. Aaron began to put a little distance between us shortly after 25k, but I was able to keep within striking distance over the next 5 miles. I knew if I could keep him close, he could pull me along to a fast time.
By mile 22, the gap was bigger and I started to feel some fatigue. However, the shooting cramps that I got in my calves and hamstrings in Chicago and Boston the previous year never arrived, so I was able to run unencumbered, albeit tired. Miles 22-25 weren’t great – 5:16, 5:16, 5:26 – but probably to be expected given how my training had gone. Rather than continuing to slow over the last mile, I rallied to close in 5:12, which is the quickest I have ever closed in a marathon, and crossed the finish line for a time of 2:14:43 and 9th place.
The end result will show another 2:14 marathon – the 3rd of my career. But not all 2:14 marathons are created equally. The 2015 Houston Marathon was absolutely a good 2:14 for me because I felt like I ran to my potential on that day. If I had a faster time in me, it was probably only seconds and not minutes. I also found myself grinding and fighting again late in the race. I was too gassed in the later stages of both Chicago and Boston last year to even feel like I was competing; I was just trying to survive to the finish line.
The 2015 Houston Marathon was about replacing some bad marathon memories. By that standard, it was a success. I know that when it comes time to train for another one of these I’ll be able to recall some positive moments and feelings. As sport psychology goes, that is a good thing.
Probably more importantly though is that I’m already itching to get back out there; therein lies the difference between a positive and negative marathon experience. When a marathon goes poorly, the recovery time is probably double what it might normally be. I took a day off on Monday, but ran every other day this past week while I was in New York City and plan to hop back into some workouts this week once I get settled back into Eugene.
I would like to run at least one more marathon before next February’s USA Olympic Marathon Trials race, but that won’t happen in these next 6 months. My attention during this time will be directed to some shorter distances. It’s been a while since I’ve dedicated a significant block of training to something other than the marathon and it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
Before I get any further, I feel like I should re-introduce myself: I’m Craig Leon, the owner and operator of this here website. I run for Mizuno and am a member of Team Run Eugene, which is coached by Ian Dobson.
It’s been a few moons since I’ve last updated this tiny space of the interweb. I can blame the lack of updates from mid-October until early December on the fact that I managed to somehow forget my login information to the new website. The last 6 weeks, though? Those are completely on me.
Actually…it’s all on me. Onward.
My 2014 season ended a lot like 2012 – with a so-so performance at the Chicago Marathon. Ending your season in mid-October on that kind of note is a little disheartening because your next potential racing opportunity seems so far away. The only way to truly put a bad race behind you is to replace that memory with a good one. I did a lot of thinking about “what’s next” in the weeks after Chicago. During that time I took post-marathon trip to Spain and France and turned 30. Both life events cause you to do some thinking – lots of thinking. Ultimately, I decided the best way forward was to try and duplicate how I started my 2013 season, and best year: by building some confidence with a solid marathon performance that I can be excited about. So Sunday I’ll hop back into racing at the Houston Marathon.
Because of the tight turnaround window between Chicago and Houston, my marathon buildup has been a little different than what I’ve done for the past few years. Unlike a normal 10-12 week cycle, I really only did marathon specific volume or workouts for 7 weeks. I’m hoping to rely on the volume of work that I put in this past summer and fall getting ready for Chicago. The 140-150 mile weeks were replaced with weeks of 120 miles starting about 6 weeks after Chicago. I managed to get myself back into shape pretty quickly after some down time at the end of October by spending a lot of time doing longer, unstructured progressive runs – something I haven’t done in a while. Learning to run on feel and effort again versus always striving for a certain pace was something that I really enjoyed about this training cycle.
Where does that leave me for Sunday? That’s a good question. Without having done a tune-up race or any real benchmark workouts, I don’t have as clear an idea of what I’m capable of running as I normally would. But that is kind of what I had in mind when I decided to run Houston. It was how I approached the Mississippi Blues Marathon in January of 2013. I went into that race undertrained, just looking for a bounce-back performance and wound up unexpectedly winning with a 2:16. I don’t have aspirations of winning on Sunday – Houston is a much more competitive race than the one in Mississippi – but I do expect to run a faster time. And that would be a great way to kick off my 2015 campaign.
Information on how to watch or follow the race is below.
Live Searchable Results & Map Tracking
Follow your runner(s) during the race by tracking their progress in real time as they move along the course with live, up-to-the-minute race results and an interactive map at chevronhoustonmarathon.com.
My 2014 marathon scorecard will read something like this:
Marathon – 2
Craig – 0
After recording PBs in 6 of my first 7 marathons – the only non-PB was a win at the Mississippi Blues Marathon – I’m in an unfamiliar position. It’s the first time since I started doing marathons that I’ve gone over a year without seeing my times drop.
But if you think I woke up Monday morning worried that the sky was falling…think again.
Of course Sunday didn’t pan out exactly how I envisioned it would. And I’m definitely disappointed that I wasn’t able to see improvements in my marathon times this year – I invest too much time, sweat, and energy to not be. But I left the finish line on Sunday in surprisingly high spirits. Those last 8 miles were not at all easy. They were some of the hardest miles I’ve ever run, in fact. But I learned a little about myself during those 40 minutes. And in a strange way, just finishing that race was a huge accomplishment. Whatever it was when I crossed the finish line – relief or excitement – it felt good!
I knew I was toast at 18 miles. It’s pretty bad when you start hitting that marathon wall before you even reach the 20-mile mark, but there I was getting these shooting-type cramps in my calves and hamstrings before we even had Chinatown in our sights. There were several painful moments between miles 18-23 when I thought about just stepping off the course, but luckily I got some of the cramping under control by slowing down and running some 5:20s.
It’s devastating in that race moment when you know the goals that you have been working so hard for are no longer a reality. You look at your watch and see times that you aren’t used to seeing and there are these incredibly emotional moments when you question to yourself: “why bother?”. But since I had the cramping issue held at bay, I didn’t really have an excuse to stop running; if I would have quit, it would have been because I simply was not running well. So I had a little “suck it up” talk with myself around 23 and managed to salvage a respectable time and place on a day when I just didn’t have it.
So what went wrong? At this point, I’m chalking it up to a tactical error on my part. All indications were that the weather conditions on Sunday morning were going to be ideal for running fast – cool temps, no rain, and light winds. However, one of the first things I noticed when I peered out the window of our bus on the way to the start line were the freely blowing flags hanging from the buildings on Michigan Ave. Part of me wanted to believe that it was just a gust blowing through the tunnel of buildings. There was no way it could be windy; none of the forecasts had wind in them. But when we were warming up in Grant Park, it became evident that the wind was real, blowing in off of Lake Michigan.
I should have been smart enough to consider a slight adjustment to the game plan, but when the race started and I found myself running with Christo Landry and Stephen Pifer, I decided to still give it a go. We had all talked the night before about coming through the half somewhere between 65:45-66:00, so when we got out there and were working together, I think we all wanted to stay true to our word. We hit the opening mile in 5-flat and were right on pace. However, when we turned south on State street, we were met with that strong headwind. We passed mile 2 in 5:06. That should have been the red flag warning to throw time out the window and hang back a bit.
Pifer, Landry and I worked together to fight the wind as long as we could
The lead pack of Kenyans and Ethiopians had originally planned to run their first half in 61:40; they ended up running 62:11 – 30 seconds slower than planned. Rather than just easing off slightly, we continued to fight the wind and the stretch from 7.5-13 ultimately zapped me (probably safe to say, us) of having the energy to run well over the last half of the race. So my conclusion, for now, is that the end result had nothing to do with the training leading into the race – everything was normal leading up to the race. Ultimately, I was working too hard, too early in that race.
It’s a tough lesson to learn. Especially when you know better and given that I only get to do this a few times a year. But if you saw me on Sunday you probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference between how I was acting this year (after running 2:16) and last year (after running my PR of 2:13:52). And that’s because I still have a lot to be happy about and thankful for.
I’m really pleased with the block of training I put together these past 12 weeks. The 1500 miles I ran in preparation for the Chicago Marathon has moved me forward as an runner. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I continue to string together training segments like this, I’ll see it payoff on race day in the future.
More importantly, I’m thankful for the incredible support team that I have. The confluence of Van Wert, Athens, and Eugene coming together in Chicago was nothing short of amazing. I’m sure the guys running around me got tired of hearing my name shouted from the sidewalks. When I got back to the hotel from the finish line, the entire fan club was basically creating a fire hazard outside the Hilton on Michigan Ave. When you come back to that, it’s hard to feel too bad about having an average race. It puts things in perspective.
The Compound Comes to Chicago
The Ohio U. crew celebrating after the race
Team Run Eugene does the Chicago Marathon: (L-R) Coach Ian Dobson, Alexi Pappas, myself, and Dan Kremske
So even though the 2014 Chicago Marathon was the slowest of the three Chicago Marathons I’ve run, I’m leaving the Windy City feeling all right. At the end of the day, life is good, running is still fun, and even the worst day of racing is better than not having the opportunity to be living out this dream.