Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Vermont City Marathon

Every year over Memorial Day weekend, the City of Burlington, Vermont becomes a bustling place as it hosts the Vermont City Marathon. This past October, I participated in my first marathon in Newport. Suffice it to say, wind and rain cutesy of a hurricane that just barely went out to sea, it was perhaps not the most ideal first experience. So, early this winter, when my friend, Amy, asked if someone would run a marathon with her, I agreed.

Let me say straight away that training for a marathon over the winter is folly. The weather is terrible, and it's hard to get in those long runs -- both because of motivation (winter = lazy) and because of the element (ice, snow, freezing cold). So, was it worth it? Yes!

After a string of utterly disappointing, cold and dreary spring weather, the Sunday of marathon morning dawned sunny and temperate. We would be running in temperatures in the upper 60s and low 70s, perhaps a bit on the warm side for an elite runner, but perfect as far as I'm concerned. Amy, her partner, Julia, my boyfriend, Ben, and I, had traveled up to Burlington the day before. This allowed us to swing by the expo on Saturday night right before dinner to pick-up our bibs and get a good night sleep. This was all very civilized compared to 3:45 a.m. departure time for the Newport Marathon. I got up at 5:45 a.m., had oatmeal and coffee, and we headed into downtown Burlington to for the race. A little ways from the start line, Julia and Ben dropped Amy and me off. As they went to part, we made our way over to the race start.

The starting area was mobbed with racers for the marathon and the relay. One of the very interesting things about the Vermont City Marathon is that it featured a few relay options. There was a two-person relay, as well as three to five person relay teams. This was really unique and something I would totally be interested in doing in the future. It was also nice to have a race where the course would be full of participants the entire time. At Newport, racers could elect to do the full marathon or a half. Most people chose the later, which meant that the second half of the race, where racers need encouragement the most, felt like an after thought. That was not the case at Vermont City. This was a marathon first and foremost!

Amy and I seeded ourselves near the 5:00 hour marathon pace group with a few minutes to wait before go-time. The place was a madhouse. There was lots of music and thousands of racers. Judging by the final result, over 2,000 marathon racers alone participated that day, plus another 1,600 or so relay teams (all with multiple people). Fortunately, we didn't have to wait long. After only a few minutes it was "go time." Within four or so minutes, we were across the starting line and the race was on!

The Vermont City Marathon has, overall a great course. There is a bit of a cloverleaf effect in play, so that you weave your way out and then come back. We had the chance to run through a lot of wonderful neighborhoods, past some of the universities and colleges that call Burlington home and along the lake. The Vermont City Marathon website has such an excellent description of the course, that I'm going to include it below. 

Our USATF certified course starts at Battery Park, overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. The opening miles are run through tree-lined residential streets and Burlington’s pedestrian Marketplace where an enthusiastic crowd of spectators will inspire you. At mile 3.7 you begin a 4.5 mile out and back section on the Northern Connector, a divided highway which is closed to traffic only once a year – for your race. On the Northern Connector, enjoy beautiful views of the Green Mountains and get a chance to see the leaders and your friends as you cross paths. At mile 8.2, return to city streets for a second pass through the Marketplace and a loop of Burlington’s South End. At the half-way point of the course, enter Oakledge Park. Mile 15 brings the Assault on Battery; 6 blocks climbing Battery Street. You’ll see musicians and throngs of spectators to inspire you up the hill. The next 6.5 miles take you out North Avenue on gently rolling terrain through many shaded neighborhoods. A steep downhill at mile 21.5 brings you to the Burlington Bikepath, which provides beautiful lake views and flat to slightly downhill terrain over the last 4.5 miles. Your finish and all post-race festivities occur in Waterfront Park where you’ll be greeted by thousands of cheering spectators.

The start of the race was excellent. Amy and I both enjoyed running through the neighborhood near downtown Burlington. Even though it was early, people were already out at the ends of their driveways cheering us on.

From there, the course took an unexpected turn around mile four. We began an out-and-back along the highway that lasted for around 4.5 miles. This was, without a doubt, my least favorite part of the course. It was less picturesque than other areas and running along the highway was… odd. Not that there was traffic – the highway was closed – but it was still not super fun to run in the sun along the wide stretches of pavement without any real idea of landmark, especially since the highway was had a distinct camber that made running slightly uncomfortable. Also, Amy's foot was bothering her along this stretch, which was decidedly not fun. (The good news is that her foot began to feel better later on.) Fortunately, there were volunteers along the course and a band or two!From there, the course took an unexpected turn around mile four. We began an out-and-back along the highway that lasted for around 4.5 miles. This was, without a doubt, my least favorite part of the course. It was less picturesque than other areas and running along the highway was… odd. Not that there was traffic – the highway was closed – but it was still not super fun to run in the sun along the wide stretches of pavement without any real idea of landmark. Fortunately, there were volunteers along the course and a band or two!

I was happy when the course turned back towards town. We headed into the main shopping district and were greeted by Ben and Julia who cheered us on near mile nine. It was fun to be back in an areas with some visual interest and great to see loved ones. 

The course then took us along a looped section through some more industrial areas of the city. There was good spectator action along the course here, though the best crowd support was still yet to come. After the run through the South End, we did a quick jaunt through a nearby park. I loved all the running that we did through a few of the parks in Burlington. They were lovely, featured nice bike paths, and quite often were near the water. We hit the halfway point and were both feeling pretty good. The excellent volunteer support and the fun crowds all along the course were great. The best part was getting to run with an buddy and having Ben and Julia there to see along the course. Amy and I passed Ben and Julia before the big hill climb and received high fives.

The hill climb came right around mile 15. It was steep, but it was fast. I think we only had to run uphill for a few minutes. Very manageable. Overall, the course had some rolling hill but was very civilized. Most of the course was what I would consider flat, and we never had more than around 200 feet of elevation change. Also, the hill was packed with spectators who had motivational signs and cheered for all the runners. There was a band urging us on. All of the city streets had people who had come to watch the race. There was not a moment of the day when I didn't feel the fun atmosphere. Burlington loves their marathon and the citizens of the City give it their all in supporting the race!

After the hill, we ran through a number of neighborhoods. This might have been one of my favorite things about the Vermont City Marathon. All of the neighborhoods were jamming with activity. People sat at the ends of their driveways handing out ice pops, bananas, and water. Garage bands came out to play along the road. College students, spending the summer, were dressed up in costumes. People has sprinklers going for cooling off hot runners, a great pick-me-up when I was flagging around mile 21. I have never seen such a supportive group of townspeople or a better group of spectators. The perfect weather and amazing participation of the neighborhoods gave the Vermont City Marathon a sense of fun and celebration. This is what a marathon should be!

At mile 21.5 we took a turn down a hill. Every step was agony on my tired quads and knees. Fortunately, it was a short downward trek and then we were on the bike path. Only a little over four and a half miles to go along the flat bike path, which hugged the lake. 

While I was tired at this point, the run along the bike path was very civilized. It was great to get to finish on flat terrain -- much nicer than the rolling hills that dominated the end of the Newport Marathon. I also tried to enjoy the amazing views of the lake.The views and the cheers from spectators was a big help. In the final miles of a marathon, all distractions are helpful. 

I ran out of water in my hydration pack at around mile 24. At this point, I wasn't going to stop. Not for anything. After running for 4.5 hours, it was easier to keep going than to stop at a water station to fill up my pack. The water stations were plentiful, nearly every half mile at this point, so it was easy to grab a cup while on the run. I was very grateful at the organization of the water stations. They were ever mile or two in the beginning and then more densely packed towards the end of the race as runners needs might increase. This was smart and much-appreciated.

Around mile 23 on the bike path, I noticed that the 5:00 pace group was up ahead of us. At the start of the race, I had been a little concerned when the group of around a dozen and a half sped off ahead of us. I had through our paces might match, but the pacers for the 5:00 crew seemed to be starting out a bit fast. I ended up pacing Amy and myself at a very even 11:17 to 11:25 average pace. This worked because when we caught up and passed the 5:00 pacers it seemed like they had lost all but a member or two of their group. I am really pleased at how well the pacing strategy that Amy and I had was implemented. 

After a few miles along the water, the bike path finally exited the trees and I could hear the finish line. Spectators lined the route. The energy was awesome! Amy and I saw Ben and Julia who cheered us on. Together, we crossed the finish line in 4:26:30. 

This year's Vermont City Marathon was what everyone's first time marathon should be. The logistics were excellent, the volunteers superb, the course engaging, the crowd support amazing, and the weather lovely. It was the marathon I've wanted to run -- a celebration of hard work that culminates in a really fun event. I ran 26.2 miles, and I had fun. Was it hard? Sure. Were there time when I was kind of "done" with running? Of course. But there was lots of support on course from volunteers at race aid stations and the people of Burlington who turned out en masse for the race. Most importantly, it was super fun to see Ben and Julia along the route. I love that the Vermont City Marathon had a course that allowed spectators to view their runners so many times; plus, runner tracking via RaceJoy was a big help.

This fall, I finished the Newport Marathon in 5:19:42. Amy and I finished the Vermont City Marathon in 4:56:30. This was a huge improvement. Training with a buddy helped, as did the fact that I knew I could go the distance and felt I could be "medium conservative" instead of "ultra conservative" in the pacing.

The Vermont City Marathon was a great way to cap off a good 12 months of intensive running. I ran a marathon and had a blast. For now, I will be taking a break from marathon running to concentrate on preparing for the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships in Toronto this fall. Next year...who knows? Maybe a fall 2018 marathon is in the cards.

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