Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Dresden Marathon Experience

It is a long time coming, but here is my race report/vacation report from the Dresden Marathon. As anyone who knows me, this is going to be a lengthy report and it is really about the entire process that got me to Dresden in the first place. If you don't have a LOT of spare time, just skip to the end or scroll through looking at the pretty pictures.

The story really begins in Boston on April 18, 2016. I am finally running the Boston Marathon, a race I have qualified for twice but not been able to run because so many registered for the race (I missed out getting in by 10 seconds on one of the times). The third qualifying time finally got me in. I had a great weekend with my fellow Rogue Racers, but now it is race day and it is hovering around 70 degrees. I had a goal to run sub 3 hours for the first time ever but the weather has other ideas. I have a streak of 8 marathons and 8 PR's. It is one of my proudest running achievements. That would end today and rather quickly. I didn't feel right at mile 2, and then at mile 7, I had a horrible pain in my left calf muscle which turned out to be a tear. Loads of fun running another 20 miles on a torn calf but there was zero chance I wasn't finishing the race to get that unicorn medal. My Boston qualifying time had been 3:04:30 and my Boston Marathon time was 3:37:17, almost 33 minutes slower.

At the finish line with my buddy Ryan

What followed was 5 weeks where I didn't get to run at all. Pretty much every runners worst nightmare. I had to keep myself entertained so I started looking for a race to redeem myself or some other experience that would make up for my Boston race. Even though I was proud to have finished the race with a torn calf, to me, my race time was a bit of a failure or at least a let down.

Early May, in pops an email from the Columbus Marathon talking about the Dresden Sister City marathon exchange program. I love running, I love traveling, it sounded like a perfect match. I contacted two others who had been on this trip before that I know and they encouraged me to sign up so I did. Two weeks later, Dorit from the Dresden Sister City program called to tell me I was going to Dresden, Germany!

Of course I was extremely excited and I was pumped to get to travel to an area I had never been before. I was excited to get to experience the cultural things that Dresden has to offer, and I was excited to get to run in an international race, a first for me. I have some German heritage through my mothers side of the family so it would be nice to get to learn more about Germany. I met my fellow runners at a dinner in early June and we discussed how we would have to raise funds, how we would be staying with host family, how we would be "running ambassadors" representing Columbus while we were in Dresden (which I thought sounded pretty badass) and a variety of other subjects. Honestly my only worry was that I would re-injure my calf and not be able to run the race.

Our first meeting of the running ambassadors

So throughout the summer, I did a variety of fundraisers with my fellow running ambassadors.We did raffles at Fleet Feet, we did raffles at Run Fest. Anything we could do to raise funds, we did it. My daughter even played violin on the corner in German Village to raise funds for the trip.  

Run Fest raffle with Ted, Katie, and Mitsu

Raffle at Fleet Feet. My daughter Casey helped. 

The end of summer was approaching and my body wasn't feeling that awesome. I was having a lot of nagging injuries. My achilles was bothering me a lot, my calf was flaring up, my back/piriformis felt horrible for a couple weeks with a pain that shot down my leg in to my toes. I was really starting to worry that two marathons in a year was a bad idea for me (I have only run 1 marathon a year until this year). I was worried that after all this work getting to Dresden, I would have to run the 10K or the half marathon instead and I really wanted to do the full marathon there because it would be my 10th marathon. I also knew that September was coming, and that is always the highest mileage month with multiple 20 mile runs. I figured if anything, these injuries would not get better but way worse. September is always my injury month. 

On the fundraising note, my work Elysium Tennis helped me throw a hugely successful fundraiser that raised a ton of money for the trip. It was cool to see how many different people through this entire process helped makes this trip possible. Our marathon group also had another dinner where we learned more about the cultural differences in Dresden and we were given information about our host families and where we would be staying in Dresden. 

Ladies who came out to help support my trip at my Elysium fundraiser

So September came and my body was still feeling crappy. My achilles was fine until about 14-16 miles in to a run, and then it would get stiff. The achilles is the injury I always worry about the most because I teach tennis and the quick stop/start motion means it could tear. I had an achilles injury in 2011 that basically shut me down for about 3-4 months, so I always worry about this injury over everything else the most.

I had my last long run of 22+ miles on October 1st and something strange started happening. Instead of feeling a lot worse, my body started feeling a lot better. Every marathon runner will tell you that the last several weeks before a marathon, you get a "sickness" called taper madness. This is a "disease" where random things on your body start hurting for absolutely no apparent reason. I have had this every time I have ever run a marathon. You start to worry that all your hard work has gone for nothing. This time, I had the exact opposite reaction. My body was starting to heal itself and feel great. My runs felt awesome and I had pop in my legs again.

Normally the Dresden and Columbus Marathons fall on the same day. But this year, they were a week apart. I thought, we can be the first runners to do both races. So I thought it would be cool to run in Columbus for the half marathon for my last long training run and then run the Dresden full marathon the following week. My only worry was stupidity taking over and trying to run to fast in Columbus. Thankfully I met up with some friends around mile 4, but I kept things pretty relaxed until the last mile where I ramped it up to get some speed and finish strong. It was a hot day and I was very happy I didn't have to run the full that day. It was also probably the first time I have ever run a race and just enjoyed it. I was amazed how much fun I had trying to high five as many people as possible. I finished and felt great and felt like I was ready for the full marathon one week later.

Columbus Marathon Pre-race picture with my Rogue Racer runners

The day after the marathon, we got to meet four of the five German runners who ran the Columbus Marathon at a great dinner at Franck & Leigh Wobst house in Bexley. Their house was beautiful and the event was a great opportunity for me to find out as much as I could about Dresden from the runners. I asked each runner what the best places to visit were and to see if they knew anything about the course. The thing each of them said about our marathon was they could not believe how many people were on the streets cheering, and how great the atmosphere was.

Columbus and Dresden Marathon Ambassadors
On Wednesday afternoon October 19, 2016, I set out from Columbus on my great adventure to Dresden. I arrived the following day on October 20, 2016 and the challenges to run a good race began. First off, my luggage decided not to make the full trip and stayed in Frankfurt until that evening. I also was not able to sleep at all on the plane so by the time I went to sleep on Thursday night, I had been awake for 34 hours straight.

Anyways, I arrived at Dresden airport and my host Jurgen was there to greet me. He took me back to his home and then showed me around his city of Radebeul which is a suburb just north of Dresden. We went to several places that day including a castle and several beautiful wineries. We ended the day back at his house where I met his wife Heike and enjoyed a nice dinner. 

Before I go any further, anyone who really knows me well knows I am an extremely picky eater. I was really looking forward to this Dresden trip, but the one thing I was not looking forward to was the food. I was worried my host would make a meal that I would not like and I didn't want to be rude about not trying new foods. I basically still eat like a 7 year old. The first day I arrived at my hosts house, he said he was going to make me a typical German meal. I was already worried. What do I say. Should I just try to eat whatever he puts down in front of me. I don't even like sausage or bratwursts and I don't drink. I was really worried. I got downstairs and the plate was covered. He pulled the plate back to reveal...........pancakes. Perfect!

Anyways, on Friday, all the runners met downtown at the Town Hall for a tour of the city. We got to learn about the history of this amazing city and see some gorgeous buildings and churches. We went to lunch and then went to get our race packets. 

Our tour of City Hall

My energy was returning and I felt like I was finally getting over my jet lag. A couple of the Columbus runners met up with some of the runners from Dresden that had run in Columbus and they took us around the city a little more. My host picked me up downtown later that night and then we went to the grocery store so I could get some powerade and candy (as stated earlier, I eat like a 7 year old). The grocery store was huge and it was in a shopping mall. Definitely not something you would ever see in the United States. I could have spent hours in there because I love seeing the different foods and things they have in other countries, whether I would eat them or not.

Touring Dresden with our tour guide and fellow runner Marcel along with Mitus and Katie

The next day (Saturday) I woke up and was extremely tired again. I guess I wasn't over my jet lag after all. My host took me on a tour of a variety of things around the city, among them the university where he had taught economics, a castle, a military lookout, and a bakery. I had lunch at home with my host, and his daughter and boyfriend joined us. I had lots of beef and potatoes, carbo loading time!

At 4pm, we met at a restaurant downtown in Dresden for dessert with runners in town from two of Dresden's other sister cities- Salzburg, Austria, and Ostrava, Czech Republic. I ate a lot of pies and cakes and torts. That night, I tried keeping things low key and I actually went to bed before 10pm. I needed some make up sleep and I was hoping to get some energy for the race. 

My hosts Jurgen and Heike at Italienisches Dorfchen
Our days so far had been packed and fun but also very exhausting. We were walking 10-12 miles a day and I was jet lagged and tired. I was only going to be in Dresden for five days so I wanted to do as much as I could do in five days. 

I was so exhausted by Saturday night though, I actually was considering trying to just run slower in the marathon because I didn't know if I had the energy to run 26.2 at the speed I was hoping to run. I started worrying about how bad my legs would feel the rest of the trip and that I wouldn't be able to enjoy the rest of my trip. I was even considering just finding another marathon in the US that was about 3-4 weeks later.

Then I realized that one of the reasons I came on this trip was to get to compete in another country, to try and run my first sub 3 hour marathon, to try and be the first place American runner. None of those things would happen if I just ran slower and enjoyed it. However things were going to turn out, I was going to compete and see how I could do. And honestly, competing is what I love to do so that is my way of enjoying the course. 

Marathon morning, I felt a lot better and my energy had returned. My host and his daughter were running the 4K, so I went down with them to the race early to cheer them on (that race was 1 hour before the marathon). The race atmosphere was similar to that of the United States but a little more low key. I met up with my fellow running ambassadors for a pre-race picture. Everyone was very excited to get to run this course, and we were excited that the weather was pretty nice too. It turned out to be the nicest weather of the entire trip-45 sunny at the start and about 50/55 the rest of the day with no wind. I had studied the course to figure out the best way to attack it but even though I was trying to run a PR, I also studied the course so I could take a "tour" while running. 

Pre-race photo with all of the runners, many of the hosts, and some of the Dresden exchange runners as well

I made my way over to the start and heard the music of AC/DC. In Columbus, it is a tradition that Thunderstruck plays right before the start of the race. I couldn't help but laugh a bit at the irony of the music. And then right before the start of the race, the last song that played was Elton John's "Sacrifice". It might have been an appropriate theme, but it was an odd sleepy, choice to get us fired up for the run. The gun fired, and we were off. 

The early part of the race took us almost entirely on cobblestones. I had been warned that they were not very easy to run on, so I intended to keep my pace slower through this section and make sure I stayed safe. The early part of a race is always packed and this was no different. The only difference was that there were cobblestones AND tram lines on the street and people were trying to avoid rough sections at all costs which meant I was taking some serious elbows the first mile. 

My goal was to finish under 3 hours, so that means I needed to run an average of a 6:52 pace. My goal was to hang at 6:50 and finish in 2:59:02 (yes, I had it down to that specific a time). It just so happens there was a 3 hour pacer (a person paid by the race to run 3 hours so that other runners can follow to meet their goals). I found that person immediately and was set on following them for the next three hours but they got ahead of me by about 10 seconds on the first mile due to crowds and my intentionally slower 7 minute first mile. 

First mile of the race, we came through the street in the middle and crossed the bridge on the right

The next several miles were through the heart of the city and I began to settle in with some nice 6:44, 6:52 miles. I was amazed at how many runners were completely cutting corners on the constant turns, so I followed suit. It was almost like a game to figure out how to cut the corners the most. There were not any huge crowds in this section so it was very easy to do. Because this is Germany and everything is in kilometers instead of miles, I knew I would have to pay close attention to my watch when I hit things like the 5K. That would be the only time my watch would match up, so it should say 3.1 for every 5K. I am constantly doing math calculations during races because even though you are running 26.2 miles, your running watch usually says 26.3/26.4 by the end because people don't run the tangents (quickest way to the finish line). I do a lot of studying of the courses I run to determine the best way to run the least amount over the actual distance. It can add up a lot at the end of a race. This race more than any other I have ever run was right on the money at every 5K. It helped a lot with my pacing. 

The cobblestones. Pretty to look at, not fun to run fast on.
Anyways, there was a small hill at mile 4 that slowed me down and I hit my first water stop. The Columbus Marathon has something like 17-18 water stops. Dresden has 8-9. I was very worried I would not stay properly hydrated because of this before the race, so at the first water stop, I stopped twice to fill up on water. At other water stops, there were such wonderful options like hot tea, bananas, raisin bread and energy drinks that I wasn't going to try for the first time during a marathon. I brought my gu and had a plan to use it at 4 different spots. By the end of the day, I ended up eating almost 4 bananas as well.

We ran through some neighborhoods in the city and then hit a tunnel that took us back over to Old Town in Dresden. As expected, once we were in the tunnel, my watch started going crazy and I lost satellite connection. I thought it was going to be messed up the rest of the race because it lost satellite connection for a while, but it eventually caught up when I emerged from the other side. The great side effect, it said I ran a 7:09 mile followed by a 6:09 mile. I figured I had just run too fast and hit 6:39 for a two mile average. 

Running in the tunnel going back to Old Town

The next section of the course was a really pretty section that took us around a the Grosser Gartens Palace. The grounds were beautiful with the fall leaves and there were several areas that as an avid photographer, I wanted to stop and take tons of pictures (this would not be the last time I had this feeling). Whether it was the amazing views or the perfect 45 degrees and sunny weather that was helping me, I was on cruise control hitting 6:46, 43, 42, and 49 the next several miles. Everything was feeling good, but of course, in a marathon, they should be good at this time of the race.

Grosser Gartens Palace grounds. We ran through the palace grounds on both loops of the marathon course.

After leaving the Palace grounds (just sounds fun to even say that), I started heading back toward the area where I would turn on the half marathon. I was feeling really good at this time. I was planning on hitting 1:29:30 for the half but I was going to be under it by a little bit. I wasn't even thinking about how tired I had been. My only worry was that the 3 hour pacer was ahead of me by a considerable margin (probably 45-60 seconds) but I was trusting my watch and the race kilometer markers. I hit the bridge over the Elbe River for the half way point and I was at 1:29:20, 10 seconds under my goal pace so I was right on schedule.

I crossed the bridge and headed down to the path by the river Elbe. This is where I saw some of the funniest things on the course. Dresden may not have the same amount of people cheering that many marathons have in the US, but for what they lack in people, they make up for in big bands. In a section of a mile, I heard one band playing "Seven Nation Army" and as I ran by, I was waving at them to play even louder which they did. Then the best thing I saw all day, a man in his late 60s leading a band and doing his best James Brown impersonation asking his band if they want him "to hit it and quit it" in the thickest German accent ever. It was hilarious.

View of where we were running miles 14-16 along the Elbe River

Anyways, I enjoy the amazing views from the banks of the river Elbe as I make my way back to a bridge over the Elbe and back to Old Town. This time we go through a slightly different area, almost through a residential area of the town. I find myself continuing to chase the 3 hour pacer but ignoring him more and more because I think he is running out too fast. I keep running with the same crowd of about 10 people and my paces are staying really solid-6:47, 53, 50, 48, 48. I keep clicking them off and I am feeling great. We round a corner and for the first time in the race, I am taken completely by surprise. I look across the Elbe River and there are three castles there. Somehow I missed this in studying for the course. This picture below in no way captures the awesomeness of looking across a river during a marathon to see three castles. I have run the Columbus Marathon 8 times. You run past a White Castle. In Dresden, you run past actual castles.

Castles Castles everywhere

I continue on my way back to the city with more amazing views. We start to head back to Grosser Gartens Palace again and I notice that many of the people who were in the 3 hour pace group are coming back to me and falling off the pace. Even the pacer, who had been out of sight for most of the day, suddenly was only about 30 yards ahead of me. We hit mile 20 and as any marathoner will tell you, the first half of a marathon is the first 20 miles, the last half is the last 6.2 miles. I hit mile 20 and still felt great. I clocked another 6:51 at mile 20 and 6:50 at mile 21.

Path back to the palace and towards the finish line. This is where things started to turn for the worse

The way things were going now, I was starting to think maybe low 2:58 was possible. I recently was listening to a podcast about American marathon runner Shalane Flanagan and she had a great quote about marathons. Basically, she was saying things can change within steps, within minutes and within miles during a marathon. One minute you are elated, the next minute you are humbled. My humbling moment came around mile 22 on the palace grounds. I felt an immediate twinge of a cramp in my left hamstring/groin area. I knew right away that my entire effort to get under 3 hours was under a very real threat. I did what most runners do when this happens, I made every effort to not stop running. I shuffled along trying not to bend the leg as much and I tried a lot of deep breaths in an effort to calm my body. Tensing up and getting stressed out was not going to make a cramp go away. 

And for a little bit, the cramp backed off. But slowly over the next three miles, my buffer that I had to get under 3 hours was melting away. My effort to slow down to keep the cramp away was working but it was also having an adverse effect on my running time. My miles went 6:55, 6:57, then 7:13, and 7:10. My quick math in my head told me that if I didn't speed up over the next mile and kept dropping time, I would end up finishing in 3:00:05. Whatever happened, I was either going to run faster, not cramp and finish under 3 hours, or I was going to run faster, cramp and finish a couple minutes after 3 hours, but I was NOT going to finish 5 seconds over three hours!

The last part of the marathon was completely exhausting mentally. You have so many discussions with your body during the last several miles of any marathon. Just make it to the next street, now make it to the next stop light. Please body, stop cramping, just wait another 20 minutes. By mile 26, I knew I was extremely close to the finish. I kept checking my watch to see where my pace was at on each mile. I was literally willing my body to keep going and making loud audible noises that you make during a tough speed workout. The tougher part is that I didn't have any runners in my immediate area now because they had all fallen behind me or were too far in front of me (I had no one within 50 seconds in front and 25 seconds behind). It is always much easier to chase someone or try and hold off another runner. I was running alone along the Elbe. My body was aching in every conceivable way and the exhaustion of the entire trip was finally taking over.  

One of the last turns heading back toward the finish. Darris and Star Blackford are pictured here on the right. 

Mile 26 finished and I was at a 7:04 mile that time, slightly faster which was good. I was at 2:58:32 overall. The entire process of training, I knew the last .2 miles at 6:50 pace would be 1:22. I was on schedule for a 2:58:54 if I didn't have any issues. That basically meant any kind of cramp or slowdown, and I wouldn't hit my goal. I would still have a huge PR, but going under 3 hours is within my grasp and honestly, who knows if I will ever be able to do it again. I needed to muster up the energy to finish fast.

I finally rounded the last corner and the finish line was finally in sight. At that point, I knew that I could reach the finish line in the time I needed to make it under 3 hours as I could see the clock over the finish line. I sprinted as best as I could down the last stretch and crossed the finish line in 2 hours 59 minutes and 39 seconds. I had to go over and put my head down on the side where they had refreshments and other things, I was just completely exhausted and feeling a little dizzy as well. After a minute, I stood up and the rest of the day, I had a smile about a mile wide on my face. I could not believe I had finally done it. My 10th marathon, in another country with jet lag, I dropped 5 minutes off my PR and redeemed my Boston Marathon with a new PR. I found out later that I was also the first place American, so I ended up hitting every single goal I had for the race. My redemption race was complete!

In the VIP Lounge showing off my new medal

Elation before the finish line

Celebrating with Darris and Star

The "Nadal" Celebration

Later on that day, I went to an after dinner party with all the hosts and runners. We all talked about what an amazing experience it was to run on such a beautiful course and how lucky we were to get to be there. It is a day I will never forget. I was just grateful that I was able to meet all these new friends, and to get to run such a great race.

After marathon dinner party with all the runners and hosts

Darris addresses the dinner party

Even if the marathon had ended poorly for me and I didn't get the time I wanted or had the race I dreamed of, this would have been a trip of a lifetime. I got to hang around with other runners touring a city that has been rebuilt since World War II and meet new people that I can now call friends. I got to learn more about Germany and in turn, more about my heritage. But I did have a great race. It felt like an extra layer of icing on top of the cake. I was just so thankful that Dorit and others from the Dresden Sister City had chosen me to be a representative of Columbus. I was proud of how our group bonded with the runners from Dresden. I was thankful I got to run this course, easily the most beautiful race course I have ever run. The trip was an unforgettable experience that is going to be hard to top. 

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