“Omaha?” People inquire looking askance when I tell them I am running the Omaha Marathon. The race is by no means a destination run or particularly interesting by any means, but yes, Omaha.
This all started when I contacted a good friend from college to ask him what races he has on his calendar. I haven’t seen Jim in a while and figured it was a good way to reconnect. After all, he lives in the far reaches of central New Jersey and we all know he may as well live in Antarctica. It turned out the only things on his calendar are Omaha and a 50K in Delaware next spring as he is actively ticking off states off of his list – yes, he is doing marathon or longer in all 50 states.
To be honest, neither of these options were particularly appealing, but the flight to Omaha was not very pricey, nor was the price of entry into the marathon. So seven weeks out from the marathon, realizing that I had a decent base from starting NYCM training early, I registered for Omaha.
Omaha will now be my 12th marathon.
In most of my previous marathons, I have always battled poor training, poor nutrition, poor strategy—or any combination of the three. One constant battle I always have at around Mile 20 was calf cramps which I attributed to the aforementioned reasons. I was determined not to make the same mistakes this time.
In the weeks leading up to the marathon, Jim and I constantly traded emails discussing our strategy and our pace. Ultimately, we settled on sticking with the 3:45 pacer (which equals my PR, and will be Jim’s PR) and see where that takes us.
As the day approached, the marathon became more real and exciting. I surveyed the course map and the aid stations. I examined the elevation map over and over again even though it was mostly flat. But on Wednesday, I woke up with a sore throat. Thursday, it was a little worse and painful to swallow. At this point, I was wondering if I can even run at all. All I could hope for was that whatever this was does not travel below the neck.
I took the maximum dosage of vitamins each day, gargled with salt water, and just hoped. Friday, it had no indication of getting better and added an irritated eye to the mix. I woke up Saturday a little better but still sick. I boarded my flight – I figured I spent all the money, so might as well go even if I end up skipping the race.
Jim and I met up at the layover in Charlotte, and flew into Omaha together. The hotel was a block away from the expo/start/finish of the event and that saved any logistics we otherwise would have needed to figure out. We walked over to the smallest expo I have ever experienced. The event course is an out and back course with the finish inside the TD Ameritrade Stadium. The event itself is divided up into the mile walk, 5k, 10k, Half-Marathon and Marathon.
Even with all these events, the expo consisted of the bib pickup table, and maybe five tents that sold a few items. It was just as well as I do like to speed through the expo. The event also organized a free pasta dinner for runners just down the block, so we decided to eat early and just head back to the hotel to rest.
I woke up to a runny nose and an even more irritated eye, but no sore throat. The running gods took pity on me and moved the sickness definitively above the neck. It was a great day for a race at 55° with little humidity. It was to be 70’s by midday (but we are hoping to be done well before then). Jim and I each went through our pre-race rituals and fifteen minutes before the gun, we moseyed over to the start to look for our pacer.
The 7 AM start had the half marathon and the marathon start together in one corral with the shorter races being held later. 4:10 pacer, 2:00 pacer, 3:55 pacer, 1:40 pacer… We didn’t see the 3:45 pacer no matter how much we looked.
After all that pre-race talk, the two of us were left to pace ourselves. The gun went off promptly, and we were off. Since there was no corral by pace, it was a little congested in the beginning despite the relatively small field (of 1825 half-marathoners and 581 marathoners).
The crowd thinned fairly quickly and we settled into a pace that we both felt was right. The first mile was 8:21 – way too quick as compared to what we discussed. This was one of the paces I considered early on in our conversations, but Jim emailed only a couple of days prior that the comfortable pace for him is most likely 8:45. I checked with Jim, and he says to continue feeling out the pace as he is okay. One thing I realize very quickly is that I’m not good at pacing and talking at the same time (I just go faster if I don’t think about it).
Jim was definitely helping me regulate my speed. As we were discussing our pace rather loudly, a guy runs next to us asking if we were looking for the 3:45 pacer. He revealed to us that he was the pacer, but could not find the pace stick. He also mentioned that he plans to pace the first half at 8:25 pace and slow down after the turnaround. Needless to say, we let him go. Instead, we honed in on the 1:50 pacers in front of us as we figured it was a close enough pace to what we wanted and we wouldn’t have to think about pace until 6.5 miles in when the half-marathoners turned around.
The course ran through mostly residential areas with barely any crowd support. One guy kept popping up at various parts of the course which kept us entertained, but we were generally left to our own devices to distract ourselves. Jim got silly, we cheered for the lead half-marathoners, we joked with other runners, we guessed which runners in front of us would continue on and who will turn around, etc.
But in the back of my mind, I was constantly thinking about by nutrition strategy. I had planned to follow Steve Wo’s strategy of Gu’s at Mile 8, 13, 18, and 22/24 with Gatorade at other aid stations. The race directors decided HEED (aka Heave, or what I describe as liquid chalk) was the beverage of choice. However, that was not what threw me. Given the small field, each aid station was only two tables until the half turnaround and one table thereafter. They also decided to have people hand out small cups in front of the aid table, blocking any runner from grabbing directly. In the early aid stations, they were incredibly mobbed and I was glad I was running with a water bottle (which I was able to share with Jim).
Nonetheless, all was going swimmingly. The pace we settled into was still very much faster than we discussed even with us chasing the 1:50 pacers. We were averaging just over 8:10 pace. The 3:45 pacer was nowhere to be seen either which meant that he was still faster than us. While I hated having minutes in the bank, I decided to think with optimism that this was our pace and both of us would PR. This pace was my estimate for my best case pace, so it didn’t concern me too much.
Mile 8 started on a narrow paved trail part of the course that had us run next to a lake to our left. The calm transported me away from the race to a quiet morning run without any stresses and worries. I felt somewhat sad that the half marathoners did not get to share in the scenery, but the thought was fleeting as I soon got frustrated over the placement of the mile markers. They were short by a good tenth to two tenths of a mile for 10, 11 and 12.
We reached the turnaround and Jim yelled out to slow the pace a little. I felt it too; we may had gone out a little fast. We dialed it back to 8:35, which was the initial pace we agreed on. Still, we were doing well. With no signs of real trouble, we continued to joke with other runners and grumbled at the fact that the mile markers for 14, 15 and 16 were now longer by four tenths of a mile.
Mile 19 – Jim yelled out that he needed to slow down a little more. I told him okay, but I ended up running just a little faster than he did. I still felt him lurking not far behind. I passed the runner who told us earlier that he was aiming for 3:30. I realized he wasn’t going to make that goal. Then I felt it—the undeniable sign that my calf was going to cramp up. It was that uneasy feeling of the muscles seemingly detaching themselves from the rest of my leg and bouncing just a little. That slight motion was instantly familiar to me from many marathons prior. I slowed down to delay the inevitable. Jim soon caught up and I told him he needed to go on without me. As he pressed on, he shouted back to me to drink more HEED.
Mile 20 – I stopped at the aid station, drank a couple of cups of HEED and downed some orange slices. I pressed on. TWINGE! I stumbled. I slowed down more, but kept Jim in my sights. If only I could somehow maintain a right balance of speed and caution, maybe I could beat this.
Mile 21 – Jim was still within my sights which can only meant he slowed down too. TWINGE!
Mile 22 – ‘Would anyone really care if I DNF?’ TWINGE! Jim was gone.
Mile 24 – I tried something different; I mustered all I could for a decent pace run concentrating on my running form. I even reached sub 8:00 paces at times. TWINGE! I walked. I repeated ad nauseum. I kept passing this guy in red over and over again with this strategy.
Mile 25 – My right calf decided to go for the death knell. I keeled over in pain. The guy in red ran past me. Another guy, who also ran past, yelled “Run through it!” If I could run through it at that moment, I would have rushed the guy and body slammed him. After much pleading and coaxing my calf, the muscles relaxed just enough for me to walk a little. I jogged when I could. I passed the guy in red who was now walking. He looked over at me as I’m passing him and said, “This is hard.”
Mile 26 – I entered the baseball stadium and knew the finish was a stone’s throw away. I heard Jim yell out my name in encouragement behind me. I tried to look around, but it was only slowing me down. All I could think of at that moment was not walk at all. I saw a few walkers bunched up finishing their 5k—one pushing a stroller, and all of them blocking the inside line around the warning track. I cursed them under my breath as I took the outside line. As I neared home plate, I realized that the finish line was not there. I looked behind me to see that the finish line was actually closer to where we entered, and we had to do almost a full loop of the track. I cursed out the event organizers under my breath. Both my calves were screaming out in the form of sharp pins with each step. I looked up at the finish clock and my one and only goal at this point was to come in under 3:55…
My official time is 3:54:50. Jim’s is 3:51:35. Neither of us PR’ed, but we were all smiles at the end.
I checked into a different hotel for Sunday as the first hotel was under Jim’s name, and he had a flight out on Sunday. I read up on calf cramps. The Internet told me I have tight hip flexors, and I bookmarked new exercises to do. I walked around the Old Market a little, but there is not much in Omaha (with the exception of Warren Buffet). The number one attraction is the zoo (as they call it the world’s best zoo), but I was not in the mood to walk around a zoo after the marathon. I was, however, excited to find giant outdoor slides just outside this new hotel.
Unfortunately, kids were crawling all over them, and I did not want to be that guy. I told myself I would come tomorrow morning to check it out. The next morning, the weather was foggy. I walked over to the slides to find it completely empty. I climbed the stairs. With anticipation, I slid down only to get stuck in the flat portion of the slightly damp slide. It was a little disappointing, but still joyful. I guess that’s just how some things are.