As a coach for the past seven years to many adults who are training to run a half marathon or marathon as a part of the Running Fit 501 program, I offer advice on how to successfully train and attain their goal for their race. The problem is that what I tell these runners is much easier said than done. I ought to know for I have not been able to fully follow all of my marathon advice until the Detroit Marathon this past October.
First let me set the stage. I thought I had retired from competing in marathons in November of 2011 when I won my Age Group in the “City of Oaks Marathon” in Raleigh NC. That was until sometime early last summer when my daughter Alexis and I each were selected via a lottery to compete in the Chicago Marathon. It would have been Alexis’s first marathon. Unfortunately Alexis became injured late in her training and could not compete. On race day, I found myself alone again at the start line facing the challenge of a 26.2+ mile run. I knew how I was suppose to run a marathon, start slow, be smart, etc. But this was Chicago, a nearly totally flat and therefore fast marathon. I am accustomed to hilly courses. So when I started faster than I should have, I thought this is great! I may run my fastest marathon in nearly 20 years! Somewhere around mile 16 I was reminded of how all marathons can be very humbling. I will spare you the details, let me simply say the next 10 miles were not pretty. Nonetheless, I was able to qualify to compete in the 2016 Boston Marathon with nearly 10 minutes to spare. Regardless, I knew my poor performance was my own mistake and I did not set a good example for my runners.
So it came to be that my daughter Alexis, her in-laws, and my other daughter Bridgett wanted to take a trip and run the Bayshore Half Marathon in Traverse City at the end of May (2015). Instead of running the half marathon, I was determined to avenge my Chicago disaster and compete in the full marathon at Bayshore. Like Chicago, Bayshore has a reputation for being a fast and mostly flat route to race. Well, I will spare you the details of that marathon except to say I made the same mistakes again. In fact if I had not had to make a pit stop at mile 16 my finish time (3:46) was nearly the same as Chicago.
Bayshore was not to be my last Marathon. My daughter Bridgett, was planning to run her first marathon at Detroit in October. My plan was to surprise Bridgett at the starting line and run the entire marathon with her. This would no doubt mean I would run my slowest marathon time, but instead this would be a once in a lifetime type event. I prepared a training plan for Bridgett and she did very well adhering to the plan throughout the summer until the combination of higher miles, the hot and humid weather where she lives (NC), her final term as a grad student, along of course with family and work obligations all combined to cause her to pull out of her marathon training in mid- September. Her decision was the right one for her. But it meant I had only a few weeks to “tweak” my physical and mental preparation. Yes mental too. I firmly believe that a marathoner needs to mentally prepare to compete in a marathon as much as they do physically too.
People can appreciate the time it takes to physically prepare to endure a marathon, but only a very few understand the importance and time required to prepare mentally. With less than 5 weeks to marathon day the time to tweak my body and head was minimal. Nonetheless, I was convinced in my mind to make this my best marathon since my previous decoration to retire from marathoning 4 years earlier. I decided to minimize my taper time from the normal 3 weeks to a minimal time of 2 weeks. On each of my training runs I began to visualize my upcoming marathon. It helped greatly that over the course of the past several years I had participated in several marathon team relay events so I knew the quirks of the course, especially the final half. I had also ran the first half of the course even more times as it is the Half Marathon route. That along with being a native Detroiter and toured Detroit in the back of my grandfathers car more than half a century ago all helped greatly in taking on the mental challenge of the race course. So each training run I visualized a part of the route. My training hills became the stretch up the Ambassador Bridge. My speed work on the track became my final kick along Fort St. and so on for many segments of the course.
While mental preparation is important if not critical, no amount of mental prep will result in a successful marathon if the runner fails to train their body for race day. Some of the training advice I offer runners for race day include:
- Get plenty of rest the day before your marathon and hydrate
- Start slow, make your first mile your slowest mile
- Concentrate on running a negative split (second half faster than the first half).
- Fuel properly during the race.
- Do not go out too fast
- Do not do anything new, do not experiment on race day.
- Do not go too slow or too fast as you run up and down the Ambassador Bridge
- Do not get caught up in the cheering crowds as you exit the underwater mile tunnel, you will waste too much energy too early (mile 8) in the race.
You would think these all are very sensible items therefore simple to do correct? Well, no, ironically as simple as they sound they are very difficult to actually achieve. In fact I have never achieved all of these during my marathons. I have never run a negative split in any race yet alone a marathon. I tend to be the runner who believes in miracles and start races a bit too fast thinking this time I can hang in there to the finish. No, not even close, witness Chicago and Bayshore results!
If I was not going to run with Bridgett then I was convinced I would run my smartest marathon and avenge my Chicago and Bayshore Marathons.
The day before the marathon (rest day) I went downtown to watch my grandson Charlie run a kids mile race with his mom Alexis. Bridgett, her husband Shane, with granddaughter Katie, and I enjoyed watching Charlie and his fast finishing kick to the finish line. Following Charlie’s race we trudged over to the race expo to pick up our race bib and a few souvenirs. This was all fun and good, but I was on my feet too long! Remember rule number one (see above) Lee! I remember thinking most of that day that I really wished I had not entered the marathon. What was I thinking!
Race morning came early, very early as we left the house at 4:00 AM to get to downtown. Parking was to be easy. Our training group had once again rented out Cobo Joe’s Bar. It is strategically located near the start and finish area, but we needed to get downtown early to avoid the street closures. Our bad, as the streets had closed much earlier than we had planned. Our normal parking area was not accessible! This only added to my stress and anxiety of not wanting to run not to mention a long walk to Cobo Joe’s too.
Soon enough it was time to lose my warm clothing, face the chilly elements wearing my thin racing gear, and get to the start line. I always prefer to race in shorts and singlet (tank top style) race shirt. My rule is if it is 40 degrees and rising then singlet and shorts are my dress. This morning the temps were in the low 30’s and it was a bit breezy, and this was in and around the protective buildings of downtown Detroit. Imagine the wind high on the open Ambassador Bridge! So I decided to wear a lightweight long sleeve shirt under my Brooks singlet. This would still not be enough to ward off the predawn chill, so I also added my usual garbage bag cloak.
The half marathon and marathon runners start together and run the same course until about the 13 mile mark. Thus as you line up at the starting corral you don’t know who is running which race, unless you are able to see their bib color. They also place you somewhat in order of each runners anticipated pace. Faster runners to the front and slower runners towards the rear. Runners are further divided into waves. Each wave consist of a limited number of runners and the start of each wave is about 2 minutes from the previous wave start.
I found myself up near the very front of the second wave with a bunch of other scary fast looking runners. Again, why am I here? Am I really going to run more than 26 miles, at a reasonably fast pace, without stopping, and hope to be done in about 3 hrs and 40 minutes?
Joining me at the start was Meg Schulte, a fast runner from the 501 training group. Meg had run the Chicago Marathon only one week ago and was planning on competing in the half in Detroit. We chatted about race strategies, she asked about my plan for the marathon, asked if I was planning on an 8 min or so pace. I simply said no way and proceeded to explain my last two marathons. My goal was to start out very slow (for me) perhaps not any faster than 8:45 and I would not be disappointed to start even slower maybe 9:00 pace. I explained my goal to run a smart race and run a negative split. That was my focus!
I started as planned, very slow yet warm in my garbage bag cloak. I did force myself to keep it slow and not stay with other runners, I just kept repeating “run my own race”. It wasn’t long after that that teammate Meg Schulte came up along side of me and while I was tempted to run along with her I knew it would be race suicide to stay with her, so she ran off into the still dark of the pre-dawn ahead of me as I ran down Fort St.
My garbage kept me warm and I was determined to keep it on as long as possible. The problem is that runners need to be able to display their race bibs to Homeland Security agents as you approach the Ambassador Bridge (about mile 3) and begin to leave the good ole USA and run into Canada. So for nearly a mile I ran with the bottom of my bag pulled up over my stomach to display my bib. Normally it probably would have been OK to lose the bag by now but we were heading up and over the bridge about 400 feet above the Detroit River and nothing to block the somewhat strong winds. I continued to focus on holding my pace, no need to spend too much energy on this hill climb, yet no need to slow down too much too.
Top of the bridge, a beautiful view in all directions. Two countries and thousands of runners. Pace picked up a bit on the downhill route into Canada. Off came my garbage bag as it found it’s next home appropriately enough in a garbage barrel. Running through Windsor Canada is always fun. Its great to look up and see the thousands of runners behind me strolling down the Ambassador Bridge, great crowd support along Riverside Dr. too eh? I remember seeing the Canadian election signs out in the yards.
I also remember watching runners who appeared to be candidate for my age group ahead of me. I ever so slowly gained real estate on them to the point where I could peripherally glance a peek at their race bib and see that they were in the Half Marathon. Not a problem as I continued to slowly pass and see yet another potential competitor just ahead.
In the past I made the mistake of looking at my Garmin to see my pace etc. During the past few years as a Garmin runner I had come to depend too much on the device and less upon my “feel” as a runner. I knew that if I was to run a smart race I needed to rely more upon the feel of my legs and body and less on a satellite in outer space to run a smart race. After all, it worked well for me for over 40 years of running. Nonetheless, of course I gave an occasional glance at my Garmin but this time it was truly only occasional and it was to assure myself that I was still holding the pace back and not running too fast. All through Canada, it felt like a very easy controlled controlled jog and I was still holding back. In fact, I had actually began to run a bit faster pace but not by all that much. I told myself “all is going according to plan”, “you have been here before Lee”, “just hold this pace”. In other words, a whole lot of positive reinforcement.
Running along Riverside Dr. in Windsor offers runners the best view of Detroit. Within the a few stride lengths the runner can see Detroit’s entire riverfront. I was remembering back to my childhood the image of the riverfront, the Boblo boat docks, concrete silos, and an overall industrial look. Today’s view is much improved and will continue to improve. I also noticed the river walk location. The 23rd mile mark is along that area. I quickly put out of my head how much farther it was to there and redirected my brain to running consistently along Riverside Dr.
Runners soon make a few turns and head out of Canada and back to the good old USA by way of running under the Detroit River! The tunnel is a truly unique feature for the marathon. While I was not cold, neither was I overheated in my running gear but the tunnel would soon change that. During the nice downhill path into the tunnel I unzipped my turtleneck shirt and removed my hat. Yes, as always, the tunnel air was warm and dry. Just about the time that the tunnel’s warm air was truly becoming uncomfortable my legs felt the pavement’s incline and there really was that light at the end of this tunnel!
Back in the USA
One recommendation I always share with Detroit marathon runners, especially new marathoners, is to avoid a fast spurt of energy when you come out of the tunnel. There is always a huge crowd awaiting and cheering the runners and you can easily get an adrenaline rush that will cause you to waste too much precious energy too early in the race. Mile 8 of a marathon is not when you want to start your “kick”! I thought I did pretty well in holding my pace out of the tunnel. When I exited and turned left onto Jefferson Ave. a race announcer announced “Lee Mamola, Novi, MI”! Talk about trying to avoid an adrenaline rush! Nonetheless, I have literally been down this road before and I managed to keep my cool and continued to the next downhill, under Cobo Hall.
The next stretch of the course was not to be my favorite. Runners run along a part of the Lodge expressway before returning to the streets of Detroit via the incline of an exit ramp. It felt like this part was added only because officials needed to add some length to the route at some point. Then when you do return to the streets the route becomes long and straight. A few years ago my legs fell off at this point in the route while running in the Half Marathon. I remember that this part required continued concentration. I continued to tell myself my pace was good, I still felt very fresh and relaxed, no sense of tiredness at all.
Before I knew it we were back onto the winding streets, into historic Corktown, and the bricks of Michigan Ave. The half way point was only a bit more than a mile or to be exact, 8 minutes and 37 secs away. It was at this point that I started to target a runner ahead of me and focus on slowly gaining on them if I could. Some I could, or rather wisely decided not to chase too, but of the ones that were maintaining a pace near mine, I did pass. It’s especially fun to pass runners that are clearly at least 30 and sometimes 30+ years younger than me at this point in any race. It was a great confidence builder as I headed to the midpoint of my marathon in Detroit.
Half Way There
Actually just prior to the 13 mile mark the half marathoners are separated from the marathoners as the half marathoners make a right turn to their finish line and marathoners continue the route. My guess is that about 3 out of 4 runners are competing in the half marathon. So all of a sudden what was once a pack of familiar fannies you have been following suddenly diminishes to a much smaller group of serious marathoners. You also quickly realize that this is serious business and you need to continue to press ahead.
My second half began with a downhill along Griswold and between Detroit’s tallest and significant buildings. I remember a little more than a year ago walking down this very street with my boss at the time Lou Trama. We had meetings in the Ford Building and Guardian Building. Lou had been ill and had a difficult time breathing during this short two block route, his lungs were not healthy. Within 6 months he would pass on to his next life. I was remembering Lou and that day when I came across two enthusiastic members of the Running Fit 501 group. Thanks to the cheers from Ron Smerigan and Liz Wright my mind was just as quickly refocused to the marathon. These streets of Detroit have been in my head for over 60 years, it was like running in my own neighborhood.
It had also helped that for the past several years I had competed at various legs of the Marathon Relay too. Familiarity with a race route, especially a marathon is crucial to a successful race. Last year I ran a nearly 7 mile leg of the relay beginning from just prior to the 13 mile mark to the 19+ mile mark. This helped me greatly for the marathon. The long stretch along Lafayette became more bearable. I also remember trying to listen closely to my body. The time to hold my pace was behind me, if I was going to reach my goal of a negative split then I needed to slowly increase my pace without increasing too much. I remember passing the historic streets of St. Aubin, Beaubeon, Mt. Elliot, and how these streets were named for the families that settled along the Detroit riverfront. With each passing street I knew I was getting closer to historic Indian Village.
Fueling My Marathon
During the summer I experimented with a new sports drink, a product called UCAN. This product is designed to minimize the peaks and crashes of other energy sources that are primarily sugar based and instead it forces your muscles to burn energy from fat sources within your body. It has a taste that takes some getting use to liking but once you do it’s not all that bad. I loaded up on the drink for 48 hours in advance of marathon Sunday while resting as much as I could. Then on race morning I also drank sufficient amounts to extend my energy to about 2 hrs.
Throughout the marathon I would take cups of water or gator aide at every aid station (roughly every mile or so). It also was very apparent to me that I was more than adequately hydrated for shortly after I drank a cup, I also lost a cup, all throughout the marathon. But for the first time ever I had never raced this length of 16 miles without some sort of energy gel or candy. The UCAN was doing it’s job! Then shortly after the 16 mile mark I could begin to feel my legs beginning the start of feeling fatigued. Every runner knows this feeling. I did not bring any UCAN product with me, so at the next aide station at mile 17 I would take a gel. I had packed a few “emergency gels” in my pants just in case they would be needed. But at mile 17 they were passing out a gel product called “Boom” I had actually used this product in the past and had very good results. So I grabbed a banana flavored gel and washed it down with water as I began my entry into Indian Village. But before I did, I grabbed another “Boom” gel from a volunteer.
Boom gels are very appropriately named because my legs did feel a boom as I returned to my senses and reminded myself that the 8:05 pace my Garmin was telling me was too fast at this point. The run through Indian Village is essentially a run around a big city block. It’s a block that includes many of the older and finer homes in Detroit. It also has maintained a vibrant neighborhood over many years despite the myriad of challenges that eternally seem to plague the city especially for the past 50 years or more. But on this beautiful sunny Sunday morning filled with God’s autumn colors, all was just fine with me. My pace was steady, continued a bit faster as I started to pick off more and more runners during the next two miles. Then before I knew it my trip to and through Indian Village was coming to an end. As much as I enjoyed this part of the route I was glad to take on the next segment.
I remembered this route from my leg of the marathon last year. Runners leave the cozy confines of Indian Village and are thrust onto the wide open venue of Jefferson Ave. I remembered this stretch to be a short distance before the route takes the runners over the Belle Isle Bridge. In fact this segment along Jefferson was much longer than I remembered. No problem I was still running strong, I felt relaxed, and kept telling myself how awesome this was as I continued to “pick-off” even more runners ahead of me! My pace continued to steadily increase albeit at only a few seconds per mile, I looked at my watch and noticed I had crept down to below an 8 min mile pace, ouch! A bit too fast Lee, cool it! So, I did, I relaxed, smiled and waved at the DJ along the course offering encouragement and focused on the next milestone which was a relay exchange point.
It was at the Jefferson Ave. exchange point where I ended my leg from last year passing off to my son-in-law Steve. Steve was a good sport just to participate in the family relay team last year. It was this same spot several years ago that I stood awaiting to receive the relay tag from my teammate Jessica Shehab. I was very familiar with this point in the course and the many fond memories of running here in the past came back to me in a flash.
It wasn’t much longer when I found myself feeling isolated as I ran the length of the MacArthur Bridge and approached entry onto this famous island. As an architect I appreciated the fact that the island park was designed by the famous landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted. For those who may not know who Olmsted was, he is to the landscape architecture profession what Frank Lloyd Wright is to the architecture profession. He was also designed New York’s Central Park, many other parks in the city of Detroit, and even nearby Ypsilanti. This sense of history did not help me as I was beginning to bake in the warming morning sun.
Once again I unzipped my turtleneck and removed my hat to release some warmth. I could begin to feel my legs begin to fatigue. This was surely the result of the “crash” side of taking the Boom gels earlier. I needed to fend off this fatigue. I remembered the last minute sage advice from my training partner, an excellent marathoner herself, Jessica Shehab. She sent me a note reminding me to have my mantra to get me thru any rough spot(s) in the race. So as I was about to begin to exit the bridge, I knew I had to maintain my pace, I could not let myself slow down at all. So I told myself the following: “I am a running machine, I am a running machine” over and over. As I entered onto Belle Isle I could see that I as also approaching another aide station so I reached for my honey gel, grabbed a cup of water to wash it down and noticed the sign that read “Mile 20”. I had just run 20 miles and frankly still feeling pretty good! My pace was about 8:10 per mile, not too shabby for this point in the race.
Despite the natural beauty, scenic urban vistas, and level flatness, the Belle Isle portion of the marathon route is not a welcoming part of the marathon. In many prior marathons the runners ran entirely around the island (about 6 miles) and in the early years the marathon finished on Belle Isle. More recently the organizers cut the marathon route to about half of the island, the half that looks back to downtown Detroit and where the finish line is located. The reason the island is not favored by runners is the nature of the elements along the route here. Despite the weather conditions on the mainland, Belle Isle inevitably offers tougher running conditions. Runners will experience stronger head winds, minimal crowd support along the way, and most runners are battling the effects of “Hitting The Wall” all combine to make this a difficult struggle at best.
The head winds of Belle Isle were upon me as I ran along the southern edge that overlooked Canada to the South. Yes, this is the only area of the world were Canada is actually south of the USA! I could feel my form weaken and I knew this was that turning point in the race where it would be easy to give up emotionally and struggle to finish the final few miles. Thankfully I was able to fight this off and began to focus on catching the runner who was about 50 yards ahead of me. I focused on maintaining a steady pace as I fought off the head wind. Up ahead I could see the fountain. This is where the route would turn and the wind would be at my back. I caught the next runner as I passed the fountain.
Just ahead was the next relay point. I was very familiar with this part of the route from running here the past two years. I had flashbacks of passing off to my teammate Marianne Carter here. Before I reached the actual relay point I ran over the finish line of the Detroit Grand Prix! I also grabbed another gel to fuel up for the final portion of the course. Mile 22 was now behind me. I told myself the race was going good. “I was a running machine, just continue to hold your strong pace Lee”.
There were not many runners arond me as I headed for the final turn before leaving Belle Isle and the long run over the bridge. There was a woman standing along side the route cheering. She noticed my name on my bib and shouted encouragement to me “Lee, you’re a running machine Lee, you look strong”! How did this woman know my mantra that had kept me going through the toughest part of the course? I took it as some sort of a magic sign, took her advice, and picked up the pace over the bridge back to the mainland.
There was great crowd support for runners departing the bridge. Their cheers helped me keep strong as I ran down Jefferson Ave. heading towards the Detroit River Walk park. Between Jefferson and the River Walk we ran down a part of the course where Charlie had ran the day before. I remembered how Charlie managed his “final kick”, if Charlie could reach down and go for it surely his Papa could too!
I finally reached the River Walk, the part of the route I was both anxiously awaiting and dreading. I welcomed this part of the route as it represented the beginning of the end. I dreaded it because of the uncertainty of the winds a runner might need to resist and certain twists and turns in the route would require additional energy resources from my continually dwindling reservoir.
I remember a young lady runner was attempting to pass me. I decided not to let this runner who was likely 40 years younger than me pass this old dude. It meant my pace would need to increase slightly as I fought her off for the next half mile or so. This was the part of the river park where there were several twists and turns in the route. My proven radar for running the tangents (shortest distance between two points) ultimately allowed me to pass this young runner for the last time. Next, focus on another runner.
The next runner was actually RF 501 coach Suzi and 501’r Raymond Yost, They acted surprised to see me and yelled encouragement, told be I was looking strong (I felt strong too). Suzi encourage me to catch the only 501’r who was only a few hundred yards ahead of me. Another young-in 30 years my elder, Anthony Miller. I was not going to focus on Anthony I was going to focus on my own race effort. I felt strong, knowing too that the end was coming. I continued to run strong along Atwater St. passing runners as I did. I remember some runners turning their heads as I passed them and telling me I was looking strong! Keep up the good work guy! When you receive encouragement from fellow runners along the way it only serves to keep you going even stronger.
The next part of the route was a challenging little hill between Atwater and Jefferson. This was a huge struggle! It was short but relatively steep hill at a very strategic part of the course. Normally I charge up hills, not this time though. My brain decide to take it easy, do not waste any energy, just get to the top in one piece. It was slow, but my legs kept turning and before I knew it the hill had passed and I was crossing Jefferson, approaching Larned.
The Final Kick
I survived the little hill and was turning onto Larned. Ahead was the parking lot I used to park in when coming downtown for meetings with AIA Detroit and the Michigan Architectural Foundation. I was surrounded by buildings I was very familiar with for many years. My legs were feeling totally drained. The crowds along the route where larger again. Many voices from strangers reinforcing my effort. I could not let them down. I came upon Woodward Ave. How many times have I been at the intersection of Woodward and Larned in my life?
I was aware the finish line was approaching but I was not ready for the next turn leading to the finish line approaching so fast! Before I knew it I was back on Griswold for a short stint, an uphill stint too! Ugh! There were two runners just ahead of me as I approached the bottom of the hill. They were running strong. I was determined to show these “young kids” how to finish a race. Knowing this was the last hill in the marathon and that the finish was near, I kicked my pace into another gear, pumped my arms, held my head up high, finished the hill and rounded the final turn!
There it was the finish! Yikes it was not that far away, just a few blocks to go! So I continued to run even a bit faster passing several more marathoners! I simultaneously felt totally fatigued and strong as I did my best to focus on the finish line. The announcer called out “Lee Mamola from Novi finishing”. Finally, arms reached in a victory reach as I crossed the finish line! My final kick was at a 6:10 per mile pace!
I was relieved the marathon was done, I was greeted by volunteers placing a finisher’s medal around my neck and another wrapping me in a mylar heat blanket. Over to my left were Bridgett and Alexis who each had finished their half marathons and came back to see me finish and finish my strongest marathon too!
It took some time and effort to exit the finish area but before I did, Bridgett and Alexis joined me in the area and we posed together for a finishers final picture. Between the three of us we ran 52.4 miles this Sunday morning!
The final numbers are in, once you have completed a race there is nothing you can do to change the actual results and nobody can ever take away the fact that you completed a race, especially a marathon!
My final net time of 3:41:06 (8:26/mile average pace) was good enough for a 3rd of 68, Place finish in my age group, 503 of over 3,800 other marathoners. I hit my goal of running a negative split by nearly two minutes, felt strong throughout the entire marathon, and finally avenged my previous two marathons in Chicago and Bayshore (Traverse City, MI). The final notable mark is that I also qualified to run the Boston Marathon (should I elect to run) with nearly 10 minutes to spare for 2017! I finally ran a race the way I coach other runners to do.
Following a slow and somewhat chilly walk from the finish area with Bridgett and Alexis, I returned to Cobo Joe’s to be very warmly greeting with applause and cheers from all the great folks and running buds from Running Fit 501! I must admit that caught me totally off guard. I don’t remember what I wanted to do more at that moment, change into dry pants or devour some of those juicy looking chili fries and onion rings some folks were already having. I do remember the fries, onion rungs, and the suds that washed them all down tasted great!
I was onto the long walk back to our car, a refreshing shower, and more eats as we celebrated our youngest granddaughter Katie Jane’s second birthday too!
Thanks to all who took the time to read this long story, it was about a marathon after all. This has taken me weeks to gather and ultimately post. I look forward to any comments, feedback, and especially from anyone who may now be inspired to run a Marathon!
Thanks again and remember to always RUN HAPPY!