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Marathoning With Pure Grit

Evan Williams - Eugene Half Marathon

I set out on a mission to run a “good” marathon six months ago. On Sunday, July 27th, I ended up with a 13 min PR, 2:51:52, at the Eugene Marathon and the feeling of having finally accomplished something close to my capability. A “good” run would be one in which I didn’t fade to walking pace in the final 10k, regardless of the overall time. That’s the story of my two previous attempts. This was different.

As the pre-race week arrived, my day-job schedule got so busy that I didn’t have a choice about tapering. I wrote and turned in a 40 page thesis chapter, helped my brothers with a 12 hour journey from Portland to Seattle (moving our heavy new brewery tanks), ate several pounds of pasta with red sauce, and managed to start driving south to the race at 10 pm on Friday night. I arrived in Portland in the early morning hours, stayed with Meeks Brucker (former SRC XC teammate) and things started looking better after I woke up for a late breakfast and sunny 4 mi jog around the neighborhood.

Meeks and I caught up while running and revisited our usual conversation topics: Why run? Does an exhausting pace justify no kick at the end? When is the best time for a runner to drink beer? How is the knee bone connected to the elbow bone? Eventually, I had to depart for Eugene and pick up my race number before the expo closed. I was in a good mental state after the Portland stop and carried that vibe into the evening while watching Jordan McNamara win a 1500m elite race from waaaaay back in the pack at Hayward Field. To be that smooth and that fast is really special.

Evan Williams - Hawyward Field Mens 1500m

Ate. Listened to some Jon Hopkins. Slept.

I was up before my alarm at 3:55am and made the first shuttle to the start line. I’m never sure how much to warm up before long races, but, since I decided to go shirtless, I had to keep moving a little to fend off the chilliness of 59F air. The bathroom lines were incredibly long, so I gave up and headed to the corrals with 15 minutes to the gun. As planned, I had a sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich in one hand and 8oz or so of flat Coca-Cola in the other. I’ve always had a strong stomach, so I figured a few extra carbs and real-food protein were good late-race investments. I got some strange looks, deservedly.

The gun went off, the sun rose, and in a sea of surging and fading half-marathoners, I cruised the first 5k one second faster than my goal 6:20 pace (with a 10 second port-o-potty stop). I didn’t feel springy or fresh, but I was steady and relaxed. My three-step strategy worked perfectly, “settle down, dial in the rhythm, and have some fun.” Is there anything else to distance running, really?

Around 5 miles in, I either missed a mile marker or the organizers never put one in the ground. Other runners noticed the same problem later. Signage was sporadic and race clock displays were even rarer. After I saw the 10k clock display 42:50 (6:54 pace) I began to question my pacing ability and accidentally reset my own watch while trying to confirm if my second 5k had really been 7:29 pace (it wasn’t). OK, fine. I decided to restart my clock at 7 miles and put the rest in the past. Mile 7 to 8 was 7:47. I looked around in disbelief, only to hear some complaints about mis-marked distances and some strong language from the adjacent pack. Without being able to trust the clocks or the markers, I was left in a chronographic darkness for the foreseeable future. There was only one solution: listen to my body and keep moving forward.

Evan Williams - Eugene 2014

I caught up to a guy around mile 10 and we had some back and forth challenges for a while before we realized it was much better to work together. We had the same sunglasses, shared a total of ten words over 9 miles, and moved up about a dozen places. I had no idea how fast we were moving, but based on the 20 mile split later, it had to be near 6:10. Our team of two, spontaneously formed and sadly ephemeral, was one of the best running experiences of my life. We had smiles plastered on for an hour straight. Why compete? For moments of Race Magic like this.

Somewhere in that stretch, we crossed the half-marathon mark. Of course, there was no clock display. I asked my new friend if he had the time. Seeing as he had not reset his watch, he did – 1:22:49. Right on target! My confidence was restored.

Twenty miles in 2:06 felt great. Mile 21 (6:05, if the signs were correct) felt great. Then, I stumbled and almost fell over completely as both hamstrings cramped within two steps. I couldn’t believe it. Ideal pacing, great weather, a breakfast sandwich at the start – and now I was about to be derailed by two muscles without enough electrolytes. Walking wasn’t an option. I was determined to save this race and not have it be defined by a miserable final 10k.

I slowed to a crawl at the aid station a couple meters away and treated it like a buffet line. Gatorade, Gatorade, banana, Gu, water, water…go! I eased back into running only to be hammered to a stop again. I took 10 seconds to stretch and reassess. My daily occupation is biomechanical engineering research at UW. I know how every muscle and joint works in the lower body. It was time to throw my preferred mid-foot strike out the window. The (Brooks Pure Grit 2) shoes could handle reasonable heel pounding into the pavement, so I started moving again by contacting the ground with nearly straight legs and then pivoting over my hip in a half-march, half-run motion. It wasn’t quite enough relief to my hamstrings and I cramped again. By the third attempt, I had it figured out. I could manage 7:30 pace by alternating periods of tin-man running with skipping and prancing. The latter techniques allowed me to bounce forward by way of calves and quads and kick out in the air to stretch hams and glutes. Joe Creighton had instructed me to run the final 6.2 miles as if I was listening to Daft Punk Alive 2007. I don’t think he meant I should dance the whole way, but that’s exactly what it looked like.

Evan Williams - Eugene 2014

My semi-official goal of running sub 2:45 disappeared, but I held steady and couldn’t have been happier with 2:51. It took everything I had physically and mentally. I never bonked and I overcame a tremendous obstacle in the last 45 minutes by applying what I’ve learned in engineering textbooks to perform a decidedly un-textbook running style and achieve a very respectable time.

It was the perfect race that couldn’t have been any faster. Well, I guess I did accidentally finish in the half-marathon chute. I’ll have to work on that.

Evan Williams - Eugene Half Marathon

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Evan Williams is a member of the 2015 SRC-Brooks competitive team. You can often find him running XC races in the fall or brewing good dark beers all year round with his brothers at Flying Lion Brewery.

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