- August 17th, 2015
Falmouth Road Race
It always surprises me how many people there are out there that don’t know that a marathon is a 26.2 mile foot race. They think that a marathon is a distance race of any distance. But yes, back in 1973, when the Falmouth Road Race got its start, they could have called it a marathon and only a true runner would have known, such was running at the time. Now, on the other hand, everyone in Massachusetts knows how long a marathon is. Patriot Day is a state holiday in Massachusetts where nearly all businesses close down as if it were a true federal holiday, and on Patriot Day the Boston Marathon is run, and everyone knows how long the Boston Marathon especially since the Boston bombing. The Falmouth Road Race is not a marathon, but it is one tough race.
So the history goes that there was a bartender named Tommy Leonard in Boston who had an obsession with distance runners who hosted runners – serious runners – at the bar that he tended in Boston after their training sessions. In the summer, he was tending bar in Falmouth on Cape Cod when the Olympic marathon was being broadcast, and Frank Shorter was about to win it for the United States for the first time since 1908. Leonard was so engrossed by Shorter’s performance that he stopped pouring drinks for the final miles of the marathon, and then he turned to a friend of his – another bartender from a bar in Wood’s Hole, and said, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could get Frank Shorter to run in a race on Cape Cod?” And that’s how the Falmouth Road Race was born. It took a couple of years for Shorter to show up, but he eventually did, along with a number of other Olympians. This year, Meb Keflezighi, two time Olympian marathoner and silver medalist in 2012, ran it along with a number of other “stars” I know. It kind of makes it a true runner’s race when people like that show up consistently and on a yearly basis for a race that isn’t really in any sort of championship circuit and is an odd distance.
7 miles, or more specifically 7.1 miles, is an odd distance. I’ve had people tell me how much they don’t like 10k races. They like 5k races because they can go flat out for 5k, and they like 10 mile races and half marathons because they can run at a relaxed but quick pace for that long. But a 10k is different. It’s long enough that you can’t quite predict a quarter of the way through the race how your body will perform in the last mile unless you run that distance every single day. Very few runners run that distance often. I do. And 7 miles is slightly more. 7 miles is the furthest most runners can run at near-peak effort without backing off the power a bit to conserve it. 7 miles is, for the casual but serious runner, an hour’s run. For a world record holder it’s a 32 minute run.
For me, 7 miles is two miles longer than I can run on a hot summer day without taking a walk break to let my body cool off a bit, and this is something I have been working on this year. And who holds a race in August? People who live somewhere that is usually fairly cool like Cape Cod. On a normal summer day on the coast of Cape Cod, there is a sea breeze that blows so that highs of 90 that Boston is seeing at that time of year end up being about 78 or 80 degrees in mid-afternoon, which means race time is usually about 72 or 74 degrees, just like it was when I showed up on Saturday morning. I mean, if the race was on Saturday, it would have been awesome, with overcast leading to sunshine and a full, steady 20 knot breeze, perfect for the sailing I did with my cousin that afternoon. Then Saturday evening, the weather ended up changing. I was walking back from dinner Saturday evening and I saw flashes off to the north. A line of thunderstorms came through and the air was dead afterwards so when I woke up on Sunday morning at 5:30 and stepped outside, I thought to myself, “This feels like the weather back home in Virginia. Warm and humid.” At 5:30, it was 74 degrees with a heat index to match and no breeze. It didn’t bode well.
Sure enough, by race time, I was standing in the starting corral (they were calling them pulses, but I call a spade a spade) in the direct sun as my body was being warmed by the sun. I checked the weather after the race at 10:30 and it was about 83 with a heat index of 87, so I suspect that when I started over an hour earlier it was probably already 80 and with no wind. It was horrible for me and I had been standing there a while at that point.
Falmouth has some pretty impressive logistics support, but even still it’s a reasonably small town with small roads going over to the even smaller town of Wood’s Hole, so it really does take three hours to shuttle everyone from Falmouth to Wood’s Hole, and there is absolutely no available real estate for parking or to allow easy drop off near Wood’s Hole. When my boss Campbell came to run the race with his fiancé and family, they dropped them off a mile from the start and it took them an hour to drive the six miles from where they were staying.
I didn’t have this problem because I applied the “you never know what will go wrong” rule to arriving to road races early, because you really never do know what will go wrong, but then I was sitting there in the park in Wood’s Hole two hours before the race and thought, “Wouldn’t a cup of coffee from that organic market by the starting line be good?” Bad move, Rob. Yes, I had plenty of time to digest breakfast and enjoy a cup, but I drink a couple of cups of coffee in the morning and I may as well have consumed a couple of liters of water without the benefit of hydration. In the last hour before start time, I stood in line for the porta potty three times.
And then the race started.
So here’s how it worked. At 8:30, they started the wheelchair division. At 8:50, they started the women professionals. At 9:00, they started the men professionals. Then they started everyone who was expecting to finish faster than an 8 minute pace – what they called the “seeded runners.” If you planned to run faster than 8 minute miles, you had to submit proof that you could actually do it for a 10k or faster race and then they would seed you. Also in this group were past prize winners from similar races, including class winners for older classes (you will often see people older than 70 who are still serious runners but slower than me running in the seeded division of races like this). For me personally it is not entirely unrealistic that I would run with such a group, because I have indeed in the past three years run a half marathon at 7:47 pace, but this year I was a bit off of that. And the thing about Falmouth is the weather. There are few runners that sustain a pace like that for Falmouth simply because of the sunshine and the summer weather. Did I mention this? I actually read a study yesterday that spoke to the combination of “longest distance a runner can run flat out” and “relatively high heat index” and talked about how it has ten times the heat stroke rate of races like the Twin Cities half and full marathon that is also run in the summer.
So that explains why there really are not that many people in the seeded group – probably less than a thousand out of 15,000 entrants, and they started them in a block all at once. Then they started the 8 minute pack, which is where I was running. The 8 minute pack probably had about 3000 or 4000 people in it before the 9 minute pack, and what they did is they allowed about a thousand people to start and then cut the group off sharply as it approached the starting line by a volunteer crew with ropes so that it would “pulse.” Each group of 1000 runners was given a two minute window until the next group was released. I believe I was at the tail end of the second group of 1000 runners in the 8 minute block, and I wish I had been in the front of the third group of 1000 runners instead.
Last year, I wrote about what it was like to run the Army 10 Miler, a race where I spent the entire ten mile distance trying to weave around other runners as they were trying to weave around me. The first two miles of Falmouth were similar. Nonetheless, I was “faster” than the average runner in my group. Falmouth reports how many runners you pass during various segments of the race and I ended up passing twice as many people as passed me (so, if I passed 50 people, then only 25 faster runners passed me). This is unusual for me. Usually I start where I imagine an 8:15 or 8:20 pace to be and let more people pass me than vice versa. This time I started 2/3 of the way back in the 8 minute pack and passed more than otherwise, and I finished at an 8:58 pace overall. This means that the folks in the 8 minute block as a whole overestimated their performance on a hot summer day more than I did. I thank my training in Virginia and Barbados for that.
A word about that.
Because I’ve been training for a marathon, I have been running distances longer than 7 miles, and I have also been running in Virginia where I wake up in the morning and it’s 80 degrees out at 6a.m. I went to Barbados in early July where the conditions were stunningly similar to Falmouth as well – low 80s, direct hard sunshine, running immediately along the coast. And finally, my usual topology consists of running hills – half mile rises of a couple hundred feet in elevation followed by a similar drop. Falmouth in comparison consists of repeated 20 to 40 foot rises with similar drops and a few miles of wide open pavement in broad sunshine along the beach.
So, I took off with my fellow runners through the woods at the beginning, over the drawbridge, around a hard corner, up around a headland past a lighthouse, and then by Mile 1 out onto an open beach for a mile. After Mile 2, we were in the woods for a mile or two and then along a swamp. By the end of the wooded section, nature began calling but it wasn’t until the swamp where I could discretely duck into the weeds costing me 45 seconds. I took water at the first water stop at mile 2 and then took a second cup and dumped it over my head. I did this continuing for mile 3, and then for mile 4 – the only Gatorade stop – I also took water, only water (usually I always take Gatorade) and dumped more over my head. Around Mile 3, you come out along the beach again which is a break from the rolling up and down they have in the woods, but unfortunately it is also a break from the shade they have in the woods. This lasts until about Mile 5 and they skip a water stop because of it (no cups disposed on the road in the swamp for ecological reasons), but between Mile 5 and the finish there are three water stops. At one, I took three cups of water, two to dump over my head and one to drink.
It was a little after mile 5 in fact where I really, really wanted to stop, just like clockwork, because I was overheating. I told myself I would push through until the turn around the channel in Falmouth and then take a walk break, and I’m glad I talked myself into not walking at that point because an oasis appeared. This is where I took three cups of water, and this is also where I was doused by numerous hoses and sprinklers. In fact, at a lot of points on the course, people were standing out in front of their houses with garden hoses spraying any runners who wanted it. Some even had swamp coolers hooked up and some had sprinklers as well. That spot after Mile 5 was enough to keep me going, though, and it’s all I needed. I pushed through to the 6 Mile mark in Falmouth Heights where there is a big round painted pot ten feet wide with a big 6 in the center in the middle of the street. After Mile 6, you continue along the ferry channel towards the beach and then by the yacht club the road comes to an end and you take a hard left onto the coast road at about 6.5. Then you climb for a quarter of a mile and if you are not expecting this it will do you in entirely. I powered up that hill knowing it was there, but then I didn’t realize that it doesn’t immediately drop off when you crest it. Instead, for another tenth of a mile, it still climbs but very slowly. But I kept running even though I couldn’t believe it at that point; I was burning up. Then, when it began to take the downhill plunge, I picked up my pace. I passed the 7 mile point and I sped up to close to a 7 minute pace for the final tenth of a mile, finished and came roaring in.
The first thing I did when I finished aside from stop running was text an expletive to my girlfriend in Ireland. She responded back nearly instantly, “What’s wrong? Are you okay???” Yes, I’m awesome! I just ran 7.1 miles on a hot day!
Last year I ran a 20 miler in the woods in Baltimore County. It was hotter, but it was downhill in the shade. Two years ago in August I ran a 12 miler in Baltimore City. Also mostly downhill, and a bit more shade – it was overcast. This was hotter. Was it tougher? When it was over, it felt perfect. I pushed myself hard and sure I was miserable here and there but it was pretty amazing. It has amazing crowd support and it’s pretty clear that the community absolutely loves the race. I would say I have never enjoyed the crowd along a race course more, and then meanwhile the entire course is absolutely spectacularly beautiful with the beach, the woods, the houses, and the trees. And what history.
Next year I’ll do it again. Well, we’ll see.