Dropping down in race distance is a double-edged sword. There’s a mix of disappointment, failure and regret — but also a little bit of relief.
When I admitted, six weeks before the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon, that I hadn’t run more than 15 miles for a long run, the decision was fairly painless: run the half.
It is possible I could have run the marathon very slowly, maybe walked some, and finished. But honestly, I don’t want to just finish another marathon — this would have been my seventh — I want to race it.
With that option off the table, I made the smart but bittersweet decision to drop down.
Still, when I ran into acquaintances at the race expo, I had to shrug off the anguish of not running the marathon. That feeling grew when I pinned on my marathon bib race morning, knowing I would be veering toward the finish when the races split at mile 9.
Louisville weather did, as usual, it’s own thing on race day. With temperatures in the mid-80s the week before the race (Boston week), they suddenly dropped into highs of the mid-60s race week.
But weather forecasters kept predicting Saturday’s temperature closer to 80 … then modified to to cooler, but possible rain. Then possible storms.
In its typical defiant way, the weather showed the forecasters wrong. It was partly cloudy and 65 for the start. By noon, it was sunny and 80, but it didn’t rain.
I started the race tucked in with a set of marathon pacers and hung with them for a few miles. Their pace fit my plan for the first part of the race and I hoped it would keep me from going out too fast like I did at the 10 miler a month before.
After the fourth mile split, though, the pacers were 10 seconds slower than goal pace, so I left them behind.
Organizers of the Derby marathon and mini-marathon changed the course last year resulting in a much, much faster half-marathon course. Many speculate it could generate some record times if the right people show up.
The revised race course still includes a loop around the Churchill Downs infield — be forewarned, it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.
I’m a Kentucky native and I love Churchill Downs, twin spires and all. But I don’t want to run through the infield.
Here’s why: you get to the racetrack at mile 8. The outside of the racetrack is beautiful, the grandstands are inspiring, the twin spires are awesome.
You don’t see any of that.
Instead, you run through the concrete concourse, dodge some structural columns and hot dog cars, then run down a steep ramp in the dark. The ramp takes you under the track itself, and immediately turns into a steep uphill.
Then it’s time for a lap around the infield — full of vendor tents and beer carts, some of which are in the course itself. You can’t see the grandstand and you can only see the twin spires if you twist your neck and run sideways. Horse sightings are rare.
Then it’s back down and up the ramp again.
This year, those ramps seemed to do me in. The angle of the ramps is so extreme it might as well be like running up and down stairs.
At that point, my hip flexors decided they had had enough. I stopped three times in the last four miles to stretch them out, adding about two minutes onto my time. Without the stops, I probably would’ve hit my goal pace.
I blame it on Churchill Downs.
Despite my complaints, I am a fan of the new course in general. It finally has the start and finish in the same area — before you had to take a bus between the two — and the finish line is part of the Derby Fest-a-Ville. Part carnival, part concert, part beer tent, it makes a great place to meet up with friends and family after the race. It encourages people to stay, celebrate and cheer.
If you haven’t made it to the Derby City to run, I think now is the time. I just hope when you come, you get to see Churchill Down’s from the outside, not the infield.