Zach Hawkins
Apr 5 · 12 min read

I first ran the Shamrock Marathon back in 2012. It was my first marathon and one I’ll never forget, but for all the wrong reasons. Since then I’ve run nine marathons and I’ve learned something new with each race. For my 10th marathon, I decided to go back to Virginia Beach for a little redemption.

My Shamrock Marathon experiences in 2012 and 2019 could not have been any different. In fact, each marathon I have run has had its own story to tell. Some have been moments of triumph, while others have been experiences that have sucked the life out of my body.

The 2012 Shamrock Marathon was a lesson in how to run a bad marathon. I decided in the first mile that I should go out faster than I had been training. I paid the price dearly, enduring a death march in the last 6 miles of the race. I finished with a time of 3:33.

Seven years later, I was toeing the line of the 2019 edition of the race. It had been almost two years since my last marathon (2017 Boston), another race that ended with a thump. Paired with my crash and burn at the 2016 Boston Marathon, I was on a losing streak. After a long hiatus due to grad school, I hired Coach Lisa Reichmann at Run Farther and Faster to get me into shape and try again at breaking 3 hours in the marathon. While the original target was the Rehoboth Marathon at the end of 2018, an injury pushed my goal race to the 2019 Shamrock.

The months leading up to the race were good. My leg injury went away, and my fitness was coming back close to the level it was in 2014–2015, when I was hitting my best marathon times. All the vital signs were there for a sub 3 race — it was just up to me to hit that mark and execute on race day. The weather would not be an excuse — forecast highs were in the 40s with a north wind between 10–15 mph, which is typical for the race.

Miles 0–3 (42nd Street to Shore Dr)

The opening salvo of this 26-mile journey was all about calibration. I used the “average lap pace” feature on my watch as a pace calibration tool. I experimented with this during my last two tempo runs at Hains Point, and I’ll say there were some mixed reviews. The auto lap feature was registering about 5 seconds per mile longer than actual, so my first 5K was also the slowest of the race. This may have been a good thing, because it kept me honest and I was able to slowly increase my pace and get back on track.

Coach Lisa gave me time ranges of where I should be every three miles. I wrote these splits on my arm, and they were very useful — it made me aware that I was slightly slow but not wildly off course.

One cool thing that happened: I passed Meb Keflezighi, American marathon hero and winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon. He was pacing the 1:35 half marathon group. Some guy was asking him about his kids, and I wondered if he ever was annoyed at having to make small talk with strangers for 13 miles.

Miles 3–6 (Shore Dr to Fort Story)

This is one of the quietest parts of the course, making its way through an uninhabited wooded area that bisects First Landing State Park and the Army post at Fort Story. I took my first gel just before the entrance to Fort Story. Passing mile 6, I was just outside my designated zone of 40–41 minutes. Crossing at 41:26, I knew I was slightly slow — but was also aware that I could gain some time back once we turned to the south out of Fort Story and gained the tailwind.

Miles 6–9 (Fort Story)

Once you make the turn into Fort Story, you are exposed to the wind again. The wind was coming at a steady 15 mph from the northeast, which means I was running into a straight headwind for the first part of this segment. Knowing I was a bit slower than I wanted to be, I tried to pick it up a little. I was mindful to draft and not expose myself to the wind.

This part of the course is unique in that it runs right through an Army post — with security dispersed along the course. At one point, someone’s bib was covered, and the runner was almost pulled off the course until he lifted his shirt to show he was a runner. They were not messing around. At mile 9, I came through in 1:02:02, two seconds above my high-end mark of 1:02. I could finally relax; I knew I had made it back to my goal pace.

Miles 9–12 (Fort Story to 50th Street)

At this point, I could see the large pack of the 3:00 pace group in front of me. They were hard to miss — it was a distinctive gaggle dropped in among scattered runners. Though they were about 15–20 seconds ahead of me, I knew that if I stayed on pace I would reach them eventually. During this stretch, the wind was at my back, and I knew I was picking up speed. I switched back to my lap pace setting on my watch, and it was reading in the high 6:30s. Again, I knew this was off (this time showing I was too fast). But it did let me know that I was probably hovering in the 6:40s, which was fine with the tailwind. Another example of the watch not being gospel, but a useful tool to have in your toolbox.

I took another Gu just after mile 11. At mile 12, I came through in 1:22:18, under my threshold of 1:23. I had clearly picked up speed during this stretch with a pace generally in the mid 6:40s.

Miles 12–15 (50th Street to Rudee Inlet Bridge)

Once we made the turn onto Atlantic Avenue at 40th street, the wind became an issue. Although it was a tailwind for most of the trip south from Fort Story, it was coming from all directions between the hotels on Atlantic. This lasted until the turn onto the boardwalk at around 23rd Street. It wasn’t until we came out on the boardwalk that the tailwind resumed. But I did notice that the wind was starting to come more from the northeast and off the water.

During this stretch, I crossed the half marathon point at just under 1:30, putting me right back on pace for a sub-3 finish. After the turn on to the boardwalk, I had finally caught up with the elusive 3:00 pace group, many happily in conversation. I would be glued to this pace group for the rest of the race. I came through mile 15 in 1:42:32, right on pace.

Miles 15–18 (Rudee Inlet Bridge to General Booth Blvd)

This stretch started with the first of two climbs up the Rudee Inlet Bridge, a 40-foot rise in elevation. I handled the climb pretty well but was dreading the return trip up the bridge that would come at mile 23, prime bonk territory.

These miles were characterized by the pack running of the 3:00 pace group. The feeling was strange — I haven’t raced in packs since my high school cross country days. In fact, this was the first race where I ever ran with a pace group for any extended amount of time. I had two main reasons I wanted to stick with this group: First, quite obviously, my goal was to finish under 3 hours. This pace leader told us that he would promise to get us in at 2:59:30, so I knew that if I kept pace with them or stayed ahead, I would clear my goal. Second, I knew the wind would be an issue once we made the turnaround on General Booth Blvd at mile 18.5. Staying with the pack would allow me to draft and consume less energy — a tip that was driven home by Coach Lisa.

This part of the course is boring — not much crowd support and away from the resort area. I came through mile 18 at 2:02:57, just under my goal of 2:03. There was no margin for error the rest of the way.

Miles 18–21 (General Booth Blvd to Camp Pendleton)

The pain train was leaving the station at this point. My legs were starting to fatigue. I had pondered picking up the pace at mile 20, but quickly ditched that idea because I was already on the edge. Once we hit the turnaround, the wind was blasting us in the face. There were about 12 of us left in the pace group, and the pace group leader was quite adamant that we drop in behind him to draft (to which I was quite appreciative). At this point I dumped my gloves and hat and hunkered down for the hardest part of the race.

Most of this stretch winds through the Camp Pendleton National Guard base, which was a ghost town. Where Fort Story at least had soldiers lining the road, no such presence was in place here. Around mile 21 the pace group really started to thin out. I came through mile 21 at 2:23:28, right on pace.

Headed for the finish line.

Miles 21–26.5 (Camp Pendleton to Finish)

Leaving Camp Pendleton and headed north to the finish, the inevitable pain that comes in a marathon was slowly arriving. There was no “bonk” feeling, thankfully, which in past races (Boston in 2016 and 2017) reared its head about this time of the race. I was simply feeling fatigue. The second climb up the Rudee Inlet Bridge just before mile 23 was like scaling K2. As I crested the bridge, I wondered if I could ever survive on a hilly course at this pace. If there were any more hills along the way I may have been toast.

Up to mile 23.5, I had hung with the 3 hour pacer. Our group had dropped to 3 runners, and I was the next one. Mile 23 was my slowest of the race at 7:04. This is typically a bad sign — even the best run marathons can have a bit of a drop for the last 3 miles. I could envision a scenario where I would hold on for “dear life” and at least get the last miles in at 7-minute pace.

This was where I called upon my mental training to save me. I tried something different this training cycle. For every marathon pace or tempo run, I would shut down my headphones and just stay in my head. I would envision the last two miles of every tempo run as the last two miles of the Shamrock. I would even put myself visually on the boardwalk. At mile 24 of the race, I hit the red button and put this strategy into work.

Just like in training, I started picking landmarks and running to them. I focused on increasing my cadence (painful as it was). Since we were on the boardwalk, I would pick a hotel in the distance. Green hotel. Red hotel. Ugly hotel. On and on. This strategy worked — within a half mile I had already caught up to the 3:00 pacer that I earlier feared would leave me behind. In fact, by the time we turned off the boardwalk and back onto Atlantic Avenue just before mile 25, I had passed him. My mile 24–25 time recovered to 6:49 — I was pleased I was able to get myself back under control. As is typical with endurance running, the brain wants to quit well before the body succumbs. The training of my mind in my tempo workouts paid huge dividends on the course.

The last 1.2 miles of the race was a blur. I kept my strategy of picking off hotels going — but I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I also had moments where I wanted to give up and slow down. I was on the edge of breakdown at that point. I saw my wife, mom and dad in the last mile, which provided a lift. At mile 25.8 or so, you make the turn back onto the boardwalk and head south to the finish. There, I dropped the hammer to a sub 6 pace and crossed the finish line at 2:59:17, breaking three hours in the marathon for the first time since 2015, and qualifying for the 2020 Boston Marathon.

Post-race

It was a long walk through the finish line chute. I was in a tremendous amount of pain — but not enough to send me to the medical tent (as was the case in the 2012 Shamrock). I thanked the pace leader for his motivation during the race — he looked like he just finished a warm up jog. I was thankful to see my family at the end. My mom was sick but still came out to see me. I really appreciated the family coming. Spectating a marathon isn’t the most entertaining thing to do (for sane people, at least).

The best “smile” I could muster as my body rejected me post-race. Here with my wife!

Overall takeaways

I was extremely pleased with how the race went. My coach, Lisa Reichmann, set me up with a terrific race plan, which I was thankfully able to follow to the letter (visit Julie and Lisa’s website at http://www.runfartherandfaster.com/ and hire them now!). I never ran with a pace group before — part of me wonders if the power of the group helped keep me on pace, and if I would have been able to do it if I was running alone.

I do believe that going out slightly slower in the first 10K (roughly at 6:55 pace) helped me with a strong last 10K. I have now broken 3 hours in the marathon three times, and each time I ran the first half slower than the second. Any seasoned marathoner will tell you that is the ticket to a PR every time — I should probably start following that advice more often.

Due to my injury in the fall, my training cycle was less than 3 months. I was concerned that my weekly mileage (which topped out at 50 miles) was not enough — but it did not end up being an issue. Huge thanks again to Coach Lisa, who was an excellent coach and was not afraid to push back when I needed it (especially when I was going too fast on long runs). I worked with her since the beginning of the summer, and it was a long journey to get me back in shape after taking a year off from serious running.

I also want to thank the Broderick to Boston running group — running with them on Saturday mornings helped make the training cycle a little easier.

Finally, big thanks to my wife for putting up with Saturday mornings away from the house and the occasional stop coming back from a WVU football game to run in the mountains.

My next major challenge will be the 2020 Boston Marathon, a course that has defeated me more times than not. I still haven’t figured out how to master the course, and I’m looking forward to another crack next year.

Lessons learned

· I wore a Tyvek disposable painting suit to that start line to protect from the cold. This was a good choice. It kept me reasonably warm in the corral and it was simple to pull off 5 minutes before the start of the race. Thanks to Owen Graham and Dan DiFonzo for this tip. You can buy it for 10 bucks at Home Depot.

· My taper was much different this time around. Coach Lisa had me doing MP and high intensity tempo runs all the way up until 5 days before the race. I have no doubt this helped me on race day. In the past, I have taken it easy during the taper, perhaps too easy. This sharpening phase put me in peak shape when I got to the starting line.

· If you need a clean bathroom with no line an hour before the race, go to the Harris Teeter at 28th and Arctic!

· Be careful using the “lap pace” feature on your Garmin and use it as a guide only.

· Pace groups are your friend if the wind is expected to be more than 10–15 mph.

· Train your mind. Doing this during my tempo and MP runs turned a 3:03 marathon into a sub 3 finish. In future marathons, I’ll start this strategy earlier — perhaps at mile 22.

Zach Hawkins

Random musings about running and other things

Zach Hawkins

Written by

Organization Development Consultant. Runner.

Zach Hawkins

Random musings about running and other things

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