Running on Tilt

NYC Marathon race report

Best of times, worst of times

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Running up First Avenue during the New York City Marathon on Sunday, I thought I saw the 19-mile marker ahead. As I got closer, I realized that the 9 was actually an 8. It was like sipping curdled milk. But though the psyche is delicate at that stage of the race, I quickly recovered and approached the remaining 8 miles as a tempo run, like those I had completed with CPTC on Thursday nights over the preceding months. My primary goal of running 2:55 was unrealistic, but breaking the three-hour barrier was still a worthy and formidable challenge. At that moment it defined the drama of the race, and with it the possibility of personal glory.

In John Parker’s “Again to Carthage,” Frank Shorter is noted as saying that every one of his marathons, even the good ones, featured a bad patch. My first bad patch on Sunday took place on the uphill of the Queensboro Bridge, fifteen miles in. But I thought of Shorter’s words, and I was able to recover on the downhill and into Manhattan, keeping pace with those around me. It was a thrill to still be racing at this point, in contrast to the last time I had run New York in 2006, when I had been toast before even reaching the halfway mark.

Shortly after the actual 19-mile mark, as we approached the Willis Avenue Bridge, I felt a wave of dizziness and slowed down, before recovering again, though at a slightly slower pace than I had been running before. At the twenty mile mark, I was at 2:17, still on pace for 3 hours, and at the 21-mile mark, I was at 2:24 something. There was still hope.

The approach to the marathon preached by the track club is 10-10-10. Run the first 10 miles a bit slower than target pace, the next 10 at target pace, and the final 10K a bit faster than target pace. The general idea is to run more conservatively than you otherwise would, allowing you to finish with dignity and to avoid hemorrhaging minutes per mile towards the end. When teammate Glen Redpath warned about the first two miles of the race, it fit perfectly with the general theory and solidified my approach.

In the first level of the green corral behind the local elites, I serendipitously ran into a teammate named Gerd, whose goal was also 2:55. The pre-race chatter helped the time pass. Soon, though a little after the official starting time, came the thud of the cannon, and twenty-five seconds later my race officially began. A cold wind blew across the bridge, and you could hear the sound of many bibs flapping. I held back as Gerd and others surged ahead.

Once on Fourth Avenue the sun trumped the wind. I warmed up and focused on form, imaging myself running like Marilson Gomes dos Santos, if not quite so fast. I reeled in teammate and work colleague Chris Donnelly, whose goal was sub-3. We ran together on Fourth Avenue and up Lafayette Avenue. On the downhill we passed Robert Reese, whose blog tobadwater makes for good reading, and whom I knew would likely run sub-3. Shortly after turning onto Bedford Avenue Chris dropped back. Near the Williamsburg Bridge, where a number of my sister’s friends and where my wife and son were cheering, it all seemed to make sense. The race had been entirely fun.

As I had anticipated, the fans in Williamsburg were raucous, and there were far greater crowds in Long Island City than there had been in 2006.

Ryan Hall’s advice for running New York, on the back page of the Nissan marathon booklet, runs counter to conventional wisdom. Hall says, “…everyone told me to be cautious on First Avenue since it’s easy to get carried away by the loud crowd. I was so cautious, I didn’t allow myself to have fun and ride the energy. Next time, I’ll enjoy it more, and let myself run a little faster.”

I appreciated the crescendo of sound coming off the Queensboro Bridge this time. I steeled my resolve on First Avenue, with a second wind after the difficult uphill on that bridge. And though the spectators lining that street seem to be rooting for their special someones, while the spectators in Brooklyn and Queens seem to be roaring for everyone, the relatively flat terrain, and simply knowing you are on First Avenue is somehow a lift. Or was a lift, until that eighteen mile marker, which is also about the time that Robert Reese passed me back. But, I told myself, Reese had run 2:53 at Boston, and so he likely had room under three hours to spare.

The twenty-one mile mark, the 2:24 something, was the last time during that race that I was on target to break three. There was no single moment of hitting a wall, there were simply diminishing returns on the feeling-better parts, until there was just a steady state of struggle, with sharp back and foot pains thrown in. Before the 22-mile mark I felt a hand on my shoulder – it was my teammate and colleague Chris, whom I had run with in Brooklyn. The extent of my deceleration became obvious to me at this point, as there was no question of keeping pace with Chris. I thought of how earlier in the race, while running with Chris, I had wanted to tell him how good I felt, but how I had bitten my tongue so as not to jinx that feeling.

I knew that another teammate, Gregg, would be at Marcus Garvey Park, and it saddened me that he would see me in this condition. Prior to the race I had envisioned asking him at Marcus Garvey Park who was winning the race, as certainly he would have been there to see the pros. When the time came I couldn’t summon the energy. But as Gregg gamely cheered me on, telling me I looked good when I knew and I knew that he knew that I didn’t, a funny thing happened. A guy running just ahead of me turned around and said “Brenn? Brenn Jones? It’s Gordon Roble, from Swarthmore.” Lo and behold there was Gordon Roble, with whom I had run cross-country at Swarthmore, and from the looks of things, he wasn't moving that quickly either.

The rest of the race was spent trying to keep Gordon in sight. At one point he walked, but then he ran again and by Central Park South I had lost sight of him. A guy dressed as Minny Mouse passed me, but another man dressed in a pink unitard, who had passed me earlier, was walking and came into view. I was thankful to hit Columbus Circle and of course the finish line, mustering the most meager of kicks. After a quarter mile of walking, I was slammed into a wheelchair and into the medical tent with crippling pain in my lower back and a low body temperature. I’d soon experience the worst leg cramps of my life.

Among those finishing before me were Gerd in 2:57:15. Robert Reese in 2:58:09, Chris in 3:02:07, Gordon in 3:06:58, and Minnie Mouse in 3:07:26. My time of 3:08:12 is a PR, beating the 3:11:58 I had run in 2002. It was about halfway between my train-wreck of a race in 2006 and my goal of 2:55. I beat the guy in the pink unitard, who ran 3:11:19.

I set the goal of 2:55 for a few reasons. In workouts with the team, I run with men and women who have posted times in the low 2:50s. Two fifty-five is obviously below three, which is a natural goal. Two fifty-five also happens to be the qualifying time for the New York City Marathon. And finally 2:55 would be a bit faster than my friend Dan’s father ran when he was alive, rest in peace.

As Captain Hindsight, the latest superhero on the comedy series South Park, would say, 2:55 was too ambitious a goal. Or if I had held back more early in the race, maybe I could have finished faster. But Captain Hindsight, as the show makes clear, is an ass.

Right after a marathon, running another one is not the most appealing thought. It is a hard race. I would like to experience what it is like, however, to run through Central Park at the end of that race with a little momentum. The half-marathon qualifying time for New York is 1:23. Perhaps if I can run that, I’ll give three, or even 2:55, another shot.