This marathon was meant to be an experiment.
|Photo credit: John Tran|
Eight weeks ago, I raced the Survival of the Shawangunks (SOS) Triathlon. It was my "A" race of the season, which means it was the race where I cared most about doing my best. I put all of my physical and emotional energy into preparing for it, which for me meant that the fallout after the big day was significant. It always is.
I know full well that fitness doesn't just "vanish" after a few days (or a few weeks) off. Yet somehow, perhaps because I put so much mental and emotional energy into these races, when I try to return to training, it is an uphill battle. I say all of this because after SOS, I took a week to recover (and heal the mega-blisters on my feet), a week to ease back into bodily movement, and the next thing I knew, I had six weeks until the NYC Marathon—and it felt like I was starting from square one. This was, of course, untrue; I had built plenty of fitness over the course of triathlon training. It just wasn't the "durability" fitness forged from twelve-mile workouts or twenty-mile long runs.
So the experiment was this: How well could I translate my "overall" fitness into marathon-specific fitness in six weeks? And really, I only had four weeks, because tapering for a marathon is a two-week affair. You have to let the body really heal and stock up on glycogen before you push it for 26.2 miles!
To make this endeavor even more complex, my work life was really becoming an issue. Big projects were ramping up, and every client seemed to need increasing amounts of time and attention. Ultimately this meant I sacrificed the "little things" in training. I continued to do my pre-run warmup routine (getting older comes to demand this) and did push-ups and planks two or three times a week, but over those six weeks, I failed to lift a single weight, and I committed maybe half an hour in total to drill/form work. I did a brief recovery routine most nights before bed, but I no longer counted the hours of sleep I would get before a workout or stressed over what I was eating.
Suffice to say, it was an imperfect buildup. I knew I didn't have enough miles in my legs. I felt lucky to have squeezed in a single twenty-mile run, whereas before other marathons of late, I've done at least three runs of that length. When someone would ask me, "What finishing time are you hoping for?" I replied that I would be satisfied with breaking three hours. Yes, I was hoping to run a bit faster, but what I absolutely did not want to do was feel pressured (by myself) to go out at a pace I could not sustain and have a miserable race. I ran this marathon back in 2013 in a time of 3:18:53, and all I remember is the struggle-fest that was Fifth Avenue. I wanted some new memories.
And then there was the race.
For starters, I forgot how steep the Verrazzano Bridge is. My first mile was 7:15. The second was 6:08. I'll let you guess which was "up" and which was "down."
Coming into Brooklyn, I felt a wave disappointment. Where were the crowds? A few people were scattered on street corners here and there, but it felt nothing like the bedlam I recalled from 2013. (Fortunately, happy chaos was awaiting just a few miles down the road.)
After the first 5k, my nerves calmed down and I settled in with E___ and V___. E___ is my teammate; she had just run the Boston marathon and was hoping to improve her time from that race. I figured if I could help get her within striking distance, that would be a good use of my run. I had no idea what time V___, who I'd encountered at other NYC races, was intending to run, but the fact that she came back to us in the third mile and announced that she needed to rein in the pace seemed like a good sign. We became a pack of three.
Shortly after our pack formed, a tall, overenthusiastic guy named K___ pulled up alongside us and announced that he was hoping to "set the world record" for the number of high-fives on the course. This may sound sweet, and in another context we might have humored him, but then he continued to try and make conversation ("What are your names? Where are you from?") while proceeding to veer in front of us so we had to stutter-step to keep from tripping over him. I could read the same thoughts behind each of our polite, strained smiles: Go away. Eventually he did.
Around the 10k mark, my left foot started to throb. This is a familiar sensation I've battled for several years. After doctor's visits, x-rays, MRIs, and physical therapy, the long and short of it is that I have a neuroma (an inflamed nerve), and the best I can hope to do is "manage it." This summer gave me the longest pain-free reprieve I've had, but in those few weeks of marathon training, the neuroma reared its ugly head. I had been hoping I could get through a good chunk of the race before it became a problem, but alas, here we were. Luckily (or not), I have experience mentally preparing for this pain—I've had to learn how to expect and accept it in every one of my last three marathons (the Olympic trials and my qualifying marathon included). And so when it started to feel like I had a golf ball emerging from the underside of my foot, I heaved an inward sigh and began the process of diverting my attention.
|Photo credit: Ben Gross|
Because I was running with E___ and V___, my attention was consumed by making sure we all had enough space. It takes no small amount of coordination to dodge NYC's numerous potholes and snatch tiny sloshing paper cups out of volunteers' hands, all while speeding up or slowing down to make room for your running companions. All in all, we did a fairly good job, right up until we reached First Avenue. That's the point in the race when the crowds get insane. The noise is pressing and constant, and it's virtually impossible not to get swept up, at least a little bit. I know better and I still dropped a 6:30 mile heading into the Bronx. This is when I lost E___. Someone hopped in to run with her, and I thought, Well, I guess she has what she needs now. This would be our point of departure: she'd run her race, and I'd run mine.
V___ and I stayed together until we hit the Williams Avenue Bridge. (Yes, another bridge. There are five of them in total.) By the time I was in the Bronx, I was alone.
It was not the best part of the course to run alone, because I knew the pain was coming for me on Fifth Avenue, and I was still wondering if I'd gone out a tad fast. I had intended to take the race out in 6:50/mile pace, cut down a bit at the halfway point, and then try to hammer home the last 10k. By mile 20, I knew there was going to be no "hammering home." If I could sustain the pace I was going, that would be a success.
|Photo credit: Kiersten Johnston|
Fifth Avenue is painful because it is uphill. If you were to look at it, you'd barely notice, and if you were to stroll down the sidewalk, you'd be hard-pressed to call it a hill. At mile 23 of a marathon as challenging as New York, however, that slight incline makes you want to chop your legs off and beat someone with them. It hurts. And I was hurting good when I saw a woman up ahead of me in a backwards baseball cap. She looks fast, I thought. I probably won't catch her.
She also didn't look like she was hurting the way I was. As we ran down the street, she kept lifting her arms, trying to get the crowds—which were irritatingly quiet—to pump us up. I found myself joining the effort, giving a double thumbs-up as I ran in the hopes that these people would give us some energy. Why were they standing there if they weren't going to cheer?!
When we turned into Central Park, I felt a wash of relief. This was familiar territory. I knew this road. I had run it many, many times. I knew its dips and its divots, and the fact that it would eventually veer downhill. I was very much looking forward to that.
|Photo credit: Emilia Benton's husband|
Those miles in Central Park feel like the end of the race. It feels like because you know where you are, and because you know where the finish line is in relation to where you are, you're nearly done. But you are not. You have to leave the park and go back onto Fifth Avenue for a little more uphill agony before going back into the park for one final, proper hill. I forgot about that part.
It felt like I was running so slowly I was moving backwards, and yet I'd left baseball-cap girl behind in the park. Turning onto Fifth Avenue, I came up alongside another girl. I fully expected her to surge, yet somehow my leaden legs carried me past her. I saw another one up ahead. Get behind her, I told myself. Get closer. I passed her, too.
I had wanted to race the end of this marathon, and here I was, racing it. But it didn't feel like racing. It felt like "surviving better." As I entered the final stretch, I survived better than a man I had seen at the beginning of the race, who had asked whether it was okay to cross to the other side of the street to see his family. (I'd said yes, so apparently I'd been right!). I survived better than a tall man with a weird gait and a short man sweating profusely. I tried with all my might to lift my knees, because the finish line was right there. I came up alongside a man in a neon green shirt, but there were still too many yards left, I'd kicked too soon. Right at the finish line, Mr. Neon Green Shirt shouldered past me.
"Good job," I grunted as I catapulted over the finish line, wobbled to a stop, and put my hands on my knees.
Didn't want to get chicked, I thought. And I smiled wide for the camera.
351 / 24,944
43 / 11,394
10 / 1,603