Friday, November 15, 2013

Race Report: New York City Marathon

There I was, standing on the left side of 1st Ave in the middle of the New York City Marathon, having just descended the Queensboro Bridge around Mile 16, unable to run.  The Queensboro is often referred to as the most difficult of the bridges in the New York City Marathon course for a number of reasons: 

1) It is the only place on the course where there are no spectators, so you are on your own;
2) Having already run 15 rolling miles including the Verrazano and Pulaski Bridges, your legs are already tired before starting the climb; 
3) Next to the Verrazano, which you run with fresh legs, the Queensboro is the 2nd largest, so you need to save something to get over it with relative ease.   
So after descending off the Queensboro, I entered the wall of noise that awaits runners as we take a sharp downhill off the bridge and a left  turn onto 1st Ave, only to see my race seemingly slip right away from me at the exact moment I had imagined myself turning up the intensity.  For 16 miles, NYC was the loudest, most amazing race I’ve ever participated in.  But at that exact moment, I heard nothing except the curse words that were coming out of my mouth as my left hamstring abruptly decided its day was done.  Literally thousands of people were yelling at me to keep going, but all I could do was hold a slight stretch for a few seconds and attempt to jog off in the hopes that my body would simply snap back.

But let me back up first and explain how I got to that point, because there is way too much to say about this race.  In so many ways, it was one of the most amazing races I’ve ever experienced.  But it was also disappointment in my eyes, because I wasn’t able to soak in as much of the race as I would have liked due to my predicament at Mile 16.

The race weekend began much like most out of town races for our family – an insanely early wake up Friday (on the road by 4 am!) to both beat rush hour traffic in the DC/Baltimore area, as well as to ensure Z was able to sleep for most of the ride.  In trying to minimize the time spent in the car, we’ve found its best to simply drive when he is sleeping.  We got up to Brooklyn Friday morning and after unpacking the car, we left go head right over to the expo.  Knowing all too well what a crowded expo can do for one’s patience, let alone with a 1.5 yr old kid in tow, we wanted to get there as soon as possible.  We arrived to find a long snaking line outside the convention center, but it moved very orderly and quickly, so we were inside within only a few minutes.  Kudos to the event staff for being able to make it an easy process, despite the enhanced security presence.  The expo was decent sized, but not as large as one might think for the largest marathon in the world.  I honestly didn’t see many good deals being offered either.  Sadly, some nutritional vendors present weren’t even sampling their products and were simply there to sell and make some money.  Lame and a missed opportunity IMO.  

We walked around to see what else was there, but it wasn’t the kind of place you could spend all day at.  I think we were in and out in about an hour, having spent most of the time shopping and waiting in line (again, a very quickly moving line) to buy some official gear.  The one last place I needed to swing by before leaving was the Saucony area.  I found out a few days earlier that Jeff was working the expo, so I wanted to say hi.  I was surprised to learn that Jeff had a special present for me: the special edition New York City Marathon Saucony Kinvara 4.  I was super excited and honestly was torn as to whether or not to simply wear the shoes in the race, violating the marathoner’s #1 rule: Thou Shalt Not Wear New Shoes On Race Day.  Despite those temptations, I stuck with my plan to use the same Kinvaras I trained in (Kinvara 3), since they’ve worked so well for me this training cycle, having never received a single blister while wearing them.  It was the right call and I knew it, but a hard decision nonetheless.  The rest of the day was spent mostly lounging around, trying to spend minimal time on my feet.

Saturday rolled around and I had 2 goals on the day: 1) Go for a short taper run; and 2) Don’t spend much time on my feet.  Being in NYC, it is nearly impossible to not spend some time on your feet, but I did my best.  We went down to the Brooklyn Piers and while Z played in a park, I went for my short taper run (1 mi easy, 2 x 3:00 at marathon effort for those curious).  I felt like I was flying, which got me even more excited for race day, as I could tell the taper had worked its magic.  I felt fit, fast, and ready to race.  Of course, then it hit me that while Saturday’s weather was near perfection (50-60F, no wind), Sunday would be anything but.  The forecast was calling for temperatures in the 40s, but with 15-20 mph sustained winds.  Having already raced an equally windy course this year, I knew too well what that might mean.  Regardless, I remained positive with the mindset that I cannot control the weather, only how I react.  I prepared myself mentally for a tough day, but was hopeful that the crowds might block some of the winds.  While the winds remained in the back of my mind (I might have checked 15 weather sites and their hourly forecasts), I focused my thoughts in remaining relaxed.  I’ve put in the training, I’ve raced in similar conditions, and I knew in my head that I was ready for this race.

Race Day
Super early and I'm rockin my throwaways
Sunday morning couldn’t have come any sooner.  With so much anticipation and the excitement of a big city cheering us on, I didn’t sleep much.  In fact, I woke up well before my alarm, due to it being daylight savings and had to stare up into darkness thinking about my race.  But when it finally came time to get up, I threw everything on (including my kids sized XL throwaway ski jacket) and headed out the door.  I signed up for the Staten Island Ferry, which was only 1 stop on the subway from where I was staying.  So I took it over and followed the masses heading in the same direction.  I couldn’t help but notice the winds already starting to whip around.  According to the forecast, the winds were to get more intense as the day pressed on.  Again, I told myself that I cannot control it, so I just focused on soaking in the whole experience.  

After waiting about 20 minutes in the terminal, we boarded the ferry and were graced with views of the Statue of Liberty to the west and the Verrazano to the east.  It was a pretty quick ride, but the views helped pass the nervous time.  Once we exited the ferries, it was time for the next leg, the buses.  We simply kept walking along the endless line of buses queued up for transport until being told to get on.  After another 20 minute ride, we finally arrived at Fort Wadsworth.  It was here where I first felt the heightened security presence (and more wind).  As our bus pulled up to our designated spot, we were swarmed by dozens of NYPD stationed at each bus exit to check our bibs and make sure we only brought in a clear plastic bag provided by the race.  As we passed through each checkpoint, we’d come across another, and another, and another.  Though it wasn’t crowded at the time I was heading through this process (approximately 6 am), I would imagine either they didn’t continue with that scrutiny later on, or there were incredibly long lines as a result.  Either way, I felt safe and content to show my credentials each and every time.  They were there for us and I hoped others going through the same process realized that too.  I’d rather be checked 100 times and feel secure, than walk right in and wonder where all the enhanced security was.  Once through the multiple checkpoints, I finally made my way to the Orange Runners Village, where I’d spend the next four (yes FOUR!) hours.

Big races like NYC know how to make you feel better about the simple fact that we’d have sit queued up in our designated runner’s village for so long.  Dunkin Donuts was there to hand out winter hats for those who didn’t have one, provide coffee, and bagels.  There was also Gatorade and water.  As the hours passed, the crowds within the runners village grew.  It was never packed like sardines, but the line for DD and the port potties was pretty long.  However, since I was in no hurry to go anywhere, I didn’t mind it.  After laying on the ground in my throwaway winter jacket for a while, I finally heard them announce that Corral 1 was now open.  I eventually made my way over by doing a quick jog.  Note that within the Runner’s Village or anywhere, there was no actual place to warm up and run.  While heading over to the corrals, I found a small section of space (maybe 2-3 minutes worth) to slowly jog.  Since it was cold and I had been sitting around for hours, I feared that 1st uphill mile on the Verrazano.  Anyone who knows enough about running marathons well knows that you can’t go from 0-60 in the early miles or else you’ll blow up later.  But without much of a choice, I tried to take any opportunity to get my muscles moving.  Once I got into the corral (numbers 5-000 through 5-999), I really felt like we were packed like sardines.  One end of the corral was lined with porto potties and the remainder of the corral was filled with lines for each of them.  There was virtually no space to sit down otherwise, except for on the ground between the lines.  It was while waiting in line that I finally met Hollie.  We had discussed meeting up prior to the race since we were both targeting similar paces, so I was happy to see her. 

Not too long after meeting up, our corral started moving forward, which meant we were heading toward the start!  We continued to talk and then ran into Susan, who joined our slow walk toward the Verrazano.  As we inched closer toward the bridge, it became real that I was there to run a marathon.  Up until that moment, it was all just a big spectacle.  Stepping foot on that bridge, one I’ve driven over many times previously, gave me the chills.  After Mayor Bloomberg gave his welcome and send off to the Elite Women, it was our time to start the show.  They introduced the Elite Men and before we knew it, it was go time.  The cannon boom caught me by surprise, but I still had about 2 minutes before we actually crossed the line.  Once we made our way up, Frank Sinatra was blasting and Hollie and I went off looking for some open space.

The Race
In my head, I had the course broken up into a number of segments: the Verrazano (Miles 1-2), Brooklyn up to the base of the Pulaski Bridge (3-13), Queens over to the Queensboro Bridge (13-16), 1st Ave to Willis Avenue Bridge (16-20), Bronx to the finish (20-26.2).  Each section had a goal or mental reset associated with it, so my plan was to be in the moment of each segment and not worry about the next until I was in it.  Be in the mile your in.  So that’s how I’ve broken it down below.

Miles 1-2
Pretty sure I'm somewhere in there!
With fresh legs, I never even felt like I was working to run the first mile.  Maybe it was because I was running above an 8:00/mi pace for ¾ of it, but my intent was to take this mile easy.  I knew I’d gain most of the time back in the 2nd mile back down the other side.  For both miles, I simply wanted to remain in control.  It was crowded and I had to weave some, as I didn’t want to give up too much time.  My limit was nothing slower than 8:00/mi, because I didn't want to have to run other parts faster than planned to make up the time.  After that first ¾ mile, the bridge became more flat and I began picking up the pace a bit to come through Mile 1 in 7:50.  Right around this time, the bridge sharply descended and with freshly tapered legs hopped up on adrenaline, many runners ran way too fast.  I would cautiously glance at my watch to make sure I wasn’t falling into the same trap, but my goal here was to stay in control.  I ended up running a 6:40 mile, which is by far the fastest mile I’ve ever run in a marathon, but given the context of running down a large bridge, I felt it was a conservative way to start.  

Miles 3-12
We just met in real life but we're totally holding hands
Mile 3 began as we entered Brooklyn and started the long trek up 4th Ave.  My goal for Mile 3 was to settle into an easy/steady effort, which in my plan was between 7:10-7:15.  We were immediately greeted with crowds and loud music playing nearly every block.  I kept telling myself to don’t let the excitement force my pace, so I’d reign myself in a number of times.  I soaked it all in and crossed Mile 3 in 7:12.  I had lost Hollie in the 1st mile on the Verrazano, but didn’t want her or myself to stress about sticking exactly together since it was pretty crowded and we each needed to run our own races, despite having similar goals.  Sure enough, somewhere during Miles 3-4, she ran up on me and we ran together for the next couple of miles. 

Sneaky uphill stretches through Brooklyn
The course generally trended uphill in the form of extended false flats rather than actual hills, so you felt like it was mostly flat, but it wasn’t.  We both had family expected to be spotting us between Miles 7-8, so we were on the lookout.  Unfortunately, I missed my family, so I passed through without seeing them.  With a 1.5 yr old, I never assume anything, so I figured he didn’t take so well to standing around.  Turned out, at around the exact moment I probably came through, one of the NYPD nearby requested to randomly search my sisters bag.  Oh well, onto the race.

Cruising through Brooklyn
As the miles ticked by, it was cool to see the changing dynamics of the neighborhoods, both in the people spectating as well as the music being played.  Brooklyn was loud.  In my opinion when I came through, louder than any other borough (including 1st Ave in Manhattan).  And while I’d like to think I soaked it all in, the reality is that I spent most of my time looking 3-5 ft in front of me.  Anyone who has driven in NYC knows that they aren’t known for the pristine shape of their roads.  Well when you cram all these people through these streets, everyone has to put their foot somewhere.  I just wanted to make sure the place I put my foot wasn’t a pothole or on top of someone else.  The worst thing that could happen in a race like this is a stupid injury.  So I had to spend much of my time watching the road.  I did make sure every once and a while to look up when I could, which always left me in a better mental state.  Seeing so many people along the course, literally without a gap, gave me one of the most proud feelings to be there running this race.  But I quickly came upon one of the only breaks in crowds, which meant only one thing – the Pulaski Bridge was near.
Headed up the Pulaski Bridge at Mile 13

Miles 13-16
Exiting the crowded masses onto the first of two big bridges gave me a sense of accomplishment.  I was now entering the section of course where I knew it was time to get started to work.  While I never intended the push the pace on the bridges, my goal was to hold steady effort.  I found myself passing quite a few people, a number of which were already cramping.  Based on my research of the course in advance, I never considered the Pulaski Bridge to be a big climb.  But as we started the climb at the foot of it, it sure seemed like it, not to mention the wind that was fully slapping us in the face.  I pressed on and crossed 13.1 in 1:34:28, which was right where I wanted to be.  I was still feeling fresh and I loosened up on the downhill as we entered Queens.  After winding our way through Queens for a short bit, we quickly entered a more industrial stretch that brought us closer to the Queensboro Bridge, which was looming in the distance.  There were still crowds around, but a bit less so than in Brooklyn.  DJs spun music with some fast beats to get us ready to hit the bridge.  I made sure not to push on the climb, so I backed off the effort some.  I was still passing lots of others who appeared to be struggling from the early miles and felt really strong.  While I didn’t have a goal pace on the bridge, my goal was to run it by feel, knowing that I held back.  I felt I did a good job of keeping a steady effort without going too far into the red.  Once we crested the top, we gradually headed downhill.  The one thing I remembered about descending the Queensboro Bridge was that the downhill wasn’t nearly as steep as the uphill, meaning you didn’t get the chance to run equally fast downhill and you had to slow on the uphill.  That is, until we hit the exit ramp off the bridge.  A sharp u turn literally drops you out onto the street, with a quick turn onto 1st Ave and a return to the crowds.

Miles 17-20
My pre-race plan was to get off the bridge feeling relatively good and start to up the pace a bit slightly.  I turned onto 1st Ave to find the streets lined with people screaming (though still less loud than Brooklyn, but with more people) and a wicked headwind.  I haven’t much mentioned the wind, primarily because it was there all day.  It never stood out for me, other than being a nuisance to my overall time goals for the race, but once we hit 1st Ave you could really feel it whipping right into our faces.  As I started to pick up the pace, I quickly received a shockwave down the back of my leg.  Out of nowhere, my hamstring began to tighten up.  I couldn’t believe how good I still felt and was having this happen.  I pulled off to the side of the street to stretch, only to find thousands of people yelling me to get back and run.  Trust me people, I’d be running if I could.  

So there I was, having the best marathon race, feeling better than I’ve ever felt 16 miles into the race, and my hamstring has decided it has had enough.  I started with the usual attempt at slowly running again in the hopes that my body would gradually relax and I’d be able to get back on pace in a mile or two.  Over the next couple of miles, I’d continue to keep running, but would learn that every downhill would cause my hamstring to tighten to the point of having to stop.  Not good when you had every intention of blasting through this section of the course.  I started going into emergency mode and grabbed Gatorade from each and every aid station.  In the past couple of marathons, I’ve found this stuff, which I typically despise, to help me late in races.  I’d run through an aid station and grab two cups to drink.  This section of the course was very rolling, with a fair amount of uphills, but also some downs.  Each time I hit a down, I’d get that same shock into my hamstring.  The only thing I could conclude was that the downhills from the bridges caused too much fatigue that my body wasn’t ready for.  Truth be told, I ran lots of hills in training in preparation for this race.  Too bad it was the uphills I focused on.  And while many of my tempo runs and long runs included stretches of downhill running at race pace, I probably should have spent a bit more time doing some focused downhill running repeats. 

Cresting the Willis Avenue Bridge at Mile 20
By the time I got to the Willis Avenue Bridge, I was mostly running ok, but if I kept the same pace, I was pretty confident that I’d come in slower than my last marathon, which would leave me short of my goal to PR despite the tough course and conditions.  So with nothing to lose, I made an executive decision to do the one thing I’ve never considered doing in marathon when things were tightening up and my body was slowing – Go as hard as I can for as long as I can.

Miles 21-26.2
I had only 10k left to go and my body had raised its white flag to surrender.  But I was not about to have any of that.  I worked too hard, spent too many early mornings, had come too far to give up that easily.  So I fought with everything I had in my heart and mind to say shut up to my body.  And for the first time in a marathon past the 20 mile marker, I felt reborn.  While the huddled masses were cramping and slowing, similar to myself only a short bit ago, I was flying.  As I continued picking up the pace while heading up and over the Madison Avenue Bridge, I passed by Hollie and wished her a strong finish in her first marathon (she killed it in 3:17!).  In her words, after discussing our races, “I took off like a missile”.  

Despite it being Mile 24, I still look pretty good!
 When planning my race strategy, I had read all about Mile 22/23 and the long uphill stretch up 5th Ave once we came back into Manhattan.  I knew it would be tough no matter how my race was going since it was so late in the race, but given my recent revival, I hit that hill with a mental state of “bring it on!”.  I passed by my family, who said I looked like I was still moving really well.  In fact, I threw down a 7:09 on that uphill mile!

Focused on the finish
As we crested the hill, we entered Central Park, which despite my tunnel vision of just wanting to be done, was loud and encouraging.  Unfortunately, most of this section of the course was yet more downhill.  So despite my ability to run again, the downhills still bothered me.  I did my best to keep pushing with everything I had as I slowly counted down the minutes I had left to run.  With only 2+ miles to go, I knew I’d be done in 15+, so I just kept pushing.  
Almost done!
 After weaving through the winding road in Central Park, we dropped back onto the road along Central Park South, for what seemed like an eternity as we headed toward Columbus Circle in the distance.  Once I made it to Columbus Circle, Central Park West seemed like the longest stretch ever, not to mention all uphill.  Having signs started with 800m to go helped break things up, but I was starting to get a bit fuzzy in the head.  I was running on fumes by now and knew that the finish line was near.  The difficulty with the last ½ mile is that you can’t see the finish line until you’re virtually there.  The emotional boost one gets from seeing (not hearing) the line typically helps give you a little bit of extra oomph for the last stretch.  I was hurting.  I knew it was coming, because I passed signs that said 400m, then 200m.  I visualized myself running on the track and how little I had left.  But until I saw the actual finish line, I was convinced those signs were a big fat lie. 

Finally, after 3 hours, 13 minutes, and 1 second I crossed the finish line with a new PR (by 1:34)and earned every bit of it.

Exhausted at the finish
Division Place: 304 out of 4,259 Finishers
Gender Place: 1,647 out of 30,589 Male Finishers
Overall Place: 1,775 out of 50,134
Pace: 7:23

Doing some rough math based on research I've come across of running into a headwind that is at about the equivalent speed as you are running (my pace is about 8.2 mph and it was widely reported to be at least a 15 mph sustained headwind), it would have cost me about 10-15s/mile.  Seeings as how the winds were blowing faster than I was running for nearly 21 miles, I think its safe to assume I've left myself quite a bit of room for time improvement next time.
Proud of my effort on a really tough day
Sometimes you have the race you dreamed of, and sometimes you don’t.  For me, part of my dream was completely fulfilled.  I ran my absolute best effort on the day, which gave me a PR of 1:34.  No amount of “what ifs” have haunted me since this race.  I can’t control many things like the course or the weather, but I can control my effort.  I gave this race 100%.  And while I have much greater aspirations in terms of a finishing time, I have no regrets.  This WAS the race I dreamed about.  I’ve always dreamed about having a race where I ran the last 10k strong without sacrificing the early miles by going too easy.  And while I experienced some issues prior to getting there (cramping at Mile 16), those only added to the accomplishment of it all.  This race had all the excitement and drama, and I came out the other side stronger.  Stronger knowing that I can push through the pain when it sets in no matter where on the course.  Stronger knowing that even on a challenging course in even more challenging conditions, I can still run my best effort. 

Not gonna lie - having my name on ESPN was one of the highlights of the day!
Anyone who has spent some time with me knows that I have greater goals than what I ran here.  But anyone who knows me also knows that I will keep running no matter what.  My fire was lit before this race.  Now, it is bigger than ever.  I’m hungry for more and I have the patience to do it right and keep chipping away.

Couldn't have done it without the support of my cheering squad!
 This is already getting long enough, but I'll follow up in another post about my post-race thoughts and lessons learned going into the next one.

For those interested, below are my 5k splits, followed by my hand timed splits at each mile marker:


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