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As a blogger (did I just call myself that?  Really?  I’m a blogger?), ahem, as a blogger, I often find myself writing posts in my head long before I can get to my laptop.  Sometimes it is right after an event, sometimes it’s even during an event; heck, sometimes, in anticipation of how things might go, I start to write a post about something before it even happens.

A couple of Sunday mornings ago, as I got myself ready to catch the bus to Staten Island for the start of the 2011 New York City Marathon, I tried to imagine what this post would look like.  It is part of my typical pre-race routine.  For every other marathon that I’ve run, there have been two possible outcomes in my imagined posts – either a.) I would achieve my goal in some sort of  dramatic fashion or b.) I would NOT achieve my goal, still in some sort of dramatic fashion.  The dramatic part was (is?) important to me.  It’s what makes something worthy of YOUR time.  Who wants to read boring, technical details?  Without fail, good (Smuttynose) or bad (Around the Lake), there has always been some sort of dramatic moment in my marathons.

And that was my problem as I made my way to the bus that Sunday morning.  What possible drama could I expect from a race I was planning on simply having fun at?  True, my plan was similar at the Vermont 50 and that was filled with drama – but on that day I was going 24 miles farther that I had ever gone before.  There was the drama of the unknown.  There was really no unknown in New Yorkk.  Even taking into account that I would be running 26.2 miles, running back to mile 23 and then running my friend Jersey in for a total of 32.6 miles, I didn’t foresee any surprises…

***

The ride to the start was nice and easy.  A young kid named Robert, running his first marathon, sat down next to me and we spent the whole time chatting.  We talked about the how’s and the why’s we were for running with Autism Speaks.  He was nervous, I was not.  I reminded him that on this day, his job was simply to finish and enjoy.  He would struggle late in the race but finished with a respectable 5:13 first marathon.

***

Once in the Village I found the two friends I most wanted to find – Jersey, whom I would go back and run in from 23, and Maddy, whom I once thought I was an equal runner to (she would finish the day with a 3:12 marathon – this just one week after pacing her sister to a 3:32 in the Marine Corp Marathon in DC.  Yeah, she’s a superstar, no question.).  After some love and hugs, it was time to head to my corral.  Jersey and I peeled off toward our respective waiting areas, but before I left her, I reminded her that today, her first marathon, was about finishing and enjoying the day.

Robert, Jersey and me

Jersey, Maddy and me

***

Checking into my corral, I ran into a runner I had met on the walk to the Expo the day before.  Tim was running his first marathon.  He was a bundle of nervous energy.  In his own words he described himself as a guy who simply liked to go full throttle.  Knowing himself didn’t seem to ease his nervousness however, so I spent the 20 – 30 minutes we waited in the corral just talking.  I gave him a few pointers, and as I did with Robert and Jersey, reminded him to just finish and enjoy.  He would pass me somewhere on First Avenue around mile 18 and finish with a very impressive first marathon of 3:56.  He later thanked me via text for keeping him calm in the corral.

Maybe I have a new calling at marathons? Pre-Marathon Whisperer…

***

Somewhere around 9 miles my twitter friend Robin tracked me down – the advantage of having blue hair I guess.  I got to try out my on the run interviewing skill.

At that point I was still full of energy and probably running way too fast for someone who hadn’t trained a lick for the marathon.  I was on pace for a 3:30-ish marathon, but, like Boston this year, as I passed the 17-mile mark, my lungs began to squeeze.  My first thought was “not again” but that was quickly followed by the realization that I wasn’t running for time.  It didn’t matter how fast or slow I went.  Even if I had a complete physical breakdown, I could simply stop at mile 23 and wait for my friend Jersey.  That thought put a little pep back in my step and I was able to maintain a pace that was in the mid-9’s pretty much for the rest of the way.

***

The fact that I was running just for fun allowed me to really focus on the crowds.  In 2010 I was so focused on trying to hit 3:15 that I completely tuned out the City, the spectators, the experience.  This time around, with no pressure to even finish, I soaked in everything.  Going into my first big turn on the course, I realized that there were whole swatches of fans who were completely getting ignored.  Runners learn early to take the inside track on a turn and keep it tight.  Even with 47,000 running on marathon day, every single one of them was trying to follow the shortest lines possible.  Starting with my next turn, I decided that I would make the widest turns possible and high five the ignored spectators.  The reactions ranged from total surprise to unbridled enthusiasm.  It was probably the second best decision I made all day.

***

So what was the best decision I made?  That’s easy.  As we made our way back into Manhattan after a brief detour through the Bronx, I saw a guy holding out a bottle of beer.  The Willis Avenue Bridge had just about killed me and I was physically struggling – more and more I was entertaining the thought of simply waiting for my girl Jersey at 23.  Running a marathon on no training is hard.

Dumb and hard.

But then there was this guy, holding out a Corona.  It glistened in the sunlight like an oasis in the desert.  I thought to myself, why the heck not??? So I stopped and took the beer.

BEER!!!

His friend laughed and insisted on taking a picture.  The beer went down quite nicely.  Halfway through, I realized I should probably get back to running.  I didn’t want my legs stiffening up.  As I turned to get back to it, the guy reached for my half-full bottle.  I looked at him and told him thank you but there was no way he was getting it back.  He laughed and sent me on my way.  It was a lot of fun to see the reaction of spectators as I ran down Fifth Avenue with a beer in hand.

And believe it or not, that beer re-energized me and carried me into the Park.  Adult-carbs – who knew?

***

The last three miles of the marathon take you through and around Central Park.  From about 23.5 to 25.5 it’s rolling hills that simply beat up on already tired legs.  I caught a fellow Autism Speaks runner around 24.  We gave each other words of encouragement and then carried on.  In the end, I quietly crossed the finish line in 4:02 –

– by far my slowest marathon ever, but quite honestly, aside from my BQ at Smuttynose, my most enjoyable.  I looked at my watch.  I had what I thought was maybe an hour to an hour and a half to get back to mile 23.  That wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that, for as great as the New York City Marathon is, the bag pick up/exit process has got to be the absolutely worst designed set up I have ever seen.  It took nearly 45 minutes to get out to a street so that I could “race” back to 23.  As I jogged as fast as my tired legs would take me, I tweeted to Jersey’s followers asking for updates.  As it turned out, I had a little more time than I had expected, but I hustled nonetheless.

***

I eventually found the Autism Speaks cheering section near 23 and waited patiently, trying to keep my legs loose.  I saw Tara,  a fellow blue haired Autism Speaks runner but did not have the foresight to snap a picture.  Not too long and Jersey showed up.  She was struggling, which is to be expected during this final stretch.  We took a quick picture –

– and we were off.  We alternately chatted and ran in silence.  I let her set the pace.

Finally, as we crossed mile 24, I pulled out my phone and shot a quick video.  It was well timed as we found Jersey’s family seconds later.

A few hugs and kisses and we were off again.

She was on a mission.  With less than a 1/2 mile to the finish, Jersey found one last gear and kicked it to the finish.  She would tell me later that she just wanted to get it done.  As she crossed the finish line just ahead of me, I could not hide my joy in seeing my friend finish her first marathon and join one of the more exclusive clubs in the world.

Don’t be fooled by the clock.  She started in the 3rd Wave, so her time was a sub-6:00 marathon!  So proud of you Jersey!

***

So what did I learn in this race that was just for fun?  Beer is good!  No, seriously, the lesson I took from New York is that whether you are running for fun or for time, training is important.  I was wrecked between 17 and 19, seriously wrecked.  Were it not for the fact that I knew I needed to get to at least 23, I might have dropped out.  That knowledge and the beer at 20 saved my day.  But, I walked away knowing that I would prefer not to run another marathon without at least some lip service toward training.

***

Thank you Lara for allowing me to join the team so late.

Lara and me in Brooklyn - she coordinates the Team Up with Autism Speaks runners and is awesome. If you are interested in running for the team, let me know and I will forward you her contact information.

I had a total blast and I plan to be back next year.  Though I probably won’t be gunning for a PR, I may well look to beat my course record of 3:27…of course, after having so much fun taking pictures and videos on the course, I may just look to just have fun again!

Thank you New York City!

Now…who’s gonna have a beer waiting for me at mile 20 next year?

Beer me!

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On Sunday I ran Boston 13.1.

When the alarm went off at 4AM, I thought, this is NOT going to go well. In fact, I had had that exact same thought as I finally drifted off to sleep just a little over 3 hours earlier. Despite having plans to run on Sunday, the wife and I had gone out to dinner with cousins and stayed out relatively late. 4AM arrived way too quickly.

After a shower and a quick bite to eat, I was off. Despite having to wake up at 4AM, I was thankful for the 6:15 race start. With temperatures quickly rising to 80° by 10AM, anything later would have made the race simply unbearable.

Turns out that the 13.1 Marathon Series Boston Edition didn’t actually take place in Boston. Instead, it was in the rolling hills of Milton and Canton. Rolling hills is putting it lightly, but more on that later. After failing to find my teammate Chris (the one who came in 4th last week) and my buddy Erin (in from Georgia), I made my way to the starting line. The starting corral was organized into pace sections (6:00 mile, 7:00 mile, etc). I wasn’t sure what my game plan was yet, nor did I have any clue as to how I was going to run. 3 hours of sleep and already rising temperatures made me a little nervous about going out too fast. I essentially wanted to beat 1:40, with my secret “time to beat” for the day a 1:35. With summer in full effect I knew there was no way I was going to challenge my Half-Mary PR of 1:33:14. So I placed myself at the front of the 8:00/mile pack, figuring I’d run somewhere in the 7:30 – 7:45 range for the race.

After a few minutes we were off. Unlike last week where I got sucked out by the Kenyan leaders, this week I was careful to go out with a little patience – or so I thought. I looked around for someone to latch onto but much like the Boston Run To Remember, nobody seemed to fit a pace that was comfortable for me. After a few minutes of bobbing and weaving, I found a couple that was running together and seemed to be moving along at a decent clip. I settled in behind them and focused on form. When we hit the first mile marker I was a bit surprised – 7:18. Huh! I was feeling pretty good, so I figured why not keep it up. As we hit the second mile in 7:19, I heard the guy say to his girlfriend that he thought they should pick up the pace. Again, I figured I was still feeling pretty good so why not keep up?

Just before mile 2 the hills started to kick in. They weren’t nasty – not yet anyway – but definitely provided a bit of a challenge this early in the morning. The course had several out and back branches, the first one starting at mile 3. This first branch was only about 2 1/2 miles altogether and was uneventful except that I was able to get a glimpse of the leader as he ran past in the other direction. This early in the race, it appeared that he already had a good 3 – 4 minute lead. I was happy to see my RaceMenu teammate Chris sitting comfortably in 2nd. We’ve exchanged hello’s as we passed each other. As I made it back to the start of this first branch, I realized that I was running steadily in the low 7’s. Much faster than I had planned, but feeling good nonetheless. Visions of a PR started to dance in my head – that is until I turned the corner onto out and back branch number 2 at mile 5. I took a deep breath as I stared at a hill that simply went up and appeared to continue up as the path turned around another corner. I found out over 7 1/2 minutes later that the hill went up for a full mile. For the non-runner, a 30 second drop in pace may not seem much, but add it up over 13 miles and you’re talking about a 6 1/2 minutes swing in your time.

While tackling this hill I was struck with doubt. I seriously wondered if I had been unwise to run the first 5 miles at the pace I had with as little sleep as I had had the night before. I tried to employ my falling uphill technique with mixed results. I could only do it in spurts, but it was carrying me past dozens of people, and even when I had to straighten up, momentum continued to carry me. I must have passed 30 people on the way up the hill. When I realized this, my attitude began to change for a second time.

As we approached the turnaround just past mile 7 I began counting the runners coming the other way. The leader had come and gone minutes earlier. Chris was in a battle for 2nd place some 5 – 6 minutes behind. We slapped 5 as we passed each in a neat moment I will not forget. A minute or so after that came the rest of the pack. 4, 5, 6…10, 15, 20…25, 26, 30…35, 40…45, 50, 60…69, 70, 72…77, 78, 79… I was sitting in the 80th spot. Okay, I can deal with that. 80th. That’s not bad. But then I started thinking about the previous week’s race. I didn’t want to get passed. My goal had been to finish in the top 100 in this race, and yes, I was sitting at 80th, but there was another 6.1 miles to go.

After the turnaround, there was a slight uphill, where my falling uphill technique helped my catch 4 or 5 runners, and then it was downhill for the next 2 1/2 miles. It sounds great, but it is tough on the quads! As I hit mile 8 I heard a woman yell “LUAU!!!”. I turned just in time to see my Twitter/Dailymile buddy Erin go running by in the other direction. I waved as best I could and kept going.

By this time, the runners had spread out pretty thinly. There were two runner about 30 yards ahead of me. I set my sights on reeling them in. At about mile 9 I caught them. As I contemplated whether to run with them or try to pass them, one of them looked at me and said, “Hey! Are you that guy with that blog on dailymile?” I did a double take. Well, uh, yeah, actually I am. He told me that he had just stumbled onto my blog not 4 or 5 days before. In fact, he had sent me an email asking me a question about running in Vibrams (Eric, I promise I’m getting around to answering that email very shortly!). We chatted over the next mile about running marathons (I found out he had run a 3:09 marathon and qualified for Boston) and running in general. At about mile 10 he backed off and I looked ahead to the next group of runners in front of me. Our pace had closed the gap significantly on the next group. As we rounded a corner at 10.5 I realized that I was probably sitting now somewhere around 60th. I chugged along to mile 11, blissfully clipping along.

Then came mile 12. Ever since mile 6, the hills had been relatively mild. But mile 12 made mile 6 look like a wannabe. It just went and went at a much steeper incline. Again I took a deep breath, but this time I was determined to take the battle to the hill. I shortened my stride, controlled my breathing and went. Leaning into the hill, I passed 5 runners just as the hill started. I felt like I was either moving at a decent clip or the runners in front of me were losing their fight with the hill (turns out it was a little of both – I wasn’t going as nearly as fast as I would have hoped, but it was fast enough to pass these runners). I passed another group of 4 or 5 runners. Now there were no more pods in front of me, just lone islands of single runners struggling to make it to 12. One by one I picked them off. I tried to control my breathing, softening it as I went by those that were struggling. I didn’t want them to know that I was feeling the pain too. I kept running and I slowing kept passing runners. As I approached the top of the hill I came upon the last water station.

1.1 miles to go.

I saw 3 or 4 runners slowing down to grab a drink. Did I have a strong enough 1.1 left in me to pass up this last water station? I decided to gamble and blew right through.

1.1 miles to go. I knew I was less than 8 minutes from the finish. I could suffer through 8 minutes.

I caught a few more runners. There in the distance was one more runner in blue. He had to be at least 50 – 60 yards ahead of me. At this point, there was about a quarter mile to go. There was simply no way to catch him. It couldn’t be done. But I again flashed to the Father’s Day 10K from the previous week. I remembered how I had been passed in the final mile. I remembered how I gave up trying to catch him with about 200 yards to go. I remembered how that guy cost me a 2nd place finish in my age group.

NOT. THIS. FRAKKING. TIME!

I turned the engine into overdrive. I had already kicked it up a notch at the start of the hill, but I was able to find another gear and then another after that. I kept looking at him and then at the finish line and then back at him again. He was in cruise mode, settled into his place.

I was closing, but running out of real estate.

I kept pushing. My legs were screaming, my lungs were burning.

I heard the crowd pick up the volume. They knew what I was trying to do.

With 70 yards to go, he was still a good 20 yards in front of me.

Suddenly he sensed something was wrong. Maybe someone in the crowd tipped him off. His head turned slightly as he pick up his pace. I covered 20 yards in the time it took him to cover 10. We were now 10 yards apart, with 50 yards to go. He tried to turn on the gas but it was too late. I was flying and his engine was in cruise control. I passed him with 1 yard to go. It was close enough that both of our guntimes read 1:33:58. But I know I beat him to the finish.

He came over and patted me on the back. I chatted with a few of the runners that came in right after me, exchanging congratulations. As I left the finishing chute, I ran into Chris. He had finished in second, pulling away late in the race from his rival. I waited and cheered Erin in. We exchanged big sweaty hugs. She PR’d by 10 minutes!

In the end, I didn’t PR. Officially my time was 1:33:47, a half minute off my PR, but I managed to finish 41st overall out 2681 finishers and 4th in my age group (out of 106 men ages 40 – 44, and out of 188 men in their 40’s). Yes, another 4th place finish in my age group and unfortunately, this time there were no 40 year olds in the top three overall finishers. That said, I felt pretty damned good about my result, especially considering that when I woke up Sunday morning, I was pretty convinced that this race was not going to end well for me.

The race itself, though great for me, was somewhat of a disaster organizationally speaking. The finishing chute was too crowded with no easy exit. The medals, usually handed out to runners as they finish, were only available across a large field in an unmarked location. The usual amenities one expects at a half or full marathon (i.e. massage tents, food and beer) were only available to runners who ran with Team Challenge. But the very worst mistake that I heard about later was that the organizers ran out of cups at the water stations midway through the race. Though I wasn’t carrying my own hydration, I was lucky to be ahead enough to have missed that, but many of the runners were forced to take swigs out of gallon jugs as they went through the water stations. I can’t imagine having to drink from a bottle that the sweaty stranger in front of you just slobbered all over. And from what I understand, a couple of the stations actually ran out of water all together. A definite liability in the hot and humid weather.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I was able to run much faster than I expected and the hills that I was so worried about turned out to help me in the end.

Here’s the elevation chart:

Miles 6 & 12 were killers

With this race out of the way, it’s time to concentrate on my five miler coming up at the end of July. I’ve never run a race that short, and I realize that I have to work on speed – a topic for another post.

Erin & I right after she PR'd by 10 minutes. You gotta love a girl who's willing to give you a big, sweaty hug and not care!

I also ran into Eric post-race. I promise that email reply is coming!

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