The short version:
I finished with a time of 3:56:02, placing me 17th out of 143 runners. I also came in 10th in my age group, out of 60 women. I am very happy with that time and with my placement considering that this was my first marathon and that my training didn’t go as well as I’d hoped due to persistent shin problems.
I made the classic first-timer’s mistake of going out too fast — not for a lack of self-control, but because my watch wasn’t properly calibrated! So my watch was reporting a pace that was 23 seconds slower per mile than I was actually running. This was enough to throw things off for me, and I ended up running positive splits.
End result? I didn’t make my Boston qualifying time. In fact, I overshot it by about five minutes. But I think I’ll be back next year with a goal to crack the top 10 finishers list.
The long version:
Pre-race: Getting ready to run
I arrived at the race site at about 7:20AM. The place was abuzz with pre-race excitement and a congenial atmosphere. There were women arriving from far and wide, most of them wearing half marathon bibs. I ate three quarters of my tiny pre-race peanut butter and honey sandwich, donned my garbage bag, and ditched my bag in baggage check. The porta potty rush hadn’t yet begun, so I took advantage of the row on the west side of the park, then made my way east to the start. Did 10 minutes of easy jogging, some stretches and ate half a banana. I could see tons of people with “walker” on their bib lining up. Since I didn’t train for five months to get stuck behind walkers, I threw race propriety to the wind and lined up in the fifth row behind the starting mat at about 10 minutes to 8:00AM.
In front of me I spotted the various women who would win or place, as well as a tiny, beaming Ginette Bedard, who last year took the world masters title in the marathon for women 70-74 with a More time of 3:46:02. It was very exciting to be that close to so many great runners. After some pleasantries from the VIPs and introductions of some of the women who would go on to win the full and half marathons, we got a truncated version of the national anthem and then the horn sounded. We were off!
When I read the coverage of the NYC marathon in November, a reporter had commented on a sign one spectator could be seen holding in Brooklyn, just over the Verazanno: “Slow down! It’s not a 10K!” Well, I ran a very good 10K yesterday, and a pretty good half marathon. And that was the problem. For the first six miles, I was cruising along at an average 8:31 clip.
I figured out between miles 1 and 2 that my watch was off, but couldn’t get the math right in terms of what pace I should be looking for on my watch to compensate. But by mile 5 I had a time surplus of 1:30. I rationalized that if I’d been training with my watch out of whack, then maybe I was in better shape than I’d thought and could hold that pace for the duration.
I felt fantastic, even going over those big hills at the north end of the park. But, alas, it was not to last.
Just after the start of the second loop, past mile 6, the 3:50:00 pacer team caught up with me. This was a stroke of luck, as running with them not only forced me to slow to the pace I should have been running all along, but they also served as a human bulldozer (and windbreak) to clear a path among the kerjillion half marathoners. There were just two of us running with three pacers. What a luxury! The five of us blasted through the finish area to cheers: “Go marathoners!”
I still felt good, not the least of which was because I was running at a more comfortable pace. We rounded the north end for the second time, and I still felt good. It was at mile 14 that I spotted Jonathan and gave him the thumbs up. He said later that I looked very good at this point: in fine form, relaxed and in control of things.
I hung onto the pacers easily enough during the early miles of this stretch, although the rivets were beginning to pop. First my hamstrings began a duet of complaints as we made our way east along the 102nd St transverse. With each step, Lefty and Righty would complain: “Ouch! Stop! Yow! Yikes!” I employed a mental exercise that I’d read about, where one focuses on the areas of the body that are not hurting. I enumerated them in my head: “My ears don’t hurt. My neck doesn’t hurt. My knees don’t hurt…” After a time, the hamstrings backed off. But the quads were starting to complain quietly now. Those grumbling complaints would turn into shrieks in short order.
We lost one racer at around mile 16, and shortly after that two of the pacers split off to do whatever pacers go do. So it was just me and my pacer, also named Julie. Julie was very nice. She told me I didn’t have to expend energy talking to her, made sure I had fuel on me and kept clearing the way. But I fostered a secret resentment toward Julie which I couldn’t help — for she was running Satan’s pace. We picked up another marathoner around this time, who would also lose it a little later on. This was not the last I would see of her, though.
If you look at my splits, you can see the trouble starting at mile 18, when my pace began to slow. Not coincidentally, that was on the third trip uphill on the west side. The wind was also starting to pick up, and it was a headwind.
At 19 I was having trouble keeping up with Julie. One of the two AWOL pacers reappeared and Julie was distracted enough not to notice that my pace was rapidly cratering. I watched the two pacers and my remaining racing peer pull away, taking with them my chances of qualifying for Boston.
But sorrow over my failed BQ was quickly replaced with an awareness of something terrible happening to my legs. What had begun as a slight burning sensation in my quads turned into something that defies description, although I’ll try. My legs were rapidly transforming into two pillars of pain, starting from my calves all the way up to my hips. They were in what I can only think of as a “pre-explosive” state, as though superheated in the bones and swelling with something combustible. Another analogy that came to mind was individual vices applied to my leg muscles, pulling the muscles askew.
By necessity, and to give myself something to focus on besides my horrible legs, I formed a new race strategy. My new goals were:
1. Do not, under any circumstances, stop running. You won’t start again if you do.
2. Finish under 4:00:00
I passed Jonathan again between mile 21 and 22, and I don’t think I looked good. All I could do as I passed was croak, “It hurts so much.” He said, “Come on, pick up the pace.” Something he says he later regretted, since he didn’t want me to feel bad.
Mile 22 was my mental and physical low point. I was running a 10:09 pace, slogging uphill through a gusty headwind. I could not make my legs go faster, despite all efforts. I began to wonder if this was “the wall” and what new horrors lay ahead.
And then the clouds parted. As I made the turn onto the 102nd St. transverse, I had a surge of energy and hope. Perhaps it was knowing that this would all be over with in about half an hour. I’d either adjusted to the pain in my legs or it began to dissipate, because I was able to pick up the pace by 30 to 40 seconds for the next three miles. I was too afraid to look down, lest I discover that my legs had indeed exploded and I was running on bloody stumps.
Rolling down Museum Mile, I was grateful for the occasional volunteer or spectator who would say, “Go marathoner!” The marathon is the first race I’ve run where I’ve appreciated how valuable such tidings are. I was hitting the hills at 9:37 and feeling pretty good about that pace (by now, I’d figured out about what it equaled on my watch). I knew that, barring disaster, I’d come in well under 4:00:00, and I no longer was tempted to walk.
I passed the woman who’d joined and, apparently, also lost the pacing group earlier, walking, and said, “Come on, you look great! Keep running! We’re almost there!” For a moment, she kept walking and I thought, “She must think I’m a total asshole, yelling at her to run.” But then she started running and we ran together for awhile, until she pulled slightly ahead at mile 25. It wasn’t a competitive passing — she just had more in her than I did and I was happy that she was going to run through the finish rather than walking.
We rounded the lower end of the park, at this point clogged with walkers, park strollers, carriages and the like, and headed up the final hill to Tavern on the Green. The hill isn’t really that steep, but it’s long and it seems like Mt. Everest at that point in the race. I passed the 26 mile marker and could see the finish line up ahead.
But between the mat and myself was one final obstacle: a military formation of half marathoners, nine women wide, sauntering toward the finish. I envisioned a cartoon version of myself as bowling ball, knocking them down like pins to get across the mat as quickly as possible. Fortunately, they hit the mat 10 seconds ahead of me, so the way was clear by the time I hobbled to my race’s conclusion. My anonymous friend (who I suspect was Barbara Wetzel of Louisville, KY) finished just a few seconds ahead of me.
I picked up my medal — specially made for marathon finishers (I love that!). And when I picked it up, there were tons of them still there, so I knew I’d placed well. The most surprising thing about finishing was how instantaneously my legs ceased to function normally. Two minutes after running, I couldn’t step off a curb or sit down on a bench without feeling excruciating pain. It makes you wonder what the human capacity for pain tolerance, whether it’s mental or chemical, really is.
Recovery food (and good wine) awaited me at home, along with other things to dull the pain.
On the day after, I can’t walk normally yet, but there is nonetheless a spring in my step. I ran a good marathon and I know I’ll run more — and better — marathons in the future.
The event itself was well-organized, for the most part. I was appreciative of the clear mile markers and clocks at each one, since I stopped trusting my watch after mile 2. I give New York Road Runners a lot of credit for getting many of the logistics just right.
But it was a difficult course to negotiate, as there were 4000+ half-marathoners, many of them strolling 3-4 abreast, and only a handful of us lonely marathoners. By the end of my race, I was jockeying around both other race participants and regular park visitors, many of whom didn’t seem aware that there was a race going on around them. It doesn’t surprise me that the turnout for marathoners was about 20% lower than last year. This is a race that’s rapidly growing in popularity for half marathon participants, but shrinking in popularity for marathoners.
The race volunteers were wonderful, though, especially the ones who acknowledged those of us doing the full marathon. Despite the congestion, I want to run it again next year with the goal of making the top 10 finishers list.
Here are my splits — the real ones, not the bogus watch readings — and a graph showing my pace over the miles. The bars are, unfortunately, going the wrong way (up). But it’s a speedbump rather than a mountain.