I finally did it. I have made my comeback. It’s been 5 years in the making. It’s been a lot of heartbreak. But after this weekend’s race I can finally say that I am back.
Nobody can under the significance of this race for me without knowing where I’ve been. But thus isn’t about then (even though it’s important to my story). It is about now.
Yesterday I ran a 3:19:50 (4 minutes and 12 seconds faster than my old PR). And this is just the beginning.
Truth be told, on paper the TCS New York Marathon is my nightmare. It’s expensive. It’s a logistical nightmare. It’s a late start. It’s a “racer’s” course (meaning that you can take your plan of perfectly paced splits and throw it out the window). While not impossible, it’s a challenging course that takes a lot of strategy and adaptation. It’s everything that scares the hell out of me as a Type-A, suburban, control freak.
Just getting to the start line is a challenge. For a 9:50 a.m. start time, I still had a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call. We bought all my pre-race food the night before so I had a re-heated Starbucks oatmeal with some almond butter and half a banana. Since I usually run at 5:00 a.m. I was not used to eating a full meal pre-run, but it was completely necessary knowing that I wouldn’t be done running until after 1:00 p.m. I also drank my new addiction of warm water with a Ginger Lemonade Nuun tablet (which fore some reason is also incredibly calming for me). At about 5:15 we hailed a taxi to take us to the public library (which is where we would then board a bus to take us to the start line at Staten Island).
The busses were coach busses, which was a welcome surprise (I was completely envisioning school busses). By the time we exited the bus it was about 6:50 a.m. The first obstacle of the morning was finding a bathroom (definitely had way too much water). The security line was seemingly endless and after clearing security and sprinting to the porta-potties I spent a good 15 minutes literally dancing in line like a two-year old praying that I would make it to the front of the line. Once that “situation” was taken care of I found a tree, sat up against it, and tried my best to relax for the next 2.5 hours. Completely alone, I was surprisingly calm. I decided the best thing to calm my nerves and focus on what really mattered would be to watch videos of my 2 year old daughter. So I did. Over and over I watched her dance with her puppy stuffed animal and clown around on camera. After a few more strategically planned bathroom stops and nibbling on RX bars and bananas, we finally found ourselves in the starting corrals.
The Start and Miles 1-2 (8:09, 7:11)
The start line itself was pretty spectacular. Starting on the Verrazzano narrows bridge, the race starts with a canon going off and Sinatra’s New York New York playing on the speaker. The first mile of the race is also the greatest incline of the race. The most difficult thing for me this training cycle has been in my pacing (I always go out too fast) but I knew that if I went out guns blazing I would put myself at a huge disadvantage later. I planned on going out at about an 8:20 (which I was terrified of doing – thinking it would set my mental game way back) but based on everything I had read on the race this was the suggested pacing for my goal finish time. I let the 3:20 pacer go ahead (knowing they would go out faster than I wanted) and tried to stick to my plan. Mile 1 clocked in around 8:10. (Note – the other interesting thing with this race is the fact that I manual split everything. This was another element I was terrified of but I really think it helped run controlled and poised). I knew that coming down the bridge I’d make the time up and I was right. Mile 2 was just a hair above 7:00.
Miles 3-10 (7:24, 7:24, 7:25, 7:29, 7:33, 7:37, 7:31, 7:29)
This is when I knew it was time to find my groove. The plan was to keep my splits between 7:30 and 7:45 during this portion of the run. Because the elevation changed every mile, I found myself really forced to allow the race to ebb and flow and not be stuck on hitting any particular number (knowing that as long as I stuck in my range, I’d be golden). I definitely started on the faster end of my range, but tried to keep it as controlled as possible and to slow when I saw an uphill and allow myself to cruise on a down. This meant most of my splits were between about 7:25 and 7:40. I wish I could say that everything felt fluid and I felt great — but it didn’t. I found a rhythem but I was also battling a lot of negative thoughts even at those early miles, overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the challenge in front of me. On one of my runs this year the verse “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” to pop in my head and I drew upon that for this entire race. Each word matched to a footstep until I felt myself calming down. It actually seemed to be working! At about mile 5 I caught back up to the 3:20 pacer. The funny thing is — every other race I have run I have been completely dependent on the pacer (for both better and worse) but today I wanted to get as far away from that group as possible and really lock into my own race.
Miles 11-15 (7:31, 7:21, 7:33, 7:36, 7:59)
I stayed in the zone (more or less) during this part and crossed the halfway mark feeling (relatively) strong. At 13.1 I was at 1:38:53. The mile marker was literally on the incline part of the xx bridge. I knew if I stayed on track I would manage a huge PR. I also knew that the most challenging part of the course was ahead — namely the bridge at 16 and the 1 mile climb between 23.75 and 24.75. Even though I knew I was running a solid race, it was far from the “effortless” feeling I had experienced on many of my training runs in the weeks before. Using the manual split option on my watch ended up being a really good thing for me, as it kept my mind in the mile that I was running, without worrying too much about overall time (even though I did have average pace as a display function on my watch – I rarely looked at it because I knew that during a course like New York there would be a lot of fluctuation mile to mile based on elevation changes (i.e. bridges)).
Miles 16-22 (7:27, 7:24, 7:17, 7:25, 7:33, 7:33, 7:36)
At mile 16 I knew that I could start counting down the miles (the number is far less daunting when you start getting back into the single digits). I also could tell that I was starting to get a little fatigued. At this point in the race I knew that my plan A wasn’t going to work (I wouldn’t be trying to drop the pace) so my goal was to maintain. I also knew that I would gain nothing by trying to charge up the hill so I took it easy until I knew I was on the way back down. I feared that around this point I may be done, but as I reconvened after the bridge I started getting my momentum back. I tried to stay positive and remind myself that I was in fact “doing it.” I reminded myself how hard I had worked to get here, how hard I had trained, and how perfect the weather was. I also thought about how much money we had spent on this trip, for this goal race, and how for that reason alone — giving up was not an option. The quiet on the bridge at 16 is crazy — all you hear is the breathing and footsteps of those around you (and in my case, the thoughts in your own head asking why the heck you are doing this), only to descend onto First Avenue and be struck by the overwhelming cheers of the crowd. It was pretty amazing. Running in Manhattan is pretty spectacular as well, but I have to admit at this point the race had started becoming more of a blur. My primary focus was just getting to Central Park. I started hitting “the wall” around mile 20 (more like flirting with the wall), but was trying my hardest to stave it off as long as I could.
Miles 23-26.2 (7:46, 8:22, 7:43, 7:25)
I wanted to love this part of the race. I really did. I loved running in Central Park the day before when I ran my shakeout run and had fantastic visions for how this part of the race would go. Needless to say, it didn’t go as I had hoped. While I managed to handle all of the inclines of the bridges in the race fairly well, my legs were absolute toast by the time I hit the rollers in Central Park. I suspect that if the last four miles had been flat I would have held on and maintained a pace in the 7:20-7:30 range for those last miles, but at this point my legs were just done. Mile 24 is about a mile climb, and that just completely did me in. At this point, I knew that I would PR and my goal was just to hang on for dear life. I knew I wasn’t going to hit my A or B goal times, but I knew I was still running a pretty tough effort and I wasn’t going to lose that. The last few miles were just a suffer fest. I was no longer passing people. Quite frankly, I had no idea how my legs were even still moving (I was getting zaps of cramping that seemed to go away and I just prayed that I would finish before my legs seized up). It wasn’t a pretty finish. But it was a gritty finish.
My final time was 3:19:50. A time 10+ minutes under the new BQ standard (and 15+ minutes under the “old” standard). The funny thing? This time, for the very first time, it was truly an afterthought. In every other marathon I had run, I was obsessed with Boston. I first missed the Boston standard in 2012 by 23 seconds (the first time I knew I was in “BQ shape”) and here it was six years later and for various reasons I still had not run the Boston Marathon. It had created a lot of animosity and overall stress, creating a chip on my shoulder that started negatively impacting my running. However, this was the first race I ever ran where I really, truly, had let my focus on Boston go and only cared about running to my potential. In doing so, I found my way to another BQ. Don’t get me wrong – I am looking forward to (hopefully) finally running Boston in 2020. It is an experience I have always felt I have missed out on. But the obsession…the holding it up on a pedestal… the having it as an end-all-be-all goal that defines me? Never again. Because if I have learned nothing else…from now on only my own standards will define me.
The Med Tent
Within a few seconds of crossing the finish line I had swarms of volunteers running up to me asking if I was okay (I must have looked that bad) because they ended up putting me in a wheelchair and taking me over to the med tent. Since I have a tendency to dehydrate (I was already chilled and goose bumped) they started forcing Gatorade and salt tablets (ick). As the volunteers were focusing on rehydration, my legs started cramping horribly and I was in terrible pain and couldn’t move, becoming completely incapacitated. I then started getting really chilled and shaking pretty uncontrollably so I got moved to another area of the med tent where they made me stay under a heated blanket. The entire ordeal was probably about an hour. The worst part? When I finally got released, the exit of the med tent was past where they handed out the medals and I had to backtrack against traffic to collect mine (while I am not too hung up on race awards generally, there was no way I was leaving THIS race without it).
As I talked to my coach at the airport the next day, it was hard not to be disappointed. Even though I was overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude (because who can be upset when they run a big PR), I couldn’t shake the little hints of disappointment that I knew my training supported a faster race time. But as our conversation went on – I realized that this experience was about so much more than a PR for me. It was about growing, in huge ways, as a runner.
It was about really, truly, trusting the process.
It was about not just running, but racing a course where I had to let go of control and strategize and readjust in the moment (checking out and running even splits wouldn’t fly here).
It was about dialing into the things that I had so much trouble doing during training (running by feel and not being a slave to the watch).
It was about being ready, willing, and able to take risks and readjust as the race progressed.
It was about doing something that scared the heck out of me (logistically and otherwise).
For someone who tries to control and overthink everything, it “graduated” me to a whole new mindset, that I have admired in many of the athletes who I look up to, but that I have never been able to hone in on.
And now, forever, the New York Marathon will always hold a special place for me. How fitting that the race of five bridges finally bridged the gap of my “what used to be” and my “comeback.”