Thursday, November 09, 2006

New York City Marathon: Part 2

The Marathon as Teacher

I have now run four marathons in four years and each 26.2 mile encounter has taught me something new.

My debut was the 2003 NYC marathon where I ran a 4:18:06. I learned that the physical demands of the marathon can cause an emotional response and I learned that simply finishing a marathon is a great accomplishment. I was absolutely elated and despite having to walk backwards down stairs for a few days the afterglow lasted for weeks. I rank this among the most significant achievements of my life. This was a particularly thrilling period of my life because three weeks prior to the marathon I was married to a stunning beauty. Being in the taper period of marathon training while on a Caribbean honeymoon is highly recommended!

For my sophomore marathon I returned to the starting line in Staten Island for NYC 2004. I ran 4:03:17. This was a fifteen minute improvement but still mildly disappointing as I was hoping to crack four hours. Lesson learned: starting out too fast is really, really bad.

In the autumn of 2005 I found myself in Chicago’s Millennium Park across from Buckingham Fountain. The Chicago Marathon was significant for me for a variety of reasons. It was my first marathon outside of New York and its flat course suggested fast times. The Windy City was also the first time my mother and father were able to watch me run. The pressure was on and I delivered a 3:50:20 – a twelve minute PR.

I was thrilled and exhausted but having dropped forty pounds and having been cigarette free for years I was also in the best physical condition of my life. My parents were (hopefully) proud and certainly amazed – they’d never seen a marathon before and at the time the 2005 Chicago Marathon was the largest marathon ever. Lessons learned: 1. Training with a group is a Godsend. 2. Speed work is a necessity.

For my fourth and most recent marathon I returned to the Big Apple with lofty aspirations - a sub 3:30 marathon. I choose a fairly aggressive training schedule featuring relatively high weekly mileage. Admittedly I fell a little short of the mileage totals but tried to compensate with quality speed work, hill repeats, and tempo runs. I cut alcohol from my diet completely and cut back on sugar as well.

On race morning I rose early and met my Hellgate teammates. Together in the brisk predawn air we waited for our charter bus to the starting line which was not to come. Apparently our driver was out on a bender the night before and overslept. Scrambling, we found our separate ways over the Verrazano Bridge to the starting line. Fortunately all of my teammates made it to the start and once settled there was plenty of time to relax and prepare.

I had a fairly low bib number and thus was able to line up toward the front of the chute with fellow Hellgater Jessica (who ran a stellar first marathon!). The starting canon fired and the field of 38,368 athletes began their race.

I ran them conservatively but for me the first miles seemed to click by very fast. Before I knew it I was in Brooklyn motoring up 4th Avenue feeding off the wildly enthusiastic spectators. Across the boulevard I saw Morrissey who was running very strong and soon passed me by.

The race made its way through Brooklyn to the half way point at the Pulaski Bridge and into Queens without incident. I took water or Gatorade as needed and knocked off the miles with calculated focus and an almost hyper-awareness that I’d not experienced before. As I approached Mile 14 I began looking forward to seeing the Hellgate cheering squad which was a big boost and propelled me to the Queensboro Bridge. Interestingly enough there was some construction which blocked all the sunlight. For a hundred meters or so we ran in complete darkness. Eerie, but kind of cool.

Coming down off the bridge into Manhattan and fabled 1st Avenue is of course all it is cracked up to be. The crowds roar and cheer and encourage the runners along their journey. My wife, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her significant other were there with signs, high fives and a quick sweaty kiss before I plodded along.

Like many runners I began to fatigue at about Mile 19 and took a mouthful of chocolate PowerGel to compensate. I’ve not had this flavor before and unfortunately it upset my stomach making me feel nauseous as I made my way into the Bronx. Nausea and the proverbial “Wall” – not a good combination.

“Josh! Josh! What do you need?” I looked up from my impeding stupor to see Kate and Marc running after me with Gu and water which I gladly accepted – thank you guys!

Moving back into Manhattan from the Bronx I knew I had a difficult climb up 5th Avenue to Mile 24. The nausea continued, the fatigue settled and I could feel the concrete beginning to set in my legs. I entered Central Park and the focus and awareness I’d know through the first 18 miles had long since diminished. At his point my brain had turned off and I was running on sheer will.

Just before Mile 25 a work colleague caught sight of me and jumped, shouted and flailed to get my attention. I snapped out of my grim daze only long enough to smile and wave. I passed Mile 25 and picked up the pace for the last mile and finishing kick the finish on Tavern on the Green.

I passed through all five of New York’s boroughs, over five bridges, past an estimated two million spectators and crossed the finish line 26.2 miles later in 3 hours 31 minutes and 26 seconds – less than a minute and a half short of my goal. Yes, I was disappointed but the feeling wasn’t overwhelming and it did not last very long.

Completing anything brings with it a certain amount of satisfaction. Approaching and crossing the finish line of a marathon is on an order of magnitude quite different from that of, say, a professional or academic achievement (did you ever loose a toenail or bleed for a final exam? How about for a new client?). Completing a marathon is the culmination of months of daily effort and encroaches on the boundaries of what the human body is physically and mentally capable of, particularly in those last few miles. It is an exhausting, consuming and utterly worthwhile achievement.

So what have I learned from this, my fourth bout with the marathon? I have learned that you cannot skimp on the long runs. I have learned that gradual and unrelenting pressure on the body yields impressive results. I have learned that pushing too hard too fast causes the body to breakdown. I have learned that the marathon rewards the dedicated and punishes the over-confident. I have learned you never know what challenges the marathon will put to you.

Perhaps most significantly this marathon has taught me something about myself. It has taught me that I am hungry for more. I want to see just how far and how fast I can push myself.

"You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfactions and a sense of achievement."
-Steve Prefontaine


stephruns said...

"Hungry for more"...running is endless that's the great part about it. I also feel that there is so much more to discover. You've come a long way and I'm sure you will continue to do great!

Mark MacLeod said...

That was a great narrative.

Apparently you 'runners' will buy anything, though.

Would you ever buy something named Chocolate PowerGel to be eaten as a snack while watching TV (which I probably do more of than you)?

I didn't think so.

I can't wait to hear more news of your progress! Great job.

Ginger Breadman said...

I think learning that "you never know what challenges the marathon will put to you" is the coolest lesson. It always changes - you learn and experience a different thing every single time with every single race and every single course.

Great job, and great post!

Just12Finish said...

Thanks for a nice story. I feel the same that each marathon is a lesson, but how tough is it to have to go 26.2 just to learn one more thing at a time? I guess that's why we do it ... because it's tough!

nyflygirl said...

Great report. You definitely came close enough to your goal, and an 18 minute PR is definitely something to be proud of.

Finishing a marathon-I kind of have an academic analogy to that...doesn't it feel like it's a "graduation day" of sorts?

Here's to the next one for both of us...I definitely want to see how far I can push myself as well!

Bex said...

Great post on your marathon experience. Congrats on the PR! I was watching the race live online, through I wish I could've been there. I'm going to start training early next year for my third marathon. I just ran the Marine Corps Marathon about 2 weeks ago. Cut my marathon time from 4:15 to 3:56. Next time, I hope to qualify for Boston.

Uptown Girl said...

Geez, all these fantastic marathon reports is really making me itch to do another one;-)

Congratulations! Sorry I missed you with the pom poms.

Josh said...

Steph - I agree there certainly does not seem to be a ceiling to what is do-able in running!

Mark - Thanks for your comments. And you're right "Chocolate PowerGel" taken out of context sounds rather unappetizing.

Ginger - I can't agree with you more. The marathon has a lesson for everyone, everytime. Thanks!

Just12Finish - 26.2 is a long way to go for school. It ain't easy but it sure is fun.

NYFG - Close but no cigar... It does feel a little like a graduation. But how does one go for their doctorate in running? Is an Ultra called for?

Bex - thanks for stopping by and commenting, and more, congrats to you on your fabulous MCM PR. Boston Qualifier is on my list too but a 3:10 is gonna be tough!

Uptown - Ah, I've already got the itch to do another. No worries about the Pom Poms. I may have seen you but was so brain dead it didn't register. So when is your marathon?

JustRun said...

I agree, that feeling of wanting more because you know how good it can be is so powerful. If only all of life's challenges were so rewarding. Or maybe they are, we just don't get to see it in the form of a finish line.
Congratulations, again!

Jessica said...

Congrats! And thank you for the pre-marathon advice - you helped keep me calm! It was an honor to wait around for that canon to go off with you! I feel famous now since you mentioned me in your blog! I read all the time!

Uptown Girl said...

Steamtown Marathon, Fall 2007 is the plan!

Yvonne said...

great report josh!

and i can certainly empathise on not quite breaking the 3:30 barrier ;)

"hunger for more" is pretty much all you really need to improve - I'm looking forward to joining you in doing that!!

Sempre Libera said...

Great race report, and an excellent race. You trained hard, raced smartly and it showed! I'm also glad to hear I'm not the only one basking in the post-race glow - sometimes I wish I could wear my race shirt to work every day :-)

greg said...

Doctor- I've heard everyone is either running away from something, or toward it... it appears you started with the former, and are now living the latter. Very cool.

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