Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Faster, Stronger, Better - M.J. Personified:
Race Report from the Staten Island Half Marathon

On the superficial and conscious level, I wanted to approach this race as just another trial run in preparation for the New York City Marathon coming up in a few short weeks. Since these 13.1 miles would serve as the final chapter to the highest mileage week I’ve ever completed in marathon training, I wanted to fool myself into thinking that I would be content with simply putting in the miles at a comfortable pace rather than risk injury by racing the half-marathon, gunning for a PR. Subconsciously however, I knew that I had more reasons to run a stellar race than there were miles on the course. For starters, I had run this course three years ago and at the time had set a distance PR that would last for more than 20 months. Secondly, I was running this race with a whole host of friends, both old and new, including one who was running his first half-marathon ever – which I found to be very inspiring. Thirdly, there were at least two RBFs who would be out running as well and in the off chance they would spot me mid-race, I didn’t want to leave them with a bad first impression. And finally, I badly needed a redemption race after crashing hard at mile 10 in my last PR attempt at this distance two short weeks ago. So, in the end, even as I nonchalantly went about my business preparing for this race as if it’s just another half-marathon on the training schedule, I was secretly very psyched to see how I’d do in this 13.1 mile adventure three weeks out from my goal marathon.

But aside from all these factors contributing to my anticipatory angst about the race, there was one motivating force above all else that would lead me to believe that I would run a stellar race: I was running with number 230 on my race bib. Yes folks, plastered to my chest, as if I were the one chosen among all the runners to honor his legacy, was the ephemeral jersey number of the greatest basketball player that has ever graced the hardwood floor, one Michael Jordan. And although I have already declared my unabashed man-love for my childhood idol (link), and have previously called on his competitive powers to help me vanquish a worthy adversary in a 15k race last winter (link), I couldn’t help but feel as if I was meant to run a special race just because I was wearing his number. After all, isn’t this what we’ve always dreamed of since we were little kids dribbling a basketball in the schoolyard after school? Just for a chance to “Be Like Mike…” After picking up my number a day before my race, I knew the rest of the weekend proceedings would irrevocably be transformed into a pickup basketball game with me as Jordan at the helm.

The Pregame

We arrived at the start of the race with a good half-hour to spare even though my fellow Flyer travel companions (CR, BS, JT) and I decided to take the last possible ferry from Manhattan over to Staten Island on race morning. Despite a strong ocean breeze blowing in from the Hudson as we walked from the ferry terminal to the starting area, everyone was starting to get nervous about the basking sun blazing overhead. I, for one, wasn’t so concerned. Although the forecast called for a high of 74 degrees at noon with a relative humidity of 60% or so, it was going to be barely above 60 degrees at race start and since I figured to finish in roughly an hour-and-half, I would be long done with the race before the sun and heat would become a huge factor.

I ate well, drank well, and had gotten plenty of sleep the night before, so as I surveyed the crowds scurrying like chipmunks to and fro at the starting area, I was full of confidence that I had done the preparatory work to put myself in the best possible position to have a good race. Besides, I was racing with my favorite running shirt with my nickname “Laminator” stenciled in at the back uniform-style and the racing bib baring the uniform number of my favorite sports hero in full display in the front, so how could I go wrong?

The only concern I had that morning was checking on the status of my friend EW, who was not only running his first half-marathon, but in fact his first road race ever. I had done my best to advise him throughout the week to eat, rest, and sleep as much as possible, but must have forgotten something much more obvious as he inexplicably became sick a couple of days before the race! I was somewhat worried that he would have wasted all his training if he wasn’t able to run, so I was very relieved when I finally saw him looking peachy as ever, ready to tackle 13.1. What a trooper! I gave him some last minute pointers to watch his pace, monitor his fluid intake, and have fun before leaving him at his starting corral to stash my sport bag away at the baggage area.

After posing for some photos with long lost friends and exchanging congrats and good lucks with the rest of my Flyer buddies, there was less than ten minutes for me to head over to the start. I moved over to a less crowded area, did some quick leg stretches and striders, and sprinted over to take my place in the starting corral.

The First Quarter (Miles 1-3)

MJ once said, “You can’t win simply by dominating your opponents in the first ten minutes. Instead what you want to do is to establish a tempo, a flow that will carry you through to the finish.” I found myself focusing on his sage advice as the horn sounded signaling the start of the race. Although I was surrounded by bloodthirsting hounds who sought to take advantage of every inch of space I left between me and my competitors, I really didn’t allow myself to be sucked into their aggressive tactics. In my mind, I was only willing to run my race at my own pace. So it really didn’t bother me even as we made the tight left uphill turn when instead of waiting to pass in back of me, a fellow runner used a quick side hop onto the curb to jump right in front of me. My own thought at that instant was “Why are you in such a hurry buddy, we’ve got 13 miles to go!”

The first mile was spent predominantly going uphill over residential streets. Although the spectating crowds were sparsely populated even at the start, their enthusiasm was quite infectious as many of them held up signs that drew some comments even from the frontrunners. Generally, I was too focused on finding oxygen in this early stretch to express my appreciation, I couldn’t help myself from saying thanks to a little girl sitting on her daddy’s shoulders holding up a sign which read “You’re Awesome! We Love You!” For some reason I always get a bit emotional when I come across little reminders during a race that someone who’s watching may actually care that I’m running fast and setting a good example.

A little while after recovering from that emotional catharsis, I crested a tiny hill and found myself arriving at the first mile marker. Although I felt as if I was not running so fast, but just running smoothly and evenly to the rhythm of my own breathing, I was shocked to look down at the Garmin to find that I had clocked a 6:09 for the first mile. Wow, that’s 2 seconds faster than my PR pace for a 4 miler and 31 seconds faster than my half-marathon PR pace! Because I was still breathing comfortably, I fought the urge to slow down considerably but just tried hard to keep pace with those around me.

Mile 2 and mile 3 took us out of the residential section of town and onto a long stretch of gravel road beside some abandoned warehouses and railroad tracks. Although most of the runners would most likely find this stretch somewhat boring, I didn’t mind it as much because it offered me a chance to settle into a steady race pace. The crowd of runners had somewhat separated themselves into different clusters by this point which made it a bit easier to be relaxed even as we’re running fast. When I was able to disassociate my mind from thinking consciously about the racing, I was able to appreciate the specter of the Verranzo-Narrows Bridge off to the left and the ocean breeze whipping the surrounding weeds and trees into a wild synchronous frenzy. Impressively, even as I felt as if I was predominantly entrenched in my surroundings and not paying much attention to the effort at hand, I managed to notch a 6:20 for Mile 2 and 6:19 for Mile 3. I couldn’t believe that through the first quarter I was still running at a sub-10K PR (6:23) pace and feeling great.

The Second Quarter (Miles 4-6)

As we made a quick turn out of the deserted roads, up another hill and onto another small residential neighborhood, I made some quick calculations in my head and realized that I was more than 100 seconds ahead of my PR pace. I wanted to calculate what minimum pace I’d need to run the rest of the way to guarantee my PR, but quickly threw that thought out of my mind. “What would MJ do if Chicago was up big after the first quarter?” I remember asking myself. “Do you think he’d try to pace himself to just beat the other team by a point, or 5 points or 10 points?” “No, he’d continue to execute and play the best basketball he can.” Taking my own mental cues, I refocused my energies to running a fast but steady pace. Because of the positive elevation change, I passed the mile 4 marker at 6:35.

Mile 5 was a bit treacherous for me. Not only was there two big turns and two slight uphill climbs during this stretch, but this is the mile when I remembered thinking seriously that the half-marathon PR might actually fall that day (if I didn’t massively screw up the rest of the way). I also thought about how much I had changed as a runner since the last time I ran this course and PR’d three years ago. At that time, I hadn’t yet run my first marathon yet; now I’ve run four. At that time, I was happy to be struggling to keep a 7 minute mile; now I’m running steady sub-6:40s. At that time, I was running only to keep my mom from commenting on my pot belly. Now, I’m not only running for my own health, but helping many of my friends to do the same for themselves. This has really been an emotional roller-coaster for me. I see the next mile marker in the distance and promised myself that I’d do all I can to commemorate this race with a new PR. After a quick pit stop at a water station, I stride over the mile 5 marker at 6:37, which surprisingly is still ahead of my PR pace of 6:40. Sweet!

Mile 6 took us away from the streets and onto a massive turnpike which would eventually end in a turnaround. Although this mile was straight and devoid of crowds and scenery, it was a thrill knowing that at some point during this stretch, we would see the leaders of the pack as they returned after the turnaround on the opposite side of the rode. Indeed, after about a half mile, I saw the pace motorcycle and then the leader pass me by. About 5 seconds later, the second place guy came streaking by. Then a funny thing happened. No one came down the road for another full 20 seconds! The first two runners were torching the rest of the pack by such a wide margin that it felt as if I was watching the Beijing Olympic Marathon all over again. Somewhere as I was admiring the crowd, and trying to see if there was anyone I’d recognize, I passed the mile 6 marker at 6:21.

The Third Quarter (Miles 7-9)

Although there were sections where the scenery was magnificent and others where the crowds were boisterous and entertaining, mile 7 was definitely the segment I had the most fun running on. After making the turnaround in the beginning portion of this mile, I was on the constant lookout for friends who were coming up on the turnaround on the opposite side as I made my way back onto the main road. I brought quite a few friends along on this race so there were more than a few waves and loud shout-outs as I ran this mile. Things had evened out significantly around me at this portion of the race so it was quite easy for my friends to spot me coming up from a distance. (After the race, a few of them mentioned to me that they could tell I was running a blistering pace by the scarcity of runners around me, a fact which escaped my attention as I was running.) Mile 7 was passed briskly at 6:41.

As fun as mile 7 was to run, mile 8 would be just as torturous for as predicted in the middle of this mile lies was the longest and steepest hill I’d ever encounter since San Francisco. Luckily, as I gingerly made my way up this monstrous speed bump, two things were working with me to keep me calm and motivated. First was the knowledge that I still had over 100 seconds in my PR “bank”, so this hill could not break me no matter how many seconds it’d take me to climb. Second was the fact that just as I was about to make my way uphill, my long lost friend DS gave me the loudest shout-out in the whole borough as she was making her way down the opposite side. The cheer was so loud, I saw two runners next to me turn to look at her. It was more than a little embarrassing, but fit the bill just right for me. In the end, dare I say, the hill ended a bit quicker than I had anticipated. Even the smaller second hill I encountered after turning the corner at the end of the first didn’t seem to bother me as much. I suppose my familiarity with the course and the knowledge that the rest of the course is all relatively downhill after these two uphills kept me relaxed and focused on the task at hand. Mile 8 was completed at a slow but acceptable 6:48.

After cresting the final hill at the end of mile 8, we were greeted with a series of long, smooth downhills in mile 9. Although I had expected my legs to naturally regain the pace that was set out in the earlier miles, in actuality, my body was slowly starting to show signs of fatigue. My turnover was getting slower and my stride was getting shorter. By this point in the race, we were simply retracing our steps, running back on the same roads we had set out on a short while before. As such, there was no new scenery to admire, no new sights to behold. It was starting to become an old-fashioned slugfest all the way to the finish. Without much fanfare surrounding me, I passed through mile 9 marker at 6:35.

The Fourth Quarter (Miles 10-12)

The last few miles were a blur to me, as I couldn’t succinctly remember what I saw or what I passed. For a significantly portion of these tough later miles, I closed my eyes and focused my energies on fighting through the adversity, the boredom, and the soreness, as I’d imagine MJ would do in the fourth quarter of a tough NBA Finals game. I remembered singing the “Be Like Mike” song to the rhythm of my breathing and my shoes hitting pavement. I remembered some kid in a crowd yell out “Go Lam” (I had my name on my shirt) and I waved back. I remembered being annoyed that a few people were passing me but invigorated when I’d pass some people back. At times it was difficult to think next to the ferocity of the heavy breathing all around me. During the hardest parts of the “fourth quarter” miles, I would remind myself how blessed I feel to be having so much fun running so fast on my way to set a spanking new PR. Mile 10 – 6:45; Mile 11 – 6:46; Mile 12 – 6:51.

The Finish (Mile 13-13.1)

Once I passed the last mile marker signaling just 1.1 more to the finish, I became invigorated and took off in a dead sprint toward the finish. There was a part of my subconscious that wanted to remind me that I wasn’t supposed to do this. It wanted to remind me that I wasn’t a finisher, a kicker. I guess I’m more known for coasting my way to the finish rather than picking up the pace. But for whatever reason, as I blasted my way down the ramp and onto the finish, picking off a total of 5 runners in the process, these inspired legs didn’t want to hear about my past that day. It wanted to run in focused. It wanted to run in strong. It wanted to run in proud. Like MJ clutching his trophy after the 4th of his 6 championship runs. I was almost in tears as I poured it on in the final 0.1 miles, claiming vindication from all the doubts and negativity that’s been haunting my running all summer. Final 1.1 mile in 6:51, a 6:13 min/mi pace, my second fastest of the race. Let the celebration begin.

Final Statistics

Finishing Time – 1:25:44 (PR by 1:44!)
Pace – 6:32; Age Graded % - 69.1;
Avg HR – 170; Max HR – 183;
Overall Place – 85/3624 (2.3%);
Age Group Place – 19/765 (2.5%)

16 comments:

Julianne said...

That was a really inspiring race report. I loved how you channeled MJ during the race! You are so going to kick some a$$ in the NYCM!

LIrunner9 said...

Been awhile Laminator thanks for the congrats!! Funny, while I was running SI I wondered amongst the thousands there if you were among the runners that day. Glad to hear you ran it, and even happier to read you CRUSHED it!!! Well done!!

You are going to do VERY well on Nov. 2nd!!!!

jan said...

your site is simply rocking!!!!!!!!1
keep going
have a look at ma blogs..
lance and dude

J said...

Wow great race and great finish! I loved this race report with all the descriptions and I couldn't help but sneak a look at the end (to see your finishing time) when i was reading about mile 8 just to make sure you got the PR!

Congrats!!

Laura said...

Congratulations! Sorry I didn't get to see you - it sounds like you were a lightning fast and amazing force to behold :)

The Happy Runner said...

Fan-flippin-tastic!

I love how you ran off the doubts and negative thoughts. No need for them when you are fast and setting a PR. Congratulations!

That was a terrific race report.

thebets said...

Congrats on the PR!

Betsy said...

Congratulations, Lam! I believe you can fly.

Andrew is getting fit said...

That's a PR and a half! Way to go.

*aron* said...

WOW!! CONGRATS lam!! that is sooo amazing... amazing report and race! this is a good sign for nov 2nd :)

M*J*C said...

AWESOME JOB!!! Your race report was great!!!! I wish I could remember all those details!
You are going to do great in NY!!

joyRuN said...

Congratulations!!

It hurts me just to think about a single 6:32 mile, much less for 13.1 of those puppies strung together. You go!

Jamie said...

Congrats Lam!!! And another fantastic race report to go along with a kick ass race! Fantastic job.

Robert Reese said...

Great run! (And report.) I actually mentioned M.J. to my dad when I called him after the race myself. I was so sick that morning and somehow managed to smash my own P.R. by almost five minutes. It was my own game 5 of the '97 Finals. :-)

Run For Life said...

Wow. Just wow. That's incredible, congrats on the massive PR!

Irish Cream said...

I am super late on this . . . but I just can't help but comment. WOW. Amazing race, Lam, and congrats on the kick-ass new PR! :)

 
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