Friday, December 31, 2010

The Year in Running Review

Hi everyone, remember me? Yes, it's been a while since I've posted. Rest assured though that it's NOT because I've retired from running or blogging. Although I haven't raced since the Joe Kleinerman 10K, I've actually been running pretty consistently, 25-35 miles per week, for the past month. As for the blogging front, I'm actually hard at work designing a new webspace for these essays, posts, and race reports. It's going to be hosted in my own personal website...which is kind of exciting for me! It's still being constructed so I don't want to spill the beans, but once everything is finalized (hopefully in the new week or two), I'll be sure to pass the information along.

As we descend upon the New Year and say goodbye to 2010, I'd be remiss both as a runner and as a blogger if I didn't take a few minutes to survey the training log, reread my race reports and review all the adventures I had in this, my 6th year of running.

The Year in Running Review

2010 was a crazy and magical yet instructive and humbling running year for me. I experienced so much and learned so many things about myself and others that I could write a whole book on the subject and it still probably wouldn't be enough. Alas, because I have neither the time or the resources to invest in this project, I'll condense the verbosity and just give you the monthly highlights.

January - I began 2010 as a Saucony Hurricane. I also joined DailyMile and Twitter. Both of these events were instrumental in my development as a runner this year. I began my racing year by pacing my friend and podcaster IronBrandon to 1:35 finish in the Manhattan Half. Training also officially began for the New Jersey Marathon.

February - This was a pretty blah month for me. It was cold. It was gloomy. There were no races (well there was one scheduled, but I had to bail because of MTA FAIL. Still, I managed to consistently put down three 50+ mile training weeks, which gave me confidence that I could sustain marathon training without injury.

March - Thawing from the deep freeze, my month started with a surprising 5K PR at Coogans. I experimented with barefoot running on the treadmill and indoor jogging track but had to scrap these workouts after sustaining troublesome tendinitis in Achilles and peroneal tendons. I also went down to our nation's capital where I got to meet my Saucony captain, Dorothy and volunteer for the National Marathon.

April - I raced in the inaugural NYC 13.1, found myself in top 10 overall midway through, but got lost and wound up 4th in my AG with 1:24:59. I got interviewed by the local paper but am/was still bitterly disappointed by the finish. I ran the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in DC the following weekend but hadn't recovered sufficiently well to race well that day. I entered the taper the next week and dreamt of a sub-3 finish in NJM.

May - As a prelude to race week, I volunteered for an NYRR 10K in the rain. I wanted good karma for race day. Instead what I got was a supervirus that sidelined me for 3 days and 3 nights and killed my chances for NJM. It was a DNS (the first) for me. Instead, I switched to the half and ran a PW along the shore...on the surface of the sun, 'cause that's what it felt like that day. Two weeks later, I ran Ragnar NY (my first 24-hr relay) and helped my team to a 3rd place CoEd finish. Three weeks later, I ran the Brooklyn Half planning to pace my friend DC to a 1:30 half, but she sustained a hip injury in the first mile, and I had to run the rest from the back of the pack without her.

June - This month started similar to the last. I planned to race, but DNF'd (another first) a 4-Miler in Central Park. I felt a bit lost both literally and figuratively after a back-to-back DNS and DNF. I was wilting under the sun! Luckly, I escaped to milder climes and had some cooler and restorative runs in San Diego. I came back to CP at the end of the month and finished a five mile race in a more respectable pace for me.

July - After recovering from the debacle of failed races the previous two months, I finally forgave myself for not running a spring marathon and rededicated my efforts to training for Chicago in this month. I logged a couple of 60 mile weeks. I ran more consistent tempo work and I also became more focused on diet and nutrition. I also gave up on racing the shorter distances until the winter. The only "race" I entered this month was the Queens Half which, if anyone who ran it would know, was more like a slog through Death Valley than anything resembling a race.

August - I entered a new age group this month. I raced Club Champs and scored for the team. Other than that, it was all about tempo workouts and extended long runs for me. I trained through my first 70+ mileage week and generally felt pretty healthy and strong.

September - The hot weather finally broke and paved the way to impressive gains in fitness for me. I ran a 4-mile points race in Central Park early this month and got a PR and my fastest recorded pace ever. I topped off my marathon training with a peak week of 72 miles and a 22-mile run over the George Washington Bridge and the steep and hilly Palisades Park. Thank goodness there was no taper troubles this time around.

October - Crossing the finish line of the Chicago Marathon (on 10/10/10 in my 10th marathon) and seeing 2:59:55 on the Garmin was the highlight of the year, my running career so far in fact. The fact I had so many fans, friends, Saucony and Flyer teammates witnessing the event and cheering me on just made it all the more special. I was on such a running high after this race that I led a 20 mile training run over three bridges and boroughs for the Flyers the following week!

November - The NYCM was my homecoming marathon. I stationed my friends all along the route and gave them hi-fives as I ran past. It was truly the happiest I've ever felt in the five times I've done this race. Right before Thanksgiving, I went down to Philly Half with IronBrandon hoping to score a half marathon PR. It was not to be though as some shoelace issues forced me to finish about 2.5 minutes off the mark. I also paced my brother to a PR in the Turkey Trot 5 miler and cheered my parents as they participated in their first roadr ace ever.

December - After a mediocre JK 10K, it was finally time to rest and recover. For a couple weeks, I took weekdays off and ran only during the weekends with family and friends. I enjoyed my time reconnecting with old friends and discovering new runs this month. So many times during the year I find myself so involved with my own running and training that I feel isolated and alone in my athletic pursuits. That is why I treasure this off-season phase of "social running". I also found time to participate in the Christmas Marathon (10K version) in Van Cortlandt Park this month and discovered a love of trail running that I never knew I had!

So there you have it folks, my year in running. All-in-all, I ran 2300 miles and participated in 15 racing events. I am proud of myself for all the successes I've achieved this year especially those that were more than a year or two in the making. Although I definitely encountered my share of potholes and hurdles on the roads this year, the treasures and medals I found along the way were well worth the effort.

I am grateful for all of you who took the time to read and comment on my blog this year. Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and adventures with you. Congrats on your own 2010 successes and best wishes for even more amazing 2011! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

How NOT To Have A Bad Race When You're Racing Badly

Just to show that I was indeed a little brain dead and racing in short sleeves and shorts with a bleeding right knee in Sunday's Joe Kleinerman 10K, I present to you this race photo compliments of brightroom. As you can see, despite the pained expression on my face and the blood trickling down the side of my leg, I looked pretty cool and color coordinated despite it being 30 degrees. Score one for me. (Yes, that's the only highlight from my race so I'm milking it for all I've got!)

Over the past few days, while remembering and analyzing the range of emotions I felt during this race, I came across this great Running Times article on Racing Your Best When Feeling Your Worst. In it, the author Matt Pulle discusses how NOT to throw in the towel at the midpoint of a race when things just aren't going your way. The article was apropos to my racing experience in my past two road races (Philly Half, JK 10K) because there were moments during each when it became painfully obvious that a PR would not be in the cards for me that day. My first instinct in each of these circumstances was to just bail and quit. After all, what's the point in racing if the end result would be disappointing or embarrassing anyway? But then, somehow, for some reason, in Philly and then again in Central Park, I continued running and racing hard until the end. How did I managed to salvage what would've otherwise be a poor performance or a DNF?

Although I tried hard to erase those forgettable races from my memory bank as quickly as possible, I still remembered a few tricks and tactics I used to keep my brain occupied and my legs turning over as quickly as possible instead of just giving up. First and foremost, I told myself NOT TO QUIT. In both circumstances, I felt I had to press on because that's what runners do. I also knew that if I gave in to the DNF temptation in these races, it will be that much easier to repeat the same patterned behavior in the future.

Once I convinced myself that quitting was not an option, I began to develop strategies that would motivate me to race the remainder of the course. For starters, I forced myself to devise an alternative goal or plan that seemed somewhat worthwhile to pursue despite having lost the overall battle against the clock. In Philly, it was let's see if I can just run the last 5K faster than I did last year. In the JK 10K, it became a rallying cry to break 40 minutes. When that didn't work, I'd tell myself to forget the race and get back to basics. After all, no matter the result, races are still an extreme form of speedwork, meaning that I can still work on my breathing, my form, and my mechanics even if the rate of forward progress was a little slower than I would have liked. Finally, during the last mile of the respective races, when the physical pain seemed to have caught up to the mental anguish of a disappointing performance, I would force myself to remember (and say) that despite everything, I was still having fun and that racing/running is always better than the alternative. I remember succinctly thanking and appreciating running as I was sprinting toward the finish in the 10K which seemed so awkward to acknowledge in retrospect because I was hurting so much at the time but I needed to remind myself why I was out there in the first place and motivate myself to do the best I can given the circumstance.

Looking bad, I can say that although I'm a little disappointed that I didn't prepare adequately and missed a great opportunity to PR in the 10K and the Half, I'm proud that I didn't fall apart despite the troubles during the race and kept it together to finish each race in a decent time. Personally, I learned it is just as important to know how to race badly as it is to race well since as you gain experience and chase PRs, that's probably more likely to happen than not.

Just curious - What do you guys/gals do to motivate yourselves to race well when the race is going badly? Any tips/strategies for success you'd like to share?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Race Report from the Joe Kleinerman 10K

It's often been stated by those in professional running circles, that in a road race or longer endurance event, a good start does not often equate to ultimate success. Get off to a bad one however, and you can kiss your PR chances goodbye! I must say that prior to today, I'd never given much credence to these esoteric observations. After all, it is the redeeming quality of long distance running, the ability to find "a second wind" and "a second chance at life" despite a poor start that endears me to the sport. But, knowing now the sequence of events that transpired as a result of my bad start to race day, if I had to do today over again, I might have been better off just choosing to stay in bed.

It's a bit sad for me to acknowledge how truly excited I was to run this race just 24 hours ago. As I mentioned at the start of my previous post, this was the last race of the year for me. I desperately wanted to cap off a successful racing season with a newly minted 10K PR. Although I haven't done a full loop of Central Park in several months, I figured that I was familiar enough with the terrain and had enough fitness remaining from marathon training that I still should be able to run a good race.

My aspirations were tempered a bit when I woke up early on race day and found myself shivering from the deep freeze that had developed overnight. A check of the weather forecast quickly confirmed my suspicions. It was going to be 31F at the start in Central Park with winds of 10+ MPH. I debated going back to bed but knew my absence would be felt by both teammates and friends. So I begrudgingly put on my racing attire (shorts and short sleeves with gloves, bandana and compression socks), threw on a couple of additional layers for the long travel into the city and got out the door.

For a subway ride that ordinarily takes about an hour on weekends, I gave myself an additional half hour for the journey just in case. Sitting on an empty 7 train with no other passengers except for two homeless guys sleeping on the seats on the opposite end of the train felt surreptitiously eerie this early on a cold Sunday morning in December. I couldn't remember the last time I voluntarily woke up before dawn to travel so far to run a 10K race. I must want this PR bad, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, my sentiments were not share by the MTA who, despite my best intentions, still managed to delay the 6 train for 20 minutes at the 86th Street Station, leaving us with less than 10 minutes to get to the start when the train pulled into 103rd Street. Knowing that I was in serious jeopardy of missing my corral and the start, I took off in a pull sprint once I got out of the station. I was weaving and dodging the pilgrimage of runners strolling about, counting the minutes and seconds I had left before the start of the race. I ran about a full block before my feet got caught on an uneven section of the pavement and sent me flying toward the ground. I got up as soon as I felt impact, and although I did not feel much pain, I could see that my right knee was badly scraped and bleeding. I continued running, not daring to stop for fear that I'll miss the race.

By the time I got to Central Park, ran to baggage, dropped off my bag, and arrived at the starting line, they were already starting to sing the national anthem. The corrals had already collapsed and I found myself on the wrong side of the barricades at the front of the race with less than 2 minutes to go before the start. I ran toward the back until I could find an opening to squeeze through. I was now squarely in the back of the red corral with the race about to start. Less than a minute later, with my heart rate not yet settled from my race to the start, the command was given and we were off.

As expected, there was a lot of bumping and weaving in the first mile. I ran decisively but conservatively as the start. I squeezed through openings when I could and made my way forward in the crowd until I found some space to operate. Mile 1, 2, and 3 was pretty steady for me as I carried a good effort through Harlem and the West Side Hills. I was careful not to run too fast on downhills or drag too much on uphills knowing there was much more running left to be done. I was on PR pace through 5K but silently wondered whether I had enough to bring it home. Starting at mile 4 though, when I slowed a bit for the first time, my right leg and knee became achy and incongruous with the rest of my body. Although I couldn't identify the exact source of the pain, I could tell that it was beginning to affect my stride. I was obviously injured and thought about DNF'ing right before Cat Hill to save myself the embarrassment of finishing with a bad time and getting further injured. But then I remembered that this was a points race and felt that taking one for the team was more important than my personal welfare. Besides, I was still running albeit at a slower pace than before. I kept my stride short and increased my cadence to compensate as I lumbered over Cat Hill. Once over the hill, I knew there was less than 2 miles to go. Normally, this would be my signal to start sprinting. Today however, despite the ability of my cardiovascular fitness to accommodate this change, my legs just felt uncoordinated and unwilling to sprint. My form was suffering as a result and it was debilitating to see everyone who I passed in mile 1 come back to pass me again. I struggled through to the finish and wasn't able to generate much of a kick in the end. My finish time was 39:50...almost a full minute behind where I expected to be. Although I was able to score for the Flyers (4th on the team), legitimizing my decision to not DNF, I was not at all pleased with my effort, as I ended my 10K with an average pace that equals current half marathon pace.

Despite my troubles, I'm glad I suffered and ran this race even if the final time wasn't up to par with my expectations. I know my performance was not indicative of my current level of fitness but tempered by a freak injury that resulted from my own clumsiness and the unreliable MTA. I'm going to take the rest of this year to run easy, recover, and heal in order to recharge my batteries for an even more spectacular 2011! I already have some preliminary plans that I'm dying to share.

Congratulations to all of you who ran this race! Despite the sub-freezing temperatures and howling winds, there were over 4600 10K finishers today. If there's one thing I take away from this race, it is that runners are hard core. In running with just short sleeves, shorts, bandana and gloves in the race and with blood trickling out of my knee for the entire duration of the race, I became a little more of that myself today.

Final Statistics:
Official Time - 39:50; Pace - 6:25 min/mi
Overall Place - 211/4647
Gender Place - 201/2262
Age Group Place - 37/399
Age Group Percentile - 68.8%
Flyers Men - 4th Place

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Winter Running: My Ever-Evolving Dilemma

As we approach the conclusion of yet another spectacular fall racing season (the Kleinerman 10K on Sunday will be the last race for me in 2010), I am once again faced with a clean slate on my running calendar with no defined scheduled workouts for a month and asking myself the same question that I've heard from numerous running friends for the past week and a half "What are you planning for this offseason? What's your general approach to winter running? Will you be resting and recovering or training hard and racing?"

To be honest, I'm fairly new at this cold weather running game. As recently as a few years ago, I had always equated the finish line of the NYC Marathon as a metaphorical ending to the running and racing year. I'd do a few miles here or there, but once the temperatures began consistently dipping into the 30s, I'd retire the running shoes, lace up the snowboarding boots and hit the slopes instead. For the first 2 years of running, I don't think I've ever managed more than 50 miles a month during the winter. Then in fall of 2007, I did something stupid and qualified for Boston, which meant that my "No winter running" policy would soon have to be modified. To compound my mistake, I fractured my collarbone on a non-contact freak snowboarding accident in early 2008, scarring my tenacity and audacity on the slopes for life. So running during winter for me only started in earnest in early 2009. That year, in preparing for Boston, I was still training mostly indoors on a treadmill, and hitting the roads only when absolutely necessary for long runs in the cold. My accumulated mileage that winter was minimally adequate for marathon training. It resulted in a painful hammy cramp at mile 20, mere steps before Heartbreak Hill. Last winter, I corrected my mistake and got out more than I did before to do long and short runs in the park. Unfortunately, I got sick on race week and never got to run my target spring marathon. So it was impossible to tell whether my training and hard work during the winter actually benefited me. What it did though, was forced me to become more aware of and learn to treat my own overuse injuries, since I was essentially running nonstop for the better part of two years.

So this brings me to this winter. It is a little daunting to think about, because it's already cold and windy and it isn't even the official start of the season for another 3 weeks! Nevertheless, I think this winter will be a productive one in terms of running. For the first time since I don't know when, maybe forever, I will spend the next month or longer in logging miles with no intervals, no speed, and no pressure of racing. It will strictly be a period of rest, recovery, yet maintaining a stronger aerobic base on which more race specific workouts can be built upon at a later date. I will not be racing (except for possibly the Manhattan Half at the end of January as a benchmark). Rather, I'll be running with friends, family and others who I don't get to run with ordinarily because they don't run my pace. For this base building phase however, I will openly and gladly make exceptions. Most importantly, I plan to have fun when I'm out in the cold and snow. I want to enjoy my time on the roads, even if it's slow. I know the speed, like the birds, will return in the spring. I'm not worried. Let's together get through this bitter winter first.

Now that you've heard mine, what's your winter running story? Will you be or not be seen running when it's cold? Let me know so I can look out for you. We can commiserate together...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First Family Run on Turkey Day
Race Report from the 2010 Garden City Turkey Trot

When asked what to do when you find yourself getting annoyed by other's inability to measure up to your expectations, a wise man once said "Just give them time. Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you." (Actually, this wasn't just some anonymous wise man, this was Randy Pausch. And this wasn't just a random quote. This is an excerpt from his famous Last Lecture. If you haven't heard it yet, you should. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy and take careful notes...)

Since for as long as I could remember I had always been the solo runner in the family, the only one who runs, the only one who trains and the only one who's ever completed a registered race of any distance. This all changed last year when my little brother joined me on Thanksgiving for the Turkey Trot (read 2009 race report here). He ran well that day in completing his first ever road race. My parents were on the sidelines that day cheering and spectating for my brother and I. It was a bit surreal to race by my parents that day because I never imagined them there but it was extremely fun to have them see me running so well that day. (It was a PR race for me) Up until a few days ago, that remain the last time my whole family ever drove up together for the same race.

Imagine my surprise then when my brother announced a week ago that BOTH my parents would be joining my brother and I in running the Turkey Trot this year! Unbeknowedst to me, both of them have started running with my brother to get ready for this five mile race. I was skeptical at first because I had never known either of my parents to be much interesting in running, much less racing. So I contained my excitement and went about my business in the weeks and days leading up to the race. It was only after we all drove up to the start, parked, got our packets and saw my parents and brother pinning bibs to their race shirts, did I hear my inner voice go "HOLY @#$%, WE'RE ALL REALLY DOING THIS!" We took several pictures to commemorate our first family race and headed off to the start.

The conditions were a little brisky (40F) and there was a slight breeze in the air when the four of us took our respective places for this race. The preliminary race plan as my brother and I conjured up the night before was that I was going to run with my brother while my dad was going to run with mom the whole way through. Since the finish is right next to mile 3.5 of this 5 mile course, my brother and I would jump right back in with my parents after we were done so we could finish up this race together as a family.

My brother and I lined up somewhere between the 7 and 8 minute pace signs while my parents mozzied off to the back. (We projected them to run 11-12 minutes miles so we thought a finish time of an hour would be a good result for them!) After a few minutes of admiring the old, the young and everyone in between, there was a quiet "Go!" shout from up in the front, and we were off!

The plan for me was to pace my brother to a 7:30 start in mile one and then accelerate to finish every subsequent mile about 10 seconds faster. He has a tendency to be too conservative at the start when racing so my goal was to help him get off to a strong start. Unfortunately, this race was very crowded with no corrals and tight turns and despite my best intentions, we crossed mile 1 at 7:35. Mile 2 was better as the crowds thinned and we were able to make up ground gradually. I was aiming for a 7:20 for this mile, but my brother was cruising so I just ran along side and allowed him to dictate the pace. Mile 2 was passed in 6:50. After a turn into a mild ascent, his pace gradually slowed and he dragged behind me. We took some water at a water stop and I pressed him to maintain his speed. Mile 3 was done in 7:08. Mile 4 was a bit rough. There was a tough hill, we were passing by the finish and my brother was gassed. I tried some inspirational sayings but it sounded bland. I tried some power songs, but forgot the lyrics. It wasn't my best motivational moment to say the least. After it was over in 7:15, I counted down the meters from 1600 to 800 to 400 until we could see the finish up ahead. He kicked it in and blistered the last mile in 6:40 for 35:29 finish and a 10 minute PR from the race a year ago! He was absolutely spent at the finish but I think he did a fantastic job!

After we recovered a bit, we ran over to mile 3.5 and waited for mom and dad to show. We waited and waited. 40 minutes passed, than 50 minutes. We got worried. Luckily, the finish was just within footsteps of where we were, because as it turned out, mom and dad both finished their races in sub-52 minutes! They ran faster than even we gave them credit for. It was simply amazing!

The rest of Thanksgiving was spent with each of us regaling tales of the race from our individual perspectives. I was happy to run with lil bro for his massive PR. My brother was proud that we ran together as a family and is already scheming to recruit aunts, uncle and cousins to join us next year. Dad vowed he could've taken a few minutes off if he wasn't deliberately keeping it slow for Mom while Mom is already visualizing an age-group award in her next turkey trot (that is, after we found out she would've won her age group out right if she were a year older!). In fact, both my parents wore their turkey trot race shirts to Thanksgiving dinner with my extended family and for the rest of the day!

I am really proud of my entire family for their efforts in this race. Everyone ran their best. Everyone did well. Most importantly, they made me especially grateful for their health and happiness and the important role that running has played in each of our lives. Happy Thanksgiving one and all!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Philadelphia Half Marathon
Race and Spectator Report

I went down to Philly this weekend and ran a half marathon today. This was the same race I ran last year so I had every reason to believe I'd do well, perhaps even PR again. Maybe it's because I was so confident I "knew" this course that I took it for granted and did not prepare adequately to run my best. I went through the motions and figured I'd just run to comfort and let things just take care of itself. I somehow convinced myself that my race wasn't all that important because my main reason for coming to Philly this weekend was to spectate and cheer my friends running the full marathon. I was running the half so I wouldn't have to stand out in the cold and wait as long for friends to finish and also so I wouldn't feel as guilty and lame watching the race from just in front of the Rocky statue at mile 26. I had no plan and that was perhaps my biggest problem.

Things for me went well for the first 4-5 miles. Although it was quite cold (~40F) at the start, I actually felt very comfortable running. I started very conservatively and was speeding up through the early going, running between 6:15-6:25 every mile, on pace for a PR, when my shoes felt loose and my laces suddenly became untied! That's when I realized I had absolutely forgotten to check my laces or double-knot them prior to this race. I cursed myself, pulled off to the side, took care of them the best I could with my cold numb fingers, and got back on the road only to find myself in that same predicament one mile later and a third time at mile 8. I figured I lost in total about 2 minutes of time because of my shoelace issues. Once I realized my race was ruined, it was hard to refocus on running fast again. Yet, I still managed to pull off a better finishing 5K time this year on my way to 1:26:54 than I did last year when I ran 2 minutes faster and set my PR there. I'm not sure there's a good takeaway from this race for me except to realize that I STILL make rookie running mistakes and I cannot just roll out of bed and run a good race even if my hotel was less than 2 blocks away from the start of the race! This is all right. I was humbled by running today. I feel you need to be that way sometimes to appreciate the training and the races where everything comes together. (One final takeaway from this race is that whoever is advertising Philly to be a flat course obviously did not run this race!)

Afterwards, I cleaned up, hiked to mile 26 and waited for the rest of the field to come through the finish. Unfortunately, my fellow compatriot who accompanied me on this trip, IronBrandon, developed G.I. issues at 11 and had to pull out at the half marathon point. (I'll let him tell you all the rest of the story...) Many others though did complete their journey and became marathoners. I even got to run a few hundred feet with my friend Madame Erica as she came through mile 26. I had so much fun cheering and spectating that I didn't even mind not running a good half earlier in the day. A couple of people even recognized and identified themselves to me as avid blog readers out on the course today, which was completely awesome!

So this trip was more about positives than negatives for me. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and watching them all become marathoners in the span of a few hours. It was a universal love fest for long distance running in Philly this weekend and I'm just so proud and happy that I got to be a part of the celebration.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Homecoming: The 2010 NYC Marathon
Part IV - The Bronx, 5th Ave and The Finish

Coming to Terms with Da Bronx

Ever since my first NYCM, I've always thought of the short jaunt through the Bronx as a visit through my own personal hell. In past years, I've cramped here, I've walked here, I've even once thought about DNF'ing here. It's no wonder then why I continue to have nightmares about this place well in advance of the race. This time though, as I strode confidently into the belly of the beast, the underworld of the Bronx, shortly after the 20th mile, I was not at all worried about my legs or my pace. I was more concerned with finding my Flyer friends on the left side of the road coming off the bridge and then running back to the right sidelines to find my other group of Flyer friends right before the next bridge.

But find them I did and I was able to double-high-five both parties (of two each) prior to exiting the borough in the 21st mile. My times for both the 20th (7:33) and 21st mile (7:07) were very pedestrian at first glance but they actually represent one of the fastest times I've ever recorded running through here. My effort was helped out by a Flyer lady teammate DC who called out to me as she was running. I was a little shocked to see her there. Since her self-reported projected time was about 10 minutes slower than I'd figured I'd run today, I didn't know whether she was having an exceptional day or whether I was just running exceptionally slow. In either case, I was reminded by her presence that I should run faster in earnest just because I could.

Reaching the Madison Ave Bridge, I found myself running back into Manhattan at a faster pace than I did when I left a couple of miles ago. I was grateful that my legs held out well for the most part through the borough that had always given me such trouble in the past. Although my legs were started to grow a little weary and my hamstrings a little bit tight, I was happy to know that the finish line was just a 5 mile jog through Central Park away.

Hi Five Tally for The Bronx - 3; Total - 24.2

Running with Lil Bro on 5th Ave

The crowds were spilling onto the streets by the time I made my way back to West Harlem and back on 5th Avenue. Between pedestrians trying to cross through the marathon route and runners cramping and walking along the course, I had difficulty finding much running room on this stretch. I kept my eyes peeled to the left side for my brother who I was expecting at mile 22 to jump in and run a mile with me. As I looked around, wondering if/when he was going to show, I felt myself wondering if he'd be able to hold my speed now that I was running sub 7 minute pace again.

At mile 21.8, right before the course hits Marcus Garvey Park, I spotted my brother, gave him a high-five and he jumped in to run with me. Actually, I believe it was my cousin J who first spotted me out on the course and had the wherewithal to record this video documentation of my brother joining me in the race.

To this day, I have no idea how she managed to turn on the videocamera at the exact moment as I was coming through. (Major kudos to Cuz for the shot!)

Tackling the 5th Ave Mile with my brother was a major highlight of this race for me. Not only have I dreamt about this exact scenario on many occasions in the past, but now that it was actually happening here, in between the 22nd and 23rd miles of the NYC marathon, which in the past versions of this race have been dedicated to my brother and my sister respectively, made the entire experience very surreal for me. We ran easy, we ran fast, and we passed more people (including Minnie, a fellow teammate, and a CPTC'er!) than I ever though I could running uphill on 5th Ave. At times, it felt was as if we were rollerblading while everyone else was standing still! Yes, it felt that good. We held a strong pace until I bid him adieu at the entrance to Central Park at Engineer's Gate. Mile 22 in 6:56. Mile 23 in 7:09. It was the best two miles EVER!

Finishing Strong in Central Park

After leaving my brother in the outskirts of Central Park, I maintained a strong pace all the way through to the end. In my mind, after mile 23 was passed, it was just a 5K to the end and it was for the most part downhill. I stopped for a second or two to hi-five two twitter/DM friends Sam and Madame Erica in front of Cleopatra's Needle but otherwise it was pretty much an all out sprint to the finish. Although the objective data weren't very impressive (Mile 24 in 7:22, Mile 25 in 7:18, Mile 26 in 6:59), it was the fastest closing stretch I've ever run in my hometown marathon. Not only so, but I also managed to cross the finish line in sub-3:05, which was a loose time goal I had when I was planning this run out in my head.

Hi Five Tally for 5th Ave/Central Park - 2;
Final Count for NYC Marathon - 26.2

After The Finish
The post race festivities were awesome as many teammates and I gathered at a local bar to share a few pints, show off our medals and regale each other with our race stories. The best post-race moment for me though came immediately after the finish when I met up with my brother and cousin after the race and they asked if I had seen their sign. "What sign?" I asked. Then they hi-fived each other, laughed and showed me this.
It was the best sign I NEVER saw while running the New York City Marathon!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Homecoming: The 2010 NYC Marathon
Part III - Queens & First Ave

Finding Family in Queens

It had gotten sunnier and significantly warmer now as I made my way through mile 14. I had thrown away my gloves back at mile 5 but was still wearing my arm sleeves that I started the race with. Because I was expecting my brother in the next half-mile, I took off my sleeves here anticipating a drop-off once I saw him. As I did, I ran by DM friends Susan and Robin who I did not expect to be watching the race from out in Queens. It was nice to see them although I was too preoccupied at the time to give them a hi-five. I continued on hoping to find them later on in the course.

Less than a minutes later, right off a turn, I spotted two Flyer friends LG and DL and gave them each a quick high-five. They were good friends of mine and residents of Queens so it energized me to see them there. I wanted to stop for a chat but thought better of it since I knew many friends in Manhattan would be expecting me to keep time.

At the end of this busy block, almost right at the entrance to the Queensboro Bridge, I found my little brother, my cousin and her financee for the first time that day. This was the first time my brother has ever watched me run a marathon, so it was tremendously exciting for me to see him on the sidelines cheering. Not only so, but since he had recently picked up running earlier this year, I hoped that by experiencing the fervor of the marathon firsthand, he'd get excited about distance running and maybe attempt NYCM someday soon too.

Upon reaching my family members, I gave them each a well deserved hi-five, but didn't say too much since I knew I'd be seeing them twice more later. I dropped off my arm sleeves with my brother, said hi and continued on.

Hi Five Tally for Queens - 6; Total - 11.2

Double Dipping with Flyers and Friends on Manhattan (1st Ave)

Reaching the Queenboro Bridge felt somewhat of a bittersweet victory for me. More than half the race was already over, my knee pain which came on insidiously at mile 8 had somehow disappeared in Queens, and even as I was climbing the bridge, I was passing waves of runners and feeling as strong as I've ever felt at this stage of the marathon. Still, I couldn't help but feel as if my pace could've and should've been better had I allowed myself to race. My time became so irrelevant to me that I forgot to press lap on my Garmin and check my pace at mile 14! So all I had as I pass by 15 was a 2-mile split of 14:24 for the section of Queens. But as I began to wonder if all this fun was worth sacrificing another chance to run a great race, I saw an Achilles runner with a mangled leg slowing walking with a cane up the Queensboro Bridge. All of us runners clapped and cheered him on as he crested the hill. This inspirational effort reminded me that my race today wasn't really about me. It's about the spirit of the marathon and sharing this homecoming experience with family and friends who have supported and encouraged my passion to run. As I began my decent into Manhattan, I briefly reviewed my preconceived game plan of where I was going to run and who I was going to see and almost instantaneously became happy and emotional that I will soon be arriving at the mecca of running, 1st Avenue in the NYCM, once again.

The crowds coming off the bridge and up the first portion of First Avenue was as heavy, loud, and dense as I had remembered it in years past. Although I enjoyed the loud cheering and fed off their energy as I made my trek toward the Upper East Side, it was difficult to find friends spectating along the heavily populated route. I missed my bloggy pal Dori and another who had a sign for me. I did however find my good friend MT who was my lucky charm in Chicago and a long running friend AG who was right where he said he'd be. I registered both of their hi-fives before continuing on.

A little further north, once I'd pass by mile 16 in 7:08 and mile 17 in 7:07, I found myself at the Flyer PowerGel Station without much clue as to how i'd make it individual and fun. I originally intended just to run by the PowerGel gauntlet and hi-five everybody in line (like I did last year) and leave. However, once I reached the end of the line and realized that I had not yet seen my good Flyer friend BS, I quickly decided to run back the half block to the start of the PowerGel gauntlet line and run through again. Although I did not see BS and I gave hi fives to essentially the same people, the second time down the gauntlet was every bit as fun as the first. The look of deja' vu on people's faces were absolutely hilarious and way worth the price of admission. Despite the 15-20 Flyers who received hand slaps from me, I am tallying this escapade down the gauntlet as merely 8 since I recognized and remembered at least that many faces and names.

Needless to say, I was revitalized and reengaged with the race for a little while after that brief Powergel station interlude. Unlike me, many runners were already sagging and fighting cramps at this point. I felt a little guilty for feeling good as I passed them by, remembering back to the days when I too felt like crap fighting my body and the road the whole way up north. Mile 18 (with extra mileage added on) was passed in 7:56 while mile 19 was completed in 7:11. I received another jolt of energy when I saw my brother and cousin again just before the entrance to the Willis Avenue Bridge. They were a little further down the road than I expected them to be, but seeing them just before mile 20 was totally awesome for me. We made arrangements to meet one final time on 5th Ave before I left to face my own personal demons in the Bronx.

Hi Five Tally for First Ave - 10; Total - 21.2

Monday, November 15, 2010

Homecoming: The 2010 NYC Marathon
Part II - The Start & Brooklyn

The theme of the New York City Marathon this year was "I'M IN. WE'RE IN." I wasn't sure what it meant when I first saw this message on a subway ad on my way to work. I didn't know what it mean when I saw it on the back cover of my registration packet. It wasn't until I heard it from Mary Wittenberg in an interview for the marathon on a local news program a few days before November 7th that the simple message hit home for me. As a runner in the NYC Marathon, no one ever runs alone. Besides the 50,000+ who will be joining me in the annual exodus from Staten Island to Central Park, there will be countless thousands of volunteers, police officers, medical personnel, sanitation workers, and of course the 2,000,000+ who will be watching from the sidelines, cheering the runners on. So no matter where you are a runner, a volunteer, a officer, a spectator, or just someone watching the 5 hour marathon coverage on NBC, everyone in town is involved on some level with the race. Everyone for that one day is a part of the NYC marathon experience.

In many ways, the goal of NYRR to create an interactive communal marathon experience between runners, neighbors, friends and spectators mirrors my own objectives for this race. In each of the previous 3 years, NYCM has always been a target race for me. Whether the goal was to BQ, PR, or run sub-3, I've always been concerned with time, speed, and pace while running this marathon. Each time I ran I would see many fellow runners, especially the European contingent, purposely run along the sidelines to give everyone hi-fives. Some runners would even peel off mid-race just to have a beer or jump into a crowd of friends for a quick picture or two. They all seem to have so much fun! I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a twinge of envy every time I saw these events as I ran by. I wondered many times whether I'd ever allow myself to not race this marathon all-out but run a little slower just to enjoy the festivities and have a little fun. This year, after finally reaching my sub-3 goal in Chicago, and given that I will likely have many friends and family out cheering for me, I figured that I'd use this opportunity to interact with the crowds and run this marathon as a homecoming race. What follows then is the story of my interactive fun run through 26.2 miles (and 26.2 hi-fives) in the five boroughs of New York City.


Thoughts at The Start

Even as I huddled with a handful of others about an hour before the start in a makeshift tent at the Local Competitive Start on Fort Wadsworth, quietly reviewing the list of friends and family I was expecting to see and where they'd be out on the course that day, I felt utterly out of place and unprepared for the task at hand. For one thing, this was my first time starting off the marathon from the lower level of the Verrazano Bridge in the Green Start (I had always been Blue up at the top in years past), and second of all, I wasn't sure I belong in this elite field since I wasn't planning on racing this marathon (I was urged by my running group and NYRR friends not to sacrifice my spot since it's considered an honor to be there, even though for many reasons, I'd preferred my previously assigned Orange Start). Add to it the fact that it was bitterly cold and windy at the start and I had forgotten to pack breakfast for the hour-and-half trek over to Staten Island from Queens, I was afraid to consider the natural progression of this day that was already off to such an inauspicious start.

I felt considerably better a short while later when I began to see more friends and teammates trickling into the corral. I left my spot in the secluded tent which wasn't offering much protection from the cold anyway and went over to hang with the others members of my running club, the New York Flyers. We all complained about the wind and the cold but similarly agreed that the weather conditions were pretty ideal for a great race. After experimenting with a different assortment of clothing options the night before, I finally settled on my Saucony singlet, shorts with gloves, armsleeves and black bandana to run with for the day. I debated whether a long-sleeve tech would have been more appropriate for the frigid conditions, but given that I tend to get more hot than cold in the middle of long runs and I was unfamiliar with running with long sleeves during a marathon, I went with the "less is more" clothing option thinking I could always shed my sleeves mid-race once they are no longer needed.

Finally, the call to start came and everyone shuffled off to the on-ramp of the lower deck of the Verrazono to await the beginning of the race. Clothes and plastic bottles began flying toward the air as everyone collectively prepared for the race ahead. I tried to listen to the introduction of the elites and the festivities on the upper deck but the sounds were barely perceptible amidst the chatter around me. It barely annoyed me though. Staring at the bare road just beyond the start, in the middle of a sea of humanity all speaking in different languages, I felt as if I was at the precipice of an epic adventure about to take place. As the clock right above the start counted down the minutes and seconds to the start of the race, I couldn't have imagined a better place to be on a Sunday morning in NYC.

Touring Through Brooklyn

Having survived the wind tunnel that was the Verrazano and the solitude that was the first few miles of this race, I found myself running down the mean streets of Brooklyn trying to find friends as well as my rhythm and pace. I was loosely checking my pace at the mile markers but knew that they would lose significance the further along I ran. Still, I was surprised that my first three mile splits (7:18, 6:22, 6:48) were exactly how I'd plan them to be even if I were racing. I was running very comfortably at this point, acquiescing at every encounter to those around me who wanted to take it out hard.

At mile 4.5, I saw my first friend CD way on the left side of the course. Because I was running on the right and there was a barrier separating us, I couldn't run over to greet him like I wanted. Instead I found a younger guy, looking way too enthusiastic and yelling too vociferously for 10AM on a Sunday and slapped his hand instead. He gave me a loud cheer as I ran by.

Miles 4, 5, 6, and 7 were fun for me as I ran in and out of the side lanes, trying to find the perfect balance between keeping a good pace and finding funny/interesting people to hi-five. I gave hand slaps to a young lady who said via poster that "All Runners are Sexy", a co-worker and her friend who I found coming out of a water stop (with Gatorade pouring out of my nose) and a funny guy with 26.2 painted on his forehead who looked like someone I knew, but wasn't (oh well). My greatest find though was a little girl who couldn't have been taller than my knees clapping her hands and dancing on the side. I gave her a hand slap figuring since she's about 20% of my height, she'll count as .2 of a full high five. My pace for these miles hardly reflected the fun I was having (6:42, 6:48, 6:43, 6:48)

Having seen or passed everyone I was expected to see in Brooklyn (some were missing in action or on the wrong side of the street, Boo!), I concentrated my energy back on my own race and focused on maintaining a good rhythm and form for the rest of this borough. Unfortunately, as soon as I made the conscious decision to pay attention to me, there was a turn in the road followed by a sudden gradual uphill climb and I felt a twinge in the back of my right knee. It was not serious or debilitating, but it did concern me and made me aware that I have to temper my expectations and not push pace.

I eased my foot off the gas pedal gradually, running 6:50s for miles 8-10 (6:52, 6:54, 6:51) and 7:00s for miles 11-12 (7:01, 7:04). Although the crowds were boisterous and supportive here, I lost a little interest in my own race during these miles once I realized I had no shot at sub-3 or a course PR. I was eager to just get them done and find what awaits me in my home borough of Queens. My enthusiasm for escaping Brooklyn was reflected in my pace for mile 13 (6:56). I crossed the half in 1:29:56, more than a minute behind where I was at this point in Chicago but cautiously optimistic that the best parts of this race were still to come.

Hi-Five Tally for Brooklyn - 5.2

Monday, November 8, 2010

Homecoming: The 2010 NYC Marathon
Part I - The Race Result

Yesterday, I ran the NYCM and as promised, had the most FUN I've ever had in a marathon! For the first time, I allowed myself to enjoy the spectacle of the race in front of family and friends with no pacing strategy and no race goal in mind and had an absolute blast.

In between 26.2 miles (actually more like 27.1 miles according to Garmin), I hi-fived 26.2 people, I ran through the Flyer PowerGel Station TWICE, ran with my brother for 1.2 miles, conquered Fifth Avenue, and had enough in the end to race the last 5K.

It was a whirlwind of a race and I completely enjoyed myself. Thanks goes out to all friends, family, Flyer peeps, blog/DM/Twitter buddies, co-workers, and everyone in between who came out and spectated yesterday. I think I was about 80% successful in hi-fiving all of you on my spreadsheet (double-hi fives counts as two right?).

Of course, there will be a much longer race report to come! (Don't worry...no seven parter though). In the meantime, for those who specifically care about the digits, here are mine:

Finishing Time - 3:04:52
Average Pace - 7:03 min/mi
Overall Place - 1236
Gender Place - 1156
Age Place - 260
NY Flyer Men - 3rd

Congratulations to all who ran the NYC Marathon yesterday! Thanks for being a part of the most spectacular annual event in New York City!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Getting Ready for NYCM: Old Race, New Goals

"If Chicago was your VICTORY dance, then New York City should be your HOMECOMING!" A friend had suggested this a week or so ago when I was still too exhausted from 10/10/10 to think about my own motivations for running this race. After all I had already achieved my big hairy audacious goal (or BHAG) earlier this fall so I have every right to run this race with no expectations and no goals. The curious thing though is that as race day appears closer and closer and I find myself running less and less (in the spirit of the "taper"), I have begun to secretly question what NYCM means to me and what I hope to accomplish in this, my fifth version of the race. That's when I realize that I'll never be able to run a marathon with no objectives or goals. Even if times and pace are not what I'm after, I still must have a set of criteria or measurements of success to focus and chase after that is applicable and worthwhile to me. Otherwise, a marathon will be no different than just another 26.2 mile training run, with a few extra friends and spectators along the way. Not only so, but this is the NYC MARATHON, the biggest of the big city marathons. Hundreds of thousands have tried but not many actually get to run this spectacular race. Running to Central Park from the depths of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island the first Sunday of every November has become a sacred annual pilgrimage for me. As those who have run it will say and those who have not run it yet will soon find out, the NYCM is a special race unlike any other.

Towards that end, to commemorate my 5th running of this race, I'd like to present:


My 5 Goals for the 2010 NYC Marathon

1. To Have More Fun Than I've Ever Had - In each of the four previous times I've run this race, it's always been about times and goal paces and PRs and BQs. For the first time on this course, I want to run this one for FUN! Although I will not run in costume or hop off for lunch on 1st Ave, like some have suggested I do, I plan to have the most fun I've ever had regardless of time. Just how I'm planning to have my fun is for me to plan and for you to find out on race day.

2. To Acknowledge and Greet as Many Friends as I Can - Ever since Chicago I've been thinking that marathons are a lot like weddings. Although the planning and execution falls on the actual participants, the main purpose of the actual ceremony and reception is to announce and celebrate the occasion with fans, the family and friends who've supported the couple all along. Similarly, I want to share the joy of running NYCM with friends and spectators who'll be lined up in various sections of the course. I've never been the best at spotting friends or acknowledging crowds in my previous marathons. I hope to change that this time around.

3. To Run More Consistently Than I Ever Have in NYCM - By now, everyone knows that NYCM is not an easy course to run. There are massive bridges to climb, sharp turns to navigate and tough hills to conquer. However, I believe that having run the course four times before, I have somewhat of an advantage on the mean streets of NYC. So one of my goals this year will be to negotiate this course and maintain a stable consistent pace throughout. If I can keep my mile times all within a 30-second window between the fastest and slowest mile, I would consider that a victory for me.

4. To Run One Mile with My Brother...His Mile on 5th Ave - To date, none of my immediate family has ever come out to watch me run this race. However, this coming weekend, my little brother will be out there among the spectators to see my run. To commemorate this momentous occasion, I've asked him to accompany me to run just a mile, HIS mile, on 5th Ave. I'm hoping this will inspire him to run a little farther a little faster so that one day in the near future we can tackle the entire 26.2 mile distance together. I'm hoping anyway.

5. To Crush FIfth Avenue - I've always had trouble with this long slow uphill mile along the side of the venerable Central Park. From my first marathon where I had to crawl 2 city blocks here to reach the medical tent (to fix my cramped up legs), to last year's version where I was on pace for sub-3 until I fell apart and had to walk a portion of this hilly route, I have always thought of 5th Avenue as Mile 23 or the place where dreams die. However this year, I would love nothing more than to return the favor and beat Fifth Avenue with the help of my brother and friends. If I can escape the jaunt at anything faster than my slowest mile up to that point, I would claim victory over my NYCM archnemesis, the Fifth Avenue Mile.

Now that I've got my goals set, I think I'm ready for NYCM! In six days, I will be running again. It will be GAME ON! I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Perfect Tenth
Race Report from the 2010 Chicago Marathon
Part VII - Post Race Analysis

Now that you've all seen the pictures and read the story of how my sub-3 in Chicago came to be, I guess it's time to close the book on this epic marathon. After all, New York is coming up in a little over a week and I need to get my head back in the "Empire State of Mind", if you know what I mean. But before I (finally) leave Chicago behind, I'd like to take this opportunity to assess my physical and mental approach to this race as a whole and point out five major reasons why I think this race worked out well for me.
1. Effort-Based Pacing - Unlike any of my previous attempts at sub-3, I lined up at the start of this marathon not knowing EXACTLY what my pace plan should be. Because of a minor flu I'd been dealing with all week and the volatile weather that were expected on race day, I didn't know what my body was capable of on race morning. As a result, I made myself a pact not to calculate paces or projected finishing times except at major checkpoints (ex. 10 miles, half marathon, 20 miles). My plan was not to use an arbitrary time as a gauge of whether to speed up or slow down in every mile. Rather, I was going to rely one my own self-perceived effort as a guide to how I ought to be running every mile. Even in the last 10K, when I knew I was closing in on 3 hours, I did not dare look down at my watch. Instead, I told myself just to sprint and run to the best of my ability. I felt that if I could do that and give every ounce of energy I had left out on the course, then I could really be happy and proud knowing there would be no regrets, regardless of my final time.
2. 20 Mile Run 10K Race - Even as I was running well and feeling good for somuch of this race, I kept reminding myself that the first 20 miles is just the appetizer to the entree, the preface to the story, the prelude to the race. Although I felt I controlled my pace well through the first 20 miles and only allowed myself to "race" the last 10K, it wasn't until I compared my splits in this race to the ones from my last sub-3 attempt in 2009 NYCM did I realize how applicable the pace/race metaphor would be. If you performed a side-by-side comparison of the 5k split times between the two races, you'd see that I was only 7 seconds faster at the half and only 6 seconds faster at the 30K split in Chicago! This means that all the speed and fitness gains I experienced this summer compared to last year did not make any difference in the first 18.6 miles but resulted in a tremendous difference in the last 12.2K. This was a bit shocking to me because I assumed and convinced myself that I was running so much faster this year especially in the early going as compared to last year. Boy was I wrong!
3. Hydration - As many have said, this was a very warm marathon. We knew this was going to be the case all race weekend. Some chose to "freak out" and just ignore the sun. Others had a contingency plan to drop out or slow down when it got too hot. I told myself on race morning to realistic about my chances and just run as fast as I could without burning out. One thing that was nonnegotiable though was a self-imposed decree to drink 3 cups of fluids at every single water station, regardless of how I felt. This impromptu hydration plan not only kept me out of trouble for most of the race, I was so well hydrated that I was able to skip the last 2 water stops as I sprinted toward the finish line. That has never happened to me before.
4. Blessings in Disguise - Remember the guy that bumped into me at mile 23...causing my body to stop running and my right leg to seize? At the time, I thought it was an absolute disaster. For a few seconds, I thought my race was over. But after making sure I wasn't seriously hurt, I got angry at him and at the world and sprinted harder to the finish than I've ever previously done in a marathon. Now looking back, I doubt I would've sprinted so fast without his "intervention". What I thought at the time was the worst thing that could happen to me turned out to be exactly what I needed to nailed down the sub-3. Go figure.
5. Friends - Last but certainly not least, I had the fortune of having so many friends around for this race. From my friend MT who came to town just to see me race to Redhead Morgan who spectated at mile 22 to the Saucony Hurricanes who introduced themselves to me over dinner to all the NY Flyers who came and cheered, and took pictures and kept me entertained the whole 26.2, I never felt more supported and motivated to run fast than I did that day. To everyone in whatever capacity you played, big or small, including my twitter, FB, and DM friends, to make my dream a reality, thank you so very much for the support and inspiration. I appreciate every kind word, every encouragement you've sent, and every supportive comment you've left my way. Chicago Marathon, 10-10-10, will always be memorable and special to me. ALWAYS.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Perfect Tenth
Race Report from the 2010 Chicago Marathon
Part V - The Final 10K

During the Saucony Hurricanes team dinner Friday night, I found myself seated right between a woman who was about to run her first marathon and a guy who just completed the Leadville 100 miler for the fifth time earlier this year. Although the discussion topics varied and the conversation flowed effortlessly between us, there was one particular question that the marathon rookie asked that hung in the air for longer than it should - During the marathon, what happens after mile 20? As I entered the twilight zone otherwise known as mile 21 of the Chicago Marathon, I found my mind asking my body the same thing.

I've been here before, I was sure. But somehow it feels different. I see people with their head down faces transfixed in a daze walking, limping, struggling to move forward and it reminds me of me, how I was, how I used to be during this mile. But now I am not, I am running. My hamstrings and quads are becoming sore and my back is starting to hurt just a little but I am running! I take another GU, my third of the day, to celebrate. If I could run sub 7 minutes miles for 6 more miles, I will be golden.

I turned a corner at 20.5 to begin my final out and back loop on Chicago's South Side and see my Flyer teammate SH standing and cheering alone on the side. Given that this part of the course was relatively dead with minimal crowd support, I was surprised to see her there. I stick out my tongue to show my fatigue but she just laughs and snaps a photo of me as I ran by. I wanted to thank her but had no energy so I just continued on.

Relative to the others on the course, I thought I was running well. I was running strong. I passed many with ease and never felt like I was slowing down. So it was a little demoralizing when I passed the mile 21 marker in a very pedestrian 7:02. This was the first mile I'd registered over 7 and served as further evidence that I was starting to fade.

My head was not in a good place at the beginning of mile 22. My pace was bad, it was starting to get warm, and my legs were starting to hurt. I needed some help to get my mind back in the game. So I asked for my brother and conjured up our own private conversation. You see, a few days ago, I'd promised him 22 as his personal dedication mile. In return he was to find a special power song that I could hum/sing while running his mile. He came back to me a day later with a number by Justin Bieber and I just had to laugh. I smiled while running 22 thinking of all the excuses he gave for that little faux pas. It served its purpose as it distracted me from having to think about the road, the sun, and the deep fatigue I was starting to feel. Mile 22 ended with a 7:05, which wasn't good, but wasn't horrific either.

I started mile 23 wanting to regain my pace. After all, there was only 4 miles left and I wanted for all the world to finish strong. But right then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a bright yellow weather alert marker behind an aid station and quickly decide that it just wasn't safe to push pace. Besides, in the back of my mind, I knew a special spectator was waiting at 22.5 and I thought blowing up and dying right at her side probably would not make for a very good first impression. So I just continued on, running with the same effort I had established before. I made sure to concentrate on my breathing and focus on my form, knowing both will be important as I got more and more fatigued.

Then at 22.5, I saw HER. She was where she'd said she would be...out on the side of the road, all decked out in her pink tutu and posters filled with inspirational messages and names for all the runners she's planning to meet. Legend has it you gain an extra few seconds per mile on your pace just from witnessing her spectation at a race! I am speaking of the lovely Redhead Morgan who drove all the way from Michigan just to cheer and watch me run past. Although our encounter was brief (yet she manages to take 2 photos of me ?) I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her there, cheering for me, which honestly made me a little self-conscious, given that there was barely any other spectators around! It is weird to think that after a couple of years of reading and following each other's blog, our first chance encounter would be for just a split second at mile 22.5 of the Chicago Marathon!

I run on, more slowly now, because my hamstrings are sore and tight and are threatening to cramp with any sudden change in pace. I see more bodies on the sidewalks at the edge of the road, walking and stretching their feet and my heart skips a beat wondering if they were me some time ago or if I would be like them in the next mile or two. i see myself past mile 23 at 7:08 and can feel my goal slipping ever closer away.

At mile 24, I asked my late sister for advice. As marathons go, this is a tradition for me. Although her physical presence no longer inhabits the earth, I always feel a spiritual connection with my sister at this late stage of a marathon. We share conversations that are so deep i taste the salt of my own tears halfway through the next mile. Today, she tells me to focus on what's important. She tells me to believe in myself. She tells me I am not a failure because she sees me victoriously crossing the finishing line! As I closed my eyes slightly to say a prayer and thank her for those kind words when all of a sudden, the runner in front of me stops dead in his tracks and I crash smack into him. I don't fall but the force of our collision sends me to a complete stop. Immediately, my right hamstring cramps, I can't move and am in severe pain. I'm stunned. I send a slate of four-letter-word expletives into the air as he tries profusely to apologize. I take a couple of seconds to assess the situation and force my legs to move. Once I realized I wasn't seriously hurt, I just got angry...very very angry. In my head I was thinking - There is no way I'm running 23 miles just to let some punk kid ruin my chances at sub3. I force myself to run despite the shockwaves of pain shooting up my right leg with each step. I didn't care anymore. I saw that I was already at 7:30 pace for the first quarter mile of 24 and the world be damned if I lose my goal because of this debacle. Once the cramp loosened and the sharp pain gradually transformed into sustained soreness after a couple of steps, I just took off and sprinted HARD for the rest of the mile. I ran fast but still registered a 7:12 for mile 24.

We are all running for home now, one straight shot up Michigan Ave. Way in the distance, I could see the Sear Tower and the skyscrapers emerging triumphantly against a pastel of blue. Rows of spectators lined the streets and grew thicker and louder as we approached the finish. They rang cowbells, played music and yelled words of encouragement to urge the runners along . Although the atmosphere was jubilant and festive, I couldn't for the most part hear. My mind was fixated in another place in another time. After discovering that I was more than 20 seconds off my intended pace in the previous mile, I'd figured that my race was over. I felt sad, angry, and extremely frustrated. Despite the intense pain and burning in my quads, hamstrings and legs, I continued to sprint as if my life was dependent on it. I kept running hard because I was convinced right then that the only honorable way to race is to leave everything you brought coming in out on the course. NO REGRETS. LEAVE EVERYTHING. I repeated this mantra to myself as I forced my legs to accelerate and move faster than they've ever moved before. A mixture of tears and sweat sting my eyes but I was running too fast to acknowledge them there. I see a water station coming up on the side, but I don't dare waver from where I was in the middle of the road. The mile marker is coming up and there's just no time, I told myself. Besides, there's barely a mile and some change left now and there's too much at stake.

I covered mile 25 in 6:54 but still felt somehow I could've ran faster. I tell myself there's just a one mile sprint between me and the finish line now, it's time to charge! My legs though felt heavy as if they were just barely hanging on. I thought about all my twitter, DM, and Facebook friends who were tracking and virtually cheering for me right then and decide for them I must represent. For them, I must run as hard as I can.

At 25.5, I see my friend M again off to the side jumping up and down as I came sprinting by. She was yelling "You're Doing It! You're Doing it!" although at the time I was confused by what "It" meant. It was truly invigorating to see her so excited for me that I felt slightly embarrassed for all the other runners around. I didn't have time to run over and say hi so I just waved as I ran by. I see the giant crowds gathering at the finish and know I'm getting close to home. My legs were not able to sustain the sprint for so long so I'm slowing down slightly as I make the final turn onto the final bridge. I hear applause from spectators for the 3 hour pace team coming up behind and I pick up the pace once again. I see the 800m to go sign and curse Mr. Yasso out loud. 400m...a turn...and the end is in sight. 200 m...I can see the clock strike 3 and I let out a sigh. 100m left and almost there, almost there. Finally I come cross the line and stop my watch. I see 2:59:55 flash on my Garmin and was in complete shock. Did I indeed make my time? I walked through the procession of medical aide, space blanket, and medal, gulped down 2 free beers and picked up my bag. It wasn't until I saw my twitter feed blow up and my phone inbox filled with 50+ congratulatory texts that I realize that yes, indeed i had done it. A 2 minute PR, a sub-3 time, and a hard fought victory were completely mine!

In summary, all you really need to know is that Marathon #10 on 10-10-10 in Chicago turned out quite perfect for me after all!

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Perfect Tenth
Race Report from the 2010 Chicago Marathon
Part IV - The Second Ten Miles

It may come as a shock to many that I've never considered myself much of a marathoner. Ever since I crashed and burned so hard in my first marathon that I was reduced to crawling on my hands/knees for two whole blocks, I've always thought of myself as a 13.1 miler kind of guy. Never mind that I've done close to 25 of the short version and only 10 of the long kind, I find I often lack the physical stamina and the mental discipline to compete successfully in the longer distance. Besides 26.2 miles is so far to run and takes so much time that anything can happen at any point to ruin a perfectly paced race that you've been training for many many months. This is why whenever I'm running a marathon, I always feel as if I must fake the distance until i make the distance. I also take care to divide the race to a few shorter and more psychologically manageable segments. For this 26.2, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, I planned to split up my race into a first ten (miles), a second ten (miles) and the final 10(K). Having conquered the first ten in admirable fashion, I was anxious to begin the task of nailing down the second ten.

As I set off on what was now mile 1 for me again, I did an internal systems check on my body. Aside from some transient and intermittent back stiffness, my upper body was feeling great. I was breathing in synchrony with my feet. I had no stomach issues and whatever coughing, sniffling, and sneezing I had experienced this morning had long been gone after the first ten miles! As for my legs and lower body, everything was okay there too even if I was foreshadowing and anticipating pain and complaints all morning. In fact, as I gingerly ran through the 11th mile at 6:44, I began to feel cautiously optimistic that today might yet turn out to be a special day.

Back on the course, where mile 12 brought us back from the suburbs to the edge of town, I saw the crowds thicken and becoming more rambunctious as the morning worn on. Runners all around me were responding in kind, many urging the spectators on with hand gestures to turn up the volume as if their cheering alone could provide a power boost for the later miles. A pack of college boys all with their shirts off were running past me as if it was their every intention to sprint to the half and just drop dead. One of them knocks into me and I almost take a dive. Luckily, I catch myself just as I was about to lose balance. I wanted to get angry but quickly decide it's not worth the stress. Lose the battle. Win the war. I slow down to take an extra water at the next fluid station because I feel it's getting warmer and then speed up again to pass the mile 12 marker at 6:49.

I'm immediately excited running back over the cross bridge into the center of town. For one thing, I'm now less than a mile way from the half marathon checkpoint and as far as I could tell, still running strong and gaining time. For another, my friend M will be here again along the bend at mile 12.5 before the next out-and-back portion to the west. After missing her the first time near mile 2.5, I wanted to be sure to pick her out of the crowd. I kept my eyes peeled to the side as I ran along the left edge of the road. It wasn't long before I spotted her bubbly face at our pre-arranged locale. I went over gave her a hug and high-five and left just as quickly to resume my place with the group of guys I had been running with for the last half mile. Although our rendezvous was short, I felt relieved just to have seen her and know that we were both on our way to our last meeting spot near mile 25.

I clocked mile 13 at 6:50 and reached the half at 1:28:45. I felt extremely satisfied with these times as they were both exactly what I had planned for myself coming into this race. I felt a minute and change was enough of a cushion time where I had some leeway to operate heaven forbid something should happen in the last 10K but not so much so that I was jeopardizing a major bonk in the second half because I was racing the first half too fast. I was well pleased with my "perceived consistent effort" pacing strategy I was executing thus far and hoped that my strong summer training would lend itself to an equally strong pace in the second half.

After a straight and quick mile 14 at 6:42 and a slower mile 15 at 6:52, I was noticing that I wasn't maintaining my effort as easily as I had been in the first half of the race. I was running out of town again, heading straight into the abyss of the unrelenting sun. Although it was not yet uncomfortable to run, I knew it would get much worse before it got better. Volunteers and residents from the neighborhoods we passed through were already out in full force providing hoses, extra water and sponges for runners in need. I declined the hosing, but accepted sponges and extra water that were offered to me. After the debacle of '07, I was pleasantly surprised that everyone seemed ready for the hot day that was to come.

Mile 16 and 17 were a mental struggle for me. Although both miles clocked in at a respectable 6:51, they were fraught with potential traps and slight mishaps. I began by dropping my GU pack, forcing me to completely stop, go back a few steps and retrieve my fallen item before sprinting in a semi fartlek to gain back some of the time I had given up during the drop. Later on, I spotted the first few casualties of the heat - runners walking like zombies along the edge of the road. I felt bad for them knowing they must have been very speedy runners with fast ambitious goals. Then I started to think if this could possibly happen to me. Finally, I heard an older overweight spectator yelling out the three infamous words that never fail to make my blood boil. "You're Almost There! You're Almost There!" Really? With 9 miles to go, we're almost here? I thought about ripping off my bib, pinning it on him and watching HIM run the rest of the way. Maybe I can jog beside him and yell "Almost There" right into his ear every 5 seconds. We'd see how he likes that.

I was visibly upset. I knew this because I forgot to thank the kind volunteers who handed me a couple of wet and cold sponges that I applied on my face and chest. This shocked me because it was the first time all day that I felt not happy. I quickly reminded myself that I was running well, still on pace, not tired, not injured, and so should be very happy. At mile 18, I imagined myself running through the gauntlet of Flyers and friends that lines this same mile marker on First Avenue in every single NYC Marathon back home. It's the PowerGel station, and in my mind, I can see each of their smiling faces as they clap, cheer, and wish me well on my way. I decide to dedicate the rest of this mile and the next to them because right then and there the course felt empty and I needed my friends more than anything. Mile 18 came in at 6:52 and mile 19 was done at 6:56. I was happier than I had been a couple of miles back but it was obvious that I was also slowing down.

At mile 20, I began to game plan how the rest of the race was going to go. I knew it was getting warmer. I knew I was getting tired. But in my favor, I was also well hydrated, having stuck to the plan of taking in more fluids at each station than I felt I need. I also didn't feel hungry and my legs didn't feel crampy at all. When I thought about it, I couldn't remember I'd ever been able to say that at mile 20 in any of my previous marathons. All in all, I'd call this race a major success at this point. I was hoping for around a minute of cushion time at mile 20 (which I knew had to be 2:17 to be on pace for sub3) just to be on the safe side. When I finally passed this major checkpoint with a 6:58 mile and found that i was through 20 at 2:16:08, I was filled with many mixed emotions. On one hand, I was quite satisfied with my cumulative time having 50+ extra seconds on my side. On the other, I was concerned I was giving back time at such a substantial rate. I knew right then that it was going to be close. I'd have to dig deep, run hard, avoid the bonk, and make every second count the rest of the way in. The fight is ON!
 
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