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!