Race Autopsy: the 2015 New York City Marathon

Race reports are boring for everyone but the runner who writes them. This one is probably no different. Yet when you spend over four hours running around New York City for no goddamn reason, you want to memorialize it somehow. Here’s some thoughts on my day.

4:30 AM We’ll start at the beginning – our apartment, 4:30 am. I wake up after not much sleep, make coffee, drink it, toast a bagel, eat it. Peel a banana and do the same.

5:30 AM I’m out the door and off to the Prospect Park Track Club bus to the start.

6:30 AM We arrive on Staten Island. It is almost four hours before my scheduled start time. I love the New York City Marathon, and I understand how difficult it is to get 50,000 runners into the park for the start, but sitting on a trash bag in a parking lot for four hours sucks.

I talk to some PPTC team mates and some stranger from Italy and Illinois. I listen to a podcast and generally mill about. The time passes, slowly.

9:45 AM I make my way to the starting corral. Chaos reigns. For a minute it looks like a couple of hundred runners in my corral are not going to get a Wave 2 start, but eventually, the powers that be relent and we make our way to the bridge.

10:15 AM Gun goes off and we’re running. I’m using a 3:59:00 pace band I downloaded off the internet and I follow it religiously for the first 16 or so miles. The pace chart called for going much easier than I wanted to up and over the bridge. I hoped that taking it easy early on would pay dividends later on down the road, but as will become clear, it wasn’t to be.

11:15 AM – 12:15 PM* I  cruise through the early miles and get to 4th and Union where PPTC, E and friends J and M are cheering their heads off. I look for my son, but as I will learn later, he’s dead asleep in his stroller. The miles through Park Slope and Fort Greene are my favorite part of the course. Huge crowds, tons of bands, and drum circles. Friends, it seems, on every corner. I see R, L and T all within a mile stretch. T is so excited he trips me. I’m hitting my mile pace goals without too much trouble. I begin to think this is my day.

 12:15 PM The Queensboro Bridge. Last time I ran New York, this was where the wheels really came off the bus. But today, I’m feeling good. Those around me? Maybe not so much. New York really isn’t a PR course, and that’s for a lot of reasons. The hills, the winding course, and the fact that the roads are packed with runners all make the course amazing, and not particularly fast. I make it through the bridge without too much trouble, but not at the pace I was hoping for.

12:15-1:15 PM The crowds on First Avenue are enormous, and they make a hell of a lot of noise. But somehow (and maybe this is hometown bias) they don’t have the organic wonder of the Brooklyn scene. Still, they help. I’m definitely starting to feel the miles. I begin making deals with myself. I do math — hoping I can come up with a calculus that gets me across the finish line in under four hours. Yet despite my best efforts, at the base of the Willets Avenue Bridge, it all begins to go wrong. My left leg starts cramping. I stop to stretch, but that makes the cramping worse. I walk a bit, run a bit, and plod along. I see my hopes of a four hour marathon fade.

1:15-2:15 PM Dark days. I run some, I walk some. The cramping in my left leg comes and goes. I begin itemizing everything I did wrong in my training. Missed too many runs, ate too much bad food, didn’t do enough speed work, didn’t do enough in weekly mileage, didn’t get enough sleep. It’s a long list,* and I have plenty of time to itemize it.

Still, this is New York, and it is fucking amazing. Reggaton DJ in the Bronx, gospel choir in Harlem.  Huge crowds at every corner.

No other city is like this, no other marathon is like this.

2:15-2:30 The finals stretch through Central Park. I’ve given up on a good time. Now, I’m just trying to have a good time. I waddle along, knowing a PR is well out of sight. I high five the kids, I remember how lucky I am to be here at all, I thank my stars that I’m not being carted off the course by the medics.

It’s a cliché that a marathon is made up of the stories of thousands of individual runners. But as it is with most clichés, it’s also true.

In the final miles of a marathon, everyone is stripped to the bone.

Whether you’re finishing in three hours or five, you’re gutting it out after mile 22.

It’s an incredible thing to be part of, for runners and spectators alike. Runners are putting their hearts and bodies out there on the pavement. Spectators lining the course can see exactly how much you’re hurting and exactly how badly you want it. They cheer you on. They tell you you’re looking good when you look like shit. They tell you to push harder when you can’t do anymore. No other sporting event is like this – where the athlete is the neighbor of the spectator, where one weekend you’re the watched, and the next, the watcher. We forget how special this is, but we shouldn’t.

As the popularity of marathons has grown, there’s been the predictable backlash of people sick of hearing about marathons and marathoners. But you know what? At the end of the day, it’s an incredible thing to run a marathon and its an incredible thing to watch one — especially in those last couple of miles and especially in New York.

2:30 PM The finish comes into view and I’m just glad to be done. 4:23:13 will be my official time. Not my worst marathon, but also certainly not my best. They’ll be plenty of time for reflection in the days to come. Now, I just want to get the forced march out of the park done and give E and the little dude some hugs. I finally make it to the PPTC reunion school where I’m greeted with applause. Of the many things I’ll take away from this day, one is a new appreciation for what a great group of people make up PPTC.

I finally find E and L in the playground next to the school.

L runs up to me and shouts “Daddy, run!”

Yes I do, little man. Not always well, or fast, but I run. And I love it.

Daddy, run!

Daddy, run!

*Or thereabouts.

** And one I’ll go into in a subsequent post.

Not enough information in the last 1500 words? You can see my strava data here.

Race Autopsy: Vermont City Marathon

The day started as it always does, with coffee and a crying baby.  As E got the little dude dressed, I packed the provisions in the car, chugged a bunch of water, and ate a bagel. Forty minutes later, and forty five minutes before the start, we were pulling into Burlington. I had expected to park in the same lot I’d parked in when I ran this race five years ago, but it was full. As was the five story parking garage near church street, and the side streets all around.

Thirty minutes to start time and I have nowhere to park the car.

We’re off to a great start.

Twenty five minutes to start time, E tells me to park it in a drug store parking lot. “It says parking for customers only”, I say, “and even then, only for an hour”.

“I’ll handle it” she says.

And, though I leave her with a screaming baby, and a car she cannot drive, she does — because she is amazing.

On to the start, where I find Joe. We hit the porta potties. We wait. We fret. And then the gun goes off and we run.

The first miles fly by; we cruise along trying to keep the pace somewhere between 8:50 and 9. We want to go faster, but we play it as conservative as we can. More than anything today, I want to break four hours. I’ve been at this running game awhile and I feel like it is finally time to join the big boys. I put together one of the best training blocks of my life, basically injuring free, and (for me at least) consistent. Of course I worry it wasn’t enough.

Turns out, I was right.

The miles fly by. We chat with an older woman who’s run 75 marathons and swum across Lake Champlain. We see some of the fast dudes who’ve filled out the Boston Qualifer Questionnaire. We chat about what we always chat about: running, getting old, and why the hell we continue to live in NYC when any rational person would have left years ago.

I’m having a good time. By the halfway mark, I feel strong and the miles seem easy.\ I want to keep it conservative. Joe is feeling like picking it up. I let him go. He’ll go on to his own struggles, but will finish far ahead of me. At the bottom of the mile 15 hill, I see E and the Little Dude. He gives me a high five. Everything is going well.

But that hill is long, and by the end of it, I’m starting to feel the miles. I carry on, trying to keep the pace. By mile 18, my calf, and then my groin, begin to cramp. At first it’s just a little tweak. It’s almost eighty degrees so no surprise that I’m feeling it.  I drink at the aid stations, trying to keep any serious cramping at bay. The four hour pace group passes me. My dreams for the day start to fade. But by mile 22, I am cramping so badly, I can’t walk. I actually stumble just outside the mile 22 water station. EMTs help me to a chair, ice my legs and give me Gatorade.

“We can get a car to come get you”.

“I’m almost there, I’ll finish”.

And so I do. The 4:15 pace group passes me. Then the 4:30. I hobble along. I run until I cramp up, then I walk, then I run again. I am not a pretty sight. I try to run the final mile, but my left leg seizes up again and I almost go down. This time, it happens right by the beer tent. People see me hobbling and they cheer me on, shouting my name.

I’m embarrassed.

I was hoping to do much better than this.  But whether it was a lack of training, or a nutrition issue, this isn’t my day. I cross the line in 4:39:27. Not my worst performance in the marathon, but certainly not my best.

The marathon is fickle. You put so much time and energy into training for it and then, it can all go so wrong. I find is humbling, frustrating, and, frankly, addictive.

New York has got to be different. I’ll need to up the training game, both in terms of mileage and speed work, but perhaps most importantly, consistency.  And though I’ve resisted it for years, I’m going to have to learn about nutrition. Expect more posts about all of that in the future.

Now its two days later and I’m planning my revenge.  Today, I’ll rest my legs, drink water, work my sore muscles with the stick.

Tomorrow, I’m going to go for a run.

Any race that ends with sharing a medal with this guy isn't all bad.

Any race that ends with sharing a medal with this guy isn’t all bad.

Race Autopsy: 2015 Brooklyn Half Marathon

Pre Quote

Clearly, I am no Prefontaine.

Yet at mile 7 of this weekend’s Brooklyn Half, this quote was going through my mind. I was intentionally holding back, running 9:30s when my body was screaming to run sub 9. It felt silly, and strangely dishonest, I was holding back not to have something in the tank I was doing so because I have other dreams, dreams of finally breaking four hours at the Vermont City Marathon next weekend.

So I followed the game plan. I held back fro the first ten as best I could average around a 9:35 mile, then I opened it up a bit for the last three. The rain started, Nas’s Get Down came up on my playlist, and I started running 8:30s.

It was wonderful and strangely easy.

Unofficial time: 2:04:12

It almost felt like cheating.

This weekend, though, this weekend is going to be different. At Vermont City, I’ll be giving my best. All of it.

Race Autopsy: The Front Runners LGBT Pride 5 Miler

In 1982 when New York Road Runners and Front Runners partnered to host the first ever Front Runners New York LGBT Pride 5 Miler, the world was a very different place.  Sodomy laws were still prevalent throughout much of the country; the AIDS crisis was killing the community (and Reagan had still not said it name), and many LGBT New Yorkers were forced to work and live in the closet.

The early years of the race

From the start, the Pride Run was intended to be  a part of the Gay Pride march and celebrations.*  It created a place where LGBT athletes and allies could compete and declare their pride in being gay and their support for the gay community.  Year after year, decade after decade, Front Runners and NYRR have put on this race.  As Pride weekend became less political, and sodomy laws were overturned; as the fight against HIV/AIDS gained momentum, and state after state introduced first anti-discrimination protections and, later, marriage equality, the Pride Run was always there, getting the running community together, gay and straight, to run.

I like to think in some way, by putting LGBT athletes and their allies on center stage in Central Park year after year, the race has in some small way furthered the cause of LGBT rights. I think the races founders would agree.

I wonder what those early runners who are still with us think when they see the race today. The Pride Run sells out every year, and is coupled with fundraising for gay rights causes.  It brings a diverse group of runners, from serious amateurs to first time racers, to run through the upper half of Central Park in racing singlets and rainbow tutus accompanied by the cheers of supporters, and the waving of tourist’s iphones.

photo 2

It’s a pretty fun race, and I am more than a little ashamed that this year was the first time I ran it (40:01).  It wasn’t my best run (the course is hilly! I wasn’t hydrated! The run streak is killing my legs!), but it wasn’t my worst.  And there are surely less enjoyable ways to spend a Saturday morning than sweating your ass off trying to keep a sub 8 pace.

Obviously, the fight for LGBT rights is far from over, and of course a little race in Central Park is not the front lines of any struggle.  But the continuity through change that the race represents gives the Pride Run a special place in New York’s Gay Pride celebrations, a place I was proud to share for one day.  I wonder what it, and the landscape of equality, will look like when my son is old enough to join me.

photo 1

*For a history of the early years of  Front Runners New York and the race, check out the recollections of one of FRNY’s founders, Steve Gerben.  NYRR should be proud that it was on the right side of history so early.

Race Autopsy: Brooklyn Half Marathon 2014

Unless you’re a pro runner with some writing chops, who runs in exotic locales against the best runners in the world, like Dakota Jones, or Sabrina Moran, odds are your race report is tedious and uninteresting to just about everyone but you. Your mom may say she enjoyed reading it, but she’s lying.

Still, race reports serve a purpose. By setting down the details of what happened, we can assess what went right, and what went wrong.  We can learn, and hopefully, we can improve. This is of little consolation to the reader (who should probably just stop here), but it can be of help to the writer.

And so, here’s my dull, boring, and not very good race report for the Brooklyn Half Marathon.

In a nutshell, it wasn’t a bad race, but it wasn’t a great one, either.  I’d trained as best I could given a gimpy foot and a five-month-old baby.  I averaged around twenty miles a week for the two months leading up to the race focusing on miles, not speed. I got in a half dozen thirteen-mile runs, but did no speed work.  I choose to focus on miles because speed work often results in me getting injured.  And this year, more than any racing goal, I wish to remain injury free.

I started the race with good pal Joe. Joe’s an old friend and fellow aging amateur jock. He and I took totally different approaches to our training. He ran, I think, one 13 miler in the lead up to the race and did very few runs in double digits.  He did, however, do much more speed training than I did.  I was worried he was going to blow up at the end. I was wrong.

We took the first half easy. We cruised down Washington, up Flatbush, around Grand Army Plaza and back down Flatbush at a comfortable 8:30ish pace chatting about running, getting old, and the changes we’ve seen in the County of Kings.  Joe and I have both lived in Brooklyn for the better part of fifteen years and it is hard to imagine the Washington Avenue of 2000 playing host to 20,000 runners. In some ways, I miss the old days, the old Brooklyn of cheap rent, danger, and diversity; in other ways, I don’t.  Its great to see Brooklyn celebrated by such a huge crowd of runners, but its important to remember all the people who can no longer afford to live here or run in some dumb ass race.

Still, it was 8 am on a Saturday morning and Brooklyn was glorious.  The crowds for this race are never big, but those who came out were great: conga drum players, weirdos with ukuleles, and dozens of members of my running club, Prospect Park Track Club.  After we’d entered Prospect Park, an older PPTC member shouted at us “PPTC! Go Get ‘Em! This is Your Park!”

And it is; and we did.  We dropped the pace to low 8s as we circled the Park and headed out onto Ocean Parkway at mile seven.

This is the second year in a row I’ve run this race.  Last year, I went out much faster, at just under 8 minutes per mile.  By the time I hit Ocean Parkway, I was barely holding on to 8-minute miles. This year, I felt fresh and ready to go at the same pace at the same place in the race. I couldn’t tell if I was running smart, or too conservative.

One day, I’ll figure this whole racing thing out, but this wasn’t that day.

Somewhere around the 8-mile mark, Joe dropped me. He was feeling strong and picked it up.  He ran low sevens and a high six* for the last part of the course. I just didn’t have that extra gear. I got the pace down to high 7s, but didn’t have the legs for anything faster.  I finished feeling strong, but not fast, in a time of 1:49:08.  Joe finished in 1:45 something.

So, what went wrong? Why did someone who ran significantly less mileage than me beat me so handily? There’s probably a bunch of reasons:  Little Dude was up half the night and I started the race exhausted; my foot has been giving me some problems; I’m older. Etc, etc, etc. To me these sound more like excuses than reasons.  They’re also all factors I cannot control. The one factor I can control? Speed work. Joe did much more of it than I did and it appears to have paid off.

Lesson learned.  If you want to run fast, you have to train for fast.  It isn’t like this is new information, but seeing Joe pull away really put it in stark relief.  This next cycle of training will include consistent mileage, hopefully more than the last cycle. However, just as importantly, it will include regular speed work.  In the past, I’ve gotten hurt doing speed work, especially short intervals, so I plan to stick to hill work and tempo runs.  No need for 400 repeats when the distance I’m focusing on is 13.1 miles.

After the race we gathered with our partners and my kid for a celebratory beer.  As the loser, I was buying.  We’re already looking at some fall halfs — Joe will be buying the beer then.

Little Dude, Joe and I post-race. LD be all "damn dude, you smell."

Little Dude, Joe and I post-race. LD be all “damn dude, you smell.”

* One of the great things about training now-a-days is the ability to slice and dice not only your own running data, but also that of your training partners and friends. Joe and I both use Strava and it was easy to consult his log when writing this thing up.

Race Recap – Hartford Half Marathon

This hasn’t been my best training cycle, but it hasn’t been my worst, either.  I got in a decent number of long runs, and some tempo work but my mileage was never consistently very high.  In the two weeks before the Hartford Half Marathon, a niggling ache in my right ankle, and work commitments, kept me from getting in many miles at all.  Still, I felt pretty good at the start of the race this Saturday.  The weather was good, my ankle seemed fine, and I felt like I could give my PR time a run for its money.

Through mile seven, everything was going great.  I was on pace to run a PR, and I felt like I had a lot left in the tank.  But as seven turn to eight, and eight turned to nine, that left ankle really started barking and my gait got all wonky.  By mile ten, I was off PR pace.  By mile eleven, not only was my left ankle killing me, but my left calf was cramping up ever 400 meters.  It wasn’t pretty.  I went into this race feeling pretty burnt out on the running game, and at mile 10 I seriously considered just walking it in and never running again.  But I didn’t. For whatever pigheaded reasons, I hobble-jogged the rest of the way and finished in an extremely disappointing 1:52:24.

It’s a bummer.  Writing this on a Tuesday morning, I really do not know where my running is going.  My ankle isn’t bothering me when I walk, but I haven’t run a step since Saturday.  I’ll take the ankle out for a spin tomorrow and see how it performs.  How much running I am going to do in the near future is an open question.  I have some big life changes coming up, and time for exercise is going to be at a premium.  Nothing keeps me as fit as running, but the sport isn’t filling me with the joy like it used to with only so much time to work out, should I spend it on something I am not really enjoying.

Meanwhile, I went climbing last night for the first time in a month.  The camaraderie of the wall, and the joy of sending problems, presented a pretty stark contrast to long miles in the dark by myself.  It might be time for a change.

Race Autopsy – The Brooklyn Half Marathon

I ran an actual honest to god race a couple of weeks ago.  It hurt, but in a good way.  It wasn’t the best race of my life, but it was better than expected.

In the last couple of years, the Brooklyn Half Marathon has gone from a sleepy outer borough race with a few thousand participants to a huge, twenty thousand strong, spectacle.  The Brooklyn renaissance raises all ships, including New York Road Runners which made a huge effort to promote this race, and its part in bringing business to Coney Island.  Along with the size of the race, New York Road Runners has changed the course of the race — but don’t worry, it’s still kind of dull.  This year, the race started on Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue, ran down Washington to Empire Boulevard, over to Flatbush Avenue, up the Flatbush hill to Grand Army Plaza, a loop around the Plaza, back down Flatbush, then a loop through Prospect Park and out Ocean Parkway to Coney Island where you finished with a hundred yard section of the newly rebuilt board walk.

I have run every inch of this course before, some of it many times.  I’ve done hundreds of runs through Grand Army Plaza, and thousands of miles in Prospect Park.  This was my home turf.  I wanted to do well.  But what is “well” for a guy who has struggled all winter to get in the miles?  When I work up at five thirty in the morning, I wasn’t sure.  And when the gun went off at seven a.m., I didn’t have much of a race plan.  A friend from my running club asked me what my goal was at the start – I said I hadn’t a clue. I knew I’d take it easy through the first couple of miles, see how I was feeling in the park, and take it from there.  Not very well thought out, I know.

A bad photograph of the start.

A bad photograph of the start.

Those first miles were easy and peaceful. I cruised along at about an eight minute pace.  Though the New York Marathon brings out crowds in the hundreds of thousands, I think all total there were probably about a thousand spectators for this race.  That was fine with me.  fewer people screaming meant I wasn’t feeling as pushed by the crowd to pick up the pace.

It was easy to run my own race, not worrying about the splits. I tried to run by effort and enjoy the small pleasure of running through my neighborhood with twenty thousand other people.  Soon, we were at the six mile mark and I was hearing some cheers from my teammates in the Prospect Park Track Club.  I looked down at my watch, did some quick math, and thought, if I can keep the pace right around eight minutes, I might just PR.

So that’s what I set out to do.  I broke the race down into small bit. I told myself to hold the pace for just the next five minutes, the next half mile, the next mile, getting stride by stride closer to the finish.  It hurt, but I tried to keep at it.

Unfortunately, willpower didn’t make up for under training and I let the pace creep up a little bit closer to 8:30 at the end.  I crossed the line in 1:47:11, forty six seconds shy of a P.R.

Oh well.

This was actually a better performance than I was expecting.  My fitness isn’t as bad as I thought.  There is still hope for a fall marathon PR.  Now the real work begins (again).  I know where I stand and I know where I need to go.  Time to execute.

 

Postscript – After the race I went to bachelor party that started at one p.m. and went until three in the morning.  For those keep track at home, that’s a 22 hour day.  One hour and forty seven minutes of it spent running; fourteen hours spent carousing.  Needless to say, I felt like death the next day.