2012 NYC Marathon
The houses at New Dorp Beach on Staten Island are small, with little space between them, and the streets are narrow. Walking down the passageways one shudders at the thought of what it must have been like when the water rushed in. On these streets are heaping piles of trash, as if the houses themselves were made ill by the storm and had spewed their insides. Yesterday I was part of a group of runners helping to provide and distribute relief supplies there. We were directed by a FEMA employee to a woman who needed help. She sat guardedly at her dining room table, and said that her husband had been in the garage when the water came in and that the water had risen to his neck before he was saved. Some in the neighborhood didn’t make it.
Many of the houses there are beyond repair, and many others vacant. What the residents requested most frequently yesterday was cleaning supplies.
It wasn’t the marathon anybody had imaged, but the modest offerings by those of us who had lost a race to those who suffered actual tragedies were often accepted. It was heartening in a way that running a race, or simply donating money online, isn’t.
When Mayor Bloomberg was questioned last week about holding the New York City Marathon with the city in such disrepair, his primary defense was that it would not divert resources from the recovery effort. The stance strained credulity. How could streets lined with cops not divert resources? The New York Post ran a cover photo of two generators that NYRR was using to construct the finish line. Were these generators not a resource diverted, even if, as NYRR explained, they were rented by the organization and were not the city’s property?
We the runners, inundating Staten Island with backpacks full of supplies on Marathon Sunday, were living proof that cancelling the marathon freed resources. And after the race was actually cancelled, NYRR in fact donated the water, Gatorade, blankets, etc. that would have been used for the race to recovery. It made for a nice story and has dutifully been covered by the media as a happier second act to last week's obsession over cancellation.
The problem is that those neighborhoods need a lot more help than 1,000 runners on Marathon Sunday could provide. Or two generators could have provided. Or loads of water and Gatorade. Or a bunch of cops who otherwise would have been patrolling the race (notably, there didn’t seem to be an inordinate number of cops in S.I. yesterday). The scale of destruction in Staten Island dwarfs the resources offered by not holding a marathon. This is probably what Bloomberg was getting at when he said no resources would be diverted, and the truth that the New York Post had so distorted in its image of the two generators.
One alternative narrative to the past week, a dark one both literally and figuratively in this city, is that had the old and new media not vilified the "despicable" NYRR (numerous posters on the NYRR Facebook page) and mocked the "prancing" runners (New York Times editorial), the marathon would have become a vehicle through which a great deal of money could have been raised both domestically and abroad, money that would help not only the Staten Islanders but also those in the Rockaways and the other hardest-hit pockets of the city.
The race was to be televised on ESPN2, and had the race gone off, the plans were to broadcast it as a sporting telethon. Inspired by the images of the hurricane’s destruction and/or by the images of the runners braving the 26.2 with additional purpose, viewers would donate. The runners themselves, having completed the life-affirming challenge, would donate more. The NYRR could have become a significant player in the recovery, collecting funds and resources not just locally, but nationally and internationally, and not just yesterday, but in the days and months ahead. Its ability to do so without the race has been hamstrung.
Looking beyond the forced metaphors of what a marathon “means” for a city or its participants, the race could have been both inspirational and a hell of a fundraiser. Had the race gone on, the generous outpouring from runners yesterday would have been channeled in a different manner, but diminished none at all.
Just as the bar for conducting a marathon became ridiculously high ("The notion that so much as a flashlight battery would be devoted to a sporting event is outrageous," screeched a New York Post editorial), so too were the efforts completely discounted to simply make it to the starting line from lands near and far despite all sorts of travel complications. The runners are resilient and would do whatever it took to get here and to race. They were absolutely the wrong scapegoat; it spoke poorly on the city that a scapegoat was needed at all.
This year's race suffered a sort of karmic retribution. I’ve run the NYC Marathon three times, and the support of the city on that day has always been wonderfully outsized to the value-neutral activity of competing in a footrace. Last week, after the storm stole lives and destroyed houses and as the power outage and lines at the gas stations became increasingly unsettling, the public and the media gave the race, its runners, and its organizers a big F.U. An enormous opportunity was missed when the marathon was cancelled, an event whose basic effect, when viewed from a distance, is the replacement of vehicles with people over a narrow band of the city’s streets for part of the day.
Roadkill! Part II
Dealing with Boston (post-race version)
No matter how much or how many loved ones tell you that they are proud of you for dropping out of a brutally hot marathon, there is something unsatisfying about it, and it has taken me a few days to get my head around exactly what happened at Boston and why.
As I sat in the chair in the medical tent at the mile 22 mark, I recognized that I didn’t have the spirit to finish. It was missing. Then I had a disconcerting thought: if I’m not willing to drive beyond the point where the needle says empty, I’m not cut out for any marathon, because all marathons require that, even when conditions are perfect. To run your best, you must be willing to face the dragon and to spit in its eye, again and again, until the race is done. It is the essence of the event.
The thought passed, and after an hour of decompressing in that tent, draped in cold wet towels and sipping iced Gatorade, I was loaded onto a bus with assorted cast-offs whose conditions were worse than my own. An Irish woman on the bus had run 63 marathons. This was her 64th, and the first that she hadn’t finished. I asked her what the high point of her race was. She told me that she actually had felt fine for 21 miles, but then she just didn’t feel right. When we got off the bus, the woman threw up.
The marathon was born as a dramatic event – Pheidippides died at the finish. Sports don’t get much more dramatic than that. In my preparation for Boston it is drama that I was trying to avoid. I have a young son and wife five months pregnant. Understandably, my personal running dramas are not high on the priority list. I hadn’t even planned on running Boston, and was surprised when I got an e-mail from the Boston Athletic Association congratulating me on my acceptance to the race. How could this be? A tight group of CPTC teammates had signed me up and paid my registration. What a gift!
I felt slightly ungracious, but I could not accept unequivocally, because, well, you’ve really got to want to run a marathon to run it, don’t you? I would base my decision on how my training unfolded.
As it turned out, training unfolded well. I layered in a lunch run to my daily work routine, and stuck to it. During the lunch runs I’d often include a fast mile on the track to get the heart rate up. Most weekdays I also ran the seven miles home. On Thursday nights I’d run the workout with the team, after which I’d run home. Add a long run on the weekend, and it all was enough to get me in shape to run a 1:22:19 at the NYC Half. This was good enough evidence for me to commit to Boston. If I raced it smart, I thought I’d have a shot at breaking three.
Then the weather happened.
I generally don’t race well in the heat, and so I adapted my mindset to enjoy the race. The absurd challenge of running a marathon in extreme heat demanded an absurd response: to have fun running a marathon in extreme heat.
And though I wouldn’t exactly call what happened out there fun, there were parts of the race that offered deep satisfaction. I liked what I saw. I now want to run the Boston Marathon more than I did before I ran (and didn’t finish) this one. I still want to see what those last four miles are like. And I want to feel strong while running them, or at least to have the spirit to spit in the dragon’s eye.
I lacked the spirit this time around because the conditions had made it so that I was no longer racing and it was no longer enjoyable. Running on tilt is the point of a marathon, but in these conditions running on tilt would have invited medical drama. We are taught on the Central Park Track Club to finish a race with dignity. In experiencing the Boston Marathon on my terms and not its, and calling it a day at mile 22, that is what, unwittingly, I attempted to do.
Roadkill! Part I
DNF at the Boston Marathon
As I settled into a leisurely pace amid the babbling brook of runners on the downhill first mile of Monday's Boston Marathon, I looked forward to seeing what this Heartbreak Hill was all about, and ultimately making the turn onto Boylston Street. There is a giddiness to the first mile of any marathon, and it felt more like the beginning of a camping expedition than a race.
I’ve suffered heat-related illness before, nothing life-threatening, but enough to alter my preparations given the ominous forecast. In addition to the usual hydrating and carbo-loading, I made sure to eat salty snacks. I applied suntan lotion, wore sunglasses, and donned a visor atop a white bandana to keep my face and head sheltered. I planned to drink a cup of Gatorade and a cup of water, and to pour a second cup of water on my head, at every station. I had a few mental tests to ensure that my faculties were intact: calculating 2 x 2, calculating 7 x 7, and thinking of assorted friends and relatives at miles 3, 8, 17, and 22.
The mile split, 7:15, was about 30 seconds slower than I would have expected for ideal conditions. Seemed about right.
It became clear early on that there was very little shade on the course. By mile 6 the first boiling frog had jumped from the water, and by mile 10 I saw as many walkers as I normally would see after about 20 miles. It hadn't crossed my mind that I would soon join them.
I had kept around that 7:15 pace for the first 9 miles, drinking the fluids, eating Gus and shot blocks, periodically multiplying 2x2 and 7x7, and keeping my competitive instincts at bay. Mile 7 was rough, but I got a lift in mile 8, when a runner handed me a bag of ice that he had gotten from a spectator.
The towns lining the road reminded me of old Westerns. The sun was blazing. We carried on.
It it difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened between mile 10, when I maintained hope of a successful race, and the half-marathon point, when I knew that the second half would be much, much slower. I could still do the math. 2x2 was 4. 7x7 was 49. I did not have a headache, but I was slowing down and becoming ever more mindful of the heat.
An hour, forty-nine minutes after I crossed the starting line, fourteen miles in, I stopped running. It was the first time I had ever walked in a race. It just seemed to happen, as if the decision was made for me a moment before my foot hit the ground.
And so began the second leg of the journey.
The spectators, with their offerings, turned me into a scavenger. There were garden hoses, weak sprinklers, and a young girl with an impressively powerful squirt gun shooting streams of icy cold water. Adults handed out orange slices, and little kids held fruit-flavored freezes. The water in the plastic cups from the Bostonians lining the course was more likely to be cold than the water in the Poland Spring paper cups at the official stations. Plastic cups of ice were especially useful. I even scored an electrolyte mix.
I was grateful for the wonderful generosity and spirit of the fans, but this new relationship was one-sided. They were giving me high-fives, but I wasn't even running.
One lady tried to motivate me, "C'mon Central Park, you gotta compete out there!" she yelled, with a bottle of water in her hand. I looked at her and wondered whether she was going to give me that water, and whether it was cold.
I started running again. My wife, son, and brother-in-law would be waiting near the Newton Firehouse at mile 16. But I was looking for them on the wrong side of the street, and we missed each other.
As I walk-jogged the Newton Hills in miles 18 and 19, I was asked by other runners whether we were on Heartbreak Hill. I suspected not. Then we reached a final, roller-coaster incline. In a whopping justification, I told myself that I couldn't run up Heartbreak Hill because I hadn't earned the right. I did try walking faster though, and wondered why I hadn't tried walking fast before. I had unthinkingly been walking at walking pace, not at race-walking pace.
I kept drinking cups of water and pouring it on my head, but my throat remained dry. I didn't seem to be sweating anymore, and I didn't know whether I had had too much water, or not enough.
Once I got to the top, I allowed myself to jog again. Only five miles left, and the majority of runners had slowed so much by this point that upon running once more I passed many of them. There was more cheering. These new spectators didn't know that I had been walking for most of the previous seven miles. To them I was another determined runner enduring the heat and embodying the spirit of the marathon, which I knew not to be the case. How strange that one could exit a race, and then re-enter it.
My heartbeat started fluttering. I didn't know whether this signaled anything, but out of fear I stopped running. I walked on. To the right of the mile 22 marker I noticed a medical tent, and when I got there, without a thought, I entered it and told the doctor that I was done. I had been on the course for about three hours and fifteen minutes. I was turning myself in.
I hadn't been looking for a medical tent, and if it hadn't been there I would have continued. But four miles of walking seemed very far at that point. I didn't want to experience the hallowed finish on Boylston Street in the condition I was in or worse. I wasn't racing anymore, I was simply trying to get from point A to point B. There was no fun left to be had.
Dealing with Boston
Hot marathon incoming
It seemed like a belated April Fool’s Day joke when, at the beginning of the week, the long-range weather.com forecast for the Boston Marathon showed a high of 80 degrees. Great for spectators, terrible for runners. Things got better, then they got worse. Accuweather.com showed a high of 63, which would be manageable for the long race, if not ideal. But then a day later accuweather showed a high of 84. Now all sources predict temps to hit the high 80s, which isn't even great for the spectators anymore.
The training is done, so now it's just mental prep. Time to summon the forces of denial.
First off, the forecast could be worse. A tailwind is projected. It won't be terribly humid.
It would be far more challenging to run Badwater.
A marathon is known for testing your limits. But then again, so does an enormous pile of dirty dishes, a stubborn infant, or dealing with Time Warner Cable.
I am determined to enjoy the race. If enjoying it is the goal, rather than, say, fixating on breaking three hours, I'll run a better time. How to enjoy it? Well, assuming beach weather, I’ll find a hat to protect me from the sun, or perhaps even a visor. There will be many opportunities to drink free water and Gatorade, and to pour water over my head. I’ll try to run at a pace that I think I can endure for 26 miles, being mindful that such a pace will feel slow at the start.
I'm four-for-four in medical tent visits after colder weather marathons, and I'm making it a goal NOT to visit the medical tent during or after this one, unless I really must, of course.
Before running the NYC Marathon in 2010, I shared Glen Redpath’s advice about not ruining your race in the first two miles. I followed his advice, letting runners speed ahead up and down the Varazzano Bridge, but I still started competing too early and was left with too little at the end. To enjoy this race I'll need to hold in the reins for longer.
From what I gather, the course has three distinct stages: the first 16 miles, which are favorable, the hills, which aren't, and the last five miles, which are favorable. For the first two parts I'll think about form and try to find a happy internal place. If my legs and faculties are intact after the first two parts, I’ll attempt to race the third part.
Our last CPTC workout for the Boston marathon was an 8-mile sustained run, with the middle four miles at half-marathon pace and the first and last two miles at marathon pace. When I first read the workout, I wondered why the last two miles would be at marathon pace. Downshifting to a slower pace at the end of a workout is contrary to the usual way we do these things. By the time I got to those last two miles, it made sense. The marathon cadence was slower, but I was gliding at a good clip and passing other runners who seemed to be putting in more effort. This is how I'd like it to feel over those last five miles of the race.
Given the conditions, it is a stretch to believe I will feel that way, but at any rate, it would be fun.
Two laps of heaven, six laps of hell
The McCarren Park Track Classic
I ran the 3200 at the inaugural McCarren Park Track Classic in Williamsburg last Saturday. It was a bright and chilly morning, with a spiteful little headwind on the backstretch. Behind me at the starting line of the men’s heat was a guy named Misha. Wearing a pale pink North Brooklyn Runners shirt and designer sunglasses, he could have been prepping his canvas for a day of painting on the Mediterranean, or awaiting brunch with Adrien Brody. He seemed completely unbothered by the task at hand: eight laps in the freezing cold, as fast as you can go. The disconnect permeated the meet itself, an NBR production in which the brilliant sunshine and positive vibes made an afterthought of the pain involved in the actual running.
I had never raced a 3200 on an outdoor track, though in high school I raced the 1600 a number of times. The starts and finishes of those races – the first and fourth laps – went by quickly. The problem was the middle. And in a 3200, the middle isn’t just the second and third laps, it’s the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh laps.
My goal for the race was to break eleven minutes, and to do so I’d need to run quarters averaging 82.5 seconds, and then shave off a second somewhere. I took an inside lane and got off the line well, though I was quickly swallowed and then dropped by the front pack before I could properly tuck in and draft. Regardless, my quarter split was 79 seconds, ahead of the goal pace.
I’ve had luck with round-number goals in 2012, running 17:59 at the Armory to slip under 18 minutes in the 5,000, and 4:59 in the mile, also at the Armory, running the last quarter in 71 seconds to sneak under 5.
Though the initial 79 second lap didn’t feel strained, I was discouraged to see from the clock at the finish line that the pace for the ensuing laps had deteriorated to 84 or 85 seconds per. At the 1600 mark I was at 5:33. I picked up my cadence but the results were the same. Then I got confused, as one does in the late stages of a marathon. I didn’t know whether I had two or three laps to go. I thought the guy passing me was lapping me, but he was just passing, as it turned out, and I veered into lane 2 to let him by. With a lap and a half left, I then was indeed lapped by the two leaders. There’s nothing like being lapped to put you in your place.
I saw the leaders finish as I steeled myself for my own final quarter, needing to clock 71 seconds to go sub 11. In my deluded state, I thought this possible. The guy who had passed me was 10 meters ahead and speeding up. I focused on reining him in, visualizing what Bernard Lagat does to his prey. With 150 meters to go my mind told my body to commit and pass him. The body obliged, and I beat that guy, though at 11:05, I was six seconds off the goal pace. I had run the final quarter in 77.
Next up is the New York City half this weekend, and, if training goes well, an attempt to crack three hours at the Boston marathon.