What Can Go Wrong, Will. (Part I)

The New York City Marathon is one of the so-called Majors – six big events in famous locales that some runners aim to bag. Having grown up in the greater NYC area (on ‘Lawn-Guy-Land,’ as our loving offspring tell me I still pronounce it) I toyed with the idea, but not seriously, until our eldest son moved to Harlem and offered me a free bed (actually a small rectangle of floor, but hey, I expect Pheidippides slept on the ground the night before his big run…), so in late 2018 I sent in my application. The lottery for open entries was formidable, with 117,708 applications for 10,510 available slots – a 1-out-of-11 chance – but I got lucky.

I arrived at my Airbnb two days ahead (having allowed for potential winter travel delays, a lesson I learned several years ago when I had to literally run the streets of Boston to reach the expo as security was shutting the doors and volunteers packing away unclaimed bibs and packets). That left Saturday for touring with Owen and Sunday for a gentle shake-out run, a carbo load dinner and laying out my clothes and gear for the early start. I think I left the apartment at 3:30 AM, for a 10:30 wave gun, but I could be wrong, those hours are a blur…

Anyway, after a long cold wait, helped immensely by the coffee, fleece beanies, bagels and other treats TCS and Dunkin Donuts so generously provided, we set off. Which is when the ‘ugh’ started, as I discovered I’d somehow gotten my GPS set up so that instead of recording each mile as a lap and letting me know what pace I’d run it, the thing was cycling every 1.61 miles instead.

That may not seem like much, but when you’ve trained for years by pace, it’s an important tool to tell a stressed-out brain when it’s OK to maintain cruising speed, and when it’s time to suck it up and work a bit harder. Now, instead of instantly knowing I’d just completed that last mile in, say 9:26, I was faced with long division of times: quick, what’s 14 minutes and 31 seconds divided by 1.61, anybody? Don’t all raise your hands at once, I know mine’re in my lap. What’s the difference in pace between 15:11/1.61 and 14.31/1.61? Beats me, Prof, can we go to the pub now?

Another thing about NYCM, is the field size, over 50,000 runners. Even with wave starts grouped by expected pace, that means a crowded course and constant pace changes: speed up to get around someone before the slot closes, then slow down to wait for an opening to get around the next knot. Comparing my starting place with my finishing place, it appears I passed nearly 4400 runners along the way – not because I was fast, I’m not – but just because every day is a new day for every runner. In any case, with that many bodies on that much real estate, settling into a smooth efficient pace was out of the question.

About the time I was accepting those two distractions, I reached for the snack-baggie I carry on long runs, full of electrolyte capsules and a few Ibuprofen. I prefer to carry water rather than electrolyte drink; the better to wash down the gels and chews I use for fueling. Also because I’d rather pour plain H2O over my head and neck when it gets hot than Powerade or Propel!  In any case, when I reached for the baggie, I found I’d brought along an identical one, containing instead, the daily vitamins I’d counted out for the trip…so goodbye regular electrolyte hits.

The best laid plans, they say, are the most fragile (do they say that? I think they should. I’m gonna start saying it…), and at that point I lost control of pace, nutrition and incentive. Hopes of a good time were replaced by simply finishing, especially when we turned north onto First Avenue, eerily clear of its perpetual traffic snarl, and could look almost three miles straight ahead to the Bronx, and see for ourselves that up–town is not  flat-bush.

All’s well that ends well, though; I was able to finish the run and enjoy again the thrill of completing something which, for most of my life, I could never have imagined even attempting. Lessons learned? Be even more careful about checking gear the night before (maybe two different types of snack-baggie?) and think carefully before entering events with more than 1000 starters per mile: leave the broken-field running to the NFL, if you ‘re a mid-pack-runner and hope to find your ‘zone’.

BTW, there was an unexpected pay-off: that slower pace meant my legs felt better the next day than after any other marathon I’ve run. Staying in a sixth- floor walk-up to avoid NYC hotel prices? No Problem!

Thank you New York City Marathon, first responders and citizens. Thank you TCS for sponsoring a great event, and thank our lucky stars for every day we can run, no matter what goes sideways.


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