Tag Archives: Marathon

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.


Pushing Down

The arrival of spring this year found this runner looking-forward eagerly to a long event that started up in the mountains and ended down in town. With a couple thousand feet of overall drop, I figured it was a sure formula for a fast pace and an ego-boost to start the season. Sure enough, I crushed my goal pace on the first half (which contained nearly all the downhill) but when I got to the flats…ouch! Turned out my enthusiasm had gotten the better of me and my legs were already shot. By the last few miles I could barely get my feet off the ground as I watched shufflers pass me by and ended up with the worst finish I’d had at that distance in years.

Looking back on it now, I see several things I did wrong. First off, after years of living and training in a mountain region where up and down is a fact of life, I’d taken my fitness in that regard for granted.   Ignoring the fact I’d spend half the last year living in a city where a highway overpass counts as a scenic overlook, I just assumed running all that downhill at an eager pace would still be my thing. Wrong!

Second, because that city sojourn had been at sea level and my regular home and running are all above 6000’ elevation, since my return I’d focused my training on pace work to get re-acclimatized to thin air with less oxygen. Add in the long runs needed to prepare for the event distance, and I completely ignored the kind of up and down runs that would have prepared my legs for this event.

As I mentally beat myself up for that overconfidence, I recalled that an event in which I’d DNF’d a few years ago also had a big downhill in the first half, and that time too, I’d been proud of my pace on those drops, self-image swelling as I wove my way around slower runners and watched the valley floor come rising up to greet me. There too, once we got back on the level, my legs were noodles, only that day, on top of the fatigue I discovered I had no idea how many miles were left to run, thanks to poor signage and a course that looped around and crossed-over itself like a pre-schooler’s shoelaces. Pretty sure my car was closer than the finish line, I bailed and snuck away in shame ( well, maybe just embarrassment…). So much for that earlier flash of ego!

Putting those two together, I’ve resolved to spend this winter on uphill runs and treadmills with the incline set high. And, never again to be deceived by an early downhill. It’s one thing to let it all hang out on a downslope at the end of a run ( thank you to all those race-planners who lay out their courses for a downhill finish, you let us mid-pack runners feel like heroes!). From now on I’ll read the entire elevation profile (another thank you to all the race directors who include that vital info on their web site), and take just a little help from gravity’s boost, while preserving my legs for what comes after.

Pushing downhill, I’ve discovered, is a drug best-taken in controlled doses!

The Measure of a Run

In 2014, Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon, the first American man to do so in 31 years.  Millions watched intently, thrilled and awed by his victory. His winning time? in 2:08:37.

In 2011, Ryan Hall ran the same course in 2:04:58, the fastest marathon ever run by an American, anywhere.  But Ryan Hall didn’t win; he didn’t even get to stand on the podium, because three men ran even faster that year. So his run, nearly four minutes faster than Meb’s, didn’t bring anything like the acclaim – or rewards – of that performance.

Is beating every other runner who shows up for a particular event on a particular day the best measure of a runner’s performance – or is hitting a particular time the more absolute and lasting achievement?

On one hand, winning seems dubious when the time required to do so can vary so much from year to year…

On the other, there was reportedly a tailwind in 2011, which may have boosted the entire field’s times – though how much that affected them is undetermined; and undeterminable. Swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, 2015’s winning time was 2:09:17, widely thought to be attributable, at least in part, to headwinds; but again, how much so is impossible to determine.  Consider that Robert Kiprono Cherulyot had won – and set a new course record – in 2010, but if his 2:05:52 had occurred one year later, it would only have been good for – fifth!

Clearly, actual time isn’t the absolute objective criterion it seems to be, either.

And is an individual’s performance really due solely to their efforts, or do drafting, switching leads and the emotions of the chase contribute – how much did the pacing of others play into those astounding 2011 times?   Speaking of intangibles, seven of the 2014 men’s field had previously run a 2:05:30 or better somewhere.  How readily do we conclude that it was only Meb’s personal commitment to making a statement after the tragedy of 2013 which set him at the head of such a phenomenal group – or were their efforts moderated, as some have claimed, by Hall himself, lulling them into a relaxed pace until Keflezghi had opened a gap which was to prove unbridgeable? (Apparently the same factors that can skew finishing time can affect placement as well – and make my brain start to hurt…)

When confusion reigns supreme, seek refuge in the simple: and one simply indisputable truth – especially for an MPR – is that both Meb’s and Ryan’s performances are spectacular, inspiring, and borderline incredible.  When your own marathon times hover around 4 hrs. (or five, or…), it is almost beyond belief that someone out there can do it in just over two – and those who can do so seem so superhuman, it makes little sense to differentiate between one or the other.

Another thing we can be sure of, is that neither of these runners –  among the very best in the world – really knows before a given event what they will achieve.  They may run a new PR and win – or run an even greater PR, and not win. Someone else may not run their fastest race – and still win. Or not.  All they or any of us can really count on is the satisfaction that comes from knowing you did your best; for that day, for those conditions, for all the factors that play into what seems like the simplest of sports (run from here to there, as fast as you can) but is in reality, fraught with complexities.

Doing your best is the most reliable measure of achievement, whether you’re an MPR or an elite champion: another way in which there’s not as much difference between us as one might first suppose!


(By the way, why is the US running conversation so focused on ‘American’ runners.  Lelisa Desisa won the event in 2013 and 2015;, where were the magazine covers, cable TV profiles, and full-page sponsor-ads for him?  Or for Geoffrey Mutai, leader of that blistering pack in 2011, with a 2:03:02 that still stands today as the course record? And we cannot go without mentioning Dennis Kimetto, whose 2:02:57 in Berlin 2014 is the fastest marathon to date; anywhere, in any field.

And why is this post only about the men?

More to come.)

Run-up to Boston – Part 7 – Turning On To Boylston

Hypothesis: for an MPR, running Boston is not about the finishing-time, but the experience, and when one takes that view, perhaps the ultimate moment is not crossing the big yellow line (yes, it really is big enough to see on Google Earth); the real climax is when you round the corner from Hereford St. onto Boylston and see that last .2 (it’s actually .36, but who’s counting?) stretching out, straight and simple and piece-of-cake, lined with roaring humanity, to the banners and bridge that will mean it’s over; and realize you wish this run could last forever.


And so:

To the 27,000 who came from around the country and around the world to run…

( you saw them sprinkled around airports, train stations and highway rest stops across the country Friday, Saturday and Sunday, proudly displaying runner-shirts or jackets from years past, a pop-up community coalescing more and more, the closer each one came to the epicenter of its strange ambition…)

To the family and friends who humor and support them in their obsession…

To the organizers (the Boston Athletic Association, and its many generous sponsors), who put this enormous celebration together so seamlessly and well…

To the police, military, EMTs, firefighters and nobody-but-them-knows-who-all, who did so much to keep all of us safe, with as little visibility or inconvenience as they possibly could,

To the photographers, who captured moments and memories of what can otherwise seem an ephemeral experience…

To the volunteers, smiling with astonishing good cheer through –

  • Seemingly-endless lines of registrants to be checked-in, bags and shirts to be handed-out
  • Ushering dazed and hapless crowds around the expo
  • Dishing out tons of pre-race past in the bowels of City Hall
  • Preparing a safe and un-miss-able course from rural woodlands to city center
  • Accepting drop bags and shepherding thousands of manic, jittery would-be-racehorses onto busses in the early morning hours
  • Handing out coffee, water and smiles under drizzly tents in the runner’s village (even when we couldn’t figure out which side of the tables was for servers, and which for servees…)
  • Dispensing hydration, energy, first aid and encouragement every mile along the route
  • Draping medals over sweaty necks, thermal ponchos over about-to-become-hypothermic shoulders and handing out still more hydration, calories, first aid and encouragement after the line
  • The after-party – which many of us (like this one…) were too full of the experience by then to attend, so we’ll never know what it was like…

And did it all with patience and courtesy and heart-warming generosity…

And most of all, to the crowd, who came out in droves – despite the rain, wind and cold – to once again cheer a bunch of self-absorbed migrant-strangers as we exercised this odd compulsion, disrupting lives and clogging the streets of their cities and towns for hours on end, and made us feel completely and utterly welcome…

To anyone I’ve overlooked (as I’m sure I have, someone)…

There is only one thing to say:

Boylston Corner Tight Crop


Run-up to Boston – Part 5 – That Crowd!

I’d read about it before my first trip to Boston, but nothing in print prepares one for the reality, which includes:

Homeowners and compatriots hooting and encouraging from their front lawns as you leave the holding area at a Hopkinton school yard to walk the half-mile or so to the actual starting corrals.

Friends and family six-deep and more at the start, snapping shots of loved ones as they finally find enough open pavement to break into a run, bursting with energy pent-up thru several hours of waiting, queuing and standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Barely as much as twenty feet of unoccupied curb on either side for the entire distance.  (Except one thinly-wooded stretch early-on, where lots of male runners were stopping relieve themselves, barely off the route and not at all concealed – come on guys!)

Service-women and -men in uniform controlling traffic at many of the side street intersections along the way; a great honor to be so cared-for by you.

The colleges: yes, there are hundreds of college students in Wellesley and Boston College, generously offering the kind of hysterical enthusiasm that comes from being cooped up on small campuses with large expectations.  Much appreciated!

Signs – some clearly aimed at a particular runner, but tons offering non-specific encouragement, with the result that even an out-of-towner feels like they are running thru family and friends the whole time, making this feel like a home-town event, no matter where one hails from.

The volume!  You want to plug-in for extra encouragement thru the late-teen miles? Fugeddabout it!  Not only is it impossible to hear over the crowd without cranking-up to a head-splitting level; it quickly becomes clear that not even Born To Be Wild is as effective a spur as all those voices and faces!  Plug-out and observe; this is priceless

Crescendo – by mile 22 or so, the bigger buildings are closing-in, the crowds even thicker and the volume just continues to grow, equally-heartening whether you are struggling to hang on or ready to start squandering some hard-won hoarded reserve for a strong finish.

Rounding the turn onto Herford street it seems like it can’t get any better (visions of Olympic rings and Super Bowl trophies may come to mind, as you picture your own private ‘Miracle on Ice’), until that final left onto Boylston kicks you in the shorts even more.  How can you not give your all to these people who fill the sidewalks, standing in the cold, or rain, or baking sun, beaming their own personal energy and emotions out to supplement whatever you have left?

Which brings up a somber thought: none of the reporting I’ve seen about the tragedy of 2013 has sufficiently emphasized that the bombs were placed not on the course, but in the midst of the spectators at the finish.  The majority of those injured that day – and all of those killed – were not runners at all, but people who had come to cheer them on. People who would get no medals that day, would have no finishing-time to put in their logbooks; who were only there to encourage others.

And the next year, the crowd was bigger than ever!

Running a marathon is in many ways a selfish pursuit; spectating at one is just the opposite; an act of generosity and even love.