I like to run. I've learned that it really isn't about where you're going, it's about the getting there - the how, the why, the who with. This blog is just a little repository for my thoughts along the way; the setbacks, the lessons learned, and the occasional triumph.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Race Report: Poconos Marathon 2012

(All photos are courtesy Wallace Flores)

Last Sunday, I tackled my first marathon of 2012, the Poconos “Run for the Red” Marathon.  (The “Red” in the title being the American Red Cross.)  My stated goal for this whole year has been to get back to something resembling “speed” and to try and set some new Personal Records at a handful of distances.  As I creep towards 40 (and ten years of race-running), I know there aren’t all that many PRs left in my future.  I want to maximize my results now, while I can, before I turn my attention to other types of running goals.

I felt I had slacked on my training in the last 18 months.  I was still doing the “quantity”, but not nearly as much of the “quality” miles (meaning plenty of long, slow runs, but not enough tempo training, no real speed work).  In December, I started making some changes in my training.
My efforts have already paid off this year.  I ran my first track meet and set personal marks in the Mile and the 800 Meters.  I PR’ed the Half-Marathon in March, beating my previous best from 5 years before.  I also, technically, set a new 10K PR in the first 6.2 miles of that same half-marathon, shaving 40 seconds off a time that was 6 years old.  I should also have a new 5K PR, but unfortunately the course I ran on May 12th was marked about 150 meters too long, so my official time does not reflect how well I ran.  (I’ll give another go at the distance next month.)

Each of those achievements, though very satisfying, come with a small caveat: I’ve rarely run those distances in the last few years.  The Marathon is where I placed focus.  Thus, it’s a new Marathon PR that always stands as the brass ring.  Indeed, it was my slightly mediocre performances in the Chicago and New York Marathons last fall that prodded me back to speed work and higher quality running.

I’m not above stacking the deck a little in my favor, either.  To that end, I took a suggestion I saw printed in Runner’s World Magazine over the winter: Try the Poconos Marathon for a speedy downhill race.  The course drops more than 1200 feet from start to finish on wooded rural roads.  Math and simple physics shows that a runner traveling 26.2 miles down a 1200 foot decline will be roughly 7 minutes faster than the same runner on a flat course.  It’s never as simple as that, of course, but the prospects were very enticing.

I talked my friend, Lynn, into committing to the race as well.  I just helped her run her first marathon on a trail-based course this past Thanksgiving, but she’d never run a road race.  I thought she might enjoy the rural course and the small race field of the Poconos event.  After a little thinking, she jumped in and we began separate training schedules.

After my strong half-marathon in March, I added a weekly track session to my routine.  I was pleased with my performance on those nights.  The two 20-milers I went out for didn’t go as smoothly, but I decided there were extraneous circumstances on each of those runs, and all of my other long runs were good ones.  So, it would all come down to the problem of solving the mysteries of the Poconos’ course on race day.

The basic math – the drop in elevation, the boost in running pace – seemed to make the choice to run this event a no-brainer, but on closer inspection the Poconos course presents some difficulties.  There is a helpful drop in elevation, but the bulk of that drop is complete by the time you’ve reached 17.5 miles.  The next 7 miles are, literally, an up and down affair with a long series of rolling hills.  None are “steep”, but I don’t think they classify as “gentle”, either, especially because they come after you’ve already run 19 miles.
The other obstacle we faced was the weather.  The forecast for race day was for lows in the 50s, but a high of 83 with plenty of sunshine.  I hoped Lynn and I would both be across the finish line before the worst of the heat set in, but the temps looked as though they’d reach, at least, into the high 70s for the last hour of our race.  Not ideal.

I’ve had a lot of bad luck with the weather as a marathoner.  Before the Poconos I’d run 14 road-based marathons.  Two of them were in a sub-40 freeze.  6 were run in uncomfortable, if not stifling, heat.  Only twice has the weather been ideal for me - temps that stay in the 50s from start to finish, clouds to shield the sun.  At both races I set new PRs.  How I long for a marathon when the weather does not factor into my performance.
In retrospect, I can also admit that an unfamiliar course is not the best place to shoot for a marathon PR.  The more unknowns you can eliminate on race day the better off you’ll be achieving your goals.  Neither a course map nor an elevation chart will tell you the whole story.  Even driving the course isn’t really enough.  You’ve got to feel the route under your feet.  You’ve gotta know what it means to run that thing in the morning on race day.  Where are the sneaky inclines?  Where are the sun-exposed miles? What does the distance between water stops feel like? It was a risk to go to the Poconos for the first time with a PR in mind.

Given the unfriendly forecast, it was a relief to walk outside our hotel on race morning – we were staying less than a mile from the finish line – and feel the chilly morning air.  It was tempting to think that somehow the heat would hold off until the afternoon, post-race, but by the time we drove up the mountain to the start, the weather had already changed.  As we milled about at 7am, the sun shone brightly and the air temp was already in the 60s.  I didn’t need any extra layers to keep warm and by the time I finished a short jog to shake off the last of my sleep, I had begun to work up some sweat.  I expected it to be cooler up on the mountain, not warmer.
In the weeks before the race, as the weather forecast developed and I examined and re-examined the course elevation profile.  I formulated some race tactics.  I felt I could count on a strong performance in the first 20 miles.  That’s where most of the downhill was and also when the weather would be coolest.  The ups and downs on the last quarter of the course, coupled with a – potentially – very hot late morning sun made the last 10K a bit of a crap shoot.  I decided it was better to aim for a little extra speed early, take advantage of all those downhills, and maybe outrun the heat a little bit.
This goes against the common mantra to not “go out too fast”, but I wasn’t planning anything crazy.  Based on the way the course is structured, I felt the strategy made good sense.  It’s not the kind of course you generally run a negative split on (running the second half faster than the first).  It was logical to plan for a late-race slow down.  Why not use it and bank a few minutes in the first 20 miles?

My marathon PR, set in May 2009, was 3:44 and change.  At the very least, I wanted a new PR.  I thought I had an excellent shot at breaking 3:40, and that’s what I was aiming at, what I was expecting.  If the day went extremely well, I thought I could crack 3:35.  (And if, by some chance, a miracle occurred, I might see the south side of 3:30, but that miracle would have to include the weather, and I thought that very unrealistic.)  If I could cover the first 20 miles in 2 hours and 45 minutes (an 8:15 per mile pace), then, even if I slowed down to 8:50 miles, I would still finish with a sub-3:40.  The heat would be a big variable though, so I felt my race was really in those first 20 miles.  Up ‘til then, I could control things somewhat.  After that point, I’d let the chips fall where they may.

About 10 minutes before the 8 a.m. start, Lynn could stand around no more, took one last round of hugs and went to line up back near the 4:30 pace group.  My girlfriend, Jen, Lynn’s husband Wally, and our close friend Melissa all made the drive out to Pennsylvania to support the both of us.  This is the same 5-person group who turned out to get Lynn through her first marathon in the Bronx last Thanksgiving Day.  All four were also in Ohio with me last August for my (failed) attempt at the Burning River 100 (along with my sister, and my friends Sean & Amy and Ryan).  The five of us must have a thing going.  I lingered a few more minutes with our crew, but soon took my own round of hugs and found my spot among the other runners.

The pace groups were led by volunteers wearing bright, neon pink shirts and holding little signs with finish times and pace printed.  I lined up behind the 3:35/8:12 per mile pace group.  Mostly, I just wanted to be in front of the 3:40 group, but I wanted to start with the 3:35 kids and see how I felt.

Just after 8 o’clock, the start gun went off, and less than a minute later I crossed the start line. 

For the last 6 months I’ve been using a GPS watch on my runs.  It’s not a completely accurate device, but it’s a handy tool.  It gives me a fair estimate of distance and average pace.  I turned off the automatic split option for this race.  I would record my own splits by pushing the button every time I ran past a mile marker.  The device usually measures my miles a little short and estimates my pace to be a little faster than actual.  In that first mile after the start, it reported a sharp, low 8-minute-per-mile pace, but I knew to disregard that, and besides, the pace felt very slow.  There was, as always, a little crowding in those early meters.  None of us quite had room to really run, yet.  My legs weren’t completely awake and we hadn’t even reached a significant downhill stretch.  I expected to clock that first mile in, maybe 8:35 or so.  I was more than a little surprised to pass the 1st mile marker, hit the split button, and look down at my watch to read an “8:04”.

“Huh”, I thought – but the first mile of a marathon doesn’t mean all that much.  I just held steady, checked that my breathing still felt “easy” and stayed behind the pace group.  My second mile split was exactly 8 minutes.  Interesting.

The first 5 miles of the race are basically flat.  There’s a little up and a little down, but no real net elevation lost.  The drop doesn’t begin until miles 6 and 7.  The route follows a series of state highways that lead from Lake Pocono back to downtown Stroudsburg.  Most of those roads are lined with thick green trees and in the morning hours they offer copious amounts of shade.  Despite the warmer-than-hoped-for weather, it was still comfortable in that 8 o’clock hour.  At mile 3, I clocked a slightly more expected 8:19.  Mile 4 showed an 8:17.  But then at mile 5, before we began any notable downhill running, I clocked a relatively easy 7:52.

Now it was ON.  A sub-8 split, 5 miles in, run with that little stress, could not be a fluke.  Now I believed in the way I was running, and felt I had found a happy zone where I could push “just enough” without pushing too hard.  I was still traveling with the 3:35 group and for the next few miles I stayed tucked in behind them.  I clocked 8:04, 8:04, 7:49 (on an especially steep mile down Route 314), 8:04, 8:04 and 8:06.  Those first 11 miles could not have gone any better.  Jen, Wally & Melissa were waiting to see me for the first time just after mile 9.  I ran by them calling out “72:45 at mile 9! 72:45 at mile 9!” in the hopes they’d see I was moving a little faster than we’d expected.  Their happy faces were good to see, whether they understood me or not.

At mile 12, I logged an 8:22, but it was an aberration and the next 4 miles read: 8:10, 8:14, 8:09 and 8:03.  Along the way, I crossed the half-way mat in 1:46:24, the best 1st half of any marathon I’ve run. 

Jen, Melissa and Wally were waiting for me again just past 16.5 miles.  Once again, I flew past, strong and still very optimistic, but there I faced a key turning point in the race.  Just past the 17 mile marker is – for all intents and purposes – the bottom of the hill.  There is still a net elevation loss from that point to the finish, but, compared to the 1200+ feet you’ve already dropped down, what’s left to lose is extremely subtle.  What you DO notice is that suddenly you’re running uphill a lot.  Just about every time you get a little decline, it’s returned with an equal or greater incline.  So, somewhere in the 18th mile, the party is over.

There are some long, steady climbs in those next few miles, but I held pretty strong and clocked 8:16, 8:18, 8:32 and then an 8:39 for the 20th mile.  The hills were officially rolling by then, and yes, the late-morning heat was beginning to set in.  I had run just in front of the 3:35 pace group through 18 miles.  In the 19th they slipped past me.  At 20 miles, they had a few hundred meters on me.  I maintained my good mood, though.  I had covered 20 miles in just 2 hours, 43 minutes and 44 seconds, more than a minute ahead of my 2:45 goal. I averaged 8:11 minutes per mile to that point.  With that extra 75 seconds in the bank, I knew I could run the last 6.2 miles at an average pace of 9 minutes per mile and still break 3:40.  I was in good position.  My pace had already begun to slip, yes, but I had earned a healthy cushion.  I was elated.

Yet, it was not to be.  It was 10:45 a.m.  The temperature was, by then, in the high 70s.  The sun was arcing high.  The morning was not yet old enough for the humid air to have been burned away.  The stiff, rolling hills were crueler than expected.  The character of my performance changed quickly.
Unlike the weather at Chicago the last few years, the heat didn’t come on as if someone had flicked a switch.  Instead, it crept upon me without my notice and before I knew it, I’d been trudging along in the thick of it for what seemed like hours.  It drained me slowly, but surely, like a vampire drinking my blood.  I split the 21st mile with an 8:52 and still had hope, but in the 22nd mile I was finally reduced to stretch of walking.  The shift to a different set of muscles after nearly 3 hours revealed a numbness in my legs.  I did not feel light-headed, but I was parched.  I split the 22nd mile with a 9:23.

I was determined to keep moving.  If I could just will myself to keep jogging – to stay away from the walks – I might still break 3:40, but the sun was out in force and the protective trees which had closely lined the road for the first 20 miles of the course were mostly gone now.  What trees did still stand nearby offered far less shelter from a sun that was already directly overhead.  I began taking cups of both Gatorade and water at every aid station we passed.  (Some stations even handed out full bottles of water, which was generous.)  There was an ice stop near mile 23.  I took two large handfuls and kept going, popping some of the ice in my mouth and simply holding onto the rest in my fists as I ran.  But still I walked more.  Still I lost time.  I split the 23rd mile with a 9:47, the 24th with 9:51 and I knew that a sub-3:40 was fully out of reach.

I was left with only my “C” goal: breaking my previous best and setting a new PR.  I never really believed that I would fail to crack 3:40, so I had not double checked my exact PR. I could not recall precisely how many seconds past 3:44 I had run that day in 2009.  Now I worried that I would slow so much that I would slip past that goal as well.  Instead of having minutes to spare, now every little second counted.

There was one last, sharp, little hill just past the 24th mile marker.  A volunteer at its top assured us that no other hills remained on the course.  A lot of people say encouraging things like this to runners during a marathon.  They are often untrue.  This man, however, was adamant, and the tone of his voice was one of experience, of truth.  I wish I could say that some momentum came along with the relief I received at that point, but it did not.  The heat denied me that.  I never did quite lose my stubborn, though.  I allowed myself a short walk, and then I forced myself back into a jog/trot.

At 24 miles, my total time was roughly 3 hours, 22 minutes.  My pace had slowed to nearly 10 minute miles.  The temperature was over 80, the heat index still higher and my internal thermometer, higher still.  I had 2.2 miles left to go on mostly flat roads, but under a steamy midday sun. (Even Jen, Melissa and Wally would later confess that they were hot and sweaty just standing around and watching for us.)  I was desperate to finish in less than 3:44, but it would require some push.  How terrible would it be to waste those first 20 brilliant, easy, breezy miles?

I did not move quickly, but I kept my feet going at a jog.  Just before I reached the 25th mile marker, we made the turn off of the small back-streets of Stroudsburg onto the one real thoroughfare, Main Street.  My split at 25 was a 9:58.  The next mile would be the longest mile I ever ran in my life.

Before the Poconos, the final mile (or 1.2 miles) of every marathon (or ultra) I’ve ever run has been a boost, a relief, a burden removed.  The 23rd mile, the 24th, the 25th – those are the hardest miles, those are the miles when you begin to question the depths of your own sanity, when you ask yourself, “Why?” and find it difficult to answer.  That’s not how it was for me in Stroudsburg.  I thought the 26th mile was never, ever going to end.  I kept looking at my watch, counting as the minutes, the seconds continued spinning away.  It was hard to think straight.  With somewhere less than a ¾ mile to go I was forced to walk again.  I needed a short rest to try and recharge for the last push to the finish.
I could see the high school – where we would finish with a lap around the track inside the football stadium – looming off to our right, but it barely seemed to move in my vision.  Another runner, suffering as much as I was, asked me if we would be turning into the high school soon.  I said, “I don’t know, just keep going.”  I was worried about the time and annoyed.  At last, with about four-tenths of a mile to go, we turned right on to the campus.  My watch showed just under 3 hours, 40 minutes.  I was nearly out of time to hit my final goal.  I tried to stop looking at my watch and just run.

We made a left turn and I could see the back of the stadium.  Spectators were milling about outside the building, watching runners work their way around to the far side to enter the track.  I did not see Jen or Melissa or Wally.  I did, however, finally see the 26th mile marker placed just outside the gate into the small stadium.  I never thought I would see that sign.  I hit the split on my watch but I did not look at it. I was frightened of what it would show me.  I had to complete nearly one full lap of the 400 meter track.  I needed to do it before the official clock showed 3:44.  While I was on the first turn, I heard my name called out on the stadium’s loudspeaker system.  I threw my left arm up in the air in the hope that Jen and Melissa and Wally would see it, and know that I had heard, to know that I was still pushing, to know that I wasn’t done, yet.

Along the back stretch I was looking over my left shoulder, trying to see the event clock by the finish line.  It had taken me a short time to cross the start line after the gun went off at the beginning of the race.  There would be a small discrepancy between the official race clock and my chip time, but I wasn’t sure how much.  When I entered the final turn on the track to head toward the finish line, both my watch and the official clock read 3:43.  It was just the seconds that were different.

Ten minutes after the race, after Jen found a chair is a shady spot to set me down in, she quietly told me that she saw the official clock roll over 3:44 before I had finished and was sorry that it seemed I’d missed that goal.  But I had stopped my watch at the finish line and showed her its face.  The total in the middle read “3:43:37”.

I checked my race history later on and was reminded that my previous best was 3:44:39.  My official chip time at the Poconos was 3:43:38.  So, I took a full minute off my PR, but the truth is it was the minute tally that counted in my mind.  I would have been disappointed with a 3:44:01.  It’s so much easier to say you went from a 3:44 to a 3:43 than to explain that you ran a slightly faster 3:44.  Just not as satisfying.

As soon as I crossed the line and quit running, I discovered I could hardly walk.  My legs stopped working properly and I stub-legged-stumbled through the short finish chute to get my finisher’s medal and a bottle of water.  Dizziness overtook me and I couldn’t see clearly.  Luckily, my senses did not leave me and there was no danger of throwing up.  I was afraid to quit moving, and when I saw Jen and Melissa on the other side of the fence, I moved as quickly as I could out to meet them. I wanted my hugs and love, but I also wanted Jen to help hold me up.  I was managing, but everything was beginning to look slightly askew and I worried that if someone bumped me unexpectedly, that I might topple over.

After I was planted in my shady seat, I started quizzing everybody about Lynn.  Jen, Melissa and Wally had done a delicate dance during the morning, seeing both Lynn and I off at the start and then skipping forward to the designated spectator viewing areas.  The different paces Lynn and I ran made this a little tricky for them.  By the time Lynn came past each time, they had to hurry to get to the next spot down-course before I did.  They then had time to kill before seeing Lynn, followed by another race to the next viewing spot.  Parking was limited at each location, including the finish line, and the crew only reached the stadium to see me finish about 5 minutes before I got there.  (In fact, they had been behind the stadium looking to see me there first, and had to scurry back inside when they heard my name called out over the loudspeakers, “Gregory Isaac, from Brooklyn NY, is now on the track!” It was like a personal page for the crew.)

The group said that Lynn had looked really great each time they’d seen her, but the last spot they could wait was at mile 16.5.  That was before the heat of the day had begun to set in.  She was on, or below, her 4:30 goal pace, but it was impossible to know how she was still doing.  It took me a while to cool down and get past the dizzy spell, but I was watching the official clock tick the whole time.  When it said 4:15 (12:15pm in real time) I stood up and told everyone I was doing a lot better and thought we should go back out behind the stadium to look and wait for Lynn.
Somebody mentioned that she’d been running with a 4:25 pace group each time they’d seen her.  Melissa got really excited when she saw a dark-haired woman in a blue top coming around the corner around the 4:20 mark, but it was a false alarm.  Soon we saw the 4:25 group pacer appear in her neon pink shirt, still holding her pace group sign, but she was all alone, not a single runner within 50 yards of her.  She kept looking behind her, trying to slow down a little, searching for anyone who still needed a little help getting to the finish, but there was no one, the race was only for her there at the end.

And then, 30 or 40 seconds later: Lynn.  She appeared around the corner, moving steadily, drenched with sweat, focused on the END.  She did not respond to us in any way that I could see, but she was still moving pretty well.  We hollered at her and then turned swiftly back in to the stadium to clutch the fence at various spots alongside the finish.  It takes a while to complete a 400-meter loop.  Longer when it is the last 400 meters of 42195.  She still didn’t respond to any of us yelling at her in that last stretch (if she even heard us at all). I don’t think Lynn was feeling happy until she was actually over the finish line, but when she did cross it, her arms went up in triumph.  Her official time was 4:25:37. It was her second marathon, her first on the roads, and 15 minutes faster than her first.

Lynn said she’d stayed with the 4:25 pacer until she was the last runner left with her from the original group.  She herself finally dropped off in that final miserable mile.  It was as bad for her as it was for me.  She said her legs cramped so badly along Main Street that she worried she was going to do real damage.  She told us that, for a few moments, she seriously considered dropping out or just walking to the end.  She had to fight off tears.  Instead, though she was miserable for most of those last 15 minutes, she pushed on and scored a 4:25.  She ran a great race on a difficult day, stayed with her team pacer for 25 miles, and ran even, 10-minute splits for over 4 hours.  

15, 20 minutes after her finish, as we all walked back to the hotel along the race route, she was pointing out runners, still on the course, who had started out in her pace group.  She was excited to see them and telling us about their stories, all the while politely forgetting that she had run so very well and out paced each of them.

We both wore our medals around our necks as we walked with our loved ones, already recounting the day and regaling each other with the happenings of the morning both big and small.  It was a tough day.  It was a good day.  PRs for all and group of good friends.
Lynn clutched her very first foil blanket around her neck.  It wrapped her shoulders and fluttered behind her with the breeze. Almost like a cape.

Friday, March 30, 2012


It’s not like I’ve done everything there is to do as a runner. Not hardly. But totally new experiences with running don’t happen to me very often anymore.

In February, one did: I ran in a track meet.

I didn’t come to running until after college. It was an inexpensive way to get some exercise. I was even older when I finally started running races. That didn’t happen until I was a couple of trips around the sun from 30. So, I never ran track. Oh, I suffered through my share of Presidential Fitness Tests, and I recall slogging through 4 laps on a track riddled with side stitches and scuffling heels (my own on both counts), but a “track race” was a foreign concept.

When I finally did start pinning a number to my shirt almost 10 years ago, it was never for an event shorter than a 5K, and always on the paved roads through a city neighborhood. My muddy life as a trail runner came still later when I discovered marathons and ultras. It wasn’t that I was opposed to racing around a track, it’s just that events like that seemed unavailable to me. Track meets were where the professional runners went; where the “fast” people ran.

At the end of last year, I joined the New York Road Runners and discovered a series of “Open” track meets on the calendar for January and February. On four Thursday nights every winter, at the Armory indoor track on the far upper west side of Manhattan, an “all-comers” meet is held. Each night there are a selection of distances offered, including some relays, and $20 gets you in to run as many of the events as you feel like. It was something so different for me that I had to try it.

On February 9th, I rode the subway all the way up to 168th street, found my way to the Armory, and upstairs to the arena. There were four events scheduled for the night and I was there to run the Mile. If that went well, I would try the 800 Meters, too. (800m is just shy of a half-mile.) I found the registration table, paid my $20 and was given a neon orange wrist band to wear for the night to show that I was signed in and official. (There were no bib numbers.)

I had no idea what to expect, either from the event or from the competition, though one look around the arena confirmed a suspicion: the vast majority of the runners present were from local clubs and college track teams. These were the “fast” folks; people who ran fast and had always run fast; men and women alike, of all ages.

Not only that, but in the hour before the meet, the track was still being used by the professional runners who were in town for the Millrose Games, a national track meet to be held at the Armory that weekend. LaShawn Merritt, the world champion and 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 400 Meters, was actually on the track, 30 feet away from me, doing easy laps and working out some kinks with his coach. (I scurried to get my shoes on and get into the outer lanes for a warm-up jog just so I could say I’d run on the same track with him – a personal obligation I believe I have now fulfilled.) All of this was pretty cool, but also a bit intimidating.

After my little warm-up, I spied a couple of older guys who were talking with each other and seemed a little bit more like me – meaning “average”. I walked over, said hello, and immediately outed myself as a track novice. I wondered if they might have any advice. They both laughed and said, “Just run down the track and turn left,” but their friendly demeanor put me more at ease. I settled in to an empty spot on a set of bleachers and waited for my friends Melissa and Lynn to arrive – my walking, smiling, four-legged comfort zone.

Thursday Nights at the Armory is not an “official” race. They don’t declare winners, no prizes are given and there are no “finals”. During each event, everyone gets to run a single heat. Runners are expected to seed themselves according to their expected finishing times and the “fastest” heats run first. Afterwards, everyone simply gets a recorded time. I knew before I got there that I would be one of the slowest runners on the track, but I really expected to see a few more regular, average, mid-pack types, like myself. I worried that my stated goal of “not finishing last,” might be seriously threatened.
Melissa and Lynn appeared in the upper level seating area above the track and I escaped upstairs to collect a few hugs and deposit my bag of stuff. I know both women because they are great friends of my girlfriend, Jen. Lynn is a runner, too, and in the last couple of years she’s started to get a lot more serious about it. Back in November, I helped pace her to a finish in her first marathon (a trail race in the Bronx). She was eager to check out the meet and happy to come support me, but emphatically declared her intention NOT to run in it. An event like this one was still too much for her to think about. Looking around at all the speedy, track-savvy runners in the arena, I understood very well what she was thinking.

Melissa was along for moral support, and also to do me a great favor: to video me running both my races. I’ve never really seen myself run before. I’ve seen lots of photographs, of course, but the only video I’d watched was of me running past a stationary camera for a few seconds on a large marathon course. Nice as a keepsake, but not a good way to review how I move.

The women’s mile was the first event of the evening, to be followed by the men’s mile. While the women ran their heats, a crowd of more than 100 men formed in the infield in the middle of the track. A grizzled, older man in a while polo shirt, with a head of short-cropped, wiry, white hair was orchestrating the heat assignments. In his hands and pockets was a supply of different colored popsicle sticks, each hue bundled with a rubber band.

This Little Sergeant wore a look of short-tempered exasperation, and his expression rarely changed. He would take a look around at us and then declare what the estimated finish times for the next heat should be. Then the runners expecting to run at that pace were to line up at the front of the group and the Little Sergeant would dole out roughly a dozen matching-color popsicle sticks, first come, first served. No popsicle stick and you were not allowed to join the heat. I couldn’t help but be amused by this character as I watched him bark sharp instructions and handle the press of tense, eager runners. His answers to questions were often earlier statements that he repeated word for word, but slower and with slightly more bark.

The problem was, the arena was blaring British pop/rock music from all its speakers and though the Little Sergeant had been given a little megaphone, he had decided not to bother with that annoying little contraption. Most of the group of 100+ men gathered around for their heat assignments were having a difficult time hearing anything he had to say.

This resulted in a bit a kerfuffle before the 1st men’s heat could be run. There was one man in particular who apparently had missed out on a popsicle for the that 1st (fastest) heat, but, angry that he had not been given a spot and insistent that he deserved one, he tried to line up with the men in the 1st heat anyway. When the starter judge collected popsicles and this fellow was found without one, the runner, and, I assume, his coach, made quite a stink about it and the heat had to be held up for over a minute while the Head Judge and the Little Sergeant were summoned for an official decision. Result? The ruffled runner was told he would not be allowed in the first heat and would have to wait for the second. I really didn’t understand why any of this mattered so much, and I found it ironic when the pouty runner also failed to win the 2nd, slower heat even though he was so determined that he belonged with the first, fastest group.

As for myself, I didn’t really know what finish time to expect. I just knew that it would be slower than nearly everyone else present, and so I just needed to wait until the very last heat was assigned and jump in with those guys. My best-ever 5K race pace was 6:55 per mile, but that was almost 2 years ago. I once ran a 6:40 mile to start off a 5K and a 6:30 mile on a steep downhill to lead off another. I hadn’t done any kind of speed work in months and my legs hadn’t really started to feel spry again after last fall’s marathon season. What kind of mile time would I run? I really had no idea. I figured I’d cover the first lap, see how I felt, see what the time clock told me, and then race it out from there.

My heat – the last heat, the slowest heat – was the 8th of the night. The Little Sergeant didn’t even have popsicle sticks left over for us (though no one was starting any kerfuffles about deserving to be in our heat, anyway). There were 18 of us in the group and by the time we got to toe the line we’d been milling about and waiting for more than 45 minutes. There were so many of us in the heat that there didn’t seem to be enough room on the actual start line. I politely gathered in behind the first row of men, but the Start Judge noticed that there were several us in back and directed the men in front to squeeze in and allow all of us to, literally, toe the line.

Then the judge gave us an, “On your marks,” and blew the starter pistol.

I mostly wanted to stay out of everyone else’s way in those early laps. I didn’t want to be the cause of a pile-up. So, I wound up running in the 2nd lane for much of those first few loops. The Armory track is a 200m lap and we had to make 8 circuits, plus a little extra, to measure a full mile. I covered the first 200 in 45 seconds, decided that felt pretty good, and tried to settle in. On the second lap, those of us in the back of the pack had distinguished ourselves from the men in the front and we began to find out places amongst each other.
It turned out I was running right with one of the two men I had introduced myself to before the meet. He was in a bright yellow shirt that covered a stomach quite a bit rounder than mine, and his hair was a whole lot more salt than pepper. I guessed he was at least 50. I felt like I might be a bit faster than he, but when I tried to go by, he stayed along side me and after another half lap, I just settled in right behind him to see how long I’d stay.

I sat there until the 5th lap when t
wo things happened. Most importantly, my legs finally started to get loose and feel the blood flowing in with oxygen. I run marathons; I’m used to having a couple of miles just to get loose! At about the same time, one of the runners who had been behind me got a head of steam of his own and moved around and past me on the back stretch. I mentally hooked onto him and let him “pull” me around past my friend in the yellow shirt. From there until the finish, I was out and running on my own, tucked behind no one, pushing myself along.

It was on my 6th loop that the leaders in the heat began to lap me. This did not surprise or discourage me. I had expected it. I did my best on the straight-aways to move over to the 2nd lane to let them go by inside, but I was getting too tired to give up that inside lane on the turns. If those guys were so speedy, then they could handle passing on the outside. It wasn’t my fault they fell into the last heat with us snails.

I didn’t hear the bell ringing to note that the leaders were beginning their final lap, but one of the judges was standing in an outside lane at the finish line counting off each runner’s laps. As I came through for the end of my sixth lap, (yes, after the leaders got the bell at the end of their 7th) he looked at me and put down two fingers. I flashed him two of my own so he’d know I knew where I was. I was still overly polite on my 7th lap, clearing to the 2nd lane to let faster runners go by on their bell lap. But for my final lap, I finally had the track to myself, and I was feeling better and better, so I opened it up a little and tried to give a good kick on my last loop. Lynn and Melissa both said they could see me moving faster. The race clock clicked over to “6:20” as I crossed the line. That was 74 seconds behind the winner of my heat, but still, easily, the fastest mile I have ever run.

And – AND – I beat four other men in my heat, including my friend in the yellow shirt and the guy who’d gone past me back in that 5th lap. I also recorded a faster time than two of the men in the previous heat. I had the 100th best time out of 106 runners. I’m sure you mathematicians out there have already figured out: I Did Not Finish Last!

I was also extremely pleased to have run a nice, even pace throughout the race. My lap splits looked like this:
Lap 1 – 45.7
Lap 2 – 46.5
Lap 3 – 48.4
Lap 4 – 49.0
Lap 5 – 48.9
Lap 6 – 48.5
Lap 7 – 48.6
Lap 8 – 44.2

I went upstairs to catch my breath

and collect a little love from Lynn and Melissa, but I didn’t have long to bask as there wer
e only two short events before they summoned the men back down to prepare for the 800. Now that I had established a pace, I felt like I could set a specific goal for my second race. I
wanted to break 3 minutes. I just needed to run 45 seconds per lap. I was very optimistic.
Stepping up for our heat assignments was a similar bit of chaos yet again, but there were also, notably, fewer men gathered on the infield this time. I still couldn’t hear the Little Sergeant very well, but I was more relaxed while I waited for the numbers to dwindle down to the last, slowest heat.

To my surprise, while the Li
ttle Sergeant was trying to fill only the 6th heat, he ran out of runners. He had only 7 runners and he needed more, but no one was stepping up to take a slot. There were still a group of men standing around, but I thought, maybe there were all prepping for another event. The Little Sergeant looked right at me and said, “are you gonna run with this group?” I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I guess I am.” He was still handing out popsicle sticks to the heat groups and I got a skinny yellow one to hang onto.

The shorter race meant the heats were running more quickly, and by the time I got my stick, it was nearly time to line up in the waiting area beside the track. It was then when I turned around and saw that there were two more heats filling up behind me. What had I gotten myself into? Who was I going to be running with? I signaled up to Lynn & Melissa that I was not going to be in the last heat after all
and to look for me in the 6th. And then the officials were calling us to line up on the track.

Thanks to my amazing (yes, “amazing”) friend, Melissa, I can show you the video of the race (don’t worry, it’s only about 3 minutes – Oh, and you can see the Little Sergeant in the white polo with the white hair at the start line before my heat begins):

After the gun, I quickly and efficiently fell to the back of the pack, but I wasn’t bothered by it. I was more focused on hitting my splits. I completed the first lap in 42 seconds and knew I was in business. I locked in and pushed on the second lap and came by the clock again as it clicked over to 1:27. Then I noticed the next guy ahead of me on the track, who once had put 20 or 30 meters on me, had started to come back. It was like he’d burned out on the first 400m and had run out of gas. I was careful not to try and speed up to chase him down, but instead focused on maintaining my own pace. I was really just out there to run against the clock. He came back to me anyway and as I came around the 2nd turn, on my 3rd lap, I passed him easily. I thought this was kind of exciting.

I tried to kick it out for my final lap like I had in the Mile, but my legs never started to feel loose like they had in that first event and I couldn’t summon much. I didn’t slow down, though, either. As I entered the back stretch, I peeked over my should at the runner I had passed and could see that he’d started to gain on me again. Now I really wanted to be able to blast it out to the finish line, but I couldn’t find any more speed in my legs. In his last 100 meters he turned on the jets and sprinted past me with about 40 meters to go and beat me to the line by one second. But when I looked at the clock for my own finish, I saw that it read “2:58”, just under my 3 minute goal. It was a little bit crappy for that kid to totally phone in the second half of his race only to burn me right before the finish – what kind of race was he running, exactly? – but once again, my splits were nice and steady, and I did hit my time goal.

I scurried back up to the balcony to sit with Lynn & Melissa, and to watch the last two heats – I needed to see the finish times for the rest of the runners. All the runners in the 7th heat were faster than 2:40, but there were 2 men in the final heat who failed to crack 3 minutes. So, even though I was last in my heat, I was not the slowest man in my event. Once again, I Did Not Finish Last! (It’s a silly goal, perhaps, but itwas a very important moral victory.)

Watching myself in the video, I’m mostly struck by how slow I look. I have to say again, I ran both of those events faster than any race I’ve ever run in my whole life. Out on the track, during each race, it felt to me like the arena was streaking past. I felt my hair blowing back even in the indoor stadium. But in the video I look like a bicycle among motorbikes.

There are things I’
m happy to see: my gait is smooth, my leg turnover is nice and quick, my posture is relaxed and perfectly erect. It’s my stride length that doesn’t compare to most of the other people on the track. It’s a little short, but then again, so are my legs (by comparison). But I can flatter myself as say that Michael Johnson ran with a similar posture and succeeded with an incredible turnover rate and impressively consistent splits. (Right?)

After the 800, Lynn and Melissa and I hung out in the balcony and watched the last two events, the women’s and men’s 3000m. I could have run one more race, but decided it was wise to quit while I was ahead. Lynn and I debated if she might have been able to keep up with the slowest women in the 3000. She thought no, and I thought maybe yes, but I was brimming with optimism by that point in the night. As I headed home, after sharing one more round of hugs with my friends, I decided I’d have to try one of these little track meets again sometime.  Maybe I'd even tran for one.

Oh, and I’d be lying if I said it was less than a week before I finally pulled that neon orange wrist band off my arm. I just didn’t get tired of feeling it under my shirt sleeves.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Hello, Strangers.

I’ve been neglecting my little blog for the last nine months. But it’s never been far from my mind. There has been a lot of news – a lot of new adventures – in the last 240 days. Dozens of times I sat down at the computer to type out a post, but each time my narrative dwindled to a stop mid-stream. I found that my purpose had dwindled, my fire had dimmed. The problem, though, wasn’t at the typewriter. It was the running itself. My passion for the run, though far from dead, was no longer the bonfire it once had been. I was feeling some burnout.

2011 turned out to be an uneventful running year for me. I failed to finish the Burning River 100 at the end of July; my 3rd DNF in 3 tries at the 100-Mile distance. I slogged through the Chicago and NYC Marathons with finish times that weren’t “bad”, but were more than 20 minutes slower than my best. I did get to tack on another ultra, the Knickerbocker 60K in Central Park, but even there, after a decent start, I faded badly in the later miles, and had to be content with the moral victory of crossing the finish line.

It was a lull year for my running, in almost every way. I don’t know if the burnout led to the lull, or if the lull set off the burnout, but either way, it was a frustrating year. This mirrored a difficult year for me professionally, as well, and there was an accumulative affect.

There was good news, however. My personal life was soaring.

At the end of 2010, I met a woman who changed my life and the relationship flourished last year. But she was in New York; I was in Chicago. Last fall we corrected that problem and, after 10 years in the Windy City, I moved to Brooklyn, New York. Things have been going great for Jen and I ever since.

I’m also pleased to report that my running (because this is a running blog – the personal stuff is for Facebook) has rebounded in 2012, and with a vengeance. A new city has brought a lot of new opportunities, new places, new races.

2011 was the year of my running lull. I wanted 2012 to be my return to speed. I rededicated myself to my training schedule. I plotted a careful build-up from the beginning of January through to a goal marathon in the Poconos in May. I started doing speed work and weekly tempo runs again. In early February, I even ran in the first track meet of my life, competing in the mile and the 800 meters, distances I have never raced before (and I did not finish last in either event).

I have also benefitted from the inherent pleasures of exploring a new city via running. And there are a LOT of places to run in New York. Back in November I purchased my first GPS watch and it has freed me to run whenever and wherever I feel like. (I have learned that it is a flawed tool, but its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks.)

Finally, I’m lucky that my new “day job” is an active one that is not only fun, but also has me walking 4 to 5 miles each weekday, a subtle enhancement to my training schedule. (And the four-legged company I keep at work makes for very pleasant company.)

All of this has led to some very encouraging early returns. I ran the NYC Half Marathon this past Sunday morning, and, though I expected good results based on recent training runs, I surprised myself by cutting six and a half minutes off my previous PR from five years ago. I finished in 1:39:15, a 7:35 minute-per-mile pace, and one I held from the very first mile to the very last. I was disappointed to see the finish line, because I wanted to keep running.

This represents a major turnaround from last year, and it has me wondering if big things are possible when I run the “Run for the Red” Poconos Marathon on May 20th. There are several race equivalency calculators around on the internet, and several suggest that if you are able to run a 1:39 half-marathon (and you have done a proper training build-up), you should be in shape to run a 3:30 marathon. My current marathon PR is a 3:44. Factor in that the “Run for the Red” features a 1400 foot elevation drop from start to finish line (yes, I choose the race on purpose because of that), and a very fast race time could be in the making for me.

So: That’s where I’ve been, that’s why I’ve been gone, and that’s what I think I might be on the cusp of in the coming months. I’ll probably back-track a little in the next few posts because there are still a few things I want to talk about in more detail, but for now, the important thing is I feel the fires burning once again, and there’s more to come.