(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.
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.