Overall Time: 2:53:53
Place: 22 of 897
The build-up to this marathon was a little short training wise, but mentally I had been preparing myself for a PR for almost a year. In 2013 I had a successful year of distance running, setting PRs from the 5K to the marathon and 50-mile distance. I was ready to take 2014 seriously and continue the trend. So when a difficult 2014 Boston Marathon came my way and I was barely able to sneak under the three-hour mark, I knew I’d be forced to plan a fall marathon and attack the 2:55 barrier (and perhaps 2:50!).
I chose to run the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon, the site of my first “real” marathon back in 2010. The scheduling would allow me to pace the NYC Marathon again and still have time to get in training before the JFK 50 Miler in late November.
The race starts in Schenectady and runs east along the Mohawk River before joining the Hudson River where the marathon turns south into Albany.
The course is mostly flat, with two notable sections of downhill — one in the first 10K and another at mile 16. The rest of the course has a few rollers with the final miles being pancake flat. It’s a good course for a fast time, but ultimately all the course potential in the world doesn’t get you to the finish line. Your legs and your fitness do.
The beginning of this year was particularly difficult for me as my mother fell ill to pancreatic cancer. From March through June I made several trips that included visiting her when she was sick and then unfortunately to be with my father and family when she passed away. Between recovering from Boston and dealing with much more important life concerns, running was put on the back burner.
I started my training in July for a solid three months of training. During this period I would see both my 5K and 5-mile PRs fall fairly drastically, which all pointed to increased fitness and my ability to be somewhere around 2:50 in the marathon. I was excited to be making these physical jumps and nervous at the thought of running 6:30 pace for 26.2 miles. I had put in a lot of 70+ mile weeks, including a 20-mile run almost every weekend. The longest run was my 33-mile perimeter run around Manhattan for my 33rd birthday.
As I began my taper I felt great. With 10 days to go, I put in my final speed workout and the bounce in my newly rested legs became to return.
And then I pulled a muscle in my back.
I have no idea how, but with a week to go my back became incredibly painful. It felt like a pulled muscle and caused my back to stiffen up. Every time I stood up from a chair or turned over in bed I felt like my back was going to snap in two. How was it going to be possible for me to run a marathon in a week? I wasn’t sure.
Over the course of the week leading up to the marathon I was not able to run for a couple days. It was just too painful. Wednesday (4 days before the big day) I was able to run a loop of Central Park at an excruciatingly slow 9:15 pace. I hurt but not terribly so. Thursday was better, and by Friday I was thinking I would be just fine for the weekend, but not confident about what my back would feel like running for almost 3 hours at a fast pace.
I headed up to Albany Friday after work so that I’d have all of Saturday to do the marathon thing — packet pickup at the expo, one final shakeout run to calm the nerves, walk around town to relax the mind. Connor joined me Saturday afternoon, as he had agreed to meet mile at mile 20 of the marathon to run the final 10 kilometers with me.
On Saturday night two more friends showed up and joined us for dinner. Daniel G and Jeff W were also up from New York City to run this race, so we met at my friend/weekend host John’s apartment for some pasta (and wine for me). Jeff and Daniel weren’t shooting or PRs, so I felt like I was the only one nervous about the next morning. Still, they were tired and the night was called to a close fairly early and that made me happy. I was in bed by 9:30. Everything was going just according to plan. Even better, I had a decent night of sleep.
Sunday morning brought pretty good marathon temperatures. My back was a little stiff but I figured that adrenaline and pain in my legs would silence whatever my back hard to say on the course.
Waiting in the fields around the start line was cold but as the sun poked out from the clouds it was comfortable enough that we weren’t shivering. I wore some arm warmers to get me through the opening warmup miles (thanks for bringing these, Connor!), but I planned on ditching them with no regrets as soon as the temperatures warmed up.
With five minutes left to go I seeded myself at the front of the coral, figuring on finishing in the top 25. There were some pretty fit-looking runners at the front and when I overheard two runners discussing their race plans and paces, my thoughts were confirmed (the top three men were all in the 2:20s). My back was feeling like it would hold out for the distance, so there was nothing holding me back. It was time to run.
With nothing more than a “ready, set, go!” the race was started at 8:30:00. The first mile in every race is a shit show and this was no different. The 3:05 pacer, who before the race started cautioned his group not to go out too fast in the first two miles, literally rocketed off the start line and was firmly ahead of me. The pack chasing him and all the other go-out-too-fast marathoners were quickly ahead of me. I wondered how many of them I would reel in after 5K, 20K, 30K. Morons.
The opening mile was of course slow. I’d rather lose 30 seconds and take it easy than bank 30 seconds and blow out early. My watch read 6:55, but that was just a warm up so I wasn’t concerned. I settled into a decent groove and found myself running with a young runner named Hunter with the same goal as me — to run mid 6:30s for the first half and then try and pick up the pace the second half to threaten a 2:50; the thought being that if 2:50 proved unrealistic, salvaging a 2:52 or 2:53 would be just fine. He had run a 2:52 the prior year despite going out a little fast, so he had hoped this year to run a more conservation race and finish much stronger.
I felt good running with him because at 6:55 for mile 1 he was already proving to be capable of not letting the race excitement get the better of him. We ran shoulder-to-shoulder and split mile 2 in 7:00. Shit. Time to move.
Mile 3 (6:39), 4 (6:39), and 5 (6:34) were feeling really smooth and like clockwork. I was pleased at my consistent pacing despite a few morons surging past me only to fall back for no reason, then again surging ahead. I still do not understand how people can train for so long and then ruin their pacing on race day on a flat course. Hold your damn pace and focus on your own race.
Mile 6 was pretty pancake flat. I was feeling like the pace was all Goldilocks — just right. Then I saw the mile split. 7:01. Shit. Surely the mile marker was off (looking at the Garmin data, I’m confident the mile markers were more suggestions than hard fact). Mile 8 was 6:49. Mile 9 was 6:46. How did I go from ‘easy’ 6:30s to struggling at high 6:40s? This wasn’t good. I was not comfortable at this point mentally or physically. My legs were straining and I realized this was going to be a long day. Hunter went ahead and I was glad for it — I didn’t want my bad day to affect his. He resumed his routine of 6:30s and slowly disappeared along the course.
There was no real strength in my legs, so it would be up to my heart to get me to the finish. Going under 3:00 would be difficult today and potentially worse, would I embarrass myself when Connor met me at Mile 20 to run me in? I had told him I’d hope to be running mid 6:20s to 6:30s at the end but… would I be scraping by at 9:00 pace? I was terrified at the thought, but it was definitely a possibility.
I began taking Gatorade at every aid station, each spaced two miles apart. Maybe a little sugar would help me. I was determined not to give up. I didn’t come up to Albany to throw in the towel. The only way to run a good race and set a PR is simply to do it.
Mile 10 (6:42) was a little faster but still slower than my goal. Miles 11 (6:50) and 12 (6:41) were confirmation that despite my decision to give a solid effort, this was going to be a struggle. But I was going to press on. With the halfway point coming up, I knew I could push the second half and either blow up or come home proud. I’ve never faulted anyone for trying and failing, but I’ve always been disappointed at those who never reached and always stayed safe. I decided to try to be the type of person I respect and push on.
Mile 13 (6:20) was definitely mis-marked, because mile 14 (6:46) was long. The two averaged to a 6:38 which was back on pace. I was hurting but the pain would be gone soon.
I split the half in 1:28:08 (6:43 pace), a full two minutes slower than my original plan but still something I could turn into a decent race. If I could run like I knew I was fit to do, I’d be able to split the second half much faster 1:25 and PR. 2:50 was not possible but a PR still was. And so my real work began.
Mile 15 (6:32) began the typical marathon game of catching and passing people who were slowing down because of overzealous early miles or unrealistic goals. Around mile 16/17 (12:57 for the two combined) I caught up and passed Hunter. I had told him before that my race began at mile 18, and was a little sad that he was slowing down after a fairly well-paced first half but hoped that he’d hold on to a decent finish. Unfortunately I would later learn that he would finish in 3:04:51.
Connor would be coming up soon, so pancake flat miles 18 (6:31 and 19 (6:27) I sped up a little knowing that I could finish a strong final 10K with how I was doing.
I was happy that I was able to pull my head out from my ass and get back to race pace, but still terrified that I would blow up in the final couple of miles. I knew that when Connor joined me I’d still be managing decent pace but anything can happen in the final miles. I just hoped it would be awesome things happening!
Coming to mile 20 (6:25) with a slight downhill I picked up Connor. He had a handheld bottle with some sports drink that I had asked him to bring, so that I’d be able to get proper sugar in the final miles and not have to drink it from a cup. It was a relief not to suck down so much air trying to get in a little fluid.
I continued to hit my marks. Mile 21 (6:35) and mile 22 (6:34) were right on target but I was hurting. It was around 22.5 that my mind began to wander. Did I have 2.7 or 3.7 miles to go? I hoped for 2.7. I glanced at my watch and I was wrong. 3.7 — ugh.
It dragged on and on, but I was happy when I finally reached mile 23 (6:38), knowing that I had just a touch over 5 kilometers to go. I could do this, but I knew I wasn’t home free until a mile to go. I started doing math in my head and knew I could hit a 2:53 if I kept it under 6:30 pace the rest of the way. This was a big ask — to speed up in the last miles of the race — but I had done it before and I was going to die trying again.
Mile 24 (6:29) came and went. I was on the hunt for 25 and began passing people hurting in their final miles. This is always good motivation and I began to recognize segments of the course and felt like I could see the finish in my mind. I pushed.
The course began throwing in urban elements and without having to look at my watch I knew I was closing in on the finish area. My legs hurt. I wanted to vomit.
The course rejoined the river side and mile 26 (6:32) greeted me with the knowledge that in 385 yards I would be done. I ran on my toes the final stretch and scalped a few suffering runners, running 78 seconds — just under 6:00 pace — to chase down the clock and record a 2:53:53.
I had run the second half in 1:25:45, a 2:23 negative split. My decision to run a harder pace despite struggling through the opening miles was the right one. I finished 3rd in my age group, which really means nothing except that this was a small marathon. Still, I was a little disappointed when instead of a little plaque or award, all I received was a beanie and a lunch tote.
It was a PR, but it felt like I had done it the hard way. All my other marathon PRs came with ease. They were achieved with a moderate effort first 16 miles, followed by an 8.2-mile tempo run. This race felt like a slugfest from after the 10K mark. This was a 10K warmup and then a 20-mile pain cave.
Of course it makes sense that suffering the most leads to the fastest races. Running faster than you have ever done before means more discomfort and breaking barriers your body has never broken through. But this race seemed unnaturally hard and the final 20 miles taught me a few things. Firstly, I learned that a difficult race is always worth suffering through and can be salvaged. Secondly, I was probably in 2:50 shape but just had a less-than-ideal day.
I’m pleased with my time – it’s faster than I’ve ever run before. But at the same time I still want more. I want to go under 2:50, and running a PR but still not breaking 2:50 has made me more hungry. I’m motivated to train more, I’m confident I can do it, and I can’t wait to suffer through it all over again.