Hi Whippets, I’m Jonathan, or, to those who come to the weeknight Brooklyn runs, The Guy With The Dog.
Anyway, I started running races last year, and back in October, I ran my first marathon – Wineglass – in upstate New York. It was just a couple months after I joined the Whippets, so I had barely any time to train with the team before tapering. My training was a bit pathetic – I had one 18 mile run and otherwise nothing longer than 16 miles. I took a couple walking breaks in the last few miles of the race and ended up finishing in 3:25:33. I wasn’t unhappy with that time, but once the satisfaction of simply *finishing* wore off, I recognized that I could do better, so I starting looking around for another marathon to train for – a nice flat one, ideally. After hearing from Stephen “Wonuts” Wo and Andrew Hadro that the New Jersey Marathon would fit the bill – they both ran it in 2014 – I signed up. This time, I told myself, I’d have a better training plan and, what’s more, I’d actually stick to it.
Then came winter – a particularly unpleasant winter. I love cold weather running, but not on ice or slush. I would’ve been in a bad state coming into spring if it weren’t for the Whippets. The team’s 17-week training plan for New Jersey started up the week after Christmas, around the same time as the Boston training plan. While there were only a few other Whippets training for New Jersey – and none that regularly ran in Brooklyn (though Lucy Clark did come over for a few weekend runs!) – there were several other Whippets training for Boston with paces close to mine. The Brooklyn contingent was a great crew to train with, especially for those long Saturday morning runs.
I was glad to run a couple long-ish races during my training period. In late January, I met Steve Wo and Chris Forti for the Fred Lebow Manhattan Half. Chris imparted a few bits of racing wisdom – in particular about running tangents properly – before I fell behind him and Steve around mile 8. I ended up coming in a bit under 1:30, which was a PR for me. I’d heard an easy shorthand for predicting your marathon time is to double your half-marathon time and add 10 minutes. That predicted a 3:10 marathon, which seemed fine by me. Like everyone, I wanted to qualify for Boston, but that could wait until the next marathon, I told myself.
A couple months later, I met Steve again, as well as David Parkinson, for the NYC Half. This time I held on until about mile 10 before Steve and David pulled away on the West Side Highway, and I finished at 1:26:04, a new PR. That shorthand method now predicted a 3:02 marathon time. Suddenly, the prospect of qualifying for Boston (3:05 for this 30-year-old, but really 3:03 in case there were too many qualifying applicants) seemed within reach. That possibility helped me stick to the plan for the remaining weeks of the program. By the end of it I think I had two 20 mile runs and a couple 16-18 mile runs under my belt – a lot better than my training for Wineglass.
My taper nicely coincided with a vacation – my first visit to London – where I took it easy and drank lots of warm beer, with just a couple of easy runs around what seemed to be a great running city. While there I followed the live tracking of Steve, Andrew, and Fred in Boston, who all had great results. I figured I can usually almost keep up with Steve and Andrew – if not with Fast Freddy – so I could probably do almost as well (especially on an easier course than Boston).
I flew back to New York on Thursday, April 23, three days before the marathon and the day I started carb-loading in earnest. Fortunately, Kuwait Airlines likes to serve rice. The next day, after work, I took the train to New Jersey, where I was staying in Bradley Beach, a mile or so south of the southernmost part of the marathon course. The jet lag worked in my favor, and I went to bed early Friday night and rose early Saturday morning to have the first of two breakfasts. I abstained from the optional shake-out run on the program, instead taking a walk up the boardwalk to Asbury Park to find more food, which was pretty much my primary concern the entire day.
I woke up early the morning of the race and washed down an apple and toast with about a liter of water. Some traffic on the way to the start the race morning made me a little nervous about getting there on time, but I ended up arriving and checking my bag with 20 minutes to spare. New Jersey’s not a huge race – there were about 1900 marathon finishers – so I was able to get into the corral quickly, where I saw fellow Whippets Keith Slyman and John Ferry. John had signed up only about a week before the race, and had convinced me to aim for 3:00 (about a 6:50/m pace). A half-marathon started at the same time, so John suggested we follow the 1:30 half-marathon pacer for the first few miles. With the beautiful weather – it was probably in the low 40s when we started – and the usual adrenaline, keeping the pacer ahead of us was a great way to avoid starting out too fast.
The first eight or so miles meander eastward through residential streets in Oceanport and Long Branch, gradually approaching the shore before turning south. Around that point, John had some stomach issues and dropped off to hit the john. I’d had a cup of Gatorade around mile 5 already, but I felt ready to eat my first gel, which I washed down with a cup of water. We’d been keeping a pretty strong pace, around 6:40 or 6:45 per mile (and a couple overeager 6:35 miles), and I tried to stay on track without John, who caught up again a couple miles later. Unfortunately, his stomach wasn’t cooperating, and he sought a porta-potty again a mile or two later. I hit the 13.1-mile mark at around 1:28 and had another gel with water. At this point, I was running south on the same road I’d eventually come north on, and it was tough to look down the course and know I’d have to run these miles coming the other way. It was sunny, too, so I was hot, and my left calf was already tight and sore, but I was feeling good about my time and tried to stay focused. I’d kept Chris’s tangent-running advice in mind, especially during the earlier, twistier parts of the course, and I was only a couple tenths of a mile above the official course distance.
During the southward stretch from mile 9 to 19, the course turns inland a few times for a couple of blocks along small inlets. During a couple of these turns, it seemed the wind was in my face in both directions. Combined with the change of direction, it was tough to keep one’s momentum going. I found myself behind two other NYC club runners – one from North Brooklyn Runners and one from The Reservoir Dogs – who were running together, and I shamelessly drafted off them for a bit before picking up speed and jumping ahead for them to do the same. The TRD runner fell back somewhere, so Mr. NBR and I took turns drafting off each other for a couple of miles. I was wary of encountering a strong headwind when the race turned north, as Steve and Andrew told me they’d experienced the year before. Fortunately, when I reached the turn-around point at mile 19 – fortuitously the same place where my friends were waiting to cheer me on – I found the wind, while present, was not that bad. Up until this point, I’d keep a strong, steady pace, and was on track to break 3:00 with time to spare.
The second my watch beeped for mile 20, however, my legs rebelled. Against my will, I slowed down considerably and I couldn’t for the life of me seem to speed up again. I’d taken mile 19 in about 6:50, then mile 20 in 7:00, mile 21 in 7:10, and then was stuck in the 7:30/mile range. After a few ineffective attempts to pick up speed, I resolved simply not to slow down, at least not to stop. I had one final gel, figuring I might as well have a snack during my jog.
I started calculating the remaining distance. Let’s see, my watch says 21.7, but I’m about 0.4 ahead of the course, so I actually have 4.9 miles left. That’s a lap and a half of Prospect Park. I can do that. I can, at the very least, keep running without stopping for that distance, I tried to convince myself. The sparse field grew a bit more crowded as, all of a sudden, I heard other runners gaining ground on me. Watching a pack of three runners pass gave me a bit of motivation and I didn’t lose any more speed. Another mile down – now less than four left. One more down. Now there’s not even a whole Prospect Park lap remaining.
I was seeking merely to forestall what seemed inevitable – that I’d break down and walk – but then, somehow, the finish was only 2.2 miles away, and as one spectator “helpfully” reminded me, the last 0.2 doesn’t count anyway. I knew I had my BQ in the bag, but I did the math and realized I’d have to run close to 6:00/mile in order to break 3:00. Well, that’s not going to happen, I thought, but I could at least try to get close. With 1.2 miles left, I picked up some speed, and by the time I hit the mile 26 marker I must have gotten back under a 7:00/m pace (at this point I wasn’t wasting the energy to consult my watch again). I ran as hard as I could, seeing my earlier NBR buddy – who’d pulled ahead when I slowed down at mile 20 – about 10 seconds ahead of me. Around mile 26.1, my watch gave me the three-hour beep, and I crossed the finish line at 3:00:40.
I think I already had congratulatory messages from fellow Whippets by the time I picked up my bag (thanks!). I think that’s the last time I’ll be able to cut 25 minutes off my marathon time!