The Great Lehigh Valley Train Robbery

By Steven Wo

I had a rough day running the 2016 Boston Marathon (I ran the first half in 1:27 and the second half in 1:49). I wasn’t planning on running a fall marathon but I didn’t have a Boston qualifying time for 2017. After the disappointment of Boston, and needing some time off from hard training, I gave myself a June deadline to decide on a fall marathon.

Steve Wo

The Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon advertises itself as the third fastest marathon in the country, 4th highest Boston Qualifying % of U.S. marathons, scenic, shady course, and designed by a runner for a runner. When the self appointed June deadline came, I decided the Via Marathon was the right marathon to get a qualifier.


It had all the makings of a good Boston qualifier: It was a flat course, net elevation drop of 240′, and historically a high percentage of Boston qualifiers. However some things to consider: the potential for a hot day in early September and the surface of the course changes back and forth from asphalt to tow path. I decided the pros outweighed the cons.
In fairness, I didn’t really take time off after Boston. In May and June I ran the Big Sur marathon, the hood to hood relay to Philadelphia, Brooklyn half marathon, Covered Bridges half marathon, and Queens 10k.


When I started marathon training I was 9 weeks out from the Via Marathon which meant 7 weeks of training and a 2 week taper. My marathon plans are always 16-18 weeks long.


0018Training for the Via Marathon meant quality over quantity of miles. The training cycle was a difficult one to get through. It took 4 weeks to start clicking on Tuesday and Thursday speed workouts (Weekend long runs were a different story). Every long run felt tough and I was not happy with my effort and pace. My best long run came right before my taper began. On my last long run, I was clicking off miles at a good pace and felt ready to throw caution to the wind.


One week before the marathon I ran the Swanzey half marathon at my long run pace for 11 miles and picked up the last 2 miles to faster than marathon pace. It was a good test run because the course changed from asphalt to tow path and finishing on asphalt. I felt I had some momentum going forward to Lehigh.


Travel to Lehigh was all set a couple weeks out. I was driving on Saturday with a couple teammates. Perry and Selina wanted BQ at the Via Marathon. It is always nice to travel with teammates to races and support each other. Everything the day before went smoothly. The three of us were so happy that the marathon was not run on Saturday. We carbed up and were ready.


The weather wasn’t ideal for running a PR. Considering the shape that I was in and the weather, I had to remind myself the goal for running the Via Marathon was not to PR but to get a BQ for 2017 (Just run smart and don’t go out fast like an idiot).


Lining up at the start line and sizing up the runners I knew that everyone there had one goal in mind. The start began with a subdued electronic buzz that confused everyone. The starter eventually grabbed the loudspeaker and said “Go”.


The first 10k went off without a hitch. I promised a friend that I would run 1:31 first half and I was on pace for around a 1:30. I was a little ahead of pace but it wasn’t like Boston (when 10k into the marathon I felt I was working too hard).


When mile 7 clicked on my watch I could hear a train blow its horn.


At first, I thought that the conductor saw runners in the lead pack and honked the horn to cheer them (Drivers occasionally honk in NYC and yell something positive or negative when I run on the streets). About quarter mile later I saw what I could not think of in all my marathon what if scenarios.


A F.


(F is for freight) train was running on the track blocking the runners ahead of me from crossing to the other side. Running down that slope the first thought in my head was “I cannot believe this is happening right now.”


There must have been 14-15 runners with waiting with me in anger and disbelief in what was happening. Seconds ticked away and they felt like minutes. Runners ran down the track to try to get to the end of the train line. A couple runners jumped on the train and hopped off the other side. It was scary to watch people train hop—A missed grab, or slip, and you bite the dust.


I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about jumping on the train. I turned around and looked back up the road and saw runners filtering down. I knew Perry wasn’t far behind me. Eventually he was standing right next to me, both of us pissed off. I never stopped my watch and I had no idea how much time we lost waiting.


I estimated 60-70 people waiting around for that F. train to move along. I found out later after the marathon there were over 100 runners waiting. I felt bad for everyone around me. All these men and women trained hard for this one day, now an unacceptable and unforeseen circumstance was in their way of achieving their goal. I decided that I would give my best effort no matter how much time we lost standing around waiting. When everyone saw the end of the train there was a sarcastic cheer.


steve woWhat I can only describe as a cross country start combined with the 5th Avenue mile happened next. It was a complete mess. Runners of all different paces were in a restart of a marathon which was a little over 7 miles in and over train tracks onto a narrow tow path.


I was worried runners might trip over one another or on the train track. I got caught in the middle of the restart pack. I saw Perry make a move to run on the right and I decided I had to get up to the front pack. It wasn’t easy to make up to the top but I had to get out of the mess and settle back at my comfortable pace. It took a while for everyone to settle down but I could tell who was working too hard and who was comfortable.


The front group of 15 started to get smaller as we hit the 10 mile marker and I drifted back a bit. Around miles 13-14 I began to find my groove, settled in and started catching up to runners who went out too hard on the restart. I started to work off of one runner ahead of me until mile 20 (Every move he made passing a runner ahead of him, I worked my way up and did the same). This part of the course went from tow path to asphalt and back to tow path (My legs felt heavy on the asphalt after running on the tow path). I was happy to hop back on the tow path the second time. After mile 20, I was pushing hard but was holding just over a 7 minute pace the rest of the way. A friend shared a running mantra with me the day before the marathon and I thought about it: “The blessing is outside of your comfort zone.”  I had a little over mile left and I was just under 3 hours. In the last 3/4 of a mile up the switch back I could hear the finish line announcer saying the name of a runner finishing at 3:03 for a BQ. I kicked hard and crossed the line at 3:06:51.


I was satisfied with my effort despite the train interruption.


I left everything I had that day on the course and emptied the gas tank. A lady cheering near the finish walked up to me and congratulated me for finishing. As I was walking along the finish line chute (looking for Perry to cross the finish line) a runner approached me and asked how I did. I recognized him as one of the guys waiting for the train to cross. I told him my time and how I left it out there today. He followed up by telling me at the restart of the race he and a biker had ran into each other. He had to drop out of the race and his knee was bandaged up. I can hear other runners talk about the train interruption and how it impacted their times.


After it was all said and done, I was hoping that VIA would adjust the times for the train interrupted runners who submitted their GPS watch data.


On Monday I read the BAA would not accept adjusted times for the Santa Rosa Marathon (where runners were veered off course), I figured the BAA accepting the adjusted times for a BQ because of the train interruption were slim.


finishedwoThe organizers of Via sent an email on Monday stating that they had emailed the railroad company in June requesting trains not using the track between 7AM to 10AM. They said they would want “pertinent” data if you were interrupted by the train. There were no apologies or taking any responsibility for the slip up. I emailed them my Garmin and Strava links of my marathon run.


On Wednesday afternoon the BAA finally announced their decision, they were not accepting adjusted times from the Via marathon. Later that evening Via organizers sent an email regarding the BAA decision (and finally offering an apology for train interruption).


This whole fiasco sucks for all the runners who were impacted by the train and the Via Marathon. Everyone from this situation took a big L.


I was mad.
I was disappointed.
But at the end of the day, it’s just running.


There will be plenty of marathons to run. I know Perry, Selina, and I will get a BQ. Boston is not going anywhere.


More about Dashing Whippets Running Team

The Dashing Whippets Running Team is a New York based running team that is founded on, and driven by, the diversity of our team members. With team members from all over the city, the country and the world, and with greatly different running goals, we find unity in recognizing and appreciating each others differences and our mutual enjoyment of running and participating in the New York running community and beyond.

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