Al Gordon Classic

algordon_001I wasn’t living in Brooklyn last year and missed this early season race. Now that I’ve switched boroughs, I want to take full advantage or races in my backyard. As one of only three NYRR races in Brooklyn, I was looking forward to putting myself to the test in a race scenario on a course that I train on regularly.

For a couple of weeks prior to the race I had been operating on a modified training program that involved stationary bike and weight training. Essentially, staying off my knee in order to help it recover from the latest bout of tendinitis  This was the first of the two races I would undertake on this new program and I was curious to see how it affected my performance.

The morning was crisp and a bit damp, but thankfully nowhere near as cold as the last race. Zhenya and I lined up at the start, relatively close to the front of the field. He was just out for a light run, with his mind on the Manhattan Marathon the next day. I was out to test my knee and try to set a fast time in a race situation, with the NYC Half looming a few weeks in the future. Today’s performance would be a good guide to how well I might fare at the longer distance.

As expected, the race started out fast. The narrow center almost demands as much, as any kind of lollygagging will result in the runner getting caught in a deep pack of runners. The first mile includes the hill to Grand Army Plaza, and I felt good as I powered up the incline. Interestingly, my knee was feeling fine and standing up well to the additional pressure of the hills. Passing the first mile marker at the crest of the hill, I was motoring along at a little over an eight minute mile pace. The next two miles were tailor made for a fast time, and true to form I clocked them at 7:35 and 7:07 respectively. The final mile is the real test, as the course swings around to the slight uphill drag on the west side of the park and then left onto center drive with the uphill finish. The early pace was starting to tell on my legs and lungs. Although I slowed somewhat, I still ran an 8:30 last mile for a 30:56 finish time – yet another personal best over the distance.

As with the Kleinerman 10K, there was an element of guilt after the race. Again, I felt like I had not entirely earned such a fast time but that feeling didn’t last as I basked in the glory of a stellar performance and a new fastest pace of 7:44 on my NYRR record. With three weeks to go between this race and the NYC Half, my performance gave me enough confidence to continue with the stationary bike regime and preserve the condition of my knee as much as possible.

Another Year, Same Old Injury

soreknee_001Ever since I ran (some of) the Manhattan Half-Marathon, my knee has been acting up again. Early last year I experienced some discomfort in and around my left patella that turned out to be a case of patellar tendonitis. I had to take some time off in between the NYC and Brooklyn Half-Marathon’s to rehab the knee and rebuild strength in the muscles around the patella. After the rest and rehab my knee stood up well to the punishment, including an 18 week marathon training program. However, following a layoff over the new year and a reduced workload in the through the first few weeks of the year, the problem has resurfaced with the same symptoms. I’ve tried short bursts of rest between training runs, but that doesn’t really help. My guess is that I need to take an extended break and seek some professional help otherwise I’ll be self-diagnosising and treating the same thing this time next year and probably making it a whole lot worse.

The timing of the injury is pretty bad (when are they ever convenient?), with two races coming up in the next month including the NYC Half-Marathon. The fact that this is the same injury as before worries me, and points to the slow erosion in health of my knee which could lead to more serious problems in the future. Despite the recurrence, I want to get through the next two races before taking any time off from running. I have a decent break after the NYC Half, with the Brooklyn Half coming eight weeks out. It’s probably not the best course of action, but I’m loathe to miss one of the biggest races of the year. With a modified training plan and a modest goal of two hours, I believe I can complete the race with minimal additional damage to the knee. I’ll work with my doctor to setup an MRI (last year’s x-ray showed nothing unusual) to see if we can get a better idea of what the problem is and how best to treat it.

Between now and the NYC Half, I’ll modify my training plan and stick to the stationary bicycle to maintain stamina and strength and minimize the impact effect on my knee. This is probably not a typical preparation for a half-marathon, but it will be interesting to see how it effects my performance on the day and how my fitness and stamina levels are after the decreased workload.

My First Did-Not-Finish

“Shame, boatloads of shame,
Day after day, more of the same.”
– The Avett Brothers

manhattanhalf_001In the year or more that I’ve been running competitively I’ve had some interesting race day experiences. The vast majority of them have been positive, one of the reasons I have stuck with it so long and had so much success losing weight and getting into shape. However, it was somewhat inevitable that I would eventually have a dodgy on the course and my luck eventually ran out last Sunday at the Manhattan Half-Marathon. For the first time ever, I failed to complete the full race distance.

This was the first race of the five borough series, a set of races that takes place in each of the cities boroughs and provides automatic entry to the following years NYC Half-Marathon. I planned to run the race with Zhenya, my occasional training partner. In the days leading up to the race, the forecast promised an cold but dry morning and sure enough the wind that morning was bone chilling. I layered up with my favorite tights and under armor shirts, and then stacked on tech shirts, hats and gloves to give extra protection against the elements. It wasn’t enough!

After stripping off the outer layers and checking our bags, we made our way to the start corrals. For the next fifteen minutes we stood around in freezing temperatures (the board at the bottom of the park said it was 20F) and tried desperately to stave off the chills.

Once we started, I hoped that the run would bring my body temperature back up and keep the cold out, but as I completed the first loop of the park I couldn’t shake the cold from inside of me. Coming around the southern end of the park and up the east side, I passed the seven mile marker in a time of 57:30. My time was pretty reasonable, but my mind just couldn’t fathom keeping going for another 45-50 minutes. And that’s when I stopped.

Almost immediately I regretted the decision. I sat on the guard rail and debated started up again, but as each minute passed by the thought of spending another minute in these freezing temperatures became less and less attractive. I decided I had had enough, and walked back toward the finish line to pick up my bag and get put back on my sweats. On the way there one of the course marshals asked me if I was ok or needed medical attention. I responded automatically and as I heard myself say the words, “I’m fine … I just don’t want to do this anymore,” I felt that growing sense of shame inside of me. For the next few days I tried not to think about what happened, and as time passed and I spoke to more and more people, I began to realize that I was being a bit too hard on myself. These things happen – I’m going to have some bad days from time to time. The key things is to learn from the experiences, see what works for me and where the issues are and manage my race schedule going forward.

I’ve stopped beating myself up over my first DNF. It probably won’t be my last.


oatmealOver the last year and a half or so, I have tested out numerous foods in that breakfast / pre-run timeslot. I have a somewhat sensitive stomach, so I need to have something solid inside me prior to ingesting the typical high carb gels. Banana’s are a pretty safe food for me, but there are limits to how many I can eat. Fatty foods are a big no-no, and any kind of cereal that requires milk is off limits (who takes dairy before a big run?). After so many attempts to find the ideal pre-race meal, the one food that I keep coming back to, that satisfies my hunger without upsetting my stomach, is oatmeal. It’s both basic and filling, provides the right level of carbs and protein to sustain my body during the run.

I typically make my oatmeal the night before, using the traditional method of boiling water with a pinch of salt and then adding the old fashioned oats. As a rule I avoid the instant oatmeal because of the excess sugar which, when mixed with high carb gels, can cause unpleasant intestinal issues (you know what I mean)! Once it’s thick enough, I put it into a container and refrigerate until the morning. Cold oatmeal doesn’t bother me, and pre-making it the night before saves valuable time in the morning that could be better spent stretching or sleeping. Whether eating hold or cold, I like to top my oatmeal off with some honey, mini kisses, and mixed nuts if available. Altogether it’s a pretty appetizing breakfast and has yet to lead to stomach issues prior to or during the race.

A single serving of oatmeal (made with Quaker Oats or something similar) contains approximately 3g of fat, 27g of carbs, and 5g of protein. With a healthy dose of carbs for lunch the day before, that’s the ideal platform and source of fuel for a problem free run!

Hey Joe …

kleinerman_10k_002This was my second time running the Joe Kleinerman 10K. Unlike last year, when the race started and finished near the 102nd St. Transverse, this edition of the race had the start and finish located in the area of the 72nd St. Transverse. It’s all much the same to me, although the biggest difference with the new course is that the big hills come towards the end. I have to admit that I do like getting the Harlem Hill over with early on when running in Central Park.

I really hadn’t done a whole of running or training over the holidays. I used our trip to Europe as an excuse to take a break from everything running, especially after the intensity of the prior couple of months both leading up to and immediately after the Philadelphia Marathon. Being the first post-holidays race, I figured my fitness and stamina levels would be down from their peaks and I might struggle to put up a good time.

Apparently not!

The morning was relatively nice for January, with temperatures a little above freezing and no breeze to speak of. My morning routine had gone off without a hitch, and I felt really good as the race wound it’s way around the southern end of the park and up toward Cat Hill. My legs were turning over nicely and as I powered up the hill, I felt no pain in my knee. By the third mile marker I was clocking a faster than expected pace of 8:00 per mile, with most of the major hills remaining.

Funnily enough, Harlem Hill and the three sisters on the West side failed to significantly slow me down, and I completed the second half of the race with a slightly slower pace, to hit the finish in a time of 50:19 (8:07 per mile) – a new personal best for the distance.

In the immediate aftermath of the race I felt a little guilty, mainly because I thought I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn the personal best distinction. It was the first time I had ever felt that way after a race and took some time to rationalize. In the ensuing days however, I read a lot of articles about training styles and the effects of long-term stamina training. As it turns out, even though I took a few weeks off to enjoy the holidays, the rate of decline was incredibly slow because of the intensity of my marathon training. Running experts and publications alike all spoke about the benefits of rest and allowing the body to recover following high intensity training. It’s an area I didn’t pay a lot of attention to up to that point, but something that I plan on incorporating into future training plans to create a more balanced regimen going forward.

2012 Year In Review

2012As I have had some downtime over the last couple of weeks, I have been enjoying the holidays and giving my body a break from this running business. Getting away from it all for a few days has provided me the opportunity to reflect on the past year and on all that I have achieved. The point of this review is not to recount my performance in each race – that’s been done in detail already. The point is to take a more holistic view of my performance in relation to my goals and objectives, and think about where I can do better next year. I’ll admit that, over the past twelve months, I have far exceeded any expectations I had going into this endeavor. When I first started running I thought I would struggle to reach a point where I actually enjoyed the activity. Although I still dread the early morning runs and sometimes struggle with heavy legs, I look forward to most of my runs; the long and short training runs act as a form of meditation, whereas the races themselves feed my need for competition and achievement.

Going back to the start of the year, I set myself a few goals:

  • Finish 9 NYRR races & qualify for the 2013 NYC Marathon
  • Run a Half-Marathon in under 2 hours
  • Run a Marathon in under 4 hours
  • Run a race in under 8:00 per mile
  • Avoid serious injury

Of the five goals I set out for myself at the start of the year, I managed to achieve four of them. In my mind that was pretty remarkable, especially in the context of where I was physically just 18 – 24 months ago. It wasn’t that long ago that the thought of running scared me (I imagined with horror all my wobbly bits, well wobbling!). The first few months at the gym were filled with shame as I wore the results of my over-eating and general laziness for all to see. However, I slowly started to see some changes and in time I was able to run further and faster. At the same time, my clothes started to feel a little looser and I became more comfortable in my own skin. Skip forward a year and the changes in me were much more evident. I was ready to take my running to the streets to really see what I could.

Over the course of the year I registered for 14-15 NYRR races at a cost of $540, all marathon qualifiers. As it turns out, I actually only ran the required nine because of scheduling issues and injury. For the coming year, I will be more selective with the races I sign up for. This year promises to be a busy one, so it’s important I keep in mind the commitment I made to Jess way back at the beginning and make sure that running doesn’t take over my life and dictate my schedule.

I originally planned to run a half-marathon last year, but ended up running three. Each one was a fantastic experience and if I’m being honest, I have to admit that it’s probably my favorite distance. The half-marathon is a real test of both speed and endurance and I enjoy the mental and physical challenge it provides. A friend of mine who also runs mentioned recently that he has a half-marathon personal best of 1:36 – a full 12 minutes better than mine, so I’m looking to continue improving my own time in this distance and hopefully taking a crack at that record by the end of the year. In terms of the marathon, I’m not going to rehash my Philadelphia mistakes, but I am planning to compete in just one this year because of the training commitment required. I qualified for the NYC Marathon in November through the 9+1 program and will make sure to take all my supplements as I look to finish in under four hours this time around.

Average pace is a tricky thing to aim for because different race distances require different levels of effort. However, my first ever race saw me finish with an 8:13 per mile average in just under 4 miles so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine getting under the 8:00 minute mile barrier. At least that’s what I thought. There were times where I really struggled and it was only at the very end of the year, as I peaked from my marathon training that I started to put in the performances necessary to take me under that eight minute mile pace. Now that I managed to break it, my next target is 7:30 per mile!

I read a lot of running materials, whether it’s books, blogs, or magazines. One of the comments that kept coming up was the inevitability of injuries. Apparently it happens to everyone, and although we can take preventative measures to limit their impact, eventually the strain will catch up. Sad to say, it happened to me this past year. Luckily the tendonitis was not extreme and a month’s rest helped my knee recover. I have to be conscious of mixing weights and stretches into my routine to prevent a recurrence and ensure my leg muscles remain strong enough to withstand the constant stress. Despite the injury, I am pretty lucky that it was not serious and so, I hope to continue that trend me monitoring my body and making sure I eat, stretch, and vary my workouts to provide a solid foundation for the next twelve months.

As far as the coming year, my goals have not changed all that much except in my finish times. However, I have added one new one to the list. I’m getting married in May, so the goal is to make sure that running does not interfere with my wedding. I’m pretty sure I can do it – I just have to avoid scheduling any big races or intense training for the weeks leading up to and after the wedding and honeymoon.

Two Weeks, Two Races, Two Records

jingle_bell_jog_002Only last Sunday I pulled out a new personal best during the Join The Voices 5M race in Central Park. Unfortunately, through some oddity in the New York Road Runners results database, my total time of 39:56 was recorded as an average pace of 8:00 per mile (rather than the more accurate 7:59:20). Even applying proper rounding rules, the time should have been 7:59 per mile. I have no idea why they rounded up, but that really irked me. Strange how such a simple thing could take the sheen off an otherwise excellent run. I was clearly at my peak following all that marathon training and it was showing in my training and race times. Aside from the scoring anomaly, that was a great run and with one race left on the 2012 calendar I was even more determined than ever to go out again and run a race under 8:00 per mile before the years end. Mentally and physically I was in the best condition I had ever been, and I was sure as shit not going to waste the opportunity to score a new personal best at the my favorite race on the NYRR calendar.

The Jingle Bell Jog is a pretty significant race for me, it was the first NYRR race I competed in – only one year ago. In the lead up to the race I was reflecting on how far I had come over the last twelve months. Having made a commitment to run, I can honestly say that I have achieved far more in the last year than I ever would have expected. Last year I ran the modified course in a fast time of 8:17 per mile and that was with very little training under my belt. With all my training, I knew I had a good time in me – it was just a matter how much the previous race had taken out of me and whether I could get myself in the right mental state to go out and record a new personal best.

Although the morning was cold and wet, the rain held off and I was in good form as I made my way to the park for the early morning start. After picking up my race bib and going through my pre-race stretches, I took my place in the start corral and was set to go. All around me, people were getting into the spirit – some dressed in Santa suits while one or two braved the zero temperatures to run in nothing more than shorts or a speedo.

The race started and the first half mile was relatively fast as the lead pack made it’s way east on the narrow Center Drive. We turned north and took in the only major hill approaching Grand Army Plaza. The first mile marker appeared at the top of the hill and my time was just under 8 minutes. Over the next two miles, I kept up the high pace on very familiar roads and by the third mile marker I my time was just over 23 minutes.

I started to feel the effects of the high pace on the last mile, especially around the tops of my legs. But I was determined to keep going and record a good time, so I fought the urge to slow down or walk and pushed on up the long drag towards the left run on Center Drive. As I took the bend I glanced at my watch and knew I was on course for something remarkable. The last quarter mile was uphill and probably would have hurt more if it wasn’t for the adrenaline coursing through my body. With the finish line in sight, I managed a slight kick and cross the line in a time of 31:12.

It took a minute or two to catch my breathe, grab some water and food, and make my way out of the finish area. I must have had the biggest smile on my face as I made the quick calculations and realized I had shattered my previous best for a 4M race and a per mile average. Not just shattered, but completely demolished! It was a fantastic way to finish up the race calendar for the year and the perfect gift to myself going into the holiday season.

Join the Voices 5M

join_voices_001I was really looking forward to this race. Two weeks had passed since I ran my first marathon and I was getting over the disappointment of missing my target time. I had taken it relatively easy over the intervening fortnight, clocking up just shy of 30 miles over five different runs. Just enough to keep myself in race shape but not too much to put unnecessary stress on my legs after the damage they sustained in Philadelphia. On the morning of the race I felt strong, so strong that as I was leaving I promised Jess I would do a personal best. My pre-race routine had gone well, I was dressed and ready for competition. I felt like I had a good time in me, and hoped that posting a personal best could erase the last shreds of doubt that still clung to my psyche after the marathon.

I arrived early at the start area and picked up my bib. I was in the 3000’s – and therefore starting toward the front of the field which helped me relax. After the slow start in Philly I am definitely becoming more conscious of my starting place and the early miles. Sitting towards the front alongside other reasonably fast runners, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about blowing my target pace in the first mile.

My last 5M race was also my first one back from tendonitis of the knee, so my personal best for the distance was a modest 47:40. Setting a new personal best in this race was almost mandatory. I was targeting a 42:30 time, which works out to 8:30 per mile pace. I felt like I was in decent condition following the marathon, and the sessions since then had gone reasonably well including some high tempo runs. Anything better than that would be a massive bonus.

By the time the race started I was eager to get going. We moved off from our corral fairly slowly but quickly got going by the time we crossed the start line. The pace was high as swept around the southern end of Central Park, but nothing I couldn’t handle. In fact, even though I knew the pace was high I felt like I was coasting along. It was just a matter of checking my confidence and not burning out too early. As we passed the first mile marker I glanced at my watch and was delighted to see a time of 8:07. The second mile was up the east side drive, including Cat Hill and behind the art museum. Passing the two mile marker around 86th St, I was maintaining my fast pace. We continued up the east side to the 102nd St transverse and I hit three miles at 24:25. My early pace was starting to effect my legs though, and I could feel the workload taking it’s toll. However, I was in no mood to slow down and I pushed on – relentlessly pursuing a new(er) personal best.

At the mile three marker my mind started to calculate and I quickly realized I was on course for a 41:00 time. Considering my pre-race goal, that would very impressive and would also reflect an improved per mile pace over any of my previous races: from 8:13 down to 8:10. If you’ve run this 5 mile route around Central Park before you’ll know that the next mile or so, over the three sisters on the west side, can be the hardest of all. This is where the temptation to slow down or walk was the strongest, but again I pushed on. I was sticking with the runners around me and felt like losing contact with them would be a bitter mental blow at this late stage.

By the top of the third hill we had passed the four mile marker and my time was 32:30. Knowing the last mile was mostly downhill, I made the decision to push myself even harder and go for the 40:00 barrier. It was a stretch at that point, but I felt like I could at least make the effort. I may miss by a few seconds, but at least I had to try. And so I dug in …

Every stride became a litte bit longer. Every breathe became a little bit deeper. I started to pass other runners who had been in front of me for the last mile or two. I passed someone hold a sign that said, “put the hammer down” and so I did. In my mind, every marshall and supporter was cheering for me – I used every single clap, shout, and cheer to spur me on. I knew I was going fast, I just didn’t know if it would be enough or if I could sustain the effort.

As we turned left at the 72nd St transverse I could see the finish line and the clock above it counting down. My lungs felt like they were going to explode as the strain of the last few yards registered. But I pushed on – focused only on the clock and putting one foot in front of the other. I had nothing left to give as I crossed the line and stopped my watch. And then I looked … my watch said 39:56. It was unofficial of course, but I swear I had to look at my watch two or three times to confirm that I had indeed run 5 miles in under 40 minutes.

I took some water, a bagel and an apple from the volunteers and found a bench to sit. Only after I caught my breathe and took on some sustanence did I fully absorb my accomplishment. My time was far better than I imagined. Five miles in under 40 minutes is a major achievement and represents a pretty nifty pace of 7:59 per mile! Breaking eight minutes per mile is a major threshold for me, something I have never accomplished beyond a mile and it’s also the type of encouragement I needed to move past my marathon experience. I’m not going out competing for an Olympics place or anything, but at a minimum this tells me that all that marathon training had benefits and just cause I didn’t get to reap them in Philadelphia, doesn’t mean it was all to waste. Far from it in fact!

Philadelphia Marathon

philly_001Everything was perfect. My training had gone entirely to plan. Even with the increased workload from school, I was still finding time to get my runs and strength sessions in each week. Over the last couple of weeks I had completed my final long distance training run (20M) and slowly tapered off to conserve energy. I loaded up on carbohydrates the week of the marathon, going from 50% of my food intake on Tuesday to 90% on Saturday. I shook the cobwebs out with a final run of 4M on Thursday morning. I packed two of everything I could possibly need. The weather was holding up and projected to be in the high 40s or low 50s for the morning of the race, with some cloud cover. I had a strategy too. I was confident I would do well. There was nothing in my preparations that pointed to any kind of problem. Even my knee, which had flared up once or twice in a very minor way, was feeling good in the days leading up to the marathon. Like I said, everything was perfect.

I woke up around 4:15 on Sunday morning and started going through my pre-race routine. I ate a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, followed by some light stretching. My gear was all laid out, so getting dressed was a simple process. An hour later, after I was appropriately greased and layered up, I was all set to go. I said goodbye to Jess (who was barely conscious) and set off for the start area at Eakins Oval. For my first marathon, I was remarkably relaxed. There were no nerves or over-excitement. I had planned ahead with appropriate warm up gear. The idea was to ditch the stuff at the start line just prior to the race beginning. Good thing too – the morning was fairly cold. At the start area I dropped my post-race gear bag at baggage check and went to pre-race stretch area. I went through some basic exercises and was starting to get into the zone.

Just prior to the race start I noticed the pacers, with their signature red balloons. Unfortunately, I was in a really bad spot and someway behind both the four hour pacer. When I had registered for the race, I had filled in my expected finish time of 4:20:00, so I was assigned the appropriate starting corral. Trying to move up to the four hour pacer through the already packed corral would have been annoying, so I figured I would catch up to him on the road over the first couple of miles. That was my first mistake.

When the race started, we streamed down Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Unfortunately, Arch Street was relatively narrow which made it difficult to pick my way through the crowd. I passed the first mile marker at a little over ten minutes and felt my anxiety starting to rise. I passed Jess a block or two later, which helped to relax me a little. At that point, I decided to be more aggressive and start moving up. If I was going to meet my four hour target I had to get back on pace. Over the next couple of miles I made my way through the pack and eventually passed the 4:15 pace runner between the fourth and fifth mile marker. I was also running just under nine minute miles and had got myself close to pace for a four hour marathon.

Around six mile I passed Jess again, this time on Chestnut St and that gave me another motivation boost. My 10K split time was 56:05, not a super fast time by any means but within the expected range. From there, the course wound it’s way west through Drexel country and into Fairmount Park. There were a few hills that helped to stretch out the pack, and I took them in stride as I had done countless times around Prospect Park. I was hydrating regularly, and took on some additional Clif Bar shots for fuel, so was feeling pretty good as we exited the park and headed back toward the art museum. The thought of doing another 13 miles was somewhat daunting, but I fought off the temptation to turn take the half-marathon route and turned left to go the distance. At the half-marathon split, my time was 1:57:05. As a comparison, that was just off my time for the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in May.

Just after the half way point, I stopped to take on water and fuel, and to give my legs a break by walking for a short distance. By my math, I was about two minutes ahead of schedule and could afford a short break to re-energize before the second half of the race. After starting back up, the next three miles passed uneventfully. I still had not caught up to the four hour pace runner, but I was sticking to that pace myself and fought the urge to push too hard. I wanted to make sure I had something in reserve for the last couple of miles. Around 17 miles, the course took a detour from Kelly Drive and wound it’s way over a small footbridge and downhill into a park for about half a mile before performing a 180 degree turn and winding back to Kelly Drive. As I turned off the bridge on to the downhill path, the four hour pace runner passed me going the other direction. This was the first time I had seen him since the start, and it gave me a motivational boost. I made a mental note of the time on my watch, so I could see just how far back I was. Bear in mind that I had started a few minutes behind the pace runner and was holding to that pace myself, so any inroads I could make to the gap would take me under the four hour mark.

And then it happened … the pain shot through my left quad. Cramps like I have never felt before, so bad I could not straighten my leg. I tried to continue but was worried I would do some serious damage, so I stopped. Except I couldn’t stand, so I crouch like I was going to the bathroom. And there I stayed for two or three minutes until the pain subsided and I could stretch my leg out straight. I figured it was all part of the experience, and started off again – going uphill to the bridge and back onto Kelly Drive. By the time I got to the point where I had seen the four hour pace runner, five minutes had elapsed. In my mind, that was still possible and so I pressed on. At the 30K split my pace had dropped slightly but I still recorded a very respectable 2:56:03. The rest stop to get over the cramps had cost me a couple of minutes, but in my mind I was still clinging to the dream. However, the cramps returned with a vengeance, this time on my right quad. So I stopped and massaged, and waited. And then I started up again. And then the cramps returned and I stopped again. Every time I came to a slight incline of any sort, the cramps would hit and I would have to stop or at the very least slow down and walk. I can’t remember at what point I gave up on the four hour goal, but in many ways it was a relief. The reality of the situation had hit me. I was at more than seven miles from the finish and suffering from bad cramps. There was no way I was going to make my goal time and any attempt to do so would have resulted in serious injury.

From that point on I actually started to enjoy the race a bit more. At the 20 mile marker in Manayunk the crowds were cheering for the runners, handing out orange slices and beer! I’m not ashamed to say that I indulged in a small cup of beer. After all, everyone knows it’s rude to say no when someone offers you a drink. With a fresh attitude, I pressed on. I still wanted to finish with a good time, so I ran as much as I could. But just as I was beginning to get some momentum going, the cramps came back and I had to slow down. Admittedly, the remaining miles were a bit of a slog and at times I thought about packing it in. But after putting in four and a half months of training, there was no way I was going to take the easy way out. I struggled, I walked, and honestly if it had of come down to it … I would have crawled up that last hill. As I crested the hill at the art museum the crowds grew thicker, and urged me on. The cheered and yelled, “Go Jason!” (I had that emblazoned on the front of my t-shirt). I wanted so bad to keep running, and so I pushed myself past the mile marker and down the hill. As I swept around the final bend and the finish line came into view, I was overcome with emotion. At one point I could feel another cramp coming on, but using sheer willpower I held it bay – no way was I going to walk over the finish line. If ever there was a case of mind over matter than was it. My body had controlled me for the last eight miles, but this one was mine.

I crossed the line in a time of 4:21:30 and had completed the last 12 kilometer segment in 1:25:27 – that’s an average of 11:24 per mile. As I made my way through the finish area I was more relieved than disappointed. I didn’t really dwell on the time; I had finished my first marathon and that was something worth focusing on. The goal time would have been great, but more importantly was finishing on one piece. It was on later, on reflection and after talking to a fellow runner that I learned the cause of my cramps. It wasn’t my training or preparation – it was a basic mistake of deviating from a tried-and-trusted routine. Throughout my training regimen, I had stuck to a very strict routine. For all my runs over an hour, I took along some sodium supplements and made sure to take them every 30 minutes or so. Unfortunately, even though I had packed them, I completely forgot to take the supplements over the course of the marathon. Sodium deficiency is a major cause of muscle cramps in distance runners and I had fallen victim to it on my first marathon. Stupid really … something I had never paid attention to because it never happened to me.

Looking back now, I am a little disappointed that the cause of my problem was something I could so easily have avoided. But I’m not going to let that take away from the fact that I finished my first marathon, and did so in a relatively good time. Focusing on the positives, my time of 4:21:30 makes a very ripe target for a personal best next time out. And to cap it off, I get to put one of those 26.2 stickers on the back of our car.

Yonkers Half Marathon

yonkers_001Sunday marked the half-way point of my marathon training and the Yonkers Half Marathon. When coming up with the marathon training plan, I had specifically chosen this race as a way to gauge progress and an opportunity to run with both distance and speed taking equal priority. Over the past couple of weeks, I had completed long runs of 14 and 16 miles, and felt really good on both occasions. I was excited for the half marathon, it was only my third time racing over the distance and I felt confident that I could run close to or better than my previous personal best. In the week leading up to the race I curtailed my activities, as a way of conserving energy and because my new schedule was forcing me to make some compromises in relation to my training.

The forecast for Sunday was clear skies and warm temperatures, ranging between 65 and 70 degrees for the duration of the race. I was up at 5AM to start my pre-race routine; oatmeal to line my stomach and coffee to provide the early morning jolt. Because of the early hour, the drive from Brooklyn took about 40 minutes and we arrived at the starting area in good time.

I wasn’t familiar with the course at all. I had mapped it on RunKeeper, so I knew there was a tricky hill around the 5/6 mile point. Otherwise my web-based GPS reconnaissance didn’t show a lot of significant hills along the route, so I was feeling good as the horn sounded to start us off. Once we got going, the road travelled north along the Hudson river and true to form, the early portion was relatively flat with some undulations as we wound our way toward Hastings-on-the-Hudson. I had started toward the back of the field, but was moving my way through the back over the first mile. At the marker I checked my time, to find that I had been cruising at a comfortable 9 minute mile pace. Over the next 3-4 miles I purposely upped the pace, with the intent of providing myself a buffer for the hills to come and the latter stages when fatigue would set in.

By the second mile marker I had increased to an 8 minute mile pace, and from that point on I was ticking the miles off at a relatively consistent 8:15-8:20 pace. This gave me a lot of confidence, as I was aiming for a time of under one hour and fifty minutes and that pace meant that I was on course. I would have settled for anything under 1:54 (my previous best) but I kept telling myself not to ease off if I was going to realize my target.

At about the 8/9 mile point I started to feel the pace affect my legs, specifically around the IT band area. On the positive side, my knee, which I was still concerned about post-injury, was holding up fine to the rigors of the course. Right around the same time, I passed Jess, who had travelled up with me that morning to cheer me on and provide support. The mental boost from seeing her was enormous as I cruised past the 10 mile marker in a time of 1:22. It was at this point, with a little over three miles to go that I knew my target was a distinct possibility. The final couple of miles involved some long drags, but I battled the mental fatigue and upped the pace again – determined to cross the line in under 1:50.

As I hit the start finish area, I glanced at my watch and knew I had it in the bag but I never let up. Taking the final bends at full speed and employing my new home straight kick, I was going all out as I cross the finish line in front of Jess and the rest of crowd. I knew I had gone fast – faster than I had hoped and faster than even my most optimistic of targets. My watch provided me an unofficial time of 1:48:33, but an hour or so later the race website displayed the news I had been waiting for – an official finish time of 1:48:30.

I had absolutely shattered my personal best by almost 6 minutes. I had also run thirteen miles at the a pace that previously I had only produced on a much shorter course. It seems to me that my training plan, combining long runs with speed work, is making a difference. I’m half way to the marathon and if I can replicate or get close to this kind of performance in Philadelphia then I will be the happiest debutant marathoner of all time.