December 4, 2012 § 3 Comments
Ever since a windy day at the Beijing Marathon last November blew me off my course for breaking 2:50, I’ve had my sights set on the 2:45 barrier for 2012. After a very successful build up to the Yangzhou Half Marathon this April, I’ve been training exclusively to break 2:45 on December 2nd. That’s 6 months of training for less than 3 hours of running, which, actually, is not a bad trade-off where distance running is concerned, but still a very heavy emotional burden to bear in the final days and hours before the race.
Those final hours were spent in the dark, steady rain of the starting corral, huddled in a cheap poncho, feet already wet, sipping water, flipping through a soggy Newsweek and trying to think of anything besides what I was doing. After more than 30 minutes of that, the elites pranced and jiggled their way into the starting area. “Isn’t that Deriba Merga?” I thought, “Boston Marathon champ, Olympian, World Champion?” These guys are even thinner in person. They look like long legged birds, like if you put some angel wings on them and a stiff breeze blew in their face, they might catch air.
Mercifully, the race started right on time. My acetic vigil for pole position in the corral cooler was repaid with very little traffic early and a perfectly paced first kilometer. After a few k’s, my feet and hands thawed a bit and I threw off my long underwear top, but the smooth stones of Nanjing walking street were slick and I slowed a bit to make sure I didn’t pull anything or waste any extra energy. That stretch was quickly over and everyone spilled back onto the pavement, striding west with hundreds of people who would eventually slow, walk, bonk and dropout, towards my office and Jingan Temple.
At the time I was slightly aware, but in retrospect it is clear that I was not feeling 100%. Usually, I have to hold back to stay on pace for the first 10k, but my hamstrings were just a bit tight, the road was just a bit slippery and I figured it was cold and breezy and probably good to go out easy. I stuck with that attitude as we turned back east at 5k, into the wind and then south at 10k, into a gusty wind, keeping my splits around goal pace, but not down where I thought they would be in ideal conditions. The 15-20k stretch was downwind and I figured that was where I would find my stride and cruise, but it turned out to be my slowest 5k of the race and probably my undoing. Not that I would change anything. At that point I had to hedge against a blowup or the wind picking up. I went with the pace that was given me, not too hard, but not completely comfortable either, at or just above goal pace.
We turned again around half way, back into the wind. At that point, I had given out as much slack as I could time-wise and I had to start to reel it in to keep myself within striking distance. I shortened my stride when the breeze picked up, caught the two guys in front of me and ground the pace down steadily, all the while wondering, “Why is this feeling so tough, so early? Do I usually feel like this at halfway? The wind isn’t that strong, is it?”
I was able to push my pace down in that headwind stretch after the half way point, and when I reached about 26k, the leaders passed me going the other way, 8 flying Africans, still bunched at 32k, with (“That must be him.”) Deriba Merga hanging on to the back of the pack. One of them gave the guy in front of me a thumbs up, which is rare, so I gave them a hoarse shout of encouragement in hopes of a thumbs up of my own, but I only got a hacking cough for it. (I spent the whole morning/race convincing myself I didn’t have a cold, but was fighting off coughing the whole way.) Still it gave me a boost to see the running gods flying by. I could almost sense the draft off them pushing me sideways. I hit 27k, had water and a gel and thought, “I’m not feeling particularly tired. Nothing is right, but nothing is wrong either. This has to be the time to lay it on the line and recover those lost seconds.”
By the time I turned around (facing the finish for the first time), I was finally starting to get into a groove. My confidence surged as I reeled in a few people, especially one guy I know well who beat me soundly in Beijing last year, and then started to see TARC buddies coming the other way. To avoid irritating my throat I just gave the thumbs up, but a bunch of them called my name and cheered me on and even though I was definitely starting to hurt through 30k, my tempo was strengthening and I could feel myself steadily eating up lost time.
Around that time, I passed a guy who had been running 200m in front of me with another guy for pretty much the whole race and asked what he was looking to run. He looked fit and relaxed and said, “245” and I said, “Me too,” and waved him on with me. He pulled up alongside and then quickly away from me again as we went up a small hill. I thought, “That guy is going to make it. If I can stay close, I can do it.” I also thought, “How things have changed!” In Shanghai in 2010 at the same stage I was incredulous, chasing an overweight set of white thighs that would break 3 hours as I succumbed to cramps and insufficient mileage.
The final kilometers were brutal, north towards the stadium, directly into the wind. I immediately blocked out self-pity and narrowed my thoughts firmly on a low gear, high RPM and gaining ground on the 245 guy. I passed slowing stragglers and broken walkers around this time and didn’t spend the usual breath to say, “Almost there” or “You can do it.” This wasn’t a smile for the camera or help your fellow runner day. However, others were more charitable. The last guy I passed said to me, “Finish strong, Bro,” and I nodded and clenched my frozen fist and tried to find a higher gear, but when I strode out even slightly my hamstring would flash cramp lightning.
The 40k marker was in the sink of an underpass and the clock told me I was on the wrong side of the razor wire of 2:45:00. I churned my legs up and down in sickening slow motion up the other side and tried to fight the reality of the 245 guy pulling away from me. Even as I turned into the homestretch, grimacing and trying to stretch out my hamstrings for a kick, I thought I might clip it. I heard Yuki calling my name, but couldn’t look, a slave to the clock, which showed me what I probably knew in my heart coming up that hill, 2:45:01, 2:45:02… It’s the tick of doom. I can hear it in my head each time, as if the numbers are like those on an old fashioned alarm clock where they are slides on a revolving spool and they fall down, click-click.
I didn’t deflate and it didn’t stall my impotent kick, but there were no raised fists at the finish line this time. No triumphant photographs….
…but it was still 245 (and a bit of change), so even as I hugged my shaking knees to stave off the cramps, which were yanking at my hamstrings, and brushed off the volunteer who told me I could go to the medical tent over there, and felt like sobbing and swore, loudly and abruptly, to just get it out now, I knew I’d done something special and I couldn’t help but smile to myself and know that those sobs wouldn’t really be sad ones if I were to let them go.
That turned out to be truer than I knew at the time. First, I found out later that I was 29th place, only 17 places behind Deriba Merga (It was him and he beat me by more than 30 minutes, but anyway). Second, after cursing and coughing the phlegm of marathon race-clock defeat out of my system, I was quickly rejuvenated by my proud wife and always-happy-to-see-me-no-matter-what son. Third, I got to hear how much of an inspiration I am to my fellow TARC runners at dinner time.
Goals are important and seconds matter, but, of course, they are just part of the marathon, not the marathon itself.