Sunday, November 27, 2011

Two races, two tactics

Sometimes racing isn’t about the time on the clock, but the strategy employed to get to the finish line. A good race doesn’t always mean it was a fast race. My last two races have been more of an exercise in tactics, and while one of them did result in a PR, that was not the original intent.

As I boarded the train, and then the bus to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx last weekend, flashbacks of high school and college cross country road trips played in my head. What I remembered about racing at the park 10 years ago was that it was pretty hilly and the Burger King across the street could boast the most disgusting bathroom I have ever been in to this day. I’ll spare you the vivid description.

The New York Road Runners Cross Country series is a pretty chill group of races. Even at this race, the series championship named for NYRR legend Fred Lebow, the entry fee was a bargain basement $10. Runners milled about their respective teams until it was time to make our way to the makeshift starting line in the middle of a field. All of this looked vaguely familiar. As the starter described how to navigate the first 400 yards of the course, I was zoned out, thinking about the cup of coffee I’d be having when the race was over. In what would be a tactical race, this was a mistake. When the gun went off, I found myself in the lead with no idea where I was going. I slowed up, hoping someone would pass me, but no one did. When we got to the cones, I headed off course taking several hundred runners with me (after the race, one NYAC runner would jokingly say, “oh, YOU were the asshole!”). The screaming commands of NYRR volunteers got us back on track and we were off.

From the beginning, it was a runner from the Central Park Track Club (who I later learned was going to the trials in the 800) and me alone up front. We were, for the most part, side-by-side, as we headed onto the narrow trails that make up Van Cortlandt’s back hills. After a 5:02 first mile, we slowed dramatically. He was in front of me, and even though I wanted to pick up the pace, he cut me off at every attempted pass. It was smart racing on his part and frustrating racing on mine. I knew I was the better hill runner, but I kept having to slam on the brakes as the door was slammed in my face. Further complicating my stride was a series of embedded logs in the trail that you can either jump over or trip over. I chose to jump at the expense of any sort of rhythm.

By the time we completed a painfully slow second mile (6:00?), a third runner had caught us and had enough momentum to sling-shot past me. It was one of my teammates, which softened the blow, but it was still disappointing to go from being in contention to win to being a spectator of the battle up front. Heading into the finish, I realized just how much energy I wasted being impatient. I couldn’t dig myself out of third and finished about 15 seconds behind the winner. It’s tough to complain about a podium finish at the XC Championships, but I walked away with a lesson learned. I wasn’t upset with what was my slowest 5K time in three years, but vowed to save myself in a situation where someone else is dictating the pace.

The 35th Annual Newark Turkey Day Run is a different story all-together. In the weeks leading up to the five mile race in my hometown, I knew exactly who would be in contention for the coveted frozen Butterball Turkey, but I could only guess their fitness level. I was certain it would be a contentious race and was confident I was in shape to hang with last year’s winner, a 26:30 guy (Marv) who runs for the University of Buffalo. I wasn’t sure how well my buddy and high school teammate Jesse was running, but I knew he was putting in the work and is a naturally talented runner.

Sure, the Turkey Day Race is not one you’ll see featured in Runner’s World, but it’s the only road race held in my hometown of Newark, New York and I am usually not able to make the trip home to be on the starting line. Plus, it's organized by my former High School Cross Country Coach who I credit/blame for this whole running obsession. So, it was important to me to make the most of a rare opportunity. When the command was given, a group of four of us immediately formed the lead pack. It was Marv, Jesse, another college XC runner and me behind the police car headed straight up the hill on Route 88. By the top of the hill, Marv and I had split off and were duking it out. He’d lead for a couple hundred yards, then I would pass him back. By mile 2, I knew one of us was going to win the race. Of course, I wanted it to be me. I had a hunch that if the race came down to a kick, I would lose so my best bet would be to open up a gap early that would be too big to overcome at the end of the race. As we crested the next hill on Silver Hill Road, I took the lead and threw in a surge. At mile 3, I had clocked a 5:07 and had creasted a gap of 50 meters. This was the easiest part of the course and I decided to take advantage, widening the lead to 100 meters by the time we started climbing the last and steepest hill at the start of mile four.

As difficult as it was, I didn't back down going up the hill, knowing that anything was possible with a strong runner behind me. With a half-mile to go, I was still feeling strong. I knew the race was in the bag barring breaking my leg, but I kept the pace steady wanting a strong finish. I crossed the line in 26:19, a new five mile PR on what I consider to be a very challenging course. I won by 23 seconds to a runner who might have beat me if I hadn't gambled on the second mile, betting on my ability to keep a challenging pace instead of allowing the wheels to fall off.

(True story, the last time I finished the Newark Turkey Run, it was in a much slower time and there was a police officer waiting for me at the finish line to hand me a subpoena concerning a certain gnome-theft ring. That's another story for another day).

My last four races have been enough for me to reclassify 2011 as a successful season, but I want to give it two more gos before shutting it down. I'm learning with each race, and maybe the last two races won't be PRs, but they could be new knowledge I'll have in my arsenal going into next spring.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Watching the Marathon from Another Perspective

Wow. What a weekend. I don’t even know where to begin. Since moving to New York in June, marathon weekend has been circled on my calendar in red ink (proverbially speaking. I use a Google Calendar). I anticipated its awesomeness, but even I could not prepare for how incredibly cool it was.

THE EXPO: I was fortunate that Thursday and Friday were my days off this week. They were also the first two days of the expo which was a quick walk from my apartment. Trekkies have Star Trek conventions. Runner nerds have race expos. Along with Boston, this is Nerd Nirvana. Even though I was not running in the marathon, I went both days. The first day, I went to pick up my packet for the NYRR Dash to the Finish Line 5K. There is nothing more humbling for a runner than going to a marathon expo and picking up a 5k packet. Volunteers say well-intentioned, but infuriating things like, “maybe next year you’ll want to try the marathon.” I made this a quick transaction. After picking up my packet from the small corner of the convention center designated for the 5K runners, I went sight-seeing. Expos have the coolest running gear. Of course, I couldn't purchase many of the items for sale since they said “ING New York Marathon” on them (Running rule: don’t wear gear for a race you didn't run), but there was plenty of other neat things to look at. Kelly, a Charlotte friend, who was working the Timex booth, talked me into buying a brand new watch. I didn't need one, but I couldn’t resist an orange model they had for sale. Kelly’s a pretty stellar triathlete, so she was asked to pace Olympic softball pitcher Jennie Finch, who was running for charity. I got to meet Jennie and tell her about how steep the Queensboro Bridge is. I also got to meet my favorite running blogger Lauren Fleshman, who was preparing for her marathon debut.

The Race (Mine, not the real one): For a number of reasons, I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to run the New York Marathon. But, the 5k the NYRR was putting on the day before seemed like it would be fun and pretty low-key. I expected some sort of “fun run” where people brought their pets and most walked at a brisk pace. My prediction was a little off. NYRR assembled a massive elite field for the race and 10,000 people signed up. Feeling pretty good about my fitness, I thought this might be a good chance to finally have a respectable go at this distance in 2011. When the gun went off, I was just in front of the elite women. I have to admit, looking around and seeing runners like Deena Kastor, Sara Hall and Sally Kipyego running inches from me was pretty cool. I briefly tried to set off on my own, but following a slow first mile (5:24), the pack of fast women quickly reeled me back in. Seeing an opportunity to mooch off their speed, I settled into their groove. It must have been a hilarious sight as we entered Central Park. Spectators got to see a group of some of America’s best female distance runners, NCAA champions, at least one Olympic medalist and me, an idiot with a red sweatband. The pack remained tight through mile 2, a blistering 4:47 through the park. Heading into mile three, Sara Hall and NYAC runner Julie Culley made a move and opened up a gap. I was running stride-for-stride with Lisa Koll, the NCAA record holder in the 10,000 and Shalane Flannagan’s training partner and Kipyego, the Olympic Silver Medalist in the 10,000. With 400 to go, I was able to pull away from Koll and Kipyego away from me. 5:01 for mile 3. I threw I down and just headed for the finish line as fast as I could. My Garmin clicked 15:37 and 3.1, but the official time was 16:07. We must have run terrible tangents. No sub-16 for me this year, but I still had a big smile on my face. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to run in a race of that caliber, with runners of that stature. Following the finish, I spotted Paula Radcliffe and gave an “I’m a huge fan” wave, and chatted with Olympian Lopez Lamong about our shared Syracuse connection. I doubt any of those runners will remember that race as fondly as I will, and I am sure this recap makes me sound like a huge dork, but oh well. When I got home, I was dejected to learn that once again, I had been left out of the race results. I can only assume I have some sort of magnetism that erases chip timers. I’m upset about it, but I am trying not to dwell on it. I have contacted the Road Runners. Maybe they will fix it. In the meantime, Asics posted this video that confirms my story.

The Race (The real one): I have run in four marathons, three of them major, but I have never been a spectator. Working out the logistics of cheering on the runners of the New York Marathon is no easy task. My goal was to kill two birds with one stone. I wanted to get in a long run and see the leaders, then make it back to the grandstand in Central Park for the finish. I measured distances, calculated paces and plotted a route. At 7:45 Sunday morning, I met Meagan and Jordan (in town for official running-related business) and Heidi and we headed toward Brooklyn. We got in a solid 15 miles, running over the Manhattan Bridge to Prospect park and back to mile eight of the course in downtown Brooklyn. There, we saw the lead men and women go by, some of our friends from Charlotte and some of my Urban Athletics teammates. Then, we all hopped the train for Manhattan where we would go our separate ways. I met Lauren outside the park and we made our way to the grandstand where I had managed to land media passes. From there, we watched the top woman, Firehiwat Dado motor across the line in 2:23:15. We saw Geoffrey Mutai smash the course record. We watched wheelchair athletes give it their all as they crested the final hill before the finish line. We saw runners set new PRs, conquer life-long goals, and pour their hearts and souls into those last two-tenths of a mile. It was beautiful and inspiring and after a year away from the event, I couldn’t be more excited to tackle it again.

The Friends: The highlight of this weekend was getting to see so many good friends who were in town to race or cheer. From catching up with Kelly at the expo, to welcoming Theoden to stay at our apartment, to running with Meagan and Jordan, brunching with Katie and Ben, dining with Scott, Meredith, Bob and Allejandro and screaming until my throat hurt for Stephen, Meghan, Mo and Kevin, it’s good to see familiar faces. Everyone raves about Christmastime in New York, but it’s going to have be pretty spectacular to top marathon time in New York.