Posts Tagged ‘Joe Marruchella’

Saturday morning my phone woke me up at 4:10 a.m. to the theme song of Friday Night Lights.  I grabbed it off of the night stand, slid the switch over to off and took a deep breath.

Ironman was less than 3 hours away.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do before I left for the parking lot to meet up with a couple of fellow competitors to car-pool over to the transition area as most of the pre-race preparation took place over the 72 hours leading up to race morning.

I had arrived to the Woodlands on Wednesday, taking my time driving down from Austin.  I was remarkably calm during the trip, did not let traffic frustrate me, just tried to stay relaxed and conserve physical and mental energy.  I was going to need all of it on Saturday.  Instead of going to the hotel on Wednesday, I went directly to Athlete check-in, signed my waivers, picked up my Ironman Texas bag, my bib, timing chip, transition bags and did a little shopping in the Ironman Store.  I returned to the hotel, got my bags packed, numbered, put the stickers on my bike, my helmet and got my shopping done at the local grocery store.

Thursday was a bike ride through the National Forest to scope out the most technical part of the bike course (Miles 40-57) and then on Friday, a short 500 meter practice swim to get used to the water temperature, sighting lines for the buoys and the clarity of the water – or lack thereof.

No surprises on Race Day.  That is always a good philosophy.  But with a race with as many moving parts as this one, and one covering 140.6 miles across three disciplines, you don’t want to be making it up as you go along out there.  I was determined to stick to my plan as close as possible, and then be confident and secure enough in my ability to improvise when necessary never losing sight of the ultimate goal.  Just finish this damn thing no matter what it takes.  Get the medal.  Earn your spot in the club.

Ironman.

I glanced down at my 10 item checklist that I made the day before and started crossing things off of my race morning list:

1.  Apply your Race Numbers (Done Friday Night).

2.  Apply Body Glide anywhere that skin contacts skin or clothing.

3.  Apply sunscreen (don’t forget the backs of your ears or top of your head).

4.  Get your frozen Bottles out of the freezer.

5.  Place one frozen bottle in the cooler and put in your bike special needs bag.

6.  Put on your timing chip.

7.  Bring your cap, goggles, wetsuit.

8.  Grab bike special needs bag and run special needs bag.

9.  Put your phone in your goggles case and inside your morning clothes bag.

10. Have Fun.  Do Not Quit.

So after crossing off all of the items with the exception of #10, I calmly forced down a bagel, bottle of EFS (Electrolyte Drink), A water and a small jolt of Coke Zero for the Caffeine it was time to go.  I said my goodbye to Dawn who was kind enough to wake up early and get my sunblock in all the right spots on my bake, said goodbye to a sleeping tow-headed girl still dreaming away and walked down to the parking lot.  Cannon in less than two hours.

TRANSITION AREA – PRE-RACE – 5:35 a.m.

I walked into the transition area, showed my Ironman wrist band and headed over to my Quintana Roo CD.01 that I had racked on Friday.  I did not have a lot to accomplish, just put my bottles on the bike, clip on my bike computer and inflate my tires to 120 lbs. psi.  I did not bring my own pump down, but I did remember my headlamp to help make things a bit easier.  The line to have the bike technicians fill up tires already had more than 20 nervous athletes in it, so I decided to make a friend at my rack and ask if I could borrow his pump.

I supplied the light, he supplied the pumping power and in less than 10 minutes I was walking out of transition, headed to the swim start.  The last thing I wanted to do was spend anymore time around the energy that was going on in Transition.  People thinking too much, making adjustments to their set-ups.  Tweaking their bikes.  There was a time for all of that, but it was several weeks ago.  At this point, you have to be committed.  I was sticking with my plan and going to just simply do my best to hang in there.

Swim Start – 6:30 a.m.

I made the walk over to the swim start with two friends, Sean Shaikun who I worked with at my last company for more than a decade, and Tim Tait, who I met just this past weekend.  Both in town from Atlanta, GA – we were coincidentally and rather amazingly staying at the same hotel.  We were able to hang out quite a bit before the race, rode our practice ride and swam the practice session together.  The walk distracted me from what was in store and as we got to the Swim start I still was feeling in control and calm.

Then the bathroom line was backed way up and it looked like we would not have enough time to get everything done and get a good spot in the water at 6:45 a.m.

We made the decision to abort the bathroom line, change into our wetsuits, drop off our morning clothes and special needs bags and head over to the water.

At 6:45 a.m. I zipped up, pulled down my goggles and slid into the lake.  My nerves were really starting to build now and as I said goodbye to Sean I was all alone swimming over to one of the kayaks.  My plan was to hang on to the kayak up until the last minute before the cannon fired so I would not have to tread water and waste precious energy.  I had a good spot, only 3-4 rows of swimmers off of the starting line, but as 7:00 a.m. approached the number of swimmers around me more than quadrupled.  I was going to be right in the middle of the swim start – bodies were going to be flying everywhere around me – there was no doubt about it now.  I was about to start Ironman Texas.

Entering the Water at Ironman Texas

Entering the Water at Ironman Texas

The Swim – 7:00 a.m.

At 6:59:30 I switched my watch off of time of day and into swim mode.  I pushed off of the kayak, took three breathes of water, dunking my head and waited for the sound.

BOOM!

Chaos.  I could write paragraph after paragraph at this point and I do not think that I could possibly due justice what ensued.  This was going to be the most violent, physical, aggressive swim that I’ve ever been a part of.  There were a few factors that made it a challenge.

Swim Start

Swim Start

1.  Visibility.  There is none in Lake Woodlands.  this is a shallow body of water with a silt bottom.  The rain from the week leading up to the race washed a ton of dirt etc. into the lake and with the swimmers kicking and pulling the silty bottom gets stratified in the water and it is a dark brown.  I could not see past my elbow under water during my catch, so there was no way to avoid another athlete before you made contact.  No adjustments could be made in advance of hitting another swimmer.  It was entirely backed up and we were swimming on top of each other.

2.  The Course.  Most Ironman Courses start with a straight shot to allow the swimmers to spread out.  This lake had a subtle turn to the left, then a turn to the right before you reached the first turn buoys approximately 1.500 meters away.  All of the swimmers were basically funneled from the widest part of the race (the start) to a narrow point at the first red turn buoy, so the contact actually increased as you went along instead of decreased.  I never swam more than 15 strokes at any point without making contact with another body.

3.  The Canal.  After making the turn around and heading back North on the swim course, the route then made a right hand turn into a narrow canal for the last 800 meters.  The Canal was 30 meters wide at the widest point, about 22 meters wide at its most narrow, again.  Full contact, no relief all the way to the steps.

First 500 Meters

First 500 Meters

Reading the above and knowing that I am not a swimmer, having taken my first lessons only 3 summers ago, I’m sure you are thinking that I was freaking out.

The funny thing is I have never been more calm and in control during a triathlon than I was at Ironman Texas.

I’m not sure if it was the fact that I knew that the “freak-out” factor was going to be very likely going in, the fact that I was not surprised at all by the chaos, or that I knew that the only way I was going to hear Mike Reilly call me an Ironman was getting through to the end of that swim, but I remained relaxed throughout and simply hung in there to the end.

Canal Portion of Swim

Canal Portion of Swim

Swim time:  1:25:17

1,352 place – dead middle of the pack.

Transition 1:

I pulled off the goggles and cap, unzipped and plopped down on the mat for the wetsuit strippers to do there thing.  I gave the volunteer a quick hug/thank you and started making my run up the hill to the bags.  Just before reaching the rows of Bike Gear Bags off to the left I saw Dawn and Landry cheering for Dad as he went by.  Seeing there smiling faces, and I’m sure relief to some degree for Dawn that I made it out of the water got me excited to get changed and start on the bike.  This was going to be the longest and in some ways most difficult part of the race for me.  Winds were blowing hard from the SSW, not the SSE that would provide a tailwind on the way out.  The bike was going to be a battle.

I grabbed a seat in the T1 with the goal of being completely dry and into a fresh triathlon kit for the bike.  I wanted to start with dry feet and a dry seat.

Off came my jammers – yep, full on nudity in the Ironman Tent – and started with the bodyglide everywhere.  Toes, bum, inner arms, waist, nipples, all the bad spots.  Got into my gear and bike shoes, strapped on my helmet, filled up my T1 bag with all my swim stuff and handed it to a volunteer.  I ran to the rack, pulled down my bike and made it to the bike mount line.

T1:  12:00

Bike – 8:37 a.m.

I started the bike computer, clipped in as a cyclist was having problems right in front of me and headed out onto the course very controlled.  I wanted to keep my heart rate low and ride the first 30 miles under control.  This was the only part of the course where I really could have ridden in the 22-25 mph range the way the wind was blowing, but that would come at a huge cost on the back half of the bike.  I had originally hoped to ride something around 5:45/5:50, but quickly focused on a 6 hour bike.  If I could ride 18.7 mph average, I’d have plenty of time on the marathon course to come in under 13 hours.

I immediately dropped down into the aero position and started to tick off the miles.  I found a nice pack to ride with and due to my somewhat slow swim time, a lot of the faster athletes were already out in front of me.  I was able to just stick to the left hand “lane” on the bike course, and constantly stay out of drafting trouble while passing the competitors in front of me.

My nutrition plan was to take in a package of sport beans every :30 minutes past the hour on the bike, 2 salt tabs every :45 minutes, 1 stinger waffle every hour and drink my electrolyte replacement drink every 10 minutes.

As we rode through the Woodlands and entered the National Forest at mile 30, everything went according to plan from a nutrition perspective and a degree of effort.  I had averaged 18.93 mph through the first 30 mile check-point of the race, but at this point things were going to change pretty significantly as we turned West and headed right into the SSW wind.

The next 26 miles were tough.  Rolling hills and a lot of headwind/crosswind.  My average speed through this section was only 16.34 mph, but the effort actually increased quite a bit.  I was able to stay on my nutrition plan until we reached the 4 hour and 30 minute mark.  When I pulled my sport beans out of my bento box on top of my frame, the thought of eating a single one of them made my stomach churn.  I tucked them back in, decided to stay on plan with my hydration and salt tab regimen, but I would skip that feeding and see how I felt at the 5 hour mark.

At the midway point of the ride, 56 miles in I thought to myself that I had never raced further than the half-ironman distance on the bike (56 mi).  In a lot of ways I was heading into uncharted waters and once we eclipsed mile 100 on the bike, I was really in no-man’s land, as I had never ridden further than 100 miles at any point.  I tried to hold back on the first half, so I could push harder on the way back and it was time to start that pursuit.

I continued to pass riders and finally we reached the Woodlands again for the final 12 miles of the bike course.  My legs still felt strong, but mentally I was ready to get out of the saddle.  I was not able to at the 5 hour mark or the 5:30 mark, just relying on Ironman Perform for my calories, salt and water for my hydration.  I was able to pee twice on the bike, but the second time, I could tell that I was behind the hydration schedule as very little emptied from my bladder.  I washed things off with cold water as I pedaled for home.  But the wind had really beaten us up on the way in.

I averaged 19.90 mph over the 2nd 56 miles of the bike course.

I hit the dismount line, clipped out of my pedals and kicked off my bike shoes for the run back into transition.  Ironman Bike was in the books.

Bike:  5:59:41

911 place – we had passed 441 riders on the bike course.

Transition 2:

I had a hard time finding my run legs coming off the bike.  I ran a few strides, walked a bit, tried to run again, walked a bit.  It was pretty clear that I needed to take some time in T2 to get my legs back under me, so I took my time as the volunteers called out my number 2330, 2330, 2330.  By the time I reached my bag a volunteer handed it to me and I made my way back into the tent.

I sat down, pulled open my bag and saw running shoes that did not belong to me.  The volunteer had handed me bag #2230 not 2330.

I had to wait for them to change the bags out, which ended up costing me a couple of minutes.  Once they returned, I started the second costume change of the day and got into my compression underwear and compression run shorts so that I would be able to place and hold ice in my pants during the marathon to stay cool.  Fresh socks, fresh tri top and visor.  I stopped at the suntan lotion volunteers on the way out and hit the run course at a comfortable, but slow jog.

T1:  12:59

Marathon – 2:49 p.m.

I entered the run course, crossed the timing mat and made a mental note that all I had to do was keep moving and I was going to finish.  With 9 hours left in the race before they started DNF’ing athletes at Midnight – I could walk the entire marathon and finish.  I came into the event with the goal of running the whole marathon, only walking the aid stations for nutrition and hydration.  I started off with that plan in mind and took my first strides down the course.  Keep in mind this felt very hard to me at this point, but my pace was closer to 10 min/mile than the 9 min/mile I had envisioned during training.  When you mixed in the walking of the 26 aid stations I was going to be averaging 11 min./miles – but I very steadily started picking my way through the field with each mile.

The course was a 3 loop, 8.8 mile route.  So again, just break it down into bite-size chunks I thought.  Run this thing one loop at a time and before you know it you’ll be on the final lap and just 90 minutes or so away from the finish.

Dawn and Landry would be at the hotel pool for the entire first loop, so I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for them.  Instead I met up with a runner, George from Washington State and we decided we would run together, keep each other company and motivated and just keep ticking off each mile before we reached the next aid station.

I was trying to make up for my lack of nutrition over the final 90 minutes on the bike, but my stomach was feeling a little queasy from all of the liquid sloshing around in there.  The aid stations had the same set-up mile after mile.

Plain Water, Perform, flat Coke, Ice Water, fruit, potato chips, Gu, Gu Chomps, Cookies, Cups of Ice.

My routine consisted of:

1.  Grab two cups of water and drink them down.  Grab a third cup and pour it over my head.

2.  Try to take sip of perform.  I got a gulp down once or twice, but most aid stations I had to throw it out.

3.  Flat coke, drink one down.

4.  Grab a cup of ice water, pour it over my head.

5. Grab red grapes and watermelon when they had it.

6.  Put an orange slice in my mouth, suck it dry and throw it away.

7.  Grab two cups of ice, pouring one into my shorts, the other down the front and back of my tri top.

8.  Grab two more cups of ice, combine it into one and exit transition.

I would drink the melted water from the cup of ice over the first 1/2 mile of the run on the way to the next transition stop.  Then I would get a mouthful of ice and pour the remaining ice down the front of my shorts.

Don’t judge me.  It was 85 degrees, We are running a marathon coming off a 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike.  Comfort above all else.

They say that there are no atheists during the ironman marathon.  I can attest that this is 100% gospel truth.

The run course took us through a quiet area along a wooded path for a couple of miles and then through a beautiful neighborhood of huge homes in the Woodlands.  At the 6 mile mark of the course, we then landed on the waterway, scene of the ironman swim and ran along the path with huge crowds of spectators.  All hooting, hollering, encouraging the athletes.  They were providing a hug boost to the competitors with high-fives, motivational signs, shouts of encouragement and calling each of us out by name telling us how great we were doing.Run

The first loop was sort of a recon mission.  I quickly learned where the wind was helping, where it was hurting, where the aid stations were and were there were potential for tight spaces, turned ankles and danger.

George and I continued to click off the miles at 10:00 min./mile run pace, 11:00-11:15 total pace including the water stops and never looked further ahead than that mile on that loop.

We spoke about how we ended up at Ironman Texas.  Our families, what finishing meant to us and laughed quite a lot at the spectacle that was unfolding.

Every mile we ran became one more mile that we weren’t going to walk and that became the #1 goal.  Let’s run this whole thing.  No walking, no giving up, just keep going and get that medal.

At the midway point of lap 2 I was able to see Dawn and Landry, pick up Ironbaby and give her a big kiss and hug.  Dawn told me she would catch me at the finish line and as we passed the turn off that separated lap 2/3 and FINISH we started the final loop.

To this point things were going fairly well, but the aid stations started becoming more and more welcomed for that :60 seconds worth of walking.  Like clockwork, we would pick out a trash can, a sign or a flag and determine that as the starting point to begin running again.  We ran through the trail section, back over the bridge that went over Lake Woodlands and past the swim start where our day had begun close to 12 hours earlier.  We ran back past the Mansions, and finally the waterway.  3 miles to go.  Just a 5K to Ironman.

George and I never separated, never broke cadence and simply ticked them off.

As we got to the turn off we decided we would split up to create some separation between us so we could enjoy our moment at the finish line.

As I started to hear the crowd my legs finally woke up from their slumber.  In what I’m sure surprised George a bit, out marathoner’s legs sprung back to life and I dropped pace down to 7:00/mile flat for the final 400 meters.  At the first turn of the corral, Dawn and Landry were on the front row, hanging over the barrier with huge smiles on their faces.  At that point I never felt my feet hit the ground again until I hit the mat.

As I approached the finish, arms up, I heard Mike Reilly – voice of Ironman, say the words I had played over and over in my mind throughout all of the long rides, long runs, swims in the quarry.

“Joe Marruchella, You. Are. An. Ironman.”

For good measure as I clapped my hands in the chute he added, “You’re an Ironman Joe”.

Marathon:  4:51:59

Total Time:  12:41:39

830th place – we had passed another 81 athletes on the run course.

Post Race:

The volunteers at Ironman truly make the event.  I had my own volunteer Chris who helped me through the chute, checked to make sure I was o.k. while another volunteer took off my timing chip, grabbed my finisher’s hat and shirt.

Another volunteer put an ice towel around my neck, while another held my gear for post-race pictures.  First class all the way around.

I made it to the end of the chute and caught up with Dawn and Landry – which was the perfect end to a long, long but amazing day.

The complexities of a race like this are truly mind-numbing if you have not experienced it firsthand as I still had to get my morning clothes bag, try to get some food and water in me.  Make my way back to the Transition area about a mile away, pick up my transition bags, the Quintana Roo, load everything up, grab some dinner with my girls and then head back to the hotel.

I returned to the hotel room exactly 17 hours after I had left it.  A long day by any definition.

But as I got out of the shower, changed into dry clothes and tried to wind down enough to get some much needed sleep over and over in my mind I kept hearing the same thing over and over again.

“You’re an Ironman Joe.”

Damn skippy I am.Finish Area

 

 

Saturday marked the 36th running of the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, SC.

Technically, I suppose the race “takes place” in Mt. Pleasant, SC as I spent just about 2 hours there waiting for the race to start, and a much shorter period of time racing through the streets of the Holy City.  But we are already getting way too far ahead of ourselves.  But on my final day racing as an “independent” or a self-coached runner, the racing Gods laid down an absolutely picture perfect day for a footrace.

Sunny skies, light winds, although high atop the Cooper River Bridge the breeze was slightly in the face of the runners and slightly from the right side of the course, 48 degree temperatures and 85% humidity.  The humidity was a little bit dicey, but that is what you get racing on the coast in April.

The CRBR is the 3rd largest 10 Kilometer race in the United States and the 7th largest in the world.

It’s big.

It is almost like running the Boston or NYC Marathons where you have an early rise to deal with, busses to line up for, a trip out to the starting area, a long wait to corral up, limited room for a proper warm-up and of course, a crowded course to navigate from start to finish.

The Pros:  For an amateur runner like most of us – you get the full rock star treatment.

The Cons:  For an amateur runner like most of us – there are a lot of variables to deal with which makes running a “great” race a lot tougher.

You have to sacrifice a little time on the clock for the “experience” of running a huge mega-race like the CRBR.  One or two of these events a year really can make road racing a lot of fun.  But if you are looking to run a PR or a smokin’ fast time.  This is not the type of event to do it in.

The other thing about the Cooper River Bridge Run is that it is not for the meek if you are going to really try to race it.  There is a famous saying that if a hill has it’s own name, it’s probably a pretty big hill.

Well if a race is named after a bridge.  Chances are the bridge is a pretty big one.  The Arthur Ravenel Bridge or “The Cooper” as it is referred to locally is a big bridge.  The climb from start to finish lasts just a tick over a full mile and rises 187 feet.  Yes it is steep, but man, it is long.  It is the long that gets to you in my view.

Cooper River Bridge

Cooper River Bridge

The incline is 4%, which is pretty nasty to do battle with at race pace.  But when it takes you a solid 7:00 minutes lets say to get over it, running at 6:00 flat effort it can really take it’s toll on you.  You then have the other side to run down, which further taxes your straining quads – and just when your breathing returns to normal and you start to feel a little better about things, you exit the bridge, make the hard 90 degree left turn onto Meeting street for two more miles of flat running.  The road may be flat, but it feels anything but when you come off of the downstroke of the bridge.  It feels just like yet another hill to climb.

Needless to say that our 37:30 10K PR was more than safe on Saturday morning.  I figured that if I added a full minute for the climb, and then :10 seconds a mile to the remaining miles (5) – we would have a 1:50 disadvantage.  That gave me a goal of 39:20 – if I could nail that time, I would call this a big win and declare myself “over” my injury from the winter.

My other goals were all pretty arbitrary in nature, but being my last race B.C. (Before Coach Carmen Troncoso) – I wanted to make it a little fun:

1.     Break 39:20

2.     Break the top 200 Male Finishers.

3.     Age Group (finish in the top 5% of my age group up to 25).

4.     Be the fastest Texan.

I had a feeling that If goal number one was met, the others had a darn good chance of falling into place.CRBR Bib

Pre-Race:     I set the alarm clock for 4:15 a.m. for the 8:00 a.m. gun.  Man, that is early.  I got to the bathroom, took care of all the usual tooth brushing and face washing business and decided on a very quick shower to get the muscles loose under some hot water.  I decided that by race time shorts and a singlet would be all we would need, and to avoid any post-race complications I would not check a dry bag.

I purchased some sweat pants and a hideous Orange Clemson Sweatshirt at TJ Maxx on Friday to wear to the start that I would discard just prior to the gun and allow the local charity to receive my fresh clothes for those less fortunate.  As a South Carolina Graduate it pretty much killed me to be rocking the Clemson Orange, but staying warm was far more important to me and the sweats did the job.

I carried a couple of bagels, a Gatorade and a water with me and would be racing to Charleston with my gloves tucked in the waistband of my shorts.  All of this worked out perfectly.

I parked on the west side of the course about 3 blocks from the busses and took a nice leisurely trot up to the staging area downtown.  I met a 60 year-old runner named Fred from Hilton Head and we rode to the start together chatting away about running, racing and goals for the day.  A 2:40 Marathoner “back in the day” – Fred was still a top age-grouper in the area and I was sure he was going to run a great race on Saturday.  We talked a lot about marathoning and working with a coach.  He like so many before him said to me, “Joe, you are a sub 3 hour marathoner with your ability to run a sub 1:24 half on multiple occasions, you just need it to all come together for you on race day ….”

One of these days I am going to prove all of these folks right.  Hopefully October 13, 2013 at Steamtown.

We hopped off the bus and made the long walk to the corrals.  I found a nice quiet picnic table at a small park to sit on and stretch, chatted with a  few runners, had breakfast and as the sun rose over Mt. Pleasant, I took a short 1-mile warm-up run 30 minutes before go time.

I hit the porta-potty, stretched some more and with 15 minutes to go and people were starting to fill the corrals I went for another 1/2 mile warm-up with some strides mixed in to mimic ramping up to race pace.  I ducked into the Seeded Corral with 800 or so of my new friends, just behind the professionals from Kenya, Russia, S. Africa, Egypt and a handful of top Americans and peeled off my sweats.  My legs felt great, I was very relaxed.  Maybe a little bit too relaxed and I cozied up behind a group of runners that looked just about “right” for my target pace.

The Start:     The announcer counted us down to the start, staged us just behind the mat and with a “Runners, to your marks!  Horn!” we were off.  We ran under the large start scaffolding and screamed down Coleman Boulevard toward the bridge.  I ran the first 400 and settled in nicely, I felt as if I was running just a hair under 6:00 min./mile pace and glanced down at my watch.

Time of day.

I hit the start button as I crossed the mat, but for some reason it was not recording the run.  Garmin error.  Happens to the best of us.  I pressed the satellite portion of the dial and my watch began the process of triangulating my position.  I was running blind.

Something that would have bothered me a couple of years ago, I really never batted an eye.  I decided I would wait until the first mile sign, press start there and get an accurate picture of the final 5 miles of the race.  No big deal, just spin up and run easy.  As we approached the first mile sign I was curious to see how our pacing was.  I hit the line in 5:53, meaning that I ran an opening split right at 5:51 pace given the :02 it took us to cross the mat +/-.  Maybe :04 seconds faster than I had been hoping for, but nothing that was going to harm our race.  Dialed in Joe.  Go get that bridge.

I backed off the pace just a bit to load up for the climb ahead and ticked off the second mile in 6:05 – solid.  we made the slight switch from the right side of the street across three lanes to the left, ran a tangent onto the exit ramp to Mount Pleasant (running against the normal direction of driving traffic) and started to pick our way up the hill.  I decided to stay even, no extra effort, but no backing off either.  Let the 4% incline slow our pace, but keep the intensity identical.  In my view the most economical way to tackle a hill.

I glanced once at my watch and it was tracking us at 7:11 pace up the incline, we were giving away a little bit north of 1 minute per mile pace to the bridge, which had us just about spot on our goal pace.  But the incline seemed to be stretching forever.  I found a runner to run next two and we stayed lockstep in pace to the top.  we finally reached the large crown of the bridge, which lasts a good 200 meters longer than you think it would to reach the absolute apex.  We reached the 3-mile flag and I made a conscious effort not to back off.  Just stay even and lock back in – you are running perfect I thought to myself.

Half-Way Point:     As I passed the 3.1 mile clock the time read 19:53.  I needed to run the second half of the race in just a hair under 19:30 and we were home, goal time met by the slimmest of margins.  My mind flashed back to the last time I had not broken 19:30 in a stand alone 5K and I could not draw it from my recesses.  Finally I had to go back all the way to my first Holland, TX Cornfest 5K in 2009.  On a 85 degree hot June morning I ran a 19:43 to take 1st place in my Age Group.  All I needed was a 19:30 from here on out.  It wasn’t going to be a cake-walk by any means, but it was absolutely something we were capable of.  Just keep pushing.

Downtown:     we came off of the bridge and made the left turn onto Meeting Street with drums sounding from one of the local High Schools, I decided to grab a quick splash of water to wet my lips and I powered up Meeting Street toward the College of Charleston.  My legs were starting to feel very heavy and I knew the bridge had done what it is designed to do.  Sap your strength.  I focused on form, stopped looking at the road in front of my feet as I had done climbing up the bridge so I wouldn’t be intimidated by how much bridge was left and I fixed my eyes directly on the horizon.  Head perfect and still, breathing in rhythm, form smooth, light on my feet and I could barely hear my flats hitting the road.  I was still running strong.  Just needed to hang on to that last mile.

I can do anything for a mile.

We hit the mile 5 sign and I did some quick math in my head.  I was running at 6:18 pace and had not wavered over the last mile+.  One more identical mile, hit the left turn on to Wentworth street with 2/10 to go and surge.  Hit the left turn back on to Meeting Street and Kick.  Race = Over.

I was running alongside a taller, younger runner stride for stride as we took King Street across Calhoun.  I looked over at him and said a single word that I knew he would relate to.  I simply said, “Hurting”.

He replied with a, “Got This”. and on we went stride for stride.

There is something about race crowds when they see two runners battling it out at the end of a race.  No matter how far back they are, the spectators can identify with the very primitive battle of wills taking place.  Tall runner vs. short runner, young runner vs. old(er) runner.  Who is going to give in first.

As we passed the thickening crowd we were getting shouts from the sidewalk, it fueled us both on and just before the left turn to Wentworth Street I got ready to tangent on the inside and decided to surge just a few strides early.  I moved away from the runner on my right and in a moment that makes racing so interesting, he had no response.  He was flat out at that point and I had been holding just a little bit back.

It is something that you never know about the runner next to you, ahead of you or immediately behind you.  Who has something left?  Will it be me today or will it be them?  If you ask me the one thing I love most about racing – that is honestly it.  In the most basic terms, who is willing to hurt more?  On Saturday it was me.

I dropped him on Wentworth, slid past another runner at the turn onto King Street and with 1/10 of a mile left we dipped down to 5:40 pace, a place we had not been for almost 6 miles, but it was nice to see that it was still there.  A final kick to the finish and the announcer said to the crowd, “We’ve got some strong closing kicks here to the finish, and all the way from Austin, Texas …. Joe Marruchella”.

Finish:     After running a 19:51 first 5 kilometers, we needed a 19:29 to make our time.  We ran a 19:27.

Goal time of 39:20.  Race time of 39:18.

Goal of finishing in the top 200 Male Runners – Number 179.

Goal of Age Grouping – Met placing 8th among Men 45-49 years old.

Goal of being the fastest Texan – Met by more than :30 seconds.

I would call that a clean sweep of the list we put together prior to the race.  To be completely honest I am most proud of being able to run a smart, strategic and well put together race.  It may have been one of the 3 or 4 best executed races I have ever run.  Not the fastest of course, but we knew that was going to be the case before we ever boarded our flight from Austin to Charleston.  But for our final race as a self-coached runner, I am really happy to go out this way.  I don’t have a lot of “what if’s” or “I hoped this or that” – I can put this one in the book, place it on the shelf and start a brand new chapter when I get back to Austin.

To coach Carmen, I am fired up, healthy and ready to go.  I know that you work with a lot more talented runners than I and that you certainly work with runners who are much faster than I will ever be.  But I am ready to work hard, do anything and everything you say and on race day I am willing to put it all on the line for the both of us.

We’re certainly going to have our wins and losses, our ups and downs, that is just the nature of the sport.  But put me in a position with a mile to go on October 13th to make it happen and I promise I will not let you down.  Let’s get this party started.

I’m not sure who the first runner was to put names or initials on their race flats. I can’t say for sure why they did it or what it meant to them.

But for me I can say that the first time I did it was to honor Dom.

I did it because I wanted him with me on race day, in body, mind and spirit. Partly because I wanted him to be out on that race course, feeling my flats rush down the road, runners around us, battling the course, the weather and our own body as it began to break down and try to ease off the gas.

I wanted him to experience the sensation of “racing” as I knew that he would never get the chance to do so again after he lost his battle with cancer on August 15, 2010.

That fall I lost a good runner-friend of mine in Austin named Scott Birk. He was killed while out for a training run, struck by a motorist. Scott was a tremendous runner and an even better person.

One of the first to congratulate me in the finishing chute after a race, or keep the crowd loose by joking around at the start – Scott was one of a kind.

After the gun fired however, Scott was a fierce competitor and a tremendous athlete. When he was lost to his family and friends, the Austin running community also lost one of its great contributors.

I find comfort looking down and seeing his initials on my shoes in the starting area before the horn sounds. Scott had been there before.

He understands.

Well at Boston this year I will have two more names on my shoes. A middle and high school friend of mine David Roitman will have his name on my right instep. David who is one of the nicest and truly funniest people you would ever meet, with an infectious energy and zest for life fell ill earlier this winter.

A very strange and sudden illness which robbed David of his strength, ability to walk, talk, or communicate in any way. He has since battled back after relearning all of those skills and continues to make tremendous strides. By late spring or early summer we hope to have David back 100%.

If anyone deserves to hear the roar of the crowd as we make the left turn off of Hereford Street onto Boylston and past the grandstands on the way to the finish line in Boston it is David.

Roitman – you are coming with me.

And of course, my Mom. I haven’t shared a lot about her in this space but her battle with brain cancer at the age of 81 was truly something to marvel at.

Surgery, treatment, medication, rehabilitation and she never, EVER, complained or asked “why me?” which is something I know for a fact I would be wondering.

She moved from step to step in the process, never doubting for a moment that she would beat it – made it to her appointments, listened to her Doctor’s and quite frankly, kicked cancer squarely in the ass.

I’m not sure how often children talk about being “proud” of their parents, but I am here to tell you that I am so very proud of my Mom. Aside from some mild complaining about what the radiation therapy did to her hair, she took it all as it came and never wavered.

So Dom, Scott, David and Mom – ready or not, here we go.

Your names will be the last images I look at just prior to the gun sounding in Hopkinton before I cast my eyes on the race course. When I pull off my flats 26.2 miles and 3 hours later, you will be the first images I see.

Boston Marathon Race Shoes

Thank you for providing me and many others with the inspiration to keep fighting when things are most difficult. I am most definitely going to need each of you on race day – I hope you all enjoy the tour of Massachusetts and the beat-down we are going to put on the Boston Marathon.

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

On Friday as I was arriving in Virginia Beach for our final tune-up race before Boston I got a text message from a friend telling me that Boston Marathon Bib Numbers and Corral assignments were up on the Boston Athletic Association website.

With the exception of elite athletes who are “seeded” by their bib numbers at major races, where the “favored athletes” or those most likely to win the race are given the lowest numbers – a bib number to the rest of us is usually just a function of how early we registered for a race.

The lowest numbers go to the “early-birds”, while the higher numbers go to those runners who register later in the process.

Boston is a bit different however as for the runners who have “qualified” for the race – everyone is seeded.  The fastest runners down to the very second in their qualifying races are given a lower number than the runner just behind them.

Runners are then separated further into groups of 1,000 into one of the nine starting corrals for each of the three starting waves.

Wave 1 will accommodate runners with bib numbers 1 – 8,999 or the first 8,999 athletes.

Wave 2 will accommodate runners with bib numbers 9,000 – 17,999.

Wave 3 will hold the balance of the athletes from 18,000 and above – including the charity entries with the lowest bib numbers.

The first wave will go off at 10:00 a.m. EDT, the second wave at 10:20 a.m. EDT and the final wave at 10:40 a.m. EDT.

All of this is done with great care to enhance the race experience for all of the athletes in the event.  The thought being that each runner will be paired with runners around them of similar abilities and pace strategies.  This will make the trip from Hopkinton, MA to Boston along a relatively tight course easy to maneuver for more than 26,000 runners.

This year our qualifying time at the New York City Marathon of 3:08:09 earned us bib# 5280.  Wave 1, Corral 6.

A perfect spot.  With a goal time under our qualifying time, we will be in the corral with runners who have finished a marathon between approximately 7:08 and 7:14 pace.  This will play to our advantage if the majority of the group around me does not go out too fast as I am hoping to run the first two miles of the race right about 7:00 min./mile.  Gradually increasing our effort to fall into goal pace of 6:52 by mile 4.

As I have said before, Boston can be a cruel race.  The opening 15-16 miles of the race is decidedly downhill.  You couple the topography with the added adrenaline at the start of one of the largest and most prestigious road races in the world, and it is very, very easy to get sucked in to a pace that is too fast, too soon.

Disaster in the marathon.

One of the things that I found most interesting looking back on our three half-marathons over the course of this training cycle is that the slower I started, the bettter I finished.

Opening Miles vs. Half Marathon Results 2012

The longer the race, the greater the penalty for starting too fast.  In a 5K or 10K a runner can tough out the final mile or mile and a half and “hang on” to the finish.

In the half-marathon this gets far more difficult after mile 8 or 9 leaving more than 4 miles to go to the finish.  A :15 or :20 slow down can mean as much as 1:30 added to your race time.

In the marathon, this can start as early as mile 15 or 16, with 10 grueling miles to go, including the final 10 kilometers where the athletes body is already depleted of those precious glycogen stores and is now resorting to burning fat as fuel which is much less efficient.

Now a slow-down that might be :20 or :30 a mile could be as much as 1:00 to 1:30 each mile.  Adding 10-15 minutes onto your race time.

When I talk about my goal of negative splitting Boston, or running the second 13.1 miles faster than the first I get quizzical looks from many of my friends – runners and non-runners alike.

How can you plan to do that with all of those tough hills in the second half of the race?

The reality is the “tough hills” in Boston are the down hills over the opening 15-16 miles of the race, not the 4 climbs from miles 17-21.

Running 15 downhill miles will take far more out of a runner than 3 miles or so of uphills.

Running in control and clicking off marathon pace miles at or just above 6:52 pace will mean that I am actually running 7:00 to 7:05 “EFFORT” over the opening half of the race.  Problems will arise if I am running 6:52 “EFFORT” at the start of the race, translating to something closer to 6:40 pace over the first half.

You would think that you are “banking time”, allowing for a larger fade over the course of the final miles of the race, but what you are really doing is robbing yourself of any chance to dig deep and hold pace late.

We are going to try to thread the needle in Boston this April with a 1:30:30 first half and a 1:29:29 second half.

If the hills in Newton rob us of our strength to close out the race strong – we should still have enough left in the tank to ward off a huge late fade and finish with a strong race and a new PR in the marathon at Boston.

But if we get it right, and all of the hill work, racing and high mileage has done its job, maybe, just maybe we can pull this off and come through that chute with our “A” goal of 2:59:59 or better.

A 1:23:46 half-marathon translates roughly to a 2:58:00 marathon.  Add a couple of minutes for the course in Boston and we are right in that 3:00:00-3:01:00 range from a capability standpoint.

Right now it’s up to health and the weather.  I’ve got to work a little soreness out of the top of this foot and hope that the race day weather Gods are kind to us in April.

What started out 18 weeks ago as a journey with many, many variables is now down to only two.  One of which I can control by being smart and patient with this sore foot, the other I really can’t do much about at all.

In 2010 we ran out of corral 8 with bib number 7929 affixed to our shorts.

Two years later we are 2,649 athletes closer to the starting line in corrral 6.

Two years older, two years wiser and with any luck, we’re about to finally get this race exactly right.

It seems that every time we toe the line on race day there is at least one lesson out there to learn.

Just because things during race week don’t necessarily go your way – it doesn’t mean that when the gun fires you can’t just set all of that aside and lay down something special.

Sure getting a cold a few days before race day, taking a cross-country trip after losing your wallet the day before and spending time at the Department of Transportation, calling around to credit card companies and tearing apart your home and truck is not an ideal, calm way to prepare for a tough race.

But as I woke up on Sunday morning at 5:00 a.m. and shuffled to the bathroom I was determined to try to set all that “stuff” aside and do what we came here to do. Run our race, put in our last “tough” effort of this training cycle and post one final indicator as to our fitness and training for Boston in four weeks.

I could tell that my cold had broken up a bit more overnight, my nose wasn’t as stuffed up as it had been, and my voice was coming back to me. After a great Italian Dinner with my friends Steve and Ally Speirs the night before, I felt fueled up and ready to race.

I took a hot shower to loosen up the muscles, ate my pre-race bagel, chased it down with grape Gatorade and decided on my race gear. The temperature was just a bit above 50 degrees, with a East/Northeast wind gusting between 12-14 mph.

Not picture perfect race conditions, but coupled with an extremely flat course, I felt like the day would be “neutral”. Not helping runners to quick times, but definitely not restricting them either. It was a fair day on a fair course.

Effort would equal results on a day like today I thought.

Time to go to work.

I threw on a fleece top I bought locally the day before that I would drop at the starting line just before the gun fired and made my way to check my dry bag with warm clothes at the race start.

Being my first experience in VA Beach running a Shamrock event I was very impressed with the job J&A Racing did organizing the event. Great bag-check service. Plenty of porta-potties for the 10,000+ half-marathoners and a very organized coral system for the athletes.

King Neptune overlooking the boardwalk in Virginia Beach

There was the usual mess of runners forecasting faster times that they are capable of running during the registration process to get a spot “up-front” – but that happens at virtually all events where previous race times are not a requirement for seeding.

I decided to start about 25-30runners from the front, thinking that I would more than likely run in the top 60 runners at the end of the day +/-. There was a “dual starting chute” on both sides of the divided road on Atlantic Avenue. 30 deep on my side seemed about right.

Just before it was time to get ready to roll my friend Steve shouted to me and gave me the thumbs up. I returned the gesture and thought to myself, man – this really is what it is all about. I had been listening to some Springsteen in the hotel the night before the race, specifically Jungleland from the Born to Run album.

There is a passage that says – “The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.”

A calmness came over me in the start area and I told myself to just relax, run an even, easy opening mile, sit back and let it all be ….. let the race come to you. Don’t force anything.

The Start: On a countdown from 10, the starters horn blasted and out we went. I had to navigate around a few runners over the opening 400 meters, but quickly I found an even cadence and locked in. My legs felt strong, the air was a bit humid, but racing at sea-level provides some oxygen advantages. I just let the race come to me and ran three very smooth, very even miles:

6:22, 6:24, 6:24.

PR Pace for me in the half-marathon is 6:23 (1:23:55). I was right where I needed to be.

Shore Drive: Just after the start of mile 4 the course turns to the West/Northwest and takes runners up along shore drive. Oddly, moving away from the beach. This was a very lonely stretch of the course where we had caught and passed a dozen runners or so and were now running in a very small group of 2-3 runners.

There is a very slight false-flat through this section – but for the most part a very beautiful and serene part of the race course. The road had a definite camber to it however and I found myself trying to find the “flattest” part of the road to run. After experimenting with the middle of the road and the center of each lane, I settled on the right shoulder. It seemed to be the flattest area.

It would not let me tangent the curves, but it would take pressure off of the lower of my two knees as well as my hips fighting to stay upright. I was willing to sacrifice some added distance for a better footstrike.

I hit the water stop in the middle of this stretch for a quick sip of water. So far my sore throat was not a factor at all, nor was my stuffy nose. All systems were full go.

Splits here were: 6:28, 6:17, 6:22.

Fort Story: We made a right turn to head through the West gate of Fort Story and gradually make the wide arc back towards the finish. The wind from the East was blowing slightly into the face of the runners until the exit of the base at mile 9. I decided to stay as even as possible as we ran through the base – nothing faster, nothing slower – just lock in.

Splits over the next three miles were: 6:21, 6:22, 6:20.

Back on Atlantic: We exited the base back onto Atlantic Avenue and for the first time could see half-marathoners heading towards us coming from the opposite direction, 6 miles behind.

I was able to stay steady through mile 9, but as mile 10 began I was having a hard time keeping my cadence steady. The lack of hills on the course which is a positive in some ways can be a detriment in others. With no changes to your stride length or cadence your legs start to “fall asleep”. I tried to mix up my stride, add a surge every two minutes or so for :15 seconds, but I could feel my pace starting to fall off a bit.

I was still right on PR pace, if I could stay around 6:25 on the way in, I would have a great shot at pulling it out along the boardwalk.

Splits for the next three miles were: 6:21, 6:26, 6:30.

Closing Stretch: As my watch sounded at the mile 12 marker I glanced down and saw a mile above 6:20’s for the first time of the day – I knew it was time to snap out of it and gradually start putting the pedal back down. As we approached the turn off of Atlantic through the loudspeakers that were placed along the curve I heard the familiar drum kick from Max Weinberg and the Fender Stratocaster of the Boss belting out Born to Run.

I smiled.

We made an arching turn at 45th street and entered the boardwalk at 37th. With 1/2 mile to go I started to force the issue just a bit.

On the right I caught a glimpse of Ally, Steve, Shannon and Caroline and saw a big smile come across Steve’s face. “Finish this thing off strong”he said, and I knew I must be looking at a PR with a strong kick.

Closing Kick captured by Ally Speirs

Mile 13 was my fastest mile of the day at 6:16.

I kicked over the mat with a final 1/10 at 5:39 pace.

1:23:46 official time. A new PR by :09.

PR’s don’t come around very often, especially in the middle of a tough marathon cycle. I am proud of this one more than most as it finally knocked down my 3M Half-Marathon time from 2010 set on a notoriously fast, downhill course to second best.

My 10K, Half-Marathon and Marathon PR’s have all been set within the last 6 months, all with that 45th birthday creeping closer and closer.

By the looks of things, that marathon PR stands a good chance of being erased and replaced with a shiny new number in Boston. One lesson I am taking with me next month is that in a long race, forcing the issue and pushing the limits early is NOT the way to go.

April 16th we’re going to do just what we did during the Austin Half in February and the Shamrock Half on Sunday.

Stand back and let it all be.

With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday this year, the local Resolution Run 5K at St. Phillips Methodist Church was moved to 2:00 p.m. so it would not interfere with Sunday services. The late start time and the need for me to log a long run of 18-20 miles on Sunday conspired to make me unable to participate in this year’s race. We will be back in 2013 for sure as I hated to miss such a great event and one that sets the tone so well for the coming year of training and racing – but I won’t have long to wait to lace up my shoes and race in the new year.

In just a few minutes, I leave for Miami, Florida to race again with my “Where’s the Damn Van?!” teammates in the Ragnar Team Relay Race. This is the same group of crazies that I raced with last February from Wickenburg, AZ to Tempe as part of a 12-person, 2 Van, 200 mile race.

A video recap of last year’s oddessy is here vimeo.com/21041736

This year we are entered as an “ultra” team, meaning that there will only be 6 runners on our team, each running 6 legs instead of 3 as we cover the 199 mile course from Miami, FL to the Florida Keys. The format for the race is the same as one runner puts on the slap band bracelet and heads out onto the course for their leg, while the remaining 5 teammates climb into the van and drive ahead to the next exchange area.

The next runner gets ready and as his/her teammate approaches, the team number is called out by a race volunteer. The slap band is exchanged and the next runner is off. After a short cool down, the runner who just completed their leg hops into the team van and the process is repeated all over again. Over and over and over. There are a total of 36 legs to the race – all of various distances which allow runners of different endurance levels and different abilities to compete with a team. In our case, as an ultra-team of six runners, we will run essentially two legs instead of one every time we take to the course.

I will be running out of the number 1 slot, meaning my assigned legs are:

Leg 1: 5.7 Miles, Leg 2: 4.4 Miles = 10.1 Miles Total

Leg 13: 8.8 Miles, Leg 14: 4.7 Miles = 13.5 Miles Total

Leg 25: 3.0 Miles, Leg 26: 9.1 Miles = 12.1 Miles

Total Total Mileage: 35.7 Miles

Based on the predicted pace of my teammates I should be running at 1:00 p.m., 11:30 p.m. on Friday starting my final leg at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. Our team should complete the 199 mile course in 24-25 hours putting us at the finish line sometime shortly after lunchtime on Saturday.

I heard that down in the keys, every hour is happy hour – I expect our post-race carbohydrate recovery to start shortly after we come through the chute. This is indeed a race, but it is falling in the middle of Boston Training – something that I for one moment am not losing sight of.

The difference between running relaxed and smooth at 7:30-7:35 min./mile pace and pushing it to 7:00’s is about 15 minutes total in a 25 hour race. Simply put, it’s not smart for me to go out there and really try to hammer double-digit length runs every 6-7 hours. I am going to lock in to a comfortable pace and just cruise – using this Ragnar event as an endurance and stamina workout on the way to Boston. After easy running on Monday and Tuesday – I will be taking off completely from running this week on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday – letting my 35.7 miles in Florida push our weekly mileage to just 54 miles – a 10-12 mile reduction from the previous two weeks of training.

Then it will be back to “normal” – whatever that means nowadays as we prepare for The Texas Half Marathon on January 28th – our first in a series of three half-marathons, one each month, on the way to Boston. I am going to let it all hang out on January 28th, just as I will at the Austin Half Marathon in February and the Shamrock Half in Virginia Beach in March.

Those three races are going to go a long way in predicting our abilities in Boston this April and whether or not we will be setting our sights on a sub 3 hour attempt or just continuing to move the needle closer to that mark and settle in around 3:05-3:06 after our 3:08:09 effort in New York this November. Big gains at this point are challenging – dropping 7-8 minutes off of a marathon time, which is what I did from Austin to New York was one thing.

Doing it again 6 months later is something else entirely. That would mean I would have shaved off 15 minutes from my marathon PR in 14 months. Starting from a 3:15:01, that is a tall order, but one that I feel we have a legitimate shot at should the remainder of this training cycle go the way it has been going to this point.

Last Tuesday night’s second run of the day was an 8.3 mile tempo run that I completed at 6:25 pace. That run came just 11 hours after 7 miles in the morning at 7:11 pace. We are certainly running strong and fast right now – something that I know I will need to continue to improve on to hold on to that 6:52 pace that we need to break three hours late in the race at Boston. We were able to do so in New York through mile 20 until the last of the bridges took their toll on us.

Boston sets up very differently with the tough climbing between miles 16 and 21, then it is a downhill 5 miles to the finish on Boyleston Street. If we make it up and over heartbreak hill on pace with just 5 miles remaining – we have a real shot in Boston. The next 15 weeks will all be about preparing for those 5 miles.

This week? It comes as a perfect time as training for a marathon is hard. It is physically demanding, which everyone knows – but it is also mentally draining. 109 workouts make up my Boston Training plan. It is tough to “get up” for 109 runs. This opportunity to run with my good friends Thomas, Sean, Jenny, Ally and Steve in sunny Florida to the Keys and take in some amazing sights (One of my legs will take me across the 7-mile bridge) will be as restorative mentally as it will be physically exhausting.

Running over 35 miles in less than 18 hours is not supposed to be easy – add in the van, little to no sleep, poor nutrition – I’m not sure Twizzler and Gatorade is going to cut it this year – and you have a pretty tough physical test. But spending time with the team that I haven’t seen in more than 10 months is going to make it all worth it. Make sure you come back on Monday for a race report – it will certainly be epic.

You can also follow us on Twitter throughout the race at: @TheDamnVan @Joe_RunforDom Below are the various legs that I will be running and the accompanying maps courtesy of the RAGNAR Relay Site. The start times are estimates based on the pace that my teammates and I will be running.

Leg Number One – Start Time 1:00 p.m. Friday

Leg Number Two – Start Time 1:50 p.m. Friday

Leg Number Thirteen – Start Time 11:30 p.m. Friday

Leg Number Fourteen – Start Time 12:45 a.m. Saturday

Leg Number Twenty-Five – Start Time 7:00 a.m. Saturday

Final Leg – Start Time 7:25 a.m. Saturday

Next year Steve Speirs and I are talking about running this as a two-man team – 100 miles each.

Just kidding Dawn.

Wanted to make sure you were still out there reading and paying attention … Seriously, it’s three-man team.

Just kidding.

There is something about the marathon that differentiates it from other foot races, and I don’t mean just the obvious difference being its length.

It is a race that has a way of bringing people together that makes it so special.  Perhaps it is shared misery or shared elation that make those two emotions all the more powerful, I’m really not sure.  But one thing I know is that this race has a special hold on me that even though I uttered the famous quote heard thousands of times by the volunteers handing out the NYC Marathon 2011 Finisher’s Medals, “Never Again”

I know for a fact there will be more marathons.

But its time to make sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves and start talking about the finish of the race because this was a day that I will remember for a long, long time.

Pre-Race Saturday Night:

To me that marathon doesn’t really “get serious” until I am sitting down at dinner on Saturday night.  I don’t know if it is my Catholic upbringing that harkens back to thoughts of the “Last Supper”, but I can be calm, cool and collected all the way up until that plate of pasta is put in front of me, but as soon as I take the first bite, the jitters arrive.

This pre-race meal was different than any other of course, as it was Landry’s first time at the table with us the night before the marathon.  I was joined by close friends Jolyn and Connie who made the trip in to watch the race with Dawn and Landry and two very special guests who made their way in from Long Island.  My runner friend Bob and his daughter Hallie.

Bob and I met back in 2010 as I was making my way to the Boston and then Pittsburgh Marathons for Dom through Dailymile and have been “virtual” friends and training confidants for a couple of years now.  Originally the plan was for Bob, myself and our friend Winston from Wichita to all run NYC together, but Bob has been struggling with injury for over a year now.  He was unable to run with us, but he was there for me on Saturday night, which meant more to me than he will ever know.

We had a tremendous dinner at Tony Di Napoli’s on 43rd street in the city – and as always, Landry was the star attraction.

Landry at dinner

Don’t know where she gets this ability to ham it up in front of the camera from – but late on Sunday I think I got a new perspective on that.

After dinner we said our goodbyes and made it back to the Renaissance Hotel in Times Square for a fitful night of nervous sleep.  Landry of course had a great time in the city – even meeting a celebrity while we were out heading to breakfast on Saturday.  She had a lot of fun in the Big Apple.

Landry, Dad and Mickey

I was careful to hydrate even more than usual as I was fighting a cold which I knew was going to have me dehydrated before we even started the race on Sunday if I wasn’t paying close attention, laid out all of my race gear for the morning and tried to get a little sack time.  Daylight savings would add an hour to our evening which would normally be welcomed, but it actually made Sunday’s 9:40 a.m. start time even “later” for me – which I was not happy about being an early morning runner.  I hoped that the lessons I learned about nutrition and hydration pre-race at Boston in 2010 would help me on Sunday.

Hell, I was hoping for a lot of things.

Travel to the Start:

I opted to take the Staten Island Ferry to the starting area instead of a city bus.  It would add a trip on the subway to the Ferry to my morning, but I looked forward to being able to walk around the boat and use the bathroom if I needed to instead of being stuck on a bus in NY traffic.

I woke up at 4:45 a.m. – 5 full hours before the start of the race – took a shower to warm-up, dressed in my race gear, packed my breakfast in my small bag that I would check before heading to the starting line and said my goodbyes to Dawn and a sleeping Landry.  I quietly left the hotel and walked one block North to 5oth street and one block left to Broadway to catch the number 1 train down to the Ferry.

A runner coming through the subway turnstile was having trouble with his metro card, so I reached back, handed him mine and paid for his train.  I thought that I could use all the “good karma” I could find on Sunday.  Best $1.50 I spent in New York.

I got to meet Michael from Washington State who was running his first New York Marathon, number 8 marathon overall.  We talked about our families, previous races and our hopes for the day.  Michael was hoping for a 3:30 and asked me what my plans were.  I told him that I wanted to PR above all else (sub 3:15:01), but thought I had a great chance to run between 3:05 and 3:10 if I had a good day. 

3 Hours was my pie in the sky goal, but that is something that you don’t really travel to a “Mega-Marathon” on a tough course to do.  I would need a near miracle to pull that off, but I would run the first half just quick enough to give myself a shot at it, and hang on as long as I could.  We made our way onto the Ferry and ended up having to split up to find seats.

I ended up next to a runner named Tracy from Atlanta.  He was running out of the Green Start or the bottom of the Verrazzano Bridge just as I was, so Tracy and I rode the bus from the Ferry to the athletes village and talked about our families and goals for the day.  Tracy who was relatively new to the sport as I am was hoping to run a Boston time, which for his age would mean something around 3:35 or so.  Tracy was very interested to hear all about “Run for Dom”and then shared with me that he is a cancer survivor.

Walking to the Athletes Village on Staten Island

I shared one of my bagels with Tracy and a banana in the start area and as they started to call runners to the starting corrals we split up to go into our assigned areas.  I wished him well and for the first time all morning I was alone.  That is the thing about the marathon that never fails to get me.  No matter how many people you are surrounded by, in this case 47,000 other runners, another 6,000 volunteers and 2 Million spectators cheering on the runners along the course – you find yourself all alone battling your own demons along the way.

You find out a lot about yourself during the course of a marathon, some good, some bad – but it is all honest.  All 100% genuine.

The Start:

I found myself a spot in the starting corral with about 45 minutes to go until the gun at 9:40 a.m.  I was still in my throwaway wind pants and wind jacket and my Philadelphia Eagles knit winter hat to keep me warm.  Underneath were my navy shorts, USA Track and Field Singlet, Arm Warmers and light Gloves.

I was fairly certain that my arm warmers and gloves wouldn’t make it out of Brooklyn, my hat probably not all the way over the Verrazzano Bridge, but the race weather was absolutely perfect.  44 degrees, very light winds and a sun-splashed sky with the sunrise off to the East and my right shoulder.

With 10 minutes to go the released us to the starting line and I jogged slowly and comfortably up to the start for about 600 meters to shake loose and get the stiffness out of my legs and glutes from sitting on the curb for so long.  I felt strong.  I felt rested.  I felt 100% healthy from my training and even my cold wasn’t bothering me.

I was also scared and nervous.  Anyone that tells you they don’t feel that way at the starting line of the marathon is either certifiable insane or a liar.

I’m neither.  I was scared.

As requested I removed my hat for the Star Spangled Banner and eased out of my sweats.  I tossed them to the side and realized that all of the runners around me were not from the United States.  Chile, Canada, France, Japan, Switzerland – but in my immediate area I was the only runner from the States.  I puffed out my chest a little more than normal and proudly showed off my USA singlet.

Let’s do this I thought.

The Start – Staten Island:

Right at 9:40 on my GPS watch you could hear the announcer from the top of the bridge declare over the loudspeaker – “Runners, the streets of New York are yours!”  BOOM! and as the recoil from the cannon start faded Frank Sinatra’s voice came over the sound system:

“Start Spreading the News ….. I’m leaving today ….. I want to be a part of it …. New York, New York …”

I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as I made my way across the timing mat and took my first strides toward the finish line.

All of that nervous energy, fear, apprehension, doubt vanished immediately.  The race starts and your body and mind take over. 

My legs started to do what they do and I took stock of my systems about 2/10 of a mile into the climb up to the top of the Verrazzano bridge – my legs had indeed made the flight to New York.  I felt perfect.

The incline over the first mile is pretty staggering.  My watch was not able to detect satellite signal from the lower deck, so I had to run completely by feel.  I could not track any speed or splits and there were people all around me.  I decided to “run easy” and whatever my opening mile was would have to be good enough.  With 25.2 miles to go it is basically impossible to run the first mile “too slow” – but you most definitely can run it “too fast”.  I was going to be a smart, even paced marathoner and I was going to run my race on Sunday.

Just stay smooth, stay tall, stay even I told myself.  Stay smooth, stay tall, stay even.  Stay smooth, stay tall stay even.

We quickly came up on the 1 mile sign and my GPS watch had me at .58 miles.  I knew my data was going to be useless, so I just ran at even effort to the top of the bridge.  I had tucked my gels into my Spibelt, but they were bouncing around a little too much and irritating me.  So I pulled the half-packs of 3 Clif Blok Shots I had cut in two smaller packages before the race out of my Spibelt and tucked them into the pockets on my arm sleeves.

I decided to carry the gels that I would need at mile 5 in my left hand to warm them up and make them softer and I pitched my Spibelt onto the side of the Verrazzano bridge, careful not to hit another runner.

The bridge covers the fist 2 miles of the race.  The first mile climbs 150 feet to the top of the Verrazzano Bridge, the second mile the same 150 feet down the other side.  Without being able to gauge my speed, it was going to be tough to really know how fast I was going.  My pace felt comfortable and natural, not too quick, not too slow – just right.

Whatever that pace was, it was working for me.  When we got to the 3-mile mark I knew we would hit the first water station and I could get my clock time from the course clock.  We crossed the starting line only :10 seconds after the gun, so I would just pace off of that mark each mile.  Not exactly as scientific as I am used to – but runners did that for years and years – I was sure that without technology my legs would still know what to do.

Brooklyn (Miles 2-13):

At the start of mile three we ran underneath an overpass and heard the first fans on the course welcoming the runners to Brooklyn.

Loudly.

It was tremendous to see all of the spectators on the course, I pitched my hat to the side of the road as I felt the first bead of sweat hit my left eyebrow.  I was warmed up, feeling great and we were racing.  Greatest feeling in the world.

We hit the 3 mile mark and my split was 21:25 (6:53 pace).  I had a decision to make.  7:15 pace is a 3:10 marathon.  7:02 pace is a 3:04 marathon.  something around 7:05-7:08 was what I had in the back of my mind for the opening half of the race.  6:52 pace is a 2:59:59.  I was running free and easy, my pacing felt perfect and I was on pace for basically my pie-in-the sky “A” goal.

I took a few strides and processed everything, my watch was trying to recalibrate itself making up for the “lost distance” it couldn’t track me.  But it was now triangulating me to a new point 3+ miles away from the point when I punched start.  It was showing 4:45 pace – which I knew was wrong and in fact worthless.

I decided that I would just continue to run “identical”.  No changes, nothing slower, nothing faster just stay exactly where you are and don’t change a thing.  Let’s see just how far and how long we can hold this.  Let the hills, bridges speed us up or slow us down, but run with the same exact effort.  That is the most efficient way to run a marathon.

The reality of the situation was clear to me.  You are 3 miles in to one of the greatest foot races on the planet.  You have a great venue, great crowd support, perfect weather and you are on pace for a 3 hour marathon.  How many times in your life are you ever going to hold this situation in your hands again?  How many runners would give just about anything to change places with you at this exact moment.

Make the most of it.  Don’t tell the story later about how you almost went for it that day.  Tell your daughter about the time you decided to risk it all and go for it.  That the results at the end of the day would not change or take away from my choice and the experience.

So I went for it.

At every mile to come with the exception of the two-mile stretch over the Queens borough Bridge (miles 14-16), the story repeated itself.  There would be a Gatorade Station on the left and right of the course, then a sign letting the runners know when the cups would be filled with water instead of Gatorade, then 100 Meters later a timing mat that recorded your time for that mile and a race clock.

On a day where my trusty Garmin had let me down – I didn’t need it.  I was running the New York City Marathon entirely by feel and I was locked in and killing it.

We sped through Brooklyn and mile markers never came to me quicker on a course.  I do not know if it was a combination of the crowds encouraging the runners, the fact that I was running the NEW YORK FRICKIN’ Marathon …. or if because I wasn’t checking my watch every .50 miles, but the course was flying by.

My pace through Brooklyn was:  (Through Mile 3 6:53), 6:52, 6:51, 6:50, 6:49, 6:50, 6:50, 6:49, 6:50, 6:51, 6:51.

We reached the Pulaski Bridge finally leaving the wonderful crowds in Brooklyn to head over to Queens and as we crested the first steep climb since the opening mile up and over the Bridge I hit the timing mat at the half-marathon point in 1:29:45 – 6:52 pace.  I had run the opening half of the New York City marathon in a word …. perfect.

Queens (Miles 14-16):

As we made our way off of the bridge we were greeted with shouts of welcome to Queens!  The crowd of runners was now thinning out and you could start to hear the occasional shouts for individuals.  Just ahead of me was a runner named Steve who had his name printed boldly on his chest.  Each stride a different spectator would yell out – “Go Steve”.

After this took place for the seventh or eight time a runner off to my left looked over at his friend who he was running alongside and said, “Man, I wish my name was Steve right about now ….”

That is one of the best parts of the marathon – that amid all of the struggling, there is still plenty of time for a few laughs.

Just then off to my left I heard for the first time of the day – “Go USA!” – I had been running down the center of the course through Brooklyn staying out of harms way and keeping the course as short as possible, giving up the chance to have encouragement shouted to me through the crush of runners on both sides of the road.

But now I was starting to get some attention as spectators had been cheering wildly for France, Chile, Spain, Italy …. now it was my turn and it was very welcomed.  At each shout I would give  a thumbs up or a quick wave – trying to make sure I didn’t burn too much energy – but it was getting harder and harder to do as the shouts of encouragement got longer and louder.

Miles 14 and 15 in Queens came and went quickly, my pace remained steady 6:52, 6:53.

As we made a turn to the left I could see the on ramp to the Queens borough Bridge.  There would be no spectators for the next two miles only the bridge and the biggest hill I’ve ever seen in a marathon.  I pulled my arm sleeves off and threw them to the side of the road to cool myself a bit.  It was time to climb. 

Manhattan (Miles 16-20):

I did what I do on any hill, stayed even and started to pick off runners in front of me.  To be passing people on the bridge made the challenging climb feel just a little bit better.  Not much, but a bit.  I was able to stay strong to the top on a climb that seemed like it would never end.  I dropped my gloves off as we crested the top and now was down to just my singlet, shorts and shoes.  With about 1/4 mile to go before we would be coming off of the bridge I could see down the hill to First Avenue below.

The crowd was absolutely huge.  10-12 people deep lining the street.  I glanced over my left shoulder toward lower Manhattan, saw the buildings shining with the sun hitting them from the East.  What a day I thought.  Enjoy this for a moment because in the next couple of miles, things are going to get difficult.  It wasn’t a matter of if.  Just a matter of when.

We came off of the bridge and I made my first mistake of the day – as the chants of  U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A. greeted me I ran with my left arm up toward the crowd.  I should have been using this next mile as a recovery mile, maybe ease off the gas a bit, but I couldn’t make myself do it.  I knew better.  I knew that this precious energy I was expending would be needed over the last 10 kilometers, but I ran on fearlessly anyway.

There would be a price to pay.  I knew that much.  I just didn’t know how badly it was going to hurt yet.

Up First Avenue we went, I zipped into water stations, took my third package of gels and was cruising along.  As we reached mile 18 to my absolute shock a New Yorker walked right out onto the marathon course, had hopped a barricade to do so in order to cross 1st Avenue.  My view of him was blocked by a runner just ahead and to the left of me and at the last moment he was directly in front of me walking slowly like he was out for a stroll.

I reached across my body with my right arm to my left side and grabbed his backpack to shove him as hard as I could out of my way. 

My right foot scraped his right leg as I barely made it past him, throwing me off of my stride.  I was pissed.

For 18 miles I had been locked in, smooth and steady and in an instant I was knocked off of my rhythm.  I tried to block it out and forget about it, but it was hard to do.  You are always amazed at the things you see in a marathon – but this one was something I wished I had missed.

Over miles 16-20 my overall pace started to slip:  6:54, 6:54, 6:55, 6:56, 6:57.  We were about to climb again over the Willis Avenue Bridge.  I was now :05 per mile total behind 6:52 pace.  A sub 3 hour marathon was not going to happen.  But my goal of coming in under 3:10 was a very real possibility.  I knew that the mileage and the course were about to team up on me at this point only the way they know how to do after mile 20 in the marathon.

In many respects, this is truly the “half-way point” of the race.  13.1 is only the half-way point in the marathon mathematically speaking.  Only the people who have  been to this point can understand just what the final 10 kilometers is really like.  Your heart, mind and spirit feel like they are working just as hard as they have been for well over 2 hours, but your body just won’t stay with the program.

Your legs feel heavy, aches start to accumulate and soreness develops seemingly in an instant.

Welcome to the marathon Joe.  Your race just started.

The Bronx (Mils 20-22):

The Willis Avenue Bridge climbs about 50 feet in 1/4 of a mile.  It felt like a mountain.

I made it to the top, crested the hill and headed down into the Bronx for a short stretch of 2 miles leading back to the 138th street bridge and back into Manhattan for the final time.  The crowds in the Bronx were great, another round of shouts for the U.S. of A, but I could only manage a thumbs up at this point and a quick smile as they cheered for us.

As we made our way out of the Bronx our total pace for the race dropped yet again 6:59, 7:01.

Manhattan Part II (Miles 22-24):

Fifth Avenue, we finally reached it.  now it was just a matter of running from 138th street down to Central Park and entering on the East Drive.  There was the final major climb ahead of us 100 feet over miles 23-24 and then the rolling hills of Central Park itself.  A stretch of New York I had run several times in the past – but never after a 22-mile warm-up.

The outside of my right knee began to tighten on me, my IT Band was rearing its head for the first time in close to four years.  I was hurting and I glanced at my watch for the first time in about an hour and a half.  My pace was clocking now around 7:35 min./mile  As long as I kept it together and didn’t completely blow up I could break 3:10.  It was going to be a war of attrition. 

Finally the entrance to the park.  Time to finish this thing.

Central Park (Miles 24-26):

I hit the Gatorade station at mile 24 and decided that would be my final nutrition stop for the day.  I had managed my hydration plan perfectly, now it wasn’t worth disrupting my breathing or using the energy to slow, grab a cup, drink it, drop it and merge back around other slowing runners.  Just two miles to go to the finish.

I thought about the 2.3 mile shake-out I had run Saturday morning that seemed like it was over in the blink of an eye.  Why couldn’t these two miles be just like yesterday’s I tought in a moment of weakness.  Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way for the marathoner.

At mile 23 my overall pace had slowed to 7:03, by mile 24 it was 7:06.  As I reached the mile 25 marker and clock we were at 7:09.

C’mon Joe, hang in there, just 1.2 miles to go.

The Finish:

We exited the park onto Central Park South and the crowds were going crazy.  I started to feel my legs turn a little faster, but I tried to keep steady.  We had one more turn to make back into the park at Columbus Circle, a route I ran just a little over 24 hours earlier to feel the finish of the race.  I knew that Dawn and Landry were going to be on the right side of the course in the East Grandstands at the finish line.

Don’t forget to run right I thought …. stay to the right.

As we made the last turn into the park I couldn’t control my excitement any longer.  I raised my left arm and waved to the crowd on the West Side.

I ran a straight tangent off the turn to the right side of the road and I waved to the crowd all the way in.  U.S.A., U.S.A. was being chanted and I was hoping that Dawn and Landry would see me.

Instead of dropping the hammer and sprinting the final 200 yards like I normally would – I just took it all in.  Every bit of it.  Dawn saw me approaching and took this photo of me as I had just 100 yards to go.

Now I know where Landry gets it ...

The course straightened out, I raised my left arm up and ran through to the finish line.

Home Stretch

Final time of 3:08:09.  7:11 pace for 26.2 miles.

Our time was the 1,860th fastest of more than 46,500 finishers.  The 1,730th fastest male competitor and 328 of the 5,858 Men in our 40-44 year old age group.

For me this race was perhaps the most memorable I have ever run.  The city, the course, the event, the weather, my training and my effort all came together revealing the true meaning of when someone describes their race result as a “Personal Best”.

On Sunday I was the very best marathoner I have ever been.

I also got to spend it with the two ladies who mean the world to me.  In their eyes I know that fast or slow it wouldn’t have made any bit of difference – all Landry and Dawn wanted was to see Daddy finish.

Dawn and Landry in the Grandstand

All I wanted to do was hug them and tell them that I love them.  New York, thanks for the memories.  You certainly know how to throw a party.

Final Statistics from the Race: