21 October 2011

Delivered Back To the Sub-Three Zone

Yes, as is often the case, my posts on marathons are themselves marathons. If I could endure the race, you can endure the article. Hang tough! Press through to the finish line!

There’s an old saying that the best thing about hitting yourself on the head with a hammer is that it feels so good when you stop. I’ve come to believe that the secret of a strong marathon is simply denying yourself that pleasure of stopping the punishment. Of course it’s not so simple, but you get the idea. It’s very hard to maintain the intensity. Conversely, it’s very easy at any number of points throughout a race of that length to dial it back, reduce the burn, ease the pain. At some point it usually becomes a physical necessity. But most of the time it’s at least in part a conscious decision, and denying yourself that pleasure is frustratingly hard to do.

I recall somewhere around mile six of the Buffalo Marathon in 2008 telling myself that yes, this was hard, that’s just the way it is, get used to it and keep doing it. I burned a personal best that day.

Around mile four and a half this past Sunday morning, as the adrenaline of the start wore off amidst the few Lowell-to-Chelmsford slopes that constitute the hills of the Bay State Marathon, along came a small coterie that would provide the inspiration to deny myself the pleasure of dialing it back, and in the process, define this race. My guardian angels in neon green, giving me the boost I needed to get used to it and keep doing it.

I burned a new personal best on Sunday morning, finally eclipsing that three-year-old pre-foot-injury-and-surgery mark from Buffalo. A week prior, one of my club-mates had sent me a kind note following my Wineglass Half, proclaiming that I was defying age. Crossing the Bay State finish line, complete with a little fist pump with the iota left in the tank, I thought of his comment. Getting back to PR-zone, three years later. Defying the passage of those three years and the insults of injury, repair, and recovery. Satisfaction doesn’t cover the feeling. Elation is closer.

How this unfolded is worthy of, well, a blog posting of somewhat marathon length. Just get used to it, keep doing it, and read on.

Since I’m not paid millions to trash talk like an NFL linebacker, I try not to say much before these races. But it’s pretty obvious that the Prime Directive, a.k.a. Goal Number One, was to finish, never a given even with this being marathon number fifteen, and since the Wineglass Tragedy of ’08 that’s been modified to read, “Finish in one piece”. Unstated Goal Number Two was a Boston ’13 qualifier minus twenty minutes, to assure stress-free entry under the New World Order of Boston registration. With my approaching encroaching of five completed decades by the time ’13 rolls around, which conveniently recaptures the five minutes I’d otherwise lose with the new qualifying standards, my nut remains three and a half hours, meaning Goal Number Two was three-oh-anything. Stretch Goal? A return to sub-three land. Maybe, lining up the stars, I might have it in me. Certainly not certain. That’s why it’s called a stretch goal.

You’ll note that Personal Best wasn’t on the agenda.

Three hours is six-fifty-two pace. Simple plan, peg six-thirties, and keep doing it, leaving enough in the bank to overcome the inevitable late fade – negative splits simply not being in my dictionary. But to state the obvious, a marathon is long. And for me at least, a single six-thirty requires effort, let alone a marathon full of them.

One. Didn’t succumb to the usual starting gun stupidity. Started the running tally of seconds in the bank below six-fifty-twos. Two. Three. Bang on. Up seventy one seconds. Four, into the few rolling hills. Lagging just a bit. Mild concern, knowing that five’s got hills too, then six through eight offer up what’s typically the most headwind-prone stretch of this course, leading to the famed Tyngsborough bridge. And while not horrible, the winds were not insubstantial on this day. Need to hold this pace now. Can’t let the slip start this early.

At this moment of mild concern, they arrived, sent like angels when I was in need. Three of them, the pair of he-and-she angels in neon green accompanied by a third who would in the end earn his sub-three by a mere second. Our long and fruitful relationship started with one of my typically goofball comments, this time about being blinded by the light of their matching singlets. Game on.

I’m not one to labor in silence. Most will tell you I’m one to chat your ears off. Having dropped in with this newly formed coffee klatch, it was time to cement the team. “Since it seems like we’ll be spending some time together, I’m Gary.” Angels sounded off, Kimberly and Ryan (though I called him Brian till that embarrassed Eureka moment viewing the results post-race), and Will, our token international element, settling for Chinese since we had no Kenyans handy. We gelled pretty quickly, and it was just the boost I needed. Despite the hill to Chelmsford Center, mile five returned to six-thirty, as did six, as would many more.

Off to the races. Except that it got a little weird quickly.

Four people hammering a marathon at six thirties, knowing there were twenty-some left to cover. This was not your casual “I’m going to run a marathon” charity runners’ gang. This was relatively serious business. Thus I thought nothing of it when we hit mile five and, having mentally incremented my in-the-bank tally, noted verbally that we were over a hundred seconds ahead of three hour pace.

“Don’t say anything about time! I don’t want to hear anything about time! I just want to run!”

This would not have been an uncommon comment on a Saturday morning stroll with my club-mates or a jog with the kids I coach. This was certainly odd to hear in this venue. Kimberly’s objection was nothing if not vehement. She revealed this to be her first marathon, which of course lured me to foolishly annoy her again by noting that the pace was a bit hot for number one, which as you’d guess, brought on another deserved chastisement. Hey, I learn slowly, but I learn, and I gladly complied, shifting to non-verbal mode to track my race from then on. When God sends you guardian angels, you don’t complain if they’ve got an oddity or two.

Ryan revealed his true self at the next water stop. I might as well have been jogging nine minute miles considering the way he bolted ahead to partake of the facilities, and just as rapidly re-captured us on the other side. I wouldn’t piece everything together until much later, but it turned out he’s a low-two-thirties guy who was just out to pace his girlfriend. Barely sweating. As such had no objection, indeed was downright gracious, to my drafting through the breezy stretch.

So we’ve got an absolute ox of a runner, a bastion of running power, and his lady friend smoking two-fifty-something having never even trained marathon distance, let along raced it, and who doesn’t want to hear about any time reference shorter than a season. Fine by me, don’t upset this apple cart, because it’s working.

By the Tyngsborough Bridge I’d slipped a few feet up on them. It just seemed sort of rude to tailgate for too long. Past my family on the outer-loop backstretch at mile nine, Darling Daughter the Younger using mom’s knitting clicker-counter to report twenty-first place to me, back into Lowell for the turn at mile twelve onto the Rourke “permanent temporary” Bridge (it’s a temporary span that’s been there since 1983!) which constitutes a gentle but lengthy climb when heading southbound. Off the bridge to start the second lap of the outer loop, which meant back into the hills, this time starting at fourteen rather than four. Pace holding till then.

Fourteen. Grades. (Hard to call them hills, really.) Lagging just a bit. Mild concern. Was this the start of the inevitable decline?

And there they were again. Angels are like that. Right at about fourteen and a half. Almost the same spot as the first time we’d met, just a lap later. Once again, right when I needed them. Inspiration to hold the pace. Wind breaking through the breezy stretch. Kimberly still hammering an impressive pace for marathon number one. And Ryan still bolting off now and then like we’re standing still.

As Jake and Elwood once said, we’re gonna’ get the band back together.

Six forties now, but still steady as a rock. See lap one, repeat. Slipped up a few feet on them at the bridge again, rejoined, slipped up, rejoined. The results show us crossing thirty kilometers dead together, at 2:02:32. It was beautiful while it lasted.

I’m guessing we split up around twenty, though I can’t really recall. By this time I knew Kimberly was running second amongst the women, and I was rooting for her to take the whole thing. Seriously, how cool would that be? Shortly before twenty-one I passed what might have been the women’s leader, taking a walk break but then re-starting at a decent pace, differentiating herself from the laggards we were lapping, but it wasn’t at all obvious. And past the Rourke Bridge we threaded our way past the half-marathon laggards. Or were they walled-out bonked marathoners? I lost count, and didn’t know I was picking up places, as were they just a bit behind me.

Twenty-three, the watch registered seven-flat. So much for finally running that marathon with every mile under seven. It was around here in the 2007 race that I was challenged not to hang on for dear life but to speed up. Time to make this the nadir of the race and turn it up for the last five kilometers. Time for desperate measures. Time to sing.

Singing isn’t really possible under these circumstances. Call it barking. But I had a cool tune my church band is working up in my head. The words are simple: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” with some embellishment here and there. It’s the tune and the rhythm that make this one work.

I frightened a number of lagging walking half-marathoners by barking. PRE! PARE! YE! THE! WAY! OF! THE! LORD! Not trying to be the God squad or anything, but drawing strength from being willing to shout this out. And drawing strength knowing I could still rustle up some humor, shouting, “KEY CHANGE!” at the appropriate musical moment, which conveniently corresponded to passing two strolling back-of-pack halvers. Twenty four and twenty five, nailed, the latter back down to six-forty. Mental math, a PR is possible.

Except that twenty six turned south not just directionally but operationally. The Aiken Street Bridge offered up a headwind powerful and unwelcome. Felt like nine-minute pace. And a half mile to go, all Hell broke loose. Not the typical fatigue of the wall, but generalized agony, institutional style. Uber-cramping. Alarm bells. Generally, coyote ugly.

Fine. It’ll still be a great time, but a PR wasn’t in the cards today anyway, right?

But at the twenty-six mile mark, Mr. Timex of the Wrist reported that even that agony was still sub-seven-minutes. Now if THAT was under seven minutes…

Run your brains out, you idiot.

And the clock at the finish gave it up, personal best, just by a few seconds, but, well, who knew?

Of course I looked like death warmed over at the end. It’s a trademark by this point.

I didn’t see this coming, but it was a good truck to be run over by. 2:54:03.7 officially. Point seven? Shirley! You jest! Even I can’t handle that degree of accuracy, just call it 2:54:04. 15th of about a thousand, picked up six places since mile nine, and though I didn’t realize it before I left, an age group award which I hope they ship out or let me know where to pick up.

Most satisfying, I’ve never run a marathon at such an even pace, so smoothly executed. And until the last few miles, I had my angels to thank for that.

I’d almost forgotten about them. But shortly after I sat down in the med tent to work out the cramps, into the tent they came, Kimberly and Ryan, my angels. She’d struggled late, gutted it out, came in a minute and a half later, and won it on her very first try. Thrilled to learn she’d cashed. And deserving of every bit of the adulations heaped upon her. My congratulations and gratitude goes out to both of them.

Tidbits and stories from along the way will follow in future posts.


  1. Great recap. Tons of literary gems but my favorite,"Except that twenty six turned south not just directionally but operationally." Way to kick!

  2. Gary - congrats again! and great story....


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