18 October 2015

Almost Perfect

Magic happened around mile five of last week’s Mohawk Hudson Marathon. Just after screaming down the quad-crunching descent from Blatnick Park to the Mohawk River, a coffee klatch formed that turned what had started as a decent but tenuously nervous race into a day for the record books. No, I didn’t eclipse my all-time fastest marathon, but on an age-graded basis (and as a Certified Old Fart, I love age-grading) it was my best. Indeed, on nearly every measure, but one in particular, this one was Almost Perfect.

Many marathons, this one no exception, provide pace groups to assist runners to reach their goal times. But I’ve never seen a race with a pace group targeting sub-three hours; there generally isn’t enough depth in the field to make it worthwhile, and besides, folks in that zone usually have very specific goals. But by mile five, we’d built a cadre of at least a half-dozen, maybe as many as ten, all hammering so solidly and steadily, that we declared ourselves to be the two-fifty-five pace group.

At one point, holding the front line of this formidable posse, someone cracked a joke about our lack of a pace-group sign, and in a foolishly euphoric expenditure of energy I knew I’d want later, I swung my arm up to carry that imaginary standard for a while. It was a worthy investment. The energy I gained – indeed, we all gained – from our alliance far outweighed any we spent on chit-chat and silly gestures. And the mental boost I got when the rest of the youthful gang figured out how old I was felt like someone dumped a can of nitro down the carburetor.

It’s a beauty of the sport that while we’re competing with each other, we’ve got each other’s backs. At the simplest level, it’s trading off gels and beverages and the like, but at the deeper level it’s like hooking yourself to the outside of a moving freight train. You’re not sure it’s safe to continue to hold on, but you know that jumping off is going to really hurt, even if you aim for a soft landing spot. So you draw energy off each other, tell yourself to damn the torpedoes, and motor on.

From the start in Schenectady, I wasn’t certain what I had in me. The ghosts of the achy and ugly months of sub-optimal training leading up to this race pointed to a conservative run, though my heart had targeted this one since the spring for a blow-out performance on a flat and fast course. The perfect foggy forty-five at launch, which would rise only to the mid-to-high fifties when the sun broke through, hampered only by a surprisingly strong headwind at various points, was a siren call to let ‘er rip. But the head kept saying no, don’t be a fool, the body isn’t ready to let loose, just be reasonable, turn in something respectful, and go home sated if not truly satisfied. The only pre-race decision I could garner was a non-binding pact made during warm-up with a young gun named Dan. We agreed. Nothing stupid. Conservative start. Aim for seven-ish.

That much I pulled off. Not seven, but not too far below it as to make me nervous. But things heated up as things do, so by the time our gang coalesced, the gremlins were running amok in my brain clanging alarm bells. Did it really make sense to be burning this pace? Clearly, this was work, and having clicked off fewer than a fifth of the distance, a whole lot of me was saying that this developing race plan really wasn’t a good idea.

So why was this race Almost Perfect? Certainly the result speaks for itself. Clearly the weather, save for that pesky headwind, was ideal (and the post-race warmth made chillin’ by the waterfront with A-One Support Team Dearest Spouse toasty and comfortable). Socially, it was one of the most enjoyable race alliances ever. Then there was the surprise of learning I’d won my age group (and, as it were, topped all older competitors, avoiding that annoying asterisk) – a surprise as I’d learned only the day before that this was the USATF Adirondack Grand Prix marathon. And above those bits was the fact that this the most evenly paced marathon I’ve run, ever, with effectively even splits, a mile-split range spanning less than thirty seconds, and finally, after twenty-three tries, a marathon with every mile under seven minutes. All of that was great, but none of them alone made this one Almost Perfect.

What made this one so satisfying was the mental victory. As the pseudo pace group formed, the back of my head was nothing but doubts that I’d sustain that pace past the halfway mark. I went with it anyway, knowing that the bulk of my marathons have unfurled in survival mode. But this one took a far different path.

As that halfway mark nears, the course is forced to deviate from the flatness of the Mohawk-Hudson bike trail by the stark barricade of the Adirondack Northway. Dropping sharply to duck under the freeway, it quickly climbs back to the rail trail on the other side. Throwing caution to the wind, I found myself powering up the grade, still questioning my sanity, but by now listening to a new mantra that simply said, “Why stop? You don’t have to.” At this point the bulk of our squad began to scatter; we were only three or four when we hit the actual halfway point, so close to two-fifty-five pace that had we actually been the pace group, we’d have been doing a knock-up job. And then we were two, just Utica Joe and I, powering over the mild rise around mile fifteen, forcing each other not to waver not by any desire to beat each other but by that unspoken knowledge that each was each other’s mobile anchor. By the time he finally dropped back at eighteen, my cumulative pace had dropped to its fastest point of the day.

And from eighteen on, it was chutzpah and a little bit of pride that took me home. Chutzpah, audaciously ignoring physical signals, counting down, driving, feeling entirely in control thanks in large part to having run the course and imprinted it in memory. Pride, knowing that Dearest Spouse would be stationed at twenty, and gee, wouldn’t it be nice to look good? (Answer: Yes, and the result was one of the few race pictures ever snapped where I’m smiling and looking like something other than Death Warmed Over.). And once past that photo-op, still in control, the final miles along the Hudson, which I’d feared would be amorphous and unending, instead turned into hunting season, picking off the late faders, the class which would have been mine on most days.

To be fair, mile twenty-five was the slowest leg, though still a few seconds under seven. But that last point-two was, by a decent margin, the fastest. Dearest Spouse, perfectly positioned for a finish line shot, noted that I melted into the arms of the finish line staff, but the truth is that I didn’t really need to, it was mere convenience. Though the needle was on E, there were enough drops left in the tank to finish the job in control, on time, under budget.

Almost Perfect because it was a mental triumph on top of the physical win. Almost Perfect because after Boston, which was probably my best-executed edition of that race, this one, though on an undoubtedly easier course, came off, from an execution standpoint, even better. Almost Perfect because, let’s face it, none of these will ever be entirely perfect, so this is about as good as one can hope for.


Killer Award? Race officials made clear that awards would be presented at the scoring tent immediately, no ceremony, no shipping them home, so I swung by on the off chance I’d won some swag. Having learned at the expo that the race was USATF Grand Prix, I really didn’t expect anything. It was a moment of glee to learn that not only had I placed a lot better then I’d thought, but that I had in fact won my division. Step to the next table to get your award! And then, it was a moment of disappointment to learn that my award was…a hat. Well, um, OK, I suppose it’s a lot more useful than a plaque and doesn’t have to be dusted, so a hat and some honor, OK, I’m good with that. Though I wish they’d put the Hudson Mohawk Marathon logo on the front. It’s a small gripe in an otherwise fabulously run event. Kudos to the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club.

Location, Location, Location! Since I’ve started running with the Greater Boston Track Club, the Boston Marathon has taken on a new dimension. The amount of cheering you get wearing a Boston singlet in a Boston race is downright uplifting. But this is Albany, New York, and though I consider it part of my home turf (from my college years and now Dearest Offspring the Elder’s college years), it’s not home course advantage. When our pace gang had dropped to only Utica Joe and I, it was he, wearing a Buffalo Bills shirt, who constantly pulled the cheers. And he wasn’t even from Buffalo! And me? I remember one guy yelling, “Go Boston!”

It’s a Small World After All: One of the early members of our pace group, Jan, hailed from the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. A little chit-chat established a common link, a mere one degree of separation, in that he was friends with my neighbors who have a mountain lair in the area. That in itself was amusing enough, but a later exchange with said neighbor turned it up a notch. Turns out I’d actually met Jan and his wife on the trail in the ‘dacks a year earlier. Just goes to prove one of my maxims: be nice to people, you might run into them again! (Find Jan at http://www.adkrunner.com/)

Start Early on the List: I lost track of Dan, with whom I’d made the “Don’t be Stupid” pact during warm-ups, almost immediately after the start. I was happy to learn he’d hit his goal of breaking three hours for the first time. He said it was on his bucket list. I don’t know many twenty-five-year-olds who already have a bucket list. That’s marathon mentality: Start your preparations early!

Personal Touch: It’s always nice to have a local contact when travelling to an out-of-town race. A few months ago an Albany area runner looked me up for reasons unknown and we struck up an email friendship. What’d be the chances we’d actually be able to find each other and meet before the race? Easy! Hang out in the port-a-john lines and you’ll see everyone. I’m happy to report that Alex exceeded his goals by a considerable margin.

Recovery? Damage was amazingly light. Dearest Spouse and I went for a casual trail run Monday morning and a short walk in the forest later in the day. This recovery would have been easier than almost all previous marathons. Would have, but for the foolishness of three days later. But that’s for the next posting…

1 comment:

  1. Great report Gary. I really enjoyed running with you; looking forward to next time!


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