How I did. I ran the National Marathon yesterday. The short version is that I PRed by around a minute and a half in about 3:50:40 (8:49). I'll call it my bronze standard. I'll break the race down in more detail later for those who care. But my time benchmarks tell the tale--10 miles 1:21 (8:06), half 1:48 (8:15), 20 miles 2:52 (8:36), and the last 10K or the "second" race within the race, 58 minutes (9:30).
How I wanted to do. My gold standard was to break 3:45. My silver standard was to break the 3:50 barrier. My bronze standard was to PR. My goals cascaded downwards from there--to have my second best time, to break four hours, to have my third best time, not to walk, not to be over five hours, to finish. I call this race management--late in a marathon coming up with a goal that will spur on some greater effort, no matter how briefly.
Background. I ran the NYCM last November and PRed in 3:52:34. That broke my former best time of 3:53:49, set at the WDWM the prior January. I have always considered it incredible that I ran almost four hours then to shave a mere 75 seconds off a running time. Why do we do this? One different choice made along all those 26 miles would have eliminated my PR. Even now I find it nerve-wracking.
(That's me, #16976, on the Queensboro Bridge at around MP 17 in the 2006 NYCM.)
Disappointment. But I was never happy with how I ran the NYCM. The wheels came off at MP 21 and I walked a lot between there and Central Park even though I had the tremendous benefit of a running buddy during those miles (a bandit who shall remain nameless). I would suddenly break into a walk as my buddy continued sweeping people aside to create a passage for us in that perpetually congested race. Thirty yards later my buddy would look around, not see me and double back to find me again. Then s/he would exhort me to break into a trot while offering forth a bribe--a twizzler stick, a Tylenol, a swig of water, a gu.
Thanks to my running buddy! My buddy enabled me to PR that afternoon by running alongside me the last mile on the other side of the barricades lined with spectators in Central Park, whooping and hollering for Peter To Go! And I did go the last half mile, and PRed.
But because of those half dozen instances of walking, I felt like I had let my buddy, myself, and the other people who were there wishing me well, friends who had come up from DC in part due to the race, down. That's what I have carried for the last four months.
The four hour barrier. I didn't break four hours in a marathon until I accomplished this long-standing goal of mine at Disney last year in my tweltfth marathon. Before Disney I had never even broken 4:15, but more serious training led to a progression of lower times in six straight marathons starting with the 4:37:49 I posted three years ago at the Inaugural Potomac River Run Marathon.
What I have learned. I have learned that to break 4 hours in a marathon you need to keep progressing forward all the time during the last ten dreary miles. You can still walk, selectively, but you have to make sure the walking has a purpose. At the NYCM, when I broke into a walk each time, I carefully considered my watch and calculated out, at nine minute miles, the time I had left before I would be beyond the 3:53 I achieved at Disney. When I was "out of time" I finally suspended any further walking and went. Yesterday I walked briefly twice, both on steep uphills, to save the energy I would have expended on those stretches for later.
A former PR. Before my big breakthrough at Disney, my long-standing best time was 4:16 at the 2003 Columbus Marathon. I used to run most of my marathons without any spectator support. I don't think it's a coincidence that I PRed at Columbus where one of my four sisters lives. I was driven to the race by her, I unexpectedly ran by her whole family cheering me on at MP 16, and then I saw them again along with a visiting sister, as planned, at MP 21. I went on to PR by almost 4 minutes despite painful muscle cramps the last two miles which necesitated several kneady stops. (Do I still look happy in this picture at MP 21 in the 2003 Columbus Marathon? Well, happy to see my people, certainly. Picture credit D.)
A new PR. At Disney, trying to somehow find those sixteen minutes I needed to break through four hours, I kept plowing forward. As I shuffled those desolate miles in the early twenties on the course between Animal Kingdom and MGM Studios, I tried to affix myself for 100 yards to every runner who ran by me before I let them go glimmering off into the distance. I never stopped. Suddenly there was the finish at Epcot. It helped that Disney is incredibly flat. (I am #4790 crossing the finish line at the 2006 WDWM with a 3:53:49 net, a PR by over 22 minutes. I lowered this slightly to 3:52:34 at the 2006 NYCM.)
The National Marathon. Yesterday I dropped off my gold standard of breaking 3:45 around MP 17 as I went up Rock Creek Park. I run there often enough and I have never before been bothered by its very slight uphill grade. Yesterday it felt like I was crawling up it. I tossed aside my silver standard of breaking 3:50 around MP 23 during the decline on the long homeward stretch of North Capitol Street because I was no longer capable of executing race strategies. I couldn't pick up my pace to "flow downhill" and let gravity do some work for me. Once I turned onto flat K Street, I only had two and a half extra minutes, so laboriously "banked" in the first half of the race, to spend during the last three miles in trying to achieve my bronze standard of a PR by bringing it home under 3:52:34. If you're plodding along sore and exhausted at 10:30 miles deep into a marathon, it would be easy to slip into three 11:20 miles near the end. And you would never get those 150 seconds back again, ever. That's why they say it's better to have gas in the tank than time in the bank.
Meet Will Support. But running the last half of a marathon is about will, and it can also be about support. Two and a quarter miles from the end, I received a gift from providence. I only had to exercise the will to reach out and seize it. The 3:50 pace group ran by me.
Thank you RBF. I remembered Rich's post about his MCM and how later he regretted letting the 4:00 pace group slip away from him during the last few miles of the race, thus postponing his sought-after accomplishment of breaking four hours until a month later at Dallas. Late in a marathon, a mere moment can separate you from what you have worked so long and hard for and what you come away with.
Thank you Nathan Nudelman. I attached myself to the heels of one of the women leaders of the tiny group. It was put-up or shut-up time. I looked at the faces of everyone in the small band. The three or four men in the group were all in a zone, seeing something other than the street we were running on. The three pace leaders running abreast, all middies at the U.S. Naval Academy, looked a little strained but otherwise they were running easily. What did Hemingway say about pressure? Grace had to be the name of at least one of these heaven sent pacers.
Is four minutes an eternity? I ran with them for over four minutes, tucked up tight in the slight space between two of the pacers because I feared any separation would cause me to fall away and drift again, and I'd lose those 150 seconds I so desperately needed. I was about twenty minutes from the finish and those four minutes I was able to hang with the pace group and suspend my pain and doubt were crucial.
Spectator support. "Peter! Peter!" I looked up. Another providential gift. It was my one spectator for the day, right there at two miles out where I most needed an uplift. Jeanne had come to cheer me and other runners on. She had also snapped a picture. (MP 24 at the 2007 National Marathon. I am #1573 and the women in the red shirts are the 3:50 pace group leaders. Do you see anything but blank gritty determination on every single face? Picture credit Jeanne.)
You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes well, you might find that you get what you need. Somewhere after four minutes I let the pace group go. They had taken me a fifth of the remaining distance to the finish line. That's how I break a marathon down at the very end. I didn't have the strength to keep up with them anymore, or perhaps I didn't have the will to reach out and reclaim a chance at my silver standard. But hanging with them for over half a mile had assured me of my bronze standard. I received what I needed, I did my best, and I carry no regrets away from this race.
Post race tidbits. Bex PRed in the half. Go read her account which undoubtedly shall be forthcoming. Bob, who coaches in my local club's 10K Training Group on Saturdays with Bex, Jeanne, Gary and me, also PRed in the full, way ahead of me. He ran by me with his shirt off and his heart rate monitor on at MP 7 looking very purposeful, never to be seen by me in the race again. Gary also ran the full. It was good to see Jeanne, however fleetingly, out and about cheering runners on after her recent surgery. (The TKG was a little short of coaches yesterday, with Arnetta and Kristin having to do double duty.) The brand new DC mayor ran the marathon in 4:08. Pretty cool, huh? His parents own the first Fleet Feet on the East Coast, and are prominent in the DC running scene. The store is located in Adams Morgan and the course ran within 100 feet of it as the race reached its highest elevation around MP 20. My first pair of running shoes was purchased from there in 2000 while I was shedding 45 pounds in my new running lifestyle. That purchase of Asic Gel Foundation Ones launched my affinity for Asics. The National course was tougher than I expected, more hilly in the second half than I reckoned, although it was nothing like the tough hilly course of last year. This race is a comer.