Four years is a long time. In that time, a child can double in height, a president can serve their elected term, and a person can matriculate and graduate from college. Also, on a more personal level, I can completely forget how to run a marathon.
In case you don’t want to read several pages detailing the highs and lows of my training and the race, the gist is it didn’t go well. If you want more gory details, and some musings on why, read on.
I spent much of the past few months comparing my training this year with my training from my last marathon, in Hartford 2019. I comfortably ran a 3:04 there, feeling very much like it was just another long run instead of a race. My training leading up to it had been ok, but not great.
This year, I was able to run more consistently, hit higher mileage, and do more long runs and workouts. On paper, I was in better shape in 2023 than I was in 2019. Given this data, I felt confident that I could run under 3:00. In training, 6:45 pace came easy and felt very relaxed to me. The prospect of maybe being able to dip under 2:55 fluttered around in the back of my mind.
The Wednesday before the race, I met some of my RKR teammates in the morning for what was supposed to be an easy 2x 2 mile workout. It felt fine, and at no point did I feel like I was over-reaching. For some reason, however, I felt awful later that day, and indeed, for the next few days. My muscles tightened up, my throat was a bit scratchy, and I had a persistent dry cough.
This obviously made me a bit concerned, but I also felt that way before the Grandma’s marathon in 2013, where I ran my personal best. So I attributed it to the taper flu and tried to stay optimistic. The drive down to New Jersey, however, was miserable. Every muscle in my legs, hips, and back was tight and stiff, and my sinuses were congested. I actually wondered if I should not even start the marathon, and was plagued by thoughts of logging a DNF.
On race day, though, I miraculously felt better. My sinuses were still a bit stuffy, but everything else felt close to 100%. My parents came by our vacation rental to watch the kids, and Ashlie, Trisha, and I walked down to the start. We met a kid named Patrick in the elevator of Bally’s who was shooting for sub-3 also, so we agreed to try to run with each other in the race.
As soon as the race started, Trisha quickly took off (she went on to win the women’s race in 2:51) and I settled into a comfortable 6:55 pace. After a mile or so, I found Patrick and we hung together for the next few miles. Around 6 miles in, I had to use the bathroom, so I stopped to use a porta-potty. I usually take pride in just letting it go while I am running, but I’ve never done that in half tights before, and there were so many people around at this point that I opted to be modest.
After the longest pee ever, I jumped out of the porta-potty and spied the group with Patrick up ahead. Telling myself I had the entire rest of the race to catch up to them, I resolved to slowly and gradually reel them in. Then I split the next mile in 6:33 and realized I hadn’t listened to my advice. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think this was the start of my downfall.
I backed off the pace a bit, and sure enough met back up with Patrick a mile or so later. We slowly caught the other two that were in the group, and spent the next few miles in a good pack. Around mile 15, we saw Trisha on her way back from the turnaround and cheered for her. Shortly after we started to head back, I felt a familiar tingle in my arms. Even though I still felt comfortable and relaxed at the pace we were running, I knew this was a harbinger of doom. My arms always start to tingle when I am running out of glycogen. I told Patrick that I was going to just go for a 3:05, and he soon took off, leaving this old man in the proverbial dust.
After a few miles just over seven minutes, my legs threw in the towel. I started plodding along at 7:30 pace, which, all things considered, was still terrific. I did some mental math and realized that if I could keep 8:00 for the last 10K, I could still run under 3:10, which would be a Boston Qualifier (thanks to my 40th birthday next year). Somewhat buoyed by this realization, I kept my relentless forward motion.
Around mile 22, my left IT band started yelling at me. This has been the injury that has plagued me from being able to train for a few years, but I thought was under control this year. Apparently, after two and a half hours of running, it decided to rear its ugly head again. I stopped to walk, and took the opportunity to take my last gel. After a minute, I resumed running, but could only make it a few minutes before my IT band caused me to walk again. For the next four miles, I alternated running when I could, and walking when my knee became too painful.
For the last five or six miles, all I could think about was how similar this experience was to my very first marathon, fifteen years before. At the Steamtown Marathon, I started to hit the wall around mile 16, and had to hobble in the last 10 kilometers. Since then, though, I have never had to walk in another marathon. I liked to think I had mastered the race, and knew how to pace and fuel to avoid bonking. Now, 17 marathons later, I was experiencing the same awful humiliation of hitting the dreaded wall. I felt like a rookie runner again, making the dumb mistake of gong out too fast and paying the toll.
With some more quick math, I realized that I would be within a minute or so of my Steamtown time, and that helped me keep running a bit longer each time. If I could avoid a personal worst time, that would at least be some consolation. The time on the boardwalk back to the finish seemed interminable, though. I could see Bally’s and the other buildings just up ahead, but they seemed not to get any closer. Every minute, another runner would pass me, and every minute, the finish line seemed farther and farther away. Spectators gave me sympathetic words of encouragement, and a few runners implored me to come with them, but I was spent.
Finally, when I realized I had less than half a mile left, I resolved to run all the way to the finish, which was crowded with spectators and tourists. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only around five minutes, I saw the finish line and crossed it to finish in 3:17 and some seconds. I managed to avoid a personal worst (Steam was 3:18), but still was frustrated by my inability to run well, given how well I thought my training had gone. On the other hand, though, I was also very thankful and appreciative just to have been able to train and complete a marathon, and start to feel strong and fit again. So even immediately after I finished, I wasn’t upset. I ran what I thought was a reasonable pace, I (mostly) stuck to that pace, and I thought I ran pretty smart. I just wasn’t fit enough to make it happen that day.
Now that a few days have passed, I do think I must have been fighting some sort of bug in the days leading up to the race, and I wonder if that affected my performance. I had also received a flu and COVID shot the week prior, and could have been responding to those. But the fact that I felt so awful for several days means something wasn’t right, and probably meant that 6:50s, which could have been attainable in perfect health, became too aggressive of a pace for me. In retrospect, I should have gone out at 3:10 pace, and probably would have been able to hold it longer. But, my training indicated (or so I thought) that a 2:59 was possible, and so that’s what I did.
In good news, our new friend Patrick ended up running a 10-minute PR to finish in 3:05, and Ashlie ran right around where she predicted with a 4:05. And now, in an effort to redeem myself after this debacle, I have extra motivation to keep training hard and run a better marathon in the spring.