Smarter. Stronger. Faster.
From week 6 of the Hanson’s program, that became my mantra for New Jersey. But memories of Toronto, of having faith in a program that ultimately let me down, of hitting the wall and the ITBS injury, became my passenger on the long journey down the Thruway from Central New York. Then, of course, there was my current injury, the possible tendonitis in my achilles, to worry about. Marathons, as I now had first-hand experience, have a way of taking your weaknesses and magnifying them to the point of failure.
If I was nervous before Toronto, I was nervous because I was venturing into the unknown; my nerves the day before New Jersey, however, were far worse, because now I knew what could all too easily go wrong.
Eventually, I found myself at Monmouth Park to pick up my race packet and talked with a couple of the race people about their pace teams. Given my PR at the Syracuse Half, we all agreed that the 4:25 group was the right one for me, and I resolved to run with that group for as long as I could. Then it was off to the hotel and the traditional carb load, an excellent pasta carbonara at Michael Angelo’s restaurant in Sea Girt.
After a fitful night’s sleep, I woke at 5:00 AM to choke down breakfast. I ate more than I did for Toronto–a full bagel with peanut butter and a banana, washed down with Gatorade–figuring that inadequate nutrition was another of the contributing factors to my Toronto collapse.
Getting to the start line, however, proved to be almost as big an adventure as the race itself. The traffic getting in to Monmouth Park was formidable, and once there, I was delayed further as the police searched my fanny pack; consequently, I had to cut my pre-race routine down to some basic stretches before I quickly had to take my place in my corral. Then, after a blast of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (when in Jersey . . .), a couple of choruses of “Sweet Caroline” to show solidarity with our Boston brothers and sisters and a live trumpet player playing the “Call to Post” (when at a race track . . .), we were off.
I eased myself into the race, slipping into a position about 5 – 10 yards behind Leslie, our 4:25 pacer, and within a 1/2 mile, I felt the first twinge of pain in my left heel. But, as it had done in training, it came as quickly as it went. If it got no worse, I thought, I would be fine. But it was to be a constant presence throughout the race, sometimes painful, sometimes not, but always manageable.
The first part of the marathon led out from the racecourse along a mazy, winding route around the suburban neighborhoods of Oceanport and Monmouth Beach. There, events of the last few months played out right before our eyes. We saw our first evidence of the effects of Hurricane Sandy–several houses along the route were in the process of being elevated on pilings, their owners obviously anticipating the possibility of similar storms in the future. And the Boston Marathon bombing was never far from our thoughts, especially when, at one point, we ran toward a big black garbage bag that lay in an unfamiliar place in the middle of the road.
The early miles were more than comfortable, with Leslie’s pace even and accurate throughout. Remembering my training, I ran the angles of the roads, taking advantage of the curves to save a little mileage and energy, and ran the crowns when the camber angles were steep to avoid aggravating my ITBS. And adding to the general good vibe of the morning, even the temperatures were cooperating, with just an occasional gust of wind coming off the ocean to chill us. My mind drifted to the weather extremes I had experienced during training; the snow, ice, hail and rain of January and February now seemed a long way away. Compared to those days, an occasional chill was nothing.
Then, before I knew it, we were in Long Branch, ready to start the long, straight run down Ocean Avenue south toward Asbury Park. The half marathoners broke off to their finish line, and as the course emptied out, I was reminded of that sinking moment I experienced at the same point of the Toronto marathon, only this time I was feeling much more relaxed. Even seeing the race leader pass around our mile 13 us heading inbound, in the opposite direction, was not discouraging. At this point, I felt strong enough physically and mentally to face the challenge that was to come.
At mile 17 we entered the outskirts of Asbury Park. I had been looking forward to this stretch of the run for months, although like most of the runners I was disappointed that the Boardwalk wouldn’t be ready for us. Indeed, here more than anywhere on the course, Hurricane Sandy’s effects were evident. Sidewalks were buckled, roadways uneven and pock-marked, and everywhere there were temporary barriers and construction. Still, to pass the Convention Center and the Stone Pony, to have plenty of vocal support from the residents and to eventually run alongside the ocean, if only for a few minutes, was a real thrill.
For a while, I ran on ahead of the 4:25 group, which had now grown noticeably smaller since the 1/2-way point. Eventually they caught up with me, and we continued together back onto Ocean Avenue with a little over 6 miles to go. Now, the realization was beginning to set in that I had this race in the bag, that nothing short of a complete disaster could prevent me from not only finishing the race but shattering my PB in the process. We started to pass people who were now in various states of physical distress–that was me, I thought, just a few months ago. Yet, despite the occasional short bursts of heel pain, I was feeling stronger with every mile.
Three miles out, and Leslie turned to the few of us that remained and said, “OK, now all we have to do is run a 5K. We can all run a 5K, right?” It was a great moment, and we all smiled knowing that the race was now well and truly ours. Slowly, I started to pull away from my comrades in sneakers, and for the last mile, as we ran along the Long Branch ocean front, I couldn’t keep from grinning like an idiot. Spurred on by the announcer, who urged us to beat 4:25 (beat 4:25! Unbelievable!), I sprinted (sprinted!) down the chute and over the finish line. I had been on the course for 4:21:31, and finally I was able to feel the pain of Toronto being washed away by the Atlantic breakers as they crashed onto the Jersey shore.
Eighteen weeks. 698.72 miles. Two races. Two PRs. It’s been a great start to the year. Next up: The Boilermaker.
(Post Script: After I wrote this, I read Jen Miller’s account of her Hanson’s training and experience at the New Jersey Marathon. She finished a couple of minutes ahead of me, and her version of the race is remarkably similar)