It never fails. The side injury before the Empire State Half. The ITB problems before and during Toronto. The heel pain before and during New Jersey. There’s always something that sows the seeds of doubt prior to a big race, and an incident in training two weeks between the ARC of Onondaga Half and Rochester proved no different.
Just 3 days after the Arc of Onondaga, I had what was probably the biggest gut-check of the whole year. On the schedule was a 12-mile interval run, and the route I chose for it took me out of the village and into the countryside. Even with the September nights getting shorter, I figured I would have enough time to make it round before it got dark, especially as it was an interval run and I would only be out for about 1:45.
For the first couple of warmup miles and the first mile interval, I felt pretty good. As I had just run a hard race that previous Saturday, I decided to run a little longer recoveries than the program called for, still confident that I would make it round before the light failed completely.
Then it all went pear-shaped. Midway through the second interval, I started to feel overwhelmingly fatigued. Rather than continue on at my interval pace, I decided to run the rest of the interval and the recovery at a slower pace and take an energy gel to see if I could regain some strength.
I could not. Abandoning the program, I walked most of mile 6, ran a slow mile 7 then walked a second time for mile 8. During the whole of my training, I think I had only walked once–now, I had walked twice in the same run, and was starting to get worried that I would be running the last 4 miles on pitch-black country roads. Fortunately, a slow run for mile 9 seemed to rejuvenate me, and each subsequent mile got progressively faster. I made it to the village limits before darkness fully descended.
The run was not as disastrous as it could have been. Somewhere, I had found the energy to finish and salvage something from it. If nothing else, I learned I had come a long way mentally in the year since Toronto. But once again, I was going into a race with some nagging doubts–doubts that were only made worse, as they always are, during the anxiety-ridden taper week.
The anxiety continued up until the night before the Rochester Marathon. I was staying at my partner Tessa’s house, and when she and her daughters ordered Chinese, I broke the first rule of racing and ordered something I had never eaten the night before a big race. But I figured I would be safe with egg foo young–plenty of protein and nothing to upset my stomach–and at no point the following morning did I regret doing it.
After a fitful night’s sleep, I kept my preparations for the race the same as the ones I made for New Jersey, and headed out to the start line with the usual combination of fear and excitement. There, I met up with Kevin McPherson, the 4:00 pacer, and a small group of runners determined to break 4 hours. My goal was simply to hang with them as long as I could and beat my Jersey time.
Once the race started, and I slipped into Kevin’s comfortable groove, all memories of the disastrous interval run faded into the background. The first 9 miles, past the historic mansions of East Avenue and out into the suburbs of Brighton and Pittsford, went by comfortably and without incident. Tessa, who had seen me off at the start, rode her bicycle out to mile 9 and cheered me on with a hug and kiss, then it was onto the Erie Canal trail for the next 13 miles.
For a while, I felt comfortable enough to move ahead of Kevin’s pace group with another runner, David, and together we negotiated the muddy trail, narrowly missing being run over by a woman on a bicycle who was apparently unaware that all of these people moving rapidly toward her with numbers on their chests were in something called a race.
The pace group eventually caught up with us for a while, and Kevin and I got a huge chuckle when we both realized we were transplanted Brits (he from Grimsby, me from Leicester), and the talk of fish and chips spurred us on for a mile or two. When Kevin announced that we were on track for a 4:00 finish, and whether that was OK, I replied, “I’ll take any time with a three in front of it,” to the agreement of the whole group.
Around mile 19, I was greeted once more by a smiling Tessa, who had gone above and beyond in her encouragement; her presence lifted me and made me realize that another strong finish was now within my grasp. But unfortunately, my running partner David fell off the pace at that point. He stopped at the next water stop, and reluctantly I left him behind and struck out on my own, leaving him under Kevin’s watchful eye. (David eventually finished the race, also under 4:00, and I cheered him in at the finish).
The canal trail eventually merged north into a trail that ran alongside the Genesee River and on the edge of the University of Rochester campus, and slowly I started to feel fatigue setting in. But it was a gradual, almost imperceptible feeling that was mingling with the kind of euphoria I felt toward the end of the Jersey marathon. I knew I had this–more, I knew I was going to come in under 4:00.
The final moments of the run, around Frontier Field and down the chute, with 3:57 on the clock above the finish line, were nothing short of amazing, and the celebration with Tessa that followed (an indulgent therapeutic massage and the now traditional burger and beer) was the perfect way to finish an incredible day. Perhaps even better, my recovery the following day was painless–to run 26.2 miles and not feel it 24 hours later is proof positive that training with the right program is everything.