After four marathons, I thought I knew a thing or two about preparation. Follow a tried-and-tested program. Study the race website and the course maps. Use a checklist for packing: medicine (ibuprofen is my friend) and assorted medical gear (lube is also my friend); clothing for anything Mother Nature cares to fling at me; the ubiquitous fanny pack with my lucky charms and toilet paper; gels, energy bars, Gatorade, bagels and bananas–I always try leave nothing to chance.
Except, for my fifth marathon, I forgot one key piece of equipment.
I arrived at the start line of the Niagara Falls International Marathon without a watch.
I discovered the problem about twenty minutes before gun time, much too late to do anything about it. But much to my surprise, I didn’t freak out. In fact, I didn’t even give it a second thought, because I had a very simple tactic for the race: I was going to trail the 3:45 pace group for as long as I possibly could.
I knew that would lead to the dreaded negative split–running the first half of the race faster than the second, draining energy and leaving little in the tank for the crucial miles at the end. All the training programs, Hanson’s included, warn against it. But my thinking was that they would suck me along with their speed for a while, and then I could drop into my own pace for the rest of the race.
So after one last hug and kiss from Tessa (who went above and beyond all day), off I went, past the beautiful old Victorian mansions in the Elmwood neighborhood toward downtown Buffalo at a comfortable 8:30 clip. “Watch be damned,” I thought to myself. “I can do this.”
Five miles in, and we crossed a very windy Peace Bridge, making our way past the watchful eyes of the border guards and on to Canadian soil. On the bridge, I met up with a fellow Brit named Lloyd, who looked–and ran–an awful lot like Jack Black. We immediately struck up a conversation that lasted over the next 9 miles, talking about our families, our jobs and the Premier League.
Thanks to Lloyd’s enjoyable banter, the 6 miles of the Fort Erie loop were perhaps the easiest of the whole race. Around mile 10, we even started goofing with some spectators who were following a runner from their karate dojo (“Hey, come on!” Lloyd and I shouted. “Show some love for the rest of us!”). I was so caught up in the silliness that I totally missed Tessa, who was shouting my name at the top of her lungs, and I wasted some precious energy and time doubling back a few hundred feet to give her a hug and kiss.
Tessa reappeared at the halfway point, but not long after, Lloyd really started to struggle. I knew how hard it was for me to keep up with the 3:45 group, so it must have been even more difficult for a runner who had yet to break 4 hours after 11 attempts. Hearing his strained breathing, I turned just in time to see him extend his hand and say “You have to run your own race, brother.” We shook, and he dropped off the pace.
Then it all started to get very lonely. Tessa made her final appearance at mile 16, and in less than a mile, I dropped off the 3:45 pace and watched the group slowly disappear into the distance.
That, in itself, was not a problem psychologically. As I’d hoped, they had sucked me along. I had hung in for longer than I thought I would, and I was actually quite pleased that I had kept up with their pace beyond the midway point.
No, the issue of loneliness was one that I hadn’t anticipated, especially after the endless miles logged in solitude during training.
So why was this different? Perhaps because in training the stakes are never quite as high. You’re always close to home. The terrain is familiar and comforting. The pace is slow and deliberate. No one is watching or keeping time.
My race experience, too, had not prepared me for this. Toronto and Burlington had been very spectator-friendly, while I had run New Jersey and Rochester shoulder-to-shoulder with others in a pace group. There was always something, or someone, to distract me.
But after mile 16 there were few vantage points for spectators on the Niagara course. Add to that the small field of just a little over a thousand runners, who by now had spaced out pretty significantly, and the race suddenly became the biggest mental test I had faced so far. As pretty as the run up the Parkway was, with the beautiful vistas of the Niagara River through the autumn leaves, there wasn’t much to distract me from my thoughts.
Toronto had beaten me physically. Burlington had beaten me mentally. Niagara Falls, I decided there and then, would do neither.
It was time to dig deep.
About a week before the marathon, I read that one way to stay in the race mentally was to visualize the closing stages as being nothing more than one of the long runs from the training program. So, mindful of the Burlington mental breakdown, around mile 10 I started to visualize my traditional 16-mile training route around Canastota village. From then on, each mile split on the Niagara Parkway became a familiar local landmark in my mind–the Thruway bridge at mile 1, the osprey nest at mile 4, the railroad tracks at mile 9. I was sending myself the message that there was nothing here that I hadn’t already done before.
But that wasn’t the only strategy that ended up working for me. Mindful of the destructive, negative self talk that haunted me over the last 10 miles in Burlington, I began encouraging myself. I stayed in the moment, running each mile on its own terms and celebrating each mile marker as I passed it.
Running without a watch also became an unexpected positive at the end, as I was running by effort, not by split time. Whenever I felt like slowing down, I slowed down. When I felt strong, I picked up the pace. Rather than looking at my watch and calculating possible finish times every mile, I listened to my body, not letting the highs and lows of hitting or missing splits affect me as they did at Burlington.
At mile 25, we ran over the Welland River bridge and alongside Kingsbridge Park. My body was well and truly spent, but at that point I knew I had tamed my mental horse. I hung on for the last mile and crossed the finish line with a time of 3:52:58, a new PB that beat my Rochester time from the previous year by four minutes. Cold and tired, I stayed in the finish area just long enough for a massage, a picture and a banana, then it was off to the warmth of the hotel followed by a victory trip to the nearest burger joint with Tessa.
Niagara Falls marked a great end to my third serious year of marathon running. It had been an up-and-down year, but the injury battles of the first few months had now been completely forgotten. To add to the satisfaction of the PB, my final total for my Team Fox fundraising was $777.57–shy of my $1,000 goal, but a nice chunk of change for the Michael J. Fox Foundation on behalf of my friend Judy Fryer nevertheless.
More important, it has given me the inspiration I needed to keep training through the long, cold central New York winter. But what I am training for, and what new goals I will set, are still to be decided.