Brooklyn Marathon: A learning experience (26.2 miles)

I had three primary goals in this weekends Brooklyn Marathon:

1) Finish
2) Have fun
3) Not get hurt

I accomplished the first — jury’s still out on the other two.

***

My alarm was set for 5:30 thus Sunday, but Angelica decided to make sure I didn’t sleep in and woke me up at 5:00 (thanks, sweetie!)  We walked the dog, then I came home and made myself a smoothie.  I had everything all packed for my race, I just hadn’t quite decided how to get there.  The start in Prospect Park is only 2.5 miles from our apartment, so I toyed with the idea of running there, but that seemed pushing my luck.  I was going to walk to the Franklin Avenue shuttle, but at the last minute I decided to bike.  As if I needed any other crazy points in some of my friends and families book, I was going to bike to and from a marathon — I figured the worst case scenario was that I’d be too sore to bike home, and then I could hop on the subway.  I kissed M and Anelica, told Nat that daddy was off to run a really long way, and headed off to Prospect Park.

The weather was truly ideal for a marathon — clear skies with temperatures in the mid-fifties, forecast to get up in the lower sixties by noon.  The sort of weather that makes you want to run even if you aren’t a runner.  I biked nice and slow and got to the start with plenty of time to spare.  I’m used to road races in New York drawing thousands of people — the Coogan’s 5K this spring had 5,000 — and the two other times I’ve run a marathon was NYC, which this year topped 47,000 starters.  So it was odd for me being at the start of a race with so few people, as the event had been capped at 350 and I believe just over 300 actually showed up for race day.  I ditched my bag and did some light jogging to test out my ankle and get my gear settled.

I was carrying a waist-pack with a water-bottle and pockets for gels and my camera, as well as a hand-held bottle with HEED.  This was a bit overkill for a race that had 2 aid stations along a 3.4 mile loop, but my goal was to be self-supported for as much as possible, as my ultra in January is an 11 mile loop with limited aid.  I adjusted the pack until it didn’t bounce, and my ankle felt fine.  I grabbed some rubber-bands to help me keep track of my laps, and took a few pictures.

At eight or so the race director herded everyone towards the starting line, and the huddled mass of runners made the race feel even smaller.  The megaphone was having some problems, so there was a lot of muttering and confused milling about as he described the course — two loops of the lower half of the park, six full loops of the park, then a finish on the same road we were on now — and went over last minute thank-you’s and acknowledgements that no one heard.  Someone sang the Star-Spangled Banner, but the only way we knew when it started and finished was when the guys near the front took of their hats and put them back on.  We stood around for a few more minutes, bouncing in place and getting anxious, and then suddenly someone fired and air-horn and we were off.

***

The race started with two loops of the lower half of the park, which is the easy bit of the park: mostly flat, a bit of an drop down towards the lake then back up to Center Drive, but not much.  Each loop was 2 miles, so by the time we passed Center Drive to head up for the first full loop, we’d done about 6 miles.  And I’d already been passed by the lead runners.

That was the oddest bit about this race as opposed to any other race I’d run: very quickly everyone running was at very different points in the race.  Normally in a point-to-point race, the people who are faster are in front of you, the people who are slower are behind you.  In an out-and back race, the people running the opposite direction than you are faster, then after the turn around, slower.  During the Staten Island half, there’s always a cool moment when the lead runners are returning and you get to watch them run back past you in a burst of speed; on Sunday, I was passed by the eventual winner 4 times.  He would have passed me a few more times, but by that point he’d finished.

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At about mile 7, I fell in with another runner.  She was pulling away from the group of friends she’d started with, and we seemed to be running at about the same pace. We started talking, and just sort of stuck together for about the next 8 miles.  I liked that her pace was just where I thought I should be at — fast enough to keep me from falling into going too slow, but not fast enough to feel I was really pushing myself.  In retrospect, this might have been my big mistake of the day.  Since my “race” was actually a glorified training run, I should have let myself go “too slow,” but I’m getting ahead of myself.  We talked about our histories of running, our kids, running in Prospect Park, previous marathons — the sort of things you talk about when you’re running with someone you don’t know at all.  At one point, she told me that she had a history of going out too hard and crashing at mile 15 or so.  She was wearing a garmin and had a PaceTat on her forearm, and every mile she’d confirm we were on pace for a 4:17 finish.  This should have been a warning sign, as there was no way I had trained for that fast a race, but it felt good to moving that fast without it feeling too hard.

The first three times up the hill at the north end of the park felt pretty good, and put us past the half-way point at 2:08.  It was 10:30 by now, and the weather was still gorgeous.  On the way down the West side of the park, I started to fall behind my impromptu running partner.  For a mile or so I pushed myself a little to keep up, but eventually realized it wasn’t just a matter of late-race laziness, but rather I couldn’t quite keep up that pace.  We’d fallen in without any real acknowledgement of the fact, and drifted apart the sameway: after running together for almost an hour and a half, I just started to slip behind, and she put in her ear-buds and moved ahead.

She was deadly accurate about her pattern of falling a part at mile 15, however.  Somewhere between 15 and 16, I started to catch her again, and I wasn’t speeding up at all.  Just before the hill I passed her, and by mile 18 she was nowhere to be seen.  For some reason the fourth time up the hill was the easiest, and I just sort of flew up toward the top of the park.  I felt great, and was hoping I’d settled into the sort of second-half groove I’d found during my last marathon.  My knee, however, had other ideas.

At mile 18, my left knee started feeling tight, which was odd, because my left knee has never given me the slightest problem, ever.  Right knee, yes.  Left ankle, just a bit.  Never my left knee.  I slowed a little, tried to change my stride a little, then – OW!  Okay, that was definitely not good.  I slowed, then actually took a walking break to give it a rest, and started up again.  A half a mile or so later, I felt it again. Crap.

***

The last 8 miles of the race was ever runners least favorite game: injury russian roulette.  Okay, it hurts, but how much does it hurt?  Is this the sort of discomfort one runs though, or am I going to seriously injure myself if I keep this up?  Everyone loves to throw around mantras like “Pain is just weakness leaving your body,” but that’s crap.  Discomfort is just weakness leaving your body; pain is your body’s way of staying “Stop doing that, you idiot, that HURTS!”  So is this pain, or discomfort?  And of course the big question: do I keep running?  Finishing this race is a goal, but the bigger goal is my ultra in January, and of course the biggest goal is running long-term.  I don’t want to be stubborn and screw up my ability to run for the next few months, but on the other hand, I’m 18 miles in, and running through discomfort is part of getting ready for an ultra.  Is this discomfort, or is it pain?

The upside to all this is it gave me plenty to occupy my mind right when 6 loops of the park was starting to wear on me.  Actually, the monotony wasn’t the problem, like I and everyone else had feared — the park is pretty enough, and the weather nice enough that repetition wasn’t a problem.  Rather, it was that other runners were at such different points.  As my knee continues to hurt, I realize I need to walk up the hill this time, and this is just my fifth time — I’ve got to finish this entire loop, AND do another full loop after that.  The guy in front of me just turned in to Center Drive to finish; the two women just behind me have one more loop to do, and I’ve got two.  And my knee hurts.

So I walk the hill, then settle into a pattern of running and walk-breaks.  I’ve never had to walk during a marathon before, but ever mile or so my left knee gives a twinge and even threatens to buckle a few times.  Honestly, if I was as cautious as I should be, I would have called it quits around mile 21, but the discomfort was just bearable enough for the stubborn side of me to decide walk breaks would be good enough.  Just before mile 23, I had to pass the turn off toward the finish line one last time, and I’ve never been so tempted to happily collect a DNF in my life.  The volunteers at the aid station were helpfully shouting out, “Turn here to finish, straight on for mile 23,” and I was like, “Fuck it, I’m finishing this bastard,” and  I walked up the hill one last time.

If you ever cheer towards the end of a marathon, please avoid shouting, “You’re looking great!” I know its said with the best of intentions, but when you know you don’t look great and that this is NOT your best run, it sort of rankles.  I did reply more than once with, “Well, looks can be deceiving,” and “That’s good, because I feel like crap,” always with a smile and a wave, but a tint of bitterness as well.  “You’re going great!” is a bit better, since I could just throw out, “I am doing great, its my knee that’s refusing to cooperate.”

***

The odd part about such a small race was that by the time I’d slipped slowly towards the back of the pack, we were spread out over the entire course; as I got into the final miles of the marathon, I literally didn’t see any other participants for quite some time.  I played leap-frog with another guy who was fighting off leg cramps (and wearing purple Inov-8 255’s, which I told him I liked), and it felt like we were the last two people running the race.  I finally hit the aid station one last time, with less than a quarter mile to go.  “Turn left to finish, straight on to mile 23.”  “Hell yes, I’m turning left!” My knee had enough left to get over the finish line at a bit of a run at 4:43.

I walked around a bit to cool off, frustrated by the fact that whenever I walked my knee felt fine, and had a bagel and protein drink.  Then I hoped on my bike and headed home.

***

I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last two days, and think I’m taking away a lot of lessons from this race — both for future marathons and my ultra — but its after midnight so those will wait for the follow up post.  The good news is that, besides finishing, I’m pretty sure I succeeded in my other two goals as well.  Despite the end I did have a fun, and I don’t think my knee has suffered any long-term injury.  But one of the best ways to recover is to rest, so I’m going to bed.

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About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
This entry was posted in Disappointing Runs, Injuries, Races, Ultra Running and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Brooklyn Marathon: A learning experience (26.2 miles)

  1. Knee pain derailed my ultra training this year. Hope yours doesn’t do the same. Cheers bro!

  2. Nils says:

    Congrats! I very much like the distinction you make between discomfort and pain.

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