Reflections on the Brooklyn Marathon

Although my ultra training schedule says I was supposed to run 4 miles the day after my marathon, I decided to take Monday off in deference to my knee.  It didn’t hurt when I walked, but a few test jogs down the hall of my school had me wincing, so it was a day of rest and ice.  Tuesday I did run home from school, which drew more than a few incredulous reactions from co-workers.  It was a LONG trip home — I quickly discovered that my knee felt fine as long as I went slow and kept up impeccably perfect barefoot form: bent knees, straight back, high steps coming down on the ball of my foot.  Of course, going slow wasn’t a problem as my thighs were still very sore, and every step brought a little wince.

And it was pouring rain.  And dark.  But somehow, I made it home — my commute that normally takes me 35 minutes at most took close to an hour, as I was running a 14 mile and taking a minute walk break for every 10 minutes of running.  It was slow and uncomfortable, but not painful, so I’m pretty sure my knee came out relatively unscathed.  I even enjoyed myself, in a sort of sick way.  I’d run a marathon just a day and a half before, and here I was running home in the rain.  Not bad.

***

The results of the Brooklyn Marathon were posted the other day, and my numbers are just as dismal as I’d expected.  My official finish time was 4:43:09, and I came in 213th out of 262 finishers.  In my age group (30-39), I finished 61st out of 71.  Overall, it was easily my worst performance in a race since the Staten Island Half in October of ’06.

On the other hand, around 300 people started the race, so close to 10% of the field didn’t even finish.  Also, numbers like the ones above are an opportunity to remind myself that it isn’t about the numbers at all — that I’m out there running a race for myself, against myself, and with my own short and long-term goals.  As long as I walk away with a positive experience and learn some lessons, I’ve met my goals.  I’ve been processing my experience at the Brooklyn Marathon for the last few days, and I’ve got a few things I’m taking away from the race. 

1. Using a race as a training run can be dangerous.  In “Relentless Forward Progress,” Bryon Powell says that you can use marathons for your really long training runs, but to avoid the temptation to race them all out.  I went into the race cognizant of that danger, but still got swept up somewhat in the “race” mentality.  I didn’t set out with any real expectations or a plan to run hard, but surrounded by other runners it just feels so good to run!  Had I not been running a race, I most likely would have kept to a slower pace, and might not have hurt my knee.  Then there’s the double-edged sword of having an official finish to keep you in to the end.  Had I been running on my own, I would have stopped when my knee started to hurt.  If this turns out to be a short-lived injury, being pushed to finish was good.  If, on the other hand, this turns into nagging, long-term knee pain, that “motivation” would have been harmful.

2. I need a target pace/finish time for my 50K.  This might be a down-side to my “Run Smiley” philosophy, as until now all my goals in all my training runs, including this marathon, were to “run what feels good.”  And since I’m in relatively good running shape right now, that’s worked fine for all the distances shorter than a marathon.  Sunday, however, I went out doing “what felt good,” and in retrospect it was far to fast, especially given that hill I had to hit six times.  I should have started out slower even when I felt I could go faster.  That’s why my last marathon was so successful — I was carefully monitoring my pace and sticking to a conservative speed for the first half, then let myself slowly speed up as I realized I had reserve energy for the last few miles.  Without a target pace or finish time, I don’t have that benchmark to hold myself to.  Normally one thinks of a pace as something to push oneself towards; I need one to slow myself down for long runs.

3. Be wary of company.  When I fell in with my temporary running partner during the marathon, I went in fully conscious of the fact that I did NOT want to be pushed into running faster than I could.  Still, when you run with someone, you subconsciously alter your effort somewhat to match theirs, and if you are close to the same pace you might not notice it at all.  I let her pull away from me around mile 14 or so, when it became clear I was pushing myself to keep up with her, but for how many miles had I been unconsciously pushing myself to keep up?  I don’t know.  I do know that when she first announced we were on pace to finish in 4:15, I was pleasantly surprised, when I should have shocked into slowing down.

4. I need to start integrating walk-breaks into long runs. Walk-breaks are a common ultra strategy, as short, regular bouts of rest can allow you to maintain a stronger pace over-all throughout a run.  The trick is, of course, to start taking them BEFORE you need them.  I’ve always avoided the walk-run strategy for half- and marathon distances, because it seemed like “cheating” or “weak.”  I want to “run” a marathon, not merely “finish” it.  Sunday, however, I ended up walking much of the last 8 miles out of necessity; had I done so out of choice earlier on, those final miles might have been faster or at least less painful.  And my goal for my 50K is to “merely” finish, however that happens.  Given that its a trail race and I don’t really run trails, I know going in that I’m not going to be prepared to run it — I blame much of what happened Sunday on my underestimating what climbing that hill 6 times would do to me, and I need to not make that same mistake in January.  Whatever my target time ends up being, its going to involve some regular walk breaks as part of it.

5. Don’t forget the sunscreen!  The one thing I forgot in terms of preparation.  I ended with a sunburned face, which just sucks.

It wasn’t all learning from mistakes.  I took away a few positive lessons as well:

6. I can easily make it between aid-stations or drop-bags.  Between my hand-held and waist-pack, I didn’t have to get any fluids from a station for the first half of the race, and I had all the fuel I needed for the entire run.  The 50K is three 11 mile loops, and I have access to my bag at the start each time through, so I can have the supplies I like.  I want to be able to resupply with HEED, since I like it so much more than Gatorade for long efforts, and with a mix of Hammer Gels and Cliff Bloks to get in some variety in texture.

7. I can run 26 miles in zero-drop shoes.  My form started to fall apart at the end, but through most of the race my legs and form felt strong.  My Instincts held up admirably, and if conditions allow I hope to wear them for the 50K.  For my next road marathon, I think I’ll wear something LESS structured, as I think the weight over the distance is worse that the extra padding they bring.

8. I’m fine with a loop course.  Going into the race, I was somewhat nervous about running the same loop 6 times.  Would I go insane with boredom?  And the answer was no, I actually enjoyed every lap.  In some ways, it makes it easier, as long as you can focus on the near future: “just one more time around the loop.”  I like to be alone in my head while running for hours, and that doesn’t differ much whether or not the course repeats itself.

9.  I can do this.  There were a few times towards the end of the race when I kept thinking, “You can’t finish this damn marathon, how are you going to run an ultra in 6 weeks?”  But I DID finish the damn marathon.  I felt fine — actually, I felt great! — up to the point my knee started acting up.  I finished with strong legs and muscles and a clear head, so had I avoided an injury I was in fine condition for the distance.  I can run through discomfort, walk through pain, do the same loop over and over again, and I’m fine with finishing near the tail-end of the pack.  I’ve bounced back relatively quickly, and today, five days later, went out for a fast 4 mile run and felt great.

***

I feel I should round it out to an even 10, but I can’t think of one right now.  All in all I feel good about last week, even if it wasn’t what I wanted out of the race at all.  But that’s why its the “first annual” Brooklyn Marathon, right?  Because there’s always next year . . .

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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.
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