I’d like to say that it’s not often that a crazy guy with a fake beard beats you to the finish line but I have no idea if that’s true. In 2009, after a six year break from the marathon, I thought a good way to enter my 40s was with another marathon. Besides, I figured my wife would have long forgotten that I had “retired”. It seemed like training for the New York City Marathon might be something to check off my bucket list. I had had vague notions of completing the “big three” American races: Boston, Chicago, and New York City. I had had the great pleasure of running both Boston and Chicago with friends and sharing in the first sub 2:45 run of my close friend, Frank Ackermann. By share, I mean that after he got out of the medical tent, stretched and had a full meal he watched me cross the finish line. Frank would later run under 2:40 and remains my hero. It is true that I have been heard to mutter “skinny bastard” under my breath from time to time but that is only during my weaker moments.
It had been six years since I had last run a marathon, and if I did the math correctly, I was in my mid 30s then: young, no aches and pains, recovered easily from training. Now I was 40, and would be 41 on race day. Most days I woke up with the thought, “why does __________ hurt so much”. Still, I am goal oriented, so I set the seemingly ridiculous goal (at least for me) of a sub 2:50 marathon. My previous best was 2:54. Actually, closer to 2:55 but I firmly believe that all digits after the minute in your time should be left off for obvious reasons. I knew I would need help to achieve this goal. So, I asked a good friend who coached runners and triathletes to coach me. We plotted out a 6 month course to race day, including some smaller races along the way. Noel is a triathlete and because of this and a desire to allow me to recover between workouts at my advanced age, our plan had a great deal of cross training incorporated, far more than I had ever done. In fact, I ran a maximum of only 4 days per week, unheard of for me in past marathon training schedules. Another difference was how hard the runs were. On average, I did one long run, one tempo run and one shorter interval type workout per week, all far harder than I was used to. My long runs often had a tough tempo run built in which was brutal. Traditional theory held that long runs should be long and slow. But “long and slow is fine if you want to run long and slow on race day”. I would curse Noel during these runs and after, while I drank a disgusting “recovery shake” and settled in to an ice bath, both things that would help the old man body recover more quickly. The other edge Noel thought I could benefit from was a better diet. What he meant was starvation. The only way I could accomplish his suggestion that I snack less after dinner was to go to bed at 7 pm. I failed repeatedly in this goal and spent the better part of 6 months hungry. I did, however, faithfully follow the schedule, though not always able to accomplish the pace asked of me.
I felt excited when I had some success in shorter races, running a 1:21half marathon a month before the big race, albeit on a flat and downhill course. I knew if I had a perfect day I could go sub 2:50. I arrived in New York two days before the race, well rested and tapered, which means irritable and with imaginary illnesses and injuries. When my friends Shawn and Frank arrived I realized that being with two lifelong friends was the real prize, and though a time goal was great it ultimately didn’t matter. Shawn had run a marathon less than one month earlier and joined us simply to see his friends. He would start the race and see how things played out. Shawn’s life motto is “Go Hard or Go Home” so we were pretty sure he’d finish the race. The journey had been pretty great as was the prospect of running another marathon in my favorite city on the planet. My wife and kids were going to join me in NYC for a few days of sight seeing after the race so things seemed perfect.
The day prior to the race we picked up our race packages and learned we had been assigned a 5:15 am ferry ride to the Staten Island start. That would be great for a 7 am start but the race started at 10:30 am. It made the restless night I’d have even shorter but who sleeps well before a marathon? The rain that morning and lack of shelters made for a pretty miserable 4.5 hour wait for the race. Fortunately, 3 middle aged friends had no problem keeping things light and I remember lots of laughter. It took about an hour for the start corral to move runners into position. We were in the first wave and I learned had the great advantage of getting the upper level of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. What was the advantage if everyone runs the same 26.2 miles? Well, having 42,000 anxious runners lined up for over an hour with their anxious bladders means a lot of anxious runners peeing off the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It also meant that the warm pungent mist hitting the runners on the lower bridge was not composed solely of water.
To run a sub 2:50 marathon means running an average pace of 6:28 per mile. Go out too fast, and pay for it later. Start too slow and maybe miss your goal. My plan was to run an even split, averaging the same pace in the first and second half of the race. This generally means feeling like the pace in the first half is a little too easy and in the second half just right or a bit of a struggle. Inexperience in a race this size cost me. Despite being in the first wave of runners, this was irrelevant as the horde of runners hit the bottleneck of the bridge after 400 metres. My pace was closer to 8 minute miles for two miles, despite Frank using his skinny frame and linebacker tactics to plow through the crowds to make room for me. By the five mile mark I was way off my pace and feeling frustrated. I foolishly pushed the pace to make up time which cost me later. But I was running with my friend in a city that I loved. I decided to stop looking at my watch and wouldn’t look again until after 20 miles at which point I’d re-evaluate.
I was entertained by Frank leaving me every 30 minutes to “go for a pee”. He would take off ahead of me, and I imagined he was at some coffee shop waiting for his slow friend to catch up. I was enjoying running through the streets of New York City and had put a time goal out of my mind for the time being. As we approached the 24 mile mark perky Frank asked “Do you think you can run a sub 3 minute kilometer for the last 3 km? If you can you have a shot at sub 2:50”. My mind was racing. First, I thought “I have no idea what he is asking me. What’s a 3 minute km?” When it comes to running, I am a purist, and think in miles not kilometers. Since my pace had slowed to a 7:15 mile I suspected his suggested pace was impossible. I wanted to punch him in the face for suggesting it but was having trouble raising my arms enough to generate a little arm swing, let alone a pugilistic stance. He also suggested I swallow my spit to conserve fluids. If I had been able to form any spit I would have conserved it all over the front of his shirt. A few more minutes of pain passed and I was able to get caught up in the crowds in Central Park over the last mile and a half and ran as hard as I could to push through the line in 2:53 and change (ok closer to 2:54 but who needs those seconds markers?).
A few months later, I eagerly opened the race CD that contained a collection of NYC Marathon pictures, When I looked closely at the photos of myself, I noticed a disturbing trend: in nearly every photo there is man wearing a fake beard with his hands in the air 30 feet ahead of me, looking far too comfortable. At first I felt outraged that he is wasting energy lifting his arms up. And how do you spit with a beard like that? I have no idea if he finished ahead of me but as he is ahead of me in every photo that I am in, I suspect he finished arms raised, with full beard, three strides ahead of me. As time has passed when I think of the New York City Marathon, I think of the guy with the fake beard and laugh, wondering what bet he lost the day before the race?
I fell short of my sub 2:50 goal but finished a marathon while “retired”. And I had my best friend beside me. We also got to see our friend Shawn complete his second sub 3 hour marathon in a month. I would have trouble walking for a full month after my race so remain amazed with that feat! It was probably not the best race or course to aim for a best day ever. But it was a “best day” in so many other ways. When my wife and kids arrived, I had just finished showering when they dragged me around NYC and propped me up for pictures in front of all the awesome sites, proudly wearing my NYC Marathon Finishers shirt. When I look back to that day I don’t remember disappointment at not achieving my goal. What I remember is a rewarding journey and a great few days in New York. Four years later as I take “one last” kick at a sub 2:50 marathon (June 2013), I hope I have as much fun as that guy with the fake beard in New York City.
Winner Meb Keflezighi