In hindsight I realize my coach did everything but come right out and say it. “You are not going to qualify for the Trials this race.” Three days before the race we addressed this concern and he did what any good coach should do, close the door on completely unrealistic expectations, but leave it cracked open the tiniest bit to allow in the light of the “off-chance”, the perfect day. Problem was, I ignored the door of reality and experience slammed in my face and only concentrated on that sliver of light illuminating my hard-fought hopes. My coach knew this. He knows my mentality and knows I work from a foundation of mental intensity, and I don’t think he wants to discount the power of doing so. As I’ve said numerous times before, the marathon is a distance long enough that amazing things can happen and I truly believe those with the proper mental perspective can overcome so many physical obstacles the marathon brings upon us. That is what I was bringing into this race, the notion that despite so many obstacles in my way, I still had that sliver of light to guide me into an amazing performance.
Like a broken dam, hundreds of “Elite Development” athletes poured through a small opening in front of Corral A and made their way into the empty rectangle of pavement, one side blocked in by the start line itself. I stepped into the free space and started a slow jog past the start line to loosen up any muscles that might not be prepared for the race just yet. I made it past the start line and suddenly found myself in a pool of elite celebrity athletes. I almost ran into, literally, Sammy Wanjiru (who is, by the way, TINY. I was looking DOWN at him.), then passed by Desiree Davila, Deena Kastor (who was announcing) and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet before turning back around to head back into the corral. Seeing them up close was quite surreal, like I was still looking at their glossy faces in a magazine spread, but this time they were animated. I felt a little self-conscious and made my way back behind them and to the other side of the corral where I could stand on the start line myself.
I stood next to a couple of my teammates also wearing neon-yellow singlets, the street open before us and the skyscrapers looming just past the first bridge. Spirits were high, but determined, and we all went inward as we prepared to enter the streets in the next couple of minutes. Then after the announcer informed us that we had 90 seconds to the start, everyone in the corral went quiet. As we stood there with our hearts already pounding in nervousness, the only sounds heard were periodic shouts of encouragement from the crowd. “Go Jeremy!” “All the way guys!” I rocked side to side in nervous anticipation. “30 seconds guys!”, the announcer called out. My body froze and I readied myself to go forward, one foot in front and my finger on my watch. “Runners set!”, WHHAAAAAAA!, the airhorn filled the empty space and the first line of 45,000 runners pushed into the beginning of 26.2 empty miles of pavement.
I had one goal this race, go for the Trials. A longshot right now, yes, but not as long as one would think. In order to do this I had to run 5:18 minutes per mile, average, for the entire distance. Last year, without such a definitive goal, I managed to average 5:34 per mile. If I managed to hold on the whole race it was going to be an incredibly small window of time to come in, so losing any momentum or missing pacing through a few miles would prove to be a disasterous problem and this meant my first mile was going to be crucial. One of the keys to running a successful marathon is going out slower in your first couple of miles and then making up the time further into the course, whether that is soon thereafter or in the second half for a negative split overall. After long consideration I figured I could go through the first mile anywhere between 5:23 and 5:25 and be safe. I wanted to hit 5:23, but it seemed like such an awkwardly specific time to come through at, especially without an 800 guage to work from.
The line moved ahead up the street and, as I expected, a grouping of about 30 – 40 runners moved out ahead of me. I caught sight of my teammate Jesse, who was also going for the Trials qualifier, move a step ahead of me and I ran alongside him for the stretch. We ran into and then came out from under a darkened underpass before heading over a short bridge. Going up the bridge I was concerned. I was concerned because it felt slow, but not the slow I expected from the start of the race, but a slow that meant a severe error in judgement. I really felt we were running 5:40 – 5:45 pace. I tried not to panic and continued moving on just a step behind Jesse. We took a turn towards the first mile marker with 50 or so runners all around us and I caught sight of the time clock up ahead. I kept my eye on it as we moved closer and closer, judging my pace that felt so incredibly slow. I saw the tape on the street that marked the exact mile point, stepped on it and hit my watch. 5:23….on the dot. Whoa! I couldn’t believe it. That felt so easy….of course, I still had 25.2 miles of pavement to cover, but at least I started out properly.
I was a little worried finding the 5:18 per mile group was going to be difficult to track down after the first mile, but sure enough, a mass of about 20 – 30 runners sat right in front of Jesse, myself and Poray, who had joined us in the first mile. I knew I needed to be hanging on the back of the pack, so when I saw the group I was right where I wanted to be. The first pace truck that wasn’t leading the elites sat right in front of us ticking away the seconds that would bring us into the next mile. I hung onto the back, still moving with ease, but certainly a noticeable speed and unable to see much but brightly colored singlets and any number of feet flicking forward in front of me. We ran in between the skyscrapers on either side of us like a metal river and I caught sight of the mile 2 clock. I hit the tape and then my watch, nailing the second mile in 5:19, slowly but surely moving into my goal time.
I was a bit uncomfortable sitting in the back of the pack as I couldn’t see much of anything in front of me and my control freak tendencies urged me to move out to the sides where I could get a good line of sight, but my coach rightfully warned me against doing this. For one, I’d be losing the ability to draft off the other runners, but I’d also be wasting precious energy moving back and forth in the pack. I stuck to his advice and held to the back, trusting the other runners to pull me where I needed to go. Then suddenly, without that open view and lulled into the pacing, I was taken back when the group suddenly broke apart and I realized we were rolling through a fluid station. I quickly jostled for position and managed to grab some liquids before the group formed back again and I held to the back. Then, just as suddenly as I missed the fluid station approaching, I saw runners hit their watches and before I had time to react I missed the mile marker. I quickly did the math in my head and figured what I would need to go through the second mile to stay on 5:18 pace.
The group continued to move ahead at a pace that wasn’t as easy as I was hoping it would be and required fairly consistent concentration to maintain. I wasn’t overextering my body by any means, but if I found myself lost in my thoughts, I would also find the pack moving away by a couple strides and I’d have to work my way back up. I knew right then I needed to stay focused on the task at hand for as long as I could maintain. Just then I heard one of my friends yell out encouragement for the first time. I felt good and smooth and casually threw him “the horns” to let him know as much. We rolled into the next mile marker, this one I was able to see, and when I hit my watch I was relieved to find I was still right on time. Things were going well, even if they took concentration to maintain.
The group ran along, now a bit out of the shadow of the buildings and into the ever rising sun that would prove to be quite an obstacle for the day. I held just one stride off the back of the pack, knowing that position kept me rolling through at 5:18 pace, exactly where I wanted to be. We ran on and I think some guys started to get anxious. I heard teammates urging others to relax while positions started to switch around in front me. I remained calm sitting off the back, but then things got hectic. We went through another fluid station I was unable to see and the pack broke apart again, this time I found myself having to drop behind a line of runners just to get in position to grab fluids. I managed to do so, but when the group reformed I was in a scattered group of runners who had also been broken from the tight pacing ball. The group must have lost focus during the fluid station as it took a concerted effort to get back up with everybody and I could tell the pace had quickened. We entered back into an area of the city and when we went through the mile marker my watch read 5:14. That was certainly too fast to sustain, but I knew part of that was the mess at the last water stop, plus I m ade up a significant portion of the time I needed from the first mile. I was feeling taxed to get to that point, but I knew it was only a temporary feeling as our pace slowed back to a manageable 5:18.
At this point Jesse still ran next to me, sometimes moving up a runner or two in the pack and I continued to hold off the back. Poray was somewhere behind me, but I didn’t catch sight of him in the group. Our group continued to move on into the city and the lines of crowds filling the streets, screaming us onward. The pace truck still sat just ahead ticking away the time and I sat in the back still unable to see much ahead of me, but the grouping of runners and their feet flicking ahead, the bright colors on their shoes like the flashes of a firefly.
We ran over some quick inclines and declines, back into the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers and with concentration I continued to hold onto the back of the pack, though at this point I was starting to wonder how long I could hold this mental effort before I found myself struggling. I knew something was coming. It was just after 10k I found myself having to really work to stay with the group. I would hang off the back, but more frequently have to make efforts to move back up. I debated sliding into a pocket in the mass and hope the proximity would carry me on further, but I didn’t want to risk running that close to anybody and going down. Good thing too, because it was somewhere in mile 7 that things started to get out of hand. I don’t know if it was the increasing exertion everyone was beginning to fight, but each fluid station started to get more and more problematic. We were running at such a high pace, with such a large group that making the break to the sides of the street and then succcessfully grabbing the cups of fluid in outstretched hands became quite a mess. We jostled for position, grabbed at cups that splashed all over the volunteers, the street and us, then tried to make our way back into the group in the middle of the street without losing pace.
In one of the more exciting moments of the race for me, somewhere near mile 8, I was running behind a line of guys into a fluid station when all of a sudden the runner directly in front me makes a frantic leap to the right and has to lift his leg over a fallen runner who had been tripped or slipped in the liquid soaked street. The move was so quick that I had no time to react at the pace I was running and had to spontaneously hurdle the fallen runner. The problem was, he had started to get up at this point and so my hurdle turned into an absurdly high jump directly over the top of him, where I still managed to clip the top of his head with the bottom of my foot. Somehow…and I mean SOMEHOW I landed with momentum and continued on at pace, managing to grab a cup of fluid and get back with the group, a bit stunned at my successful reaction. I know that was a show for the volunteers at that station! Maybe even more amazingly, the runner I hurdled picked his sunglasses up off the ground and blew past me to get back up with the group!
Moving into mile 9 things followed the same pattern as they had up to this point. I hung off the back of the pack, but found myself being slowly dropped at which point I had to make a concerted effort to get back up with the group. Each time the effort to get back seemed to take longer and longer and I began to realize I was weaking with the effort, which didn’t necessarily surprise me, did catch me off-guard that it was this early in the race. I was expecting to have to fight, but not THIS early. We weren’t even halfway! I continued to fight, putting my efforts on staying with the group and managed to miss yet ANOTHER mile marker, just hoping I was still holding on. Fortunately, I DID see the 15k clock and was relieved to see I was still holding to Trials qualifying pace, even though I suspected things were getting out of hand.
Then, where I SUSPECTED things were getting out of hand, after passing the 10 mile marker, I KNEW they were getting out of hand. I had dropped ever so slightly off the pack going through the marker and found that I had clocked a 5:24 mile…definitely NOT where I wanted to be. Maybe that pacing snapped me into a new awareness, but I was then very conscious of small pains throughout my body and other telling sensations. I felt the pounding on the soles of my feet. My right hip felt like it was taking a lot of force. And worst of all, my singlet was weighted with sweat. I knew what was happening….it was getting hot. Initially I thought my effort had everything to do with it, but as I would find out later one, the temperatures at the start of the race sat at 67 degrees and climbed into the mid 70’s at the finish. This wasn’t just “less than ideal” running weather…this was performance sapping weather. This was “re-strategize your race plan” weather. Too little. Too late.
I ran through mile 11 and then 12 without getting mile splits, but could tell I had started to weaken and my pace followed in suit. The pack had now begun to move away from me further and further and there was no point in trying to regain contact at this point in the race. I started to fall back on my Plan A.2, which was to hope. To hope my body would experience a second wind or somehow recover to the point where I could make another attempt to finish absurdly strong in the second half, even if it wasn’t a qualifying time. I wasn’t done yet.
I had missed the previous mile markers, but I was coming up on halfway and would get a good indicator where I stood in the race as I ran away from the city into more spectator-deserted areas of the course. I crested a small bridge, frustrated that it sent my heartrate upwards, and rolled down the other side past the 13.1 clock. 1:10:16. “Hey…that’s not so bad!”, I thought to myself. I knew my best chance to qualify was going through at 1:09:30 and thought 1:10:00 might be risky, but although anything slower was going to be quite a second half, that still left me in decent position to make a strong showing……if plan A.2 kicked into action, however that was mysteriously going to happen.