The NYC Marathon is a beast. It is one of the six Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, NYC), it is the largest marathon in the world with 50,000 participants, and it is set in a city that exudes global courage and strength. As an athlete, it is an honor to run the NYC Marathon; as a born-and-raised New Yorker, it is a sentimental journey. I got into the marathon on the lottery. It’s a long-shot, but I was one of the lucky ~20% to be chosen to run the race.
I started my marathon training with muchos gusto in early July, coming off of a strong triathlon season and a great Birch Bay marathon in February. I decided to go for a 3:42 (or 8:28/mi pace), my Boston qualifying time minus 3 minutes. This seemed to be just scary enough to be the right goal. My main training goal was to “train like a runner.” For previous marathons, I’ve trained like a triathlete, meaning 3-4 days/week of running, and continuing biking and swimming while marathon training. I’ve done this in the past because my primary athletic focus has been triathlon and I didn’t want to risk losing bike/swim fitness in pursuit of running strength. I approached marathon training differently this time for a few reasons. First, running continues to be my weakness in triathlon and I know I need to make a change to build more run fitness. Also, I feel like my body is finally strong enough to handle the impact of more running.
My training plan was a 16-week adaptation of a Hal Higdon plan, beginning in July, with the pillars being (1) run my hard runs HARDER than I ever have and my easy runs EASIER, (2) frequency, increasing to 5 days/week from 4 days/week, and (3) train by pace instead of heart rate (a first for me). I love training -- working toward a goal, self-motivating, 5:00am sweatfests, solo thoughtful workouts, controlling my fate. But life got overwhelming. In the past 16 weeks, in addition to taking on marathon training, I started a new role at Amazon, continued coaching six athletes, completed CEUs to grow in my career as a triathlon coach, and adopted a pair of Taiwanese mountain dogs. I often feel like the walking definition of “burning the candle at both ends.”
Nonetheless, I remained committed to my training, reprioritizing my commitments on a daily (often hourly) basis. If it wasn’t for Barry doing all the housework, grocery shopping, animal care, breaking me away for spontaneous trail running and playtime with the pups, forcing me to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee every now and then, and never dropping a positive attitude, I’m not quite sure how would I could keep up - with everything. Thank you, Barry.
If Barry kept me emotionally on-point throughout training, then foam-rolling and stretching kept me physically on-point. Although I’ve always been a champion for strength-training, I had to adjust for this training cycle. Early in my training, I was feeling mild heel and arch pain. Nothing that really registers on the pain scale, but enough to say, “psst, hey, yeah you… take care of your body.” I’ve been an injured runner before - out for a year - and I damn sure learned how to listen to my body so I never have to go through that misery again <knock on wood>. To meet my training goal of running my hard runs hard, I needed to substitute strength training for body work - i.e. foam-rolling, yoga, stretching, PT exercises, etc. I came up with a 30-minute routine that was easy to fit in 3 days a week, while watching TV at night or before going to bed.
Looking back, I can honestly say that I nailed my training. It’s what I’m most proud of coming out of this marathon. I never missed a day of training, I consistently hit paces that I’ve never hit before (7:45/mi tempo runs), completed the Yasso 800s workout in its entirety for the first time ever, never got sick, and instead of riding the brink of fatigue and injury, I felt stronger at every session. Even after completing the marathon and not making my goal (spoiler!), I know with every fiber of my being that I am capable of running a 3:42 marathon - probably faster.
So, what happened on marathon day?
My runner friends will remind me that unpredictability is the beauty of the marathon. Race-day conditions, emotions, and health are rarely (ever?) calculable, despite how much training data I collect or how many charts and spreadsheets I create. Most marathoners will tell you that they’ve had more bad races than good ones. This is the nature and the heartbreak of endurance sports. You invest yourself for months on one single day - one solitary, unpredictable point in time. And all you can do is BELIEVE IN YOURSELF when race day comes.
“Believe in yourself.” This was my mantra as I started running from Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island, on the Verrazano Bridge at 10:15 am on Sunday morning, November 5. It was all I could do at that point, after coming down with a head cold when I landed in NYC two days earlier. Go figure, people. The candle that was burning at both ends finally burned out two days before my race. It was typical cold symptoms - a sore throat followed by a stuffy nose, body fatigue, dizziness, night sweats. Despite my efforts to fend it off with copious amounts of water, vitamin C, juice, rest, and healthy eats, it had to run its course. And unfortunately, it’s course ran straight through the middle of my A-race <grrrrrrr>.
The logistics of this race are arduous, but extremely well-run. The NYRR has crowd control nailed and executes this race flawlessly. This doesn’t mean that it was enjoyable to wake up at 4:30am to get on a bus at 5:30am and sit around outside in the cold until my start time at 10:15am. Although the therapy dogs made this manageable, these logistics took their toll on me. By the time I started running, I was hungry. 10:15am is usually when I have my first lunch, not when I run a marathon!
Within the first mile, my heart rate was through the roof. To put it in perspective, my average heart rate was 162, a heart rate at which I ran a 7:45-7:55/mi pace during my tempo runs in training. At this heart rate, on race day, my pace was 9:06, more than a minute slower than where it would have been if I was healthy. Each attempt to lower my heart rate by slowing my pace was mostly unsuccessful. By mile 3, I had to make a strategy decision: (1) slow down to bring my heart rate to the right zone, most certainly giving up on my goal because, with my sickness, I would have had to slow my pace by 60-90 seconds, or (2) continue to go for it, risking blowing up, and compensate as much as possible with more calories and hydration than planned. I chose #2 and I don’t regret it. I’m glad I tried.
As the miles ticked on, I was amazed to see that my heart rate was no longer rising, though it was still very high. I had a mild side stitch that was worsening, but only slightly. All was good through Brooklyn, but when I arrived in Queens and started to climb the Queensboro bridge, things faded quickly. I’m not unique to be bitten by this bridge. It’s not steep, but at 16 miles into a marathon, it requires steadfast concentration and a solid amount of fuel in the tank. My pace slowed significantly (9:30-9:45), but I was still not ready to give up. I took a survey of my body. I was feeling sick - not just tired, but weak. But one thing was still working - my legs were strong and I was ready to put them to work. I got to the crest of the bridge and allowed myself to continue my easy pace in order to recover. I hit 1st Ave in Manhattan and I said to myself, “Let’s do it, 10 x 1-mile repeats at race-pace.” I knocked down 2 of those mile-repeats and my heart rate was no longer maintaining at threshold. It was rising steadily into danger zone. I called it.
It was around mile 19, that I decided that I wanted to DNF… but I didn’t know HOW to! There was no medical tent, no sweep vehicle. I didn’t have my phone so I couldn’t call an Uber. I suppose I could have wandered until I found the right subway line to take me back to Central Park, but it was now cold and raining and if I stopped running, I would just be wet and cold and that sounded a whole lot worse than just shuffling for another 7 miles to the finish line. I ran/walked for the next 4 miles and at the entrance to Central Park, mile 23, I decided not to walk again until the end, so I jogged to the finish. 3:58:23. My personal worst marathon time to date. The most walking I’ve ever done in a marathon. The most epic fail of my goals and strategies I’ve ever allowed myself in any race, ever.
Another personal anecdote from this marathon is that it is non-stop crowds for the entire 26.2 miles. A lot of people love this and feel that this is the most energizing part of this race. But for me - an introvert - the noise, the screaming, the cowbells, the bands, the people were a lot to cope with on top of the regular stresses of trying to run a hard race.
Although I didn't have the race I wanted, I did get to experience the wonder and the magic of the NYC Marathon. I was honored to have taken part in the race on a historic year, with Shalane being the first American woman to win NYC in 40 years. I met her the evening of the race at an NYRR after-party and when I congratulated her on her win, she said to me, "That was 7 years in the making!" which was a great reminder and inspiration to stay focused on my goals and they will become reality.
Since finishing, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I should be proud of finishing. I would like to be, but I don’t see it that way right now. To be proud of “just finishing” diminishes what I’m capable of. I already know I can finish a marathon. I’ve done it four times. Finishing wasn’t my goal, nor is it a challenge. But here’s what I’m proud of -
-- I’m proud of my commitment to my training.
-- I’m proud that I know how to listen to my body and that I prioritize my health.
-- I’m proud of the goals that I set and the focus with which I pursue them.
-- I’m proud of the fitness I’ve achieved as a runner. 15 years ago, I had a goal of running 1 mile without stopping. 25-yr-old Cortney would be proud of 41-yr-old Cortney for finishing her 5th marathon in NYC.
-- I’m proud of the fact that this race didn’t break me. I’m more fired up than ever to get back to work and to soldier on toward my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.