Runners who take racing seriously know the importance of race-specific training. Most training programs include the same basic components – short, speedy intervals; longer tempo runs at a fast but sustainable pace; hillwork; long, slow distance to build aerobic capacity – but the emphasis given to those components and the way they fit together will be different if you are training for the mile versus a 5K versus a marathon. Your training should mirror your goal race.
By that light, the race I’ve been training for these past few months would combine running and birding – by, say, subtracting the number of species seen over a 10-mile distance from your finishing time. I’m pretty sure I could kick ass in a race like that.
Unfortunately, the race I was actually running was the Brooklyn Half Marathon.
Which is to say, my hopes for last Saturday’s race were modest. Between my erratic training and the trauma of ending up in the medical tent with a 10-minute hole in my memory at both the NYC marathon and the Scotland Run, I was dialing back my goals all the way up to the starting horn.
So when a friend in the starting corral asked what time I was shooting for, I laughed – hahaha! – and responded that I’d be satisfied with “under two hours and upright.” But that was a dodge. It avoided mention of the NYC Half – which I ran “just for fun,” with two lengthy bathroom breaks, and still finished in 1:54:22. It weaseled around the fact that my half marathon split in last year’s NYC Marathon was 1:56 and change. Could I run slower than that on my home Brooklyn turf and still claim to be satisfied with my time?
No. Not honestly, anyhow. My rock-bottom goal (the real one, not the one I professed out loud) was to beat my time in the NYC Half. And in my heart of hearts, I was still hoping to go under 1:50.
“I’ll start out running, I don’t know, 8:30 pace,” I told my teammate Kelly as we waited at the start. That sounded good to her, and though no arrangements were formalized, I think we both assumed we’d try to run the race together.
Naturally, we lost one another almost as soon as we stopped shuffling, turned onto Washington Avenue, and crossed the starting mat. I had a vague sense that Kelly was behind me, but I didn’t turn around to look. “Just keep it easy,” I told myself. “She’ll catch up if she wants to.”
My first mile clocked in at 8:14. Whoa, too fast! Slow it down! That’s what I told myself – and then proceeded to run 8:06 and 8:00 for the next two miles.
I may be older and slower, but I’m evidently as stupid as ever. (Kelly? Oh, she passed me somewhere in the third mile and I never saw her again until our post-race beach party.)
Who cared, though? I was having fun. Running around Grand Army Plaza, usually choked with terrifying traffic, was a kick. And what was that up ahead? Did that guy’s sign say “Punch Trump”? Why, indeed it did – I swerved to the right, wheeled my arm in a hammy warm-up, and took a swing. Donald – his eye already blackened – reeled from the righteous power of my punch.
What a loser.
I got a grip on myself in mile 4 (8:18), when we entered the park at Park Circle and began to wind our counter-clockwise way around it. The next two miles took us up zoo hill on the park’s eastern side (8:30 and 8:21), then into a fast downhill on its western side (8:03), and then we were out of the park and headed down Ocean Parkway. Sustained by that downhill momentum, I managed an 8:11 for mile 8 – where energy gels awaited us.
And that’s more or less where the fun ended and the grind began.
I grabbed an icky vanilla gel, tore it open, sucked out the contents, and then walked through the water stop to make sure I washed it down properly (that, and opting for a no-caffeine flavor, were my offerings to the digestive gods). When I started running again, it was with grim determination. Mile 9, with the walking break, was 8:50.
I wasn’t melting down – my breathing was normal, I was aware of my surroundings, and I wasn’t weaving or lurching forward – but my legs were rebelling. They were tired, and they let me know they were tired. I tried to distract them – “look! we’re already at Avenue M, isn’t that great?” – but they were having none of it. I tried to interest them in math problems: “If Linda has covered X miles in X minutes, what will her finish time be if she runs (13.1-X) miles at 10 minute pace?”
They weren’t interested – and yet, to their credit, they kept turning out miles with metronomic consistency. Not at 10 minute pace, not at 9:30 minute pace, not even at 9 minute pace. The next 4 miles were all within 3 seconds, plus or minus, of 8:30.
Thank you, legs. I owe you.
As we worked our way through the alphabet of avenues, and as the Belt Parkway overpass grew closer, I pondered my training sins – insufficient mileage, no tempo runs at my goal pace, no speedwork – and thought about my finishing strategy. Aside from weekly long runs (the one training element I was disciplined about), my training these last few months had been mostly easy, stop-and-go birding jogs. Was there a way I could actually turn that to my advantage? And then it came to me: how about, when I crossed Neptune Avenue just after 12 miles, I ran as though a thick-billed murre had been sighted off the Coney Island pier?
In the end, because real training really does matter, I couldn’t quite muster thick-billed murre pace . . . but my final sprint down the boardwalk was at least surf scoter pace, for a finishing time of 1:49:30.
I love the Brooklyn Half, but even I have to acknowledge its unwieldiness. New York Road Runners claims – and I have no reason to doubt them – that its 27,410 finishers make it the largest half marathon in the country. This year’s race sold out in less than an hour, the starting corrals and baggage trucks stretched a quarter of a mile down Eastern Parkway, and when it was all over, runners had to trudge to the far side of the vast MCU Park lot to collect their bags, and then trudge across it again to reach the
port-a-johns changing rooms.
Oh, and would you like to submerge your tired feet in the ocean, or just hang out on the beach with your friends? Too bad! Security barriers cordoned off the boardwalk from MCU Park, forcing runners to walk down to Surf Avenue, exit the lot, continue to the next through street, and then turn around and walk back.
For all that, there was precious little grumbling at the PPTC beach party – just congratulations, snacks, our Track Cat mascot . . . and plenty of blue lips. Despite multiple layers of dry clothes, I was freezing. My biggest regret about the race was my choice to head for home and warmth instead of sticking around for the day’s most impressive finish. That would be by my teammate Michael Ring, who was 27,403rd of 27,410 runners. His 21 minute 40 second pace per mile over 13.1 miles was a full two minutes faster than the all-out mile he ran just a month ago. And don’t even mention a year ago, when he was in a wheelchair. Or two years ago, when he was in the ICU. (Michael blogs about his fight back from a chronic form of Guillain-Barre syndrome here.)
Just wait until next year.