Although I’ve never been here before – at the front of the race field within steps of the start waiting for the countdown and the starting horn to sound – everything around me just felt so oddly familiar. I guess that’s to be expected. After all, I am starting on the same boardwalk next to the same beach in Long Branch, New Jersey that I have been for the past four years. And even though I am running the full marathon essentially alone (since almost everyone else I know is running the half instead), I am starting this race with the knowledge that I have the virtual support of more than a few friends back home who ran through the hell’s fury that was the version of this race last year. For them and for me, I must take on this course and win. After the debacle that was last year when I had to skip the full, run the half and still suffer through a PW, I am ready for redemption. As the horn sounded, I reminded myself of the mantra that came to me this morning as I was getting dressed – “If I had a magic marker on me, I would write DYOA on my arms. But since I don’t, I’m just gonna have to show them with my legs!” It worked for me; I was inspired and I crossed the starting line ready to tackle whatever the course may bring.
I started my race trailing behind maybe twenty others as we unleashed ourselves onto the race course like a pack of prized thoroughbreds at the Monmouth Racetrack. Although I was caught in the lead pack with the frontrunners, I really had no intention of running so fast right out of the gate. I wanted to start slow and ease into the pace I was going to keep for 26.2 mile, similar to the strategy I had use in Chicago ’10. So when I saw 6:23 flash on the garmin as I passed by mile 1, I got nervous that perhaps I may have already blown the fuse too fast too soon. Although the effort felt easy, the pace for the opening mile was faster than even my half marathon PR pace! I dialed back the effort in the succeeding miles to a pace that seemed a little more reasonable so that by mile 3, I felt I was running in a fast but comfortable groove.
The weather was sunny but mild, with temps around 54F at the beginning of the race. Out on the roads, spectators were unfolding their lawn chairs and gathering along sidewalks waiting anxiously for their loved ones to pass through. At mile 4, I found myself running next to two lady runners that happened to be in the overall lead for the woman. They were running well, but tiring somewhat from the unrelenting sun. One dropped off the pace at mile 5, the other at mile 6. I enjoyed running in their shadow however brief it was because collectively, they elicited the loudest cheers from the spectators and volunteers which by extension jazzed me up too.
Mile Splits: Mile 1 – 6:29; Mile 2 – 6:31; Mile 3 – 6:37; Mile 4 – 6:35; Mile 5 – 6:35
Miles 6 – 10
After passing the first overall woman and her littany of adoring fans yelling her name along the streets, I start mile 6 wondering whether I can keep the blistering pace I had set early or whether I’d see her “chicking” me back a while later on (fortunately, that never happened!). I was still feeling great though so I wasn’t going to change things at all too much. At mile 6.5, we pass the half marathon relay station which was loud, crowded, but fun. I kept hearing people yell ”Good job, Nice Shoes!” and “Keep It Going Bandana Boy!” which made me more acutely aware of my shoes and attire than I’d like to be at that point (Something to keep in mind when running in a smaller marathon for me!).
At mile 7, I saw my time and felt myself freaking out that I was still maintaining a sub-6:40 pace. I’ve never trained myself to run this fast for this long before, I thought. This is such an insane pace! I could feel my body instinctively start to adopt a slower cadence. I take a look at my HR which was still holding steady at 158 and suddenly remembered a personal message from my friend BW a few days ago who told me that because I didn’t have a time goal for this race, I should throw caution to the wind, go balls out and see what happens. Both of those thoughts gave me the courage I needed to keep moving briskly through the next four miles. During these mentally challenging miles, I also came up with a rough pacing plan that I’d follow as long as my heart rate remained consistent at where it should be: Keep sub-6:40s to 10. Maintain sub-6:45 ’til 13. Hold on to sub-6:50 until 20. Race all out the last 10K. I had no idea if this strategy would work but it occupied my mind and gave me mini-goals to shoot for as I was running. These mile benchmarks also motivated me to run tangents which was much easier than in any previous marathon I’ve done because the roads where I was running were by this point empty. I also got a chance to admire the beautiful scenery as I was running, which was a novelty for me in the middle of a marathon. I’m usually so focused on my body, my pace, my hydration and my fueling that I often cannot appreciate how or where I am running. The lush trees painting the course an effervescent green, the brightly colored cherry blossoms dancing in full bloom and the cheerful spectators shouting words of encouragement to every runner passing through all helped me to relax and race in the moment. I remember feeling blessed that I was able to appreciate this run and this race even if there was a big part of me just wanted to get this section over with and face what was to come in the double digit miles.
Mile Splits: Mile 6 – 6:30; Mile 7 — 6:38; Mile 8 – 6:38; Mile 9 – 6:43; Mile 10 – 6:39
Miles 11 – 15
As I start mile 11, I’m torn between feeling ridiculously excited for the fast pace that I’ve maintained for the first ten miles of this race and sheer panic that all the faster miles will eventually all catch up to me. I take my first GU gel and remind myself of the successful double digit tempo runs I’ve done during this training cycle at a similar pace and continue moving on. At mile 11.5, the course splits into the full and the half course and I thought for a second of taking the easy way out just so I could see what my half time would be. It was slightly warmer now because the sun was out but because my hydration plan seemed adequate (3 cups at every water station), I hardly felt the effects. I was concerned though because unlike the first half of the course which was in parts shaded, the second half of the course will be a straight out-and-back loop essentially along the boardwalk and completely unprotected against the sun. Luckily I had snucked a packet of salt in my back race pocket right before leaving the hotel this morning. Now, although I’ve never taken salt before during a marathon, I take it here, at mile 12 just to prevent any danger. At mile 13, I see my cumulative time for the first time and become a bit overwhelmed that I will be crossing the half sub 1:27. My secret goal for the first half today was sub-1:28. I had never done better than 1:28:45 at the midpoint of any marathon before so to cross 13.1 in sub-1:27 (I actually crossed in 1:26:31) is incredibly gratifying for me. I wanted so much to stop and take a picture of the clock but alas, I had no phone and no camera so I chose a small fist pump as my personal celebratory gesture instead. I knew it would be impossible for me to keep this pace for another 13.1 but even by conservative estimates, I couldn’t help but think at that point that a 2:55-2:56 would be possible for me. At 14, I allowed the last runner to pass me that day. Although judging from his cadence and heavy breathing, I was pretty sure that his victory would be short-lived. (My suspicions were correct when I passed him again at mile 18 and he was never heard from again). Maybe spurred on by his presence, I clocked another speedy sub-6:40 for that mile. I glance at my HRM and see that my heart rate was still holding steady at 160, the same as it had been for mile 6. I let out an incredulous sigh. How long could this really go on? I take my second gel of four at mile 15 and wonder if my friends and brother who are all running the half are having as much fun right now as I am.
Mile Splits: Mile 11 – 6:42; Mile 12 — 6:39; Mile 13 – 6:41; Mile 14 – 6:38; Mile 15 – 6:46
Miles 16 – 20
The course feels a bit secluded and empty. Aside from the water station volunteers and a few spectators here and there, there is hardly anyone else around along this seemingly endless two lane road we’re running on. With the sun glaring from up above, it reminds me so much of the nuclear plant portion of the Kona marathon course which I’ve caught on Universal Sports so many times before. On this day, with no one else in front or back of me for miles, I imagine myself as Chris McCormack or Craig Alexander running smooth, running fast on my way to a World Championship.
At mile 17, I finally see off in the distance a pack of three runners in front of me. Although I was slowing down a bit at this point, the fact that I see them must mean that they are slowing down more than I am. I don’t speed up, but gradually rein them in until I’m right behind the three of them by the end of that mile. Because I was determined to use them as my rabbits for as long as I could, I snuckk in behind them and ran with the group for a while. Pretty soon after I arrived though, my group fell apart. The first guy fell back after a quarter mile. The second one dropped after a half mile more. Soon I was down to just one rabbit. He stayed with me for 17 and much of 18 until he too fell significantly below pace at 19. There was a right angle turn back onto the boardwalk and I finally had to let him go. So I ran on ahead, just praying that the course was well marked and I wouldn’t get lost again. As I approached the turnaround point, I saw that most of the runners who were ahead of me were all significantly ahead of me by at least a few minutes. I knew then, that the last 7 miles to 10K would essentially be run pretty much on my own. I take the turn and start running back towards where I had come. Far in the distance, I can faintly make out the silhouette of the Oceanport Hotel where the finish line was at. “How Do YOU Define Awesomeness, Lam?” I thought to myself as I start to feel my legs beginning to rebel against my commands to keep pace. “You’ve got SIX miles left to show how awesomeness is DONE!”
I take another GU at mile 20 and prepare myself for the tough battle ahead.
Mile Splits: Mile 16 – 6:43; Mile 17 – 6:46; Mile 18 – 6:53; Mile 19 – 6:49; Mile 20 – 6:49
As I head back along the boardwalk, I am accompanied by a strong headwind which offers some momentary comfort against the blazing sun. It’s not hot per se but the dull fatigue of tired legs and the aggressive pace is enough to make more agitated, tired and weary. I tried reminding myself that I’m well trained for this distance having done a 50K six weeks before but it hardly seemed to matter now that I’m beyond the point where my body is listening to my mind anymore. On the opposite side, the masses are entering their mile 18 and 19 just as I’m leaving mile 21. I run by the fluid station desperately needing some Gatorade and water, but most of the volunteers were attending to the masses running on the other side and none were paying any attention to me! I grab a cup of water from a kid who noticed me out of the corner of his eye but got no more even as I yelled for some help on my side. This frustrated me, but I had to move on. At 22, I approach an ascent to a footbridge that was objectively small but comparatively large in relation to the energy I felt I had left in me. I caught up to a runner here who was limping, cramping, and walking up the side. I am holding on to my form although it becomes more evident with each step I take that my pace is slowing and creeping over a 7 minute mile. At 23, I stop worrying about heart rate, mile paces or times. I take my last GU, compose my breathing and hold my obligatory conversation with my sister. I update her on what’s been happening and where I’ve been since we last spoke in Chicago. I ask her if she notices a chance and whether she’s proud of me for all I’ve done and all I’ve been able to do with my running. She listens in silence but I know she’s listening. At the end of the mile, I promise her the next time we speak (in Vermont), I’m bringing along my brother and maybe next year or sometime soon after, my parents can come along too. By the time I reach 24, I’m an emotional wreck and can hardly compose myself. My heart rate is way high at 165. My pace has jumped over 7 minute/mile for the first time and I no longer feel any connection to my legs anymore. But since I promised my little brother before this race that this mile would be for him, I focus all my mental energies on a fun conversation with him and do the best I can to ignore the throbbing pains pulsating through my lower limbs. As we “talked”, he keeps reminding me to invoke the spirit of Javier Gomez (a professional triathlete who came from dead last heading into the run portion of an Olympic tri- event earlier this year to capture first place) and pass a runner or two in the final 5k. But because there is no runner within eyeshot of me, I resolve to just hold pace as best as I can. (He also told me before we parted ways this morning not to come in over 3 hours today because he was going to take the car and leave which for much of the race seemed like a legitimate threat to me). I just hope he will be there in ten or so minutes at the line to see me finish this race.
At 24.5 we make a right angle turn onto the beach front where we join the half marathon course for the final stretch home along the boardwalk. I am running on fumes at this point, barely cognizant of my whereabouts, when I am greeted by the biggest logjam I’ve ever seen. I am suddenly surrounded by the half marathon relay people walking towards the finish with no alternate routes of escape! Whereas previously there were cones and dividers separating the full and half marathon courses, there was none set up for the entire last 1.5 mile of the way home. Because there was no designated running room and the relay people did not know well enough not to take up the entire boardwalk, I had to twist, weave, elbow and dodge my way to make my way through the crowd. Not only did this maneuver cost me valuable seconds, it was extremely stressful and energy consuming as well. My legs were already about to give up even before this travesty, but the stop-and-go traffic became the last straw. At almost exactly mile 25, with the mile marker staring right in my face, my right hamstring suddenly cramped and I was forced to slow to a walk for a few painful steps.
My mind panicked for a second and I think about relaxing to a full and complete stop. But out of nowhere a voice of reason and experience reminds me that the only way to relieve a cramp is not to walk but to do the opposite, i.e. a dead sprint to the finish. So without a moment’s hesitation, I bear the pain of my left hamstring cramp and take off like a man possessed for the finish line. It felt weird trying to sprint with a cramp, but the longer I held the effort, the less it hurt, and the faster I became. By the half mile, I knew it was working, the pain was gone or at least much more bearable, and I run even harder. I start yelling for the crowds to move out of my way because I was not stopping for anyone at this point, lest my hamstring cramps up again. I see the clock strike 2:56:30 with about .1 left to go and I drive hard for the line. As I come up upon the finish, I see it’s now 2:56:50 on the clock above the line and I go all out for the final steps. Finally, I’m done…and it’s 2:57:00 on the garmin. I am jubilant, tired, excited and exhausted all at the same time as I celebrate my 2 min PR and the best marathon I’ve ever run.
Mile Splits: Mile 21 – 6:50; Mile 22 – 6:56; Mile 23 – 7:00; Mile 24 – 7:10; Mile 25 – 7:24; Mile 26 – 6:54; Last 0.2 – 1:29
For the rest of the day, after the temporary euphoria had worn off, I silently wondered whether there could be a second (or even a fraction of a second) of mercy or self-pity in there for me somewhere. After all, it really was not my fault that I had no room to run in the final 1.5 miles of the race. It wasn’t until much later that night, when the effort was long done but not forgotten, and the official results were posted that I found out my one second reprieve was granted. At long last, marathon #12 was over. Awesomeness in the form of a 2:56:59 marathon (a 2:56 PR!) was DELIVERED and CONFIRMED!