Thursday, November 13, 2014

New York City Marathon, November 2014

Any excuse to visit New York is a good one, really, and the marathon is the best of all. My very first marathon was New York in 2010 and somehow it made sense to return there at this point in my running career - if for no other reason than to see how much I might be able to improve on the 3:17 I posted on that cold, sunny day.

The Training
My original intention was to run New York more as a fun, destination marathon than a time-goal one, given that it is a notoriously slow/difficult course and that I was also signed up (once again as an elite) to run Melbourne marathon just 3 weeks earlier. But as I have mentioned before, my plans for Melbourne went completely askew when I managed to injure myself for the whole of August, and the very short amount of time left once I was back training somewhat decently meant that New York took on more significance.

And as I have also already mentioned, I was hopeful of a sub-elite start for NYC but instead found myself placed squarely in the professional women's race (oh my god) - and so it came to pass that I headed for New York with a far-from-decent prep but ever-ambitious dreams of actually doing reasonably well (or at least not finishing as the very last female elite) there.

My weekly training mileage in the 2 months leading up to NYC:

39 miles, all easy
62 miles including a 39:08 10K (1st female, 6:18 pace)
77 miles with a 1:24:55 HM (13th female, 6:24 pace)
95 miles, including a marathon-specific 21 mile LR
81 miles, all easy
80 miles including Melbourne marathon in 2:53:35 (10th female, 6:36 pace)
52 miles, all easy
71 miles with a 14 mile LR including 4x2 mile MP intervals.

If you're thinking that there is a dangerous combination of not enough mileage and far too much racing in there, for such an abbreviated training period -- you're probably not alone.

Travel and pre-race festivities
I'm fairly good at the process of international travel now, and the only real hitch is the amount of time it takes me to get from JFK airport to my hotel (close to 3 hours, somehow, I have no idea why), but in any case I manage to arrive unscathed and with all possessions intact. The Hilton is abuzz with runners and many wheelchair athletes as well; after a refreshing night's sleep my first priority on Friday is to head up to the Professional Athletes hospitality suites on the top floor of the hotel.

Here's where NYC totally out-does Boston when it comes to the way it treats professional athletes (like me, ahem) - well, maybe the way it treats also-rans like me, actually. I get a credential declaring me an official professional athlete, a bag full of goodies that cannot be bought at the expo, and access to all the coffee, bagels, Gatorade and Power bars I can handle. Which, come Saturday, will be a LOT.

Credentials and exclusive Elite athlete vest, oh yeah!

While we are there, we manage to find out that a bus is leaving in half an hour to take people to the Expo  - yes! It's cold and grey out, possibly about to rain, and the last thing I want to do is try to figure out how to ride the subway downtown to the Jacob Javitz convention centre where the Expo is held. It's very luxurious to be ushered from our hotel onto a plush bus and then led straight in (bypassing the huge queues) and up to the media conference.

Quickly I realise I don't belong here - it's for the biggest fish in the pond and I am a tiny, baby piece of krill by comparison - but before we leave I take advantage of the opportunity to get a photo with one of my all-time idols, before leaving in total awe of the whole situation:

Paula Radcliffe, female marathon World Record holder!
And so nice as well.

The expo is crowded beyond belief with excited runners and their friends; the line to buy ASICS official merchandise is incredibly long but that doesn't deter me from picking up a few items that I'll be able to wear running at home in, oh, 6 months or so. Wrong season = no problem, for the dedicated runner/shopper at least.

Later on Friday I get an email that is somewhat worrying. It seems I will now be racing my 2nd World Marathon Major where I've received a weather alert in the days leading up to the event: Boston in 2012, when a sudden heatwave struck and prompted organisers to send out an email instructing everyone to give up time goals and just "fun run" it, and now New York 2014. The forecast is ominous - headwinds of 26mph (over 40kph) with gusts up to 40mph (66kph) - and it really has to be bad because this is what I read:

Oh, great.

And the horrible thing is that this forecast - which everyone is hoping will change - remains steadfastly the same for the whole of the next 36 hours. I'm sure there are 50,000 other people out there also checking it obsessively in the way that I am, but none of this can convince the weather gods to change their minds. I didn't let the heat of Boston 2012 sway me from my ambitions - I was one of the very few of my running acquaintance who actually met their goal that day - but Sunday's goal is far loftier, and a strong headwind is something I've never really trained for. Ugh.

I wake on Saturday to find that it's raining - oh well, what better way to fit in a final pre-race workout than to run the Dash to the Finish Line 5K? I do mean run, not race, although it's a perfect example of a progression run that incorporates the 3 minutes of hard running called for with the Aussie carbo loading plan: the mile splits are 7:54, 7:22, 6:36 and 6:15 pace to the finish. Despite the rain it's a lot of fun and after finishing we jog happily home to attack the breakfast buffet with gusto.

Wet but happy.

Later, on my way up to drop off my water bottles I bump into a woman who is wearing the same credentials as me - she tells me she's not sure if she will drop off her bottles, because she is considering dropping back to the general start due to the wind forecast; she's worried about not being able to keep up with the rest of the field.

It turns out she is Canadian and also the other family physician in the professional women's race; her PR (and her age) is very similar to mine and her name is Paula. Wonderful! I tell her most emphatically that she MUST stay in the elite race, because she is likely to run my sort of pace and I desperately need company. We can run together!! And so I leave the hospitality suites with my tinsel-decorated bottles secured and a running companion for the race also locked in - this is a very big deal.

My name is on my bib!! For New York!!

The pre-race briefing and bib pick-up on Saturday afternoon is quite surreal; race director Mary Wittenberg welcomes everyone warmly and I stand in line to get my bib, wedged in between at least 2 or 3 Olympic medalists. Deena Kastor is right ahead of me so I take the opportunity to introduce myself and congratulate her on her recent Masters' World Record in the half-marathon; she's lovely and we chat briefly before it's time to think about going to the pre-race dinner. Across the room Meb Keflezighi is hugging Paula Radcliffe, and they're both at a table with Kara Goucher and Deena. A bunch of Kenyans which contains at least 2 former world record holders (Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai) is at another.....and again I'm wondering, how on earth did I get in here??

Race Day
I'm up and getting dressed by 5am and we head downstairs to the elite athletes' breakfast on level 3; all the superstars are there and we land at a table with Desi Linden (who was 2nd in Boston 2011 and will go on to be the fastest American woman today) and her coaches. Everyone is understandably jittery; I'm stressing out somewhat over the way my digestive system seems to respond to jet lag (by seizing up) and so every bite of my bagel and sip of coffee is filled with the anxiety of wondering, will I have to stop during the race because I'm eating this now?

Too much information I know, but I'm still fretting pointlessly over my lack of bathroom action when we walk out to board the bus that will take us to the start. We cross the street and even with the tall buildings all around, it's painfully clear that the wind is positively howling. Plus it's COLD - the temperature is probably around 4C/37F but the windchill is driving it much lower. It's a small consolation that at least Saturday's rain seems to have stopped, but I will later realise that rain would have been preferable to the hurricane that will greet me on the course....

Similar to Boston, we get a police escort that accompanies us on the long drive out to the start, but the traffic is a lot worse than it ever was in Boston. There are extended periods of time where we come to a complete standstill and wait; this isn't such a concern because the last I heard about the elite waiting area on Staten Island is that the tents had to be taken down overnight, lest they blow away in the gale-force winds. So we may be spending a whole lot MORE time on this bus, and it doesn't really matter how soon we get to the official start village.

It's a pleasant surprise, then to arrive and see that the tent is actually standing - they're even putting the walls on it to keep out the howling wind. Inside there are tables with bottles of water, bagels, gatorade, fruit.....I'm pretty stunned to see that a lot of people are still eating. The general race start is 90 minutes away and mine is just an hour off - my stomach certainly wouldn't be able to keep its act together if I was to fill it up now and try to run a tough marathon so soon afterwards.

A quick (and thankfully successful) bathroom visit ensues and pretty soon it's time for the professional women to start making their way up to the starting line. We're allowed to wear extra clothes up there so I keep my sweater and long tights on; it's surreal to be jogging around in the company of some of the world's best marathoners. I see that Deena is wearing the same shoes as me so I dance over to her and say "Hey, we're shoe twins!" - then we're off and walking towards the start area. Up on the bridge it is incredibly cold; I join in with some short strides up and down in front of the starting line, just for the sake of keeping warm.

A large bunch of scantily-clad, freezing-cold athletes.

Miles 1-3: 6:54, 6:24, 6:42 (pace in min/mile)

After all the build-up,the start itself happens with surprisingly little fanfare. We are herded back behind the starting mats, over the loudspeaker Mary says "Ladies take your marks", and then suddenly we are off. I'm on the far left and actually stay with the main pack for about the first 400m - the pace feels reasonable, but the super-elites all accelerate away from me fairly soon and I know better than to try to keep up.

As we head up onto the bridge the true force of the wind makes itself known and my god, it's like nothing I have ever had to deal with before. My bib is whipping in the crosswind, my beanie feels like it's going to blow straight off my head and a few times I get caught by a gust that almost throws me off my feet. Running a decent marathon in this sort of thing is going to be as good as impossible - but I'm here and I have to at least try.

Keeping up, but not for long....

By the end of the first mile - all uphill - I've formed a small pack with Paula and another woman, Josephine - who looks African (although her bio says she's from Italy) and is very tall. As we finally crest the bridge and start bombing down the other side, she says "We run together?", and Paula and I agree. It makes sense to stay together, but to be honest it's going to be difficult. Paula surges ahead to take the lead and when I fall in behind her, I accelerate so quickly that I almost slam straight into her back.

The difference that this drafting makes to my pace is remarkable, but I have to stay super-close or the effect is lost. The last thing I want to do is to keep bumping into her or, worse still, somehow trip her up. If I stay as close as I need to in order to draft, that's almost guaranteed to happen, and it seems pretty unfair to make another runner do most of the work on my behalf.

As I'm considering this I realise that one of the safety pins holding my bib to my chest has blown away, and the whole thing is flapping around even worse than before. Thankfully the gusts settle down a little as we come down from the bridge and now the headwind is blowing it snugly back against me, but I won't be impressed if the whole thing blows off - which is entirely possible.

Miles 4-6: 6:33, 6:39, 6:28

Josephine has disappeared behind us now but Paula and I are still running close together. We're taking it in turns to go ahead and forge a path through the relentless headwind, and already I know that the for the effort I'm putting in, I should be going at least 10-15 seconds per mile faster. Very quickly it is becoming apparent that today's time goals are heading straight out the window - there is just no way I can keep up this level of exertion for another 20+ miles. Check out how hard I'm working in the video below, taken by a spectator in Brooklyn.....

Miles 7-9: 6:39, 6:39, 6:41

Paula now moves ahead and opens up a small gap on me; somehow, somewhat surprisingly, I find myself unwilling to follow. She's not very far ahead, maybe 10 seconds, but she stays there for the next 3 miles as we continue to battle the wind. And really it's getting rather boring now - not only am I dealing with a constant headwind, I'm all alone and the gusts are still coming frequent and strong. Gah, this is awful.

On the other hand, having my name on my bib is turning out to be rather awesome. The crowd is much smaller than I remember it being in 2010 (probably due to the icy blast, perhaps a lot of spectators have actually been blown away) but no less vocal and they are all calling to me by name: cheers of "Rachel! GO Rachel!" and the like are coming thick and fast. I realise this means that anyone whom I actually DO know will have no way of identifying themselves to me, since everyone knows my name now, but still it is very cool. It's making up in some small way for the horror of running headlong into a hurricane, which is essentially what I am trying to do now.

Miles 10-12: 6:41, 6:48, 6:36

I've pretty much decided that 6:40ish is a reasonable pace to aim for; if I can maintain this then I'll still get in well under 3 hours, which is my C goal for the day. The course winds onwards through Brooklyn and into the neighbourhood populated by Hasidic Jews. With so few runners on the course, they are feeling very free to just walk right out and cross the road whenever they like. I almost slam straight into a bloke with the most impressive monobrow that I've ever seen -- I'm sure I look EXTREMELY surprised as I shoot past, thankfully without a collision.

The personal fluid stations have been a huge success so far and because it's so cold, I haven't been bothering to drink at any other water stops. I've managed to take my gels at miles 2 and 8 without any issues, and all I have had to concentrate on is making sure I use both hands to grab my bottle - due to the wind they've been sticky taped to the tables and it does take a bit of effort to get them free. But the water stop at mile 11 is a lot of fun as I pass through; the entire crowd of volunteers, all revved-up but with very little to do at this stage, is chanting as one: "RA-CHEL! RA-CHEL!! RA-CHEL!!"

Despite the relentless battering of the wind, this sort of thing makes me laugh and realise that I'm having fun after all. Up ahead Paula has now moved quite a way ahead of me, but it's interesting to note that she is catching up to not one but TWO other female runners. I wonder if I will be able to do the same?

Miles 13-15: 6:52, 6:50, 7:08

I go through half-way in just on 1:28:00 and realise that sub-3 may yet be slipping away from me: I'm struggling to hold onto a reasonable pace as I fight the wind to get up the second of the bridges, and the notorious Queensboro bridge still lies ahead. For the first time I feel rather annoyed - it's completely unfair that this weather should show up and take away any possible advantage that being in the professional race might have given me. What I wouldn't give to have someone to run behind right now!

These 15 miles have worn me out more than I could have anticipated, and the only consolation is the thought that by mile 21 or so the wind *should* be coming from behind. I just need to get there....focus, don't give up. I'm reminded of my meeting at the expo with Kathrine Switzer, one of the pioneers of women's running, and how she hugged me and told me "Be fearless!". Those words go around in my head and I find new resolve as I make the turn up onto the bridge.

Two marathon women!

Miles 16-18: 7:16, 6:52, 6:52

The steady uphill of the bridge is eerily silent and unpleasantly tough. Despite being on the lower deck of the bridge, the headwind continues unabated; besides the whipping of my half-off bib as the wind again tears at it, all I can hear is the slap-slap of my feet as I make my way ever-upward. There's a water station around half-way; I grab my bottle and quickly take a few sips, then discard it amongst the pile of others. My Garmin loses the satellites and completely freaks out. I can't say I blame it - I've just about had enough of this myself!

But coming down onto First Avenue is just as thrilling as it was 4 years ago. The crowd is large and loud, and they roar even louder when I raise my arms and wave at them. Again I'm grinning and enjoying myself, despite everything, and the vibe carries me onwards. At some point along here is my photographer friend Jason, who takes some photos that he later posts on Facebook for me; I will discover to my amazement that professional athletes apparently don't get official photos from the race, so these ones will turn out to be even more precious. Many thanks to Jason for sharing his photography skills with me once again.

Too exhausted to even look up, sorry folks.

Somewhere between my Garmin going weird at mile 16 and the upcoming events of mile 18/19, I have now completely stopped checking my pace. I don't even look when a mile split beeps; I know I'm going a lot slower than I'd like, but I'm deep in survival mode and there's no real point looking, since there won't be anything I can do about it anyway.

I've been running a long time now but I'm not feeling remotely warm; the best I can say is that with my arm warmers, gloves and a beanie, I'm not actually cold. And the INKnBURN outfit, as always, is attracting a lot of attention - besides my name, the thing I'm hearing most of is "Nice outfit!", "Best outfit of the day!" and similar sentiments. Being dressed in funky gear definitely goes a long way towards making up for the sufferfest that the rest of the day has turned into.

Miles 19-21: 7:02, 7:04, 7:23

As mile 19 starts, finally it happens: the stream of lead vehicles and police motorcycles that precede the male leaders starts to roar past me. Unlike Boston there is no personal bicycle spotter to warn me and keep me safe - and as result I almost get flattened by the photographers' vehicle as it passes by ridiculously close - but whatever, it's still pretty thrilling. Not so thrilling that it has any great effect on my pace, unfortunately.

As they pass me I count 9 in the pack, and Meb is amongst them! I try to yell out to him but the wind is so strong that it drowns me out - well, that and the screaming from the crowd. What a difference to the moment when he passed me during Boston, when he was out in front all by himself.....and if only I had a pack like that to hide in. Sigh.

Me leaving the elite men in the dust. Keep up, boys! Ha ha.

But look at this: the first of the females that I've been chasing for miles now is fast coming into my frame of reference. I know I am slowing down but she must be slowing down more, because come mile 20 I suddenly find myself shooting past her. Good, good, that's 2 female elites that are now behind me! And there is at least one more in sight - perhaps a tiny game of Assassin Mode is on the cards after all. In a schadenfreude sort of way I'm glad to know that others are fading worse than I am; clearly I wasn't the only one badly affected by the headwind.

And hopefully there's some relief now in sight: actually since mile 17 I've been telling myself "Just get to 21 and then it will be a tailwind! It will be EASY!" But I find myself in the Bronx at mile 21 and the wind is most definitely still blowing straight into my face. Onto 5th Avenue at last.....and it's still blowing right at me. Or it swirls around to blow me sideways; there are short periods now where it's behind me but this never lasts for more than 20 or 30 seconds. Ye gods, this is so, SO unfair!!

Miles 22-24: 7:01, 7:07, 7:26

Onward I struggle along 5th Avenue, trying not to count how many blocks I have to pass before I hit Central Park South, trying to keep it going. It's gratifying to know that I have at least one friend with the brains to figure out how to get my attention: around mile 22 I hear "Rachel GLASSON!!!" from the left and look over to see Pam waving and smiling. Probably somewhere in the same mile my friend Ron is yelling and screaming and even running along beside me, all to no avail; should have used my surname, Ron, or perhaps a loudhailer?

The only other good thing about this stretch is that I somehow manage to catch and pass another 2 female elite runners. A few more male elites are passing me, though - Lee Troop burns past me on his way to an impressive 2:25 - still, there's not really anybody around and definitely not anybody to run with. I guess I'm used to it by now.

Then, somewhere just before the sharp right-hand turn into Central Park - and right as I'm practically being blown sideways straight into the Park -  I hear an almighty roar from my right and look over to see 3 of my friends bellowing their lungs out at me: Jim, Yvonne and Tara. Yvonne takes a photo at the exact second that I make a goofy face and wave excitedly; she posts it to Facebook and people enthuse about how I look like I'm still having fun (despite having run 24 miles in gale-force headwinds) but nobody stops to consider that maybe I'm just completely delirious at this point? Because that's definitely another possibility.

My brain cells have all been blown away! Gaaaahhh!!

Miles 25-26.2: 7:03, 6:58, then 6:28 pace to finish

Grinding along through Central Park, the crowds are much smaller than I remember from 2010, but I barely care at this point. All I want is to get to the finish. The lack of support does feel strange, though; as I hit the corner where we turn onto Central Park South, there is abruptly a huge crowd straining at the barriers but they are eerily silent. Suddenly I think to myself, well, this isn't right! I haven't run 25+ miles in a roaring headwind for people to just stare blankly at me - so I look left and right, raise my arms above my head and yell "COME ON!!" They respond with a deafening roar and I'm laughing like a madwoman as I turn and head towards Columbus Circle. I may be losing it here, but that was kind of fun! Next thought: god, that statue is just too far away.

There's a bloke ahead of me though who looks to be in big trouble. He's wearing a bib on his back so he's one of the male elites - he must have passed me earlier. I zip past him, thankful not to be in the same position, and eventually I'm turning back into the park and the finish stretch. I can summon up something of a kick but it's not much to speak of, and finally I'm over the line where I practically fall into Mary Wittenberg's arms. "How was it??" she asks and I gasp out "Bloody windy!!" but I'm okay really, just annoyed that when I looked up at the arch just beyond the finish, it read "Professional Women" with a clock near it that had just ticked over 3:00.

Finish time: 3:00:45, 6:54 pace

Placement: 52nd OA female (25th in professional race), 9th AG.

The elite and sub-elite tents are up on a small hill quite near the finish - I refuse the offer of a space blanket and instead allow myself to be escorted up there straightaway so I can get my hands on my warm clothes; they are easily located and someone even brings me a medal. In the professional women's tent I find Paula, who has pushed through to a very impressive 2:56, and we commiserate about the wind as we both strip off and replace sweaty race outfits with warm dry clothing - ahhh.

Two fast doctor chicks. Awesome.

Back at the hotel after showers and a rest, it's time to start the celebrations. I won't go into detail but it involves a great deal of food, alcohol and very little sleep, many old and new friends and a fantastic dinner with some of the other "working elites", including the incredible Yuki Kawauchi - Japan's "citizen runner" who runs sub-2:10 marathons like they're a walk in the park....such a cool and humble dude.

The working runners' table!

The analysis
It's not too hard to figure out what went wrong here; there were 4 contributing factors that are, in no particular order:
- that ridiculous headwind
- running mostly totally alone against that ridiculous headwind
- low average mileage in the 12 weeks beforehand (including 4 weeks completely off)
- that 2:53 marathon in Melbourne that in retrospect was probably not a great idea, but lots of fun

From my 5K splits the story appears: I was going reasonably well until around 20K, after which time I gracefully faded (yet without totally giving up the ghost) to my first non-sub-3 marathon since late 2011.

It's disappointing not to have even broken 3 hours but on the other hand, I hit my goal of not being last - I was 25th of 30 in the professional women's race despite having the lowest seeding going into it. And the vast majority of others in the race lost 7-8 minutes (or more) off their goal: for example, both Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher went though half-way in 1:14 yet finished in 2:33 and 2:37 respectively. 

It was just a rough day and the headwind took a lot out of everyone -- starting in the main race would likely have made things a fair bit easier for me, but I'll never regret taking the opportunity to run New York Marathon as an elite athlete: it will remain forever in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences in my running career.


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  2. Hi Rachel,

    I'm an avid runner from Singapore, been following your blog for awhile now (not many other well chronicled exploits of semi-elites around). I think your ability to be a mum, hold down a demanding full time job, and train and compete at the level you do is mind-boggling (and highly inspiring!)

    Anyway I was watching the live feed of the NYC marathon a couple of weeks ago and saw a lot of camera footage of you as the elite men were going by. It looked like you were battling those winds with tenacity!

    Keep on inspiring us!


  3. Thanks Jeremy! It was pretty ugly at that point, but at least I finished. I now have PTSD about running in a headwind though, lol.

  4. That was a good read. Tough conditions Rachel! You did well to battle through that, running by yourself most of the way. I'm sure it won't be your last time in NY as a professional athlete - good gig that. Only problem is, you're going to have to think of a nickname so you can hear your friends cheering in the crowd ;) Well done again. Hope the recovery and build for the next one goes well.