Medal

2016 – A Year of Bests, or Near Misses?

This post is mildly scatological, so apologies in advance. If you’re squeamish, give it a miss.

Today was the New York City Half Marathon, and I was running it for the 3rd time. In 2014, I managed my first ever sub-two hour race at this event by two seconds (1:59:58) but since have only come in under that time on one other occasion, despite being a much more experienced runner now than I was back then. Today I was planning to at least score a Course Best and perhaps have a go at my PR at this distance, which stands at 1:56:07

I started the day incredibly tired, and my stomach felt ‘not quite right’, perhaps due to a slightly poorly judged Chipotle on my lunch break yesterday, but I managed my coffee and some breakfast and managed to stay reasonably warm hiding in the subway at 59th St until the last minute.

The first few miles also went well – I needed a 9:07 or so per mile to hit my target. Mile 1 was a nice warmup of 9:26 followed by an 8:39 and 8:56 (on the uphill in Central Park). But then the stomach cramps hit me(!) If you’re a runner and know what that’s like, you’ll need no further details, but if you’re not and you don’t, just take my word for it that it feels terrible.

Somewhat amusingly (read that again with your ‘dripping sarcasm’ voice), New York Road Runners decided for reasons only they will ever fathom, not to put any porte-potties on the west side of New York’s central park. So from mile 3 to mile 6, there is no bathroom.

Now you might think this would make you run more quickly (as is often remarked and joked about amongst runners) but for me at least the opposite was true. I was too tense and too uncomfortable so my pace slowed to 9:12 and then 9:24 for the next two miles. Finally just before mile 6, an oasis of Royal Flush ports-loos beckoned, and I took my break.

Stopped Off for a Whoopsie

Three minutes later I was off again. I felt so much better, and cranked out six sub-8:42 miles (8:32, 8:18, 8:41, 8:36, 8:36, 8:28) and for those 6 miles caught and even overtook (for a short while) the 1:55 pace maker who was running around 8:46.

In the very last mile, I dropped to 9:17 and the last 400 meters took me 2:17 (in my track repeats training I can often do these in 1:48). The tank was just empty, and so I crossed the line in exactly 2:01:00… the three minutes I lost, plus the prior 2.8 miles at 9:xx almost certainly cost me a course best, and perhaps a PR given I was chasing the race for 6 miles faster than planned, or I had trained for.

However this does give me great hope for beating my other records this year. A 4 mile “Run for the Parks” race is in a few weeks, and I’m looking to beat my PR which is 34:22. The Brooklyn Half Marathon is in may, where my course best is 2:00:11, but I really want that PR in my home town race, and then there’s the Red Hook Crit 5K, where last year I set my 5K PR with a 23:36 time, which I am also hoping to beat.

So this year with either be a year of records… or a year of excuses. Let’s see.

Fred Lebow Cross Country Championships 5K

27:23 (8:49/mile) was my time, which is actually my best NYRR 5K time since I started running with them in 2013. It’s almost 4 mins slower than my 5K PR but nonetheless I’m happy given my condition this year and the deadly hills on this race.

There is a 150ft climb in Van Cortland Park over a mile (between .85 and 1.85 miles), and the decent is so steep and slippery, you can’t really make it up or go full tilt. I really could get a taste for cross country.

Looking at my race, I held steady at around 8min/mile until the hills, then dropped off massively. I caught people on the up hill, but didn’t maintain any advantage on the down hill as I was unsure of my footing and letting go.

The middle section of this race beat me up, but something was left in the tank for the last half mile.
The middle section of this race beat me up, but something was left in the tank for the last half mile.

I have one more 4m race on Dec 5th to wrap up the year!

5K – Fred Lebow Cross Country

The 5K is often wrongly considered the “beginner’s” run, thanks to many fun runs and charity runs around the country being that distance. The 5K is actually one of the toughest races you can be in, if you actually race it. In the ideal 5K you are literally on your last legs as you cross the finish line, with nothing left in the tank other than sweat and spittle. If you find you have an extra spurt over the last 100 meters, you didn’t run hard enough mid-race, but if you cramp up and collapse after 3 miles, and don’t make that final 0.1, you ran too hard or just were not prepared. The 5K is literally 13- 14 minutes of agony, if you’re a serious 5K athlete.

Thankfully I am not a professional runner in the 5K category, so it won’t quite be like that of me, but the 5K is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and maybe just about get a PR. I don’t often run this distance, but have enough races under my belt now to know what to expect; good, bad and ugly.

My PR for 5K was this year in April, when I ran the Red Hook Criterium in 23:36 (7:36/min), on a flat road-course of 4 1.25KM laps.

My Red Hook Criterium Lap Times
My Red Hook Criterium Lap Times

The slowest race I have run, for which I still have the times, was in June 2013 when I struggled in New Jersey finishing in 31:28 (10:09/mile) in blazing heat having been grossly under prepared.

Tomorrow I am running the Fred Lebow 5K Cross Country race in t \he Bronx at Van Cortland Park. In 2013, I ran the same course in October 2013 in 28:12 (9:06), although I had forgotten my running shoes that day and ran in some very flat minimal Merryl shoes.

So, after a middle of the year lull, I am hoping to go out with a bang (I have a 4m race in 3 weeks as well) – I should beat my 2013 time fairly easily, but probably won’t get close to the Red Hoot Crit time given the hilly course.

Now the Marathon is Over, I Can Focus on my Running

OK, let’s talk about my 2015 NYC Marathon. It would be a mild understatement to say it didn’t exactly go as I planned. Back in July on this very blog, I was pretty bullish about getting this one right compared to 2014, but a combination of a niggling foot injury, a personal loss and what my wife described as “second year marathon syndrome” somehow combined to knock me off track. What’s frustrating is that I knew as early as late September that I had missed far too much training to really have a go at last year’s record, but I allowed that to be an excuse to give up entirely on a decent run. I am going to describe below exactly what happens when, and how it feels to, entirely abandon your training. My time was 5:25:55, or 52 minutes longer than in 2014.

2014 Vs 2015!

In 2014, with the 5% adjustment for the GPS inaccuracy, I ran 481 miles during my training from July 17th to Nov 2nd (not including the marathon itself). That’s an average of 4.5 miles per day for 108 days.

In 2015, I ran just 335 miles in 112 days (July 11th to Oct 31st) or an average of just 3 miles per day. So in 2014 I clocked 50% more miles than this year. The effect?

2014 Vs 2015, 5K section paces and cumulative time.
2014 Vs 2015, 5K section paces and cumulative time.

The difference is dramatic as you’d expect. I started much slower and slowed down much faster, and from around mile 9 onwards (around 15 km) I was really uncomfortable. 17 miles is a long way to run when you’re already struggling and I’ve never had a bigger urge to quit something than I did on that day. Somehow though I convinced myself to keep going (after all I didn’t want to miss out on a post-race poncho) and made it across the finishing line.

Looking OK at about mile 22... I was faking!
Looking OK at about mile 22… I was faking!
Finish Line
Crossing the Finish Line!
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Self at the Start
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Brave Face at the Finish. Walking the almost mile stretch from the finish line to the poncho pickup was pure agony.
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The Sea of Ponchos!

In the title I said that now this is over, I can concentrate on my running. Well that’s true to an extent. It feels like a huge burden has been lifted and at this point I am not intending to run another marathon on 2016. I have two more races this year, a 5K in a week and a 4-miler in early December before a trip to Chile. Next year I am going to focus on the half-marathons and some middle-distance improvement before doing this again in 2017.

7 miles here, 3 miles there…

Back to basics this week and a routine.

7.5 miles on Tuesday evening, at a not-too-shabby 9:27/mile for a good 70 minute workout, and squeeze in 3.2 miles this evening in a chirpy 27:41 (8:52).

I’m feeling more positive about my running.

The Staten Island Half Marathon

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Staten Island lit up during sunrise.

The Staten Island Half is one of my favorite races of the year, and definitely my favorite of NYRR’s Five Borough Race Series, which also includes; the Fred Lebow Half Marathon (Manhattan Half), NYC Half, Brooklyn Half, Queens 10k and the Bronx 10m.

The Staten Island Half is probably the most low key of all the races, as it’s out on New York’s often unfairly maligned Staten Island. All of the races have their own characteristic and running all six of them is both challenging and very rewarding, but I like the Staten Island one the best. Here’s why.

If I look at the other races first, there’s the Fred Lebow, which is just over 2 laps of Central Park in January. It’s always freezing cold, and you never leave the park, and it’s right in the middle of the “off season” meaning on the most hardy runners participate, or those looking to qualify for something else. I ran it in 2014, and will definitely run it in 2016 for the sheer hell of it, but it’s no glamor race.

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Fred Lebow Half Marathon, AKA Manhattan Half, first of the Five Borough Series

The New York City Half in March follows, which is the headline race, and one which you can qualify for by running four of the previous years’ six races. Confused? You will be. Regardless, this is the one everyone wants to run, and it’s a fantastic course composed of a single lap of Central Park, then a dash down Fifth Avenue through Times Square before heading out to the West Side Highway and down to the Financial District. You get to see a fair bit of Manhattan and run through a traffic-free Times Square, what’s not to love? Well it’s very crowded, very expensive and unless you qualify it’s tough to get into.

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The Brooklyn Half this year was a wet one!

Next up in May is the Brooklyn Half Marathon. Given this is my home borough, it should be my favorite, but there’s a few things about it that I don’t like. First off, as New York’s ‘hippest’ borough, this is very quickly turning into the one race you just have to run. NYRR has been quick to pick up on this, and are marketing it as the country’s largest half marathon. Sure enough, with over 26,000 finishers in 2015, this is a huge race. It’s crowded at the start and things don’t really start to open up until mile 6 or 7. Still, with such high participation, including 14,000 women in 2015, it’s hard to knock an event that attracts so many young people, and it finishes on Coney Island’s famous boardwalk!

In June you get the Queens 10k. This one really isn’t that much fun in my opinion. It’s always baking hot (this year’s was a simmering 88˚ at 7:30am) and it’s in an area inland and goes through some heavy marshland. If you love 99% humidity and mosquitos, this one’s for you, but otherwise it’s just a grueling 10k in the middle of summer in the middle of a suburban landlocked park with highways on both sides. Still, getting anywhere near a PR is a real badge of honor in this race.

Next up is the Bronx 10m, which is a great race, right in the middle of peak marathon training. I really like this one, and the t-shirt is the best of the bunch! My only minor complaint is they run a 5k at the same time, and the start line gets crowded and confusing, but otherwise this is a close contender for my favorite.

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Staten Island is home to lots of cops (and ex-cops), FDNY and military personnel. This is a race for patriots and fans of the flag!

Last, but not least, is the Staten Island Half. This race gives you all the benefits of a small town race (friendly spectators, a little quieter, nice cops, finish line is in a baseball stadium, and it’s a little bit hilly. Staten Island being the home of many NYPD and FDNY families, means the race attracts plenty of flag bearers and has a genuine ‘all-american’ feel, that lacks in some of New York’s other races. The race starts at the northern tip of the island with a view of Manhattan’s southern skyline, and heads south for around 6 miles. New to 2015, the course loops back up the north western side of the island along the beach road and eventually along the wooden boardwalk. The temperature for the two years I have run it has always been perfect for this length of race (around 55˚) with a little breeze and no clouds. The last part of the race takes you through Fort Wadsworth (which is where the marathon starts) up a very steep incline and over a bridge to the final mile back to the stadium. It’s a tough little race!

Staten Island is full of large beautiful houses, mixed with some oddly deserted spaces.
Staten Island is full of large beautiful houses, mixed with some oddly deserted spaces.

Even though Staten Island’s course is hilly, there is a relatively small field of runners, so it’s not too crowded, it’s very quiet which lends itself to a quick race. My half marathon PR was achieved here; another reason I really like it.

So, for this year I knew I was going to be slow, and my 2:11:24 (10;02/mile) was my slowest half ever by a full five minutes, but getting through it was a minor victory in itself.

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Sometimes your worst performances make you feel like you earned the medal the most!

Loss and Losing

My last post was on August 9th, some 10 weeks ago, and much has happened since then. Not all good, but much to learn from and much to take great strength from. Before that, what happened in week 5? Well I am so glad you asked!

After week 4’s slow improvement, week 5 built upon that and was (and still is) my best week in this training plan. I ran 38 miles, although my average pace was quite slow, only 9:38. On the Sunday, I cut short my long run from a scheduled 15 miles to 12 miles, and this was the start of my problems with training this year. It was a stick 86 degrees; not the worst for an August day in New York, but warmer than you’d want for a long run.

A few days later, after a subway ride I got an intense pain in my right foot across the top. This was similar to the injury I had in 2014 after over-stretching it on a sidewalk step, but somehow felt different. I managed to keep my running up a little in August, but it was characterized by being slow and skipping runs. Between August 16th and the end of August, I only ran 5 times for a total of 33 miles, less than half my target distance.

Also at this time, I found out that my faithful Beagle had cancer. Only weeks before he’d become sick and after taking him to the vets, he was treated for pneumonia for 3 weeks before the vet realized it was something much more serious. A CAT scan and a visit to a radiologist and a surgeon later, we were told that there was little hope and he wasn’t going to get any better. In the space of 8 weeks, he’d gone from a seemingly healthy eight year old beagle, to a dog that could barely breath in his own bed. It was a heartbreaking episode and my wife and I made the decision on September 1st to have him put to sleep.

Best Dog in the World
Best Dog in the World

Dog’s really are beautiful animals that sit in your heart and won’t leave even for the tastiest treat. You don’t realize it at the time, because like so many things in life, while they’re there you take them very much for granted. Losing him was really like losing my best friend, and even now I feel a deep sadness I have never felt before with any loss.

My running in September took a big hit, and I only managed 68 miles, barely half what I should have run. That, along with my foot injury which is still bothering, has pretty much put an end to any hope of cracking last year’s marathon time.

In October 2014 I ran 141 miles. So far this October I have managed only 16.
In October 2014 I ran 141 miles. So far this October I have managed only 16.

As if to hammer home the point, I suffered terribly in two warm up races. First off the 18 mile Marathon Tune Up race in central park. 3 grueling laps which I am very happy to say I managed to complete, albeit at a snails pace. In 2014, I ran this in 2:47, a very healthy 9:20 per mile. This year I ran it in 3:21:51, which is 11:13 per mile, a pace I’ve never dropped to in any race prior.

Perhaps even more tellingly, the Bronx 10 miles just a few weeks ago I ran in 1:31:05, which was a 9:47/mile pace. In 2014, I ran that race in 1:20:01 (my 10 mile PR) which is a quite respectable 8:31/mile.

What has been difficult to know for sure is how much of this is all in my head. I started the summer running slower than expected after a fairly decent start to the season, but haven’t really picked it up at any point. In my head I am saying it’s OK to stop, OK to hit the quit button, OK to slow down to 11 min/miles and this is something that wasn’t going on last year.

Tomorrow I have the Staten Island Half Marathon. Again, last year I ran this in 1:56:07, which is still my Half PR. Tomorrow I am not expecting to beat 2:05, which would make this my slowest half yet. I know I am in no shape to run it hard, but perhaps if I can get my mind into a better place, I can beat my expectations and give myself a lift 3 weeks before the Marathon. I rarely if ever exceed my own expectations, which is troubling given they’re not particularly high.

Dedicated to my beautiful dog, Ranulph. Aug 2007 – Sept 1st 2015.

Ranulp Roller