Friday, November 25, 2011

Once a Racer...: 2011 LCCC Turkey Trot Race Report

What cross country REALLY means
Early this week, I made the decision to throw out my pride and run (not race) in a Thanksgiving Day "Turkey Trot." I was planning on doing a workout that morning anyway. Why not do it by running (not racing) with others and supporting the greater Cleveland running community in the process?

Once that decision had been made, my next big decision was: "which race?" There are gobs - no pun intended - of Turkey Trots all over northeast Ohio - in Cleveland, Akron, Warren, Lorain, etc. There were races 15 minutes away or over an hour. Race distances were 5K, 4 miles, 5 miles, 10K - you name it! (ok, so no marathons in there, but you get my point).

The decision wasn't a no-brainer, but it was relatively easy. I knew I did NOT want to run in downtown Cleveland - especially since I would be driving there by myself - I gave my husband Jim the day off from support crew. I would have to find parking. The car would inevitably be far away, and Jim would not be there to hold my stuff while I ran (not raced). And, selfishly, I wanted to avoid discomfort, and the Cleveland Turkey Trot boasts thousands of runners. This meant I would have to wait in long bathroom lines. Instead, I chose the "LCCC Turkey Trot" - a cross-country 10K at Lorain County Community College.

The ease of the decision came in that I had run the LCCC race once before - way back in the 1990s before I knew triathlons existed. I remember it was fun. I remember it was a nice soft-surface course. And I remember it wasn't "huge," but it had good competition and a great reputation among many local elite runners.

Mark liked my Punk Rock Racing threads.
I knew I had "lucked out" with my race choice when I walked into the registration area only to bump into two of my good friends (and runners), Mark Breudigam and Lou Karl (who would be turkey-trotting with his dog). As the crowd of runners increased, more people I knew showed up, including a large contingency from two of the local multisport teams, Spin/Second Sole and Snakebite Racing. I briefly felt guilty for choosing this race knowing one of my sponsors, Fleet Feet, supported the Cleveland Turkey Trot. But then I remembered why I was here - to do a fun run (not a race).

After some quick socializing and before long, runners were on their way to the starting line - which was situated in a field. The last time I ran this race, I was told the course was always muddy with one huge hill (that you run up twice), and at one point, we would have to wade up to our knees through a river. Of course, the year I ran it, the course was mostly dry and the "river" was barely a stream - we just lept over it.

The dogs are out in force at LCCC,
Lou and Molly before the mud. 
But not this year. THIS year, even though the weather was sunny and in the 40s (balmy for Cleveland in late November), the course description came back to haunt me tenfold.

We had to "wade" out to the starting line. I'm not exaggerating. By the time I was standing in that field, my socks and shoes had been completely submerged in water and mud, and I had given up trying to keep them dry. The race director stood in front of us and shouted instructions. He pointed to the sky: "Do you see that big yellow thing? THAT is the SUN! Something we haven't seen at this race in a long time." Next, he explained the rules of cross-country (white poles, red poles, run on grass not the road, etc). Then, he explained some changes on the course, which many were familiar with because it's also the LCCC Men's X-C course. He said (and I quote): "The course is a MESS," and proceeded to explain changes that were made in areas that were deemed impassable. And with that, we were off.

Even with all the warnings, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. In the first 100 yards, my only thought was how thankful I was for wearing my trail shoes, even though it didn't help much. Before the first mile was over, I was covered with mud from both my kicking it up and the people in front of me kicking it back. After announcing to my friends at the starting line that I "got nuthin'" because I had just started quad-killing bike trainer workouts and I was here only for a workout (and not to race), I started out very easy and IN the pack.

And yet, within the first mile, I found myself passing most of the women (and girls) and people jogging with dogs who went out sprinting. Mile 1 is at the top of the aforementioned hill. Just before it, I passed Lou and Molly (who tried to give me the slip but she was on a leash and had to haul Lou's butt up that hill). On the way up, I stupidly ran on the mud instead of the grass and was passed by almost everyone just behind me. On the steep (and muddy) downhill, my only goal became to not break one of my ankles.

Before Mile 2, I found myself chasing down the "runner in pink" (a.k.a. the women's leader). In doing this, I had to run for almost a half-mile through ankle-deep water on top of thick mud and grass. Every single step felt like I was wearing ankle weights. I decided to hang behind her, but just before Mile 2, she slowed a bit. With a comfortable pace going, I decided to pass her.

I wondered if that was a mistake. By Mile 3, my tired bike-burnt quads started their screaming. And then came my lungs (also screaming). What was I THINKING!! This was supposed to be a fun run. With my friends! With their dogs!

And now that I was leading, the competitive me started a conversation with the me that went there to NOT race. I was hurting, but could I hold on? Did I want to? Would I be embarrassed to lose my lead?

Um.... yep. I would.

A return to analog racing.
I buckled down and decided I would, in fact, RACE those last three-point-two miles. Despite the distress, I chased down everyone I could - only one guy passed me, and it was on that confounded hill! I plowed through the water, the mud, the woodsy terrain, and ran hard to the finish where I was handed my finisher's card. Yes, folks, this is old-style, no number-bib, analog racing at its best. It had the number 22 on it.

Shortly thereafter, the girl in pink finished. We immediately struck up a conversation. Her name was Katie - she's a 29-year-old mom of three whose goal is to break three hours in the marathon. Listening to her attempts, I have no doubt she will do it. What was wonderful about meeting her was that I found myself playing a sort-of mentor role for the first time. We talked marathons - she was even interested in my history. I was beyond honored to hear she "didn't feel so bad being beaten by a former Olympic Trials marathoner." (I did remind her that I am, in fact, 46, but she took it well.)

In all the excitement, I never hit my watch at the finish, so I am relying on the accuracy of the race timer to tell me how fast (or slow) I ran. And I still have not looked for the official results online. Or the results of my post-race interview.

I learned afterwards that I had, indeed, been beaten by my good friend Rich Oldrieve. Now, mind you, I don't have an objection to being beaten by Rich. In his storied past, Rich has run a sub-2:30 marathon - in Boston, of all places. I met him after he turned 40 - when he was not only the fastest local masters runner, but always took home masters money at national- and international-level marathons. In local (longer distance) races, he often won outright. So yeah, Rich can bury me in any race, even now in his mid-50s. What I objected to on Thanksgiving was that Rich Oldrieve not only slaughtered me in the race, but he did it in cotton sweats, tube socks, wearing a fanny pack, and running with his dog! (I'm only slightly exaggerating, but I was happy to hear that "Hamlet" probably beat Rich across the finish line.)

Old friends Randy and Toby
And, all I have say about that is (a common thread in my blogs lately), the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And thank heavens for that! Because the greatest thing about running (not racing) this Thanksgiving was that I reconnected with people I have not seen in many, MANY years. After the race, I met up with some long-lost running and racing companions: Randy Barkacs (a.k.a. the fastest guy never to have run a sub-3-hour marathon, who just turned 60 and doesn't look a day over 40), Dave Wendell (a well-under-3-hour marathoner who I beat Thursday for the first time ever), Rick Ventura (another outstanding masters runner now in his late-50s - one who could sometimes beat Rich Oldrieve), and the almost-always-smiling-but-not-today-until-it-was-over Kevin Krol (one of the first people I ever knew and admired in the multi-sport universe).

I had the opportunity to hang out with my not-long-lost friends: Lou (and mud-covered Molly, my newest Facebook friend), Nancy Desmond (an outstanding local cyclist who ran with her own mud-covered Maddie), and Mark (one of the best friends I ever met through running). They invited me to partake of the communal flask of B&B (way cool), and I was given my own plastic Solo cup of Guinness (which kicks chocolate milk's arse as a recovery drink).

Lou, Molly, B&B, Mike, Nancy, Maddie
I met the incomparable Mike Twigg who had the quote of the day: "The older you get, the better you used to be." I was told this expression was directly intended for "Old Like Lou" Karl who, I think, was a legend before he was even born. And I suspect it's been trademarked, so make sure you give credit if you borrow it.

For my friends out there with the goal of breaking four hours in the marathon, this was a tough group at LCCC on Thanksgiving. Catching up after the race, I told Rich Oldrieve that I ran the New York City Marathon four weeks after Ironman Kona. He asked how I did in NY. I said: "not great" (considering that Rich's standards for me are similar to my own, having trained with me during my sub-2:50 days). He asked my time. My reply: "Three fifteen." Rich's reaction? "Yeah, three fifty? That's not very good." (Note, this was in a totally matter-of-fact manner.) I countered: "No, three FIFTEEN." His tone changed to one slightly less critical: "That's not bad."

Molly has eyes for my first place trophy
[Again, my apologies to all the over-3:50 marathoners out there. The views expressed are not my own. But in his defense, Rich is a very logical and scientific elite runner, and I have him to thank for teaching me how to disassociate my emotions from running. He was one of the biggest influences on my fastest marathon performances.]

The final thing I found out at the LCCC Turkey Trot was that many of the local runners thought I had left town or gotten seriously injured because I dropped out of "running" circulation in 2003 - this was right after I was hit by a car training for triathlon. I had often assumed everyone knew about my accident. I didn't race again until 2008, almost completely missing out on my early masters years. Who knew people were paying attention? Who knew I had fallen into the "whatever-happened-to" file? It was actually a good feeling - I guess you have to be someone in order to be someone that people wonder what happened to.

I waited for the awards to cheer for both my old and new friends. In the meantime, there was a raffle during which they gave away things like plastic containers of sticky buns and issues of Men's Health magazine (yes, I won that) in addition to cool gift certificates. It's fun, but I was told to stick around, to not miss the most hilarious thing. AFTER the awards ceremony, they give away the final raffle prize - a TURKEY.

My question: "What is the winner going to do with a turkey NOW? [as opposed to yesterday]"

Rich Oldrieve's response? "THAT'S why it's so funny!"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Contemplating the Off-Season

Enjoying the third day of the off-season surfing in Maui
It's been a while since I had a real off-season, but the planets have aligned this year to provide me with a little post-season, holiday, do-nothing block of time. Even though I ran the New York City Marathon two weeks ago, my post season off-time began the day after Ironman Kona. It started with a trip to Maui and ends right about now, in my kitchen, in front of my computer.

Why now, you ask? Because six weeks is enough! I've realized that there is still nothing interesting to watch on TV. I've fallen victim to the Halloween-candy-at-the-office five-pound weight gain (which, at my advanced age's metabolic slowdown, will no doubt take the next six months to eradicate). And I'm ready to stop looking at the past and now look at the future - a.k.a., my 2012 triathlon season.

To go forward, though, I feel the need to contemplate the past so that I can learn from it. The first mistake I ALWAYS make in reviewing the past is the one I'm going to try to avoid this time: remembering only the failures. In looking at years past, I usually only remember the things I want to change, like my poor performances. That's all well and good if I logically analyze what caused the poor performances. But I always forget to review what went right.

Why do we do that? Maybe the question should be: am I the only one who does that? Why does the negative emotional impact of my bad races outweigh the positive impact of my good ones? In other words: why do we dwell?

I don't have the answer to that. (All the psychologists of the world just breathed a collective sigh of relief.)

So, to focus on a positive review of last season, I will not mention the disasters that were two of my biggest races of the year: the USAT National Championship and Ironman Hawaii. Instead, I will review what went right:
  • I won my age group in Ironman St. George by more than an hour, came in tenth overall and fifth amateur. (Who cares if it was with an embarrassingly-slow marathon?)
  • I won my age group and set the age group course record in Ironman Lake Placid.
  • I won my age group in Ironman 70.3 Muncie.
  • I became the 2011 world champ in my age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas.
  • I ran two marathons - Walt Disney World and New York City - just for fun, both with respectable times (and won my age group at Disney).
Punks, me and Ron in Vegas
Unlike last year, I am able to make that list this year because one of the other great things that happened in 2011 was to develop a great friendship with Ron, aka Punk Rock Tri Guy and @PunkRockRunner, who felt compelled to write me a motivational list before Kona - to remind me of the things I should remember about myself. He has been on a mission to turn my thinking around from dwelling on the disasters. Between Ron and my husband Jim (who has been on that same mission since I began running marathons in 1991), it might finally be setting in.

In addition to athletic endeavors, there were other positives in my life this year. I was able to get out of a dead-end job where I lived daily with fear and stress - and started a new job at a world-class institution, The Cleveland Museum of Art, doing something I love (web application development). It's amazing to me that a simple change has done so much for my attitude. I am now surrounded by positive and hard-working people who understand my training (many of whom have athletic lifestyles - and even run marathons). Several of the technical gurus I work for and with are women that I have developed a deep admiration for. Most importantly, people's eyes no longer glaze over when I go all technical (i.e., "geeky"). My favorite conversation of the last week was with our designers who were trying to create a model of our floor based on the terminology from Star Trek. Yep. Geeks. My people.

Elking around in up-state New York
Working at the museum also re-exposed me to the art world, something I didn't realize I missed until I was back in it. I was even bold enough to enter one of my prints in the staff art show. (This is huge if you know that every time in the past I had "chickened out" at the last minute - even after I had framed my art and had it all ready to go.) It appears I am letting go of some of my insecurities. I hope to be working more on my art in the near future because of the daily inspiration I get at work.

Thus, with a new mental foundation, and some successes in 2011, I am inspired to work hard(er) next year to build on the positive attitude and be able to capitalize in big races. If I'm fortunate enough to get another Kona slot, I will take what I have learned this year and apply it throughout training to eliminate more chances of something going wrong again.

Here are the things I've learned from my 2011 season, in no particular order: 
  • Training with power is what works for my biking (thanks to the CompuTrainer). I don't think I can afford a power meter on the bike, so I will stick with the trainer for power workouts, and work hard during the winter months when I can't ride outside.
  • I still need to figure out what is going on with my nutrition in the heat. Apparently, more sodium isn't enough and maybe it should be "lots more, even more than you think after you've taken more" sodium. I will be consulting a trusted nutritionist. I will also look into having these things (like sweat rate and sweat composition) tested. This is where I think my money will be best spent.
  • My swim training this year reached a sort of plateau, but I'm confident I can get through this one because I managed to do the same time in my three Ironman races this year no matter how hard or how easy I trained for the swim. I broke a rib and lost two weeks leading up to Lake Placid and still did a 1:02. I trained mostly two days a week, sometimes three - so, if I consistently get that third day in, I have high hopes to break that one-hour barrier again. I know I'm capable of going well under it, but so much depends on what happens in the race (i.e., if I get clobbered).
  • If I want to race well in short distances, I should not train for Ironman. ('nuff said.)
  • Sleeping the night before a race fully depends on how confident I am that I can sleep before a race. It has nothing to do with how confident I am in my training. (I am NOT making this up.)
  • More on nutrition: the paleo diet works (and I don't even follow it religiously)
  • Even more on nutrition: despite what the guy from Infinit Nutrition told me in Kona, I do believe that protein is detrimental for me during a race. Once I switched to products without a complete protein (First Endurance E.F.S.), I stopped getting nauseous on the bike. This is subject to change when I work with a nutrition guru.
  • If I train for the distance, racing is 90% mental. Even when I "blew" my race in Vegas by going out too hard on the run, I was able to pull out the win by focusing my mental energy.
Closing the book on 2011, in Kona
I'm sure there are many more lessons I will dig up in the next few months as I review my training from last year to revamp my training for this year. I still have not been able to justify getting a coach because of the expense and also because I feel like I know myself very well and I've been able to coach myself pretty well. I am considering it now because my one issue is knowing when enough is enough and learning to take it easy to let the hard work pay off. I read a great article about self coaching in Lava Magazine recently: The Self Coaching Conundrum featuring recommendations from pro triathletes Amanda Lovato and James Cunnama.

Thus, there is a lot to consider. But first things first. Get back into training. Build that base. Avoid the pitfalls of eating too much at Thanksgiving. Yikes, that's THIS WEEK! Y'all have a great one!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Disaster Déjà Vu: 2011 NYC Marathon Race Report

Sunrise on Staten Island, Nov 6, 2011
It's been 14 years since I ran my first New York City Marathon. The title sponsor has changed. The location of the expo has changed. The size of the race has changed (drastically). And sadly, the skyline of my beloved New York City has changed. But, as they say (and to quote a tired cliché): "the more things change... the more they stay the same."

First, a run-down of time spent in New York.

After a 6.5-hour drive from Cleveland, we arrived at our hotel in the wee hours of Saturday, November 5. Our hotel was in Secaucus, New Jersey - better (or more widely) known as the place you stay when going to the Meadowlands Sports Complex - which is not better (and less widely) known as the Izod Center. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a marathon runner who was apparently looking for someone not only to tell his life story to (which included being a 2:30-something marathoner to getting leukemia to separating his achilles tendon which would probably cost him a finish on Sunday - it was actually quite poignant but it was 1:00 am for crying out loud and some of us cared about getting sleep before the marathon), but to also complain that he had no idea how he was going to get to the starting line because he missed the online Meadowlands bus sign-up. Thank heavens we could assuage his fears about the latter. In the gobs of pre-race information, it was mentioned that bus signups could be taken care of at the expo Saturday.

Thus, it was 2:30 am before I was in bed and asleep on Saturday morning.

The alarm clock went off at 9 am. Why so early you ask? Because there was NO WAY I would miss spending time in New York City by convincing myself extra sleep would help me run faster in a marathon that I was wholly untrained for. When one day in New York City awaited, 6.5 hours was all I was willing to spare.

First up - breakfast. Then a quick jog to shake off the day-before's drive. Jim was skeptical that I would find a place to run from our hotel along the New Jersey Turnpike, but he severely under-estimated the area. This was, after all, "the Meadowlands,"and as luck would have it, about a half-mile from our hotel, there was an awesome trail through the restored wetlands of Mill Creek Marsh.

NYC Skyline from the bus showing both the
Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building
With my run out of the way, we set our sites on the quickest way to Manhattan - which happened to be the New Jersey Transit bus. Parking in NY would be one less thing to worry about. The bus took us directly to the Port Authority terminal - within walking distance of the marathon check-in and expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on 11th and 35th. The expo and packet pick-up ran like clockwork as long as you did the prep work (i.e., printed out your marathon entry card and pulled out your id). In a matter of minutes, I was checked-in and had my t-shirt and goodie bag. We only had to stop and ask questions about transport to the start - I had originally chosen the Staten Island ferry because we were expecting to stay in Manhattan, not New Jersey. The line for bus sign-up was akin to something you'd wait in to get on a ride at Disney World. Luckily there was a volunteer with answers: the line was for tour groups only. I asked her how to change buses and she just took my number and gave me a new bus sticker. Wait, what? Really? It was painless.

The last thing I had to do (to Jim's dismay) was browse the expo. Fortunately, there were no great deals, and the only thing I stopped for was to try on a new pair of running shoes at the New Balance booth. The NB 890s turned out to be a must-have, but the deal-breaker was that they only brought them in light purple. Really? Despite having worn some of the ugliest running shoes ever made (cases in point: original quilted Adidas Ozweegos, Saucony Azuras), apparently even I have standards, and there was NO WAY I was running in (light) purple shoes unless they were the last pair of 890s on Earth. (Note: the only purple shoes I will wear are my purple Doc Martens boots.) Sorry New Balance. I postponed the purchase because they also come in black and blue.

Early Sunday Morning, Edward Hopper
- arguably one of the Whitney's most
iconic pieces.
We high-tailed it out of there to do what you are supposed to do in NYC - get some culture! First stop: the Whitney Museum of American Art. We made one race-related stop on the way to the Whitney - we explored the post-marathon bag pickup area to choose a location to meet after the race - on 78th Street. THEN we headed to the Whitney. There were two exhibits that I wanted to see: Real/Surreal and David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy. Neither were a disappointment, although Jim would disagree - his exact words in the David Smith exhibit were: "I'm just not feeling it." At least he liked seeing the Hoppers. Besides, my new job at The Cleveland Museum of Art was good for a complimentary entry.

Rudy's Music (a.k.a. window
shopping for Jim)
We didn't spend a huge amount of time looking at art because we wanted to make a quick trip to Times Square then get down to Greenwich Village for dinner. While we were passing through Times Square, Jim was able to check out guitar shops in the famous 48th street "Music Row"- specifically Rudy's Music. I like it when Jim has a hidden agenda - i.e., we always just "wander across" these music shops.

Murray's Cheese Shop
Then we took the subway down to the Village to browse shops (specifically Murray's Cheese) and have pizza. Instead of our normal slice at Joe's on Carmine Street, we went for an excellent sit-down at John's of Bleecker Street. It was a great way to end a whirlwind day in NYC and get my carbs for the marathon. On the way back we stopped at other favorites Bleecker Street Records and Rocco's Pastry Shop for dessert.

Can you tell how much
Jim likes the subway?
We caught the subway and then the bus back to the hotel, and I packed up my stuff for marathon morning. I was exhausted from being on my feet all day but was very happy to remember the clocks went back that night and we would get an extra hour of sleep. I still had to be up at 4 am to catch the bus at 5 to Staten Island for the marathon start.

I slept like a log and in a few hours, it was Marathon Morning.

The NYC Marathon has a late start - the first wave was scheduled to go at 9:40 am. What this really means: you must rethink your race-at-7-am morning rituals. For me, this meant all I had to do was take a shower and grab my breakfast for the road. I knew the following facts (important when amidst 50,000 runners):
  • I was wearing an orange number (there were three colors: orange, blue, green).
  • I was in Wave 1.
  • My bus left between 5 and 6 am at the Meadowlands Sports Complex... ahem, I mean, the Izod Center.
  • It was cold (about 37 degrees F).
  • Breakfast, water, Gatorade and Dunkin' Donuts coffee would be available at the start.
Early Sunday (Marathon) Morning. By Yours Truly
- arguably one NYC's most iconic views.
I mostly kept to myself from the moment Jim dropped me off at the bus. However, it was weirdly coincidental that I sat next to a guy from Columbus, Ohio, on the bus. He would be doing his first Ironman triathlon in 2012. We swapped a few war stories and I learned he was a Canadian national team swimmer. I have to say that I struggled with my reaction when he went off on how amazing and wonderful Chris McCormack is.... um.... no comment... I considered telling him how I felt about Craig Alexander but kept it to myself. As much as I like these happy coincidences that spark conversation, I really wanted to get off the bus and go back into my shell and contemplate being alone amidst 50,000 people. It was just one of those days. 

The orange area was called Grete Waitz
village - in memory of the woman who
inspired most my generation's women to run
Once off the bus, we made our way to the start areas which were grouped by color. The directional signage was wrong and many people ended up in the wrong areas - not a good way to start off the morning. It's a good thing we had more than three hours to figure it out. The volunteers straightened things out and directed people to the correct areas. When I got to the orange staging area, the first thing I saw was the Verazzano Narrows bridge rising majestically above us. In the early morning light, it was one of the most spectacular views I've ever experienced before a marathon - or anytime for that matter. I was thankful I brought my old iPhone (re-purposed as an iPod Touch) so I could take photos before the start (and listen to music).

I wandered around, listened to music, sat down, drank some awesome coffee and ate my breakfast. Being the pre-race minimalist, I was blown away by the amount of stuff people brought with them: blankets, sleeping bags, wardrobe changes, TENTS! And to think I was so easily satisfied to receive a free Dunkin' Donuts fleece beanie to keep me warm. Who knew we could bring a personal shelter to the start? I actually found myself spending more time than necessary warming up inside the portajohns (hey, you do what you can in these times of need - especially when you forgot your tent).

Dunkin' Donuts starting line freebie
The "way" to the start was less confusing than the first time I ran the race. Despite this, I almost missed the start just like I did 14 years ago. That year, I was late to the start because of the massive jam of people all trying to get to get to the bag drop through a tiny opening in a fence. This year, there was no mass pileup and no fence - we were directed to drop our bags at the UPS trucks (for finish line delivery) not less than 45 minutes before our start wave. I was 10 minutes early, and yet, as I was making my way to the start (via one last bathroom break), I heard something terrifying come over the PA: "Wave 1 start corrals are NOW CLOSED!"


I panicked. I was IN Wave 1. Every ounce of my mental organization evaporated in that instant as I made a mad dash for who-knows-where-but-where-ever-the-other-mad-dashing-people-were-going. I asked anyone who looked like they had a clue: "which way to the start corrals??" only to be met with "you've got an orange bib, you're not in Wave 1" - WAIT! WHAT? I could have sworn I was in Wave 1! Um... quick! check my bib! yep, it said "Wave 1." I kept running towards that distant who-knows-where following orange arrows and hoping they were pointing the way.

When I arrived at the start corrals, slackers like me were being hurriedly herded in so the gates could be closed. My corral (numbers in the 5000s) was the furthest away so I was directed to jump in with the 13,000s because there was "no way I would make it in time" to the 5000s before they closed. It was almost identical situation as in 1997 when I had to crawl my way up the bridge to my start corral and rely on the generosity of people in the crowd to let me through because I was wearing a seeded number. On Sunday I remembered this and made my way through the crowd, touting my number as the reason I could move up. No one complained. I finally saw bib numbers in the 5000s and I rejoiced because I had finally made it to "my people." Almost immediately, we were herded to the starting line on the bridge to await the start. It was just after 9 am.

Unlike the last two times I ran NYC, this year, the start was at the bottom instead of partly up the incline of the bridge. Right after the elite women's race started, we all moved up and I was surprised to actually see the "Start" sign only about 20 feet in front of me. There was a speech from Mayor Bloomberg and the playing of the National Anthem. In the final ten minutes, another coincidence happened in finding out the runner next to me was from Toledo, Ohio. Then the horn went off and we were on our way.

Running over a suspension bridge is one of the great pleasures I've experienced as a runner. Running over the Verazzano-Narrows bridge - the seventh-longest suspension bridge in the world - is a revelation. Mile 1 occurs very close to the apex of the bridge and makes you realize exactly how much road is suspended across the water by cables hanging between the pylons (almost a mile). The Verazzano-Narrows bridge is an incredible feat of engineering and held the record for longest suspension bridge in the world for 33 years (the previous record was held by the Golden Gate Bridge - another bridge I hope to someday run across).

Moving from bridge history back to the NYC Marathon...

After the bridge, the next twelve miles of the NYC Marathon runs through huge crowds in the diverse neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. There was music everywhere, mostly in the form of bands playing right on the sidewalks. At one point, I found myself cringing from a really discordant note that one of the bands hit at the end of their song. I laughed and turned to the runner next to me and said: "I think they need more practice." His response was totally unexpected: "give me a break, it's only my THIRD marathon!"

Wait, what? Did he think I said "YOU need more practice"? Yikes - I cleared up the misunderstanding. But after that, all I could think of was: does this guy actually think I just run along and insult other people? How completely bizarre. I didn't talk to anyone else on the course after that.

During the first half, the great spectator support made it all too easy for me to be lulled into a false sense of speed and stop focusing on my race (I use the term "race" loosely). I kept an eye on my Timex GPS (first time I've worn it in a race) but I was paying more attention to the mile clocks (and the fact that there was a clock at EVERY mile, every 5K AND the half). Even though I tried to keep a lid on it, I was shocked to find my mile pace near seven minutes at the half. Yes, this was a mistake. And I made the mistake by going to "what if" land. What if I can hold this pace? What if I don't really need to train to run fast? What if my post-Ironman fitness can carry me through this?

What if I am a complete idiot?

The truth of the matter is that the NYC Marathon is an extremely deceptive course. Long gradual inclines masquerade as flatness. The damage was done by mile 15 when I was climbing the "hill" of the 59th Street/Queensboro bridge. I knew Manhattan (and Jim) would be waiting for me on the other side of the bridge. In face, I always tell NYC Marathon virgins that coming off the bridge is the most exciting moment of the entire race. On Sunday, I would need all the support I could get by then - because on that uphill, my left hip finally had enough and began screaming in agony.

Entry into Manhattan via 59th Street
When I came off the bridge, I heard Jim yell my name and I was so happy to see him - I wanted to stop and hug him and yell about the pain. But I didn't want him to worry, so I just smiled and waved. I really wanted to finish and enjoy this marathon, but the next ten miles would be an exercise in survival and avoiding injury. I eased back on my pace to reduce the pain and avoid major damage to my hip (remembering I had promised Jim I would not do anything stupid). My goal became "to not walk unless I was limping" (the red flag of impending injury). I had the same problem in the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon and managed to get through it without further decay, so I knew it was possible.

Almost finished
Despite the pain and my major slow down, the miles ticked away in Manhattan's Upper East Side with crowd support even more dense than Brooklyn. And the usual dead zone - the short jaunt into the Bronx - was hopping this year with music and big crowd. From there, we ran back into Manhattan through Harlem, then along the east edge and into Central Park near mile 24 - this where the race gets really hard with rolling hills and turns. Those last three miles are when the crowd is at its very best, and although I was struggling with my hip and starting to feel some nausea, I was carried along almost in a trance from the screaming spectators. The hardest thing was having to ease back in the last half-mile because of stomach issues - but I still managed to get across the finish line (barely) under 3:15 with a smile. The weather had been dry and sunny and damn near perfect in the mid-50s.

Crossing the finish line was the beginning of a death march because of my hip pain. My walking stride became a slow painful dragging of my left leg and my body was cooling off in a hurry. Volunteers wrapped us in mylar blankets and gave us food, but all I really wanted was to get into my warm clothes and find Jim. I should have expected some kind of disaster any minute.

I slowly inched along through the park and continued on the long block of W 77th Street from 8th to Columbus Ave, past the UPS trucks with our bags. As I imagined getting my bag and getting warm, I started having flashbacks of the finish line in 1997 when my dry clothes bag was "lost." That year, it was 45 degrees and raining and I stood around shivering for over an hour, finally breaking down in tears because I was so cold and no one would help me (they just gave up looking). One of the UPS guys took pity on me and gave me his jacket, helped me calm down and somehow found my bag after about a 30 minute search.

This year... I was sure that couldn't possibly happen again. Right? Walking by the trucks, I saw runners' bags laid out on the road in organized, numbered rows. The truck with my bag (numbers in the 5000s) was at the very end of the block. As I approached it, I noticed a huge crowd surrounding it (the only truck like this). Runners were standing around frustrated because of total disorganization. In the chaos, several runners just gave up and walked away, while others begged to help. After close to an hour of standing and getting crushed by the angry mass, shivering, and finally losing the feeling in my fingers and toes, my bag was finally in my hands. But my fingers were so numb I couldn't even open it. I could barely move my left leg, I was going hypothermic, and I desperately wanted to get into the sun and find Jim. With the crowd and the cold and the pain, moving one short block from that truck to Jim was a bigger ordeal than the marathon I had just run. Crossing the street, I was almost run over by one of those bicycle-rickshaw things trying to get to him. Jim was able to get my bag open and help me get my sweats on before we started the long walk to the car - parked on 49th street.

I didn't mind the final walk because it was in the sun and the feeling in my fingers came back. I was als able to get some nourishment in the form of hot chocolate, water, and a Powerbar. We also grabbed a final slice of pizza. I don't even remember the name of the place. (Can you get a bad slice in NYC?) It was a great way to head out of the City for the long drive home to Cleveland.