Race Report: Dispea 2017

On June 11, 2017 I ran the 107th running of the legendary Dipsea race. I finished in a time of 1:02:04.

Goals

  1. Finish/Survive – ACCOMPLISHED
  2. Qualify for 2018 – ~150 spots – ACCOMPLISHED – with 136 to spare
  3. Average heart rate 170+ – ACCOMPLISHED – averaged 177 BPM
    • 160+ on the Downhills – ACCOMPLISHED – 175+
    • 175+ on the Uphills – ACCOMPLISHED – 180+
  4. Sub 1:05 – ACCOMPLISHED – 1:02:04
  5. Top 25 Open Section – ACCOMPLISHED – 21st out of 796 runners
  6. Do not walk or speed hike – Not Accomplished – 3 sections of speed hiking, 2 forced
  7. Sub 1 hour – Not Accomplished
  8. Top 1% Course time – Not Accomplished
  9. 55:00 – Not Accomplished

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Completed my first trail race
  • Really strong effort, dug deep & kept pushing
  • Managed to stay upright the whole time
  • Maxed my heart rate at 192 – haven’t seen 185+ since college
  • Really let go on the paved downhills – max of 3:37/mile pace
  • Busted a heel grab over the photo-op hurdle near the end
  • Played it safe through the Swoop to avoid injury
  • Brought a frozen water bottle to drip on head & keep cool

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Had too much left in the tank at the end
  • Did not push hard enough for the final stretch of the cardiac hill
  • Got lots of poison oak on my arms & legs

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • My amazing wife for signing me up and letting me disappear for the weekend
  • The race director for accepting our bribe
  • Other runners I drafted behind during various sections
  • 107 years of history that make this a great race
  • Volunteers that cleared the trail, handed out water, blocked dangerous parts & cheered

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Bottlenecks, especially through the Sun Trail & Dynamite sections

Race Recap

The following is a detailed account of my race day. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.

Pre Race Day

After a number of years of failed attempts to get into the Dipsea, I had given up. My wife, however, had a different idea. Towards the end of last year she got a hold of my friend Chris to figure out a race we’d want to run & they agreed this one would be a good race and nice chance for a weekend away. So for Christmas last year, this was her present to me. (We’re minimalists, so gifts that aren’t ‘stuff’ are our favorites).

I found out I was accepted about six weeks before the race and realized I had zero specificity for a short (7 mile as opposed to 26.2 mile) trail (as opposed to flat asphalt) run with 2k ft of climbing (as opposed to pancake flat).

I scrambled to turn a few of my interval days into hill-interval days, got one practice run on the course and fortuitously got lost during a long run which allowed me to log a few trail miles to prep my stability muscles.

That would have to do.

I wasn’t sure how I would do, not having raced in nearly a year, so I set a range of goals. I had checkpoints lined up for a ~1:00-1:05 finish but knew I could be anywhere from 0:55-1:10 based on comps to other runners.

The Starts

The Dipsea has one of the most unique race starts I’ve ever heard of. There are ~50 groups that start one minute apart and runners are seeded based on a handicap system that accounts for age and gender. The first group to start includes men 74+, women 66+, 7 year old boys and 6 year old girls. It then works it way back until the last group – men age 19-30. More info here.

Not only that, but there are two sections – the invitational, for runners that previously ran & qualified goes first and then the open ‘runner’ section for everyone else goes second.

I started in the very back group of the runner section. The last group to cross the starting line that day.

The benefit is I got to enjoy watching all of the other groups start. It is pretty cool to see the groups and get to hear the announcer praise the accomplishments of various runners – including winners from recent years and those running the race for the 50th+ time.

My Start

After a short warm up I lined up with the young guns. I debated starting in the very back, just so I could pass everyone, but remembered my lesson from last year’s NYC about getting fancy on race day and decided instead to toe the line – literally.

The pack took off fast, I noticed we were at 5:10 and backed off to my planned 6:00 pace for the relatively flat half mile until the dreaded stairs. There were probably 15 guys ahead of my from that group – only one would remain ahead of me until the end.

The Stairs

The Dipsea race has many reasons to be famous, but the stairs tend to be one of the more dreaded and well known. At 688 stairs in total, runners climb the equivalent of over one third the Empire State Building.

My goal was to use heart rate as my guide – take the first set at 160 BMP, the second at 165 & third at 170. The top of the third set was a checkpoint, I planned to cross is at 8 minutes.

I started up the first set, staying to the left to pass people and was logging 175. By the second set I had gotten bottlenecked, both lanes were moving slow, so I hopped off the steps and sprinted up the dirt to the side, I was now crossing 180 BPM. I got past the bottleneck, sprinkled in a few steps of speed walking up the steps but generally held to 180 through the third set. I crossed at 7:10 – 50 seconds faster than planned. I was worried I’d gone too hard.

Cresting The First Hill

After hitting the top of the stairs I had my first moment of digging deep. Most runners were backing off the effort a bit as they reached the road and continued to climb to the top of the first hill. I held my resolve, eager to make the most of the section of wide road which was perfect for passing people. I averaged 167 BPM and was holding to under 9:00 pace despite the 10%+ grade.

Down To the Bridge

We hit the peak, around the 1.2 mile mark, the course hopped onto the Sun Trail, a single track dirt trail with some ruts from the rain over the previous winter. I tucked in behind two runners that were trying to pass the crowd but we got really blocked up. Despite going downhill we were moving at 12:00 pace and my heart rate had dropped to 163.

I finally stepped into the brush and jumped over a bush to get around a slow pack and got onto the asphalt. We were looking at about a half mile of paved, wide open road at a 10% downhill. I decided to test my mettle and open the throttle. I clocked that section at at 4:50 mile pace, averaging 180.

My goal was to get to the bridge by 18:00 – I hit the next trail section at 15:45 and wasn’t quite sure how far it was. I knew I had lost some time on the Sun Trail bottleneck though.

I tucked in behind a runner that was hollering people out of the way and followed him down the ‘Suicide’ shortcut – which is basically a steep dirt embankment you try and fall gracefully down. I darn near nocked over a 13 year old boy who was stalled at the top.

I picked up some speed and ran through the Muir Woods parking lot at 5:15 pace, clearing the 5 steps in one stride as I tried to pass people before the trail got bottlenecked again. I hit the bridge in 18:05 – just a hair behind pace. I’d lost my edge but was still doing well.

Then came the pain.

Up To Cardiac

The next hill is the biggest. Remember those 40 stories of stairs at the beginning? That was half of the first hill’s climbing. This hill was twice as long and steep as the first hill. In total it was two miles that climbed 1,200 ft.

It starts off with Dynamite – a steep section of switchbacks on muddy trail through a lush green forest. The trail was completely bottlenecked, I tried tucking behind people but there was just no room to pass. I then tried getting around people by running off trail but was burning myself out. I hit 189 BMP – a rate I hadn’t seen on my watch since college. I couldn’t maintain that so I backed off, resigned to move with the pack and save myself for the fire road that was coming up.

We averaged 16-18:00 per mile through Dynamite and when I hit the road I picked it up to 10:00 pace. My goal was to do the two miles in 11 minute pace and get to the top by 40:00.

There are a number of path choices up the hill and I opted for the wider, though often slightly longer trails to avoid bottlenecks. I ended up averaging 10:00 pace and 180 BPM through the main part of the trail and passed a good number of runners.

When I hit 4 miles on my watch I wasn’t sure how much climbing I had left and was getting a bit discouraged. That final steep section really knocked me out – 0.2 miles at 19%. I speed hikes a few really steep sections where tree roots made the footing hard, averaging 13:45. In retrospect, this is one section I could have pushed harder through if I had confidence where the top was and what the other side looked like. I averaged 178 and should have pushed through the top bit around 183-185.

I crested the top at 42:00 which was 2:00 behind plan. That would put my finish in the 1:02-1:05 range depending on how fast I went downhill.

Starting Down

The downhill starts off a fairly mellow rolling trail at around 5%. The views of the Ocean are beautiful but between the wind making my eyes tear up and rocky footing, I was 100% focused on not tripping. I averaged 6:40 and 176 through that feeling pretty strong but getting noticeably less sharp mentally.

I had no idea where I was going at this point, but thankfully had people in front of me continually so I just ran towards the next runner as I overtook each one.

I eventually hit a split in the road and had to stop to figure out where I was going. It took me a second to figure out which way the short one was – my mind was going. I got going pretty quick down the steep stairs for a bit before catching a runner in a blue shirt – he waved me past but I made the wise decision to stay behind him. Drafting meant I wouldn’t get lost, would have someone helping clear the path and would likely be going at a slower (and safer pace).

I only averaged 170 through that section, but am ok with it. A wet, steep, winding path I’ve never been on before is not the place to push myself as I hit exhaustion.

Even with that safe approach I hit a rough patch and rolled my left ankle a bit. I took at easy for a few steps and decided I would keep going. I was pretty sure it would swell up later, but it seemed good enough to finish on.

The Final Bump

The last climb is a short but steep climb that taunts runners who are exhausted. It is aptly named ‘Insult Hill’. As we approached it a young kid I had just passed kicked it into gear and went flying up the hill. I was a impressed.

100 feet later he was walking. I passed him and made a quip to which he defeatedly admitted that was a horrible idea.

I hit 186 by the end of that minute and that kicked me into gear for the final 1.25 miles.

The Last Downhill

The final mile alternated between paved roads and trails that cut between curves in the road. The trails were not very worn, most sections looked freshly trimmed back and teeming with poison oak. I was letting loose on the roads, hitting around 5:15 and doing the best I could on the trails to keep moving without flying into the bushes.

As we popped into the bushes for the second time I overtook a runner and realized that for the first time that day I couldn’t see anyone in front of me. I was running around 7:00 pace on a deer trail with no idea where I was going. Thankfully I stayed on the right course and made it out.

The Finish

Before getting on the road for the last quarter mile, the trail drops you off at a wooden railing you have to jump over. I was having enough fun at this point that I busted a heel grab and got a laugh from the onlookers.

I ran the final quarter mile drops 120 feet. I ran it in 4:21 pace averaging 185 BPM. I hit the finish at 192 and nearly passed out – I don’t think I’ve hit that level of exertion in a decade. I even looked back at hard workouts over the last few years and the highest I see is 185. I found a gear I forgot about for the past decade and it feels really good to know I still have it.

Post Race

Into the ocean to try and get the poison oak oil off of me. A light cool down so I might be able to walk the next day. Then three hours of chilling on a picnic blanket in the sun recapping the race and watching the award ceremony.

Because of the crazy handicapping & starting system, depending on how you count it, I either got 2nd, 9th, 21st, 22nd, 71st or 614th. (2nd in my start wave, 9th fastest time in the runner section, 21st place in the runners section, 22nd in my age group, 71st fastest time of everyone and 614 was the number I crossed the finish line in)

Since I started in the very back, I went from 1,400th to 614th over the course of the race, passing around 750 runners over 7 miles, which works out to about 1 every 50ft.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

This is the distribution of race times for everyone in the runner section – those that didn’t qualify the previous year. I’m pretty close to the front, only a few people had faster course times, only one from the group I started with.

When I add in the runners that qualified last year I move towards the peak of the bell. The interesting thing about the way qualification works is that 600 people qualify one year but of those 600 only 450 will be able to qualify again and the other 150 come from the fastest among the other runners. You would think this would make the qualifying harder every year but it actually looks like it stays quite stable.

Looking just at my age group, I’m much closer to the middle. That speaks in part to the caliber of the race and in part to my newness to trail running. 

Looking at my Strava data – a few things pop out. First the pace varies widely – par for the course. Second, my heart rate is relatively steady except for the places I got bottlenecked and pushes at Insult Hill + the finish. Third, my cadence is a great way to show where I fought bottlenecks and wasn’t dictating my own stride – the tremors in the pink line highlight the difficult spots, the most obvious and long lasting being the start of the second uphill.

Looking at just heart rate I notice a slight downward trend from mile 2 through 5. Part of that is that once I started heading downhill my limiter was footing and not my heart, part of it was exhaustion. I clearly found a second wind though.

I love isolating the pace, look at that range – 3:20 per mile all the way to 22:20. I have never experienced so much variance in a single race. This was one of my favorite aspects of it and a big reason I’m looking more towards trail races in the future. Road races have become predictable – set your pace and hold it, then hope your energy systems don’t fail. There was a lot more to think about in this race including footing, passing strategy, optimal-though-not-even energy output, etc.

The zoom in on cadence reveals a few more things. The spike before mile 2 is the suicide shortcut. I hit 230 steps per minute through there because you’re basically just trying to control a fall down a dirt embankment. I later had a few other sections of quick foot movement on the downhills. I believe those helped get my legs into a gear that allowed me to finish well – look at that climb over the last quarter mile – I crossed the line at 212 steps per minute – very high turnover for me.

The Strava course record is held by the runner who has logged the fastest time each of the past few years. I compared my time to his to see if there were any sections I was weak at.

From the looks of it, he took the start slowly, relatively so, as his time really doesn’t separate from mine until the stairs. In this chart, the pink line indicates how far ahead of me he is at any point in the race – higher means farther ahead.

There is a spike where I got bottlenecked on Sun Trail & things stay flat on the downhill section I raced. Most of the big climb looks fairly steady until the final hill – I knew I hadn’t pushed hard enough there and the comparison shows it.

The only section I gained anything was at Insult Hill, and it was only briefly. Perhaps he stopped to help someone. The finish section is actually relatively flat – I was really moving through there so it isn’t a surprise.

The good news with the mostly steady progression is I don’t have a glaring flaw (or I share the same flaw he has). The bad news is I don’t see any low hanging fruit to improve – I’ll just have to do it the old fashioned way.

What is Next?

The top ~150 people from the open section get invited back next year to run in the invitational section – I got 21st. That means if I come next year I’ll get to start earlier, with faster runners. I might even train for this as my ‘A’ race for the year – I would love to attempt to break one hour.

I really enjoyed the trail aspect of this as well as the varying hills. On a track or road race I mostly check out and just hit my paces. Here I had to focus to switch gears between sections of sprinting on the road, quick turnover climbing stairs, long slogs on the dirt uphill and careful maneuvering through tight trails. That variance feels like a breath of fresh air to my running life and is something I’m interested in. In addition, running on trails lets you spend more of your time in beautiful places.

Plus, most of the really long races are on trails – so I’ve got to get good at them if I ever want to compete at the 50 or 100 mile distances.

The Day I Didn’t Run

It was January 1st, 2007.

The day before my flight from Prague to London had been canceled due to weather and I was stranded in the Czech Republic. I had finals in Ireland in two days and, needless to say, being present for those, passing my classes and getting school credit was very important to me.

I had been backpacking around Europe for the past two weeks. The way the school year worked out, my Irish University shut down for the holidays and hosted finals in the beginning of the new year. My college in the states, where I would return for the following semester, started a week later. I didn’t think it made much sense to fly all the back to California, only to fly back to Ireland and then to Pennsylvania, so instead I took all the money I had left and went on a two week trip around Europe.

My goal was to see as many cities as possible, albeit quickly, and also to run every day. Track season was starting a few months later and I needed to get into good shape. I took only a backpack with me – not one of those huge 70 liter camping backpacks either, just a small school bag that had a change of clothes, my running gear and a notebook I wrote poetry in. No electronics except my watch – the simple kind that only told time – I used it to see approximately how far I had run.

The trip started in the latter half of December. I flew from Ireland to Barcelona where I planned to get a Eurail pass that would let me travel as much as I wanted for 15 days. In order to make my limited amount of money last, I often took overnight trains so I didn’t also have to pay for a hostel.

Over that trip I visited Barcelona, Milan, Venice, Zurich, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw and finally Prague.

Some of my favorite runs ever were on that trip. I managed to run every day throughout December. Usually first thing in the morning I would get dressed and just start running. The cities have so much richness that I would inevitably stumble upon something interesting and historic (sometimes historical as well).

The runs were all very different too.

In Barcelona it was warm, even in December, I ran on the boardwalk in a t-shirt.

In Zurich I spotted a hilly wooded area and ran straight up – I stopped to stretch in a meadow and had such a peaceful experience viewing the city and lake – it remains a highlight of that trip.

In Paris I weaved through curvy streets and climbed stairs looking for a park or something – then I turned a corner and saw the most beautiful white cathedral I had ever seen. I had stumbled upon Sacré-Cœur unknowingly.

In Berlin, on Christmas Eve, I took off running on some trails to the west of the city. At some point heard sounds that I was sure were wild boar and took of faster – trying to ensure the Christmas feast was not reversed. I inevitably got horribly lost on the unmarked and winding trails. I eventually made it back to the city, but had no idea where in the city I was and couldn’t distinguish all of the German street names anyhow. I made it back eventually but ran twice as much as I had wanted to.

In Warsaw, on a day that was below freezing, old men sitting at the Park yelled something at me that I was pretty sure was Polish for “you are crazy”. I thanked them an continued on, hoping to finish before frostbite kicked in.

By the time I was leaving Prague, I was tired and ready to get home. I had seen a lot, not eaten much and washing my only pair of running clothes in the sink at night was not doing a satisfactory job of getting the stink out.

All flights were grounded because of the weather, I didn’t have much money to work with, and the earliest they could rebook me, on account of all of the other cancelled flights was three days away. The one thing I had going for me was my Eurail pass was still valid for two more days on account of a misunderstanding about what times the ticket office in Barcelona was open. (Hint: they are kind of liberal about that kind of thing). I ended up having to buy a single ticket to Milan and purchase my Eurail pass there, two days later. Thus, I still had an unlimited train pass.

Unfortunately it was late and there were no more trains leaving. I would be stuck in Prague until the morning.

My New Years plans went up in smoke since I would not be making it to London, where I had planned to go to a big celebration. I also knew finding a place to stay in Prague would be very difficult on account of people visiting for the celebration there – I had a hard enough time finding a bunk the preceding days.

I called an audible – I would go back to the hostel I had been at (where at least I knew a few people), toss my bag down and go celebrate in the public squares. Prague was known for its New Years eve celebrations after all.

Lo and behold, as I walked in to the hostel, the group I had been hanging out with for the past few days, about a dozen people from as many countries, was just walking out. They were excited and surprised to see me, everyone was bummed when I had left earlier that day. I tossed down my bag and we took off into the city. Within a few minutes I had fireworks in one hand and a bottle of Champagne in the other – we would shoot both off into the sky at midnight.

We got back to the hostel late enough that I just barely had time to grab my bag & freshen up before heading to the train station to get on the 5am westbound train.

I spent the day in a daze on a series of trains passing through stops whose name I could not make out on the loudspeaker. At one point, somewhere in the south of German, I woke up with my face pressed against the window, staring at a beautiful view of a lake and pine trees. It was something out of a story book.

Around 1am I hit the end of the line. There were no further options to go west that night. I was stuck in Brussels without a plan, place to stay, or much money.

Thankfully I had been there before, enough to know my way through town to a few spots. After walking around for 30 minutes I realized that none of the hostels had people working at 1am. Only the big hotel chains did and I couldn’t afford a few hundred dollars. By some stroke of luck I found a Chineese food place where the man was willing to rent me a room to sleep in. It was the kind of room where the door wouldn’t open all the way on account of bumping into the bed. It was the kind of room I was used to.

I put down my gear exhausted and pulled out my map to find a place to get a few miles in. It was now nearly 2am, I’d only had but a few hours of interrupted sleep over the past 48 hours and I had to get on another train at 6am if I had any hope of making it back in time for my finals.

I made the hard call to skip running that day.

I could count on one hand the days of running I had missed over the past few years. This was the type of circumstance that was required to separate me from the hard work I put in towards achieving my goals.

The next day I would take a series of trains, busses and boats over to France, London, Dublin and ultimately back to the University of Limerick. I arrived with plenty of time to take a shower before skateboarding over to my first final.

I don’t actually recall studying at all, and I certainly didn’t have any books with me, but looking back at my transcripts I seem to have done fine. Perhaps my first final was on European geography – I had just had a crash course in it that I would not soon forget.

Race Report: New York City Marathon 2016

On November 6, 2016 I ran the New York City Marathon. I finished in a time of 3:11:37, about a half hour slower than my best marathon. Here is the race report.

I debated writing this – I wasn’t sure it passed my litmus test of being a race – or of deserving a report. In my mind the goal of writing a race report is to document the ins and outs of an all out effort in order to learn from it and also to serve as way to remember a momentous event. I ultimately decided to write this because I think I have something to learn from it, and it was quite memorable.

Successes

What am I proud of from race day?

  • Finished
  • Was leading my heat for the first mile
  • Solid effort through the first 22 miles
  • Finished before 96% of runners
  • Was able to run well off of minimal training

Failures

What areas could I improve for future races?

  • Lost to Chris
  • Did not take it easy enough the days leading up to the race
  • Did not get to the starting area early enough and missed my wave
  • Did not have a good read on my fitness
  • Went out way too fast
  • Ultimately did not have a sound strategy or unified goals
  • Didn’t stick to my fueling strategy

Thankfuls

What that was out of my control am I thankful for?

  • The random number generator that accepted me to the race
  • Amazing weather
  • The people of New York City
  • Volunteers with water every single mile
  • The New York City Mets
  • Getting to have a celebratory dinner with Chris, Gretchen & Rob
  • My wife for letting me leave her alone for two days to check an item off my bucket list

Frustrations

What that was out of my control do I wish had happened differently?

  • Morning logistics
  • No one to pace off of for the first 19 miles
  • Having to weave to pass a LOT of people
  • Having to walk almost a mile after the race

Race Report

The following is a detailed account of my race. It is long. This is my way of paying it forward to future athletes & documenting it so I can remember later on.

Pre Race Day

Before the race I changed my mind a few times about what my goal was.

My original intent was to run the NYC Marathon as a celebration after doing well at Jack & Jill over the summer.

I missed my 2:37 goal there by 5 minutes though and so I thought I could use NYC as a second chance. After studying the course I realized that was going to be improbable due to the travel stress & race course difficulty. So I signed up for CIM, the fastest course on the west coast, in order to give myself the best shot at hitting 2:37. I planned to skip NYC since I qualified for next year.

My friends Chris & Gretchen were signed up for NYC, and beating Chris is one of my favorite pass times, so around October I decided to go and run it as a workout, one month before CIM. My high hopes were to run about 3:00 easy at NYC, which I knew would beat Chris, and then turn around to run a 2:37 a month later at CIM.

My training hit a few kinks, mainly due to my third child being born, and so by late October I realized a 2:37 at CIM wasn’t going to happen. I ran one tempo run that suggested I could hold 6:30 pace at NYC and finish around 2:50-2:55 though, which seemed like a great plan. Plugging some data into the NYC Marathon pace calculator tool, my plan seemed to line up with what they thought. I made the call to taper for the race rather than train through it and decided my goal was to have as much fun as possible while still beating Chris.

My strategy at that point was to go out slow, around 7:00 pace, drop to 6:45s for the bulk, catch up with him around mile 18-20, and then finish strong, leveraging a solid base from earlier in the year. (You will soon see that this is the exact opposite of what occurred.) I had another goal in mind of finishing with my average heart rate above 166 BPM, which is what I averaged during my fastest marathon. I knew I wasn’t as fast as I was then, but I figured if I was able to work that hard again or harder, that would be an accomplishment.

The day before the race I made a few big decisions – never a good idea. I decided that my goal was to have as much fun as possible and make this a memorable event. After all, I knew it wasn’t going to be fast (by my standards), so I might as well make it fun. I decided to wear a New York Mets hat to get the crowd support. I made the call to abandon a few of my pre race rest tendencies and go do a few NYC things. I opted to run with my phone so I could take photos & videos to remember it by.

I also decided that, since my qualifier time had me seeded with group 1A, I would go out fast & run the first miles with the professionals. I had this vision in my head of running out in front on across the bridge, side by side with runners I could never compare myself to. I could only hold their marathon pace for a mile or two, but perhaps I would even make it on TV during that time so my family could see me. After that I would likely need to take a breather, then get back in a fight through a tough and slow race. I was going to blow my race but enjoy the first 10 minutes of it.

What I hope is obvious is that I didn’t have a clear and locked goal. My plans were changing quite frequently based on the circumstances. Sometimes rolling with the punches is a good thing, but often it results in confusion and failure on all accounts.

Morning

I woke up at 6:00AM, caught an Uber with another runner and got to the ferry terminal plenty early for the 6:45 ferry to Staten Island. The race was scheduled to start at 9:45, which meant I had over three hours of waiting.

I did by best to stay warm and sit as not to burn energy. I stayed hydrated. I tried to be patient with the large crowds. I have never been to a race this big. In fact, very few people have since this year the NYC Marathon set a record for largest marathon – only a few other shorter races have ever been bigger.

I somehow bumped into Chris & Gretchen on the ferry and we acted like tourists the whole way over to Staten Island.

Once at the ferry terminal on the other side, we decided to stay inside for a bit rather than getting on the bus. A large part of that was spent waiting in line for the last nice bathroom we would see. The janitor there had a sense of humor about the crowd that remains a highlight of the day.

We eventually got in line to get on a bus, and made a mistake of getting on a full bus rather than waiting for the next one. We were standing in the isle and the bus was in traffic & not moving. We eventually sat down in the isle as best we could and watched our clocks as we realized we would likely miss our wave. We did hit another highlight though, a 70-something year old man who has run the race ~30 times telling us why he loved it so much and where the best bathrooms on the course are.

The bus pulled up and we ran to try and find our starting area. Hearing over the loudspeaker that we had missed our wave, I had to abandon my plan to go out in front and decided to go with Chris’ wave so we could run together. We got separated though and so I ran back over to my start area. After a bunch of shoving through crowds I found out I nearly missed the next wave too, but ended up making it to the front of 2A.

The Start

I asked around to find out what sort of paces heat 2A was set for and heard mostly 8:00-range. A fine pace for a marathon, but I had run a marathon at 6:11 a few months earlier. I was going to need to go out fast to avoid getting bottlenecked.

By turn of fate I would end up being in the perfect place to fulfill my vision of being in front on the bridge, without having to run 5:00 pace.

The cannon went off at 10:15 and I took off. I was in front. A quarter mile in I started to feel winded, and realized I was going sub six, uphill. Not a good idea. I slowed down a bit, but around then I spotted Chris’s wave.

The Bridge

I need to provide a bit of context. The way the NYC marathon start works is kind of complex. There are three color starting lines: blue, green & orange – each of which takes a different course through the first 8 miles before combining.

I was in Blue and Chris was in Orange. Both of those crossed the bridge on the top level, but were separated by a concrete barrier. Our paths would later split in Brooklyn, only to recombine at mile 8.

When I saw Chris up ahead I figured I would go catch him so we could run together. We said hi and ran side by side, like we have for hundreds of miles. (Except there was a concrete barrier between us – which, honestly, is probably a safe measure to implement on future runs). I was leading my wave and he had only a few people ahead of him in his. We essentially got to run on the narrows bridge with nothing else around – another highlight of the day.

My watch beeped after one mile, 6:25. 50 seconds faster than the plan. The, 20 second later I heard Chris’ watch beep. That is when I realized that our courses were parallel but not even – I had gone out faster, though we were now running the same pace.

You can see in this image a blue and orange line showing the different courses – notice blue starts further back but orange has to run a few extra blocks in Brooklyn.

Around then the bridge crested and started heading downhill.

We cruised down the hill and hit 6:03 for the second mile. Again, much faster than planned. At that point our courses split into Brooklyn, they would reconnect around mile 8.

Brooklyn

The miles through Brooklyn were my favorite of the race. The joke is that I loved the Brooklyn half-marathon – I did quite well too. The crowds had so much energy and that was the first time we got to experience them since there had been no spectators on the bridge.

Their energy kept me pumped up. ran a 6:21 & 6:36 for my next miles and took my first gel. Around that point I started to catch people from wave 1. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be running alone. I was foolish.

I took some video, a selfie and settled into a better pace. 6:47, 6:35, 6:41, 6:42.

During those miles I passed the stragglers of wave 1 and made my way towards the majority of the runners. I love passing people, which probably kept my pace a few seconds faster than it would have been if I had been running with people my own pace. I took my second gel around mile 8.

Around mile 8.5 I ran past my cousin Rob’s house. I’ve been out to see Rob in NYC a half dozen times over the past 15 years, so it was great to run through his neighborhood. He was out there cheering and we connected for a high five – another highlight of the day.

At this point in the race the three waves combined and the course got really crowded. I was catching runners from wave 1, which had started 24 minutes before mine. So the runners I was passing were running about 3 minutes per mile slower than I was (doing the algebra, I was at 6:45 pace and they were at 9:15). That meant I had to plot a course around them essentially like they were standing objects – it was much like running rapids. It was draining and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ran an extra half mile weaving back and forth to either side of the road to pass people. This went from fun to frustrating.

Some rough math – I finished in 1,762 place and had started at the front of wave 2 of 4. So there were probably 12,500 people in wave 1. I passed most people between miles 5-15, of which 3 of those miles the course was still split in 3. I figure I passed around 10k people across 10 miles, roughly 1 person per 5 feet. I took a video that confirms those ballpark numbers.

Queens

I crossed the half at 1:27:31, right on schedule actually. I figured at that pace I could keep pace to hit a 2:55, go faster to get closer to 2:50 or slow down a tad and still break 3. This was a great place to be. I took my third gel somewhere around there – I can’t quite remember.

Around this point I was averaging a heart rate of 166, which was one of my goals, so I was feeling great about that.

Unfortunately I got bottlenecked on the Queensborough bridge and ran my first 7:00 split. There was just no way to pass people and I my early decisions were starting to catch up with me. I didn’t have the motivation to yell to pass them by a few seconds so I settled into pace.

Manhattan

Despite going slow, I couldn’t manage to pee, so I stopped right after the bridge hoping to put that all behind me.

As I turned down 1st avenue I decided to give it another go and put up a 6:48 & 6:52 and had my fourth gel. I had two more on my belt that I planned to take during the race but ultimately did not do that – it was a mistake that cost me.

Mile 20 I found a runner who was going a bit faster than me – likely someone who also had to start in the later wave – and I forced myself to stay with him until the mile marker. I figured if I grit it out and hold hold pace for a bit, I would get back in the groove. It was a 6:57 and that was my last sub 7 mile of the race. My hypothesis did not hold true.

Bronx

As we turned through the Bronx, which they let you run in for all of one mile, my pace was 7:20. This was now easy run territory but it didn’t feel easy. I started checking my phone to see where Chris was. As it updated I realized he was closing in on me. At one point I had a 2 minute gap on him but he had nearly caught me.

Manhattan Again

We turned back into Manhattan and just then I saw Chris pass me – we were right around the 22 mile mark. He didn’t see me so I called out to get his attention and we exchanged a few words. I thought he would run with me but he seemed pretty focused – I think he was trying to break 3:00. We were both clearly hurting. I regret that we didn’t just run the race together – that probably would have been more fun given the situation we were trying to deny we were both in.

At this point I knew it was going to be a rough finish. I decided to make a cut then and jog slowly to make sure I could finish. My next miles were 8:20 and 8:40 – that seemed like a deep enough cut in pace to enjoy the finish but was not.

I should have likely gone closer to 9:00 pace and focused on refueling. Unfortunately at mile 24 I thought my race was nearly over and that I could just push through it. It would ultimately be another ~30 minutes until I finished. I wish I had respected that time and taken in some calories.

Central Park

As I hit the park my body bonked. Full on “you don’t have the calories to move that fast” bonk. My heart rate dropped from 170 to 130 – I just didn’t have the energy to push harder. Even at that I had to take a few breathers.

The way to understand bonking is to think about fuel for a car. My body was dripping fuel into the engine at that point and if I tried to move faster than about a 9:00 mile it would burn through it and I would be forced to walk so a bit more energy could accumulate.

I walk/jogged the last two miles. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before in a race. My mile pace was about 11:30. In the race report I wrote for my fast marathon this summer I described how towards the end everything was breaking down and I had a tough time finishing my last miles. Looking back, my slowest mile that day was a 6:37. This time around it was quite shocking to be moving at nearly half that speed.

I’ll include this picture only because I think it captures how much I was trying to grit through the pain. Not having available glycogen isn’t something you can just grit through though.

One of my big miscalculations was thinking I could hit 166 BPM for this race. What I failed to realize is that energy use is a factor of time, not of distance. This is less obvious with short races and on the track, what I am used to. I had previously proven that my body could work at a level of 166 BPM for 2 hours and 42 minutes – not 26.2 miles. When I checked my watch throughout the race and saw 166, I felt good. In reality, all that would get me was 2 hours and 42 minutes of running before a crash. In order to run for a longer time, I would need to be running at a lower effort. In fact, checking my splits, I crossed the 2 hour 42 minute mark at mile 23.5. That is almost exactly when I crashed.

I ended up finishing with a 162 average. If I had thought about this more before the race, I would have aimed for that earlier, gone out a bit slower and likely finished much faster.

This was a hard lesson but will be important if I ever run on trails where distance is often a bad predictor of time, due to elevation climbing. In those cases it is important to think about energy as a function of time. I won’t forget that.

The Finish

I timed my walking so that I had a bit of energy to jog across the finish line. It wasn’t really a celebration other than the fact that I could stop moving and get on with enjoying New York and my friends.

I regret that I didn’t do something more fun at the end. I should have just stopped at a deli around mile 24, had something to eat and gotten back on the course. Then I could have jogged it in and maybe done some pushups at the finish line for good measure. That would have been fun and my time would have been in indistinguishable 3:25 – still a great marathon time. A fun poor performance is much better than a miserable one. Misery is fine if you’re setting a record for yourself though. I wish I could have realized sooner what was happening and made that call. If ever I end up in that situation, I’ll know what to do.

Post Race

The post finish experience was one the worst I’ve ever experienced. We essentially had to walk one mile (I mapped it below) to where we could meet our family and get on the subway. Thankfully they gave us calories right after the finish – I sat down to eat and eventually met up with Chris. We got pretty cold before the .75 mile mark where they finally gave us our ponchos.

That mile probably took close to 40 minutes. I guess that was my slowest mile of the day.

Data Breakdown

It wouldn’t be a Greg post without a few charts. Here are a few of the interesting bits from this race.

I mentioned earlier that I went at a good pace and caught up with a lot of runners that started in an earlier wave, only to have many of them pass me again. Here is a nice chart that shows how it played out with one particular runner I found on Strava who ran a 3:24. Their splits were really even so the change in time between us is all due to my pace dropping. I started ~20 minutes behind them, meaning they were about 4 minutes back into wave 1. You can see that I steadily gained on them until the 23 mile mark. At that point they started gaining on me and ended up putting a good bit of distance on me in the last few miles.

Here is my pace (blue), heart rate (red) and foot turnover (pink) during the run. This is one of the charts I look at for every run. Here I see a nice build up at the start (perhaps too fast for the first half mile), then a solid steady run at a good cadence. The pace bumps around mile 15-17 are mostly due to GPS noise. You can see my bathroom stop at mile 16 where my cadence drops for a bit. At mile 22-24 things start to look a bit rough, mile 24 sees a major slow down and then you can see my alternating walking for the last few miles.

Heart rate is one of the metrics I pay a lot of attention to, so here is a look at just that.

You’ll notice a few spikes, the first one at mile 1 when I sped up to catch Chris, the spike at mile 2 when I started passing people, mile 8.5 when I saw Rob, mile 16.5 after I got out of the bottleneck of the bridge, mile 19 when I decided to push and hold onto another runner, mile 24 I made a big push to get over the last bit of the hill.

I mentioned before that I had hoped to have my average heart rate over 166. I essentially hovered at an average of 166-167 from mile 3 to 21. At that point it slowly started to drop. Going into mile 25 I was still at 166 but those last two miles dropped the average to 162.

 

What is Next?

2017 is going to be a light year for me. I won’t be trying for any records. I am signed up for the Boston Marathon, might repeat Jack & Jill to pace a buddy and have my eyes on a few really cool races including the legendary Dipsea & Bloomsday races.