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March 7, 2019

Tokyo Marathon 2019 – The Process Pays Off

In a recent episode of the Runners of NYC Podcast, I was asked by one of the guests about my own respective running history. I’ve previously shared some insight into my background from a high school sprinter to late-blooming distance runner but my co-host, Jeanne Mack, did a great job of summarizing my running career in a few sentences:

“Was a sprinter in high school. Transitioned into running longer things while in college to try and stay generally fit. Really got into running pretty recently by discovering a club in New York and getting connected with the running scene here. Through that structure, training plan, coaching and teammates, has made a lot of jumps in PRs and training.”

She pretty much nailed it. Since my disappointment in last year’s London Marathon, I made the decision to try and take running a little bit more seriously than in the past. 2018 marked an off-year from world championships or Olympics on the professional side of the sport so by scaling back on how much coverage I was doing, I decided to explore my own own running and how much I could improve from the mile to the marathon. I know there’s people out there who don’t care about reading a race report for a three-hour marathoner so if that’s you, that’s fine but I’d like to take some time to reflect on my major target races and share some insight into how the performance came about.

2019 chris chavez running

2018

(These are a lot of words that I could’ve blogged in 2018. Oops.)

What happened after London? My personal best from the marathon remained 3:37:18 from the 2017 Berlin Marathon. I jumped back into training about a week later with the focus being the Brooklyn Half Marathon. My personal best before that race was 1:34 and I would’ve been happy with anything close to that. Running 1:31:44 was a pleasant surprise so that started the new training cycle with a focus on the mile. A sub-five minute mile is something high school runners and even middle school kids across the country run with ease and regularity. I’ve never done it so I set that as my goal.

I also didn’t want to do this solo. Since 2012, I was coached by my high school coach, Patrick Dormer, and I’m tremendously appreciative of his support and guidance in getting me hooked on distance running. I always think about what it would’ve been like if I had started running the 800, mile, 5K, etc. in high school but I don’t think I’d change a thing about how I came to love the sport. Mr. Dormer and I got very close in the process and remain very good friends. However, it came time to join a team and train with other like-minded and motivated amateur runners in the New York City running community. After dabbling in some workouts at the end of the winter, I officially committed to the Brooklyn Track Club and was being coached by former professional runner Steve Finley.

My personal best to start the summer was 5:25. I fell short of that sub-five goal but lowered my personal best to 5:20 (on the Brooklyn Mile’s course, which may have been a little long). Some of the reps in the speed workouts started to come close to my personal bests from my days as as mediocre sprinter at Xavier High School in Manhattan. Most importantly, running in the seven-minute range started feeling super easy and I had teammates that kept me accountable.

Summer 2018 was an experiment in pushing my body to run as fast as possible for just over five minutes. After five years of getting used to distance running, I found it funny to have workout amount to less than two miles but the hurt was wonderful in a different way.

In 2017, I ran Berlin and New York in a span of six weeks but I decided to take the fall off from marathon running to allow my body to recovery and target Tokyo in March 2019. The FOMO was real. My Brooklyn Track Club teammates made the most of their 16-week training cycles to set personal bests in Berlin, Chicago and New York. Two performances really stood out to me.

Jeanne Mack running 2:39:04 in Chicago

I stuck with my plan of not covering the elite race and instead took in the Chicago Marathon as a spectator for the first time. Jeanne, who has written for CITIUS in the past about her marathoning, wanted to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She traded in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona for the concrete jungle of New York and still destroyed her previous personal best of 2:45 by crossing the finish line in 2:39:04 in the rain. Kudos to our own Stephen Kersh for coaching her to that time. Running around the course and watching with (her now-fiancée!) Paul Snyder and her best friend Kate Caputo was moving to me in a different way than seeing elites set record-setting times. This was a friend accomplishing a dream and cashing in on many deposits of hard work. I wanted to run a marathon very soon after witnessing that race. I toyed with the idea of signing up for the California International Marathon but I had already committed to being a cheerleader again for another friend there.

leigh anne sharek california international marathon

Leigh Anne Sharek runs a 2:42:02 at CIM

The spectator feel and course vibes in Chicago were so great that I wanted to do it again for my teammate, Leigh Anne Sharek, and her respective OTQ attempt. Leigh Anne has been a guest on the Runners of NYC Podcast and has shared her story of being a hobby jogger who never ran high school track to a sub-elite and local celebrity in the New York City running scene. Before her race, she was nervous and emotions were running high. I didn’t help. Instead, I made her cry by showing her a 15-minute video that I put together with testimonials from more than 40 teammates, friends and pros (Meb Keflezighi, Eliud Kipchoge, Colleen Quigley and Hassan Mead) wishing her luck. She told me after the race that she thought about that video when the going got tough and she crossed the finish line in 2:42:02 to qualify for Atlanta. Leigh Anne spent May to September fine tuning her speed in the mile and then nailed the marathon. 

Coach Finley and I sat down at a bar in Sacramento and revealed the “Leigh Anne Method” was what we had already started to do for Tokyo. The next three months would just require me to focus and commit to putting in the work. Motivated and evidenced by Jeanne and Leigh Anne, I bought in.

2019

(This is getting long but I’m on a train in Japan and want to keep writing my thoughts while they’re still fresh.)

Most of my training for previous marathons was solo. This time around, I had my Brooklyn Track Club teammates but I was the only one in my group that was training for an early March marathon. Regardless, my friends wouldn’t let me do this alone. I had long runs where people joined me for 14, 16 or 20 miles and I was incredibly thankful. I won’t overwhelm you with splits and specifics because there isn’t anything that would wow you but the key to my training was consistency. When I was alone, it was easy to give myself random days off. I had a plan and people that held me accountable. Long runs were solid and sometimes too fast because I hate running in the cold so the sooner I was done, the better – that’s dumb. Track workouts were fantastic and sometimes also too fast. My mileage was around 40-55 miles per week. I was reaping the benefits of the summer of speed and there were receipts for that fitness in a few shorter road races from December to March.

OK…finally. Tokyo.

I flew in on Thursday night and got lost on my shakeout run on Friday morning. My legs felt a little heavy but I was told that didn’t matter. The work was done. It was time to run.

Coach Finley and I went over the final instructions on Friday. I laid out splits to go through the 5K in 22:59, 10K in 45:58, 20K in 1:31 and the half in 1:37 before coasting to 18 miles and then attacking the final 10K. I nailed my final long runs with a progression down to 6:30s so I just wanted to have the same wheels.

“Do not panic or feel pressure to hit those times exactly,” Finley said. “Those are just guidelines. Let the race come to you. Do not force it. Do as little as possible until 30K. Just go through the motions. Don’t get any bright ideas. Allow it to be progressive. Trust it. Be patient and have faith. Faith.”

I believed.

On race day, I looked outside and saw that it was starting to rain. The 2018 Boston Marathon has changed what we think is OK to run in. My personal bests in the mile, 5K, half and marathon have all come on rainy days so I viewed this as a good sign for me.

I didn’t exactly agree with theory when I stood in my corral shivering but once we started moving, I was locked in.

The first two miles are somewhat downhill so instead of getting carried away to “bank time” for later, I consciously pumped the brakes and did my best to run 7:30 per mile. I had listened to a podcast recently where I heard a professional runner say that banking time for later was dumb and not the way to run a marathon. For once, I was trying not to be dumb.

That’s all I told myself each mile.

By 5K, I settled into my pace and allowed myself to get distracted by the other people running and my surroundings. Tokyo is a beautiful city with very passionate distance running fans. In the weeks leading up the race, I read Adharanand Finn’s The Way of the Runner: A Journey into the Fabled World of Japanese Running for inspiration and insight into the culture. The same passionate spectators that were mentioned in the pages of his book were now arms length away from me. I have no idea what they were saying but I absorbed their energy.

My friend, Pete Cashin, traveled with me from New York for a vacation and was designated for bottle service on race day. On Saturday, we took trips out to the 10K and 30K marks to create a range where he’d be able to handoff two bottles of Maurten to help me during the race. We nailed each handoff and I took three gels when needed on the course. For the first time in any of my marathons, the fueling strategy was perfect. The only thing that would’ve been better would’ve been having my own version of Claus on a bike.

The beauty of a marathon is that there’s so much distance to make new friends along the way. There was a runner from Toronto (If you’re reading this, I’m sorry I forgot your name but please reach out) who complimented my work with Sports Illustrated. That meant a lot. We chatted briefly and he said that his goal was also to run sub-3:20 but took off and was going to approach it a little differently than me. I let him go and stuck with my own plan.

I also met Gabe Albaladejo from Florida. He crept up on me and said, “Looks like the legs are feelin’ good” around Mile 8. I didn’t think I’d get one of those away from the States so I chuckled. We stuck together briefly but I also allowed him to also go ahead while I stayed on my own pace. He had taken two months off after a stress reaction in his foot so power to him for even showing up to race.

Coach Finley told me to hit the first half anywhere from 1:37 to 1:39. I went through in about 1:39, which was personally a little disappointing to be toward the higher end of that target. Still…I had to remember not to force things so I stayed at a comfortable clip through the next three miles. Mentally, I wanted to turn this into a 10-mile progression run but I thought attacking the final eight was the smarter move and somehow as the rain got heavier, I was getting stronger.

Back in New York City, about 20 of my teammates and friends got together for a Tokyo Marathon viewing party that included sushi, Sapporo beers and a live stream of the professional races. Everyone tracked my progress from their phones and called out splits to each other. I still don’t have an idea if there was a drinking game involved but that was very nice of them to do. As I calculated my plan for the final six-mile stretch, I thought about all of them. This race was for all of them. The training for it was a collective effort. They put in work to get me to to that starting line as fit and as fast as I’ve ever been in my life and I did not want to let them down.

tokyo marathon 2019

At the 20 mile mark, Jordan Donnelly of the Heartbreakers in Boston called out, “Let’s go Chris! Legs are feelin’ good!” And he was actually right! I said something to him and threw him a fist pump. Motivational self talk kicked in. I spoke to myself and asked my body if it could press just a little harder with each remaining mile. Unlike any of my previous races, I was passing people instead of being passed or even walking at the end of the race. I caught my new friends from Toronto and Florida in that last stretch and tried to motivate both of them to come with me but I somehow had an extra gear and slowly pulled away.

Someone tweeted at me that from 30K to 40K, I passed 701 people. I have no idea if that’s good but it’s better than being passed by 701 people. With 5K to go, I peeked at my watch and started smiling. Part of the reason for that was because world record holder Eliud Kipchoge has said that smiling subdues pain. It was also because I knew I was going to make good on my promise to run a beautiful and strong race for those friends at home.

I passed Pete with less than a kilometer left. I could hear his cheering but didn’t break form or stride. All those cold track sessions at the East River Park track prepared me for this “kick” of sorts. Just before the final turn, I looked at my watch and saw I was under 3:17 – an A+ day for me. I crossed the finish line with both arms extended. Business was handled and it was a special day that I will never forget.

ありがとう (Thank You)

I’ve mentioned them a lot in this reflection but none of this would have been possible without my Brooklyn Track Club teammates. My training partners (Leigh Anne Sharek, Jeanne Mack, Paul Snyder, Ryan Welsh, Cara Enright, Mit Patel, Alana Levy, Zac Price, Patrick Morris, Andrew Dearling, Dennis Serna, Daniel Diaz, Tim Rossi, Marta Fenollosa and everyone else) kept me motivated and eager to explore my limits for the past year.

Coach Steve Finley, I think we’re just getting started. Thank you for the leadership and direction in showing me that some goals aren’t insurmountable and sometimes just take a tough grind.

Coach Patrick Dormer, we started this in 2008 as a sprinter at Xavier High School and then played with this marathon idea in 2013. The six world marathon majors are done and you were instrumental on getting me hooked on this silly hobby of marathoning.

Anonymous poster, Stater of the Obvious on LetsRun, for the shout-out on the “Slowest person you know who’s life revolves around running ?” thread. Honestly, that’s a tremendous roast. I used it as fuel for the fire during training. I think I’m a little less slow now.

The Citwits…if you read this far, thank you for caring. I don’t know everyone who reads, listens or follows along here but I’m grateful for every message of encouragement, support and congrats over the past week. My running exploits aren’t anything impressive but I do it to understand the process, struggles and accomplishments that come with the sport. If you take anything away from this, I’m pleased.

So what’s next? Sub-1:27 at the Brooklyn Half in May sounds nice. Sub-five in the mile is still alluding me. As for the marathon, the Brooklyn Track Club is bringing a full squad to Berlin and I’m thinking sub-3:10 in my return to Germany.

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