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November 6, 2017

2017 NYC Marathon Race Report: Not my best but the best

It was summer 2016, when my friend Pete Cashin and I decided that we would run the TCS New York City Marathon together. We put together a few solid training runs but unfortunately he was hit with a stress fracture that would knock him out of last year’s race and I ended up running it alone. I didn’t have my best day in 2016 so I decided if Pete wanted to give it another shot then I would as well. We signed up, got in and started training again.

I decided to not to run a spring marathon and focus on a few half marathons to build up for the fall. Personally, I saw Berlin as an opportunity to run my best so I’d try to run my fastest there and then gear up to help Pete in his marathon. The initial goal that was set was for him to break four hours. Based on our results at the NYC Half in March and subsequent workouts throughout the summer, we were fairly confident that would be easily attainable. I ended up running 3:37 in Berlin so I knew I could recover and then bounce back eight weeks later to pace him to a sub-four.

The week before New York, we were both asked what our goal was for New York and I pretty much laid it out as I’ll take Pete through 20 miles (through the half in 1:47-1:48) before really enjoying and taking in the last 6.2 miles. It would make for a sweet photo to cross the finish line together but I knew, that because of Berlin, I wouldn’t have the wheels to close with Pete if we picked it up in that last 10K. Just three weeks before New York, Pete beat me by about 10 seconds at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Brooklyn Half as we both set personal bests for the half.  It would be up to him whether he wanted to chill out with me or push it. I was content with jogging in my last six miles as a little victory lap.

Race day arrived and we were both feeling good. I didn’t touch a 20-miler between Berlin and New York but I recovered well and put together some workouts that were quicker than usual. Pete was fit.

The start to the New York City Marathon is like no other. As Yankee fans, we’re used to hearing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” at the end of games but it got us pumped to weave our way across the Verrazano Bridge. The first mile was a tad slower than we wanted but then just flew downhill to enter Brooklyn. Two of our high school teammates (Kolbein and Chris) were waiting for us and that was just the start of seeing so many familiar faces along the course. We looked at our watches on Fourth Avenue and Park Slope and saw quicker miles than we hoped for. As a pacer, I was doing a bad job of not getting overly excited from the atmosphere. We saw family members, college friends, high school friends, former coaches and other people that we’ve been able to meet through the sport. Our coach Pat Dormer has been the biggest influence and guide throughout this process but was unfortunately unable to make it. He was still able to get his message to us through my watch when he’d text us along the way with messages like “Stay relaxed” or “Looking good nice and comfortable coming up in mile 11.” We decided to alternate miles for a little bit and the “too fast” problem persisted.

Like I mentioned, the goal through the half was 1:47ish but we ended up hitting that mark into Queens with a 1:42. When Pete and I ran our first half marathon together, 1:42 was around our personal bests. We didn’t realize that until after the race but it kind of brings things full circle.

The entire time after that, I just kept telling him that we need to slow down with the Queensboro Bridge coming up. A little background on my misfortune with that bridge. In 2014 (the really cold year), I ran my first NYC Marathon but strained my quad trying to cross the bridge and just had to waddle my way for the last 10 miles. Last year, I had a little PTSD and slowed down where I just couldn’t get myself back into it mentally. Having Pete alongside me, I was able to audibly say “Not this year. Let’s do this.” I put my head down and just climbed my way up. In one of our last long runs together, Pete decided we should test the bridge and so having that workout to think about certainly helped ease my mind. Pete is taller than me so he ended up using his long stride to fly down the other side into Manhattan. I yelled, “Pete, cool it!” as I trudged along not too far behind but he put his arms up unable to control the momentum leading into a tunnel of sound on First Avenue.

We made the turn onto First and spotted my three buddies (John, Nidgel and Mike), who we saw in Brooklyn, were on their second stop of a little drinking tour while trying to catch us on the course four times. The electricity along First Avenue is like no other. It’s where people tend to get carried away before paying the price in the Bronx. Pete and I were cruising along. We stopped for a second so Pete could get rid of a side stitch and I adjusted my sock on left foot because I felt a blister coming on at about Mile 8. Pete said, “Just don’t think about it” and then the pain subsided. My Brooklyn Track Club friends Tim Rossi, Steve Finley and Leigh Anne Sharek successfully handed us some bottles at 30K before we bumped into Pete’s family again, who had their own bottles awaiting for us. Fueling was certainly no issue for us.

Soon enough, we were in the Bronx and way ahead of our pace. We would hear our watches beep, look at them for a second but not really discuss the pace. We were running on feel and soon enough we’d be in the Bronx. I mentally counted down the miles after the bridge until Pete would make that decision. His side stitch went away but then I saw the Willis Avenue Bridge and I knew that was going to hurt so I backed off and told Pete, “I think this is it for me!” I promised 20 miles but the quick pace and that bridge were enough to call my duties just short of that. I gave Pete one last fist bump and said “Go crush it.” He was off and I wouldn’t see him until the end.

I saw a message on my watch that said if I kept it together for the last 10K then maybe I could PR. Especially after a little breakthrough in Berlin, I didn’t anticipate that for New York so I wanted to make my last six miles as enjoyable as I could. I hit the Bronx and found John, Nidgel and Mike over on side with McDonald’s cups hiding beers. The temptation to have a beer with them wasn’t totally there. I pulled over to the side, high-fived them and thanked them for coming all the way out there for me. Back in Manhattan, I was jogging and walking for a little bit to take everything in. I found the Black Roses cheer squad, they snapped a photo and handed me a bottle of Maurten to send me on my way. It was the little boost I needed before hitting Fifth Avenue and then Central Park.

If you’ve made it this far into my race report, here’s where my little race began. Entering Central Park, I saw a woman in a pizza costume. The night before, John Anderson of ESPN shared a story about his first and only marathon in New York, where he battled a man in a banana suit. My friend Chris Heuisler countered with his own story where he was a man in a banana suit beating people. This was my second banana suit battle. In 2014, I sprinted in Central Park to outrun a tiny old woman who was running barefoot. My GPS data from the race says I ran 27 miles and I blame some of that on running wide in Central Park to avoid any photographs being caught behind Pizza Lady. I put in a few surges to drop her but she wouldn’t let up so let her go and purposely slowed to distance myself.

Then, I look ahead and I see an entourage of four men surrounding a short man in a sweatsuit. Also next to them was my friend Fred, who is a photographer for Nike on occasion. It was Kevin Hart. He started in the first wave of runners and I managed to catch up to him from the second wave. I knew I had about a 15-minute cushion so I wouldn’t lose to him but I didn’t want him to finish before me. His entourage was yelling at people to keep it moving and to veer over to the right side so he can run on the left – a little much for one runner in a race with 50,000+ people. I managed to get right to him (hoping maybe I’d end up in a picture with the Ride Along star) and gave him a fist bump. I said, “Let’s do this, Kevin.” He picked up the pace and I stayed right with him for a little bit before he started walking again. It looks like he went with a run-walk method for most of the race. I left Kevin behind and just did my best to reach the finish line in one piece.

From a distance, I see her again. It was Pizza Lady. She was struggling and I knew I could catch her along Central Park South and I did. I wouldn’t lose to Kevin Hart or Pizza Lady. My battles were over and I could coast to the finish line. Then, I heard someone point out a barefoot runner near me. Not again.

Just before we re-entered Central Park, a big screen flashed the results of the women’s race. I saw Shalane Flanagan’s name before Mary Keitany’s. An American woman had won the New York City Marathon for the first time in 40 years. As if I needed any additional motivation from my patriotism, the barefoot runner stood no chance. I saw the sign that signaled 400 meters remaining and I reverted back to my ways as a high school sprinter to give it my best in the closing stretch. 3:43 would be my result.

Before the race, Pete said breaking four hours would be a good day. Breaking 3:45 would be awesome. The kid took off from me at Mile 19 and then broke my personal best by 42 seconds and ran 3:36:36. I should’ve made it harder by sticking to the original 1:48 plan for the half but I couldn’t be more thrilled for him. I feel like I did my part to help him make his dream of running the New York City Marathon into a memorable experience. As for me, it wasn’t my best day but it was definitely the best experience that I’ve had during a race. In my two previous races, I walked away from New York unfulfilled. It was an injury the first time. It was a shortcoming the second time. Being able to share the course that I call home and make my best friend’s day means more than the time on any clock of a previous race.

My body deserves a break after two and a half marathons in eight weeks. Next 26.2? London in April.

(Thanks to David Bracetty for the photo)

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