Running another Philadelphia marathon

I never expected this. For over 20 years I was a typical jogger, going out two or three times a week for about four miles at a leisurely pace. With no goal other than fitness and enjoyment, I was unconcerned about going farther or faster. Suddenly I was 55 years old and lacing up my shoes for my fifth marathon.
It started in the winter of 2008, when a friend with marathon experience invited me to join him for a half marathon in Central Park, and I discovered that I enjoyed running nonstop for two hours. The idea of a marathon, hitherto almost inconceivable, became attractive. In the fall of that same year I ran Philly in 3:51, and loved it. I had the appropriate attitude of humility and respect for the distance, running a disciplined, well-regulated race the likes of which, ironically, I haven’t been able to match ever since.
Next was New York in 2009. By now I had moved to South Orange and fell in with a delightful gang of experienced, enthusiastic, and talented distance runners known as The South Mountain Running Collective. I became ambitious, and wanted to meet the Boston qualifying standard of 3:35. Like a fool, I went out too fast, and had to struggle and suffer to hang on over the last 10K, attaining the goal with only seconds to spare. Going out too fast is the classic mistake in distance running, though you might think it would not be so difficult to avoid.
But this performance got me to Boston in 2011, where I repeated the same error, albeit not as drastically: another positive split, but I beat my goal of 3:20 by five seconds, and easily qualified again for Boston in 2012. (Runners call it a negative split where the second half of a race is faster than the first, and it is well established that it is far more effective than the reverse.)
And how could I resist going back to Boston again? I could not, and trained with a view to another personal record (or PR, which is also a verb in runnerspeak) of about 3:17. But the temperatures were in the high 80s that day in April. We were forced to revise our plans and focus on simple survival. Hence my disappointing 3:43, 13 minutes short of Boston qualification (BQ) for my age group.
By now I was thinking it might be nice to get off the crazy train. Marathon training is a time- and energy-consuming pain in the ass, and try though we might to keep it tucked away in its own discreet little compartment, it inevitably has an impact on other people in our lives. And sometimes those people don’t like it. But could I really go out like that, credible excuse notwithstanding? With a 3:43?
No. In November 2013 I was back in Philadelphia again to settle accounts with the marathon gods. This time, however, the training cycle had been more challenging. It is not unusual to encounter setbacks of some kind during 20 weeks of training. Sickness, injuries, family dramas, the demands of work — in short, life — sometimes interfere. I had successfully navigated through bronchitis, a death in the family, and other challenges in previous training cycles. But this time injuries cost me a week and a half in August and several more days in October, and I was not able to get all the mileage I would have liked.
Even so, when I walked up to the line, I felt fit to run a successful marathon. The key workouts in the final stage of training had gone well. My injuries had subsided, the weather was fine, even my pre-race jitters seemed noticeably less severe than in the past. This time I did not have a fixed, specific goal. I thought 3:15 was conceivable, but decided anything up to 3:17:30 would be acceptable. And I had a plan, known as 10 + 10 + 10: go out relatively conservatively for the first 10 miles, i.e., at a 3:17:30 pace; pick it by a few seconds per mile for the next 10 miles; and for the last 10K, be in a position to pick up the pace even more, possibly enough to get me there in 3:15.
Once we got underway, embarrassing though it is to admit, I am not really sure what I was thinking. I do recall making a conscious effort to hold back initially. Over the first mile, traffic was congested, and I decided to go with it rather than fight. My first mile was a 7:42, but that was perfectly OK. A slow start was desirable; there was plenty of time to make it up.
For the next 18 miles or so, it seemed that nobody was in charge. The data on my GPS watch says that mile 2 was 7:18; mile 3, 7:08. For miles 4 and 5 I dialed it back to 7:24, but that was still about 8 seconds per mile too fast. The next few miles included a couple of moderate ones, and my average pace for the first 10 was around 7:30. The pushing and pulling continued over the second 10 miles, but the average overall was around 7:25 — consistent with the overall plan, yes, but too late because I had already blown too much energy in the first 10. By around mile 17 or 18 I was still feeling OK, but tired enough to predict that after 20 miles it was going to be hard to maintain the pace. Miles 22 to 25 were 7:40, 7:44, 7:48, 7:56, 7:55.
Crossing 26 with the crowds screaming encouragement, I was able to pick it up to a 6:53 pace, but over the last 10K I averaged about 7:48 and came in at 3:17:23. (The gory details are published at http://connect.garmin.com/activity/406675139.)
This marathon experience was different from the previous two in which I was seriously trying to reach a goal. In New York, the last 10K were hellish, but my addled mind had enough command of the numbers to understand that I would meet the BQ threshold if and only if I ran like hell. This motivated me to fight hard against the fatigue. The same was true in Boston in 2011: I knew the 3:20 mark was still within reach, but I had to dig. In this race, the goal was comparatively vague: sub-3:17:30, hopefully something closer to 3:15. For the last 10K I felt fatigue, but it wasn’t especially painful — I simply couldn’t convince myself to run faster. But I also felt pretty sure that the 3:17:30, and certainly the PR, was in the bag. That complacency probably hurt my cause; a bit of drama, pressure and anxiety might have provided helpful motivation.
3:17:23 represents a PR by over two minutes, and a Boston qualifier with over 22 minutes to spare; it was also good enough for 16th place among 319 men in the 55-59 age group. Maybe I ought to be happy with that. And although I am not completely disappointed with the bottom line, I am pretty disgusted with myself for not having better discipline. The objective numbers demonstrate that I had the fitness; the subjective experience of how smoothly the whole 26.2 went by, weak finish nothwithstanding, confirms it. I am almost certain I was physically prepared to run at least one, maybe even as much as two minutes faster. But I positive-split it by 1:22 and squandered this splendid opportunity.
Why is it so hard to slow down in those early miles? For me, I think one problem — if it can be considered a problem — is that proper marathon training really works. On race day you are fit, tuned up, but also tapered and rested — not to mention jacked up with the excitement. When the gun goes off and you start running, it is extremely difficult to believe that running can feel this easy and still be fast enough. It seems like you should be exerting at least a little bit. Even the minutes and seconds your watch displays at the mile markers do not convince. So, for me, the lesson is: believe it, bitch. It may even be that I could run a faster marathon next time by setting out to run it slower. Then there might be enough gas in the tank at the end to finish strong enough to get a better result.
Wait — did I just say next time? Uh, yeah, I guess I did. Which brings us back to where we started. I said I never expected to be running marathons, much less running them this fast. I said I would like to get off the crazy train, and maybe I will. But it isn’t easy. When you’re an athlete, you enjoy the challenge of seeing how well you can do, so you keep trying. Eventually the inevitable effects of age overcome the positive effects of training, but that’s no reason to give up prematurely. Another factor is that running marathons (and shorter races as well) is really cool, and fun, and profoundly rewarding. It gets into your bones and becomes part of your identity: you’re a runner. What’s the use of trying to be anybody else?

Learning from the 2012 Brooklyn Half

On May 19 I had the pleasure of running the hugely popular Brooklyn Half Marathon. This NYRR event sold out within a matter of hours after registration opened, and had over 14,000 finishers. The race starts in Prospect Park at 7:00 a.m., a fact for which I was grateful despite the inconvenience of having to get out of bed around 4:00 a.m. to get there in time from South Orange, NJ. The temperature was forecast to peak at around 80° F but it was about 58° when we started — quite reasonable. I was happy to avoid another scenario like the 2012 Boston Marathon, where the punishing heat made us renounce all ideas of any goal other than survival.
My goal here was to crack 1:30:00 for the first time. (By way of background: I am a week short of 54 years old and have been running seriously for about four years, after over 20 years of consistent but casual jogging. In the grand scheme, a 90-minute half is not spectacular but it is entirely respectable.) My previous PR was 1:30:24 set on March 4 at the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon, which I treated as a tuneup and diagnostic for Boston. Two weeks after that I set another PR for the 10K distance, using that tuneup race almost as a substitute speed workout. I approached both of those races with an enthusiastic but reasonably relaxed, let’s-see-what-happens attitude which I think served me well. Both were among my more disciplined races, with an even, realistic, quality pace most of the way and a slight pickup at the end — and I had fun. Then came the debacle of Boston, a disappointment that took me a week to get over, after which I set my sights on Brooklyn as a way to get some revenge. The months of work that went into Boston had not been adequately rewarded; I wanted to cash in.
Three of us South Mountain athletes set out before sunrise by car to Manhattan, parked in a lot and took a taxi to the start, arriving with little more than sufficent time to dump our official plastic bags with our personal effects at the baggage check and start standing in line to pee. One or two ritual trips to the Porta-Potty were not quite enough for me this time. Standing in my corral for 20 minutes prior to the start I was having doubts about whether I had sufficiently emptied by bladder, which usually gets me through a half marathon without complaint.
We got underway, and Mile 1 went by in 6:43, several seconds ahead of my target pace, but not too bad.
Upon seeing some available Porta-Pottys I made the fateful decision to drain it, and ran a 7:21 for Mile 2. Not good. I was 12 seconds behind the pace and needed to pick it up.
Mile 3 was 6:22, way too fast. I hadn’t meant to make up the deficit in one mile but it happened anyway — my feet were doing that left-right-left-right thing a bit too frequently.
Mile 4: 6:50. I wanted to see a number between 6:50 and 6:52, so this was splendid.
Mile 5: 7:01. Disappointing, but my watch said a total 34:17 had elapsed, a few seconds ahead of the goal pace.
Mile 6: 7:02. Now I was behind the pace again, and not sure why. There had been some hills, but I didn’t think they should have slowed me down so much. Demoralized, I wished I had a Metrocard or cash on me so I could quit and take the subway to the finish at Coney Island, get my gear and go home. Instead I picked up the pace.
Mile 7: 6:32, way faster than intended. What happened to my discipline and self-control?
Mile 8: 6:46. Acceptable.
Mile 9: 6:58, several seconds too slow. I was now paying for the excess of miles 3 and 7, getting fatigued, and looking forward to getting this over with. It’s probably not uncommon for runners in this condition to squint into the distance in search of the next mile marker.
Mile 10: 6:54. A little slow, but my watch read 1:08:29. Still on pace to meet the goal if only I can hang on.
Mile 11: 6:50. Excellent!
Mile 12: 7:01. Shit. From here on I was trying to give myself the “run faster” command but could not get myself to obey. There was no part of me that hurt particularly, and I couldn’t determine which component was giving out: legs, lungs or will?
The final 1.1 miles took me 7:40, a 6:59/mile pace. There is a short, steep ramp up to the boardwalk that surprised me when I ran this course two years ago, but this time I was prepared and charged it with furious anger, exhaustion or no. Over the last couple hundred meters the motivation of seeing the finish in sight was enough to get me to stop obsessing at long last and run much faster than at any point hitherto. But it was too late: my official time was 1:30:01. I had missed it by two seconds.
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Failure to hold the pace in miles 12 and 13 killed me, but the chain of cause and effect leads back to miles 3 and 7 in which I squandered too much energy, and further back to the bathroom episode which brought about my anxiety about recouping lost time. Further still, and we come upon the real teaching point of this experience. There’s no doubt that my fitness was good enough to run the course in 1:29:59, and experience shows that I am capable of executing a plan. So what went wrong? At Boston a spectator was holding up a sign that said “Running is 80% mental and 40% physical.” We got a kick out of the joke, but like most good jokes, it points to the truth. My successful races in March were ones where my attitude was more relaxed; I ran for enjoyment, not just to achieve goals. In the days preceeding this race I created too much pressure by vowing to redeem Boston, and added an extra, unhelpful layer of uncertainty and doubt. For best results, this sport of distance running requires you not just to tune up your physical fitness but also your head — your other 80%, if you will.
That brings me to the happy conclusion, after all this hand-wringing and overthinking. Next time I will crack 1:30:00 by 10 or 15 seconds, because there will be nothing to worry about: I know I can do it. And I still have ahead of me the pleasure of passing this landmark.
P.S: It was a successful day, my sloppy performance notwithstanding. I beat my previous PR by 23 seconds and came in 22nd of 363 in my 50-54 age/gender group. But that’s not all. Five of us South Mountain Runners were in the race, and three set PRs. The unstoppable running machine Lucky John Parry (rightmost in the photo) ran 1:21:50 and was 9th, yes 9th of 554 in the men’s 45-49 age group in this competitive, massive field. Our own venerable head coach Bill Haskins posted a 125:18, 29th of 948 M40-44 (on the left on in the photo); Hamish Wright (next to Bill), 1:24:43 and 29th of 1339 M35-39; and two other locals not shown in the photo ran strong.
But wait, there’s more. This South Mountain team was 9th in a field of 63 in the men’s 40+ category. Translation: we kicked some ass. And we look forward to going back and kicking some more.

I survived the 2012 Boston Marathon

In December 2011 I started 20 weeks of training for the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2012. For this my fourth marathon my goal time was 3:17 to 3:18, a two or three minute improvement over my person record (PR) 3:19:55 that I ran Boston in 2011.
For those not familiar with the marathon game: this goal represents not a spectacular but a thoroughly respectable time for a man in his mid 50s For context, consider that a world-class male marathoner will run 26.2 in a few minutes over two hours, and the guy who won the men’s 50-54 age group last year ran a 2:34:52 — preposterous, but conclusively demonstrating that it is possible. From my point of view, anything under around 3:10 is seriously kicking ass, and getting much below 3:00 is unfathomable.
At my modest level of experience one has already learned that it is unusual for a training cycle to go smoothly from end to end. Injury, sickness, extreme weather, or a personal or work-related situation of some sort will often present challenges in addition to the expected physical and logistical demands of the mileage. I was therefore grateful that this time my training had gone remarkably well — mild winter, no death in the family, no more than a few days downtime due to a cold in February. Then, in the days just preceding the race, the organizers saw the forecast for temperatures in the upper 80s and began to email dire warnings to race registrants. As the forecast temperatures rose, so did the tone of alarm in the emails. In the last of these they urged anyone who was not extremely fit to withdraw from the race, and those who did not should slow way down, forget about racing and treat it as an “experience.”
I grudgingly revised my race plan. The PR goal was abandoned; instead, I decided aiming for a Boston-qualifying 3:30 would be acceptable, a full 30 seconds per mile slower than my ideal. But fear and uncertainty set in. During the last two days I had an persistent, unpleasant feeling that I could not quite identify — until 3:30 on the morning of the race, when I awoke in my hotel room to the realization that my problem with this enterprise was simple: I did not want to do it. Running 26.2 miles in the high 80s has never been on my list of things to do in this life. I must have understood that while this was unlikely to end in catastrophe, it was certain to be truly painful — even more so than your typical marathon effort. Hence my fantasies about running away rather than running the race.
We have a robust community of accomplished distance runners in the area where I live, and one of my running companions was also in this race — I’ll call him Patrick. When I mentioned to him that I was tempted to bail on the project, Patrick reminded me that we aren’t just in this for ourselves. All of us support and encourage each other so strongly that we are invested in each other’s success. I was never entirely serious about walking away, but this strengthened my resolve. It takes character to be insane.
The nervous early hours of race day morning went by quickly, and then we were in the starting area, already sweating in the sun at 10:00. The Boston Marathon has upwards of 20,000 runners, so the start is staged in three waves which in turn are organized into corrals based on expected pace. My friend Patrick and I were both assigned to the first corral of Wave 2. Patrick is similar to me in age, but a substantially faster runner, so I was pleasantly surprised when we spontaneously decided to run together. And off we went, at a pace a little below 8:00/mile for the first several, largely downhill miles, thinking this sufficiently conservative.
The first 10, 12, 13 miles went by in reasonable comfort. No longer attached to PRs, we made the ride as fun as possible, engaging with the crowds, entertaining ourselves, watching out for each other. We drank copious amounts of water and Gatorade, as did everyone; around the hydration stops we kicked our way through masses of discarded Poland Spring cups. We also dumped countless cups of water onto ourselves; our clothing, shoes and socks were saturated most of the way. And our 8:00/mile gradually gave way to 8:15, 8:30, 9:00, and beyond as we let the conditions dictate the pace.
Our friend and coach — let’s call him Bill Haskins — was monitoring our progress from afar via the Athlete Alert service, which sends to your phone or email address a snapshot of a runner’s pace and time as of 10K, 13.1 miles, 30K, and finish. Every time Patrick and I crossed one of the electronic timing mats together, I drew deep satisfaction from knowing we were sending the signal back home to Bill that his runners were hanging tough, and hanging together.
Around mile 17 the course takes you through about four miles of what are called the Newton Hills, the last of which is known as Heartbreak Hill. We ground our way up the first hill at a moderate but steady pace, and I felt encouraged. I was experiencing some pain, but nothing too extreme.
By the top of Heartbreak I felt like shit, and struggled to hold a pace faster than 10:00/mile. Every step was pain from my hips to the soles of my feet. I wondered if there might be some way of putting my foot down that did not hurt. In retrospect I realize there is indeed such a method: it’s called walking. Thousands of people were doing it, but we never seriously considered it an option.
A couple miles after Heartbreak, Patrick was suffering even worse than me; he bade me go forward without him, and I reluctantly complied. At long last, the right turn onto Hereford Street, then left onto the final stretch of Boyleston. For the last quarter mile I managed to increase my speed to something comparable to the 7:30 I had originally dreamed of averaging, and crossed the finish in 3:43:41. Unable to decide whether to puke or pass out, I did neither. Patrick showed up about a minute and a half later. We greeted each other with the greatest high five of all time, then staggered onward together to collect our medals and head home.
All of our running friends commended our courageous performance. It is gratifying that we had the fitness and the fortitude to get through this with dignity, and the intelligence to manage our pace and hydration well enough to avoid the hospital. But in terms of absolute performance, it was a terrific frustration and disappointment. Nobody wants to train for 20 weeks and 1000 miles just to be thwarted by a one-day spike in temperature (the days following and preceding were of course much cooler). The post-race challenge for me has been to get my head around what happened, accept it, and move on. This too, I realize, is part of this strange and wonderful sport of distance running.

Highlights from 2011

Here are a few salient events from another interesting year:

  • I won myself a trophy for third place in my 50-54 age/gender group in a half marathon in Monmouth County, NJ. This is remarkable because it was not long ago that the very idea was inconceivable. The trophy itself is hideously ugly, but I am glad to accept it nonetheless.
  • I ran my third marathon, in Boston. In short, it was a successful and rewarding venture. See this report if you want the gory details.
  • I won my age group in not one but two local 5K races — small ones, but still… The second was noteworthy because I was actually disappointed in my performance, feeling sluggish and uncomfortable and posting a slower time than I thought I should. Winning my age group and still not satisfied — have I lost my mind?
  • My stepfather died at the age of 93, in March. He was an accomplished astronomer who led a long and productive life, and is remembered with great admiration and affection by hundreds of people.
  • In May I crashed the shit out of my car, with two of my kids in the back seat. It wasn’t good, but could have been far worse.
  • My uncle died at the age of something like 88, in August. He too was a smart man who managed to get through his long life pretty much doing as he pleased, founding and running a successful aerial photography business.
  • One of our cats, Master Lin-chi, used up a couple of his lives. First he disappeared for a full week, during the summer. He had us grieving and stapling flyers to trees all over the neighborhood. Then he walked into the house, skinny and filthy but very much alive. We have no idea where the hell he was.

    As if that wasn’t enough, he then surpassed this performance by surviving an encounter with a car with nothing more than some bruises and abrasions. I took him to the vet (and what a splendid vet he is, Felix Escudero at the emergency clinic in Bloomfield, NJ) who pronounced him OK.

    I don’t remember if it was before or after that incident that I called him to come home one evening, when he hadn’t been seen for 24 hours. When he still didn’t show up I called a little louder, and heard a faint whimper in the distance. Following the sound, I located him in the back yard two houses away, trapped in what’s know as a “Have a Heart” trap — a cage that automatically closes when an animal enters to get at some bait, stepping on a metal plate in the process. It seems that our neighbor had set it to to catch some other creature that had been giving him grief, and then saw fit to leave for the weekend. Thus Lin-chi sat with no food or water, next to a little pile of his own shit, until I rescued him. I got him out and otherwise left the trap as I found it, shit included.Master Lin-chi

    (You may say, obviously this cat should live entirely indoors, and I wouldn’t disagree. But it’s not an easy policy to enforce, and I am of two minds about the issue of letting cats go outdoors — a topic for another day.)

  • Like so many others on the planet,we endured extreme weather, including tough snowstorms, a brush with a hurricane in late August, and a seasonally inappropriate winter storm in October that left us without power for a full five days.
  • Our four kids got a year bigger, all them thriving and developing and fascinating my wife and me.
  • My lovely wife and I observed another wedding anniversary, and are still crazy about each other. It’s a glorious thing.

why?

when you awaken at some ungodly hour
ease your way around your dreaming spouse
to sneak through the house like a thief
and put on your running shoes
and even the cats look at you
as though you’ve lost your mind:
you will ask
why am I doing this?
because.
because when you begin to run
down the street
your footsteps will echo
off the sleeping houses.

Running the 2011 Boston Marathon

I rode Amtrak from Newark on Sunday and lodged at the Hilton in the Financial District. After putting down my gear I went to the expo where you get your number, and did not hang around long. Those big convention center affairs are oppressive and I wasn’t much interested in shopping. The marathon included a pasta buffet dinner, and having no other hot date lined up I decided I might as well. It was no better than satisfactory, which is OK for these purposes. After dinner I lay in a hot bath and managed to let the jitters subside to some extent. Got to bed reasonably early and woke up at 4:15, an hour ahead of the alarm and redundant wake-up call.

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Even if you aren’t ADD-afflicted, It is good practice to arrange your countless little items the night before.

The buses to the start in Hopkinton were about a 12-minute walk from the hotel. Instead I spontaneously shared a short cab ride with two other runners, also strangers to each other. Everywhere I went I found good vibes and camaraderie. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with people with whom you have such an intense common interest. On the bus I sat next to a Canadian woman who had to be well over 60 and who knows what it is to train in truly cold weather and snow — not like us New Jersey wimps. Before the start the runners wait for a couple hours in an outdoor area known as Athlete’s Village, where armed guards, attack dogs and razor wire keep the athletes from escaping. Despite the forecast for textbook-perfect weather, it was cold, and the ground was wet. I wished I’d had as much foresight as the people who brought ground cloths and other appropriate equipment. I was shivering much of the time, my cotton layers insufficient against the wind.
For readers who are not familiar with the marathon game, a little context: the world record is just a little over two hours. From my perspective, anything under three hours is astounding. The entrance requirement for the prestigious Boston Marathon is to demonstrate your credibility by running an officially recognized marathon within a set time, adjusted for gender and age, in the 18 months prior to the race. The Boston qualifying standard for my age bracket is currently 3:35; all Boston qualifying times will become five minutes tougher as of 2013. Having [qualified in New York in 2009](http://vernontbludgeon.com/blog/archives/2009/11/running_the_2009_ny_marathon.html), I was now here to crack 3:20:00 and needed to average a fraction over 7:37 per mile. It’s all relative, to be sure, but I think it fair to say that a sub-3:20 marathon, when you are six weeks short of 53 years old, is pretty damn good. It’s a BQ (Boston Qualifier) with 15 minutes to spare, 10 minutes by the 2013 standard.
My training had gone well, and I had plenty of sage advice from experienced, excellent Boston marathoners (e.g., a guy whom we will call Bill Haskins to protect his privacy), hence a pretty clear notion of what to do. Stick to your pace and no faster — as with any marathon. Beware of the early miles which are downhill, and can seduce you into going too fast and trashing your quads. If you’ve managed your pace intelligently, then after the last of the infamous Newton Hills around mile 21 you can pick up the pace and seal the deal.
At last we get moving, and the cold is an issue no more. There is no other sound like the patter of thousands of shoes trodding the asphalt.
These are my unofficial mile splits:
Mile 1: 7:57. Too congested. There was little I could do about that so I tell myself not to worry, in fact maybe this is good. Start out easy and make it up later.
Mile 2: 7:07. Oops. Didn’t mean to make it up all at once.
Mile 3: 7:11. Shit. Got to get this under control.
Mile 4: 7:26. Still too fast.
Mile 5: 7:40. Thank you.
Mile 6: 7:37. Brilliant.
Mile 7: 7:39. I’ll take it.
Mile 8: 7:34. A little overexuberant, but acceptable.
Mile 9: 7:32. Dude, come on.
Mile 10: 7:49. A little erratic now. Maybe compensating for the sins of the past couple of miles though I don’t remember for sure.
Mile 11: 7:27. Compensating for the preceding. Definitely too erratic now.
Mile 12: 7:57. I saw an open Porta-Potty and decided to go for it though my need was not urgent. It just looked like a good opportunity. But it took numerous seconds.
Mile 13: 7:15. Again, the mistake of trying to reclaim lost time in one shot.
Mile 14: 7:29. Trying to ease up.
Mile 15: 7:35. Not bad.
Mile 16: 7:19. Oops. Maybe getting a little too cocky about feeling strong at this stage.
Mile 17: 7:48 Again easing off. Soon hereafter I encounter my one-man support team among the onlookers, the incomparably charming — not to mention stupendous runner — John Parry, who gave me wonderful encouragement, running alongside me for maybe half a minute. I tell him my legs are a little beat but the engine is still strong. He says, keep running relaxed. I yell back “I love you, man!” as we part.
Mile 18: 7:50. The Newton Hills slow me down. I might also have lost a few seconds talking to John, but it was well worth it.
Mile 19: 7:26 Fighting back. Starting to fatigue.
Mile 20: 7:45. Nice to be here, realizing it will all be over before too long. Unless I melt down between here and the finish, that is.
Mile 21: 7:56. The dreaded Heartbreak Hill. It doesn’t quite break my heart but it slows me down.
Mile 22: 7:21. Again battling back.
Mile 23: 7:48. Getting smacked around. The margin of error is dwindling. Must step on the gas.
Mile 24: 7:35. I’m proud of that.
Mile 25: 8:04. Hurting. A few minutes later, rough calculation tells me I might make 3:20 but not by much. Got to pick it up.
From 25 to 26.2: An 8:00 pace. Definitely fading badly in the last two miles. Turning left on Boylston into the final stretch I give it my best effort to run like hell, my legs so thrashed it’s like a bad dream. But this final gambit gets me over the finish line at 3:19:55. Success.
I was fairly well tattered after the finish, light-headed, leg muscles locking up. But I drank plenty of fluids and managed to limp onto the subway and back to the hotel, where I decided I deserved a pint of Guinness at the bar. This is Boston after all. Then, back to the bathtub to let it all sink in.

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When it’s all over you get to ride the train back to New Jersey and take a picture of yourself displaying your medal.

The Boston Marathon is a class act. The volunteers were consistently great, the crowd tremendously supportive, and the organization seemed to me just about flawless. The atmosphere is uniquely exciting. It’s a kick to be among a great mob of runners who range from quite good to quite very damn good indeed. I had some fun along the way, the pain of the last 10K notwithstanding. I enjoyed chatting with a few runners during the first 12 or 13 miles, though I am of two minds about doing that. On one hand it gets you out of your head for a bit and provides a distraction, helping you to relax and enjoy the ride. On the other hand, it’s a distraction. You might inadvertently adjust your pace to the other person’s (or vice versa) instead of running your own race. I suppose that at a more advanced level there’s no wasted breath or concentration, but I think at my more modest level of performance it can’t hurt to socialize in moderation.
I would have loved to report an elegant and disciplined marathon with a strong, crisp finish rather than a tail of sloppily fluctuating all over the place and then barely hanging on to attain the goal. This performance suffered from my characteristic problem with self-control. It isn’t a willful disregard of pace management, or a consciously arrogant decision that today I am such a superb athlete that I can run faster than planned. I just have trouble gauging pace. This being my first Boston and just my third marathon, the lack of experience might have something to do with it. I could buy one of those GPS devices that tells you how fast you’re going, but I am stubbornly old-school, and frugal. I would rather learn to control myself with a $35 Timex and feedback at the rate of once per mile.
During the slow walk back to the hotel I began thinking I could do better if I tried it again. Ever obsessed with time, I looked at my watch to see about how long after the finish it took me to start thinking in those terms. Forty minutes.

Back pain, bane of human existence

I wrenched the holy fuck out of my lower back while getting into the car to drive my daughter to school last Friday morning. That simple act seems to have triggered it, but an accumulation of insults must have contributed. I had never had a back experience quite so bad in my 50-plus years. I could barely walk, and had to miss a couple days of work. I could not dress myself without assistance, and was only just able to maintain that essential, minimal autonomy and independence: lower myself onto the toilet to take a shit, and wipe my own ass.
The back is hard to ignore, being right in the center of the body, the hub of everything: arms, legs, head. For the first day or two or three, I tried to be tough. Pain? Fuck pain, I can deal with it. But after about four or five days of it, when you are stiffly shuffling around in your bathrobe, staring out the window at the rain falling from the quiet gray sky… then you understand how a person could get depressed.
I had planned to run a local 5K race Saturday morning, even indulging fantasies of winning my age group. Indeed, the guy who did win it is an acquaintance, and his pace was 2 seconds per mile slower than my last 5K, on August 14. There would have been a dramatic battle to the finish line! (I could have this, I would have that — yeah, so go into a bar and brag about “could have” and see how many people you impress.) Instead, as runners were milling about the starting area, I was struggling just to get from bed to toilet, taking tiny baby steps, gasping and holding the walls for support.
Debilitating injury and pain get to us for any number of compelling reasons, but foremost among them is that such episodes are prefigurations of our eventual, inevitable death. Yeah you heard me: one of these days you are gonna go down and stay down, and your life will end. We should regard these illnesses and pains of our decaying bodies as opportunities to reflect on impermanence.
And yet there is a hilariously comical element mixed into this mess. A couple of times I burst out laughing at my predicament, stuck somewhere in the middle of a room, unable to stand still, unable to move forward. The vibrations from the laughter made my back hurt worse, of course, so I laughed all the harder — erasing from my wife’s mind any lingering doubt that I am crazy.