I’ve always felt bad for athletes who come fourth at the Olympics: I’d rather be fifth or even tenth. So last Sunday at the Pocono marathon, I had a golden opportunity to feel sorry for myself.
After running in third position for more than three quarters of the race, I was caught by a female runner as I approached the stadium. The odds were against me for a sprint: she was coming faster and she was about 10 years younger.
Her husband ran toward us, screaming “Go Melissa! You can do it Melissa!” When I saw the finish line’s banner, I made a desperate attempt to push up the pace. But I knew I was doomed. She was still right behind me when we entered the stadium, with 200 yards (200 meters) to go, and her husband wasn’t giving up either: he ran across the football field, took a good look at me and said: “Go Melissa, she’s dying!” The truth hurts when screamed right in your face. She passed me and I finished fourth, four seconds behind her. I found out later that her husband, Justin, had finished the race about 30 minutes earlier in fourth place — I admit it’s hard for me to feel too bad for him.
The drama at the finish line overshadowed the fact that I ran my fastest marathon ever (19 seconds faster than my previous personal record, or PR), after a truncated training of one month, rather than the three it usually takes. A month earlier, I didn’t even know I would be running a marathon.
On April 18, I wasn’t able to participate in the Boston Marathon because a calf injury mid-January forced me to cut my mileage to a minimum for more than two months. By April, my calf had recovered, but not soon enough to train for a 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) race. One of my last chances to qualify for Boston 2012 was the Run for the Red Marathon in Stroudsburg on May 15, a downhill race in rustic northeast Pennsylvania, about two hours from home by car.
I downloaded a one-month training plan from Runner’s World magazine’s online tool SmartCoach. The plan called for four runs a week, with a weekly long run of no more than 16 miles. It seemed really light to train for a marathon.
The SmartCoach tool was co-created by Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon winner and an editor-at-large at Runner’s World. In a message posted on the magazine’s forum, I told Burfoot about my injury and low mileage, and asked him whether it was realistic for me to get ready for a marathon in a month with that plan. He said that because I had a limited amount of time left, running for more than 16 miles would increase the risk of injury.
“I personally believe that 16 is plenty for a marathon, provided you pace yourself right on race day. That’s always the key. I don’t think you can expect a PR with your somewhat limited training,” Burfoot wrote back. “I suggest under-training at this point. You’ve gone the marathon distance before. You know you can do it. Best wishes.”
My friend Tomas told me that before his record marathon in 2h59 last year, he only ran one 18 miler at a fast pace and otherwise didn’t go longer than a half-marathon.
They convinced me that shorter can be better. I started following the SmartCoach plan, with some adjustments: I ran five times a week instead of four, and my last two long runs were 17.5 miles, including 5 miles on trails.
I registered 10 days before the race. After a short night — my hotel room was above an Irish Pub that blasted music until 2 a.m. — I lined up at the start along with about 800 runners, including fellow members of my local club, the Delco Road Runners Club. I felt uneasy about being rather unprepared and hopeful that the amount of cross-training I had done while injured would compensate for the lack of runs. On my left was a blond with a pink top who looked like a very fast runner (Olga Dedova, from Russia, came first female).
We started in the fog and drizzle on deserted roads through the woods of the Pocono mountains. A woman who looked to be in her forties passed me after a few miles: from the back of her, I could tell I would probably not see her again (Conni Grace, 48, finished second). It was still early in the race and I concentrated on finding my own rhythm. After a few more miles, I caught up with two women and passed them: one was wearing a blue skirt, and the other was dressed like a triathlete: black sports bra, black shorts and her first name painted in black on her forearms. Both looked in their 20s or early 30s.
My watch stopped working after about 6 miles. I caught up with two tall men who were discussing their splits.
“6:49 a mile: We’re on pace for a sub-3,” one said, meaning a marathon in less than 3 hours.
Was I going too fast? I was feeling good, so I decided to keep the pace and stay with a group of about six men, including a young runner in an orange shirt.
When the only clock on the race showed 1h28 for the half-marathon, I knew I was going a little faster than a year ago in Boston. I also knew that the worst was yet to come and that I should enjoy the cheers from the little crowd.
After mile 18, our group scattered and the real suffering started: for the rest of the race, I would run mostly alone, without any notion of my pace, and very few spectators to boost my morale. Pain in my left quad reached a level of discomfort I could no longer ignore. I was just hoping it would hold until the end. Running downhill through rolling hills is a great experience over 5 or 10 kilometers. It’s a lot harder over 20 or more. My stomach, too, was painful. I kept going, bolstered by the few spectators who screamed “third woman!” I made a point of never looking back.
I ran out of steam over the last 6 miles and I wasn’t alone. I caught up to the man in the orange shirt: he looked in distress. As I passed him, I tried to encourage him to come with me: “Come on, let’s go!” I could have used some company, but he didn’t follow.
As I reached the arrival town of Stroudsburg, I was hoping the crowd would help me through the last two miles. But no one seemed to care. People were going with their business, not really paying attention. In a couple of instances I wasn’t even sure where to go: there was no clear sign and no runner in front of me. I felt disoriented. I took a turn to the school’s parking lot — along with a couple of cars — and as I was about to make another turn, I heard spectators screaming “Straight! Straight! Between the buses!” I turned my head and I saw Melissa Gillette, the girl with the blue skirt. I screamed an expletive in English — which may be the ultimate proof that English comes really naturally to me now — and headed towards the stadium, Melissa in tow. As she passed me, I felt frustration and disappointment. But as I approached the finish, I was in for a nice surprise: the clock showed I had a new PR of 3h01m24, proving Amby Burfoot wrong by shaving 19 seconds off my previous record. Every second counts.
(Consolation prize: first in my age group and a picture with the organizers.)