On Nov. 6, a runner called Cécile ran her seventh and fastest marathon, breaking 3 hours and finishing 54th woman out of 17,000. It’s still hard to believe it was me. I estimate that 10 percent of the accomplishment was physical, the result of an injury-free training. The rest was mental: For 2h59m19, I never gave an inch.
My state of mind while lining up at the start of the New York City marathon alongside 47,000 runners was on The Number 3. I usually prefer to keep my goals fuzzy: there’s the target I admit publicly and the time I secretly covet but wouldn’t admit under torture. This year there was no room for fuzziness: after running my two previous marathons in 3h01, including Boston 2010, I had no choice but trying to get on the faster side of three. I still couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“What’s your goal?” asked a fellow runner at the start, whose own target was a precise 2h58.
“Well, I’ve run my two previous marathons in 3h01,” came my vague non-answer.
New York 2012 was my first marathon wearing a Garmin watch that gives me the average pace every mile. I was curious to see whether, and how, it would alter my way of running. I’m the kind of runner who can “feel” her pace. At the Pocono Mountain Marathon in May, I ran without any notion of time after the half mark and finished in 3h01 within seconds of the previous year’s Boston Marathon. Who needs a clock?
In terms of race strategy, I shamelessly stole that of my friend and fellow runner Tomas, who said on the ferry that led us to the race that he would start at a pace of 6:40 a mile (14.5 km/h) and “see how far I can go.”
I didn’t go very far. I lost time at the overcrowded start while zigzagging around runners. For a mile up on the Verrazano Bridge, I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted and my pace was over 7:30. I was so upset that I missed the stunning view on my left and looked angrily at the red helicopter hovering on my right. It became the random object of my pent-up, pointless anger. “Stupid helicopter,” I thought, “it’s gonna be a long run.”
(Traffic jam on Verazzano Bridge: Can you spot me?)
When the coast cleared, I went all out downhill on the bridge, peaking at a Kenyan pace of 5:12 (18.7 km/h) to catch up the lost time. I settled down once on Brooklyn’s flat grounds, but not for long. With 24 miles (39 kilometers) to go, I started to have what I will call stomach issues (to spare the details). This would become my second-biggest obsession, topped only by The Number 3, for the rest of race. While obsessing about whether to use the bathroom, I ran, and I ran fast: 40:39 for the 10K. I was flying through Brooklyn at about 6:30 a mile, reaching the runner’s high in the couple of miles leading to mile 7, where I knew D. and other friends would cheer me.
(Attempting to fly during the runner’s high: “I wanna break three!”)
After I failed to see any of my friends, I crashed hard from the high. I wanted to quit. I wanted to cry. I wanted to get out and take the subway back to the hotel. What’s the point of running? I had no excuse to quit, except the fear of failing at my ridiculous, self-imposed goal. Some people get so injured they limp their way to the finish hours after most of the runners are done. They don’t quit, and I wouldn’t either. One question remained: Do I have time to use the bathroom? They were located about every mile after the water stops. Every mile, I decided I would decide at the next one.
Once I passed the half-marathon mark in a personal record of 1h27m02, there was no turning back. Sub-three hours was within reach if I could avoid slowing down too much in the second half — by far the most difficult part of the course. I focused on pace, trying to stay in the middle of the road, looking right ahead. The race was really starting now and my stomach was not co-operating. I knew I had to give everything I could. I would not stop.
The half-mile uphill of the Queensboro Bridge at mile 15 took a toll, as expected. I was passed by a short female runner from Denmark in blond pigtail and pink socks, running next to a tall man with bleached blond hair and a black t-shirt that said “Eat Soy.” They are partners, I decided; he’s taking her under 3 and I’m going with them! A quick check at my watch showed I had slowed to a pace over 8 minutes a mile. My mood collapsed. I wasn’t the only one suffering: There was a lot of panting and grunting around me — and a group sigh of relief when we crested the bridge’s midpoint.
The roar of the Manhattan crowd that greets runners at the bottom of the bridge is akin to entering a gigantic beehive on hormones. For a short moment, I forgot my watch — and my stomach — to plunge into the ocean of screams and voices shouting “Cécile!” I always write my name on my shirt to get a boost from the crowd. Four years ago, my husband (then-boyfriend) and father were waiting for my mother and me after the bridge, in my old neighborhood. No one was here this year — my husband was a few blocks away at work, following my progress online, while my parents were in France preparing for the Nice Marathon. But the memory kept me going for a couple of miles. I knew the euphoria would soon fade away and the final struggle begin.
(Staying concentrated with one goal in mind.)
I had trained my mind for what came next. Strong with the experience of 2007, I had rehearsed the final miles in my head during training runs. It goes like this after mile 19: There’s a bridge and then the Bronx, for a brief part. The crowd is thinning. The end is nearing. After mile 20, the mind wants to give up and let the body take charge. If the body overrules the mind, you stop and walk in pain (and/or look for a bathroom.)
I stayed focused, still taking a sip of water every two miles to avoid running out of energy at the very end. From mile 23 to 24 is the killer uphill of Fifth Avenue; several runners around me stopped and walked. I had also prepared for it. During my last run on the previous Thursday, I came here to rehearse. I spotted the soy-eating runner and fixated on his back. He’s taking me there, I thought.
A colleague who saw me around mile 24 said I was “in the zone.” Inside the zone was an obsessive — and desperate — mind ordering my legs to keep pushing as hard as possible no matter what. It now looked feasible to finish under 3 even if I slowed down to over 7 minutes a mile. But my thoughts were clouded. I doubted. I didn’t want to lose my concentration. With 200 yards to go, I still wasn’t sure I could do it.
(Getting “in the zone” )
Finishing a marathon 41 seconds under 3 hours doesn’t make me a better runner than running in 1 minute above 3 hours — and it certainly doesn’t make me a better person when you consider I spent the entire time highly concentrated on myself. But round numbers have an irresistible appeal.
For those who are curious to know how it feels to cross the finish line under a clock starting with the number 2, my experience may disappoint. I felt utter excitement for a split second before stomach cramps and lower-back pain overruled my joy. I had one question for the person distributing the finishers’ medals: “Where is the bathroom?”
Turns out the bathroom was still two miles away, by which time I didn’t want to use it anymore. During the walk to get our belongings back, I saw the Danish runner in pink socks. She finished in 3h01, she said, six weeks after running Berlin in 2h58. I knew she was a sub-3 kind of runner. I still can’t believe I am, too.