New York City Marathon Race Report

I think of every marathon as an opportunity to learn: about your strengths and weaknesses; your toughness and resolve; your potential. What works for you in training and what doesn’t. The same for race strategy. Every time you toe the line and race a marathon, you test your limits, and you learn how to better find the invisible line—the threshold you want to push precisely to the edge of, but not cross.

And this line shifts and changes. It’s different on different days based on myriad factors, including your training trajectory. What happens when you step over that line changes too. For me, on Sunday morning in New York City, the marathon held its promise, teaching yet more lessons and providing glimpses into my future potential. I didn't hold up as well as I would have liked, but I came away from the experience renewed and incredibly encouraged.

Credit: Ben Ko (via Facebook)
I spent three months earlier this summer returning to running from injury before tackling a pair of ultramarathons on a tight timeline: the UltraVasan 90k in Sweden and the 100km World Championships in the Netherlands. The latter was on September 12, seven weeks and one day prior to the New York City Marathon. Between recovering from the 100km WC and a bare minimum one-week NYC taper, I had roughly a month to prepare for New York.

As I blogged before the race, this preparation went fairly well all things considered (and despite a nagging insertional Achilles tendon issue). I had a couple of really solid workouts, suggesting that my fitness was near what it was before my 2:21:20 marathon PR from Boston 2014. The problem was that with such a short buildup, I couldn’t help but confront the possibility that a few pieces of the puzzle were missing. But in running and life, rarely are preparations perfect; you must simply go out and do the best with what you have.

On race morning, as I made my way from Midtown Manhattan to Staten Island along with the rest of the pro athletes (requiring a 5 a.m. wakeup call despite a 9:50 a.m. race start time), I readied myself mentally and physically for the task ahead. We warmed up in the brand new Ocean Breeze sports facility—a very nice indoor track complex on the waterfront in Staten Island. I ran through my dynamic warmup, several laps of easy jogging, some light form drills; all readying the legs to feel smooth and easy once the cannon shot released us all across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

This was my first experience running in the pro field of a major race, and it was quite a pleasure to have the little things taken care of: space for pre-race strides, access to bathrooms immediately before the start, someone to take your sweats. I tucked into the second line of racers, immediately behind defending champion Wilson Kipsang. As the cannon boomed, we began our journey by immediately climbing to the bridge’s apex. I comfortably ran a 5:47 mile before opening up my stride on the bridge’s descent with a 5:12.

I tentatively thought that 5:20 to 5:30 pace would feel like marathon pace. For me, the number one thing that dictates my pace is my breathing. After a lifetime of running—always making it a priority to run by feel—and over a dozen marathons, I have a very good handle on what is appropriately comfortable and what I can sustain. As I settled into a smooth rhythm in the opening miles, I felt incredibly relaxed. I was hardly breathing as I split 5:14, 5:13, 5:08, 5:12, 5:17 miles 4 through 8. I caught and passed a small pack of runners and began gradually working up to a few runners in front of me. At the sub-elite level of marathon racing, it can be quite lonely on course—no packs or pace groups to run with. But generally, I don’t mind racing solo as long as I have someone in front of me to key off of.

The crowd support doesn't hurt either. Brooklyn was raucous and full of energy. With “FLAHERTY” printed boldly on my race bib, I heard many people yelling my name. My favorite cheer came from a man with a thick New York accent who yelled, “C’mon Flaherty! Do it for the Irish for f*ck’s sake.

As I progressed to Queens, the city grew quiet and still by comparison. The competition had grown sparse. I relaxed and my miles slowed just a touch as I approached the half marathon. I split 1:10:40 and felt decent all things considered. I had a few twinges in my hamstrings and calves, but nothing too out of the ordinary. I felt roughly the same as I have felt at the midpoint of many marathons before. I knew the back half of the course would be more challenging than the front half. (New York City, like Boston, is a positive split course—by which I mean if you run a precisely even effort on either course, you will run a 1-2 minute positive split.) All the same, I thought a 2:22-2:23 was still possible.

The climb at 15 miles—up and over the East River via the Queensboro Bridge—would be slow, but also a chance to change my cadence and mentally recharge before running up First Avenue and into the Bronx. As I swung into Manhattan, the crowds were frenzied, as reported. I gave a few high fives to a swath of spectators, instantly giving me a small burst of adrenaline. I settled into a 5:30/mile pace, focusing on maintaining pace and conserving energy.

Credit: Rob Riccardo
But as I ran the long straightaway up First Avenue, my legs started to fail. Essentially, my fears were coming to fruition. I wasn’t bonking, but I had not had the time to adequately train my legs for the rigors of running marathon pace for over two hours. This is the primary aim of proper marathon specific training (and where many people get it wrong). You can have the best aerobic fitness of your life—and my fitness, as indicated by some key indicator workouts, was actually quite good—but if you don’t have the specific muscular endurance to run marathon pace for the amount of time demanded, you will fade. (At least if you are running at your limit anyway. You can of course run more conservatively off of general fitness and still negative split; this just isn’t really tapping your full potential.)

I hit a low patch at I crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge, entering the Bronx. I struggled to maintain 6:00 pace, especially as we hit short uphill pitches here and there. I was passed by a German athlete (my first time being passed on the day). I tried to rally. Back in Manhattan and headed south, I accelerated almost imperceptibly. The long climb that skirts the east side of Central Park and spans miles 23 and 24 was challenging, but I felt I ran it fairly well for how my legs were doing. As I weaved through the park in the race’s final miles, I was passed one last time by an Italian runner, but I managed to bring my pace back to the desired side of 6:00. Rounding Columbus Circle, I moved past a runner I’d had in sight for the last 10 miles, staving off calf and hamstring cramps to finish strongly the final quarter mile.

I had run 2:29:01 for 23rd place. My bib number was 23, so I suppose I performed roughly as expected. I had stated my pre-race place goals as Top 20 Overall and Top 5 Americans, and I did manage to finish fifth American. The time was just well below what I expected.

While I’m certainly disappointed with the final time, I’m pretty OK with the way I ran. In retrospect, could I have run conservatively to a 2:25 finish? Almost certainly yes. But to truly test your limits, you necessarily risk running a non-optimal race. I don’t think my pace in the early miles of the race was the “wrong” pace; that is to say, it was a hypothetically sustainable marathon pace. With another month or two of marathon-focused training, the pace would have felt nearly identical in terms of my aerobic fitness—my breathing and heart rate. The difference would be that I could maintain that pace much longer (and even if I faded, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as I did on Sunday). The magic of good specific preparation.

I knew well that I was racing on limited training; what I didn’t know was what exactly that would mean for me in the later miles. Now I know, and I’m glad I found out. I’m actually quite excited, because those early miles offered a glimpse of what I know I’m capable of achieving. I haven’t dedicated a training phase to a marathon since 2011, but New York left me with a renewed desire to do so sometime soon. A 5:10 – 5:15 marathon pace is within my reach, it’s just going to take full health and a dedicated training phase.

To that end, I’ve decided not to stretch my season to the JFK 50 Mile later this month. Instead, I’m going to take a break to rehab my insertional Achilles tendonopathy, focusing on improving my strength and stability and getting fully recovered. I just saw another therapist at St. Vincent's Sports Performance in Indianapolis today and we've got a good plan to correct a few minor deficiencies and weaknesses that have led to my current Achilles problem. He thinks that I may not even need the full two months I tentatively planned on taking off. Hopefully I’ll return to running before the end of the year, injury free and ready to fully commit to some new goals. I’m excited for the journey ahead!

Credit: Rob Riccardo