I have a unique relationship with the expression, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” In college, I was a 200 meter sprinter. Speedy races were my favorite! And as of last year, I also became a marathoner. Then, on Sunday, November 4th, 2018, I ran the TCS New York City Marathon with 52,696 other athletes for the second time. My second attempt at this distance on this particular course humbled me in many ways I didn’t expect. Here’s that story. 

Getting our bibs at the NYCM expo!

The training process: anything but glamorous

Last year, I ran my debut NYC Marathon in 4:20:58. This year, I went in training determined to hit a sub-4 time (under 4 hours). My best half marathon time from May’s Popular Brooklyn Half was 1:48:13 (at 8:16 per mile pace) so I knew I had a shot at sub-4 in the marathon. But if I wanted it, I had to commit. Sub-4 means I need to cover 26.2 miles at an average pace of 9:09 per mile so I trained with my goal marathon pace as 8:45 to 9:00, to be “safe.” The NYC Marathon course is vicious so training on hills and bridges was necessary.

During the process, I harbored a lot of doubt and realized that this isn’t a distance I personally enjoy training for. But I committed to this in February so I was in no position to back down. I never felt the same sense of excitement that I did in the first round because chasing a time goal was really terrifying. I’m fortunate to not question finishing the distance. But that means I have to take risks to reach my desired outcome.

New York City had a lot of days with oppressive humidity and torrential rain. I don’t recall the weather from last year’s training cycle to be as brutal. On top of that, I ran mostly on tired legs, which actually helped me on race day, but did nothing for my confidence at the time. Getting through my easy 2-mile warmups was a struggle. I’m fortunate to have incredible training partners from the Dashing Whippets, who held me accountable from day one and helped me get through the process.

In October, I traveled to Boston to close out my BAA Distance Medley series with the half marathon. I knew that I’d be nowhere near a personal best, especially on a course that was touted to be full of hills but I wanted at best, a 1:50 and at worst, 1:55. Luckily, I had a great teammate who stuck with me the whole time but I was nearly crushed by the backend hills and finished in 1:58:22. Disappointment was an understatement and seriously questioned my ability to race an impressive NYC Marathon. (To be fair, that was a really fun trip though! The race was awful but it was a great experience otherwise.)

The big race: Sunday, November 4th

Race day was finally here and it was a mix of emotions – excited that I made it to the start but anxious about hitting my target time. I think of myself as being a rigid racer, one that requires certain circumstances to work in my favor to perform well. It had rained the day before and left behind a lot of humidity. In addition, it was forecasted to go into the high 50’s, which is personally too hot to race a marathon. I practiced everything during training but things can still go wrong and I wasn’t sure my backup plans would suffice.

The energy of the first half was unreal! Going through Brooklyn was wild. Many people were cheering on runners and every stretch featured various types of music and entertainment. The first Whippets fluid station was coming up at Mile 10 and I focused on getting there at a steady pace. I had no trouble holding back the pace and clocked in at the halfway point at a little over two hours. I was right on target to hit my goal and ready to start attacking the second part of the race with aggressive negative splits.

Queens was up next and it was quite the surprise to see nearly all the iconic NYC running clubs cheering and supporting the race. I loved absorbing the energy, which took me up the tough Queensborough Bridge. It’s one of the few points of the race without cheer, but it helped me evaluate where I was physically and mentally. I reset my strategy and headed into Manhattan. I picked up the pace slightly and cruised up First Avenue. The crowds were crazy – it was the true epitome of a “block party”!

As I headed into the Bronx, I knew that the warrior athlete in me needed to come out. The final 10K of the marathon is where the race “starts” and I was ready to go into battle. Unfortunately, it was much tougher than anticipated. The temperatures were past the threshold of comfortable race conditions so I drank more water than usual. This caused major stomach issues and a trip down the pain cave. But knowing that the second major Whippet cheer zone would be at Mile 21, I fought hard to get there. My vision was starting to blur but I saw a massive sea of blue and gold, which uplifted my spirits.

Mile 21 in the Bronx, credit: Tom Flanagan.

Descending back into Manhattan on to Fifth Avenue was rough. The pain was getting unbearable and I started to fade badly. I felt the sub-4 slip out of sight. Even if I took a mile or two to slow down and reset, I would need an impressive final 5K to make it and I wasn’t sure I had that in me. It was getting progressively hotter and I was losing focus. I saw the welcome sign to bonk nation right in front of me and slipping into that territory was extremely tempting. At one point, I thought, “If sub-4 isn’t in the cards today, what’s the point?

I ditched that goal but I was going to battle it out anyway. I’ve made too many sacrifices to give up. The final two miles were gruesome but I was uplifted by Whippet friends in Central Park. I caught a glimpse of the finish line so I channeled my inner track athlete and started sprinting with all final bit of energy I had. I shoved my way between a pair of people who blocked my path by holding hands (because who runs outside tangents at the last 10 meters of a race!?). 4 hours, 3 minutes and 56 seconds later, I crossed the finish line.

The 27th mile: everything after the finish

I could be sour that I didn’t hit my goal but I wasn’t. In fact, I was extremely proud of digging myself out of that hole, which could have easily led to a full-on bonk. I may have let sub-4 slip out of sight but I wasn’t about to let regret take over. There are many things about the NYC Marathon that make it easy to be disappointed. It is a challenging course and presented less-than-ideal weather circumstances. Despite that, I embraced the pain to a strong finish and made it there injury free with the best teammates in the world. I can’t ask for more than that.

At the beginning, I was much more excited about racing the short stuff like the 5K and mile. Racing the NYRR summer track series flooded me with nostalgia for my Track & Field days of college and got me eager to sprint again. But now, as I reflect on this process, I’m glad that I did it because I learned how much stronger I am when things get rough and that I am capable of digging myself out of the seemingly impossible. I’m still not convinced that the marathon distance is one I enjoy racing but who knows what I’ll feel down the line.

5 things I got right:

  1. Went hard when it matters, easy miles for everything else. I used to think that easy runs didn’t matter. On workout days (tempo runs, intervals, hill repeats, etc.), I went all out. But I used to treat my regular runs as a semi-workout too and ran them at a moderately difficult pace. Everything changed when I started slowing down. It became easier to recover from the hard workouts and I stayed injury-free!
  2. Skipped the speed and build mileage. One of the risks I took this season was to ditch the speed-work so that I can focus on building my mileage base. Typically, I’m adamant about incorporating speed-work but I knew that my body couldn’t handle the intense build-up of marathon training. By primarily building mileage, I developed a strong respiratory system and got mentally resilient, which helped me push when I fell apart. The highest I got was over 60 miles in a week!
  3. Interacted less with crowds and focus on the race. Last year, the marathon was a lot of fun because I engaged a lot with the crowd. Since I was more serious about hitting a time goal, I ran tangents, looked at my splits, and only acknowledged crowds when I heard my name. (And of course the Whippets!)
  4. Tested to have multiple options. As a longtime New Yorker who races yearlong, I know how fickle the weather can be. I didn’t want to take any chances so I prepared for the worst. I trained during harsh weather with the purpose of testing out what I’ll wear on race day in case it comes down to that. I gave myself options for what to wear depending on how hot or cold it is.
  5. Persevered through setbacks. I’m typically prone to beating myself down when things don’t go as planned. I’ve had a stream of great PRs this year so when I stopped performing well, I’d be devastated about bad results. In reality, it’s quite normal to have ups and downs as progress is never linear. Learning to confidently pick myself up after setbacks was a huge accomplishment. This helped me significantly at the last two miles of the marathon when I needed to dig myself out of the hole.

How I’d improve:

  1. Commit more time to strength training. I didn’t have a running-only season but I definitely felt the lack of strength training in those last miles when I faded. I definitely diversified my strength training activities compared to last year with more yoga and barre but it wasn’t enough. My cardiovascular system got insanely powerful but my muscles were gassed out by the end of the race.
  2. Be more intentional about what I eat. Diet is a tricky thing and I’m not sure if I quite nailed this. Having a busy life meant not spending enough time cooking for myself. Instead, I depended on take-out and easy-to-make meals more than I’d like to admit. I didn’t have a lot of unhealthy food, just wasn’t as intentional as I would have liked. I did try a coffee diet in the last two weeks and that actually was successful!
  3. Rest a little more. Striking a good balance between resting and training is trickier than I thought. I had a solid three week taper and felt good as we neared the marathon but come race day, my legs still felt tired and there was residual fatigue that I couldn’t shake off in the early miles.
  4. Build up the mileage gradually. For this cycle, I dedicated 18 weeks – that’s one third of the year! I should have respected this time frame and build my mileage gradually. Instead, I got overly excited and skipped the part where I build my base. I went from comfortably running 35 miles every week, up to 50. The residual fatigue on race day might have not been as bad.
  5. Trust myself to take bigger risks. Since this was only my second marathon, I really had to weigh the different types of risks I wanted to take. Do I rely on my negative splits strategy and start out slow again? Or do I go out a little faster than planned without knowing where my athleticism stands? I’m happy with my race strategy but I like the idea of testing how gutsy I can be.

Reflecting back on my recap from last year’s marathon, I see a lot of similarities in what I’d improve from then to this time around. I made a few tweaks in each category but I certainly have my work cut out to fully commit to these items. The Boston Qualifier times got faster by 5 minutes so I need to be diligent about putting in work to keep closing that gap.

Final reflections

When I trained for the NYC Marathon last year, I put a lot of other items in my life in the back burner because I wanted to focus on having a solid debut race. The downside is that my aspirations to make a full career transition suffered. This year, I was determined to do it all and not make compromises. I hustled to find a new job in UX. During peak week, I was actively talking to eight companies while running crazy mileage! And finally, three days before the marathon, I accepted a role as a UX Writer for American Express!

For the time being, I’m excited to close out this successful season with a new job in hand, a shiny PR of 17 minutes, and a future as a short distance specialist. My next marathon will be the Tokyo Marathon in March 2020, which lands on my birthday and who doesn’t want to run a 26.2 World Major race to celebrate good health? Until then, I’m excited to focus on building a solid speed base and doing a lot more strength training. Eventually, I’d like to attack the 26.2 mile distance on various other courses and I might develop a love for racing the marathon.

Finally, after completing my second marathon, how do I feel about, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint”? I agree – to an extent. Life is the training, whether that would be a marathon or a sprint. I wouldn’t diminish the efforts of a sprinter because training for either distance is a “marathon” in itself. Life isn’t the race itself, or at least in isolation. Life is the adverse and beautiful process – with all the non-linear, highs and lows (shorts hems included), chafed up skin with mosquito bites, salty sweat, blisters, black toe nails, included.

Cheers,

Riri