April 2004, London; I lined up behind the 3:15 pacer at my first marathon believing I had done all the right things in my training only to fall well short of my goal time, crawling home to a 3:48 after having a pretty bad hypo experience at mile 21. That pacer disappeared from sight at mile 15 in and I had no idea how anyone could run so well, stay on pace and carry a sign. The marathon humbled me. I went so far as to take a break from racing for a few years.
November 2013, NYC; I lined up as the 3:15 pacer at my umpteenth marathon. Ten years on, I have become a runner that I didn’t think was possible. I was lucky enough to be selected by the New York Road Runners (NYRR) as one of the official pacers for this year’s much missed New York marathon (after the cancellation last year following Hurricane Sandy). I was happy to be allocated the 3:15 time. An average pace of 7:26 per mile would be needed. As much as I run these days, this was to be my first official pacing gig. I felt honor and pressure. I had a horrible image of quitting in the Bronx and getting on the subway with my pacer shirt and orange balloons saying 3:15. I say this only because two weeks prior, I was hobbling around the streets of Brooklyn with my family with inflammation in my right heel. With rest and icing, it healed just in time for arguably the best day of the year.
My love affair with the New York Marathon started in 2007. Since watching my own country’s, Paula Radcliffe win the race, I got inspiration I needed to run another marathon. It could only be New York. I took the plunge the following week and went to Nike Run Club (I had heard about it for over a year but stubbornly not wanted to run in a group). It proved to be a huge turning point in my life both in terms of running and friendships. Those few days really kick started the second chapter of running in my life.
But my next marathon would have to wait a while longer. Knee surgery forced me to defer my New York bib a year. So I ran the 2009 race instead and took a 47 minute chunk of time off my first attempt. It put some demons to bed, that’s for sure. For those that know me, the journey has anything but slowed down from there.
My pacing duties actually began well before standing at the start line. On Saturday morning, I worked at the Pace Team booth. The people and questions came thick, fast and sometimes very personal; “What is the pace team?”, “How much does it cost?”, “I pee a lot while running. Should I try to break 4 or just settle for 4:15?” Yes, I got to meet all sorts. It was quite an experience. It really made me realize a) people do really come from all over the world for this race (most came back from last year’s cancellation from as far as Sydney!) b) they do really rely on the pacers to help them achieve their goals.
Race (pace) day begun in Times Square at 6am. Our NYRR contact, Paul Leak directed me onto the correct bus. He had promised me Pamela Anderson (she was running it) on the bus and all the other VIP’s. Paul had let me down, it was just the pacers! We drove through Brooklyn watching the sunrise over our great city and then over the Verrazano bridge to the start village in Staten Island. Getting into the village was a tough task. It was the first real reminder of the day how big this race had become. Over 50,000 would run making it the largest marathon in history! Paul handed us our goal pace signs, which somehow worked like VIP passes to get into the village. The security was super tight. I didn’t appreciate getting a metal detector run over me (twice) but respected the need for solid policing. The world was watching after all.
People asked me what perks we got as pacers. Well the heated tent with a breakfast spread was a nice touch, I will say. Unfortunately, for pacers like me in the wave 1 start, we didn’t have much time to enjoy this. I always like to eat two hours prior to a race and was now already inside this window. My BG was a bit high at 198 but I wanted to be there at the start of the race so I calculated my carb intake needs and took off a unit of insulin to make sure I would stay in that range. The tricky part with my diabetes was having to be in my assigned corral early. That meant doing my last blood test with about an hour and a half before the start. I decided to take a bottle of Gatorade with me as a safety precaution along with my pacer sign and giant meeting point sign.
I dragged my stuff around the village trying to dump my bag in the green village (green bib) and then figure out where the blue corral was as this was my assigned start corral. Immediately, everyone around me thought I knew everything about anything. “Where is the green corral?” and “Should I use the bathroom now or wait until the corral?” People seem to like talking about toilet needs to me for some reason.
As I approached the entrance to the corral a man approached me and said “Oh great. You’re here. They have been asking about you”. Did ‘they’ think I was Pamela Anderson? It all felt a bit strange. Everyone stared at me as soon as I entered the corral. I waved my sign at them as an ice breaker and everyone just stared back. I think looking back they were all thinking ‘Is he really going to run with that giant sign the whole way?’. The answer was no, although when a big burly French guy actually asked me that question I said “No, you are and while you’re at it, you can shield us all from the wind to please!” The temperatures were perfect but the wind would not be. Up to 20 mph headwinds would be a big problem for the runners today. Luckily, for any of them savvy enough, I would be the one battling the wind without choice. I predicted that my effort would make it feel more like a 3:10 than a 3:15.
While hanging around for the start, the big two questions were “Are you running in kilometers?” and “Are you running even pace?” I politely told them I last ran in kilometers in school cross-country and no, I would not be running even pace. I had printed off a wristband with mile splits that took into account the hills of the course and would therefore run even effort. That meant the first mile would be about 8-minute pace and the second, 7-minute pace purely because it was over the bridge. After that, the pace would settle to 7:20-25’s for a while through Brooklyn and Queens.
The gun fired, Frank sung ‘New York, New York’ over the sound system and we clambered over people’s throwaway clothes (that they had clearly done a bad job of actually throwing away) towards the start line. Here we go. The goal was to run as close to 3:15:00 as possible without any crazy sprints or slowing down shenanigans. I felt the pressure as I had a sea of people swarming around me putting all of their faith in me.
Among the 50,000, I quickly saw friends. Steve “Thunder” Lee was posing for a photo on the middle divide of the bridge wearing his Superman costume and then Angela from Nike Run Club. She told everyone they were in good hands. I appreciated the compliment as I’m sure their were some doubters in the group.
An NYPD helicopter hovered at bridge height to our left, a stark reminder of how tightly watched this race was going to be. At the highest point of the race was mile 1. I hit the pace almost perfectly. The descent would be fast and I did my best to keep it at 7 minute pace. Some runners went ahead and kept checking over their shoulder to see me. I didn’t have to say anything for them to know they needed to back off slightly.
During the entry into our second borough (Brooklyn), all three colored corral starts split and rejoined a mile or so later. I was looking for my other 3:15 pacer, Andrew, who begun in the green corral on the lower level of the Verrazano. On 4th Avenue, crowds were growing and so were the runners. At 3.5 miles in, all corrals were now as one. I spotted a sign ahead which looked like Andrew’s 3:15. I just had to pray it wasn’t 3:10 as I closed the gap. It was him.
The real-time pacing was going well but my GPS version was not. Either I was submerged with too many of them (GPS watches) or buildings were throwing off the data. My average mile was saying 7:10 when I knew we were doing 7:25’s. I knew because I kept checking elapsed time at mile markers. I was basically running pre-GPS watch era.
Some concerned runners wondered why two 3:15 signs were spread apart. I simply told them, we started in different corrals. We were slightly behind goal pace and he was probably slightly ahead. I phrased it that if they ran in the space between us, they would be ‘on the money’. I think that was all the reassurance they needed to hear. We did however have 20 more miles to go which would have been my greater concern as a runner of the race.
By the clock tower building in Brooklyn, myself and Andrew finally connected. We figured that I should be behind him due to starting at fractionally different times. I had felt some pressure from my group to catch him and I should never have let that be the case. I eased off slightly as we climbed the hill north on Lafayette Avenue where the crowds were and are always amazingly loud.
The reward was a long gradual downhill. Most of the faces I had seen on the Verrazano were still the same. We were all here, we were all running as one big group. I urged them to stay relaxed. The race did not begin until 1st Avenue and I hoped they trusted that fact.
As pacer, my aim was to run in the center of the road on both straights and turns. Going through the aid stations trying to grab liquid was therefore not too easy. After a couple of failed attempts, I found my glucose level dropping. I realized that I was simply not following my normal carbohydrate intake methods all because I was carrying a stick! What is the first rule of pacing? Look after yourself or you can not look after others. It was true.
I grabbed a gel from my shorts. Within half a mile, I grabbed a second one (which I rarely do). Luckily, my pacing remained as it should have even though the effort I had to exert went up a notch for a mile. A good save but I should have never have put myself in that situation.
Running through the Hasidic Jewish community is one of the quieter and strangest sections of the race. It’s a place where two separate worlds collide for a few hours as 50,000 people run through their neighborhood. I watched a runner try to high-five several men in a row and they all just stood there staring. But as is New York, all of a sudden, one block further ahead, we heard a DJ blaring some music. We were entering the start of Williamsburg. Crowds roared again and you could feel the lift the runners got from the noise.
At 11 miles in, the pace was perfect. I was not afraid to let them know this either. I liked telling the group every mile or two if we were up or down and by how much. There were a few cheers when they heard we were exactly on pace.
At the Pulaski bridge, we clocked a halfway time of 1:37:40, ten seconds behind. My pace data on my watch was so off, I wanted to switch it off and just wear a normal watch. Gauging the 7:25’s off feel was not as easy after spending years relying on my ‘techy’ watch. “Ten seconds is nothing” I told them. “The crowds in Manhattan will shave off one minute of time for you without you having to do anything”. They liked hearing this as we looked over to our left and saw the amazing skyline of Manhattan. They knew the main part was to come.
But something in Queens didn’t go right. My pace kept dropping and my glucose was definitely OK (now). Two miles later, we completed the last turn before the long Queensboro bridge begun and I had lost more time. I was now 45 seconds behind. Andrew and his group had stayed close by me. We had since realized I should have been the one ahead of him and his green wave group. I was not happy with this and subconsciously pushed the bridge climb. At this point in the race, it was hard to keep track who were my runners from the start gun and who had jumped on for the ride. I intersected with more friends running their own race; Marisa Galloway and Tony Cheong notably. Tony looked like he was hurting some and didn’t seem too thrilled to see me. Then, my pacer light bulb went on. I was the guy no one in front wanted to see! The sweeper, if you will, for some of the fast folks with goals of 3:10 and faster. If they saw me, they were not having their day.
By the middle of the bridge, all you get is an eerie noise of feet on road and breathing, nothing more. As pacer, I felt pressure to say something but I waited and waited and then when we descended over and into Manhattan and the roar of noise slowly began. As the crowds came into sight I declared “Party time!”. The contradiction of silence to the ‘wall of sound’ coming off the bridge is a special moment along the course. We turned under the arch of the bridge and then looked straight up 1st Avenue.
The view ahead was a sea of people on both sides of the street with signs, balloons and runners as far as the eye can see heading for the Bronx. I checked my watch. I was all of a sudden only a few seconds behind goal time. What had I done on that bridge? I certainly didn’t mean to close the time gap so quickly, especially over one of the toughest parts mentally and physically of the course. I was not proud of myself. I had broken my rule of no dramatic shifts of speed.
A mile up 1st Avenue, I saw my friends lining the left side. There were lots of them but I only managed to lock eyes with Francis and Tiffany before I moved back to the center of the road. The first signs of fatigue were now evident. My group of runners seemed fine, no complaints from anyone at least, but ahead, runners were walking, holding hamstrings or going a fraction of the speed they were probably going in the first three boroughs. The marathon wall in New York for some reason seems to come earlier than other races. The course is just tough, no two ways about it.
Through the gel zone, I grabbed as many as I could. I learned this tip from my veteran pacer friend Otto Lam. As soon as we were through, I turned to offer the gels to anyone that didn’t get one. In doing so, I saw the amount of runners working hard to keep pace with me. It was an awesome sight to an extent but it really added to the mounting pressure that I had to nail this time goal.
The last mile of 1st Avenue sucks. I didn’t try to pretend otherwise to the runners either. I said “This section of the course gets really quiet but in one mile we will be in the Bronx and the it will be loud all the way home. I promise. For now, just focus on this mile”. I felt the need to say something as I heard the breathing getting louder as the crowd fizzled out. With silence can come doubt and at mile 18, this is a high drop out zone of the course. You need to tell yourself that you can do it. As long as you’ve done the training, it’s basically a mental game not a physical one from here on in. I carried my pacer sign as high as I could so they would always have a visual. In hindsight, I could have probably carried it a bit lower as you know what you’re looking for after 18 miles of running. To me, it just felt like my way of helping as much as possible.
“Up a short climb over the Willis Avenue bridge and we will be in the Bronx”. My memory had left out the long second climb before we actually got off the bridge. I regretted using the words ‘short climb’ but still no one was heckling me. I had balanced out the pacing up 1st Avenue and we were now at a really nice ten seconds under goal pace. Some of the crowds here in the Bronx were big but not as loud as they could have been. I turned to my trusty pacer stick and used it to pick the crowd up. It worked immediately. I guess they were getting bored with watching all these serious runners so I started having fun with the crowds and it worked. The runners appreciated it. It was a win-win move.
My Danish running friends (who I had met at the expo) were running strong. They asked if the bridge ahead was the last one. It was. Madison Avenue bridge back into Manhattan and then five miles left. I found the question an interesting perspective from another runner. As I had been mentally counting hills to go, they had been counting the bridges as a way to break up the race. My concern for the group was the 5th Avenue hill still to come; a mile long up before entering Central Park.
Off Madison bridge, we turned left turn down 5th Avenue greeted by none other than Michael Jackson’s Thriller (They’ve played this song here every year for some time now). “If anyone hanging with the group has anything left, now is the time to go” I said. Most of them laughed/cried and said “We are trying to hang on!” OK, good to know. It really was impossible to tell if any of them had broken away, fallen off the back or I had gathered up some new runners along the way. I’m sure it was a combination of all three. Anyone we now passed in dire straits got a tap from me and words of encouragement. I referenced Dusty Olson’s words “Dig deep” that he used pacing Scott Jurek during his ultrarunning hey days. I didn’t like to see people walking and know these two simple words can be very powerful.
We had four miles of temporary pain left together. I wanted everyone we passed to jump on the 3:15 bus. We hit 110th Street which meant the beginning of the 5th Avenue climb. “Time to do work” I said. “Hang on guys”. This hill is truly something. I think I’m accurate in saying we can all blame the legend of Fred Lebow for the placement of this one mile hill so late in the race. I wanted to tell them they were halfway but stopped myself when I read the street sign ’96th St.’. Wow, I guess I was hurting too. Andrew, was still by my side. I was now a comfortable 30 seconds ahead of the goal time. I wanted to hit 3:15:00 but feared the one second over scenario so much I didn’t want to risk being that close. I know it would have haunted me and I would have viewed my job as a failure so I aimed for a 15 second window.
With two blocks of the hill left, we were close enough “Come on. Almost in the park and then no more hills” I shouted. That wasn’t’ quite true but no more hills like that. It was a close enough statement to say to fatigued runners who were probably not even listening to me anymore.
Central Park looked nothing like usual as is always the case during the marathon. A sea of people lined the left side of the route as we weaves around the MET museum. A small climb towards Cat Hill made teeth clench. I gave a heads up that a nice downhill would be the reward.
Two runners glued themselves to my sides. Down to the edge of the park, a large crowd awaited us. Just like the Bronx, I asked for noise for the runners and received it in full force. As I glanced up and saw a ‘800 meters to go’ sign, I knew I was OK, comfortably under 3:15. We turned back into the park at Columbus Circle. I pointed out to the lead singer of the band playing and he pointed right back at me, both smiling like a couple of Cheshire cats from Alice in Wonderland. Boy, we were basically in Wonderland, this was awesome.
I grabbed some high fives from runners as we climbed the last 0.2 up the teaser of a finish. I slowed a little to make sure runners just behind knew if they could catch me, they were under the 3:15 time. I crossed the line at 3:14:44 just as happy as if this was my own race.
I found Andrew at the finish and we congratulated each other among many of the other runners we had paced. We collected our medals, foil blankets and some food as we walked north through the park to reclaim our bags. When, I finally got my stuff, I grabbed my glucose meter. I was 82. Time for food, anything but gels!
The whole race was truly about other people. From 50,000 runners to over two million spectators, the NYRR, the police. But it was even more than that. It was for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the people of Boston and for everyone gunning for sub 3:15 around me whether they made it or not. It seemed truly fitting that this race was not about me, I was just a small part that was very happy to help. Thank you Brian Hsia, John Honerkamp and Paul Leak at NYRR for selecting and trusting me as a pacer. It is one of my best running experiences I’ve ever had.