My adventures on the summer vacation island of Martha’s Vineyard have always occurred in winter. That doesn’t make much sense to most people until you throw in the details of what has become an annual trip for me. A fairly unique 20 mile road race occurs here every President’s Day Weekend and it serves as a great test race for those training for the Boston Marathon.
My first trip here begun a day after finding out about my uncle’s loss to cancer in 2012 and it was the most therapeutic weekend escape I could have wished for with my friends. We returned again last year and I raced to 4th place.
This year, my third consecutive, I would have somewhat of a dart on my back or should I say bib. I received my race packet in the mail and saw my number 3 bib. I don’t recall ever having a lower bib ever. My brain started churning ideas about what this meant being seeded. Third place was obviously not returning from last year and so I couldn’t help but start to set my hopes on a very potential podium place, maybe even a win if I got lucky?
But like any race, it all comes down to who shows up and who stays away. I quit the daydreaming on Friday upon hearing the previous year’s winner was returning. I refocused my attention on my ability and what I could do. OK, maybe still being able to grab 2nd place didn’t quite escape my consciousness. Last year, my average pace was 6:13 although I fell apart in the last few miles to give up 2nd and 3rd. I refused to make the same mistake again this year but I wanted to match and ultimately better that pace.
I went into Saturday’s race with a different plan; hold back. I broke the 20 miles down into three parts just like I would do for a marathon. The plan was 8 easy, 8 focused and 4 with the heart (as coach Jack Daniel’s would put it). If I averaged 6:15’s early on, I would be able to accelerate my pace later and pick off runners in the latter miles. It was a new type of racing strategy for me, one that required a lot of mental toughness.
Checking the forecast the morning of the race, I was thankful to see clear skies and a delayed snowstorm in the hourly details. I changed clothes from tights to shorts on the 45 minute ferry across from Cape Cod trying to make the best choice with the high-30’s weather. At the start area, I changed my socks from ankle to compression ones for warmth over anything else. I have given up believing they can give you an edge during performance. What I did believe was, I was being very indecisive and twitchy! My glucose was set perfectly in place at 184 and I was ready to see how my winter training had been going.
I peeled off my Novo hoodie and sweats and gave them to Tiffany and joined the second row of runners trying to blend into the ‘not so keen but still keen’ starters area. I bumped into Kieran Conlon, a fellow ex-pat and familiar face from last year. We had a good duel last year but today was a year on, a fresh race for both of us.
The gun went off and almost 400 of us headed east towards the north-eastern tip of the island; Oaks Bluff. I immediately checked my watch after the first straight and saw 6:01 so backed off. I reminded myself of the plan; hold back. 20 miles would sort out the true speedsters from the wannabes.
We climbed over the metal bridge and I did a head count in front. I lay in 10th ignoring the speedy couple who a few of us had figured out were a relay duo (10 miles each – although the male was running all 20). Kieran and another guy came by my side and we small talked. We agreed to ignore the pace up ahead as a volunteer called out “6:19” for us at mile 1.
We ran along the shore line into a slight head wind. I tucked in the best I could behind two taller runners. The sky was blue and it was turning out to be a better day than I had I envisioned. Climbing up and around East Chop lighthouse at Oaks Bluff and then descending the other side by coastal lined beach homes was as always beautiful. I imagined summer time here. One day I will experience this island in peak season without a race! We crunched shells along the harbor boardwalk with the pace steady at 6:20’s. I grabbed my first gel that I had tucked in my glove to keep warm just before I approached the aid station. Knowing the course inside out, made these decisions easier to make. My glucose felt fine but I was wary of not waiting too long to get the first one in the system.
I saw Tiffany just beyond 4 miles as we made a triangular-shaped route around Ocean Park. I had dropped some places, I recall 15th or 16th but wasn’t concerned by my placing yet. My pace was where I wanted it to be.
The only out and back section followed which gave me a good look at runners ahead. The leader had a big gap. He was the winner from 2013 and already looked untouchable as he did last year. The next runners were red, blue and red. I wanted to remember their colors as I was confident I would see them all again when it mattered.
Heading south again came my favorite stretch of the course. Seaview Avenue is a long stretch of road down to the turn at mile 9. After running past the golf course, the strip of road is in the middle of the ocean to our left and Sengekontacket Pond (try saying that on Saturday night) to the right. The snow was much more sparse up here than back in New York which I did not expect. The roads were in good condition with patches of sand on them and although there was a bike path to use, we all decided to run on the road as it was safer which seemed ironic.
I popped my second gel at mile 6 and grabbed water from a volunteer, most of which landed on the ground so I grabbed a second one, the last one in the row of stretched out arms and in doing so, heard a groan behind me.
I turned and apologized seeing I had two runners on my heels. I offered my cup up immediately but he declined. So far, two gels and some water. I was treating my gels like they would be enough quick carbohydrates to keep my glucose in check but this was 20 miles at supposedly faster than marathon pace. I have nailed my carbohydrate strategy down at the marathon distance, always grabbing Gatorade at every other aid station. If I kept up my current gel only routine, I would be out of gels by mile 12 and relying on Tiffany to give me spares every few miles which we didn’t really plan for. I made it an immediate decision to grab Gatorade at the next aid station and get more carbs on board.
I approached mile 10 as I gained but never did pass the relay couple. Tiffany yelled “start picking them off” as she held out more gels for me to grab. Now carrying four again, I was pretty confident I would not be going on the lower side of my glucose range for the second half of the race.
A digital clock stood by the halfway mat and read ’01:02:45.’ After feeling good for 10 miles holding back and running some good 6:10-20 splits, the time I saw crushed me a little. My ‘hold back’ plan would call for a negative split so I wasn’t quite sure why I was feeling so dejected. Maybe, I knew that 10 miles faster than what I had just done was not quite in me today. I was beginning to have a hard time mentally believing I could pull off a 2:03 or 2:04 time going off how I felt.
I sped through the lively aid station manned by one of the many boys and girls clubs of Martha’s Vineyard and just for a few strides felt my energy lift. I sat in 13th and knew it was time to start seeing some runners come back to me. A long stretch of rollers lay ahead along the bike path on the left and then the right side of the road. As I approached mile 12, I finally reeled one of them in clocking a 6:09 mile. Up to 12th and I didn’t hang around to let him tag along with another fast mile of 6:10 I picked off one more. The plan was in motion.
I wound around a bend to a smaller aid station at 13 and got cheered on to my first “Go Team Novo Nordisk” of the year. I heard the woman tell her friends that I was diabetic. I thought in my head, spread the word! I got a kick out of knowing she knew about the team.
Down a rare steep descent, I used gravity to give me some speed. But now, the pain in my legs was building, soreness, tightness all happening at once quickly. I promised myself to start drinking more water every day, get more sleep, heck, eat more vegetables, anything to not feel this pain! My pace was slipping back. My last split was 6:15, not 6:09-10’s anymore. I nervously peeked on the mile beep and saw 6:37. Not good. I looked straight ahead and saw a tiny dot in the distance, my next target. But he faded out of sight soon enough. My focus miles were quickly getting very blurry.
Just as my legs were failing me, now so was my head. I kept at it but my feet felt like they were running across sand. At a cross-section to turn right, Tiffany stood and could see my pain. “3 minute gap” she said talking about 2nd place. I had 10K left to close that gap, feeling like this? Forget it.
And it continued to get worse as I lost the two places I had earlier taken. I had churned out two more slow miles through 17 and now sat in unlucky 13th spot. But I wasn’t unlucky. This had happened to me because of a lack of focus. My training has been solid (minus all of our snowstorms) and my glucose levels were fine. I had simply lost focus. I felt defeated. This was not like me.
I passed Tiffany again and gave her a look to say ‘not my day’. So when she pulled alongside me in the car moments later, the words she chose “catch the guy ahead” were all I needed to hear to spark the light to redeem myself for a race that was going in the wrong direction. The basic notion to catch the next guy ahead of me was lost on me before I heard the words out loud from Tiffany. My head had been only thinking of negative thoughts; why did my legs hurt? Why was I running slower than last year? Why was I 13th? None of these questions I asked myself were doing me any good but the words ‘catch the guy ahead’ were simple and perhaps tangible.
The ‘guy’ ahead was oblivious to my mission. He had just passed me a mile ago with pure ease. He knew I was toast as he went by. I had failed to run well between 15-17 because I was not focused on those individual miles. I had just over two miles to go, to work as hard as possible and make the guy ahead truly earn beating me.
Immediately the rolling hills of the last stretch begun. I had miraculously changed gears as if my brain just flipped a switch in my legs to turn the power back on. I could tell he had no idea I was making a move. On the uphill, I glanced and saw the mile 18 marker and was relieved it wasn’t mile 19. It gave me more time to catch him. Yes, my brain was happy I got to run more miles! As we descended the other side of the hill, a family cheered at the end of their driveway for him and then moments later, me. And now he knew I was coming.
The next climb came quickly. This one, longer but with less grade than before. I ran it like the finish line was on the top. The gap between us was reducing but it was gradual. Down the other side, I saw three more runners come into view. The guy who passed me at 14 was closing in on a pair both wearing red working together. And just like that it was game on to see if I had enough left to catch more than just one runner. Back from the dead almost.
I had all four of them in my view but only a mile and a quarter to try to make a convincing move. I broke it down in my head as 5x 400 meter laps at all out pace. Just to catch the closest guy would have been satisfying but he was now pushing on again as he had witnessed the same scenario as me and got hungry to take some places too!
This scenario played out in Ohio last November and I regretted not fighting harder to stay close to the guy ahead closing a gap on the next runner with a mile left. I refused to let that happen again here. The worst that could happen was to try but fall short. One of the four guys was clear, almost gone for good, but the two in red were clearly slowing the most and I was definitely pushing hardest.
The guy I had been tearing after for 2 miles finally passed the two in red. One of them sensed me and glanced back to confirm. He didn’t have anytime to react. I was going all out with a lot of determination and sped past the two of them as well. But I wanted the guy I had been chasing for 2 miles. I somehow kicked even more and closed on the heels of him. I went past him just before crossing the road to the finish straight.
The guy furthest ahead took note and kicked away from me but my concern was now only keeping the last guy out of reach down the straight. I was all of a sudden in the top 10 and didn’t want to give that up. I ran as hard as I could; eyes closed, arms pumping and grunting away. It wasn’t pretty but it was all heart and that’s what I had asked myself to do in the last 4 miles. I was finally delivering on my promise.
I ran like 10th place meant 1st, crossed the line in 2:06 and bent over to grab my knees with nothing left to give. Seconds later, the other three finished and none were too ecstatic with my late charge home. I later learned, my last mile split was 5:41.
My overall time was a minute and a half slower than 2013. To know I was faster the year before was tough to swallow. Walking away from the finish line, me and Tiffany talked about immediate changes that have to happen to keep improving. No more just running. Core work, better diet, sleep etc. That might sound serious and maybe a little to so for some but it’s the truth. To start with, I want to PR in Boston in April. That’s a tough challenge for me. I’ve never yet raced well there but I am ready to change that.
But longer term, I need to be at my fittest, leanest and strongest going into Tahoe 200 come September. Maybe the fact that I didn’t hit my time goal or place higher than I thought I would is exactly what I needed to happen. A wake up call of sorts.
Seeing 10th place and snatching a 3rd place age group award on the print out stuck to the gym wall helped my ego a little, but it didn’t take away my feeling of disappointment. I need to focus much better in the middle of a race. That’s been an issue of mine at Boston and other races for a long time. In a way, if I had run my best time here, it may have masked this problem. I think it might just have been a better first race than I originally thought. I know what to work on and I’m excited to improve.