In probably one of the best races of my life I was able to take 2nd place in the NJ Half Marathon last week in Long Branch, NJ where I spent most of my career competing at Monmouth University. For one of the first times in my post collegiate career I was able to stay competitive and actually race a competitor instead of just clicking off splits on a watch. I will write another post about my entire training cycle and compare it to the last time I ran a half marathon but for this post I really just want to focus on the week leading up to my race and the race itself and how I was able to run such a great race.
In the 14 days before the race as I mentioned on social media I started getting some serious foot pain, especially with some numbness on the top of my foot and some nerve pain on the bottom of my foot. Nine days from the race my coach and I got so worried we had me take completely off from running until I saw my podiatrist, which couldn’t happen for 6 days. We thought I might have a stress reaction or something worse that might sideline me long term if I pushed through. So for 6 days during my taper I ran 0 miles, I did some light cross-training, tons of foam rolling, but all the while I tried to stay positive. As always having a great support crew around me helped me stay positive as they kept me from getting too negative about missing some time. I just kept trying to remind myself that I was in the best shape I have ever been in and missing a couple days wouldn’t change that. On Thursday I finally got the diagnosis from the Dr. and it seemed like some incredibly tight calves were causing tightness on the top of the foot and therefore causing the nerve on the bottom of my foot to act up and causing me some discomfort. So the way ahead was I could still race but the recommendation was to use trainers and to focus the next couple of days on getting my calves right. I was relived and my coach was very supportive about me still wanting to race but cautioned me to taper expectations due to all the time off. I got in a run Friday and a run Saturday, neither of which felt great but I was ecstatic to just be healthy and able to race!
So off to NJ I went with my wife and daughter who are the most amazing support crew I could ever ask for. We headed back to Long Branch, NJ where I spent 5 years in college, met my wife, fell in love with running, ended up working Post College and spent two more years living down. Needless to say The Jersey Shore and Long Branch particularly have been a huge part of my life to date. We visited friends, some of our favorite local establishments and we got to take Chloe to visit Monmouth University where Kelly and I met and she fell hopelessly in love with me at first glance. After picking up my bib we headed to a baseball game down in Lakewood and then in my usual pre-race routine enjoyed some delicious NJ pizza(yes it’s better than MD pizza) and had a beer of course to ensure another PR(A beer for a PR, it’s a thing). Got to bed early as we had an to get up at 430 the next morning, but in reality I never sleep well the day before a race.
For the first time in my life I had the privilege of being an elite runner in a huge race, with the biggest perk just being access to an area to sit and relax pre-race and also a private bathroom. I can’t begin to express how much stress this took out of my pre-race routine. If you ask a lot of my friends, I may sometimes be a bit anxious before a race, which is usually why I like to attend races with some of my calmer friends to offset me. I got in my warm up and I was pain-free which was great but I still didn’t feel great, I had stayed positive this long so no reason to doubt myself but I had wished one of these runs would have felt better. I met some friends from the DC area in the elite area I know from previous races and chatted with them a little bit before heading down to the start line. I was the calmest I have ever been at the start line of a race because I think deep down I knew at this point I was playing with house money. I had an amazing season so far with several breakthrough PR’s, training really smart and just enjoying everything so much more. Seven months ago my hamstring pain was so bad I wasn’t even sure I’d ever run pain-free again and started doubting I’d ever be running fast again, so in the minutes before this race I just remembered where I was and how far I came. Six days off from running would hurt but I was going to run with so much happiness and joy and just leave it all out there and at 7:30 am the race began.
Immediately a kid with no shirt and basketball shorts running the marathon sprints out in front of all of us and I wondered if Graham Peck had entered this race and didn’t tell me. Three of us in the half all grouped up and the runner running the marathon had 10 seconds on us by the mile and we just kept seeing him drift away. As we rolled through the first mile in 5:30 I felt alright, not great but not terrible and the weather was pretty good so I just focused on the competitors around me. I wanted to run a PR at this race but my biggest goal was I really wanted to win. I knew one of the other runners with me had run 1:09 in the half before so I knew I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to win this race but on race day anything could happen. For the first 3 miles I just stayed in the back as the other two runners controlled the pace, nothing really for me to do in the first couple of miles anyway other than just try and get comfortable. At 3.5 miles in I took the inside around a corner and went to the front and started pushing the pace a bit and ended up breaking loose the 3rd runner so it was just down to the 2 of us. Rarely in my life have I gone into a race with someone faster than me and pushed the pace but I really wanted this more than I have wanted anything in a while. For the next four miles the two of us took turns pushing the pace and surging and then backing off and ducking behind the other runner. I was ignoring all clocks, all splits on my watch all of that was silly background noise, I was focused on one thing and one thing only. Winning this race.
Around 8.5 miles in I was starting to feel a little tired, to this point I had done a lot of work leading this race but here I am now so no reason to squander an opportunity especially since a few days ago I wasn’t even sure I’d be here racing. We went past a water stop and I decided to make a surge right through it, hoping to catch him off guard, as I surged I got a little separation but in a very short amount of timer he was able to quickly close that gap and was right back with me. I think the first bit of doubt creeped in my head at this point that maybe I couldn’t win this race and like the good runner he is, he was quickly on the offensive. For the next 1.5 miles he surged a bunch of times and I tried to counter all of them the best I could staying with him and keeping it close until right before 10 miles when my body just finally couldn’t react to a move and a small gap turned into a huge gap real quick. I fought back as best as I could during the 11th mile to not completely lose too much time, and hope maybe to make one last move. As I moved through mile 11 I had fallen back 15 seconds but my body was not reacting as I had hoped. That bit of doubt I let creep in before plus all the many surges and moved I made earlier were catching up with me. As I turned into the last straight-away home along the shore, a mile stretch (the moss mile) I had run probably 100 times in college my body was giving up. I was pushing hard but everything was catching up and 1st place was out of grasp. I just focused on landmarks on the side of the road to get me from point to point and ultimately to get me to the finish line. About 800 meters out I started tightening up a bit and as I pulled through a strange chute of barriers leading us onto the boardwalk and I somehow took the wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of the barrier. Luckily a volunteer saw me and was able to open up the barrier to get me back on course with like 200 meters to go, because otherwise I was going to try and jump over it(what’s with me and going off course in race). I surged hard into the finish line with a new PR of 1:13:31 and 2nd place and I was pretty dead, but so overwhelmed with joy on how tough I ran. I met a couple new friends post-race sharing in the race experience and got some fun prizes including some roses and new shoes! More importantly I was the first runner to the beer tent so that’s a pretty big accomplishment of course!
As I look back on this experience and this race day I am just so proud of myself for doing the right things leading up to the race. Conventional wisdom makes it easy to say I should have just run through the injury and I would have been fine but instead of being the idiot I was that sidelined me for 9 months with hamstring issues, I got an appointment and got checked out. I’m also proud of myself for staying focused and not giving up on this race when it would have been easy after 6 straight 0’s to call off the race and look for another one. Instead I took the fitness I had and the toughness I have built up and ran probably one of the best races of my entire career. And lastly I am just so happy for how much joy I ran this entire race with, I spent most of it smiling as I pushed through pain, thanking volunteers, and just enjoying every moment. Ultimately the process leading up to the race is all the hard work, on race day it’s just a celebration!
Up to next is some downtime until a summer of shorter distance races trying to stay competitive and work on some speed before I ramp up again this fall for a Marathon and finally getting down into the low 2:30’s. As always I hope you enjoyed my recap!