I'll do pretty much anything for chocolate. But for a massive hallow shelled Cadbury chocolate egg, I'll get up at 6 a.m. and run 19 miles.
On Saturday, I 'raced' in the Central Park Spring Classic, a race that's only open for NYRR members. Though when I say 'raced,' there's much more to the story than that. As you know, I'm currently in training for the inaugural Queens Marathon on Saturday, April 30. With that in mind, last Saturday was the day when I needed to test myself and complete my second last critical long run - 19 miles - before the big day.
So what does a critical long run mean? And why is it different than a normal long run? According to my NYRR training plan, this is what separates these critical long runs from normal long runs.
"Be sure to prepare properly for these runs - including eating the right dinner and getting enough rest on the previous day. You can't just "get through" these runs - you may do more harm than good that way. These Long Run workouts are designed to simulate the marathon in as many ways as possible."
Months ago, before I started my training plan, I had signed up for the Central Park Classic as it was only $10. As I like to do my long runs on Saturdays, I realized during the week this race clashed with my long run plans. This presented me with a predicament. My initial choices were: Do the long run and skip the race, losing $10 and a 9+1 entry into the TCS NYC Marathon for 2017. Or do the race and miss a critical long run. Then, a lightbulb went off over my massive head as I put my hands together and came up with a genius idea that a super villain would be proud of: Do both as a combo!
After minutes of crafting and finessing the plan, this was the finalized plan of attack: Run 12.6 miles before the race, then finish up with the 6.4 mile race. Get up at 6 a.m. (ugh), shake the damn cobwebs off and somehow force a bagel down my throat. Go to the potty, don't fall asleep on it, but instead do your business, get dressed, and be out the door by 7 a.m. Simple, right? After that, I would then set out from Sunnyside, over the Queensboro Bridge, into Central Park, do two laps of the park and finish up at around 8.55 a.m. minutes before the Spring Classic was set to commence. Easy!
Normally, my planning for things like this is bang on, but my execution is normally arseways. I fully expected to wake at 7 a.m. and really balls up my plan, but - to my surprise - the plan went off without a hitch. It almost went too well.
Saturday, I somehow rolled out from the crypt, groggy eyed and as I looked out the window to a pitch-black NYC, I wondered: "Why the hell do I do this to myself?"
By 7 a.m. daylight appeared to guide me on my way and I set off to see my old friend the Queensboro Bridge (She's still a torturous fecker). Ascending that horrible incline, I was greeted by several pleasant runners, who waved or saluted at me as I made my way past them. "Another crazy bastard out this early" is surely what they were thinking. That was what was going my mind, anyways.
As I made it to the park, I saw firsthand the huge effort that goes into putting a road race on in the iconic park. NYRR's part-time and full-time staffers, along with those brilliant volunteers were out in force, walking the course, pouring out copious cups of water, and getting everything into place. By mile 5, I was on track and feeling good as I pulled up to the NYRR bib collect station. As I attached my bib, I shuffled past the dozens of volunteers and made my way north for the Harlem Hill. Only another 8.6 miles to go before the start of the race. Aye, no bother.
Another thing about the critical long runs is the mental challenge you're faced with. During my run, I knew I was up against the clock. I had to keep at a certain pace or else I wouldn't make the race. Turns out, it was a good motivator as I rolled up near the 102nd Street Transverse in the park with just under 5 minutes to spare. 12.6 miles in the bag. Just a 10km race to go. Bloody hell.
Thankfully, my fellow NYRR runners kept me going. By the 2nd mile of the race - which was 14.6 on my clock - my legs were feeling it. They had already seen - and experienced - the hills of the park by this point. Keeping on pace was as much mental as it was physical. And to make matters worse, it seemed fatigue had hit my fellow runners.
One week prior to this race, 20,500 runners ran through the streets of Manhattan for the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon. Just six days later and I think several runners were still fatigued or tired from the exploits of one week prior as the atmosphere on the day at the Spring Classic was very quiet, eerie, and somewhat strange. I've never seen the course so quiet, but then again, it was a classic race and a small field, so it was never going to reach the heights of some other racedays.
Miles 3 and 4 of the race (15.6 and 16.6 miles, respectively) were really tough on the legs as I tackled the rolling hills of the park - again. This is where your training kicks in - the ability to run on tired legs, the ability to block out negative thoughts, and the ability to push through it all. By the time I faced Cat Hill - for the third time that day - I knew I was close to finishing, but I still had a lot of work to do.
As I crept up the hill, and it was a creep - no sprinting on this occasion - I spotted a familiar face at the last second - due to my delirious state of mind - but it was a fellow NYRR Virtual Trainer alumni. A quick high five and some shouts of support from Jennifer Ann - who just rocked the Phoenix Marathon recently - and I was feeling the momentum, ready to finish strong. Less than 2 miles and I could eat all the chocolate eggs I wanted that day.
Coming into the home stretch, I could only watch as dozens of runners surged past me, trying to shave some seconds off their time in the 10km. Normally that would be me, but on this occasion, I had a greater purpose, and that was sticking to my time for my long run. I was nearly there. Staying at the same pace, and with heavy legs, I crossed the finish line, but as I looked at my watch, the distance read 18.8 miles. Balls.
Every part of my body said, "That'll do," but my stubbornness wouldn't give in. I wanted 19.0. As I stepped over the line, I kept going, running past some statuesque runners, who had run to a standstill. Like a crazed loon, I ran past the food and made it nearly all the way down the baggage reclaim before the watch hit 19.0. Relief.
At this point, I hobbled back uphill to the food area and collected a much-needed bagel and some water and an apple - all of which were devoured within minutes.
The plan was executed beautifully. 19 miles done in 2:44:09 with an average pace of 8:38. Oh yes. Right on track, if not a little faster than what I should have been. So while the Central Park Spring Classic was a way for many NYRR members to loosen up after the NYC Half Marathon the week before, for me, it was the ultimate proving ground.
Could I make and stick to a plan that needed military precision and execution? Could I mentally go through 19 miles, knowing I would have to stop at the 12.6 mile mark for a few minutes and then start up minutes later? And could I exorcise the demons of my last critical long run and make this count? The answers to all of the above were: Yes.
And if that didn't call for eating a massive hallow shell Cadbury egg afterward, then I don't know what does.