Sometimes after a marathon, you just need to step away from it all to realize what just happened. Add in a case of post-marathon blues and it really throws a lot of disruption into one's routine. This blog has taken a while to write – and months to publish – as I wrapped my head around the events of Saturday, April 30, but now that I've taken some time to contemplate things, I'll look back at the day as a positive, rather than a negative.
“Wait,” I hear you saying, “what went wrong?”
Well, like every good story, let's start at the beginning (unless it's a Tarantino one, they usually start in the middle or end).
16 weeks of training came to an end on Saturday, April 30 as I got up at ridiculous o'clock and made my way to Flushing Meadows for the inaugural edition of the Queens Marathon, which was organized by Queens Distance Runners and NYC Runs.
Let's start with the positives here. Getting a train from Sunnyside, Queens, to Flushing for a marathon was a wonderfully relaxed feeling, a stark contrast to the early morning travel expedition one has to undertake for the TCS NYC Marathon. Upon reaching the park, myself and a few fellow runners exited the train and made our way toward the starting point. It was only then when the size of the race field dawned on me. The night before, as I picked up my bib at Queens Mall, I found out that there were fewer than 270 runners for this race, making it the smallest group of runners I've ever ran alongside in a race. What that really meant, I would find out later on in the race.
After a stop at the port-a-potty, a long stretch, I lined up and met a fellow NYRR Virtual Trainer alumni, Nancy – and after some pleasantries, it was time to get my game face on. For about a week or so, I had planned my strategy. My training plan had estimated that I could finish this marathon – which was relatively a flat course – on 3 hours 37 minutes, which would smash my previous PR (3:41:35) from Philadelphia in November. During the 16-week plan for this marathon, I broke my half marathon record, 1:38:44 back in March at the United Airlines NYC Half. So with a PR gained in training, I had my sights set on breaking another with the actual marathon and was reaching for that 3:37.
The plan was to start off slow at 8:47 a mile for the first mile, drop down to 8:29 and then progress into a steady rhythm of 8:12 a mile until mile 19. Easy, right?
What could go wrong? Well, less than 0.10 miles into the race and it was nearly over as a crack in the surface saw me trip up and fall forward. Realizing I was about to go down, my arms sprung up – and unfortunately collided with another runner, giving her the fright of her life. She managed to stay up, but I was still tumbling in slow motion until a fellow runner grabbed my shoulder and kept me on my feet. Shaken, but thankfully still on my feet, I regained my composure, said 1000 “sorrys” and “thank yous” and got my head back in the game.
Of course, I went a little quicker than prescribed in the first mile – as always, but only slightly as I always try to be a second or two quicker than my lap pace, as I always fear that toward the end of the mile, I'll slow down and miss my goal pace for each mile.
Miles 1 and 2 were as follows: 8:37 and 8:23. The next few miles also fell below the 8:12 target as I notched up times of 8:11, 8:10, 8:06, 8:07. I was firmly in my rhythm and things were looking OK. However, two lingering thoughts were filling my head and despite trying to block them out with music, they kept popping back up.
One was the fact that I didn't feel as fit as I did for the NYC Half back in March and, in my head, I felt like I could feel some fat jiggling that was not there previously. Maybe it came from the week of carbo-loading? Or maybe – and this is a serious factor in what happened later – but perhaps the three weeks spent eating and drinking with friends and that long weekend in Dallas at the end of March had crept up on me. You can't outrun a shitty diet yet I was hoping to be the exception to the rule.
The second thought was one that was only formulating in my head – the loops. The race itself was four loops of Flushing Meadows Park. No problem I thought as during my training plan, I had done loops of Central Park to get used to the monotony of doing continuous loops. However – despite the beauty of Flushing, which it certainly has in certain parts – it just doesn't compare to the glory of Central Park. And how could it. There is only one Central Park. However, loop one was done. Only three more to go.
Loop two was fine. A quick stop at the Gatorade station to refill my bottle was met with great cheers from a group of helpful young volunteers who roared on “Batman” who stopped for some Gatorade. My times were also in check, too as miles 8-12 were 8:08, 8:04, 8:06, 8:26 (when I stopped to refill), and 8:04.
Coming into loop three, things were going swimmingly. Half-way there. And I knew the Muffin was going to arrive near the end of loop 3 to cheer me on and lend her support. Somehow in mile 14, I lost my head and recorded a 7:58, something I would later regret as that pace wasn't smart. All I can think is it must have been a hell of a song to make me lose focus like that. Coming to the end of loop 3, those two thoughts from earlier were not occupying an awful lot of space in my massive head.
1: I wasn't feeling as fit as I thought I should have been. At this point, I was partially regretting those party nights in late March and early April, especially all those Bud Lights. Many, many Bud Lights.
2: The loops were starting to play tricks on the mind. No fault of the organizers – who put on a great race – but the loops were zig-zagged, which many runners appreciate as it breaks up long stretches, but for me, it was starting to take its toll. Also, there's certain parts of Flushing Park – toward the back end of the lake – that just aren't as glamorous as other parts, which really made it a hard slog. As well as this, the small field of runners was spaced out at this stage, which meant I was running alongside one or two runners for long periods of time.
As I approached the Unisphere, my eyes lit up as there was the Muffin, standing there taking photos of me and screaming words of encouragement. A quick kiss and a hug and I was back on it, rejuvenated and encouraged to storm that final lap. However, by mile 18, it was if my knees developed a voice and that voice sat directly on my shoulder, whispering words of defeat into my ear. As I finished loop 3, the Muffin was there again and at this point, she asked how was I doing. “I'm getting tired” I replied. The Muffin, who has seen me on the verge of quitting before (NYC Marathon 2015) replied in her usual way – she screamed words of hope and motivation to get me going again.
OK – six more miles I thought. One loop. I've ran about 5 miles everyday for the last 16 weeks, so it all comes down to these last six. I can do this.
At this point, it was purely a mental game – one I thought I was ready for, but looking back, the lack of a huge crowd (such as the ones at NYC and Philadelphia) played havoc with me. Crowds really do push you to limits you don't think are possible, but on this day, the crowds were sparse, leaving you isolated for long stretches of time.
Don't get me wrong, when you did approach crowds, they were some of the noisiest people I've seen at a race, but unfortunately there was just not large sections of spectators. As well as this, the park was fully open, meaning people were in the park going through their usual Saturday routines, arriving to play soccer, or go for a stroll or a jog, while others were setting up barbecues, which was mentally off-putting – part of me was like, “Hey, I'm running a fecking marathon here. Get out of the way.”
Added up, it led to mental fatigue. Mile 19 arrived, which meant I could drop the pace a little according to my plan, so I did, recording a 8:14. And then it started to unravel. A second stop for “Batman” to fill up his Gatorade saw me record a 8:40 at mile 20, which was fine as it kept me on track. I followed that up with a 8:17, so this was all still do-able. Or so I thought. Mile 22, which I had planned to run at 8:19 suddenly turned into a 8:32 mile.
And then I panicked a little. I knew I was getting slower. Rather than depending on my training and knowing to adjust just a little, I panicked. And when I did, I let fatigue take over. That voice on my shoulder consumed my thoughts and the more I thought about “stopping for a little rest” the more it made sense. I could feel a large part of me screaming and kicking from within, saying “Do not stop, just keep going,” but suddenly I was picking out parts of the course where it would be good to stop for just 15 seconds before getting back to things. As soon as I let that happen, the PR went out the window.
Mile 23 I stopped “for a small 10-second rest” and that became a 9:42 mile, followed by a 9:18.
At this point, the Muffin met me again as I ran to a standstill as my knees were aching and my mind was running on empty. Yet she kept encouraging me, she knew I could do it and even offering to run the last 2 miles with me – which was a wonderful gesture, considering the Muffin doesn't run at all. I kindly told her, no it was OK and said I could do this. With one last supporting roar from her, I made my way for the last 1.7 miles, determined to finish this thing. Yes, a PR was out the window, but there was no reason I couldn't finish the damn thing at this stage.
Those two miles were long. Really fecking long. Running close to a 9 minute mile, I approached the last few hundred meters. Some fresh spectators, who only joined the fun recently, lifted the spirits with some wild cheers and as I approached the line, I saw the muffin's face as she was screaming at me to keep it going. There was no way I was going to stop now.
As I trudged over the line, a slight wave of disappointment washed over me. Being that close to an amazing PR, the feeling of frustration was palpable. As I collected my medal and listened to the congratulatory words from the volunteers, my mood began to lift somewhat. And then when the Muffin met me, that feeling of accomplishment finally washed over me. Marathon number four was in the books. Yes, it didn't go perfect and I was so close, only to see my PR fall apart, but it was still my second best marathon time. As well as this, I was able to somewhat put my finger on where it went wrong – drunken weekends and a poor diet the weeks before the big day didn't help.
In the days following, I came to grips with the Queens Marathon and what happened on the day. Listening to my body, I took a full week off and when I came back, I found it difficult to get through four miles as my mind was mentally done with running. Physically, I was fine, but mentally, I needed to change things up. After 16 weeks of training, I felt like I fell out of love with running and started talking about NYC Marathon 2016 being my last as I wasn't enjoying them as much. Two weeks on, still battling my own thoughts, I realized I had met this mental opposition before – it's a little thing called Post Marathon Blues, especially if a marathon doesn't go 100% to plan.
Thankfully – the UAE Healthy Kidney 10k arrived just in time, an uplifting, uber-positive fun race that was the antithesis of a marathon. It was exactly the tonic I needed to get over things. Next up was Brooklyn, a half marathon, and I missed my PR by about 20 seconds in that one, which I was delighted about – as it meant I still had it in me, I just needed to keep working. Following that was a vacation to Ireland, where I ran in some beautiful scenic surroundings. At times I felt like I was stuck in a rut, so I also changed it up and signed up for NYRR's weekly training group. Now, week by week, bit by bit, I've started to enjoy running again. And currently, I'm three weeks into training for the Chicago Marathon.
To summarize, post marathon blues are real. For instance, I abandoned this blog for ages due to it, when I really should not have, and I seriously questioned whether I wanted to race for much longer. But looking back at that Queens Marathon, my average pace was 8:32, I was 49th out of 214 finishers, and the 40th male finisher. I can also say I ran the Inaugural Queens Marathon. Not many can say they ran the first marathon of its kind. Yes, it was tough. Loops are very fecking hard. And you can't outrun a poor diet (or drunken weekends). But there's nothing wrong with encountering a major setback and mentally overcoming it. That's a different type of win. If anything, that – and the months that followed – have made me stronger. Chicago, watch out!