Reflections of a First-year New York Marathoner

By Andrew Toutain

marathon_mainEarly on a crisp clear Sunday in October, 4,713 runners gathered at the Richmond County Stadium in Staten Island for a 13.1-mile half marathon, the last of the half-marathon races organized by the New York Road Runners before this Sunday’s New York marathon. For many of the runners, including teenagers and octogenarians , the Staten Island race marked the culmination of months of physical and mental preparation for the challenge ahead.

For me, the Staten Island Half Marathon was one of my last opportunities to get in a long run before the big race on November 7. Completing this race also would fulfill my nine-plus-one commitment to NYRR. As a member of the NYRR, if you finish nine of its sponsored races during the year, and volunteer for at least one other, then you receive a guaranteed spot in the ING New York City Marathon, so-called because the financial services firm is the title sponsor of the event.

The New York marathon started 41 years ago with a course that circled Central Park four times and with only 55 men crossing the finish line. A few years later, Fred Lebow, president of NYRR at the time, redrew the course to encompass all five New York City boroughs. Today, the 26.2 mile races starts in Staten Island, snakes up through Brooklyn, briefly swings through Queens before entering Manhattan at 59th street; it then touches the southern tip of the Bronx before reentering Manhattan on the way to the finish line in Central Park. Last year, the race included over 40 thousand runners and nearly 2 million spectators who line the route citywide.

I ran my first marathon last year in New York. I pushed my body further than I thought I could. Before that morning, I had only run in half marathons, with my best time just under an hour and 44 minutes; but I didn’t know if I could run twice the distance and achieve my goal of finishing in less than four hours. When I reached the finish line, last November, at Tavern on the Green, in Central Park, I saw that my time was just under three hours and 56 minutes.

Crossing that finish line was an emotional moment for me. Even though I wasn’t competing against anyone, I felt like I had achieved something important. Running is a contest with yourself; as long as you finish, you are a winner. By the time I exited the park that morning, I was already thinking, “I could do that again, and I bet I could do it faster.” That became one of my goals for 2010: to train during the year and compete in the 2010 marathon.

En route to the October half marathon, the view of Manhattan from the back of the Staten Island ferry.

The NYRR Half Marathon Series began last January 24 with a race in Central Park. For many runners, it marked the start of training for this weekend’s marathon. On that frigid morning, we started the race in the southwest corner of the park, right below where I had crossed the marathon finish line three months earlier. My goal was to finish the race in under an hour and forty minutes. If I could do that, I figured, I would have a shot at beating my 2009 marathon time come November. The Manhattan Half Marathon course runs in two counter-clockwise loops around the park and ends near the Naumburg Band Shell, but the simplicity of the course is deceptive. Near the northwest corner of the park there are a series of hills that could stagger even the most capable athlete. If you take Harlem Hill for granted on your first pass, it could very well become “Heartbreak Hill” on your second loop around the park. I finished the race in just over one hour and forty minutes, a little short of my goal. I had come out too fast in the beginning of the race and then ran too strong on the first set of hills. No matter; I still had plenty of time to train before November.

Serious runners, training for a marathon, will cover 25 to 50 miles per week, with the typical marathon athlete averaging closer to 100 miles. They will train daily, get plenty of rest and stick to a well-balanced diet.
I have a different training schedule. It consists of a nine-to-five job, attending classes at Baruch College, playing in a Williamsburg band and trying to spend some quality time with my wife, all of which leaves me with about six hours of sleep per night. It also means that I squeeze my training runs in on the weekends; even during the spring and summer when I tried to run at least three times a week, I averaged a paltry 10 to 15 miles. As for diet, I enjoy the fried-cheese and potato-chip food groups, as well as a good cocktail or two in evenings. Although I don’t have best training regimen, I was able to improve my times for each of the NYRR races I entered. In June, I broke the seven-minute mile mark for the first time. In July, I ran my fastest 10k at about 46 minutes But more than logging my “personal best” times, I began to enjoy the routine of running with the NYRR – the ritual of running with a community of people who get out and push themselves for their own personal reasons.

The Queens Half Marathon, which took place on one of the hottest days last summer, tested my resolve. By the time I had reached Corona Park on July 24, the day of the run, the thermometer was already in the 80s. As I was heading home after the race, it was approaching 95 degrees. During the announcements at the start line, organizers urged the 3,600 sweating runners to “run easy.” “Don’t push yourself,” they said. “This is not the day for your personal best.” I finished well behind my goal time with one of my slowest half marathons yet, despite having tried a new running technique.

My running strategy consists of Google searches the night before one of my races. Before the Queens Half Marathon I learned about a technique called the “negative split,” which involves running the first half of a race slower than you run the second half. The idea is that you conserve your energy at the start of the race and increase your speed at about the halfway point. But during the Queens run I came out too slow and was unable to make up the time I needed to reach my goal.

For the Staten Island Half Marathon I decided to run at a smooth, comfortable pace for as long as I could and see what happened.

The Staten Island race is my favorite of the NYRR half marathons, even though I have to leave my home in north Brooklyn at 4:30 a.m. in order to catch two trains and make it to the starting line by 8:30. I love the view from the back of the ferry as it travels toward Staten Island’s St. George Ferry Terminal, Manhattan’s downtown skyline receding as the sun rises over the Brooklyn Bridge. The October race is almost always accompanied by perfect running weather. Then, too, it is the last long race before the New York marathon. Whatever the reason, for the last few years, I have always looked forward to running on Staten Island.

When I reached the finish line at the Richmond County Stadium and realized that I had beaten my own personal best by three minutes with a time of just over an hour and 37 minutes, I raised my arms in the air and clapped my hands for myself. Then I looked around for someone with whom to celebrate; but my fellow runners were in their own worlds.

Running is often a solitary experience. That’s especially true in the New York marathon, when the crowds start to thin out at the 19- or 20-mile mark, the only encouragement that matters is inside your own head. That is something I will keep in mind as I start my second marathon on Sunday.