A Timely Perspective on Training for the NYC Marathon

After years of running local 5k races and 5 mile Turkey Trots around Connecticut and New England, at some point I was attracted to the allure of the half-marathon. My first was tough. I remember it well. A hot, June Sunday morning starting at the beach and a hilly 13.1 mile winding course. My time wasn't great but I was thankful for the experience and used it to find ways to improve in my next race. I continued to run more half-marathons until I eventually felt the inclination to take it up to the full distance. I was officially registered for the 2008 New York City Marathon. 

I really had no idea what to expect. I had never run a marathon before. I'd never even been a spectator before and I was now months away from one of the biggest in the world. With a combination of Internet research, magazine articles, conversations with friends and peers, I patched together a personal training plan that I felt met my expectations. Race day for the NYC Marathon is a special time, and also a learning process. You report to Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island before the sun has risen. Early November wind gusts across the starting area as tens of thousands of runners huddle into clusters, some shaking from a combination of pre-race nerves and anticipation but mostly from the morning chill. One word of advice or lesson learned from my first NYC Marathon is that there's no risk in showing up over prepared. You will be spending hours sitting around waiting at the start. Understandably so, the starting area is just that. An open area meant to logistically organize a massive amount of people. There are no food vendors or Gatorade stations. Extra insulating clothes, sweaters, hats, food and drinks can be left behind. I'm not exaggerating. I saw people shaking with the look of hypothermia before the race even started. Try to follow the better safe then sorry motto. 

The ominous voice over the loud speaker called out my wave number and I worked my way into the crowded corral area. Before long, the explosion of a cannon announces the start of the elite runner's at the front. Eventually the corral opens, I work my way up to the official start, and I am off and running. I'm not going to get into all of the details here about the New York City Marathon course but I will say that if you are thinking about it or not even thinking about it. Do it! It's an amazing experience that can't even be described. My official finish time for the 2008 NYC Marathon was 4:01:38. I was happy. Glad that I had done it. Soar and tired as hell. Ready to recover. 

In 2009, I passed on the marathon to do an endurance race with two of my best friends in Jay Peak, VT. The following year I signed up for NY again and in 2010 finished 4:07:27. After that one I resigned to take a break from the 26.2 distance race. I started getting into triathlons and developing a passion for biking. But in early 2013, I got the itch. Before long I was again signed up for the NYC Marathon. This year I was going to try something different. Mix things up. 

The first move I made was lots of research on training and plans. Talking to more experienced runners, seeking out advice and reading material online. This eventually brought me to the website of Hal Higdon. I recalled his name from articles in Runner's World magazine but didn't know a lot about him personally so I read his bio and explored his entire site. It was an Aha! moment. There is something incredibly inspiring, not only in the athletic accolades of Hal Higdon, but in his renaissance man pursuits across writing, art and the humanities. I quickly studied up on his writings and marathon training plan, which became my playbook. 

It's an 18 week training plan that starts by explaining and answering very concisely the most basic questions of 'how' and 'why'. Hal uses speed sessions calling for hill repeats, interval training and tempo runs balanced against progressive weekend long runs that 'stepback' every three weeks. He also presents his training methodology in a way that's straight-forward and honest. 

Admittedly, not everybody wants to do speedwork, or enjoys going to the track. If that is your philosophy, you are better off following one of my intermediate programs. The advanced schedules (1 and 2) are designed only for the hard core, those willing to take it to the limit. Only a small percentage of today's runners classify themselves as "Advanced" or want to follow this demanding a schedule. We track how many runners sign up for my various schedules, and fewer than 10 percent choose Advanced. If that is you, welcome aboard. - Hal Higdon

I printed out the training plan and pinned it up on my wall, using a yellow highlighter to track my daily progression. The training plan was challenging but on tough days I was able to push on feeling the confident voice of great coaching. A voice coming through an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. The running continued going well through the summer as I tracked almost all of my workouts on  Training Peaks website. In the middle of August I started feeling discomfort on the outside area of my left knee. It wasn't too serious but enough for me to dial things down and take extra time stretching. My next weekend long run was a disaster. Somewhere at mile 9 or 10 the pain became sharp and excruciating bringing me to tears. I walked home and elevated my leg. I didn't run for the whole week. The following weekend I attempted to go out for a slow, light jog but couldn't even finish. I know aches and pains are a part of the process but something just wasn't right. I visited a doctor to get an x-ray. The x-ray came back clear and I was told the pain was my IT band. I needed an extended time out from running to stop exacerbating the problem to allow more rest and recovery.

At this point, I was balancing my stubborn nature and frustration with being told NOT to run with the lesson I had learned of better safe than sorry. I aired on the conservative side and took another two weeks off. I actually considered giving away my spot in the marathon because I was convinced I wouldn't be able to catch up my training in time and someone else would need enough time to prepare. But before making that kind of call I opted to give it one last go. The first day back I decided to test things out and jumped on my bike instead of running, just to get the feel of exertion and motion without the impact. It felt pretty good. No pain. At this point I needed to adjust my game plan. I was completely off Hal's training plan and only had a few weeks left before tapering. I continued to build on distance and speed work but at a much lower level. As the weeks progressed I felt ok physically which allowed me to focus on my inner-game. How was I going to manage this psychologically? 

As the day drew closer, friends and colleagues who were also running the marathon were abuzz. Both returning and first time runner friends were excitedly chatting about their training plans and target finish times. I stayed soft spoken and introspective having been humbled by the unpredictable curve ball of an IT Band injury. The day of the race was another cold November  morning on Staten Island. At some point, maybe an hour or so before my starting time, I broke out of my silent, one-man blanket huddle and stood up where I had been sitting. This is it. It's go time. A feeling of release. Calm before the storm. I had no idea what to expect. Would my knee hold out or would the pain start right in the beginning. It didn't matter anymore. I did my best. I followed a great training plan, persevered through the pain and all I could do now was enjoy the ride. I put my iPod shuffle and headphones away. No music. I want to feel every step. Use my inner-game to stay positive and aware of what's happening around me and with my body, recalling all of the sage advice I had learned from Hal. 

I crossed the starting line of the New York City Marathon for the third time in my life and the race was officially under way. I was feeling good and maintained my prescribed pace as 50,000 runners wound through the beautiful and diverse neighborhoods of the five boroughs. Mile after mile I stayed focused and strategic about my pace.

Toward the later parts of the race when fatigue and exhaustion inevitably set in, I used my injury as impetus. Practicing humility, in knowing that I had to stay that much stronger to overcome a difficult setback. I turned a challenge into an opportunity. And that was the focus of my inner-game for the last final miles of the race. 

I crossed the finish line with a time of 3:27:38. Less than 8 minutes per mile for 26.2 miles. Whenever friends or family ask how I shaved 30 minutes off my marathon time I always give the same answer, "A new coach."