On Sunday, March 26th, my Achilles buddy and I negotiated turns, avoided potholes, and dodged puddles en route to running 26.2 miles (26.8 according to my Garmin) at the NYCRUNS Queens Marathon.
Pre-race with the Achilles Queens group
Held in Corona Park and co-sponsored by the Queens Distance Runners, this event offered both a full marathon and 20-mile tune-up option and welcomed about 300 athletes. The Achilles cohort had five athletes participating and 18 guides who ran anywhere from one to all four loops of the course.
If you’ve been reading for a while, then you may recall my renewed perspective on the 2017 triathlon season, and one of my guiding principles: service. I want to give back to the community that has given me so much. My experience volunteering as a handler with the Challenged Athletes Foundation during the NYC Triathlon in 2016 rejuvenated my outlook on sport, and functioning in this type of capacity is something I plan to do on a regular basis. Several of my triathlon friends are involved with Achilles—a nonprofit that aims to enable people with disabilities to participate in mainstream running events—so getting involved was easy. Achilles NYC hosts two workouts each week (the group meets Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings in Central Park), and I started attending sessions in December and gaining experience as a guide. There is a rough guiding framework, but its execution varies from athlete to athlete. I can only speak to my experience so this post will focus on what I do for the athlete I guide.
My Achilles buddy and I first ran together in December—he was the second person I guided, ever—and we hit it off immediately. He’s an experienced runner and triathlete who’s tackled marathons and even completed Ironman Lake Placid, and we have a lot of mutual tri friends. He is visually impaired and legally blind, so when we run together, we use either a tether or a race belt that we both hold. By pulling the device, I can make adjustments to the direction he runs, and we also communicate a lot. (More on that in a bit.) Anyway, when he asked me to guide him for the Queens Marathon, I was honored and honestly shocked—I had yet to run a marathon myself! He knew, though, and had no concerns or reservations so I said yes.
As the marathon approached, we ran together on a regular basis, usually doing six miles on Tuesday evenings and going longer on Saturday mornings. Prior to race day, the farthest we ran together was 11 miles. (The weekend before the marathon, he did the NYC Half, which was his longest pre-26.2 outing.) For me, my coach said to think of this event as an ultra-marathon: I would be running at a much slower pace and would be on my feet for much longer. In addition to my normal tri training, we increased my run mileage, and I capped off at a 15-mile long run. We knew from my training load my engine would be able to run (ha!) for close to five hours, and we also knew I would be OK muscularly. Sure, there would be pain, but nothing debilitating. The challenge for me, however, would be mental: being out there for a long time and staying present, focused, and engaged.
Out there: this is loop three or loop four.
At this point, I will disclose this is neither how I would’ve trained for “my marathon” nor how I would recommend training for a marathon in general. I should also disclose there was a discrepancy in our training paces. (I did my solo long runs in the 8:40 min./mi. range, and when we ran together, we were in the 9:30 min./mi. ballpark; for the marathon, we were targeting 10:00 min./mi.) Finally, my buddy knew the training wasn’t there for a PR, so it was all about having fun and enjoying the experience.
That said, though, I didn’t know what my body would do after 15 miles. This outing would be one of the toughest things I had ever done. The buildup was far from perfect, but I put my body through some brutal workouts—power tests, race-simulation workouts, swim meets. (The 100 IM at Harvard was one of the most painful things I have ever done.) I knew there would be pain during the marathon, but I knew I could handle it. I mentally prepared for dark patches, and to work through those times, my coach told me to remember: “this is a gift you are giving someone else.” Maybe it was naïve, but I knew that sentiment would carry me through the darkest of times.
There were no dark times.
Heading to the start line: almost marathon time!
As the race begun, I entered a space of intense focus. My job was to get our team across the finish line. Mile after mile passed, and I found myself in a state of flow. No thinking; just doing. Calm confidence. The looped nature of the course brought both positives and negatives. On the plus side, our Achilles team did not face new terrain after six miles, and there is something to be said for comfort in repetition—just not in terms of this course specifically. There were tight turns, including some traffic circle-like patterns, and the road itself contained potholes and speed bumps. Several times per loop, we had to go off-road onto the grass to avoid running through puddles. These obstacles could’ve been disastrous, but luckily, my buddy and I communicate well: I would announce turns, terrain changes, etc. at least 20 seconds in advance; I would audibly count down as we approached speed bumps (“Speed bump coming in three … two … one”); and I would give clear instructions on our general plan (like veering right, making a sharp left, stepping onto grass). Basically, I was the primary guide/navigator/coach, so I was responsible for maintaining our formation, delegating jobs to our supporting guides, and making sure everyone was feeling OK throughout the race. Our team had two guides per loop, and having that extra person was incredibly helpful. In most cases, I had the second guide run slightly in front of us to create space and announce to fellow athletes that a blind runner was approaching. The second guide was also tasked with running ahead to aid stations and getting hydration/nutrition needs sorted.
See the race belt? We used it as our tether during the race.
As we grinded through the later miles (my buddy hit the wall at mile 18), I found myself repeating sayings my coaches have told me over the years, and I had no reaction when we reached uncharted distances for me. Everything after 15 miles was new, but there was no internal dialogue or narrative. Instead, it was all about making sure my athlete was doing OK: asking if he needed nutrition, inquiring about how the pace felt, listening to his breathing pattern. The only time the miles got “personal” was when we hit mile 25 because that was my number for basketball, a fun fact I relayed to our team.
We did it!
We crossed the finish line in 4:45:45, and the experience seems surreal.
What was the most memorable moment during your first marathon or most recent race?