If you’ve read Running: A Love Story, you know how much the 2013 New Jersey Marathon meant to me. You can refresh yourself here – though if you still plan on reading the book, you may want to hold off on reading this until then.
It’s not exactly a spoiler – since hello I wrote about that race for the New York Times – but the running of that race does create some narrative tension that would be lost if you know how it ends.
I came back to the race for three main reasons. In 2014, I ran the Charlottesville Marathon and New York City Marathon. Both races were disappointments, so I wanted to run in a place where I’d previously had success. I also knew I’d be talking about the New Jersey Marathon while promoting my book, so why not run it again?
Plus, the timing worked for me. I hate training in the heat, and training for a May 1 race meant that I started training on New Year’s Eve.
I set an ambitious goal: to break four hours. I used the Hansons Marathon Method again to try to do it. I knew that the heaviest training would overlap with the heaviest book promotion, so I knew that my goal could possibly change if it all got to be too much.
And it did. I had been training on point, meeting every workout and goal, and then… Three weeks before the race, I hurt my foot by running in shoes tied too tight. Then, a week later, I got horribly sick while in Boston promoting my book. And then I gave myself a concussion in my sleep (I had a nightmare and smashed my head against the headboard during it). I did half of my required mileage in weeks 16 and 17 of my 18 week training program. I did my last week of training in a sputter instead of a charge toward the starting line.
The night before the race, when my mom (doing the half), sister (doing the full) and my dad (support crew) went out to dinner, the diner manager stepped on my still sore foot.
Great, I thought. This race might not even happen.
I told myself that if my foot hurt too much, I could bail at the half. The full and half share the same course for 11.5 miles, and I could just go left instead of right. My dad and brother and sister in law would be waiting for us around mile 9.5. I told myself I had until that moment to decide.
At least the weather was on my side. The forecast called for rain, but I told myself that was okay because I could deal with ran (versus 90 degrees or a humid day).
One mistake we made was to leave an hour before the race. When I ran in 2013, the half started before the full. This year, everyone started together, so everyone was trying to get to the starting line together. We only had about 20 minutes to check our gear bags and use the portapotties. I dropped off my bag after a wait in a long line, and then, instead of waiting in another long line, went to a bush and peed. This meant I couldn’t do #2, which would affect me further into the race.
I got into my corral and waited. Per usual, a rush of emotions hit me, and I started to get teary. That’s when I heard “Are you Jen Miller?” One of my Instagram followers (hi Stacy!) recognized me, which snapped me out of my downward mental spiral. A national anthem and the first corral was off.
My first goal was to make sure I could do the whole race. Other than that, I planned to run a conservative 20 miles, and then, if I still had anything left, speed it up. I did this in 2013. This is how a lot of pro races are won. If my foot held up, I figured it might be able to work for me.
My foot was achy for the first half mile, but then the pain went away. I did my first mile in 9:30 – too fast. For the next nine miles, I tried to hold myself back, asking myself What will Jen at mile 22 think of your pace now? That worked, and I stayed in the 10 to 10:30 range.
My sister passed me somewhere before mile 9 and checked in to see how I was doing, and how my foot was holding up. “I’m doing the full! ” I said. Committed. I saw my dad and brother and sister-in law around 9.5, and told them the same.
Around mile 6, I stopped to use the bathroom – no lines, thank goodness. I was relieved when the half marathoners split off at about mile 11.5. Not only did the course clear up, but I didn’t have to hear about people being almost done (and, at the exact point they split off “I’m not crazy enough to do that!” Thanks lady).
Soon after the half marathon split off, I went to pass a woman with a hood up and earphones in who nearly hit me when she spit. My response was to glare at her. Her response to that was to say “well that was unnecessary!” then when I passed her, speed up to pass me.
I could have chased her, but that would have meant breaking out sooner than I wanted to. So I let her go, telling myself that I’d pass her in the last six miles.
Soon after, I used the bathroom again. I’m not sure what happened – and I think having been able to use a portapotty before the race would have meant getting rid of everything beforehand – but I tried to keep it in stride. These stops were short, and I was able to jump back out into the race and get back into my groove pretty quickly.
My foot and hip started to ache at mile 14, but I tamped them down. I wasn’t sure if my body would hold up to have a strong finish, but I thought it might, so I pressed forward.
The worst part of the marathon is between miles 12 and 16.5 in West Long Branch and Deal. It’s a relatively quiet straight line. It’s also, mentally, a tough span of the race. The first half is done, but there are still so many miles away, and it’s hard to stay motivated. I learned this when I did my time trial for the Fifth Avenue Mile. The first and second quarter mile went fine, but I slowed down in the third quarter mile before pushing ahead for the last quarter mile. I didn’t want this to happen in my race, so I focused on getting to mile 18, where my boyfriend was waiting. I didn’t think about having to get to mile 26.2 but just get to him. The wind started to pick up here too. I thanked nine years of running the Ocean Drive 10 miler. Whatever blew on us on Sunday was nothing compared to some of those straight-into-headwind races.
A DJ was waiting and bumping out tunes for us as we passed from Allenhurst into Asbury Park, which was a nice wake up call.
At about mile 17.5 I passed the spitter. She was walking in the middle of the course and on the phone – two more big no nos. I didn’t say anything or wave. Blowing by her was enough of a message.
Then at mile 18, my boyfriend was waiting, clanging a cowbell that a volunteer had given him. Bless those who spectated this race. I felt warm while running (and made sure to take my Shot Bloks every four miles and to drink water at every aid station), but I knew standing in the cold and rain must have felt miserable. He snapped a few pictures, kissed me, and then went mile 20 to wait for me.
Runners turn around to head back south at mile 19. My sister passed me going south as I was going north and I told her that she better keep up that pace and beat me. The turn around itself was a relief because it was all straight to the finish from there. I passed the spitter still heading north sometime before 20. I held her gazed as she went by. It’s amazing how much of a message you can convey without saying a word.
My boyfriend was right there at mile 20, right after the cross back into Asbury Park from Ocean Grove. In 2013, we didn’t run on boardwalks because they weren’t ready for us post-Sandy, so I was glad to see them back (even if – if I’m reading this right – they weren’t on the official race map). The course was marked by cones here, and he ran next to me outside of the cones until the course dropped back down onto Ocean Avenue. He checked into see how I was feeling.
“I think I can finish in an hour,” I said, which is about what I said to my mom when she saw me at mile 20 in 2013. I was aching and tired, but I was still smiling, and by that point, the finish didn’t seem that far ahead. I kissed him goodbye, dropped down on Ocean Avenue, around Convention Hall and back onto the boardwalk again. I had to go to the bathroom again, but made sure to take care on this side of the boardwalk, which is a bit rougher than the section north. I hit the first portapotty stop in Deal – at around mile 21 – did my business, got back onto the road, and had a decision to make.
My legs were tired and sore, but even after sitting back down and getting up again, they still felt fine. At 22, I felt fine. I looked back at my watch. If I could run slightly under the pace I’d been holding for the first 22 miles, I would have a chance to PR. So I ran mile 22 in 10:00.
You have a shot, I told myself. But you need to hustle.
So I did. I passed people by the dozen now. I remember how it felt to be that close to the end and in so much pain. I still expected for a calf to seize or my foot to turn from an ache into sharp pain, but it didn’t. I made it through Deal and into West Long Branch. Two miles to go. I started singing the words to matt pond PA’s “Snow Day” in my head, mixed with “Just keep swimming.” Mile 25, and I was up on the Long Branch boardwalk.
I wore my regular sportswatch so I don’t have my mile splits, and my memory’s a bit fuzzy, but I think I did 9:30s in miles 23, 24 and 25. I knew that I just had to run a 10 minute mile to PR – but that calculation also didn’t include the last .2 miles of the race. So I put my head down and told myself this was almost be over, I’d regret it if I didn’t give it all I had left, that I had absolutely been in this position before, and that I would be able to get through it just fine. The repeating pattern of the Long Branch boardwalk helped me move ahead, almost hypnotizing. I was also glad that I had recovered from my concussion before the race because that repeating pattern could have been a problem then.
I have no idea where my last mile came from. Part of it was relief of finally being so close to the end. The other was that I knew I had to give it everything I had to absolutely make sure I would PR. I entered the final chute and saw my boyfriend on the side and screamed for him. My dad spotted me and lost his mind. And after I passed one last person (sorry dude), I was over the finish line on a gasp and a sob. I staggered through the finisher chute poorly enough that a volunteer asked me if I needed a medic, but I didn’t. I just needed a moment to take in what I’d just done.
The 2013 New Jersey Marathon was about so much more than just the race. When I finished then, I was slammed with the emotional impact of what I’d done. I felt it on Sunday too, but it wasn’t the same. Not that that’d a bad thing. It’s hard to describe. But boy was I surprised, stunned, shocked and happy that I’d managed to do it.
I ran a 4:18:30, a 37 second improvement. I ran the second half of the course four minutes faster than the first half.
It may not be much of a PR. But hey: I’ll take it.
Some lessons learned:
1. Mind over matter. While training for this race, I’ve been working on some running guides for The New York Times. This has lead to me to interview Matt Fitzgerald. I used some of the techniques in How Bad Do You Want It? to get through the race. I was coming into it in less than ideal shape, with less than ideal training, and I still PRed. I’m not thinking of what I could have done if I hadn’t gotten sick in Boston, hadn’t hurt my foot, hadn’t gotten a concussion, hadn’t had to stop to go to the bathroom three times, but what I managed to do GIVEN those conditions. I don’t think a PR would have happened if I hadn’t worked on training my brain at the same time I was training my body.
2. Review race logistics, every time. We should have left for the race earlier. I shouldn’t have relied on my past experience, especially when the logistics had changed. I should have asked about the course too. I don’t know what difference it would have made, but it would have left me, my mom and my sister, more prepared.
3. Put on dry layers, immediately. I was so warm at the end of the race that I didn’t put on any layers right after. I also didn’t use the changing tent to get out of my wet clothes. I realized that was a mistake when, a half hour later, I was shivering uncontrollably. After I got in the shower, I felt better, but I could have done without that scary moment.
4. Watch races. We’re lucky to live in a time when marathons are now aired live on TV (or my iPad). When I wanted to go faster mid-way through the race, I kept thinking about Desi Linden in the Olympic Marathon Trials, and how she passed Shalane Flanagan; and how Atsede Baysa came from behind – almost out of nowhere, it seemed then – to win. I knew that holding back in the start of the race would help me finish strong. Watching those races helped reinforce it.
5. Hansons works. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s exhausting. But damn if my legs and body didn’t hold strong and run stronger through the end of the race.
So now I’m home. I’m not as sore as I have been after marathons, but I’m having some coughing/soreness when taking deep breaths. If that continues, I’ll go to the doctor. But overall? Pretty good day. I’m not quite ready to sign up for my next road marathon (though I am peeking at trail races), but it’s a definite maybe.
Want pictures? I’ve got plenty of them. Head over to my Instagram account (bonus of seeing how pictures I took of Philly Jesus getting arrested in the Philadelphia Apple store went viral. Yes really).