Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

It’s hard to PR these days.

New Jersey Marathon Starting Line

They say that you reach your peak after seven years of running. While I can’t name with any due certainty who “they” are, there seems to be widespread agreement on this theory. Something potentially stalls after seven years of consistent training and a self-propelled drive to improve. It could be aging, burnout, or the ignition of a very specific gene that targets your VO2 max with surgical precision. Regardless, this theory exists and as someone who is still very much on board with running and improving my times, I refuse to succumb to it.

But despite the inspirational aphorisms to the contrary, running is very much a physical activity. After this much time, running through my late 20s and early 30s, what many scientists and laypeople alike would consider the tail end of someone’s athletic prime, my best times become harder and harder to best. So when I decided to re-focus my training in 2017 to once again try and qualify for Boston, I knew I had to do something new, something different, something that those familiar with my training habits would consider radical.

I joined a running group.

Thanks to Fleet Feet Chicago’s Boston365 running group, I honed my speed like I never had before. We would gather on Wednesday nights in the parking lot of Lincoln Park Zoo, rocketing through intervals in dense pelotons, and reconvene in the hilly suburb of Barrington on Saturday mornings for long runs. As the weeks went on, I expanded my comfort level with explosive speed, setting an aggressive PR at the 8k distance in late March. But I wasn’t quite enjoying the same surge in improvement with long runs.

Everyone in the group was training either for the Boston Marathon or another race held shortly after. I had chosen the New Jersey Marathon in Oceanport as my spring race, the event that was going to bear the brunt of all my training. It not only takes place in a state I have yet to run, but I quickly learned that it is considered one of the flattest races in the country.

Smiling through mile 6

The race began on the grounds of a raceway in Long Branch, a few miles west of the coastal town of Oceanport. Shaking off my last minute nerves, I put on my sunglasses to block the eastward breeze keeping us cool. It was game time. I had put in four months of solid, uninterrupted training for this race, each of which broke that month’s mileage record. I had run 50% more miles leading up to his race than in the same time period before my standing marathon PR. I had masterfully eaten a reliable stream of carbs in the three days prior and hadn’t even sipped a beer in ten days.

So it was with great confidence that I knew literally anything was possible.

Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. The distance is so long that it gives ample opportunity for anything to happen. If you start too fast in a 5k, you will probably only suffer for one mile, and even then the decay won’t be as pronounced. If you overdo it in a half marathon, you might not know it until mile 9. But over the course of 26.2, you could be riding high for 15 miles before you even get a hint that this glory chase is actually a fool’s errand.

Mile 20 at the Asbury Park Boardwalk

And that is mostly what happened to me. When you’re trying to qualify for Boston at my age, you have to run a marathon in about 3 hours, 8 minutes. That, therefore, requires that you pass the half marathon mark in about an hour and thirty-four minutes. Thanks to gray skies and a cooling sea breeze, I was able to confidently run the first half of this race about a minute slower. Many times during that first half, I evaluated my form, my breathing, my turnover, and cadence, feeling emboldened by how easy it felt to carry a 7:09 pace this far into a race.

Two miles later, I got the first indication that this wasn’t my day. As I ran through black asphalt ocean-side neighborhoods, I glanced at my watch and saw that my pace was ten seconds slower than my target pace. That would normally not be an issue were it not for the noticeable uptick in perceived effort. This early in the race, I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace. Had this slowdown happened after mile 23, I could dig deep into my grab-bag of clichés and save the day. But at mile 15 you’re not even past the psychological halfway mark.

Mile 24

I was therefore faced with that frustrating decision: do I keep going as fast as I can, whatever that pace may be, and dip my attitude into a vat of acid for the rest of the race, or force myself to slow down gradually, at my own pace, and still somehow enjoy the experience?

Salvaging the race and finishing with a semblance of a smile felt like the better option. I know what it’s like to snarl through the second half to finish with an unimpressive time. It shines a pool of light on the decision some elites make to simply drop out of a race around 30k rather than finish. If you’ve been training for months to murder your PR and you can tell this early that it’s not going to happen, what is the real reason to fight against the strain?

Mile 26.1, oceanside

The only real reason was simply because! Life is for the living! Leave it all on the field! Nut up or shut up! But you can’t make that decision until you’re actually running the race and can feel the blood pounding in your head and lungs, realizing that every mile will only get worse if you continue to resist the ever mounting weight in your legs. When you’ve run 36 marathons, you learn to take these days in stride, pun fully intended.

All of this is to say, I took it easy in the second half despite running smoothly through the race’s early miles. It seemed that my group runs had imbued me with great speed but not with the necessary endurance to keep it going. Moving forward I might try and break one of the foundational rules of long-distance training, and actually run some of my longer distances at race pace, rather than just the last few miles. My subpar performance in New Jersey (a 3:41 for those who care) hasn’t killed the quest to BQ, just delayed it until the fall.

Surprise race participants Chris (remember him?) and debut marathon slash birthday girl Melissa

As for the race itself, I really enjoyed it. It was easily one of the flattest courses I’ve ever run, especially the second half. What begins in tree-lined residential neighborhoods on wide roads eventually became a tour of New Jersey’s many seaside communities, from Long Branch to Asbury Park, Allenhurst, and Monmouth Beach.  Several miles were run on dew-soaked wooden planks, which felt elastic after seventeen miles of black asphalt. The smells of sea salt mixed with cotton candy as runners passed through each new community, the crowds lining the shore growing as the miles ticked up.

With state 47 behind me, I have just West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to visit to bring my 50 states journey to a provisional close. In between now and then, I’m letting myself be lured down a new path, one with its own language, maps, and cultures, not only to explore uncharted terrain but to reignite the flame of athletic discovery and re-draw at further distances the lines that we call our limits.

Ever onwards.

About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

5 Responses to Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

  1. Pingback: Race Schedule & Results | Dan's Marathon

  2. Patty says:

    I love this! I’m so glad you’re not putting any limits on yourself! I get frustrated when I hear things like “after ten years of running, you won’t continue to improve”. Only if you believe that. Sorry if I’m repeating myself, but I PR’d at age 47 in the 5K and the marathon. I have been running since I was 17, and running races since my twenties. My first marathon was at 35. I still have plans to break 4 hours in the marathon. I know if I train properly and get a little lucky on race day, it will happen.
    I love that you decided to enjoy the race, and that you’ve haven’t given up your BQ quest!
    It’s funny that NJ was your 47th, and that you have West Virginia, Alaska and Hawaii left. I just finished 46, Alaska will be 47 (6/17/17), NJ will be 48 (10/22/17), WV will be 49 (11/5/17) and #50, Hawaii, will be in Maui on 1/14/18, (if all goes as planned).
    Congrats on state #47!!

  3. Laszlo says:

    Congrats Dan! Though the finishing time was not what you were expecting, as you already highlighted, that great speed through the first half is definitely something to be proud of and should provide plenty of confidence that you are on the right track!
    Also despite I always take a look at the map at the end of your posts, but I just simply never realized that you are this close to 50 states!
    Congrats on these accomplishments and keep on pushing forward! 🙂

  4. Well done on one more marathon finish and entering the home stretch of your 50 states quest. It’s interesting that you picked a very flat course as your BQ race. I would’ve chosen one with at least a few rolling hills and preferably a familiar course (though this objective.

    I don’t buy into the “7 year peak” theory – though, of course, we are talking about statistical averages/probabilities and not absolutes (at least that’s what I tell myself ;)). I blew up quite spectacularly at Boston this year, clocking my second slowest marathon *ever*. Sometimes it is just not your day, as you pointed out. So many factors have to mesh together perfectly on race day for a marathon PR.

    You have a more than a solid base of spring marathon training. Sign up for the Fox Valley BQ.2. It’s won’t be spectacular as far as marathons go, but it doesn’t have to be if you get to meet your BQ objective.

  5. Mike says:

    Definitely the sage voice of experience talking here! At the risk of sounding broken record-y… like no other sport and no other distance in this sport, the marathon is unforgiving. For most runners it’s the longest distance they’ll every try to run “fast”, and as such it’s perfectly positioned to pull the thread and unwind every physiological and psychological weakness a runner has. In an age of social media fake-iness, you can’t fake a marathon (and we even have the Marathon Investigation blog now to shame those who try).

    I was initially disappointed for you when I saw your finish time on race day, but now with the details filled in, I’m glad you made the smart play and were able to slow down and enjoy the day. When everything’s not clicking (and sometimes even when it is), those last few miles can be a miserable slog that end up defining/ruining the entire day. So your four concluding words – “I really enjoyed it” – were uplifting to read, because isn’t that why we do this? Nobody’s chasing after us wielding a machete. And again that’s the voice of experience at play, since many novice marathoners would let this race eat at their psyche for too long. Or they’d go out and try to do it again too soon before a full recovery. And by “novice” I mean “me in the past”.

    I didn’t think this race was that small, but to see you cruising along seemingly by yourself at mile 6 and in the finish chute suggests otherwise.

    Krishna makes a good point about the 7-year peak theory – from what I can tell, it’s based more on correlation and statistical probabilities than on any hard physiological data. And I remain confident your first BQ isn’t a matter of “if” but “when”.

    After watching you own the downhills at Ice Age, I’ve gotta ask: have you considered a downhill marathon? St George in October, maybe? REVEL Mt Charleston, where everyone seems to PR in a way that makes their previous PR cry uncle? I’m considering one or both myself, not because I think I’ll PR at either one, but simply because I want to improve my downhill ability.

    When you say you’re letting yourself be “lured down a new path”, I read in those words “future triathlete”. And true or not, as someone who I know seeks out and embraces the next athletic challenge and who is always looking for a goal that’s just a bit more audacious than the one before it, I leave you with one word to mull over as you look ahead to the fall and beyond.

    Comrades. 🙂

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