I removed my hat for the national anthem, watched a passenger jet fly over downtown Manchester, and felt that final spike of adrenaline as the announcer counted down. As with so many races, though, despite being completely primed for it, the actual start caught me slightly off guard.
2 - 8:33
3 - 8:16
4 - 8:28
5 - 8:22
As with every marathon, there's a settling-in process when pacing. I tried to find a rhythm, make a few wisecracks, and generally get into the right zone for the task ahead. Less than half a mile into the race, I saw that my watch displayed an average pace of 8:23 (aka, the correct overall pace for a 3:40 marathon) and I loudly declared that I had done my job and would be dropping out shortly, since the group now knew what 8:23/mile pace felt like. That brought some mild guffaws. Since no one believed me, we forged on.
At about Mile 2, I saw TJ Stevens, the Manchester Police officer who accompanied me during my 40 at 40 mile run in December 2008. I sped up to greet him, but let him take off when it was clear that he was running too fast for the pace group.
The wind was moderate, but carrying a large, light sign was pretty challenging. Pete took the sign from me after the first mile, and I debated about whether and when to ditch my long-sleeve shirt. Somewhere in Mile 3, the shirt came off, leaving me resplendent in my god-awful goldenrod pacer's singlet and Moeben bamboo fiber arm sleeves.
I was trying to keep things light, but few runners were close enough to engage in any meaningful dialogue. One woman and I started chatting, as she asked me about prior pacing experience, while not-so-subtly questioning whether I was taking the group out to fast. As the conversation unfolded, I learned that she had run the Vermont-100 this year, and we both wanted to hear about the other's experience. That lasted a little while, and she dropped back.
As the splits above indicate, the first few miles have some ups and downs. I was trying to stay steady on effort, and was pleased that despite all my recent physical woes, I felt relatively smooth and relaxed.
This part of the race was fun (except for an unceremonious pit stop just after the 10K timing mat). My stomach did it's unfortunate "thing" and I had to use a port-a-potty. After being scolded by a race volunteer for veering off the course (it's not my fault that's where they put the damned bathroom), I waited in a short line, did what I had to do, and ran nearly 2 miles at under 7:00 pace to catch up to Joe and Pete.
I saw many familiar faces, both running and spectating, and it was great to be part of the local running community. Several runners questioned why the 3:40 pacer was tearing through the field, so I kept having to yell, "Catching up", or "Made a pit stop" so that no one would be confused about what the heck was happening. I also passed a pair of gents running in Boston race shirts and kilts. I said hello in a poor Scottish accent and saw Joe and Pete in the distance.
Seeing Joe's ugly singlet and Pete's neon orange Saucony arm sleeves was a sight for sore eyes, as the brisk pace was a bit of a shock to my system. It also seemed that the two of them had pushed the pace a bit in my absence, and were well ahead of the target split when we hit the 8-mile mark. We settled back into a nice rhythm and were on our way. Joe seemed to have identified a couple of attractive young women who were seeking their Boston qualifying standard, and he seemed intent to go "the extra mile" to see that they would get it. I sought to stay close to the customized splits as calculated by the brilliant Greg Maclin, available at his Web site, www.mymarathonpace.com.
More rolling terrain, punctuated by the course's longest downhill from 12-13 that's a wonderful treat for the half-marathoners. A couple of half-marathoners asked how far to the finish; I told them, and they took off. I steeled myself for the difficulty of turning right for an additional 13.2 miles just as the half-marathoners turned left for their last 0.1 mile. The Manchester course loses much of its charm in the second half. Few runners remain; traffic abounds; the crowds thin to almost nothing. It's an enhanced mental test.
Early in the second half, I was chatting with an older guy from Wichita, Kansas, seeking an it's-a-small-world moment by asking if he knows my friend Meredith. He doesn't, but wouldn't that have been something? Another older guy names Francis asks whether I'm going to get him to Boston. I told him it's really up to him, but I'd be glad to keep company en route to his sub-3:40.
At this point, the kilted runners are holding steady, a nice young guy from Cleveland was with me stride-for-stride and a few more folks seem to be holding together loosely as an ad hoc 3:40 entourage. The second half was off to a decent start.
These miles are always challenging in a marathon, and Sunday was no exception. The temps never rose much, the wind picked up and swirled around, and my hands got - and stayed - cold. At about Mile 16, I spilled some water down my front, and the wet singlet made me shiver.
Mile 17 takes runner onto Louis Street. Last year I thought of my then ailing father, Louis Abramson, during that stretch. This year, I dedicated that part to his memory. A lot can happen in a year, or maybe just one thing that changes a lot of others.
After running along a sidewalk parallel to a big road, we turned and embarked upon the toughest climb of the course, a long, steady grind up towards to St. Anselm's College (where Pete, incidentally, teaches). Much like last year, this stretch claimed its fair share of marathoners.
At around Mile 19, I came up again on TJ and his flag. We chatted for a minute, noting that the 40-mile run seemed to have been about a hundred years ago, not less than two. He was slowing down, and I needed to hold pace, so I said goodbye. Shortly after that, my friend Dan (the awesome guy who ran 10 post-marathon miles with me as I did 38 miles last year) came by on his bike. He's always so positive, that it gave me a nice boost to see him, even if only briefly.
Matt from Cleveland started hurting somewhere in the 21st mile, complaining of his knee "locking up". It was tough to let him fall back, but a pacer does not have the luxury of tending to the marathon wounded. Whatever group we had had thinned by this point, with the Kilt Brothers holding steady, and occasional runners trying to stay with us as we approached and passed them. At this point, my quads were speaking up, not in an acute way, but enough so that the steep downhills coming out of St. Anselm's were rather unpleasant. Pete was hurting, too, having realized that his Brooks racing flats were too little shoes for Manchester's hilly course.
The last few miles in Manchester are not especially hilly, but they bring multiple turns through sparsely spectated neighborhoods. I asked one guy who magically appeared by my side at around Mile 22 how he was doing. He replied breathlessly, "I've been trying to catch you for miles," and held steady for the rest of race. He had quite a fan club in the final miles, and it was energizing to see that development so late in the race. That said, it was still a slog to get from Mile 22 or so to Mile 24+, where the course takes runners over a pedestrian bridge spanning the Merrimack River and into range of the finish. The 24-mile marker was off by a good 0.10 mile, which is torture at that late stage. I was monitoring my average pace to make sure that I did not drift off the pace at a critical time. Coming off the bridge, runners have to negotiate the worst marathon course feature I've yet to encounter, a corkscrew-shaped/hairpin turn which needs to be re-routed yesterday. Joe, not one to complain about much, yelled, "This is bullshit!" as he made the awful change of direction, to the left, then the right, then the left again. I cannot imagine how the fast runners managed it at 6:00+/- pace.
Having circled behind the baseball stadium (where , we took the last uphill, able to see and hear the finish line, but knowing that we had one more loop of about a mile left in order to be done. we passed more struggling runners, as the finish neared. One major goal of this marathon for me was to get as close as possible to the 3:40 goal without going over. Joe, Pete and the kilts were a little ways ahead. I looked at my watch, mindful of keeping it close. I slowed, then accelerated, and when I turned left onto Elm Street, with about 0.1 to go, I started jogging. I eyeballed the finish, looked at my watch, and picked up the pace again. A guy on my left seemed shocked, and started sprinting to pass me. I surged and then slowed down, trying to time it just right. The guy went ahead, and I crossed the line while stopping my watch, which read 3:39:59. The long-frozen grimace on my face turned into a satisfied smile, though I was cold, tired and hungry. My official time was one second faster, darn it all.
I also learned that Nate had smashed his BQ time, with a 3:15:xx time, good for 31st place overall. Kudos to him.
After the race, Joe, Pete and I went in search of food. There was hot soup, and Joe the Vegetarian enjoyed some tomato bisque, while I downed some lukewarm chicken noodle. We lingered around for a bit, covered in Mylar blankets. Thanks to my rubbery legs, I nearly tripped on a root in Veterans Park, and a race volunteer and I had a good-natured laugh about that. Joe and I received a warm thanks from a woman who'd fallen off and finished in about 3:45. We said good-by to Pete and headed back to the Y for a hot shower, as Joe had to hit the road to get back to Maine for his daughter's high school play.
I was extremely chilled, to the point that I toweled off in the sauna in order to get warm. That helped. We had some mini-drama when Joe misplaced his car key, but after 15 minutes of intense searching, we found it. He was on his way, and I headed home to have some down time, as my wife and the kids were all off in different directions. I took a nice long Endurasoak bath, ate some salty food, and drank an Arrogant Bastard Ale.
As usual, pacing was a rewarding experience, and it is with mixed feelings that I continue to realize that I may be better-suited to this task than to running quality races for myself. After the concerns and weirdness of the weeks in between Chicago and Manchester, I was glad to get this race done, and finish on target. I'm looking forward to some running/racing down time, and am applying to join the Manchester City Marathon organizing committee/board to do what I can to help make the race even better.