After 16 weeks, more than 460 miles and a welcome change in season, on Sunday, April 26, it was finally time to make the trek to the Jersey Shore to begin my second 26.2 mile journey. Aside from the distance, I knew there would be very little the New Jersey Marathon would have in common with my first outing, last fall’s New York City Marathon. The logistics, field size and course were sure to provide a sharp contrast.
A chartered 5:00 AM bus made traveling to the start convenient, but the early departure time had a cascading effect on the morning’s preparations. I was used to setting pre-dawn alarms, particularly for races in the outer boroughs, but the preparations required for those half marathon paled in comparison to readying myself to run a full marathon. Successfully navigating these logistical hurdles gave me the most angst.
Crawling into bed while it was still light outside on a spring Saturday night so I could rise at 2:30 Sunday morning was definitely a first. Based on my dog’s look of disbelief when I nudged him out of bed to take him out at the unseemly hour, I wasn’t the only one who thought I might have gone mad. After showering, alternating sips of coffee and water, and eating a light breakfast, I was right on schedule and ready to head toward the Atlantic ocean.
As I slowly opened my eyes as the bus pulled into the Monmouth Park Race Track parking lot, in the distance I could see a jockey taking a horse on a training lap around the dirt track. Inside race day packet pick-up was set-up right in front of a row of betting windows. It seemed like a surreal environment compared to the New York packet pick-ups I had grown used to!
After picking up my number and shirt, I found an open place amongst a sea of runners to eat a final pre-race banana, pin my bib and secure my baggage for checking. Heading to the baggage drop-off I took note of the ample sunlight and the cool 46 degree temperature- it was perfect marathon weather. Of course, depending how quickly the bright sun would warm the course would determine whether it would remain ideal as the miles accumulated.
Entering my corral I recognized a familiar sound emanating from the public address system. The baritone belonged to the voice of many New York Road Runner races, and I found it strangely comforting. As I looked around, it was difficult to spot bibs with a matching blue stripe denoting fellow marathoners amid the sea of red-striped half marathoners. It had the makings for a very lonely second half.
Before long each wave began their trek toward the ocean. Wave by wave, a bugler would sound the “call to post,” an air horn would sound and a recording of Jersey’s favorite son Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” would mark the beginning of our oceanward journey.
I had been assigned to the E Corral, with the 4-hour pace group visible just about 10 or 20 yards ahead. Reasonable congestion at the start of a marathon can be a blessing in disguise, serving as a reminder to resist the urge to start too fast. Though I soon classified the congestion I was experiencing as clearly “unreasonable,” and decided to push forward in hopes of finding room to settle into a steady pace.
The mostly residential roads in the early miles reminded me a lot like the small towns I’d grown up around in Iowa. There may not have been a lot of spectators, but those that had congregated on their front lawns were certainly enthusiastic. I couldn’t resist chuckling at the group of twenty-somethings sitting on couches and recliners alongside the curb in front of their house. With all their furniture on their lawn, I surmised their living room was probably pretty empty right about now. Either they had planned a 7:30 AM neighborhood party to watch a marathon, or they’d taken Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck-themed comedy a little too literally.
It wasn’t long before I passed the 4 hour pace group, and my pacing seemed to be on track. 8:52 (1), 8:39 (2), 8:51 (3), 8:39 (4), 8:44 (5), 8:45 (6) – I was finding my groove. The 3:55 pace group had started in the wave ahead of me, so I was pleased once the leader’s signage became visible. I ran generally even with their group for a few miles, but by looking at my Garmin they seemed to be running these miles a tad ahead of their proscribed pace. Rather than tuck in with them, I just focused on running as steady as I could.
8:46 (7), 8:47 (8), 8:47 (9). By mile 9 (more or less), I encountered the largest of the crowds of the race lining the streets of the Long Branch business district. I couldn’t help but laugh at the man holding a sign with a color photo of NBC’s Brian Williams that read something to the effect of, “I remember when I ran my first marathon…” I mentally awarded him points for the day’s most creative and current sign-making effort.
8:48 (10), 8:44 (11). Just after mile 11 the course split and the half marathoners began their loop alongside the ocean and toward the finish. By this point, the 3:55 pace group was behind me and the road ahead seemed sparse. It was on to Asbury Park.
8:39 (12), 8:39 (13). I knew the New Jersey Marathon route journeyed through a number of small towns, but I couldn’t name them most of them. So beginning at the halfway point, I tracked my progress by drawing on my New York Marathon experience. At 13.1 miles I imagined entering Queens. 8:38 (14), 8:43 (15), 8:47 (16). At mile 16, I visualized coming off the Queensboro Bridge and entering Manhattan.
I may have shivered in my shorts and tank top while awaiting the start, but the rising mercury and bright sun had left me drenched in sweat. Since mile 3, I had made sure to hydrate at every aid station, and decided to take more Gatorade than water for the added nutrition. Throughout the course, nothing was more refreshing- literally and figuratively – then coming upon an aid station. The volunteer’s enthusiasm was contagious. Their hydration hand-offs were spot-on, and on a day when fluids were essential to staving off exhaustion they really added to the on-course experience.
I truly enjoyed the quiet jaunt along the shore. While some runners look to draw energy from huge crowds, I’ve always embraced the solitude of the long run. The serenity of these miles were so relaxing, and the miles just seemed to click by. As the highway met the town of Asbury Park, I noticed the Stone Pony, the famous site where Jersey native sons rock legends such as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi began their careers, over my right shoulder. With the Atlantic Ocean over the left, the unmistakable “beach town” vibe was invigorating.
With mile just 18 ahead, I knew the turnaround at mile 19 was not too far ahead. At this juncture the course took on a life of its own, up streets, over sidewalks, along an ocean boardwalk and through the Asbury Park Convention Hall Arcade. I was having so much fun!
8:38 (17), 8:37 (18), 8:46 (19), 8:48 (20). By mile 20 I was retracing my steps back to the finish in Long Branch. So far, I felt good. Well, as good as one can feel at mile 20 of a marathon.
In mile 21 I began to slow a bit- though not dramatically. I was also beginning to pass a noticeable number of runners. I couldn’t count the number of folks who had slowed to a walk or who had pulled over to the side in order to stretch. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I could feel the salt that had accumulated on my forehead and temples. Back on the lonely highway, I concentrated on putting on foot in front of the other.
9:01 (21), 8:59 (22), 9:04 (23). It may sound like a contradiction, but while my pace had decreased roughly 13 seconds per mile between mile 20 and 23, I felt ok. I realized that I really had no idea whether this was a “generally acceptable” differential, or if my acceptance was naiveté. Regardless, I felt ok.
By mile 24 I was playing leap frog with a few runners ahead of me. I was hot and thirsty, and ready to hit the final stretch of boardwalk.
8:55 (24), 8:52 (25). The noise of the crowd assembled along the final stretch was enough to shock the system. Especially given the long, quiet stretch to Asbury Park and back that had consumed me for last hours. 8:50 (26), 8:35 (.2).
Crossing the line at 3:52:50, I looked over my right shoulder at a white beach and blue Atlantic Ocean and was taken aback at the postcard-like view. Certainly a welcome sight after 26.2 miles!
Overall, I was satisfied with my race. My official splits (10K, Half, 30K, 40K and finish) were nearly even, I felt stronger during the final 10K of this event than I did on my first outing, and the finish time was solidly within the range (3:50:49 – 3:57:42) my training plan had predicted per my training and fitness. Across the board, this cycle has yielded some significant personal gains, and I’m already looking forward to building on this foundation once I begin my fall training cycle. But until the next 16-week regime begins in earnest this July, I’ll be channeling Jersey native Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes” as I continue putting one foot in front of the other.