Gene Kelly may have romanticized singing in the rain as glorious, but as I recently found out, marathoning in the rain just isn’t quite the same. And based on the photographic evidence from this year’s New Jersey Marathon, the cool, wet weather didn’t fill me with a happy refrain or put a smile on my face either.
After finishing the New Jersey Marathon last year, I left the Garden State quite impressed. The flat course, which weaves through a handful of small towns on the Jersey Shore and finishes on the Boardwalk, has the friendly, low-key vibe one might expect from a oceanside weekend destination. With race organizers providing convenient day of travel, its logistically readymade for New Yorkers wanting a marathon getaway- just board a 5 AM charter bus to the start, run the race, and take one of the hourly New Jersey transit trains back to Manhattan.
Falling approximately ten weeks after my LA Marathon racecation, I thought extending my marathon readiness would be rather simple. I’d begin with a reverse taper, run a couple 20-milers, and then enjoy a traditional taper. In a perfect world, I thought I might be able to break my standing marathon PR that I’d set on this course in 2015. Alas, the words “perfect world” should rarely, if ever, be used in the same sentence as “marathon.”
Work, life, as well as succumbing to the dreaded office cold and cough the weekend of my planned peak long run, all contributed to a less than optimal training period. In the intervening weeks between LA and New Jersey, I only logged 170 miles and completed just a single 20-miler. As race day neared, I knew I’d be testing all reasonable bounds of preparedness.
As the first Sunday in May neared, the weather forecast was rather unwavering in its call for rain. The only question seemed to be when the predicted showers would arrive and how long they’d last. At least this year I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming sun burned!
A little after 6:00 a.m,, the chartered buses pulled into the Monmouth Park parking lot. Inside the racetrack, the only wagers being placed seemed to be on when the rain would begin. Ahead of the 7:30 a.m. start I had plenty of time to collect my bib and mentally prepare for the morning ahead. Outside on the track, a few trainers were on the track exercising their horses. The working animals were simply majestic. I was transfixed, and only wished my stride could be half as efficient and effortless as the thoroughbreds before me. While I could’ve watched the training session for hours, this day’s call to post would be for runners, and that time was nearing.
As if right on cue, midway through the short walk outside to the baggage trucks the rain began to fall. The drops continued as waited in the corrals, and, with varying intensities, persisted for the next 26.2 miles.
For much of the first 12 miles the course remains mostly inland, weaving through mostly residential streets, as well as a commercial stretch of, what I presume to be, downtown Long Branch. While the crowds were more sparse this year, the rain had certainly not dampened their spirits. Racing in the rain certainly had to be more fun than just standing in the rain!
Between miles 11 and 12, the course splits, where marathoners head south and those running the half head toward their boardwalk finish. For a fleeting moment, I looked wistfully at those who were nearing their final mile. I felt like a wet dog.
The number of runners had dwindled since turning southward. Under last year’s blue skies I had found this portion of the course rather peaceful. I’d enjoyed hearing the sound of my own feet hitting the pavement. This year’s slosh of feet against wet pavement and the accompanying puddles just weren’t as rhythmically appealing.
As I neared the 18 mile mark, I felt remarkably strong, all things considered. Because the first half of the course weaves through so many residential streets, properly running the tangents is an impossibility- at least for me. But while I knew my Garmin splits wouldn’t match the official course mileage, I was surprisingly on track to PR if I could maintain my pace. But in marathoning, “ifs” are about as valuable as a nugget of fools gold.
Shortly after mile 19 the course heads back northward, including some jaunts along the Atlantic Ocean boardwalk. Here, the rain was complemented with a steady breeze coming off the water, providing a natural chilling effect.
While my clothes, socks and shoes had been soaked for miles, when it was time for my next energy gel I realized the wind and rain were also taking their toll on the dexterity of my fingers- I couldn’t get the darn GU packet open. My fingers looked like they had soaked in a bath for too long, and had become utterly useless. I tried ripping the gel packet with my teeth. For a minute I thought I might have inflicted some dental trauma, but eventually I was able to get the packet opened just enough to squeeze out some gooey energy. In relief, I looked up and out at the grey skies only to notice that the salt water was mixing with the rain to form heavy white droplets along the bill of my hat. There they hung until the weight of the salt finally gave way to the breezy gusts, causing them to blow away one by one. I resorted to counting the falling drops as a way to distract myself from the cold and wet unpleasantness.
Through 22 miles my Garmin showed that I had managed a pretty steady pace, hovering between the 8:40 – 8:50 mark. By mile 23, however, I was beginning slow, with the pace inching up to around 9:00. At the 22 mile point it seemed that despite the conditions and having undertrained, I could very well PR. That soon changed, however.
The mental fortitude I’d maintained thus far seemed to drift away around mile 23. I was overcome with annoyance and misery. I lost the urge to fight for a time goal. My pace dropped to 9:25, then 9:29. The time it took to muster through the last full mile was the same as the final .2, 9:15. I didn’t bother to kick. I was cold, wet and ready for a towel, dry clothes and a bed.
I finished the 2016 New Jersey Marathon in 3:54:01, just a minute and eleven seconds off my standing PR of 3:52:50. And I’m ok with that. Candidly, I didn’t think my physical training was sufficient to come that close, so in many respects I surpassed my own expectations. Most important, with each marathon I learn a little more about the distance, and even more about myself. It’s been said that training should be as much mental as it is physical. That was laid bare during the final miles in New Jersey. It’s a lesson that though I admittedly haven’t paid enough attention to, will definitely become an more central focus throughout my next training cycle.