Entering 2011, I am feeling nostalgic to certain degree as I look back a year ago to my memorable first marathon experience at the P.F. Chang’s Rock’n’Roll Arizona Marathon. I remember how well everything came together in my training over the holidays and culminated with my running as hard as I could through the Phoenix street grid in the presence of my family and friends. Truly an experience unlike any other, my first marathon was a profound rite of passage and I felt extremely fortunate to be able to share my successful debut with those who faithfully supported me.
Without a marathon in my January racing plans, I used this past Christmas holiday to visit my family in Rochester with Ali. Upon returning, I again welcomed in the New Year in Flagstaff tradition at the Pine Cone Drop. I was in good company as we anxiously watched the illuminated pine cone descend from atop the Weatherford Hotel in gelid sub-zero temperatures. Teeth chattering and with my breath a visible plume of smoke in the midnight air, I felt poised for the New Year, and ready for the challenges that 2011 will promise.
While I try to avoid making any capricious New Year’s Resolutions, I have formulated a personal resolve for 2011: to make sure every endeavor I undertake has a purpose. Recalling this wisdom that was imparted on me several years ago by my UVA Assistant Cross-Country Coach, Brad Hunt, this advice resonates to challenge me in the next year to be aware of my decisions and actions, both personally and athletically. As I will have many great experiences and opportunities in the coming year, I feel I should strive to remain mindful in everything I do.
The Naples Daily News Half-Marathon
After a 3 month sabbatical from racing, I was anxious to get back into competing in 2011. I weighed my January opening race options very carefully, enjoying both the responsibility and liberty of being self-managed. As much as I would have liked to return to P.F. Chang’s for the Half-Marathon, I felt I would benefit more from a change in racing venue this year. During my research, an exciting race opportunity presented itself in the Naples Daily News Half-Marathon.
Recognized by Runner’s World as one of the 25 Best Half-Marathons, the NDN Half first began in 1989 and now is in its 23rd year running in this scenic Gulf Coast city. The event is organized by Naples’ tight-knit running community, the Gulf Coast Runners, and proceeds benefit their Youth Development Fund Program. While the notion of racing on Florida’s “Paradise Coast” (and subsequently escaping the chill of high country living) was appealing, I felt that running in the Floridian subtropics would also help me prepare for the conditions I will likely face when running in Daegu in September.
My travel day to Naples was quite long. I woke up Friday at 3AM for an easy training run before driving down to Phoenix for my morning flight. Luckily, I had a full thermos of coffee and the new David Sedaris audiobook playing to keep me awake for the drive. When traveling to the east coast, I find waking up and running at an unpleasantly early hour will better prepare me for the time change ahead. I can then spend the rest of the day getting to my destination– hoping there aren’t any air travel delays– and not worrying about running once I get to the race city. Friday’s travel proved to be uneventful, and I was able to get some rest on my flights and brought some fruit and a Raw Revolution Food Bar to snack on. I arrived in Naples at sunset and was taken aback by its serene quality. After a light meal and a glass of wine with my benevolent hosts, Jim and Faye, I was more than ready to call it a night.
I had a very relaxing day before the race. I went for an easy morning run on a popular running and biking loop between the Gulf of Mexico and four miniature bays. My legs felt good after Friday’s travel, and the sunny 50-degree morning was much more inviting running weather than the January mornings had been in Flagstaff. I spent much of the morning and afternoon resting and taking in the panorama of the Gulf from my hosts’ twelfth story condo balcony. After lunch, Jim gave me a tour of the race course, and while I was impressed with the pancake-flat profile, I was even more impressed by the stretch of multi-million dollar homes that lined Gordon Drive. I always find it beneficial to preview a race course to help me prepare for and visualize my run; it also gives me an opportunity to appreciate some of the things I might not notice while in race mode. That evening I made an early dinner at the condo, loading up on quinoa pasta with a Boca meatless sauce and sautéed spinach. After a glass of Cab, I was again ready to wind down and get some rest.
It was comforting to go through my pre-race routine. I felt calm as I stretched with my rope while listening to my ipod, and my legs felt very responsive during my 3 mile warm-up run. To prepare for the morning sun, I rubbed on some Jack Black (not the actor) Sun Guard and had my Smith Sunglasses resting on my head. As we lined up for the start, I ran into Ethiopian power couple Ezkyas Sisay and Belainesh Gebre. It was a great surprise to see my hometown friends here, although I knew Ezkyas would be among the contenders if he had any competitive ambitions for himself this morning. I secured my spot at the front of the starting line next to a few other familiar competitors as the national anthem played. I paused for a short moment, reminded of my resolve to be here and run with a purpose. Then we were sent off.
My marathoner’s patience took over in the first few miles; I hung back and watched the front of the race sort itself out with athletes surging and maneuvering haphazardly around each other. Recognizing I had 13 miles to solve my problems and establish my position, I trusted my intuition and ran alongside Luke Humphrey and Andrew Leatherby, two strong marathon and road running veterans. Before 4 miles, we turned into a circular driveway that rounded and redirected us to head back on Gordon Drive. I was slightly unnerved by the fact that the lead group was turning Northbound onto Gordon as I entered the driveway. This select pack featured some very capable athletes, including 1:01 half-marathoner Macdonald Ondara, Ezkyas, Worku Beyi, defending champion Simon Sawe and the 2009 champion Nicholas Kurgat (unbeknownst to me at the time, but representing MarathonGuide.com). After turning around, I began to assert myself in an effort to reel in the leaders.
I worked with Luke and Andrew to pull in a few select athletes that were running between us and the front of the race. We rolled up on Christian Hesch and were approaching Zach Hine of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. I think between 5 miles and 10K, I had pulled clear of my group and was committed to running 4:50 miles and moving up. I estimated I was in about 7th position, and knew I had two U.S. athletes (Simon and Zach) ahead of me. As I continued to gain on the leaders, Zach had successfully worked his way across the gap to join the Ezkyas and company. I could tell when we turned around at a cul-de-sac after 7 miles that I would really have to work to catch this group, as they seemed to be working together. Once I got onto Galleon Drive, as the road narrowed under the shady canopy of Banyan trees, I caught up to a laboring Simon Sawe and urged him to work with me. When I made the 180 degree turn-around before mile 9, I saw he had drifted back. On to the next one…
Before the 10 mile mark, where a local priest offered his blessings with reinvigorating splashes of Holy Water, I saw Desiree Davila of Hansons closely stalking Belainesh. It was great to see her mixing it up against one of the world’s best (and her growing success in the marathon is particularly inspiring for other developing U.S. distance runners). I passed 10 miles around 48:30, without taking any water cups that were offered. I knew I couldn’t afford any lapses in concentration if I wanted to catch the runners ahead. Shortly after, I passed by Derese Deniboba, an Ethiopian representing the Westchester Track Club, and I was focused on the 4 remaining targets ahead.
I continued to make ground on the East African contingent and Hansons’ gutsy mesomorph (now a few strides trailing the trio) as we returned to Gordon Drive and ran into the light coastal breeze. I had to make several conscious efforts to keep pushing and get out of my comfort zone, with the incentive of their figures growing closer. I kept digging in the final mile, as we returned into downtown Naples and finished on 8th Street. I was unable to bridge the distance to these four, but pushed all the way home to the finish line in 1:04:19.5. I waved graciously to the supportive Naples crowd as I finished, happy with my first race performance of 2011.
After switching out of my racing gear, I laced up my Brooks Launch and headed out for a 60 minute run on Gulf Shore Boulevard. A true marathoner at heart, I had to get my 25 miles in for the day!
I really want to thank the Gulf Coast Runners, all the enthusiastic volunteers, Perry, George and my hosts Jim and Faye for their hard work and race weekend hospitality. The Naples Daily News Half is such a well-organized event, and it showcases a picturesque city and an active community. I certainly will put this race on my schedule for a future year!
And so 2011 is off to a good start; I am excited for my next racing opportunities and will continue to run with a purpose.
P.S. Congratulations to 2:13:51 marathoner Josh Cox on amending his 50K American Record, which I learned he accomplished at P.F. Chang’s in Phoenix over the weekend. Josh, if you plan to make a future attempt at the World Record, I hope you will share your racing plans with other U.S. marathoners ahead of time–myself included, as I would be happy to give you some competition.