It was quite a weekend in Pittsburgh! As I reflect back on the the unexpected result, I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes not having a definitive race plan is beneficial. As a race ‘rabbit’ brought in to assist other athletes and fully-participate in all the weekend events, I had a very planned-out stay in the Steel City. And yet, after 18 miles of pacing on Sunday, I decided to improvise a little…
Highlights from the Event Weekend
On Friday night, I attended a reception for all the generous event sponsors at the LaMont Restaurant. It took some convincing on my part to the Restaurant staff that I was with the Marathon event, and not the Junior Prom that was also going on. After enjoying a glass of Cab and taking in the panoramic view of downtown, I was given the opportunity to address the sponsors on behalf of the elite athletes and Olympic Trials hopefuls. It’s quite humbling to speak in front of such a distinguished group– which included the Mayor (who was making his half-marathon debut), sponsors and the entire race organization. However, I was glad to convey the fact that their support goes a long ways in helping many aspiring athletes realize their dream. Later on, after watching some fireworks and having another glass of Cab, I chatted with Race Director Patrice Matamoros. I thanked her again for having me, and joked with her that maybe I would win her race on Sunday.
On Saturday I took part in the Kid’s 1-Mile Fun Run, along with fellow pacer Tom Tissell and the Steeler’s charismatic Ryan Clark . Through the Kids of Steel Program, over 500 kids from five area school districts logged up to running a total of 26.2 miles– with the final mile being run during the event weekend. I was excited to be a part of the Program’s finale, and witnessed an incredible turnout of young students, their teachers and parents all enthused to be running! I ran with the group from McClellan Elementary School, having met their dedicated PE teacher the previous evening. Despite a false start by Ryan, I was able to work up through the field of smiling and reddening young faces to finish 2nd in 6:57. I high-fived the top finisher, and had him promise me to one day run the marathon. He said he might, as he collected his medal with satisfaction, and as others zipped through the finish. I was pleased to see so many youngsters getting exposure to running as a healthy, life-long activity!
Leading up to Sunday, I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with many talented athletes. It was great meeting and talking to Tom, a very experienced marathoner (and multiple-time Olympic Trials Qualifier) who was pacing the Women’s ‘B’ Qualifiers. I also met a very friendly group of Ohioans the first evening at dinner. After the Fun Run on Saturday, I went for my own run on the nearby river trail with Tyler McCandless, a recent PSU Grad and 2:17 marathoner pacing the Women’s ‘A’ Qualifiers. Later on, I caught up with some of the U.S. athletes targeting the OT Qualifying Standard, including American citizen Boaz Cheboiywo. Whenever I travel to races, it’s nice to meet new athletes and also see a few familiar faces. Everyone seems to have a unique story of how they became involved with the sport (and particularly with the marathon), and I find myself learning from them. More than any other sport in the U.S., distance running is a relatively small and tight-knit community.
My approach to Sunday was like that of any important workout or race: I made sure I was well-rested and adjusted to the time zone; I ate well and prepared most of my foods; I also maintained a high level of focus on the task at hand. I certainly felt a great amount of responsibility to the athletes I would be pacing, which had me equally as excited as anxious– while both sentiments quelled any competitive ambitions. When race morning arrived, I followed my usual routine: coffee and breakfast (including a Raw Revolution Bar) 3 hours before “go” time, active-isolation rope stretching (thanks Tyler for lending me your rope!), and some ipod-shuffling (rocked out to Girl Talk’s All Day mix).
As anticipated, we had a rainy and humid race morning. It was a very balmy 60°F when I was warming up with Lauretta, a former teammate from my UVA days who I had literally run into that morning. After some easy shaking out, I pulled on some dry CEP Compression Socks, put on my Garmin Forerunner GPS Watch and switched into a Team MarathonGuide.com sleeveless Brooks shirt (I had forgotten to pack my singlet); I was ready to rabbit!
The marathoners and half-marathoners lined up together on Liberty Avenue under a large yellow banner. I found Boaz and made sure we were in close proximity. Once sent off at 7:00, we were quickly swallowed up by the half-marathoners taking off. I watched MarathonGuide.com teammate Nicholas Kurgat push to the front with his neon Spira shoes visible in his long back-kick. He was shadowed closely by a former Hansons-Brooks teammate Ryan Sheehan and a few NYC-based, WSX runners; I knew he would have his work cut out for him. My focus immediately shifted back into setting our mild cadence: 5:18’s. A few female elites had pulled ahead.
Due to the rain and cloud coverage, my Garmin was not receiving the best GPS signal. I had to rely more on the clocks each mile for feedback. I recall being a little slow at 5K (just over 16:30), but Boaz, Nik Schweikert and a few half-marathoners bolstered our group. I felt very relaxed leading the group, as if it were another Sunday long run on Lake Mary Road… albeit with some company!
I tried my best to keep the pace as metronome-like as possible. The undulating roads over bridges kept me awake; I remained steady up the inclines and held back going downhill. I encouraged Boaz to tuck behind me on the bridges to avoid cross-winds. I had an eventful course tour with my friend, Eric, the day before so I knew the general tangents of the race course. I made sure our fluid stations weren’t as uneventful, as I cautiously grabbed my bottles of Vita Coco that I had prepped the previous day.
The half-marathon leaders were well out of sight, after we crested the West End Bridge and followed a long stretch on Carson Street. There was a visible contingent ahead, which I suspected were the marathon leaders. Still, I maintained our pace and mentioned to Boaz that we were right on schedule.
After crossing the Birmingham Bridge (around 11 miles), we faced the largest climb on the course. I tried not to impose the pace too much up the hill, given that it would even out later on– and I had 7 more miles to make sure of it.
I reached half-way around 1:09:20, which I felt would give Boaz a nice buffer to achieve a sub 2:19:00. I noticed shortly after that he fell back at a fluid station. I was not sure whether he missed a bottle or was under any physical duress, but I hovered off the pace a little to help him get back on. With credentials of 1:01:35 for half-marathon, 27:46 for 10,000m and 13:19 for 5,000m, Boaz proved to be among the most legitimate athletes in contention for an OT Qualifier and winning the race. I was quite humbled to be rabbiting him in only my third time entered in a marathon!
Unfortunately, the elastic between us was stretching and the next few miles proved that Boaz was faltering. My Garmin was semi-accurately reading 5:18 per mile, so I kept the same rhythm to ensure I was fulfilling my rabbiting responsibilities. I pulled by Genna Tufa, who had fallen off the leaders somewhere after Mellon Park. I estimated we were over 30 seconds behind the race leaders, which had me curious about what was happening up front. The curiosity continued to build on Frankstown Avenue as a pack of 6 leaders grew closer. I crossed 18 miles well within range of the group. No longer the rabbit, I thought, why not go for the win?
The race began for me between 19 and 20 miles, when I joined the tête de la course. I was the lone American among a small group of East Africans: Isaac Birir (Kenya), David Rutoh (Kenya), Tariku Bokain (Ethiopia), Teklu Deneke Tefera (Ethiopia) and Jynocel Basweti (Kenya). As soon as the leaders identified my presence, I surged right by them into the lead. By injecting a harder pace (4:40), I wanted to see who could respond right away. A minute later I stepped off the gas and looked around: one runner was already off the back of the group and I saw some concerned faces. This was my sign; it was time to finish them off!
For the next 3 miles, I controlled the front of the race and mimicked a fartlek workout I had done a few weeks prior. I pushed at the front for varying intervals lasting 1 to 5 minutes and then recovered with a moderate pace– which was dictated by the surviving runners. Teklu, a new Flagstaff resident, responded to my surges a few times but fell back on our descent down Liberty Avenue. A MarathonGuide.com athlete, Chapel Hill-based Isaac Birir, had also quietly peeled off by 23 miles. In the next mile, I could only hear the labored breathing of David and my squishing Brooks Green Silence.
I started another surge (4:40 pace according to my Garmin) with less than 2 miles to go. David dropped back dramatically at a water station. I knew this was the KO punch! I maintained the acceleration to put as much distance on him as possible. A cyclist informed me I had put around 70 yards on him, as I crossed the final bridge over the Allegheny River. I enjoyed the final straight away to the finish, offering a few high-fives and trying to process what I hadn’t planned on doing that morning: winning! Despite the hard surges, I crossed the tape feeling very comfortable– I was pretty surprised with the time given the pace of my first 18 miles!
My post-race replenishment involved a cool-down, some interviews and an afternoon outing to Abay Ethiopian Restaurant. With Eric, his sister Kristie (who ran a 3:27 first marathon!) and her boyfriend Turadg, we gorged on several vegan dishes including: Inguday Wat (spiced mushrooms and brown lentils), Mesir Wat (red lentils), Tikil Gomen (cabbage and carrots) and Ye’ Abesha Gomen (kale, peppers, ginger and garlic). It was the perfect post-race, nutrient-dense meal. I can see why Ethiopia produces so many strong athletes, given their diet!
On to the next one…
So for now I continue to run nice and easy. The recovery has been quick thanks to a few hearty vegan meals and some ART treatment with Dr. Kymberlee Wilkens. I’m both charged with the weekend’s results and with the exciting news released about our strong USA World Championship Marathon squad for Daegu. I’ve definitely learned some more about marathoning this weekend (particularly how to race), and I am anxious for my next 26.2 mile essay, now having a victory under my belt.
So thanks again to all my family, friends and sponsors for their continued support. I’m happy to share this weekend’s success, and I look forward to making more progress in the next race… one that I am actually scheduled to compete in! –JDE