It’s been a very long time since I’ve sat down to write a blog update. I can partially attribute this to the fact that I was extremely disappointed with my final performances of 2011– both at the World Championships in Daegu and the Pan-Am Games in Guadalajara. Matters were made worse after sustaining a nagging knee injury in December, which removed me completely from the context of running in January’s Olympic Marathon Trials. It was simply a matter of convenience to not write about how poorly things were going, and to disappear from the clichéd running blog scene.
It took an equal amount of time for my knee to heal as my personal attitude towards running. My focus was never compromised, as I spent a few hours each day cross-training on the elliptical machine, but I also fought hard against becoming resentful for the mistakes I had made that led me to injury: I had to move on. In January, I returned early from my leave of absence from the Public Library– not dejected from my inability to run in the Olympic Trials, but eager to maintain a level of personal productivity while getting back into training. Of course in the time my knee healed, I was already mapping out my training program for a spring marathon.
Road to the City of Bridges
The idea of returning to the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon first occurred to me after winning last year’s race, but the option more formally presented itself this past January. I remember making the enthusiastic commitment to return on my fifth consecutive day of running pain-free. I knew I would have some work to do for the 4 months leading up to the race, but having the opportunity to defend my title was extremely motivating.
I worked some low-key racing opportunities into my program for Pittsburgh. My first race back was less than 2 weeks into training, and it was a real “rust-buster.” With my residual fitness, I struggled through a 29:55 10km in Texas! Still, it was an encouraging starting point for me as I began my fundamental work. At the beginning of March, I entered The Woodlands Marathon (ironically only miles from where the January Trials were held) for the purpose of doing a progressive long run. Anticipating a controlled 2:17-2:18 effort, and setting off at 2:20 pace, I was surprised my progression led me to arrive at the finish in 2:15:42— with a last 10km weaving through runners on the 2-loop course in 30:48! It was great to share the podium in The Woodlands with MarathonGuide.com teammate and friend, Camille Herron, and know that my fitness was rapidly improving. Although my body was in a perpetual state of fatigue from conditioning, I was still able to run 45:29 for 3rd position the following week at the Mountain to Fountain 15K in Phoenix, and solo through whirlwinds to victory at the Canyonlands Half-Marathon the week after on St. Paddy’s Day.
I’ll admit that I had a few more races than originally planned in my marathon build-up, but I approached each race as if it were a quality workout, rather than a decisive competition. With this mentality, I never felt too exhausted mentally or physically.
My prelude to running Pittsburgh would not be complete without including the ridiculous incident of malchance that was repeated in Charleston, South Carolina.
At the 2011 running of the Cooper River Bridge Run, I had dislocated my right shoulder just 5 minutes before the start of the race– simply by twisting my body to maneuver around another athlete. The result was an ambulance ride to the East Cooper River Medical Center, and an uncomfortable evening traveling back to Arizona. I also managed to get a traffic ticket that night while attempting to drive stick-shift (out of my sling) from Phoenix to Flagstaff.
Having planned to return to Cooper River this year, I joked about how I would prevent any mishaps before the race. I’m not superstitious by any means, but I found myself cautiously assessing risks throughout the race weekend. Janet Cherobon-Bawcom and I even postponed a pre-race arm-wrestling match just to be safe.
Perhaps I let my guard down too early. After finishing the race (I finished 9th in a tactically slow run) I left the crowded downtown square for a cool-down. Two minutes into the cool-down I collided with a small boy, who was running across the street. I fell hard on my hip and shoulder, which audibly dislocated when I landed on it. I couldn’t believe it: same race, same freak injury!! What sh*t luck! I again returned to the hospital, to have my shoulder reset. That evening, I made the pain medicine-induced drowsy drive from Phoenix back to Flagstaff (I took my arm out of the sling and drove carefully).
For the next 6 days, I was unable to run. My shoulder remained extremely sore, but quickly regained its normal range of motion. My hip, however, was very badly bruised from the fall. All week, I remained uncertain if it would even be possible to run in Pittsburgh…
I knew a few days off wouldn’t spoil my fitness, but hoped for a quick recovery. Luckily, treatments with Dr. Kym Wilkens, epsom salt baths and electro-stim therapies had me back 100% the following week.
After completing 3 weeks of intensive specific marathon training, I left Flagstaff’s miniature Pulliam Airport feeling primed to defend my title in Pittsburgh. When Ali and I arrived in Pittsburgh, we were greeted with much warmer temperatures than the previous year. As the forecast started to take shape, I began to make some arrangements to prepare for the heat.
I felt like my return to Pittsburgh was a homecoming; the race organization was incredibly hospitable, and all weekend I felt as if I were member of one of the home sports teams. I also had some of my good friends driving from Rochester to watch the race, which added to my excitement and motivation for running well. Although, I knew it would be a difficult task to win again, I wanted to defend my title for them!
I knew the competition would be much better than 2011. Given how well I had felt in training, I had also hoped for a stronger field. At Friday’s press conference, I was given an entry list that confirmed my presumptions. Although I was given the honorary bib #1, my personal best time (2:13:12) seeded me close to 10th in the elite field. The fastest seed was 28-year old Zembaba Yigeze of Ethiopia with a best of 2:08:27 (he had finished 14 seconds ahead of me at Cooper River). Returning from last year, was another very capable Ethiopian, Tariku Bokan (2:12:23 best from Dubai). Amidst a group of Kenyans and Ethiopians with bests between 2:11 and 2:13, I was also surprised to see a good friend, James Kirwa of Kenya, entered with his 2:12:54 course record from Des Moines. Kirwa might not be widely known, but has had some strong performances. When I met him at Grandma’s Marathon last year, I was impressed with his relaxed personality and good sense of humor; if Usain Bolt were to become a marathoner, he might resemble James.
In my pre-race interviews, I maintained it would be a difficult feat to repeat as champion, although I felt fit enough to be competitive with anyone I lined up against; I wanted to prove last year wasn’t a fluke. I also believed that even with the warmer conditions, the winning time would be significantly faster than my 2011 time (2:16:40).
Kids of Steel
On Cinco de Mayo– the day before the race– I watched my friend Ashley run her first 5K and then had the privilege of again volunteering with the Kids of Steel Program. This year, over 30 schools and 2,000 kids participated in the 18 week program to run 26.2 miles! Together, all these kids logged around 39,000 miles, which is astonishing! It was a lot of fun to cheer them on in their final mile at the Toyota of Pittsburgh Kids Marathon. After an hour, my hand was numb from all the high-fives! I also had the honor of being joined by Olympic Silver Medalist and NYC Marathon Champion Meb Keflezighi, who had been previously invited to take part in the race weekend events. Again, it was fun to see so many young people enjoying the sport!
Race of Steel
I went through my normal pre-race morning routine, waking up 3 hours before the 7:30AM start time to have breakfast quietly in my room. I had some cereal from Trader Joe’s, coffee and a chocolate PowerBar. Once the coffee kicks in, race mornings become electric! Around 5:45AM, I met my friend Eric in the hotel lobby. In a small cooler, he brought me the frozen Hyperwear Pre-Cooling Vest that I had overnight-shipped to the hotel the previous morning (I was not taking any chances with the warm weather forecasted). Before heading to the staging area, I greeted James Kirwa, who was all smiles.
After a brief 10 minute warm-up, I switched into dry clothes, my CEP Compression socks, laced up my Brooks Green Silence flats and put on the cooling vest to bring my core temperature down. Although the temperature would only reach around 70F during my run, I recognized the pre-cooling would reduce the demand on my body to cool itself down in the early stages of the race; and I wanted to conserve as much energy as possible!
The start was a blur. Between strides there were countless handshakes and high-fives with race officials, a good-luck hug from the race director Patrice Matamoros, and the singing of the National Anthem. At 7:29, I pulled down my PivLock V2 sunglasses anticipating the gun. Once we were sent off, I felt relieved.
Within the first miles, a long echelon of elite half-marathoners had outdistanced our large group of marathoners. Running along side the other favorites–James, Tariku, Tabor Nebsi, Feyisa Tusse and some Ethiopians wearing red WSX club uniforms– I surmised our pack was at the front of the marathon. MarathonGuide.com teammate Kipyegon Kirui took over the early pacing duties, which were not that difficult (it was clear no athletes were looking to chase the event record of 2:10:24) I was content to stay in the group and observe.
It was truly an uneventful first 10 miles, and I felt guilty for having sat back so much. My only concerns were staying hydrated and keeping myself as relaxed as possible. Kipyegon,Tariku and James had all made appearances at the front of the pack, but no one made any decisive moves. While running on East Carson Street, I saw a stray Ethiopian runner floating back to us. He joined our group, looking very labored, and Tariku spoke to him in Amharic. At this point I also noticed he was wearing a green marathon bib number. It didn’t take me long to realize that this Ethiopian was a casualty from another group of marathoners up the road! I panicked to realize we had wasted 10 miles running very slow while there were others working ahead of us. Before we crossed the Birmingham Bridge, I mentioned to James the problem. We moved to the front of our group, and began our teamwork.
At 10.7 miles, the half-marathoners were re-routed back towards downtown Pittsburgh, while the marathoners continued on with a leading press truck. The split made it apparent we had miscalculated our race position, as a pack of about 10 more athletes had a 20-30 second advantage on us! They weren’t half-marathoners! Luckily James and I had increased the pace enough to reel this group back in by the 12 mile mark. He offered me a high-five: “No problem!” For the first time in the race, I had spotted Zembaba— how could I have lost track of the 2:08 guy?! But then another thing concerned me after our groups merged: the was no lead vehicle in sight!
I immediately asked Benjamin Meto in the group what position we were. His answer was not clear, but Zembaba gestured that there was 1 more athlete ahead. One more? Where?! As if I wasn’t already enough disturbed by this revelation, a race official called out to us that we were 2 minutes behind as we crossed the half-marathon mat in 1:08:30! To give any of the other 15 elite athletes a 2 minute head-start is unthinkable! Again, I turned to James at the front of the group and simply said “we have to go!”
I have never pushed so hard in the middle of a marathon, but I wasn’t ready to settle for a 2nd or 3rd place finish. I knew I had made a grave error in sitting back early on, but now I had to commit to pulling back the leader, even if it meant my complete demise. James and I ran side by side, with Tariku shadowing us. No one else was able to follow. We went from running a loping 5:09 mile to a leg-churning 4:41— it was suicidal! It was a shock to my system, but I did my best to override my sensory data. Meanwhile James seemed unfazed with the increased tempo, even finding time to grab an extra water cup for me.
What was going on up the road? The Nixon Kiplagat show! Unbeknownst to us, the unheralded Kenyan had run through the Oakland neighborhoods giving spectators a thumbs-up, and clearly exhibiting confidence in his growing margin. In the miles that followed, his grin became a grimace, and he still had 10 miles to go…
After 19 miles, and only a few periodic glimpses of what might have been a lead vehicle, it was still unclear whether or not we had made any ground on Nixon. I was barely able to stay with James and Tariku, being almost two strides off of them and feeling the summer-like temperature. During this mile, I took a bottle at the fluid station that with a PowerBar Energy Gel for some added carbs and electrolytes. It was rejuvenating, and I was back on the bus approaching the 21st mile.
We descended Liberty Avenue, now with the press vehicle and Nixon clearly in sight (and visibly slowing). James had gained a slight advantage, while Tariku was tucked behind me. I learned from last year that the downhill was long enough to have severe consequences on tired legs, so I had to use this stretch to make up as much ground as possible on the two ahead. My quads seemed alright with the additional landing shock and I could hear Tariku laboring. I tried to keep running with a high cadence while following the tangents on the road. It still wasn’t enough to bring James back much. As the road leveled out, my friend Steve (who had driven down from Rochester) was on the course encouraging me to keep gaining on them.
At 25 miles, James had passed Nixon. I estimated they were about 15-20 seconds away from me, meaning I would really have to work hard in the final mile to advance into any other position. I knew I had to push through– there wasn’t any other option. I thought of my workouts that brought me back to fitness, my friends that came to see me run, my family back home, and the city that had welcomed me back to their marathon. I had to keep running hard for them!
I moved into 2nd place and barreled down the entire finishing straight on the Boulevard of the Allies, even after James had broken the tape. I finished 17 seconds later, a narrow margin in marathon racing. I was exhausted in a way my unremarkable time of 2:14:26 wouldn’t indicate. Still, James was the first to congratulate me with a hug. With some teamwork and a little luck on our side, we successfully caught the leader to go 1-2. Both Runners of Steel, taking in our accomplishment.
Post-race activities included a return to Abay Ethiopian Cuisine for a huge lunch, followed by some ice cream at Oh Yeah(!). I was with great company and the food was fantastic (I think everyone liked Ethiopian food… Chelsea? Ashley?).
Well, it’s time to wrap this blog up… special thanks to Patrice, Kelsey and the entire Pittsburgh Marathon organization for welcoming me back to your incredible race this year– your marathon is second to none, and I hope I can return next year! Thanks also to my family and friends who made this weekend special by coming to Pittsburgh, or encouraging me as I prepared these past months. Last but not least, thanks to my sponsors for keeping faith in me! –JDE
- Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon Race Results
- See my Media Page for race-related articles
Race footage, courtesy of Eric Boyce: