A few days and many time zones removed from the World Championship Marathon, I continue to re-calibrate and reflect on my experience in Moscow. My Circadian rhythm has been quick to adjust back to Mountain Standard Time, while my body and mind are slower to recuperate from Saturday afternoon’s strenuous effort. I know the residual soreness, which is the constant reminder of the very raw 2 hours and 14 minutes of running that I went through, will dissipate in the following days. The only souvenir I take and keep with me from Russia is the lesson learned from running a tactically smart race to achieve the best personal result possible. For me, that is the greatest reward, and something worth reflecting on.
It would be an understatement to say that I anticipated a challenging marathon leading up to and training for Moscow. Two years ago, I was humbled in the worst way in my first World Championships Marathon in Daegu; I was overwhelmed by the level of competition and wilted in the humid South Korean summer climate. It was not an experience easy to forget (although I lack recollections of finishing), and left me disappointed but very motivated. After receiving selection to my second WC Team in June, I resolved to redeem myself in Moscow. I knew it would require great preparation specific to conditions I might face in the Championship and also approaching the race with less naïveté than before.
Typical to a Championship, the course was nothing of spectacular difficulty; it consisted of an out-and-back start and finish in the Luzhniki Stadium, with 3 criterium-style 10K loops on a flat winding stretch of road parallel to the Moskva River. The biggest deterrent would be the lack of shade, along with the 3:30PM start time— thanks largely to Japanese wishing to watch our sufferfest over happy hour sake bombs.
The week before my race, I watched from my Boulder apartment as Valeria Straneo led an afternoon death march in 82 degrees (and warmer with the sun reflecting off the tarmac) that halted 23 of the 69 starters, with better finishers running 8-10 minutes off their bests. I watched some very tough athletes go down fighting, while a few tenacious Americans (Deena Kastor, Dot McMahan and Jeannette Faber) were able to keep moving up through the field. I watched a real race of attrition. It reinforced the fact that I would have to be conservative in my race, unless I wished to be carried off unconscious by medical personnel again.
Also in the week leading up to the race, the start list for the Men’s Marathon was released. I felt it was important to review and make some analysis of the field, so that I could establish some realistic goals and expectations. Looking through the list of 70 athletes, I noted that 36 athletes possessed a personal best faster than mine (2:12:03). While not a surprise, it helped me understand that as the 37th fastest entrant, it would be very tough to crack the top 15-20, which I had set my sights on. On paper, this field appeared as strong– if not stronger– than any other World Championship or Olympic Marathon: Ethiopia boasted five 2:04 athletes, Kenya had a full team with PB’s of 2:06 or faster, Japan entered five fresh 2:08 performers, with a slew of 2:07-2:09 internationals and also the reigning Olympic Champion Stephen Kiprotich. As the leader of our American trio with a 2:12, it felt a little like taking knives into a gun fight.
Upon arrival in Moscow 4 days before the race, I was able to relax with my teammates and run lightly. Our team staff was extremely supportive in getting us prepared: U.S. Team Coach Troy Engle helped manage our raceday logistics and with preparing our special fluids, while Dr. Randy Wilbur gave us some notes from the women’s race and strategies to help cope with the warm conditions (including setting us up with pre-cooling ice vests). In the days leading up to the race I felt fit and confident that if I ran smart, I could move my way up in a similar fashion to our American women.
The race conditions proved to be 9 degrees better for us than the women on Saturday afternoon— which is quite a significant difference in marathoning. When we were herded from the final call room to the track in Luzhniki Stadium, it was 73 degrees and sunny. The blue track radiated heat as I lined up at the 100M startline with my U.S. teammates, Carlos Trujillo and Daniel Tapia. We had used 2 pre-cooling vests in our warm-up, although I had already broken into a good sweat under the direct UV rays. I used sunglasses and a white cap to minimize exposure– and also to disguise the discomfort I was about to go through.
We were among a very diverse field. The Kenyans all donned gold chains, proclaiming hip-hop superstardom in the marathoning world, while the Japanese wore very peculiar Sahara expedition-style sun caps. When we were sent off, I tucked in for our first tour inside the stadium. I felt very composed in the first kilometers heading out to the closed road circuit that we would run on the Moskva River. The race field was bunched up heading into the first (smaller) loop and I tried to keep out of trouble by hanging back and running the yellow-painted course tangents. I remember a barrel-chested Tadese Tola powering by on his way to the front. Since running the Paris Marathon earlier this year, I knew how he and his Ethiopian teammates liked to muscle their way through to the front.
There was some chaos at the first few fluid stations given how crowded we were. It required some haphazard maneuvering to get to our U.S. Team table, which was alphabetically located near the end of the station arrangement. With my teammates in tow, we were all successful in getting our personal refreshments from Randy and Troy. Even after feeling amply hydrated from my concoction of Lemon-Lime PowerBar Perform sports drink, I made sure to hold on to the cold drink and take a few extra “insurance” sips. I also used a cool wet sponge to wipe down my head, neck and arms.
After making a hairpin turn, and now starting the first of three circuits, I crossed the 10km mat in 31:50. I was about 30 seconds off the front, where Tola was now stretching his legs and a long train of competitors followed in hot pursuit. Being about one minute slower than I would usually try to split for 10km, I felt almost too easy with the conservative pace. I estimated about two-thirds of the field was ahead of me, but I really wanted to proceed with caution for the next two laps. Time was not going to be my focus for the day and there was still more than 30km to run.
I was in good company. Carlos and Daniel were running comfortably along side me as we went through a misting station around 12km. Our trio moved past former NYC Marathon Champion Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa and a tall and gangly Hiroyuki Horibata of Japan. Fellow Canuck Rob Watson was moving forward with us, and seemed like he was also biding his time to move up. After covering another 5km in a moderate 15:50, I reached 15km in 47:40. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was 1 minute behind the lead and in 40th place.
Knowing how far back I was, I definitely felt anxious. Over the next 10km I started moving up. It wasn’t a dramatic move; I felt more like a magnet being pulled to the athletes ahead of me down the road. I picked up my bottle after 18km with ease thanks to Dr. Randi Smith and Bill Ito at the second U.S. Team table. I drank the entire contents of my bottle and again took advantage of the sponge station. After the turnaround, I had 2 laps to go and crossed 20km in 1:03:22. The half-marathon was reached shortly thereafter in 1:06:52. The splits mean nothing to me. I felt comfortable, alert and focused on getting through the next loop without any additional exertion. I continued to follow the course tangent line as I headed back through the mist station.
I bridged a gap to a Spanish athlete, 2:12 man Javier Guerra, and Sibusiso Nzima of South Africa. While Nzima was clearly laboring, the Spaniard seemed content with my asserting a new pace. At this point it was nice to have some company, and so I settled in rather than trying to push ahead. We remained in this arrangement until 28km, where we split off to get our fluids. Going by Randi and Bill, I swiped for my fluid bottle and failed to grip it firm enough. It slipped through my hands and I was unable to recover the fumble. Rather than stopping to go back for it, I continued on and grabbed a Powerade bottle 10 meters later at the final table. Crisis averted.
Entering the final lap, with 30km reached in 1:35:03, the Spaniard and I had pulled clear of Nzima. Thanks to the hairpin turn, we could see the casualties coming back to us. Among them was the grimacing Yuki Kawauchi. I knew this was going to be the decisive loop and so I didn’t hold back when we caught up to Yuki. Approaching the 33km fluid station, Javier and I had outdistanced Japan’s proclaimed “Citizen Runner.” I took a full bottle of my sports drink and a PowerBar Double Latte flavored PowerGel that I had taped to the bottle. It was a lot to ingest while moving at 3:07/km pace, and I had to be careful not to choke!
I led Guerra around our final u-turn in front of Red Square. It was my first and only glimpse of the colorful Saint Basil’s Cathedral. We crossed 35km in 1:51:20, and I was beginning to feel the heat. Somehow, the directional change helped me regain my composure. As we ran along the Moskva, I tried to press the pace as we went by Kazuhiro Maeda and Masakazu Fujiwara of Japan. I also passed my friend from Flagstaff, Jordan Chipangama representing Zambia, who had run courageously up front for 30km. As I passed back by Troy and Randy, they relayed the news: “Top 15 is possible!”
From 40km (2:07:20, 8th fastest split in the field from 35km to 40km) heading back to the stadium, I went for broke to hold my position. If I counted correctly, I was in 14th place! I followed the tangents around the turns and was trying desperately to put a gap between the guys behind me before getting back into the stadium. While trying to fend them off, I also found myself reeling in the dancing skeleton of Eritrea’s Samuel Tsegay. There was no response as I went by him and into the stadium for the final 300m.
It was the first marathon of my career that I finished in a stadium, and I used the crowd’s energy combined with my fear of losing a position to dig in. My Brooks T7’s (en route to the brand’s highest finish in the Championships) felt excellent on the mondo track surface as I propelled myself through the final 100m, straining every bit of the way. Despite some foot cramping and a twinge in my calf from the effort, I was able to hold off my pursuers by 6 seconds. I was exhausted and stumbled around as my body cramped up. My finish was shortly after confirmed: 13th in 2:14:23.
This was a great performance for me and I reaped the benefits of running a smart race. Despite the rather pedestrian time, I’m proud of the fact that I stayed back and was able to attack and move up in the latter stages of the race. Part of being a good marathoner is knowing how to race smart, and I executed that pretty well in Moscow.
After some downtime, the next clear goal for me will be the ING New York City Marathon on November 3rd. I’m excited to return to my home state and race the greatest fall marathon in the U.S.. It will be a great opportunity to test myself against the best Americans and the best in the world. I am also excited to make my NYC debut representing the New York Athletic Club.
Beyond New York, hopefully my performance will help open some doors to new opportunities. Having achieved my 2016 Olympic Trials ‘A’ Qualifier this past weekend, I can’t help but think of the possibility of contending for a spot on the Olympic Team for Rio. I’ll continue to take it one race at a time, one year at a time… but certainly with a longterm focus.
In closing, I’d like to express my gratitude to my family, friends and sponsors, for their support as I trained full-time up in Boulder all summer. I’m so incredibly fortunate to have you all in my corner, and happy to share this success with you. If there’s one lesson, it’s keep faith and dream big! –JDE