Below is the recap I wrote after my 2011 NJ Marathon. This race was unusual because my boyfriend was there to support me. That’s unusual because normally I don’t have a boyfriend, let alone course support. But, the past is past, and besides editing out his name to protect his privacy, I kept the recap pretty much as it was, because I like to stay true to history and stuff like that.
If you’ve talked to me in the past couple months, you probably know I’ve been suffering from a running injury to my left knee. It feels a lot like it did 6 years ago when I was training for the NYC marathon. Back then, I went to a sports doctor who did a scan of my knee and said there was nothing to do except take a lot of Advil and stop running long distances. So, I took his advice until last year, when I trained and ran the Fresno marathon injury-free.
I thought I was cured! Turns out, there’s no such thing as “cured” in long distance running. My knee pain came back, and since I was older and wiser, I backed off from training much more quickly. In fact, I worried I backed off too much, as I took a few weeks off from running, then ran only once a week (my “long rung”), then took a couple more weeks off – basically, I wasn’t running nearly enough miles to properly train for a marathon. Plus, my knee didn’t feel much better – there was still pain when I woke up in the morning and it felt “wonky” and weak even when I was just walking. When I did run, my knee would hurt for the first ¼ mile, then warm up, only to start hurting again after 5 miles. I was nervous. I swaddled myself in bags of blue ice as if I could ward off the running demons with goosebumps. A DNF (Did Not Finish) was a real possibility if I tried running a race. But the New Jersey Marathon was rapidly approaching and I didn’t want to back down.
Why did this race mean so much to me? I wasn’t training or running it with anyone, I’ve never lived in New Jersey, and I didn’t have non-refundable airline tickets. Besides not wanting to give up on any race, or what dropping out on this one race would mean for my future marathons, the allure of this race for me lay in its geography. The NJ Marathon starts in Long Branch but runs all the way down through Asbury Park. If you’ve heard of Asbury Park, it’s probably because it’s where Bruce Springsteen started his musical career. I know it as the site of the 2008 Metroman Triathlon, my first attempt at a triathlon. The race directors cancelled the ocean swim portion that year because of dangerous undertow (several swimmers died that weekend not far from where we were supposed to swim).
While we only did a biathlon (run-bike-run), that weekend remains one of my best memories in recent years, not just because of the race, but because of the beautiful beach scenery, the quirky hotel with an ice-cold pool, the relaxed bike ride through seaside mansions the day before the race, the huge IHOP breakfast after the race, the frozen drinks we had while lounging on couches, and the great friends with whom I shared that weekend. I know I could never recapture the magic of that weekend, but I wanted some taste of it again, and my best chance was at this marathon. We would be staying at the same hotel and I’d be running some of the same course as we did in the tri.
So even though my last run was April 15th, I still lined up May 1st, on a beautiful sunny 60 degree morning. The waves were crashing on the deserted beach, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” was blasting from the speakers, and I took off on a 26.2 mile run of my own.
“Took off” and “run” are being used here very loosely. My plan was to go out slow and maintain that slow and easy pace for the entire race and just hope my knee would hold out. Maybe it was a blessing that I felt so out of shape, because it was the first time I didn’t go out too fast. I was hitting solid 10-minute miles for most of the first half and I felt pretty good. In fact, my knee didn’t hurt at all. My left calf cramped up around mile 8, and I was a little worried it would seize up and I’d have to stop, but I slowed down, stretched it once during a water break, and it relaxed again. [2013 edit – I think I cramped because the course was so flat and when I did manage to train, I ran in the gentle hills of Central Park.]
At mile 11 I knew I’d get to see my boyfriend in just three miles at the mile 14 marker, our first designated meeting point. We had spent the night before planning the best places for him to see me with (almost) military-like precision. I gave him my estimated times of arrival, all based on a 10-minute mile pace because it was the easiest math to do in my head, and so far I was solidly on target. “Just three miles to him,” I chanted in my head. Then, “just two miles,” and then, “just one mile to him.” And there he was, holding a beautifully drawn sign with a winged shoe and a panda. I think I said something like “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you so much!” and the lady standing next to him laughed. It was very exciting to see him, especially on one of the few dreary long straight asphalt stretches of the course.
Our next meeting was at mile 17, so immediately it was “just three more miles to him.” But at “just one more mile,” there he was! He was at mile 16, and I was so surprised. I was getting a little tired at this point, but we were also just entering Asbury Park, home of the Metroman. I began retracing the same route we all covered in 2008, except that time I had a bike and only had to run 3.1 miles.
I ran right past our hotel, then around the little lake and onto the boardwalk, where I looked longingly at the diners sitting in comfy chairs, sipping soda and watching the waves. I saw my boyfriend again at mile 18 ½, sitting on a bench on the boardwalk. I hoped he had enjoyed a cool beverage and a comfy seat and hadn’t just been driving around trying to meet me every two miles (I later learned that he hadn’t eaten anything that day, and was in fact just driving around to support me). He called out to me, “I’ll be here when you get back.” The course looped all the way down the boardwalk into Ocean Grove, did a little inlet loop, then headed back up the boardwalk. It felt like an eternity. I started passing people who were walking, sure that they had blown past me at the start. It felt early to already be passing people, but I wasn’t speeding up (I think I ran mile 19 at 11:30 pace), so I kept chugging along. I saw him right where he said he’d be, (this time it was at about mile 20), and I asked him if I’d see him next at the finish line. “No, I’ll see you where I first saw you, then at the finish.” I said “I’m so tired,” and ran on.
I was tired, but I hadn’t hit a solid wall like I did in Fresno. I hurt, but I hurt all over, from my shoulders to my toes, so there was no acute knee pain. All told, it was about the best I could expect to feel 21 miles into a marathon. The funny thing was, I couldn’t help but wish I were running it faster. With all the knee pain and mental anguish I had in the months leading up to this, and with the solid possibility that I wouldn’t be able to run more than 5 miles, here I was at mile 21 wishing I had run a little faster. Of course, if I had gone out faster I wouldn’t have made it to mile 21.
I jogged past person after person, wanting to offer them encouragement like, “if this were easy we wouldn’t be doing it.” But I didn’t say anything, because I know when I’m walking sometimes the last thing I want is for someone to say something to me. So I shuffled along, repeating my own personal mantra – “just three miles to him, just two miles to him…”
I saw him a hundred yards down the road. I started waving my hands, but he seemed to be watching the other runners. Finally I raised my arms and flapped them up and down to show their crazy backwards-bending ability, and he saw me. “I’m so tired,” I said as I drew near him.
“You look great. Just three more miles!” he said.
“No, like four!” I said.
“Close enough. See you at the finish!”
Easy for him to say. When I did reach the 23 mile mark, I started my internal chanting. “Just three more miles to him.” But wait, I thought. Shouldn’t I change it to “just three miles to the finish?” Somehow that didn’t have the same appeal, so I kept it as “just three more miles to him.” Sometimes it was “just three more miles to boyfriend and candy,” although I knew there was no candy. I hit mile 24 and was thrilled to say, “just two more miles to him.” I was passing lots of walkers, and it reminded me of when I was walking at the end in Fresno. I realized I had barely walked at all during this race, and yet I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the pace I set in Fresno. That’s when I realized just how fast I must have run that marathon, and I had newfound respect for my old self. But I also felt like I had more gas in my can this time – if I had to run 30 miles that day, I think I could have done it.
At mile 25 I expected my chant to be “just one more mile to him,” but inexplicably it changed to “just one more mile to a medal.” I started seeing half marathon finishers walking along the course, draped with giant shiny silver medals. I wanted one of those, but better, because it came from running a full marathon. (Thoughts of “pansy halfers” also ran through my head.) I kept chugging along, through the cute seaside village where I had beef bourguignon and profiteroles the night before, around a tight turn, and then up through the final chute. A race volunteer shouted out, “the white banner is the finish line!” I could see the finish, and hundreds of people lining the finishing chute cheering on the runners. I thought to myself, “well, no way I’ll see my boyfriend in the crowd, but I’ll find him at the end somehow.” Then, just yards from the finish line, there he was, camera at the ready. I smiled, I waved, I crossed the finish line in [approximately] 4:27 (almost exactly the pace I calculated for him the night before, and much slower than Fresno, a course that had a lot more hills and less support than NJ). A race volunteer handed me a giant spinner medal (the center state portion “spins”), my boyfriend bought me a cupcake, and all my dreams came true.
Thinking of running New Jersey?
This was the 15th NJ Marathon, and it surpassed all my expectations. The start was well organized (the buses were fast and easy, and while there were no corrals or time starts because there were only about 2,000 people running the full marathon, I crossed the start line in only 2 minutes), the on-course support was the best I’ve ever seen (tons of Gatorade and water in different marked cups, endless Gu and even bananas several times along the course), most of the course was very beautiful (the beach start/finish, the boardwalk, two small bridges that ran past marinas and hundreds of boats) and incredibly flat (I thought Fresno and NYC were flat, but NJ was a pancake), and the spectators, while somewhat sparse, were very vocal. The beach finish area was also near lots of restaurants and bars, so it made for a good hangout if you had the energy or inclination. The expo wasn’t very special and there wasn’t a lot of swag in the bags, but the long-sleeved technical shirt is very nice (full map on the back, few sponsor logos) and they provided decent food and drink at the finish (they hand you a plastic bag and you can fill it with apples, bananas, boxes of granola, bottles of water, and cans of soda). We lucked out on the gorgeous, perfect weather (they’ve supposedly had everything from sleet to 90 degree heat). Finally, the medal. It’s awesome. I think this is the first year they’ve done a spinner, and the names of all 8 towns we ran through are engraved on the back. If you’re lucky, someone will buy you a cupcake at the finish.
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 7/10 – I was lucky to have someone drive me that weekend, but there is a train from NYC that goes there, or the EWR airport for out-of-towners. The high score is because you could stay right near the start/finish and they had several restaurants right there, too, so you didn’t necessarily need a car…
- Staying There – 9/10 – High score because I love the hotel we stayed at (the Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel) although it wasn’t within walking distance of the start (and I don’t even know if there were shuttles from that hotel or not… sorry for my spotty memory). I think the hotels right at the starting line were quite expensive and required a two-night stay, but again those details might change from year-to-year.
- Cost & Registration – 8/10 – If memory serves, registration was easy and not terribly expensive (e.g. registration now for the April 2014 race is only $90), the shirt was nice, and the medal was great.
- Organization – 7/10 – The expo wasn’t the easiest to get to (or away from) and the expo itself wasn’t particularly good, but the on-course support was superb.
- Course – 8/10 – Flat flat flat, and pretty scenic (with a long stretch by the ocean and other parts passing marinas), plus a great start/finishing area right by the beach.
- Crowd – 6/10 – Not a lot of spectators.
- Other Factors – 7/10 – It’s convenient to NYC and if the weather is nice it’s just a beautiful weekend.
- Overall Rating – 8/10 – Weirdly high? For some reason I just really enjoyed it. Do I lose my New Yorker card for rating the New Jersey marathon so highly?
Have you run NJ or are you thinking about it? Share in the comments!