It’s true that you will always remember your first, especially when it’s also one of the worst. Although I’ve done several marathons in the past few years, they were all solo runs that I conducted on my own for leisure (yes, it’s actually fun for me). This year I picked the New Jersey Marathon as my official debut race to gauge where I am as a marathoner, and how my training measures up to my expectations. As it turned out, no part of my training and experience (or inexperience to be exact) prepared me for the catastrophe in the final 7 miles of this race.
With the start and finish being 4 miles apart, the bulk of the race circled around the residential area near the Atlantic Ocean. I was a bit disappointed because I didn’t get to see the water all that much. As indicated on the map, the only parts of the course where I actually saw the horizon on open water were between mile 18 to 20, then again from mile 24 to the finish. Since I am from NJ, to me this race resembled a lot like a long training run in my own neighborhood.
But boring can be good – as there was nothing out of the ordinary in particular. The run was almost flat entirely, except some minor hills sprinkled here and there. There were plenty of support from the volunteers and spectators, as well as a few bands playing live music.
As for the weather, it was calm and cool in the mid 50′s when we started. The overcast and windless condition proved to be enjoyable. However, during the final portion along the shore the sun began to distract me. Fortunately the cool ocean breeze helped relieve the heat – I got a little burned on my shoulders though.
Sean (@aspirasean) drove me to the race and stayed around as my photographer. As I mentioned in my New Jersey Marathon Expo article earlier, I know this area very well since I lived in a nearby town for a while. Immediately after exiting the Garden State Parkway, we got stuck in a monstrous traffic jam about 3~5 miles from Monmouth Park. Luckily I was able to make it to the entrance with 30 minutes to spare.
I met up with Jocelyn (@enthusiasticrun) and Laura (@50by25) before the race because I had agreed to pick up Jocelyn’s race packet for her because I’m just super awesome like that. You can read about how Jocelyn PRed in her own disastrous race in her NJ Marathon Recap here. After the meet and greet, we took care of our potty business, checked our bags, and climbed – literally – into corral B, 5 minutes before the gun went off.
I charged off the start line with the 3:45 pace group with a goal of catching the 3:30 group, and ultimately the 3:25 group – at least this was the plan. This mistake turned out to be suicidal as I’d find out 2.5 hours later. I was going out way too fast because I was chasing pacing groups. During the first 5 miles I was dropping splits 10~20 seconds faster than my goal pace. Bad Kevin.
As I finally caught up with the 3:25 group after 3~4 miles, I eased down to a more realistic pace and cruised with the pack. The pacer was a solid runner and a fantastic pacer. He joked around with those who could hang with him with ease and comfort. The first half flew by rather quickly for me. I ended up with 1:41:47 at the 13.1 mark – just 2 minutes slower than my Half Marathon PR in March. At this point I felt quite confidant because I was on pace to get my 3:25 goal time – or even slightly faster.
However, what I wasn’t prepared for began to materialize a few miles after the halfway. Somewhere during mile 16, I had a hint of negativity because I felt a sudden dip of strength. That was the point where I began to to slow down in hopes of reserving or recovering some strength that never made it back to my miserable legs. Mind you it wasn’t my overall energy or sugar level that weighed me down – because I didn’t bonk during this run. It was something else entirely new to me.
In mile 19 it happened. Both of my quads were cramping, hard and painfully. As I’ve never experienced cramping quads during a run, I wasn’t remotely sure what to do - especially during a race. So I walked because I couldn’t even jog.
What transpired between the first sign of cramping and the finish line was a mixture of agony, confusion, and despair. I wasn’t running any more at this point as I had resorted to pick up the pace, run for a few minutes until my quads started to cramp, walk it off, and repeat the process until the end.
Several runners would slow down and ask me if I were okay – and each time I bitterly told them I was fine, just to watch them zoom by. This part of the race was much like what was going on during my half marathon in March; except this was poised to be an even bigger disappointment.
As I jetted for the final .5 mile I was not too tired. My mood was dramatically lifted by the sight of the crowd and finish line. In fact, as I smiled and stepped through the end zone, I heard some spectator shouting “look at this guy! He doesn’t look like he ran at all!” Ironically he was right: I didn’t actually run 26.2 miles. In any case, what I had was 3:57:58 – still a new personal record.
In hindsight – although I’m no doctor or medical professional - I attribute the cramps to muscle fatigue. The reason is that I was well hydrated and fueled. So the cramping was definitely not induced by electrolyte imbalance.
I missed my goal time by 30 minutes or more. And I find it difficult to convince myself that my finish time has any major significance or value. As this was my first official marathon for which I signed up and paid, I could’ve run it in 6 hours and still called it an official PR. This PR was not a big deal because I had an almost identical marathon time (3:57:19) during a training run exactly one month ago. I can do better – and I will.
Being my first marathon, officially anyway, the 2012 New Jersey Marathon will always be remembered as the race for which I expected so much yet wished I had approached it diffidently. Leading up to the race, all the intense track workouts and 20-something-milers (longest training run was 28 miles) still turned out to be inadequate. The take away point is that no amount of training will be able to replace or simulate a race experience. More, the most valuable lesson I learned from my first marathon is to pace slowly and moderately in the beginning – even if I feel like I can run a marathon easily. This has been a truly humbling run for me.
Here are some interesting photos -courtesy of Sean and MarathonFoto:
Have you run the New Jersey Marathon? What’s the most recent marathon you’ve done? What was the most unexpected race experience for you? Please share in the comment section below.