Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Manchester City Miracle

There has not been a full marathon in Manchester since the old New England Marathon of Manchester in the 1930’s drawing all the big names, including Clarence DeMar, Tarzan Brown, Jock Semple, and Fred Brown. For nearly a decade, the old race was considered one of the premier events in New England distance running. Highlights of that race included Tarzan Brown challenging “Mr. Marathon” DeMar, falling just short at the very end. Brown won subsequent back-to-back marathons—in New York on Saturday and Manchester the following day--after a whirlwind overnight train ride. Thousands lined the highways for a glimpse of these legends.

The city is also where my grandparents on my father’s side came to work in the city’s legendary mills. It’s also where my grandfather on my mother’s side came to work at the International Paper company. What made the race so intriguing for me is that it takes place in my city of birth, and where I grew up. I signed up for the race expecting to take a trip down memory lane, and that’s exactly what I got. But I also had other things in mind as well. Seemingly there was no better place for me to set a new Personal Best Time for the Marathon distance than in Manchester. So far in 2007, I have set PR’s at the 50K and 100 Mile distances. I tried to set a marathon pr in Disney but came up 13 minutes long on Florida’s flat course. And then I thought, “Man, if I could only PR in Manchester and then PR at the 50 Mile distance 5 days later in Mass.” As typical for me, it’s a lofty goal and I had my serious doubts. I’m pretty confident I can run a sub 9:47 at the Stone Cat 50, but sub 3:40 in Manchester?? That’s a little much to chew on.

The course in Manchester is 26.2 miles of the biggest and longest hills the city has to offer. The night before the race my father told me he thought it to be extremely difficult for anyone to PR given the courses difficulty. But hill running is essentially all I have done. The marathon distance to me, is tougher than running 100 Miles. The sheer level of fitness one must possess in order to run 26.2 miles is testament itself to the level of commitment. I’ve spent the last year training to run 50 and 100 Mile races, a pace which is exponentially slower than a 3:40 Marathon. To do this, I was going to need a miracle for sure. I spent the last 2 weeks heading into the race focused on picked up the pace in some 10 Mile runs, scared that it was too little too late. There was only one way to find out.
Race Day

I met Hans on the corner of Elm and Merrimack Streets in Manchester’s downtown. He tried to fool me by wearing a Viking hat with horns, a grey beard and an eye patch. However, Hans is the only guy I know, besides myself, who would wear such an outfit to a race. We walked over to his brother’s vehicle where we did our last minute preparations. We took off for a 2 mile warm up stroll and tried to loosen up for the race. We then got down to our shorts on what would be a crisp 45 degree Manchester Morning. We headed to the starting line where we were almost late for the race start. We stood on the line as the mayor gave his speech and then Joan Benoit Samuelsson started us off. Hans and I were both wearing watches so we could closely monitor our progress.

The race wound its way into the city’s historic Mill yard first. We passed in front of the Waumbek Mill where my father worked at the young age of 12. I knew we had started off much too fast and tried our best to settle into a comfortable groove without blowing up. We passed the state armory and then ran past the Youth Detention Center and near The Derryfield School. We ran down the high priced houses of Union Street and then pushed ourselves up Webster Street and Smyth Rd Hills. These two hills are the toughest on the course. Thankfully, I spotted Sarah and my mom cheering from the side lines. I also ran past my dad and step mother Helen, who opted to be race volunteers and offered a hearty high five on our way by.

Hans and I were having a great time, mostly from the entertainment his Viking hat was attracting. Yeah, he took the beard and eye patch off, but kept the Viking helmet on. We heard it all along the way: “Nice Viking hat, nice costume, hey Lars, hey thor, hey Leif, hey Viking boy, go Vikings, Vikings rule, go mad bull, nice outfit, etc, etc, etc.” Hans made sure to acknowledge them all as we carried along. It must have felt nice knowing he made so many smiles on such a gorgeous day. And I’ll also admit that after awhile, it started to get old. Lol. We started running past places that jogged my memory. “This is where I used to go sledding, here is where I played on the swings, my dad and grandfather were club members here, this is where my grandparents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary,” and on and on. Hans was in disbelief that I remembered the city so well. But then again, it was knowing the city so well that helped me keep in mind what was to come. I was in constant running motion, thinking of the next turn in the road and what accompanied it. As we ran down Hanover Street towards downtown, the half marathon runners began to pick up the pace and I was mindful to not get caught in their trap and pushing too hard.

As we entered down town the wind finally picked up. Anyone who has lived in New England knows that the day after a Nor’easter is usually a day of high westerly winds. This was not good news. I felt fine after the first 13 miles assortment of Hills, but I knew the west side of town tended to be windier as the wind rushed down the Merrimack River Valley. The hills on the west side are longer too, and I started to become ever more doubtful of attaining my goal. As we crossed the Merrimack, we saw Sarah and Mom again, this time ringing cow bells. The death of my grandfather still rests heavy in my heart, and ringing cowbells at weddings is something he was best known for. While his passing lies heavily, it is also a source of great inspiration. Hans and I goofed off quite a bit in the first half of this race, and I felt like a PR was slowly drifting away. But in the moment I heard those cowbells.. I knew I had some work to do.

Hans and I got to work running our way up hill through the west side. We crossed the Kelly St. Bridge into Goffstown and started heading away from the city even further. We ran down Mast Road into a headwind that seemed to suck the life right out of our sails. Things were not looking good. At mile 20 I saw Crazy Judy who offered some support. I told Hans I needed to stop for a pee break. For the first time all race, I stopped. Hans continued slowly up the road and looked at his watch. As I caught up he gave me an update, “Ok.. We’re about 1/4 mile behind our goal… we’re going to have to start to dig in here.” That’s all I needed to hear.
We worked our way up the courses longest hill, a drawn out hill that leads to St. Anselm’s College. Around St. A’s I saw Sarah and Mom and again, took the last swigs of my handheld bottles and dropped them at their feet to take. Time to Push… we continued on, wound our way down hill and started running right past the graveyard my grandparents lay in. Immediately something came over me, and I was in the zone. As we began to near the inner city again, Hans mentioned, “John… this is unreal. We were ¼ mile back and now we’re getting ahead.. Relax.” I slowed it down and decided to rest for the next series of hills.

As we turned onto Main and McGregor Streets, I started to feel a bit sluggish. We ran across the river again and back onto the East side. We headed north on Elm, away from the finish and it wasn’t much fun. I needed to find some energy. Hans wrote in a post race e-mail, “You were more than a 1/4 mile behind pace when you took that leak, and I thought you looked heavy. I was concerned. But you freshened up really good all the way to 23 miles. Then that long gradual uphill and out of town was a bit demoralizing. We fell off a 1/4 mile in the last 2 miles. But you put on a real sprint to the line, and I was not expecting that ” I told myself on Elm that if I just took my time and kept moving forward to the top of this last hill, I could take the turn back towards the finish and take it home. I looked at my watch and knew it was going to be close… we were behind and I was ready to throw in the towel, but the answer to that was quickly no!

The biggest thing I have learned over the last few years is that there is something inside us far more powerful than science, conventional wisdom and training, something within our hearts that tugs at our souls and puts us into a call to action. “If you think you can, you can. Impossible is nothing. GET THE LEAD OUT.” These thoughts raced through my mind as we ran down Chestnut Street, I saw my dad, clapped my hands and gave him a high five. Two block later I saw Helen and repeated the high five and added, “I’m gonna make it!” Hans glanced at his watch as I kicked in, “Holy Cow John! You’re running 8 min miles, 7:30’s, 7, WOW!” We ran down the last few blocks and turned onto Hanover Street as Hans Yelled out, “Sherpa John’s gonna do it, LOOK OUT!” I sprinted onto Elm and eyed the finish line. I kicked my legs high and sprinted towards the end. I brushed my hands together as if to wipe them clean, I wiped my brow, threw the sweat and thought to myself, “piece of cake!” At no point during the race did I push myself to hard, I never breathed heavy and mostly through my nose, but here in the chute.. I was kicking hard. I crossed the finish line… simply shocked, shocked at what I had just accomplished.

The Manchester City Marathon is where I completed what I now call The Manchester City Miracle. I ran 26.2 Miles, through the wind, over the city’s toughest hills, in a time of 3 Hours 37 Minutes and 27 Seconds. My old PR of 3:40 is now a distant memory. I’m still not the fastest one out there, but am glad I can still be challenged by a marathon and pleased with the event at the same time. There’s only one part of this goal left and it will be settled on Saturday in Ipswich, Ma.. as I try to run 50 Miles in less than 9:47. People told me I couldn’t run 100 Miles, this year I ran the distance 3 times. People told me I was too slow to run 3:40 in the marathon again, I ran it faster. People told me it would be damn near impossible to PR at the marathon and the 50 miles in the same week.. I’m one step closer.

26.2 Miles in 3:37:27 (New PR!)
101st place out of 517 finishers
13 out of 28 in my div (M25-29)

HUGE thanks to my support crew. Sarah and Mom for being out on the course ringing those bells, Dad and Helen and the countless other volunteers on the course. Nate and Kathryn for joining me on weekly training runs and continuing to push me beyond my limits. Paul in Burlington, Jeff in Ark and Dave in Kansas for your continued moral support and inspiration. Moe, for teaching my at a young age to dig deep and find that fire within. Hans for his patience, foolery and guidance. And to the many runners who STILL wore their headphones after they were told not too, You missed a great day in New Hampshire’s Queen City.