Central Park Marathon, june 22nd, 2003

At 3:30am the alarm rang. It rang as sweetly as a razor blade dipped in scotch. I quickly got out of bed before Jessica woke up enough to give me a good kick. In our household we use a two-tone alarm system that works almost every time. Tone one is the alarm; tone two is Jessica giving me a kick if I do not get out of bed right away. Works almost every time.

We are staying the night at Jessica’s parents house, because we had been at the wedding of one of Jessica’s high school friends the night before, and the start in Central Park is at the uniquely miserable hour of 6am. I scurry around in the dark, dressing and grabbing my skate stuff, trying very carefully to be quiet and get out of the house without alerting any of the 4 dogs in the house. Somehow I manage to escape with nary a wuff from the usually over-vigilant canine police force, and by the beautiful hour of 4am, I am on the road with a cup of cheapo gas station coffee in my hand, some NYC station playing pre-dawn jazz on the radio, and looking forward to 42k of “rewarding fun” in the hilly confines of Central Park.

In the last few days, the east coast has seen “noahesque” amounts of rain. In fact, this is already the wettest June ever recorded in New York City since they began keeping records in the late 1800’s, and its only june 22nd! As I drive I move in and out of pockets of rain, mist, and the occasional rare patch of clear. But as soon as I hit the George Washington Bridge and the West Side Drive, the roads are dry! Amazing! Hope springs eternal. I even find a parking place about 8-9 blocks from the start. Bone Dry roads and sidewalks greet my eyes in this city that never sleeps. Perfect, I put my skates on & helmet, load everything I need into my bag (leaving my worn, more rain grippy wheels in the car), and still in my street clothes, skate into the park.

The moment I hit the park, urban bone dry becomes suddenly tropically soaked. Uh-oh. I skate to the start, hoping it will get better, except for one 300m semi-dry stretch, the only dry part of the whole 10.6 k loop, it gets much worse. There are freaking rivers pouring across the road in places, freshly torn leaves, mats of last years dead leaves, and twigs are scattered all over the road. Brand new inline wheels are really slippery, since their perfect surface holds a perfect sheen of water on them, worn wheels are usually far better in conditions like this. But its 5:20am and I don’t have time to go back to the car at this point. The finish is at the top of a 300m long hill, I barely waddle up the hill at jogging pace, slipping every step of the way. “Uh-oh” has suddenly become “holy shit! We are all gonna die!”

At registration and warm up, I see skater after skater changing from beautiful new wheels to their crummiest training pair, but it does not seem to help them much in warm ups. People are slipping all over the place. I see one of the top pros take a tumble trying to do a warm-up sprint acceleration. I try as much as I can to accelerate and then to roughly T-stop, to put some scuff into my wheels so they can grip. By the time the categories are called to the line, my wheels are better, but still only to a degree. I see a lot of friends at the start line. Bob Tysen, Paul Marchesse, Stephane Tremblay & Herb Gayle from Ottawa, Diana and Ken from Binghamton, as well as the always upbeat Peter Doucet. And I see my main competition, Oliver Martinez. Oliver beat me in the first Empire series race, and my most important objective for me today is to finish in front of him. He is just the kind of skater who gives me trouble. He is very lean and muscled like a greyhound, and pretty good at everything, climbing, sprinting, top speed. Oliver has no weakness. I have more pure acceleration and top speed than Oliver, but that is often not enough, and he has beaten me numerous times. Oliver is a great fellow too, really friendly, and we wave at each other across the crowd. I am standing next to Stephane (another good guy) and he mentions something in his thick Quebecois accent about today being “just training, its too dangerous”. He has some miscellaneous ancient wheels on, very worn and crummy.

The start is in waves, the pros take off, followed 30 seconds later by the pro women, pro master men, pro master women, and then us, the advanced 42k class (and there will be several classes after us). There are over 100 of us, maybe 140, in this category. I am in the front row. We charge off the line in a chorus of “Shit! Crap! Ugh!” as people slip on their first hard strokes, I catch a nice groove through and am first off the line. I don’t want to be in the lead!. A pace line forms and I slot into it about 5th. The pace is not that fast, because none of us can push really hard. A skater wearing a uniquely and entirely green Australia skinsuit and matching custom Bonts jets off the front to the sounds of clap frames thwacking away. We catch him in under a minute. After a few kilometers of rolling roads, the course hits its first major downhill, and there has been no real significant uphill to break things up. At least 100 skaters enter a 30-40 mph descent together! I like danger and daring stuff to a certain extent, it gets my adrenaline pumping, but this was way over the thrilling line and far into terrifying. And with 100 people with no brakes right behind you, there is no slowing down! I can feel I am not really attached to the ground. Like I am surfing an icy downhill in worn out sneakers. At maximum warp my outside foot slips out and leaves the ground (I hear crashing in the pack behind me) and I am on one foot now, and sure I am gonna die. Somehow the wheel holds, I get under control while howling with fear. And then I see something amazing, two guys on 4 wheel skates with worn out ton-o-grip wheels have blown by all the 5 wheels speed skaters. They hit the flat in the lead. 4-wheel skaters leading a marathon? Whoa! But on the flat the pace goes nuclear and we blow by them. A couple of stiff rollers after and there are only 20 left in the lead group. I am feeling remarkably good. I am working, but working within my capacity. We hit the main climb on the course, and the pace slows considerably, I am definitely having a good day, it feels easy on the climb and I am in the top 5 guys on the hill, one of the young indoor kids keeps whining about how much skating in the wet sucks. He says it about 4 times in a row. After the quick downhill, a whip thin Hispanic skater launches a blistering attack, his limbs move at an amazing tempo as he effortlessly streaks away from the pack. Wow, there is one to watch. He’s gonna be mixing it up in the finish for sure. After his lead stabilizes at 100m, we slowly draw him back. There are several women hanging still with us. There are maybe 20 left in the lined out lead group. It’s still slippery as hell, but at racing speed it’s actually a little easier than at slow speed.

We reach the finish of the first of 4 laps, as always, as one approaches the finish line crowd, the pace jacks up again. Oliver comes up along side the paceline, he has made the split, surprisingly my friend Stephane has not. He must be having trouble in the rain. Or maybe he has a brain cell under that helmet, and doesn’t feel like visiting one of New York’s finest hospitals as part of his trip across the border. I don’t think I have much brain anymore, sheer terror has numbed it and now I am on racing autopilot. Oliver throws in a pretty good burst of speed and goes to the front of the paceline, not breakaway speed, but he takes a solid pull and makes the race harder from the front. We hit the big downhill again, I announce out loud, “ok guys, be careful, no death on this downhill” I hear one of the young indoor guys snigger at me, yet the pace is somewhat sane. Even so a skater crashes right in front of the paceline, I zig when I should have zaged as he rolls and slides across the pavement (always duck to the inside of a falling person in the corner, dammitt!!) , and miss him by inches at over 30 mph.

We do the first 21k in 41 minutes, normally that’s not fast, but that’s smoking fast for a hilly course in the wet. Halfway through the second lap, the group is down to 9, all guys. 4 of us are 27+, 5 are under 23 quick as lightning indoor brats. There is a young kid in a “capital racing” skinsuit who is just taking endless pulls at the front. Good, let him. I am happy to let others fight the wind. Another good skater has made the break, Mark Waiter is 42, and took 5 winter months off from work to train in Florida this winter. He has recently made the cover of speedskating times in his yellow drive sports skinsuit, in a big picture of the pack from the Disney World Marathon. He beat me last time we raced together in NY, but today is not looking like Marks day, and he is visibly suffering at the back 1/3 of the break. Gaps keep opening up between him and the skater in front of him, but Mark fights like a lion, and closes it every time. He is really racing his own very personal duel with pain right now. And I cheer him on, having fought that duel many times before. If he is hurting that much right now, he will not be any threat in the finish. The second lap up the hill, Mark decides to lead the pack at a very civilized pace, an intentional thing, as he later informs me, so he won’t get dropped! He skates strong and determined. All the way up the hill, that winy indoor skater is going on and on about how much this sucks. There is running water flowing down the hill in places, rivers of wet.

By this point we are passing pro master skaters and dropped pro skaters. We catch my Dimon sports teammate Bob Tysen. Bob is having a hard day in the wet. He says he can’t get much push. Bob hops into our speeding pace line. Bob, being the not quite mortal stud-bob that he is, starts taking hard pulls right away. Now I am certain I am on a fantastic day, this actually feels somewhat easy, even though my HR monitor is consistently in the high 180’s mid 190’s. I do not feel like I am killing myself to stay with the pack on the constant rolling hills of central park. We come near the finish of the third lap and I am beginning to think about the end of the race, and start looking at the other skaters in the break to see who looks fresh, who looks like they will be strong in the sprint. I know exactly where I am going to start my sprint, I want to start it just before the hill begins, I want to lead it out from about 350 meters out, and hit the hill at full speed with no one in front of me. Getting boxed in at the end of a race like this, or getting ready to sprint and having too many people in front of me to pass, and coasting across the line would be a crushing disappointment. I would always rather start too early and get passed than be boxed in and never really sprint for the line. Its always a good idea to say, as a sprinter “here I am, catch me if you can!” rather than try to be cute, tactical, and win in the last 50 meters.

Just before we get the bell for the fourth and final lap, the strong Hispanic skater from earlier takes a really nasty fall right next to me. It just seemed like he stepped on a painted line at just the wrong moment in his stroke and his skates came out from under him. I heard later he lost some teeth! Ouch. As we get the bell for the lap, I see several skaters practicing their finishing sprints, testing their legs a bit on the final 300m incline up the hill to see of they can push hard and not slip. The footing is okay, the pace is quite hard, but I am loving every second of it. My wheels have actually started to grip quite predictably, as they have worn in over the last 30k, and I think I am going to have a good hard sprint in me. I am now glad that I did not change wheels, these now have the perfect combination of roll and grip, Suddenly I realize, as the flashbulbs from numerous cameras pop as we streak through the finish area to crowd noise and clanging of the bell lap, that actually this hurts quite a bit, my back hurts, my feet hurt, my heart is racing, a thousand points of discomfort could be numbered if I gave it thought. But pain is nothing compared to singular willpower that overrides the pain (I guess this is how male praying mantis can mate while their heads are being bitten off, actually I remember reading that they actually perform better once their heads have been chewed off, well, enough of that!). Realizing that I will make it to the final sprint 100% for sure, hurt goes away. I have never made it to the finish of a marathon with the front pack before, I am always dropped far before the finish, but I know how to race a 10k, and that is how far we have left to go. I can be very zen and even keeled about winning when I am not racing, but within the race, its this animal thing sometimes, you vs everyone trying 100% and working this singular skill we all have spent so many hours developing, and you want it with every ounce of effort you can wring out of yourself.

Even as we compete, we are not combatants, this is not some anonymous bike race with 100 anonymous USCF bike trash nasty schmucks. I will race against these guys over and over again. Just after the finish is a water station, every time through this part of the course a few people from the pace line will grab bottled water handed up by volunteers, take a swig, and pass it back the line. On this final lap I am behind Oliver, he gets a bottle, takes a drink, and passes it back to me. I take a gulp, and then toss the barely 1/3 drained bottle into the piles littering the side of the course. We hit the final downhill fairly sanely for the first time in the race, and with no crashes. But the speed goes right back up at the bottom. Bob Tysen says to me in the pack “we should really hammer it up the hill the last time, get rid of these kids, I will give you a lead out at the end” I mutter something somewhat unintelligible, my jaw is not working right, then croak out, “no, its fine, don’t attack the hill, I want this to be slow.” I think my best chance to win this race is if we go slow until the last 500m, and I am rested enough to power myself the whole way up the hill with no lag in speed. If you lead out a sprint, and your speed plateaus, you get passed in a hurry. Also it would not really be truly fair if Bob led me out, since he is racing a different category that me. I want to race this clean.

There is a rumble of thunder, rain begins to spit down. Then it does more than just spit. I actually think, in my exhaustion soaked mind as the pack climbs another one of the endless rollers “zeus is cheering me on!!”.The last time up the hill both Oliver and Mark go to the front. I am right there with them. It’s weird how in this race the older folks are the stronger on the hills, the indoor kids stronger on the flats. Oliver looks relaxed and ready to launch an attack, I need to stick to him like glue. But he keeps it steady. The winy indoor kid says again “this really sucks”. Even though the grip is terrible. I am having a great time, I could not disagree more. I want to say out loud something to the contrary, but I keep my mouth shut and focus on the finish. Oliver powers over the top of the climb and flies down the decent. I am really going hard consistently now for the first time in the race. Quick downhill, a few rollers, the indoor kids all swarm to the front. We are almost to the finish.

I am following Oliver, I really need to key off of him, as I am sure he is keeping tabs on me, but then I have a change of plan, due to some mistakes I have made in other races, and slide up in the pack to third place, Oliver and Mark are right at the back of the break. If I want to win I need to start the sprint. The pace is fast through the twisty roads leading to the finish, no letup at all, in fact we are really flying. I stuff the pain into the back of my mind. I wish this was a little more relaxed, marathons sometimes just chill out in the last 10k, but not this race. We are under a kilometer to go. The pack has nervous speed, snappy speed, almost full speed already, we all know we are going for the win. Every one of us have worked our tails off to get to this moment. Every corner every little hill is at 95% effort just below all out. We even hit a corner where we all dare to do some serious crossing over (this race has almost all been straightway strokes due to the slippery conditions.) The rain intensifies. There always is a super serious quiet focus in the last few kilometers of an event. Ice or inline, Road or track or mountain bike, the feel is the same when a win is on the line in a group, and super-competitive people like me can smell it, and it brings out something essential.

The last several bends in the Central park finish look identical. It’s a really tricky finish. I have picked a roadside sign out before hand that I want to use to launch my sprint, when I see it, I am gonna go with everything I’ve got. Its what I did last year to win the 10k here at this same race. We are flying through these turns.

Its coming, Its coming, the “capital racing” skinsuit kid is in the lead again, he starts going really hard, I hear Oliver and Mark rushing up the right side of the pack, but their speed tops out, and they get stuck halfway up the line. There is my sign on the side of the road, 400 meters to go, its now or never, I launch hard on the left of the pack, pass the two leaders quickly; hit the base of the hill at full sprint. I have got the lead solidly, wow, my legs start burning right away, I lead up the first 100m and fry a little every step, my legs start to lock and my vision blurs a bit I see a skater far up at the finish line celebrating a win with arms outstretched. Did I miss someone breaking away? No, that’s just the finish of the pro masters race, we have almost caught them. Two indoor kids, squeeze by me on the left, then a third. 200m to go, then 100m to go, I am doing more a fast stagger than a sprint. I expect any second to hear Oliver’s wheels whoosing by me any moment, this is his kind of finish. I can’t let that happen. I throw my soul into the fires in the last 100m, and make the screaming legs pick up the tempo and sit lower, I hear wheels coming by, its another kid, I cross the finish line just as my vision starts to go tunnel on me. It takes me three tries before my lactic acid soaked brain can count all the people who finished ahead of me. Just four of them, I finished in fifth place. Fantastic!

Absolutely shredded, I can barely stand up as I waddle through the finish chute, my tear tag is taken from my number, I am almost dry heaving from the lactic acid, I feel like I did as much damage to my body in the last 200 meters as in the previous 41,800. I notice for the first time that my legs are completely covered in mud spat from the wheels I have followed all day. Several of my wheels are jammed with mud completely and crunching as they turn. Its over 10 minutes of gentle skating before my breathing is under control. One of the pro masters who just finished, looking fresh as a daisy, asks me if I am ok, and reminds me to keep moving and not to sit down. I know these things, I make myself shuffle along, but even so, its nice to hear it, as all I want to do is lay on the grass in the pouring rain, and breathe, and feel so damm happy that no rain is going to dampen my day. In fact, who cares about rain? It’s a beautiful day in fact! The world is what you make it, what you work for it to be, what you shape it to be, and today was a truly beautiful day.

Notes: Average HR for the race 191, max HR 207, finishing time: not sure, probably 1:20+ results will eventually be posted at www.empirespeed.com