As the course flattens out after an uphill first 2km and then plunges steeply back down a quiet side-street, I let my stride open, feel gravity carry me, and turn around after less than a minute to see a small gap has formed. And it’s only then that I realize what I need to do to win this race.
Let’s Back Up
About two weeks earlier, I’d received an email from elite athlete director Joe Connelly. “I know you’re always interested in who else is running,” he’d written “so I wanted to tell you we just found out that Tadesse Dabi (an Ethiopian based in NYC) just entered on his own. He was 6th at the New York City Marathon in 2016 in 2:13:06 and has a PR of 2:11.”
I’d been planning to run the Vermont City Marathon for the third time since I started mapping out my spring season with my coach, Jon Waldron, at the beginning of the year. The race made sense for me as I needed to end my season in late May due to my summer work with STRIVE and as the defending champion (I’d won the race in 2014 and 2017 in my only two attempts) with VCM a HOKA sponsored race, and having had such a fantastic experience in my previous two trips to Burlington, it seemed a no-brainer.
It was a quick turnaround from the Time To Fly 50K just 44 days earlier (where I’d run the second fastest time ever for 50K by an American and set the world record for 50K on a track), but it wasn’t anything I was unfamiliar with. In 2014, I’d doubled back from my marathon debut at Boston and won VCM just 34 days later. And so, once I saw that my recovery was going well – my legs starting to come back around, workouts going well – I knew I wanted to give it a shot.
The VCM staff do a great job of compiling an elite field that’s always competitive and will make for a great race and this year was no exception. I knew from the start that last year’s runner-up, Sam Morse, would be back, as well as Nick Hilton – a guy who’d beaten me at the 2015 Grandma’s Marathon running a PR of 2’16’06 and who had run 2’17’52 already this year. In late April, I’d been told that Ruben Sanca – a Boston-area stud – had entered after dropping out of the brutal conditions at Boston (Ruben ended up not starting).
I would have my work cut out for me. But, it wasn’t until that late entry that I really began to doubt if I could win this race. “There’s nothing shabby about 2:13 at New York,” Jon told me. But I knew Tadesse was a wild-card. Jon did the homework and found that after his stellar 2016, he had hardly raced in 2017. And his only results in 2018 were a 1’07 and 1’06 half marathon – good times, for sure, but nowhere near the level he’d been before. Who was going to show up? The 2’11 guy? Or a the 1’06 guy?
Race day arrives and – despite early predictions of thunderstorms and very high temperatures – the weather is reasonable: just over 60F as I arrive at the start around 6:00am. I find the HOKA tent, drop my gear bag off, use the bathroom, and then, like clockwork, no thinking necessary, take off for a last easy jog at 6:20am, the calming voice of Ira Glass my only companion as I leave the mayhem of the start, take a right onto a quiet street off the course and turn around as my clock buzzes at the 1km mark, heading back to the melee.
My parents and Jon are both there and, after drills and stripping down to my singlet, we hug as I’m escorted off to the start line with the rest of the elite field. It’s already starting to feel warm and humid as the temperature as climbed into the mid 60s, though a strong wind makes feel bearable. The last thing I say to Jon is “I don’t think anyone’s going to set the course record today,” to which he replies, “Only if you have to.”
Originally, our plan had been similar to last year. The number one goal is to win the race. And while I don’t think it’ll be slow with such a talented field, I’m not thinking at all about the finishing time as we stand on the start line. I don’t plan to lead a single step until at least the top of the most challenging hill on the course (at about 16 miles). All I want to do is cross the line first again.
And then, we’re off.
VCM shares its full marathon with a marathon relay and so one relay runner sprints off the line like a clown and I’m content to let him get his 60 seconds of fame before our pack swallows him up. Still, the pace is, as expected, not slow. Unlike last year where we passed the first mile in an extremely pedestrian 5’50, this year we’re almost 30 seconds faster as we climb the first of 3 major hills on the course. I’m tucked into the back of the lead pack, happy to sit behind the extremely tall Nick Hilton and draft as we run into a strong wind blowing from the south.
Being so fresh and full of adrenaline, I barely notice that first climb and before I know it, we’ve topped out and are running down the steep side-street before a sharp right turn brings us on a long straightaway back into town.
As we’re coming down I say aloud to the group, “Guys, we’re about to have 8km of downhill with a big tailwind; let’s not go crazy.”
But, less than a minute later, looking around, I realize I’m suddenly alone, a good 20 feet in front of the pack. My plan to not lead suddenly evaporates as the pace just feels too damn comfortable and I can see the group behind me has splintered into an every-man-for-himself single-file spread. And it’s only then that I realize what I need to do.
And so, despite vividly remembering too many epic marathon blowups to name, I don’t slow down and let the pack catch up. No, I keep my foot on the gas as we run 3’08, 3’09, 3’11 to come to 5K in 16’15 as we begin the first long out/back section on the Beltway.
Now, only Tadesse has caught up and I’m running extremely aggressively, covering the first 5K after I broke away in 15’35 (2’11’31 marathon pace). But I know two things. First is that we have a nice tailwind behind us, so those quick Ks are a bit less crazy than they sound. The second is that at 10km, were going to turn around and run right back into that strong wind for the following 11km. Leading right now is costing me almost nothing, but I’m stringing out the pack such that there’ll be no pack to tuck into on that long windy stretch to come.
I’m really enjoying myself now. I’m letting my stride open up, I’m pushing the pace every time I feel Tadesse start to drift back even a step; I’m not going to let a single step of this stretch be comfortable to him. But at the same time, a voice in my head is saying “this is too much too soon; you’re going to blow up spectacularly; what are you doing??”
Having led the previous 8km, I purposefully come off the turn-around a bit slow and let Tadesse slip into the lead for the first time. Now, the wind is fully in our faces and, at ~15mph, you notice it. Running directly in his slip stream, though, I’m able to relax, let my cadence slow, and let myself recover from what had been a quick start. Looking back after a few minutes, I can see that Nick and Sam are both isolated, fighting the wind by themselves. I’m the only one of the four of us who’s drafting right now. So far, the plan is working perfectly.
After that turnaround at 10K (31’52, 15’37 second 5K), our pace slows, but I don’t care as I can tell by how easy the pace feels that I’m expending very little energy. As we run on the opposite side of the beltway, the rest of the marathon is still running out the other way and the whoops and cheers of the crowd fill me with joy and adrenaline. I’m enjoying my Sunday morning.
A few times, Tadesse motions for me to take over. At first, I just ignore him as I have no desire to lead into the wind, but finally, around 12km, as we begin the second major climb coming back into town, I can tell he’s feeling tired, and so I decide move to the front and push the pace again on the hill.
I remember Yuki Kawauchi telling interviewers after his Boston Marathon victory that he’d gone to the lead when he felt the leaders starting to tire and push the pace, that wanted to tire them out and make them suffer, so every time he went to the lead he’d throw in a surge. And so, I do the same.
Coming back into town, I crank up the pace, feeding off the adrenaline of the masses of people as we run through downtown. I lead for those two kilometers (3’08, 3’09) and Tadesse stays right on my shoulder the whole time. Perfect, I think. I’m wearing him down, bit by bit.
We then begin my least favorite section of the course, a long, winding loop through South Burlington with a few steep rolling hills and a ton of turns. We’re again running directly into the wind, so I tuck in behind Tadesse, the pace slows, and I allow myself to recover. I’m not too surprised, then, to look back and see the tall figure of Nick Hilton closing in on us as we wind through the forested, residential streets.
Just before 20km (1’04’38, 16’20 last 5K), Nick finally catches back up to our group. I’m nervous as I know he’s one of my biggest threats and I know he’s probably run a much more even pace than I have, but at the same time, I know he’s just spent the last 30+ minutes running alone into a strong headwind while I’d been drafting. I just keep telling myself to trust in my tactical intuition and it’ll all work out.
And so, just before the half marathon mark, the course finally turns north again and the wind fills my sails once more. We pass the half marathon Rossi mat in 1’08’10 and I immediately take the lead and put my foot back on the accelerator. The surge feels good and while Tadesse follows me, I look back and see that Nick isn’t coming with us. His consistency will either pay off big time and make me look like a cocky idiot or his solo running will take its toll. Only time will tell.
This was the point in the course where I really began to feel good last year and made a strong move (just before the biggest hill on the course, around the 14 mile mark). And so, I’m channeling that positive memory as we make the left turn onto the long straightaway that will bring us to the hill on Battery St.
But now, I’ve got a plan, and the only thing I want to do is push my foot harder on the gas. We run 3’06, 3’06, 3’10 for the first 3km of this surge before the hill (just over 5’00/mile pace) and Tadesse is still my unshakeable shadow. This guy is either an absolute beast or he’s going to start hurting really badly at some point soon. Meanwhile, while the pace feels fast, I’m actually still feeling great. The long batches of recovery I’ve given myself coupled with the descent from my home-base at 9000+ feet make the effort feel significantly easier than I expect. And so we soldier on.
Up the hill and still I can’t shake him. I think of the giant hill on the ciclopaseo and ignore my watch, running by effort only, short little steps, and it seems too short: suddenly we’re at the top and I’m barely winded. Before we’ve even crested the hill, I put my foot down – more gas – and we’re running through Battery Park, past my parents, the same stretch of sidewalk where I’d done my strides the day before, out the other end and onto the last, long loop to the north of town.
I’m still leading, still the wind is at our backs, but the sun has come out and I’m starting to feel it. But I know that if I’m feeling the effort, Tadesse is too. I can’t let up. More gas. 3’11, 3’10 (1’20’42 at 25K – 16’03 last 5K)
Somewhere around the 17 mile mark, Tadesse motions for me to slow down. I ignore him and just a few minutes later he utters his first words of the race, “too fast!”, and comes to a stop on the side of the road.
Suddenly, I’m alone with 9 miles of running still to go. My focus has shifted now from winning the race to not losing the race. I look back and can still see Nick, probably 50-100m behind me, an absolutely not insurmountable lead. You’ve gotten yourself here, I think. You’ve done a million hard solo runs before. Just hang on.
Luckily, I have coach Jon at 18 miles (30K in 1’36’47, 16’05 last 5K) who tells me that Nick is 25 seconds back and again at 20 miles telling me the gap had grown by 6 seconds. I feel very comfortable – well, as comfortable as one can feel 20 miles into a marathon – at this point, and the fact that I’m still putting more room between me and Nick is a great sign and a huge confidence booster.
The last stretch of the race is a straight shot on a bike path along the side of Lake Champlain. Like the Beltway, I know that the finish will be run directly into the wind which has only picked up since we started. I’d done the homework and the math and knew that this stretch would likely run ~10 seconds per kilometer slow due to the headwind, and so I don’t let it phase me when my first K on the path is 3’26.
The next few kilometers are around 3’22, which is perfectly in line with the 3’12 I’d been running before (35K in 1’53’01, 16’14 last 5K). More importantly, I pass Jon again around 24 miles who tells me my lead has grown to 50 seconds. At this point, I know that my plan is working: Nick is feeling even more tired than I am and is slowing down significantly more than me. All I need to do is hang on for 10 more minutes.
And I do. I finally reach 40km (2’09’54, 16’52 last 5K) and pick up the pace to ~3’15 as I can tell I have plenty left and I’m not going to lose. Nick is nowhere in sight and so this quiet stretch is my own personal celebration.
I see Joe Connelly who shouts “HALF MILE TO GO!” and I really try to kick into top gear, but don’t have much more than what I’m already giving. Finally, the familiar sites: The A_dog Skatepark, the roar of the crowd, the final turn onto the grass. The clock reads 2:17:41, 2, 3.
I’m so overwhelmed. Amped. Happy. Joyful. And then Lyman Clark is there to give me a hug and I just fucking lose it. This enormous wave of exhaustion, relief, emotion crashes down over me and I just collapse in a heap. I’m sobbing like a baby and I don’t even know why. Someone is literally carrying me like a child into the medical tent. I can’t even answer their questions. I can’t catch my breath.
Mariana told me that as a toddler, she would come home from pre-school and just start crying. And it took her mother a while to recognize that it was just a reaction to so much stimulation, so much going on, so many emotions, at pre-school. As I lay in the medical tent, I feel like that overwhelmed toddler.
There’s just been so much: the long season, the enormous pressure of the 50K, the quick turn-around, leaving my home and training partners in Quito, the extreme uncertainty of my race plan: the stress of not knowing if I was making a huge mistake, the giant target on my back from before the race even started, the watchful (but supportive) eyes of my family, friends, sponsors. And so the fact that it’s over and it actually worked is almost too much to take. In the same way that CIM was such a devastating disappointment, the emotion is just as strong now, with everything having gone so well.
But – also like a toddler – my mom is suddenly there next to me and comforting me and slowly the world is coming back into focus, the fog receding, my breath returning (along with a new wave: embarrassment). One of the race directors asks me to come out and talk to the cameras and, after proving to the medical workers I can walk, I’m escorted out into the bright, bright light.
Looking Backward; Looking Forward
The official finishing time (2’17’44) is the second fastest time ever run on this course, 40 seconds off of the course record which has stood for 17 years. I’ve now won the race three times in three starts and have my eye on Matt Pelletier’s 6 wins.
This was a great race. I ran smart, hard, and ballsy. While in retrospect my plan looks sound, if things had gone poorly, it would have been easy to label it foolhardy. And I knew that as I was doing it. There’s nothing more anxiety-provoking than not only having a target on your back, but knowing you’ll be lampooned if you get caught.
But it worked. This time, at least.
And this has been a great season. I raced well at distances from 5K to 50K, winning two big marathons (Rock n Roll DC and VCM), setting a World Record (50K Track), and continued truly loving the journey of self-improvement. I’m so grateful to those that enable me to live this crazy life and it makes the wins that much sweeter when I’m know I’m winning for all of us.
But it’s also been a long season. I’ve been waking up every day knowing that I’ll need to get my runs in for the last 24 weeks. And while I love the grind, it’s time for a break.
Now, I’ll take a couple weeks of rest – mental and physical – and let myself reboot, reset, before another summer with STRIVE in Peru. And while I don’t yet know what the next season will hold, I know I’ll give it my all, continue to push my own limits, and find joy in the process.
I hope you’ll all be there with me.
Many thanks and all my love,
Spring 2018 Season
Feb 17, 2018 – Salinas 10k – 1st, 31’10 – Salinas, Ecuador
Feb 25, 2018 – Boston University Last Chance 5000m – 6th, 14’23.16 – Boston, USA
March 10, 2018 – Rock N Roll DC Marathon – 1st, 2’20’45 (Course Record) – Washington D.C., USA
April 13, 2018 – Time to Fly 50K – 1st, 2’46’06 (World Record) – Santa Barbara, USA
May 6, 2018 – Los Heroes 10K – 10th, 32’59 (30’16 altitude conversion) – Quito, Ecuador
May 27, 2018 – Vermont City Marathon – 1st, 2’17’44 (#2 All Time on Course) – Burlington, USA
Strava Track: https://www.strava.com/activities/1601362544
Full Splits (from Garmin – NB Garmin read 42.4km, so splits are a bit quicker than they were according to the course’s Rossi mats)
1 km 3’21.5 (3’21.5) 133
2 km 6’45.3 (3’23.8) 166
3 km 9’53.6 (3’08.3) 171
4 km 13’03.3 (3’09.7) 171
5 km 16’15.1 (3’11.8) 172 (16’15.1)
6 km 19’20.5 (3’05.4) 175
7 km 22’20.4 (2’59.9) 170
8 km 25’29.8 (3’09.4) 169
9 km 28’42.0 (3’12.2) 171
10 km 31’52.1 (3’10.1) 173 (15’37.0)
11 km 35’05.9 (3’13.8) 172
12 km 38’21.3 (3’15.4) 172
13 km 41’45.5 (3’24.2) 171
14 km 45’09.8 (3’24.3) 172
15 km 48’18.1 (3’08.3) 177 (16’26.0)
16 km 51’27.8 (3’09.7) 172
17 km 54’46.2 (3’18.4) 180
18 km 58’11.3 (3’25.1) 174
19 km 1’01’26.9 (3’15.6) 169
20 km 1’04’38.4 (3’11.5) 168 (16’20.3)
21 km 1’07’53.9 (3’15.5) 167
22 km 1’11’00.4 (3’06.5) 168
23 km 1’14’07.2 (3’06.8) 169
24 km 1’17’17.4 (3’10.2) 170
25 km 1’20’41.9 (3’24.5) 172 (16’03.5)
26 km 1’23’53.1 (3’11.2) 173
27 km 1’27’03.9 (3’10.8) 169
28 km 1’30’17.2 (3’13.3) 168
29 km 1’33’29.5 (3’12.3) 167
30 km 1’36’47.0 (3’17.5) 167 (16’05.1)
31 km 1’40’00.1 (3’13.1) 166
32 km 1’43’15.2 (3’15.1) 167
33 km 1’46’33.0 (3’17.8) 166
34 km 1’49’46.5 (3’13.5) 164
35 km 1’53’01.4 (3’14.9) 164 (16’14.4)
36 km 56’21.0 (3’19.6) 165
37 km 59’47.6 (3’26.6) 164
38 km 3’09.7 (3’22.1) 160
39 km 2’06’31.4 (3’21.7) 161
40 km 2’09’54.2 (3’22.8) 160 (16’52.8)
41 km 2’13’09.4 (3’15.2) 163
42 km 2’16’27.6 (3’18.2) 168
42.4 km 2’17’45.2 (1’17.6) 171