The Conundrum of Second Place

From the athlete's desk: With the 2016 NYC Marathon coming at the end of the week (Nov. 6) I thought it would be a good idea to post a reflection I wrote after last year's race. New York is the trickiest course of the year, and one I am still trying to figure out. Last year, at least, I came close...)

Second place is weird. I never would have imagined the confusion that is a second place finish, but i suppose i've never finished in second in a major marathon before. I've won. Winning is easy. You feel elated, silly, fulfilled and shockingly alone (though this part of winning has been fading as I get better at letting people in better). The feelings don't alter, they are the same every time you reflect on the victory.

Likewise, finishing third is easy. Third, while it can be close to winning in the case of a sprint finish, is still separated from the victory by one other place. That other place makes a world of difference. Your head grasps at ways that you could have locked up second, but not so much the ways you could have won. Locking up the bridesmaid position never stirs up the emotion that locking up a victory would. Which brings us to the strangeness of second place.

I was second in the New York City Marathon. It was by far my best finish (and time) in this race and I cannot stop thinking about it. Every time I do, however, the thoughts usher in entirely different emotions: satisfaction, disappointment, frustration, elation, triumph, failure. Maybe it's the fact that it was a sprint finish, I didn't have a chance to come to terms with my positioning before the race was over. Maybe it was the fact that I lost to Ernie. Maybe it's the fact that that course just beats you up, no matter how favorable the winds and weather may have been this year.

I should just be elated. This course has baffled, confused and conquered me every year I’ve done it. It often felt like i was missing the pieces necessary for solving its puzzle. Three places in particular have been insufferable in the past: 1.) The Verazano Bridge, 2.) The long stretch of rolling downs in Brooklyn, 3.) 1st Fucking Avenue.

I did actually conquer the first two early in the race. Kurt may have jumped off the start line like his ass was filled with gunpowder, but after the first couple hundred meters of rough road, when i finally settled down, i was able to hold pace. Halfway up the bridge i was even able to throw in a surge, catching and leaving behind Marcel (who jumped off the line doing everything he could to stay behind Kurt), and even closing a little on Kurt. I bombed down the far side of the bridge, hitting the exit ramp in second place and making the left turn into Brooklyn before Marcel caught me. The two of us made it another half mile before Ernie barreled up on us, but even then i was able to hold and pull as we reeled in Fearnley. Granted, the winds were kind, but I felt quite comfortable cruising through Brooklyn.

I can reflect on that with a smile, but then come the “what ifs”. With the four man pack I was able to get a few sneaky words in to Fearnley. Kurt may be the fastest climber in the world, but I'm the second fastest, and the two of us knew we could getaway on the bridges and stay away if we worked together.

After a pull I slid to the back and causally let him know that I was comfortably in second place at the top of the first bridge. About a mile later he look me in the eyes and nodded. That was all the communication we needed. We would attack on the 59th St. bridge at mile 15, work with each other to stay away until the park, and then fight it out til the finish. I'm sure my eyes grew big as the adrenaline of this idea coursed through me.

Then he crashed. In an instant Kurt's chair went from upright and rolling forwards to on the ground and sliding sideways. Just at the beginning of a surge he hit a pothole. His front wheel was swept to the side by Marcel's chair as his back wheels were airborne. Kurt landed sideways and immediately flatted a tire and went over. I narrowly missed the front of his chair, surviving on reflexes as I quickly steered around him and surged to catch the other two racers.

Just as quickly as the plan was agreed on, it was scrapped. Now came the conundrum, do I surge solo on the bridge and see if I can stay away, or do i pace it out and just hope I can stay with the big guys down the bridge. I guess I didn't really have a choice. No matter how good my chair was rolling I would never be able to coast with Ernie down the bridge.

When the time came I surged hard. It didn't take much to break Marcel (he was carrying fatigue from a long year of racing), and I put a huge gap on Ernst. Again I bombed down the bridge the best I could. Because of the wind we had to push down most of it, and push I did. I swung off the bridge and onto 1st Avenue in front, quickly opening up a gap of 15-20 seconds.

What were Josh's pain points? I believe number 3 was 1st Avenue. Twice before I've swung onto 1st in a podium position and twice before I've been chewed up and spat out like a piece of gristle.

I hit the ground running this year, pushing my body and the pace. With Kurt we would have been trading pulls and working our asses off til we turned off the avenue. Without Kurt I had to do it all on my own.

And I ALMOST did it! The first half of the avenue has equal climb to descent, but the second half of our stay on that demonic avenue (apologies to my grandparents who used to live on 1st), has a net descent that is ruinous to the best laid plans of a lightweight. It was there that Ernst finally caught back up. I saw him within 20m and relaxed to let him catch up. I couldn't stay away, but as we turned off 1st I was in a pack of two. This was foreign territory to me. Never before had I been in the lead pack at this point in the race.

I can reflect on 1st avenue without feeling like I'm getting punched in the gut, but the same cannot be said for the last 7 or 8k of the race. After significantly reducing the pace as we weaved through the Bronx and back into Manhattan, we then come to the races final challenge; 5th avenue and Central Park. I've raced 5th Avenue, the long slight climb to the park, in a pack just once before. That was roughly 7 years ago, and we were fighting for positions 3-7, not 1 and 2.

This is where I didn't REALLY have a plan. Before the race I talked to the chief and he was of the opinion i should try to throw some surges up 5th to take out the arms of my competitors. When we actually got there I thought I felt good, but when I went to throw a surge in I felt the fatigue, and Ernie covered handily. I tried twice more, just to mix the pace up, but I knew I couldn't get away. This left me a little nervous. As soon as you turn into the park you have to survive a series of sweeping downhills before the final climbs to the finish.

Just as I took my jabs on 5th, Ernie took his in the park (Central Park). He attacked the top of every descent, desperately trying to shake me. He would swing, I would counter. He couldn't drop me, I was determined and locked into the back of his chair like a tick. In hindsight, however, those attacks probably took more out of me than I thought. I'm sure my stroke count doubled his in the park as I had to stay on the ring to force my chair up to higher speeds as he tucked and coasted.

The gut punches really hit home when I think of the finish. Before New York I had faced Ernie in a sprint finish in the past two Chicago Marathons and London, and had bested him each time. I felt confident in my sprint. Confidence alone doesn't get you to the finish, however. I had NEVER had a meaningful sprint finish in New York, and hadn't had a sprint finish period in 7 years. Ernst, on the other hand, has spent the past two years sprint finishing New York, taking second both times.

The long and short of it is that I started my sprint too early, and didn't have enough to cover my mistake. The finishing stretch of New York has TWO ascents bridge by a minor descent. In my exhausted state I completely forgot this fact. I attacked hard on the first ascent, thinking I could cover the distance to the finish. I quickly realized my mistake, reaching the descent having used what was my final burst of adrenaline only to have Ernst coasting in behind me on the minor descent. When we hit the second climb, Ernst used his last bit of adrenaline and surged around me. My response was weak. I closed a little towards the finish, but he got me by a second, putting me into second.

Here I am torn. I finished in second place in the toughest marathon of the whole season. It was my best time and best finish ever. I did something that I have occasionally believed was not possible for me. But on the other hand, I was in a position to win! it would be naive to think that those opportunities will present themselves too frequently. Ahhhhh I'm confident I'll have a shot again, and hopefully multiple shots. I can win this race. With it so close this year it just hurts a little.