Friday, December 20, 2019

Race Report: Queens Marathon

So, let this be a lesson in reading the fine print.

On the night I was to leave for London, with a 12 hour stopover before continuing on to Johannesburg, I was denied boarding when checking in at the airport because my passport did not have two blank facing pages, a requirement for entry into South Africa. Rebooking flights with this short of notice would cost a fortune, and I couldn't afford to pile on the debt.  I unfortunately made the painful decision to cancel my entire trip to South Africa, including running the Two Oceans Ultramarathon, my goal race for the spring season. It was also going to be my 99th marathon. The trip would continue on to London, where I would run the London Marathon the following weekend, as my milestone 100th marathon.

NYPA line @ 5AM
So, after a night of stress, getting all my documents together and getting a passport photo taken at a random Jackson Heights passport photo shop operating in a bodega, the following morning I headed to the New York Passport Agency (NYPA) to be one of the first in line to try to get my passport renewed as quickly as possible. Normally, this required an appointment ahead of time, which there were none available - but with proof of upcoming travel (a hastily purchased one-way itinerary to South Africa, which I later cancelled with 24 hour risk free cancellation -- thank you, Delta!) I was able to necessitate the need for an expedited new passport. From researching this, it seemed the “walk-in approach” worked for some, as long as all the documentation was taken care of ahead of time. I managed to get my passport in about five hours time, pondered the possibility of still doing my South Africa trip, but then realized that I would end up it would be fiscally irresponsible. I still had to salvage the London part of my trip, which would be a whole other logistical dilemma.
Just before the agency opened
Showing off my new bib (Photo by
Horse and Duck Photo)
Concerning my races - with me no longer able to start at Two Oceans, it would throw off the London Marathon as my 100th marathon.  But thankfully, right in my own backyard, local running club Queens Distance Runners were putting on the 4th annual Queens Marathon on Easter Sunday, so my numbers didn't change!  I actually knew about this race happening since my friend Budi, who I met at the Beirut Marathon in November 2018, was planning to visit New York from Toronto and run this race. I was registered by the Thursday before the race, ready to take on Flushing Meadows-Corona Park for 26.2 miles.  I picked up my bib on Saturday afternoon at the Modell's at Queens Center Mall, and was also able to negotiate with the race director, Kevin Montalvo of the Queens Distance Runners, to sing the national anthem on race morning.  Why not make lemonade out of lemons?

So a little about Flushing Meadows-Corona Park... Promoted by Robert Moses, the New York World's Fairs of 1939 and 1964 birthed this 1,255-acre park on what had once been a big expanse of more-or-less undeveloped salt marsh with a large portion of it used as a landfill and dumping ground by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company. The landscape continued to suffer from the dumping of ash until 1934, when the city designated Flushing Meadows as a future park and site of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Kissena Creek was filled and Flushing Creek was rerouted along the eastern side of the park. Though it lacks the artistic landscaping of the great Olmstead and Vaux parks (like Central and Prospect), it's huge, heavily used, and highly valued by the people of Queens. Visitors from elsewhere find themselves on park grounds when they visit CitiField to see the New York Mets play, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to see the U.S. Open in the fall, the New York Hall of Science, the Queens Museum of Art, or the Queens Zoo.

The Queens Distance Runners created a 4.37 mile loop taking us through paths all around the park with the Unisphere, the spherical stainless steel 140 foot tall globe commissioned as part of the 1964 World's Fair, at its center.  Marathoners would run this loop six times.  The loop is easily divisible into four sections, each forming a directional section of the park - south, west, north, and east.
The 2019 Queens Marathon course (image by Queens Distance Runners)
Ederle Terrace Cafe, overlooking
Meadow Lake
The first section of the race loop, to the south, had runners run past the New York State Pavilion and the Maloof Skate Park, before ascending the Meadow Lake Bridge over the Long Island Expressway, one of the highest points of elevation on the course. After heading towards Meadow Lake (actually the largest lake in New York City!) and through Sri Chinmoy Way, we returned over the bridge.

The New York State Pavilion
The second section, to the west, had runners pass around the New York State Pavilion, then turn left to go over the Zoo Bridge (or South Bridge) over the Grand Central Parkway that heads in the direction of the Queens Zoo. After running along the Carousel Loop around the open field, we encountered "Mount Corona," actually the highest point of the marathon at 31 feet, but not the sharpest uphill - that was Meadow Lake Bridge.  With Terrace on the Park behind the trees in front of us, we passed the Queens Zoo Carousel, and headed back over Zoo Bridge towards the Queens Theatre, just before turning left to head back toward the Unisphere.

Arthur Ashe Stadium
The third section of the race loop, running to the north, had runners hug the western edge of the Unisphere, in front of the Queens Museum, then run along the approach toward Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, before making a left turn, passing the tennis center's Grandstand and crossing the Hall of Science Bridge (or North Bridge). We ran around a fountain before returning back over the bridge, taking a right turn to return to the Queens Unisphere, before approaching the final and longest segment of the course.

The Pond of Industry
The final section of the race loop was symmetrical, heading to and from the Pond of Industry, a moon shaped lake that was once the site of an elegant fountain, but now sits non functioning.  After passing another timing mat, just past the Unisphere, we ran along some of the paths in the park, following United Nations Avenue North and Avenue of the Americas to the northernmost point of the park, where we ran around a small portion of New York Avenue near David Dinkins Circle and where the wooden Passerelle pedestrian bridge enters the park from riders of the 7 train at the Mets-Willets Point station.  We then followed the Avenue of Commerce all the way to the Pond.  We hugged the edge of the pond, nearly making our way all the way around its semicircular shape, before turning left to follow the continuation of the Avenue of Commerce to the treelined Avenue of Africa. Making a right onto United Nations Avenue South, we would round the paths back to the Unisphere, then make a left turn to where we would complete the loop and run toward the finish line.  The final 600 meters of the loop took us past the soccer field, Unisphere approach and to the finish line.
The impressive Unisphere approach with the Observation Towers behind
Race morning came with me waking up at 6:30am, and getting dressed and out the door.  The temps were nice outside - in the low 50s, not too cold, not too hot. Being so close to my apartment, I jumped onto the 7 train and made my way to the Mets-Willets Point stop, only 5 stops and barely ten minutes away. From there, we took the Passerelle down to the park, and traversed through the grounds to the start area, positioned near the iconic Unisphere. After several announcements from the emcee and other guests, it was my turn to take the mic; my unfortunate turn of events with the South Africa trip going awry was highlighted before I sang the national anthem, just as the sun peeked behind the clouds that morning.

The startline
It was a little after the proposed 8am start, but the horn sounded and we were off, beginning the first of our six loops around the course, a beautiful 54°F and cloudy.  And as you may have thought, six loops really, truly messes with your head.  I stuck to my normal run/walk schedule - starting off with 19 minute runs with a 1 minute walk break, then gradually decreasing the run time as the day went by.  But today, I felt good enough to maintain the 19 minute run through pretty much the first 2 hours of the race.

Coming down Meadow Lake Bridge
The first loop allows you to have a feel for the course and start to notice the little idiosyncrasies that you take mental notes of and end up planning for for each upcoming loop.  For instance, I ran up and down Meadow Lake Bridge, with the sharpest uphill of the loop, for those first few loops; but as my legs grew tired, I knew where I could set a point on the bridge to keep running to on the uphill and then invariably walk, until I found another point on the bridge to start running again for the downhill.  I always knew that I'd encounter a windy section as we ran toward Meadow Lake, followed by an immediate calmness once we made the right turn, but the smelliest section of the course, as we passed by the lake. Two other windy sections I noticed were the short southward route as we made our way around "Mount Corona," and as we rounded the circular path around the Pond of Industry... essentially, I associated getting close to water as "windy parts."  The places where I knew I could coast along and step on the gas were the downhills off of the three bridges, the straightaways making our way past the Unisphere (in either direction - I guess the structure blocked any issue of wind when we ran south there), and then the nice long straightaways along the Avenue of the Americas and the Avenue of Africa.
Running next to Meadow Lake
(Photo by Horse and Duck Photo)
Great shot with the
Observation Towers (Photo
by Horse and Duck Photo)
Despite a short 15 minutes of rain that we managed to get at around the four mile mark, the weather stayed cool, warming up but not terribly.  The clouds definitely helped for the first half of the race. The first three loops were fine - I managed to keep a decent pace, with my pace staying fairly consistent as the miles ticked by.  I actually never went over 10 minutes per mile during these first three loops of the race, managing to finish the first half in 2:03:07 - in actuality, one of my fastest half marathon times ever - and not just for the first half of a marathon!  That translates into roughly a 9:24 average mile pace.

Lots of great support along the course
While I got to run alongside some strong runners for some short stints, including my friend Kent, and others who I didn't get to catch their names; it REALLY helped to have a lot of great spectators cheering us along the course, especially from local run clubs. Thank you so much to the volunteers from Pinoy Runners New York, November Project, Woodside Sunnyside Runners, and of course Queens Distance Runners, for being out there, manning aid stations, and just generally being great support for us for the entire race!  The park also began to get more crowded over the course of the day, with families coming out to picnic in the park to celebrate Easter on this gorgeous day.  Kids were out hunting for Easter eggs, people were out riding bikes and strolling through pathways in the park, while games of soccer, cricket, and baseball happened nearby.  The smell of barbecue wafted through the air, too, making more hours of running even harder!
On the course (Photo by EliteFeats)
Great closeup shot (Photo by Horse and Duck Photo)
Selfie with Mr. Met!
The last three loops, though, were undeniably tougher.  I've traditionally had a tough time maintaining my pace for the second half of a marathon, but for some reason, like last week, I still was able to keep a degree of consistency for a few miles after the 13.1 mile halfway point.  With the sun now out, ducking behind a cloud here and there, the temperatures had warmed into the high 50s. Only once in the entire second half of the race did I go over 11 minutes for a mile split - something I've never done before for a marathon, the closest I've come to that being my marathon the previous week in Warsaw.  The most difficult part of every marathon for me is always around the mile 16 to mile 18 mark of a race, and luckily, I had the chance to run alongside a Queens Distance Runner named Cathy who was pacing 9:30.  She was only going to complete up to the 4th loop as a long run, but had caught up with me and decided to stick alongside me for those two miles, helping me maintain a decent pace.  It definitely helped, as I stuck to my rigid interval, by the start of the third hour down to a mix of 14 and 1 and 9 and 1.
At the end of another loop (Photo by EliteFeats)
Action photo (Photo by Horse and Duck Photo)
The Catholic mass along the course
When I began loop number 5, I knew I was getting close to the territory where it was a mental game - like every marathon - "the race begins at 20."  But another layer of mental fortitude was needed since I had two entire loops still to run.  The park became even more crowded, now that it was 11:30am.  Even an outdoor Catholic mass had popped up not far from the start/finish line, just as we made our way up the Meadow Lake Bridge over the Long Island Expressway.  Not something you'd see during a marathon, that's for sure!

The treelined Avenue of Africa
Generally, when I reach mile 20, I start to assess the timing of my finish, knowing that healthily at a 10 minute pace, I can get the last 10K done in a little over an hour.  But at this point, having already run so many miles, that pace can slip to as much as 13 or 14 minute pace.  Much like the previous week in Warsaw, I was having a very strong day, and having built so much padding into my time with a super strong first half, I had an inkling by the end of loop 4 that I could PR. It was when I lapped a couple of my friends, they urged me to go on, and encouraged me to even say out loud... "I will PR!" that I could make that happen.  When I began loop 5, I started to make the calculations in my head.
Coming around one of the loops (Photo by EliteFeats)
Rounding the Unisphere (Photo by EliteFeats)
Mile 25 realness
That last loop was definitely hard. 4.37 miles still to run, and the monotony of schlepping my ass around this course, was really messing with me.  But I knew I had the PR in me, and I would say it to everyone I could as I passed.  Going below 4:20 was even a possibility, but it was going to be tough. Either way, being faster than last week was definitely going to happen, and running faster than my 4:27:00 PR was within my sights. I even started to pass several folks who were reduced to walking much of this last loop.  When I finally hit that last straightaway along the Avenue of Africa, I knew I was going to PR and PR big.  The legs were definitely exhausted, but my adrenaline was pumping.  Closer and closer that finish line got, and I finally crossed it, stunned... I had run 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 22 minutes, and 49 seconds, my fastest marathon ever.  I had obliterated my previous PR by over four minutes!  My breakdown of the splits for each loop is in table that follows.

Loop # Miles run Split time Cumulative Time
Loop 1 4.37 miles 0:39:24 0:39:24
Loop 2 8.74 miles 0:41:09 1:20:33
Loop 3 13.1 miles (half) 0:42:34 2:03:07
Loop 4 17.48 miles 0:45:12 2:48:19
Loop 5 21.85 miles 0:47:09 3:35:28
Loop 6 26.2 miles 0:47:21 4:22:49

Knowing I was going to PR!
Showing off my medal.
Elated to do this headstand!
In disbelief, I got my medal and made my way over to the Queens Theatre, where pizza, bubble tea, and Italian ice - all from Queens-based vendors - was waiting.  I was still shocked - I couldn't believe what I had done... and at a race AT HOME, nonetheless.  I found my friend Kent, snacking on some pizza in the theatre - he had finished about half an hour before me. Visiting from Regina, Saskatchewan were Jan and Tania, who I had interacted with previously on Facebook, and they came into the theatre not long after me. I got my things together to head to the train and saw my friend Lara finishing up another loop with one more to go, so I grabbed a photo with her.  On my way to the 7 train, I was able to get a stranger to help me take my headstand photo, and came out with a really fantastic shot - one I'll remember for awhile, since it was a race that was never planned for, yet achieved as a new PR!
Finding Lara near the end of her second to last loop!
Budi and I celebrating after our Queens Marathon finish!
Easter Bar Crawl!
(Photo by Curtis Knecht)
After taking the train home and getting a quick shower, I headed into the city to celebrate my race. For several years, my friend Curtis has hosted an Easter bar crawl through Hell’s Kitchen, so it was great to be able to join friends new and old from my run club, Front Runners New York! I was able to get Budi to join me as well, and he got a chance to meet a lot of my friends.  It was a great day, and despite my original plans falling through, there was a silver lining!

Now, I am SO not into running loops, and because of that, I likely wouldn't return to do this race again.  However, for 2020, the course is slightly different -- now a 6.57 mile loop that includes a run around the perimeter of Meadow Lake and generally removes many of the tight turns from the 2019 course.  With that, marathoners would only need to run four of these loops.  Perhaps it might make me consider coming back for 2020...
The new 2020 course... perhaps I may have to come back?
(Photo by Queens Distance Runners)

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