These next two weeks will mark the end of the 2017 marathon year, first with the 71st Fukuoka International Marathon this Sunday in Japan, followed by the 45th Honolulu Marathon on December 10th (where I will be sending reports beginning next Wednesday).
But as the sport gears up for these big year-end competitions, I wanted to go back for one last look at what will go down as the defining race of the American running year, Shalane Flanagan‘s historic win at the TCS New York City Marathon November 5th.
Going back over the news coverage, I noticed an interesting observation in the New York Times story of the women’s competition. And I was wondering whether other racers noticed it, or saw it as I did. Here’s how the Times story led up to the moment of truth in the women’s race.
“After 21 miles, the lead pack whittled to three: Keitany, Daska, and Shalane Flanagan, a 36-year-old from Massachusetts, who finished second in New York in 2010. Keitany finally removed her sleeves. The race was on.”
As I watched that critical stretch, Shalane, especially, had the contained but concentrated appearance of an athlete with horses at the ready, all controlled energy with a tight hold of the reins. To my eye at least, it looked like from the 20-mile mark on Shalane kept waiting for the real Mary Keitany to show up and throw down because she was poised to respond.
Both Mary and Shalane had come a long way since their marathon debuts in NYC 2010 – FEARFUL NO MORE – MARY KEITANY – where Shalane took second behind Edna Kiplagat by 20 seconds, with Mary in third, another 21 seconds back in 2:29:01. Every race has its Alpha, though, and with Ms. Keitany coming in as three-time defending champion and women’s-only world-record setting London zephyr, there was no doubt as to who the leading lady in New York 2017 was.
But as Shalane, Mary, and Mamitu Daska battled down Fifth Avenue alongside the row of elegant apartment buildings on the Upper East Side this year (with Edna trailing in 4th place, BTW), Keitany’s face revealed a mask of just enough discomfort to betray a lost cause. If she had been the Keitany of the last three years, one would have thought she would have tried to leave a long time ago – hell, last year she won by over 3 1/2 minutes! – especially at what had been a desultory 2:32 marathon pace early on, no more than a tempo effort for the 2:17:01 winner in London this past spring. Daska in her NYC debut was the wildcard. Here’s the Times story again.
… as they made their way down Fifth Avenue, one runner began to break away. Surprisingly, it was not Keitany…In a bizarre decision, Keitany began to drift toward the east side of 5th Avenue, away from Flanagan’s tail, before zigzagging back into the customary route. At that point, though, it was too late to catch the runner from Massachusetts — .”
It’s that bold section I want to draw your attention to. Here’s the question, was it really a bizarre move? Unusual, yes, but –
For years, when non-running people found out that I broadcasted running events they would often ask, “what do you say? They’re just running.” True enough, I’d tell them, but distance running is a nuanced game full of seemingly small elements, which later turn into major differences. Just as some coaches warn their athletes not to turn around during a race for fear of emboldening a chaser – and Shalane never did turn back to check where Mary or Mamitu might be in NYC after she broke away – an athlete in crisis is a tangle of competing thoughts and challenges.
What is a race, after all, but a series of questions that mount in importance as the distance plays out, until the cerebral acuity of Johannes Kepler is what’s needed, while you find yourself slapping foreheads with Mo, Larry, and Curly.
That’s the great paradox of this sport. Just when you need your wits about you the most, the fewer of them you have at your disposal as fatigue strips you bare of your remaining assets. So you play head games, trying to trick yourself into believeing that victory is still possibile, even as you feel it pulling away. That’s why when you are being gapped in a race, you bevel every thought into ‘it ain’t over yet’.
I’ve seen it a hundred times in road races, experienced it myself. You don’t see it on the track because you are running around a big oval with the inside lane being the path of least distance. But on the roads, as the gap begins to open on a long straightaway (like Fifth Avenue in New York City), you can find yourself drifting to the far side of the road because, from that cross-angle view, the gap doesn’t appear to be as big as when you are directly behind the person pulling away. So by sending out a psychological escape pod, you put a new eye on the gap, make it peripheral, and in so doing lessen the perceived distance between you and your opponent. Nothing blocking you now, no one shouting encouragement to your opponent, everything open out front. Like a horse wearing blinders, everything is positive.
Late in a marathon the mind rules because the body has long since concluded, “I got the point., this hurts, we can stop now”. So it is all left up to willpower after we have entered those dark places of pain, doubt, and faltering resolve.
Yet that same move out of the slipstream to the far side of the road is, in itself, an acknowledgment that real trouble is afoot. Only after the break has been sealed do you see the drifter come back to the tangent line to maintain the race for the next place that might be up for grabs.
Logically, it is a counterintuitive move, yes, but as four-time NYC winner of old Bill Rodgers once said, “racing isn’t a rational endeavor.”
Have you experienced this racing phenomenon yourself? Do you see it another way? Comment below. As always, thanks for reading.