By Brandon Newbould
Sunday, November 3rd, was a difficult day to race a marathon this year. The realists among us would point out the physical conditions of race day and the challenges presented by them, but to me it seems that there is in our universe an unseen dimension that only evidences itself through an intangible climate of adversity. I am very likely the only person who even secretly suspects such a hare-brained and paranoid concept, but I will espouse it agnostically until a scientific authority demonstrates its validity. Conditions on race day were certainly far enough from optimal to account for the prevalence of slow times and blow-ups, but sometimes it just seems like a tough day. After reading so many accounts of drop-outs and disasters in NYC the same day as Manchester, I console myself in knowing that I suffered with many others.
Suffering is okay in a marathon, or if I can be more precise, suffering is appropriate and expected. Sometimes the race seems effortless. My first one was like that, really successful and pretty painless. Amby Burfoot has written the same thing about his historic win at Boston. But those of us who were so fortunate probably all agree that we knew it would never quite be that easy again.
But after that opening, I wanted to take this another direction, because I didn’t really have a bad race. I race to exemplify and practice certain values, like facing adversity courageously, and this race provided a nice big stage for that. I knew when Manchester was selected for the Grand Prix series that this would be a difficult race. The course is challenging, or maybe very challenging, and the race is held in early November, so the 15 mph winds and mid-30s temperature could only be expected. And that’s what I faced on race morning: a drive through spitting snow to a cold, windy, daunting marathon course.
I looked forward hopefully to some competition on race day. My goal was to win, whatever the time, and I know that competition brings the best out in me. I was confident too, so really the worst-case scenario was showing up to find nobody left in New England who hadn’t already raced their fall marathon or was busy with cross-country. That said, I admit that I was intimidated a little bit when I came across a camp of Ethiopian runners resting in the hotel before the start. There must have been fifteen of them, and they looked every bit as fast as their dominant group performance proved later that morning. Knowing they were there, I visualized various scenarios and prepared to take them and anyone else on when the gun sounded.
The first mile of the race is downhill, and I anticipated a quick opening mile. I was fresh off of a five mile race in central Mass in which Glarius Rop and friends went out in under 4:30, and the poignant memory of that start lingered as I toed the line in Manchester. The half marathoners began with us, differentiated by bib color. At the gun, at least twenty people were out in front of me before I got through my first strides. I would have face-palmed if I wasn’t afraid of tripping on all the guys in front of me, because I completely failed to stay abreast long enough to see who was running the full marathon. It didn’t matter, because I would not have hung with them anyway. Through the first mile in 5:18, I could see that the leaders were already ten seconds up on me. On that course, on that day, I was not going to go out that fast.
The best laid race plans of mice and men gang aft aglay. I was supposed to go out with the leaders, even if it was fast, and instead I had twenty-five miles to go and I was completely alone. I focused on what I was doing, and managed my efforts over the immediately aggressive hills until the half-marathoners peeled away at mile 10. At that point the lead pack formed a tight unit far enough in the distance that I could not count them individually. So far I had pulled in only one casualty from their aggressive early pace. Some others from the group went with the half marathoners, leaving one down and, I was informed, four to go in the lead group.
I was running the part of the course that I had actually managed to preview a few weeks earlier, and I pictured myself pulling the lead group in before we came back to the highway at mile 17. Instead, on a stretch of gravelly rail trail, my Saucony Type A5 flats picked up a few rocks in the outsole “breathing holes.” I don’t know what the holes are for. They’re nice shoes and all but what is it with holes in the outsole? Some of the rocks just scraped a little on the road, but one of them was big enough that I could feel the pressure on each footstrike, right under my big toe knuckle. Instead of focusing on running down the leaders I faced a distracting choice: did I stop to take the rock out or soldier on? I tried to remember what the Princess and the Pea could teach me about this predicament. Nope, I couldn’t remember how that story goes. I kicked at the road, a futile effort, and decided I needed to stop. 15M was too far to risk leaving the rock in place. I pulled a glove off, aimed for a mailbox to lean on, and stopped to take the rock out. I clawed at it like a fighting cheerleader but the thing only turned circles in the outsole. Finally I pulled it out and hit the road. I couldn’t get my glove back on – I looked down to see the fabric snagging on my bloody torn fingernail, and suddenly remembered a scene from The Silence of the Lambs: “It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again!” Another encouraging picture in my mind with more than half the race to go. I was thankfully rescued from this downward trend by observing another casualty from the lead pack: one of the runners walked down the road, rubbing his calf and grimacing. Three to go.
I told myself to stay positive and pushed through some of the biggest hills on the course, around mile 16. They would all come back. Up ahead I spotted another fast runner, darting through the half-marathon crowd as we rolled down Hanover St, and I pushed to catch him. As I reached him he spotted me over the shoulder, and I surged hard. Thankfully I got away, but as I reached mile 19 and turned through the thick crowd my effort caught up to me.
From then on, the race became the marathon we all dread. I refused to let up, but I was pushing into the wind and over the hills with weakened legs. Looking back over my splits, I didn’t actually slow down, but in terms of effort I was maxed-out. The next runner came into sight, but I was closing too slowly. Calls of 70 seconds came slowly down, but I could see the lead and it was hard to imagine it closing completely unless he cramped or took a wrong turn. Speaking of which, the course turned like a Go-Cart track all the way to the finish. Every time I tried to build my momentum I would hit a turn and feel a muscle grab, or I would have to let up slightly while I tried to figure out where the course went. Finally we reached Elm St. and the finish straight, and the runner was away from me. I had cut the lead down to 30 seconds, but it was never actually close. I drove hard to the finish line anyway, knowing I had a long break coming and that I had given all I had. The only thing left to do was pour the rest out.
The result was bittersweet. I won the New England title and could justify some the time and energy that I took away from my family to prepare for this with a decent prize check. But in the race situation I felt that I had competed and lost, whatever titles bestowed on me. I felt pride as a local finisher, which only magnified the sense of loss, but also gave me plenty to smile about in the finish area. After the race I continue to practice the mindset I strove for as I ran through Manchester – focus on how I compete. I raced those guys and offered them my best. It wasn’t good enough to get me across the line first, but that doesn’t mean it was a wasted effort. It was a tough day, and I’m glad that I could endure it with my teammates alongside and my family watching.
Brandon finished third overall in 2:28:26 and was the first USATF-NE competitor. The overall Grand Prix series (won by Sean Duncan with 39 points) concluded with this race. Brandon finished up the year strong by scoring 19 points over the last two races (9 at the 30k in Nahant and 10 in Manchester), which was good enough to put him in 5th place overall.