I recognized the look on his face.It was that familiar look – satisfaction and pain.It was the first time I saw it on his face.I’ve seen it many times before, on runners I coached, on runners I raced against.I knew the look very well.I’ve had it on my face many times, during races and during training runs.Most runners know the look.
It was a cool night.The moon had just set over the Manhattan skyline.The sky was clear and the stars were out – a rarity in New York City.The air was calm and crisp.Perfect running weather.Central Park was still closed to cars and the evening runners and cyclists had already left the park.It was late.But, we usually did our weeknight runs late.
We met at the usual spot.Vaseline, water, check the shoe laces.Everything was in order.I had scheduled an easy six mile run.Saturday’s run was a long, hilly and tough run.He was feeling fine, but I wanted to be cautious.This, after all was going to be his first marathon.He had been running seriously for only three weeks.We had only one month to go.Time was short, we were short on training and mileage.He was very long on determination and commitment.
There’s a TV reporter and camera on the park drive.She’s doing a sound and camera check, not paying attention to what’s happening around her.He dances up behind her.Bopping around and grinning.Suddenly she hears that “there’s some guy dancing behind you!”The look on her face when she turned around and saw him was priceless.
He’s off running.Not a word to the TV reporter.The group, there are five running tonight, is full of energy.Mark takes the lead first.Then each of the others take their turn in the front.He’s running comfortably in the middle of the group.We round the bottom of Central Park and do a pace check – for the first mile.
My plan for an easy run seems to be history.Everyone is feeling good and the pace hovers around .As we pass the boat house at 72nd Street I mention to him “hold your pace, don’t slow down.Increase your effort, don’t speed up and don’t slow down.”He starts to climb Cat Hill.He looks relaxed and strong.There’s a gap opening up.He’s 10 yards ahead of the group.As we reach the top of the hill I pass him some Hammer Gel and water.I’m thinking, Apple Cinnamon, just like Mom’s apple pie.The gap widens.Mark closes the gap quickly.
I remain quiet.I’m waiting for us to get into the Harlem Hill.We start down the hill to Lasker Pool.Suddenly, he opens a 10 yard lead, then 20 yards.I check his speed and it’s under 8 minutes per mile.We are running down hill, but this is a little early to start a strong push.As if he’s reading my mind, the gap disappears.The group is back together.A cyclist flies by and looks over his shoulder at us.
We round the corner and head up Harlem Hill.I look closely at his face.It’s expressionless.His eyes are focused on the road ahead, shoulders and arms are relaxed.His stride is strong.A gap opens – 10 yards.Steadily, as he climbs the hill, the gap widens – 20, 30, 50 yards.With 100 yards to go on the hill his pace falters.For the first time this evening I tell him to push.“Don’t slow down now.Finish the hill.Keep your pace strong over the top of the hill.”
He responds, and his pace doesn’t slow.Over the top of Harlem Hill and down the other side.His pace stays strong.This is exactly where I wanted him to start running harder.“Relax your upper body.Drop your hands slightly.Stay relaxed.”Down the hill he runs.The foot steps behind us have disappeared.We’re alone, running in Central Park on this crisp September night.
The West Drive in Central Park has a series of four hills.They aren’t long, nor are they steep.But, there is no flat section along the West Drive.It rolls constantly.Up, then down, up again and down again, all the way to Tavern on The Green.It’s a challenge to run this two mile stretch.It’s a challenge and a test.We’re a month away from the NYC Marathon and he’s about to take his first test.
He doesn’t know this is a test – sort of a “pop quiz.”I look carefully at his eyes, his face, his shoulders and his stride.I’m looking for signs of weakness.If I were running against him in a race I would be looking for his weakness.Fortunately, I’m not racing against him – because there’s not sign of weakness.
As we approach the third hill, there’s a runner ahead of us.“Catch him before we reach the top of that hill” I tell him.He glances at me, there’s a slight hint of a grin on his face.There’s music blasting from the SUV that’s following us.Oddly, I hadn’t notice the music until right now.The still night air is shattered with the music, a strong drum beat, a powerful guitar and a strangely sweet voice.
His face turns to that look I had never seen on him before.The one I know intimately.It’s an odd combination of extreme pain and total confidence.The pain of pushing your body to it’s limit.And the confidence of knowing you’ll be able to hold the effort until the finish line.
It’s the feeling runners around the world strive for with every run.We don’t feel it often, but it’s what we strive for.The completeness of running at the best level you are capable of attaining.Your entire being is focused on the effort, the pain is welcomed.You know the pain as intimately as you know anything you’ve strived for in your live, anything that’s given you pleasure – pleasure of obtaining the best out of yourself.
As we reach the last hill, I shout “don’t back off!Don’t stop now!Keep going, think of the end of the marathon.Think of how you want to look as you finish the marathon.Think of how you’ll feel as you finish the marathon.”
We reach the end of the loop.“Stop!”
He’s just run the six mile loop of Central Park in under 49 minutes.
If anyone wonders if he can finish the NYC Marathon, this run should answer that question.