Why not me?

Sunday November 4, 2007 was the day I decided I would become a marathoner. I had just won my UAA Conference title in cross country the day before and flown back to Cleveland from Boston. I came home from church, got changed for my long run, and sat down in front of the tv – waiting for the hour-long replay of the NYC Marathon to air.

There she was – the legendary Paula Radcliffe, whose autobiography I had pored over the summer before. After battling it out with fellow mother of a young child Gete Wami, Paula came through that day with an incredible post-childbirth win in a time of 2:23. I was locked in on the story, and even more locked in on the characters of these women. Pure grit, and incredible strength.

Paula’s autobiography had sparked the winning fire under my senior cross country season. I had soaked in every word of wisdom and advice. But above all, her biography had beckoned me to ask myself “why not me?”

After I watched the closing of the replay, I braced myself for the crisp Cleveland November and ran out the door. I knew I was rolling during the run, but without a GPS watch on me. It wasn’t until I came back and mapped out each segment of my run on gmap-pedometer.com that I was able to see just how fast I had gone. It was 15.3mi at 6:23 pace, starting over 7 minute pace and finishing the last 2 miles under 6 minute pace.

I remember sitting in front of my computer, stunned by what I had achieved out on the roads – just me and my headphones. It was then that I realized that I only need to run 11 more miles at that pace in order to run under the 2:48 standard required to start at the 2008 Olympic Trials set to be run in April. And that effort had been after racing the day before!

My destiny was set. I would run the marathon as soon as it made sense, and I would most certainly one day run New York City Marathon.

 

Nine years later, there I was – an invited member of the elite women’s field for the New York City Marathon. Surrounded by American and international legends in distance running. Chatting with amazing people and athletes, many of whom I can call friends after 6 years in the elite running world. Just being there to soak up their wisdom and experience was enough of a privilege. I could have gone home on Saturday night and felt fulfilled with my NYC Marathon experience, without even running the race.

But that wasn’t all that was in store. On Sunday morning, I woke up, put on my uniform, braided my hair, grabbed breakfast on the way to the bus, and sat with the newly minted master Dot McMahan on the ride to the start. Dot and I had worked together at the 25k championships in May, and she had proven to be an extremely reliable pacing partner and an excellent match in fitness. We talked about training, life, and of course the NYC course and the wind and our plan of attack.

We would take it easy up the Verazzano Bridge, relax down the hill, and then get into a 5:50 effort rhythm – whatever that may be into the 15mph headwind we would certainly feel on our trek north through Brooklyn and Queens. Our planned go-time in the race would be 21mi – as we leave the Bronx and reenter Manhattan for the trip south to Central Park. And that’s almost exactly what we did.

For the earlier miles of the race, I found myself with the lead pack until 5k where they took off and left me in the dust where I settled in with Janet Bawcom. By mile 7 or 8, Dot had caught up to me and Janet. Just before half way, Annie Bersagel came to join us – that made for a group consisting of two US Marathon Champs and two 2x top-10 Olympic Trials finishers. Not including myself, my partners’ average PR was a 2:29.

I was beaming. Not just because I was surrounded by such greatness, but because I was also running through greatness in the city of New York, and I felt like I was where I needed to be. This was the fulfillment of a dream that been born 9 years before on the couch of my college house in Cleveland, Ohio.

By 16 miles, we had lost Annie and Janet was starting to fade. Dot and I traded leads and kept a slower but steady pace into the wind up the hill towards the Bronx. By 19, I felt excited and ready to go, but Dot told me she was sticking to her plan of going at 21. I stayed for 1 more mile and made my move at 20 miles.

As soon as I did it, I was fairly certain that I had too much left in me. I couldn’t see anyone ahead, so I had no idea how many more I had to catch or how close anyone was. It was around then that I started hearing that there were about 10 women ahead of me. I knew that around 18mi, I had seen Gwen’s big orange shirt ahead, so I knew she couldn’t be too far off unless she had somehow rallied.

I don’t remember feeling any hills in the last 6 miles. I just remember wishing that there were longer straight aways so that I could finally spot the people ahead. I made it around Marcus Garvey Park and could see down 5th Ave towards Museum Mile and there they were – Gwen’s orange shirt next to the tiny Colombian runner Arias and Kim’s orange shorts just ahead of them.

As soon as I had caught the 3, I was already past them, and I entered the park with my heart overjoyed at the thought that I had broken well into the top 10 at the New York City Marathon! For 3 more miles I was in a serene place of celebration – but still focused on making sure that I maintained my place and made the most of my finishing time.

The last mile. Photo Cred: Tim Meigs

The last mile. Photo Cred: Tim Meigs

Then as I turned onto Central Park South, I saw that there was one more. The woman looked like she was almost a full minute ahead, and I thought to myself that there was no way I would catch her with less than a mile left. As we turned into Columbus Circle after the men’s winner rolled through, I could see that the gap had closed significantly. It was only then that I actually believed I might be able to catch her.

I knew there wasn’t much course left, so I sprinted up the hill and back into the wind towards the finish. I felt like I was flying, and I didn’t give myself the opportunity to enjoy the grandstands or finishing shoot at all – all eyes were on the woman ahead.

As I came across the line, I was still sure that I was 8th and maybe the woman ahead of me was 7th. Then Sam Grotewald told me I was 11th. I was still sure that I had broken into the top 5 Americans, but the reality of finishing 11th at both of my target races this year came crashing down on me pretty hard.

 

Yes, top 10 got prize money, and I would have made $10,000 more in prize money this year if I had finished 10th at both races, but it’s not about that. In our sport, there are 3 rankings that matter – winner, medalist, and top-10.

Finishing top 10 at both the Olympic Trials and the New York City Marathon would have had a significantly greater impact on the future of my running career than placing 11th. At the trials, I accepted it. I was frustrated because despite my reputation of even and negative splits, I had been beaten in the 2nd half by a fellow Skechers runner, Katja Goldring. But due to the 2-minute gap between me and 10th place and the rate at which I was starting to move backwards, I was just grateful to finish as close as I had.

New York was different. I spent the final miles believing and celebrating that I was in 8th place, only to end up missing 10th place by four seconds.

It wasn’t until a day later that I finally understood what exactly had upset me so much. It wasn’t as much about my finishing place or the money. In fact, my expectations going into the race were that on a great day I would end up in the top 10 overall and top 5 American. The disappointment was only in the misunderstanding.

Looking back, I’m sad that what was otherwise an incredible weekend and race experience could be so tainted by one relatively brief yet hopeful misunderstanding. On the other hand, I’m coming way far more inspired than I arrived.

 

My finish at NYC is my tipping point. I am ready to move on to the next level. I’m ready to be a top-5 player in the USATF circuit. Based on my skill set, it seems that I’ll never be exceedingly dominant at any distances under the half marathon, but that will not keep me from working harder to elevate my fitness and ability to the level that it needs to be in order to achieve my greatest potential in my primary events.

I know that my late start at age 17, my undertrained DIII collegiate experience, almost a full year away from competition after college, and my durability and consistent improvement over the last 13 years all add time to my projected peak.

But at age 30, I also recognize that this dream job can’t last forever. At this point I can see that my opportunities are not infinite and that only motivates me more to make the most out of these next 4 years. My experience in New York opened my eyes to just how close I am to being among the greats. After seeing Paula Radcliffe in person for the first time this weekend, I’m ready to ask again “why not me?”

 

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https://runnersconnect.net/premium_video/esther-atkins-nyc-marathon/

For Runners Connect members (or if you buy a membership), check out my post-race interview filmed in my house in Greenville. We cover my training building up and the race itself.

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