Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Unknowns of a Marathon Debut

First marathon a challenge for top runners
Published: November 2, 2011 3:23 PM

Even for hardened veterans of running -- champions at other distances, remarkably fit athletes -- a 26-mile, 385-yard footrace represents the far side.

"This is the marathon, and you've gotta respect the distance," said Lauren Fleshman, one of a handful of top American distance runners giving a "debut" theme to this year's New York City Marathon. Fleshman, 30, was an all-American at Stanford University and is the reigning national 5,000-meter champ, but on Sunday, "I'm going to be going through some feelings of serious doubt and pain," she said, "and they're going to be extended and amplified from anything I'm used to.

"I wouldn't say 'fear' of the distance. It's like a respect of the distance, a little bit of a cautious respect for the distance. It's a long way, man."To Bobby Curtis, a 26-year-old former NCAA cross-country champion at Villanova, "You'd be foolish not to fear it," he said, "just because so many great runners have failed at this distance. Quite a few people with great track credentials have failed miserably at the marathon."

Of the 45,000 to 46,000 runners expected to try, Fleshman and Curtis and Ed Moran -- another first-time marathoner -- are experienced and skilled enough at other distances to be among the leaders in this annual Running of the Humans through the city's five boroughs. But that doesn't guarantee them any particular insight into the unknown.

"I wouldn't say 'fear,' " decided Moran, a 30-year-old former all-American at William & Mary who won last year's national 10,000-meter title. "There's an anxiety about the distance, especially for a debut marathoner. There are so many variables that go into a successful marathon. You spend 12 to 16 weeks training your body to mitigate some of the risk factors in a marathon, or to take advantage of some of the opportunities it presents.

"But at the end of the day, no matter how physically and mentally prepared you are, how ready are you going to be on that day? Is everything going to come together for you?"

Even for marathoning veterans such as Jen Rhines, the 37-year-old former distance champion at Villanova who finished 18th in New York in 2005 and 34th in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the anxiety of facing more than 26 miles "doesn't ever entirely go away." Her recollection of her first marathon, she said was that "I probably had a little too little fear. I didn't know what I was in for, basically. And I didn't realize I wasn't ready to do it."

Still, the first-timers find the challenge irresistible. "In every distance runner's career," Moran said, "they want to see if they can run the distance and make sure, OK, this isn't my sweet spot. You don't know unless you try. You may be missing your natural calling."

Fleshman wants firsthand knowledge of "pushing through and having that kind of elation you can feel at the end. I just want that experience. I want to join the club, dang it."

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