26.2 Miles to Be Faster at 3.1
Todd Heisler/The New York Times
By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: November 6, 2011
When the hotel phone rang at 5 a.m. Sunday, Lauren Fleshman was already awake. Along with about 25,000 others in the New York field, she was running her first marathon. And she had the same hope, curiosity, excitement and anxiety as anyone else who had never run 26.2 miles.
Patrick Mcdermott/Getty Images
Am I ready? Am I strong enough? Where are the portable toilets?
“I’m not afraid of hitting the wall,” Fleshman, 30, of Eugene, Ore., had said a few days earlier. “It would be an honor to hit the wall. I just don’t know what to do if I have to go to the bathroom.”
Unlike most first-timers, Fleshman is a professional, not an amateur. Sunday for her was a rare experiment. She is a track runner. In late summer, she finished seventh at 5,000 meters at the world championships. No American woman had ever finished higher in the event.But to have any chance for a medal at the 2012 London Olympics, Fleshman realized she needed more power and endurance to defeat the Kenyans and the Ethiopians. Perhaps marathon training would give her added strength on the track.
“Grete tried this, coming off a 3K,” said Paula Radcliffe of England, the marathon world-record holder, referring to the great New York City Marathon champion Grete Waitz. “I think she almost shot her husband: What did you make me do? Then she came back and won nine times.”
Fleshman did not have aspirations of winning. If things went well, she wanted to finish in 2 hours 30 minutes or 2:35. Mostly, she just wanted to finish.
“I want to join the club,” she said.
At breakfast, butterflies fluttered in Fleshman’s stomach as she tried to eat some oatmeal.
“I feel really full but panicked that I’m not eating enough,” she said, a pink streak in her blond hair. “How do you eat enough to run 26 miles?”
From the hotel bellman she borrowed a pair of scissors and cut the lining out of her running singlet so it would not restrict her rib cage. At 6:30 a.m., she gave her husband a hug and joined other elite runners on buses to the start on Staten Island.
“I feel like I’m off to do something huge,” Fleshman said.
This idea of running a marathon first came up in March.
“You’re going think I’m crazy, but hear me out,” Fleshman told her husband, Jesse Thomas, a professional triathlete. “I want to run the New York Marathon.”
The response was not encouraging. “Are you smoking crack?” Thomas said.
Mark Rowland, Fleshman’s coach and a bronze medalist for Britain in the steeplechase at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was equally skeptical.
“No offense, but I think that’s the stupidest idea you’ve come up with,” Rowland said.
At the time, Fleshman was limited to running in a pool. Chronic foot problems had resurfaced. She had not run on pavement in 12 weeks.
But she felt the need for a radical shake-up. Twice she had won the national championship at 5,000 meters, or 3.1 miles, but her career was repeatedly interrupted by injury. Four times Fleshman had sustained stress fractures in her left foot. Her tendons and ligaments were so tight and bound up, the bones pushed against one another like boats in a hurricane-ravaged marina. Brick foot, her chiropractor called it.
Nothing seemed to be working. So Fleshman would try something drastically different, even if it seemed counterintuitive, training for a marathon on brittle feet. “I just had to get out of this cycle,” she said.
Learning From Africans
After finishing eighth in the 5,000 meters at the national championships in June, Fleshman improbably had a breakthrough in August, running 15:00:57 for the 5,000 at a meet in London. This was the fastest she had run in three years, only two seconds off her personal best, 14:58:48. Three weeks later, at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, Fleshman finished seventh, the top non-African.
The race was encouraging and sobering. With 1,000 meters, or two and a half laps, remaining, Fleshman hung on the shoulders of the leaders. Then suddenly, she fell back into ninth place. The rest is Here