Through late summer and early fall, I’d been semi-training for a marathon. I wasn’t too sure which one. There were several I was eyeballing. It was interesting doing this training-but-not-training thing. Instead of plotting out each and every weekend and weekday with specific mileage, having no set schedule left me free to continue cycling and swimming, and entering whatever running races I wanted, regardless of whether they “fit” into my training plan.
All summer I’d been enjoying long weekend runs, including a wonderful run in my home town of Leavenworth, Kansas — 22 miles on country roads for no real reason at all. I also enjoyed the route from my home in Brooklyn down past the Verrazano bridge along the Bay Ridge waterfront and back, about 17 miles.
But my plans for an early November marathon were cut short when I had to have a bit of surgery. But I didn’t want to give up my fall 26.2. The weekend of Oct. 20 was my only free weekend; the week prior I had a 10k on Saturday and the Staten Island Half Marathon on Sunday. I’d have no time for a proper taper, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to run 26.2 before sitting out a few weeks for recovery.
I found the Hambletonian Marathon through MarathonGuide.com. It was only 65 miles from home, and the registration was still open. I registered on a Wednesday, with the race on Sunday. Another bonus: the proceeds were to support the local (Goshen, NY) food bank along with providing funds to improve the area’s local trails. Turns out this wasn’t the only pleasant surprise in store.
This was the inaugural running of the Hambletonian marathon. The idea was born in 2012, after Superstorm Sandy crashed the party, leading to the cancellation of the 2012 NYC Marathon. Orange County locals, including a former race director, Kathleen Rifkin, threw together a last-minute course for locals who had planned to run NYC: a looping course curling through the farms and woodlands around Goshen and Middletown, New York. 50 local runners participated, but only 18 of them completed the hilly course that day.
For 2013, with Ms. Rifkin at the helm, the course was refined and certified, and the Hambletonian set up shop.
There would be no cowbells — except maybe on actual cows.
My previous marathons were pretty big events: New York City, New Orleans, New Jersey. Never less than 3,000 runners, and as many as 40,000. Hambletonian marathon? 250 marathoners plus another 150 teams doing it as a relay. There would be no wave assignments, no giant expo, no throngs of spectators, no on-course bands. Mainly it would be me and the road and trail.
Packet pickup was easy, at a restaurant that also hosted the pasta dinner. Since I’d registered so late, there was no T-shirt for me, but I was told they were going to re-order.¹ There was no goody bag to speak of, unless you were local (a coupon for discounted septic cleaning!), but I didn’t need another water bottle or sample gel anyway.
“Goshen” kept reminding me of “Gozer”²
In contrast to big marathons, where you often park miles from the start and take a shuttle bus, on race day we parked maybe 500 feet from the start line, situated on a downtown street in Goshen. This is a cute town, with Victorian buildings, several churches anchoring the village square and at the center of it all, the Goshen Historic Track, the oldest (since 1838) continuously operating harness track in the country. (The term continuously should be used loosely – they only race on it 8 days a year. The rest of the time, it’s part of a museum.)
That’s where “Hambletonian” comes from, named for Hambletonian 10, a legend among sire horses, who started a whole bloodline of harness horses called Standardbred back in the mid 1800’s. As a stud, he produced 1,335 foals. Today’s fastest harness horses trace their lineage back to Hambletonian 10. Certainly a good omen for marathon runners!
The morning was cool and sunny, about 40 degrees. One of the nearby churches had set up a table selling bagels and giving away free coffee. There were about as many spectators at the start as there were racers. We all milled about casually, the whole scene a microcosm of a larger race. Some were excited first-timers, others were mastering their game faces — stretching, hopping up and down, and doing neck rolls. Still others represented the campy minority: the guy dressed completely in American flag attire. The older big guy racing in the tiniest shorts, and the trios of 40-something moms in pink tutus and feather boas.
A few minutes before start time, we were called to the line. I situated myself right up front, and why not? There were only 500 of us. A “ready, set, go” and we were off.
Ups and downs
The course was billed as hilly, and it didn’t disappoint. A loose figure 8, we’d pass through the town center once more just before the midpoint, then begin a different loop to finish on the Historic Track itself.
It didn’t take long to reach the edge of town, and just like that, we were surrounded by big houses with enormous lawns — no doubt homes of Wall Street types who commute each day to NYC. It also didn’t take long for the race to thin out. Within two miles, I was running on my own, left to my own thoughts.
Mainly I thought about my pace in those early miles. I had thought I’d try for 8:15 miles for the first half, but my body told me that was too fast. I made the decision to pull back to 8:30’s very early, and I was much more comfortable. The country road stretched ahead, lined on either side by brambles and short trees, highlighted by bursts of purple aster and goldenrod. The homes grew further and further apart, giving way to rolling fields of grazing horses and cows. Tall rows of trees separated farms from each other, and marked the locations of little streams.
It was almost a little jarring to come across a water station, manned by cheerful groups of seven or eight people. Many seemed like families or social groups who’d volunteered to work a station. They were without exception friendly and enthusiastic.
Running on my own, I was surprised to see two spectators, an older couple set up with lawn chairs and coffee mugs at the foot of their driveway. One said “You’re only the fourth woman, you’re doing great!”
Uh oh. So much for zen. Now I think I might be in fourth place, and my competitive brain kicks back in. I catch up and pass a couple of men before making the left turn on to the first of two trail portions on the course. This one, a packed-dirt singletrack through fall trees and a carpet of orange and red leaves.
I’ve never run on a trail in a race before, but this one wasn’t a challenge – about 2.5 miles of flat dirt, passing little ponds complete with ducks and small docks. Through a culvert, our first entertainment of the day: Two groups of high-school a capella singers. The boys were singing “Jesse’s Girl” which gave me quite a boost. How fun is that?
The peaceful trail section ended, dumping us back on city streets, and there were a few more spectators. We passed a small gym that had dragged about 8 of its spinning machines to the curb. Eight women were pedaling away on their bikes, cheering while I ran past. Just as I’m thinking “I wonder if I am really in fourth place” I’m passed by another woman. Bummer.
A couple of oddball detours led us once more to the Goshen main drag, past the start line and the largest group of spectators, plus 150 people people waiting for their turn as part of their relay team. Just past the 13-mile mark, I’m passed again, this time by a couple. Sixth place now, I guess. But this was good, because I let it go and settled in once more to the weather, the trees, the sound of my feet hitting the pavement.
Rolling hills prevailed throughout the course, but the “big” one was a 3/4 mile climb on Purgatory Road at mile 14 1/2. It was … easy. And at mile 16, I took stock: Feet, legs, knees, brain. I didn’t just feel good, I felt great. I felt terrific. Let’s go.
About 1/4-mile ahead, I zeroed in on another woman. I was gaining, but I didn’t know if she was a relay runner or a marathon runner. It didn’t take long to catch her. Yep, a marathoner. I was momentarily sad for her, as she likely started out way too fast. Now maybe I’m back in fifth place, I’m thinking. A mile later, I overtake another woman. Fourth.
It was very odd passing people — we were all so strung out. It’s a surprise to even notice there’s anyone near you at all. Once or twice when I was passed, I was actually startled.
The last significant hill was at mile 19. It was quite steep. They called it cowbell hill, and there were 20 or 30 people cheering us on with noisemakers and actual cowbells. Mile 20 took us through onion fields, with soil so black and rich, it looked like chocolate cake. A quick right up a little embankment, and here was the second relay point. Just at that little hill I passed one more woman. Shit. I think I’m in third place.
But what’s better than that, I’m at mile 22 and I feel fantastic. My knees feel good. Even
the normal foot fatigue I usually feel isn’t bad. We turn onto the final trail portion of the course, which is actually paved, but it’s again through the pretty fall trees. It’s only at mile 24 that I start to feel ready to be done. But there’s no reason to flag — the remainder of the course is flat, so I try not to drop off my pace too much. By now, I’m averaging 8:40 or 8:45 on most miles. I lost some time on the big hills, but it still looks like I’ll come close my previous marathon PR of 3:53:26, set this past February on the very flat New Orleans course.
And coming down the home stretch…
We pop off the trail onto another side street, and just a few quick turns brings us to the foot of the famous horse track. The final 3/4 mile will be run on the track itself, made of freshly raked dirt and gravel. It was really novel running that last bit, thinking about thundering horses running alongside. Around the bend, into the home stretch, with the announcer calling out finishers’ names and home towns. I cross the mat at 3:54 even, just 34 seconds off my PR, but on a much hillier course.
Turns out I’m not in third place — I finished in 5th place among women overall, but I have won my age group, which feels pretty great. And what’s better, I feel really good.
Maybe I felt so fresh because I was well trained (true), but I think partly it was being free from mental distractions like having to weave through thousands of other runners, or negotiate crowded water stations, or from paying too much attention to cheering spectators.
Four hours of running through the countryside, with lovely weather was therapeutic and calming. And part of the reason it felt so effortless was due to impeccable organization. Mile markers were large and accurate. Water stations were well stocked and little snacks along the way were welcome (Twizzlers might be my new favorite).
The pure joy of celebrating the power of my own two feet kept my inner battery topped up. I will definitely be looking for another small marathon, and I’ll certainly be returning to the Hambletonian to defend my age-group win. Who’s with me?
1. They did re-order. I received an email a few weeks later saying they’d mail me my shirt. Wow.
2. From Ghostbusters. Gozer the Gozerian who manifests as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.