by Matt Roche
I turned 40 this past July and naturally assumed that my running would gradually slow down. Around my birthday, I set some running goals as a means of motivation for myself. Having had success over the fall with a couple of 5K races, where I far exceeded what I thought I was capable, I began to re-examine what was possible and what I might want to test myself with. In that spirit, after a particularly strong run late one evening in early January, on a whim I signed up for the Helderberg to Hudson half-marathon. With my typical runs being your garden variety 5-6 miler, this run would be toward the outer limits of my endurance capacity. I knew I had work to do. My friend and de-facto trainer, Chris Yoe, suggested a good 12-week program and off I went. I did have a few moments of adversity along the way from a training perspective, with a calf pull here and a back tweak there. Increasing mileage rapidly has its challenges. However, modified my plan had to be, prior to the race I knew I had put in quality work and had a chance to be successful relative to my own goals and expectations.
Having run only one half-marathon prior (Saratoga Palio, 2018, 1:34:49), I based much of my expectations off of that reference point. While I was coming into this five years older, I was also, in many ways, in better shape, with more focus and discipline than the first time around. In the 2018 race, I wanted to, but ultimately fell short of, break 1:30 (6:52 pace). Naturally, this became my baseline goal this time around. Beyond that, I set a higher reaching goal of 1:25 (6:30 pace). As the date approached, and in consideration of some of those training setbacks I had faced, I began to feel that 1:25 would be at the outer limits of possible. There was only so hard I could push myself. Beyond those time goals, I wanted to see my name on the list as top-3 finisher in my age group (40-45). If other men my age were capable of one time or another, then I was too. As any runner knows, though, training has its physical and emotional peaks and valleys. In the weeks preceding the race, there were many nights where the overarching feeling was little more than fatigue, with the unwanted but occasional whisper of doubt that naturally followed. Of course, I had other runs where I felt strong and fast. Prime, as the kids say. While I have many thousands of miles of running experience to draw from and was confident in the broadest sense, at this outer distance, I knew I would venture into unchartered territory somewhere along the trail. That, plus the downhill course, were my x factors.
I got to New Scotland Town Park 20 minutes before the gun and was immediately impressed with the caliber of runner that was clearly in attendance. I have found that I don’t like waiting around. It’s best just to show up, warm up, and go. Living so close to the rail trail, I also benefited from my familiarity with stretches of the course. Knowing the landmarks and contours unquestionably helped, in the strategic sense, along the way. Bang! When the race started, the confluence of adrenaline, other runners, and a good hill shot me from a cannon. I was clearly not alone! My pace peaked at 4:45/mile during the early going and I trailed many. At the same time, I felt comfortable, strong, and within myself. I fell in with some strong runners and kept my eye on my heart rate and pace for the next several miles. Over the first five, I averaged just over 6:00/mile pace. So far, so good. I was way ahead of schedule (any pace at 6:25 or better was the objective) and putting some buffer time in the bank for later, should I need it. As I approached Delmar, my wife (Brynn) organized a cheering section, with my two boys (Nolan and Sean), my mother- and sister-in-law (Sharon & Shannon), with other friends and family in attendance. Brynn even played my favorite Christy Moore song (Joxer Goes to Stuttgart) as I came through. Feeling the support of those close to me – and from all of the many spectators that came out to watch – was a tremendous boost. I passed them at the Gardner Terrace entrance to the Rail Trail (~6.75 miles into the race), just at a point where I had completed a slight uphill portion of the track and was, as a result, feeling the onset of fatigue. The energy and support of my family, at that point along the way, carried me and I cruised through the next 3-4 miles. The ensuing slope of the Rail Trail as I neared the bottom of the hill didn’t hurt either.
As I wound my way down to Albany and moved into the last two miles, I felt every bit of the eleven miles I had just run. The pounding of the downhill had exacted its toll from my legs; the hill giveth and the hill taketh. When you get to that point in a race though, you smile, you remind yourself that you are strong, you endure, and you gut it out. Pain is temporary, pride is forever. Despite how I felt, I managed my slowest mile at 6:33, which was probably more impressive than my first mile of 5:42. As I rounded the bend for the finish line, I saw that I had a chance to come in under 1:22, which would far exceed the goals I set for myself. I sprinted to the finish, by my family once more, and hit the line at 1:21:55 (6:16 pace). What a run! I hit every goal I set for myself and won my age group. I also came in second in the 40+ division and a full 1 minute per mile faster than my race 5 years ago. So, while we all know father time is undefeated, at least for a day, I took a round off of him.
I’d like to give special acknowledgment to Sharon, who came out, watched me run and showed her support, as she always does. This while in the midst of her cancer treatment. However hard my training (or race) was at times, it was nothing compared to what she has and continues to endure. For her to come out in support of me, despite the more arduous and exhausting race she is running in her own right, is a testament to her strength and something I’ll always remember.
Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my story. Good luck to all the runners out there training/racing the rest of the season!