Cox offers insight on how he set his first marathon PR in nine years.
Written By: Josh Cox
Two weeks prior to the race I came down with a nasty cold. I woke up, my body ached, my head was congested, and swallowing felt like I was downing shards of glass. I was still running but after two days with no progress I went for a strep test and, fortunately, it came back negative. We adjusted the workouts, Terrence moved the mile repeats from Tuesday to Wednesday, decreasing the intervals from 5 to 4. Two days later I ran an 8 mile tempo rather than prescribed 12. After that workout I came home, fell on the couch and felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
On Sunday I ran 90 minutes and was still congested and achey. At that point Terrence suggested I head to sea level for the final week to give my body every allowance needed for recovery. Having the objective eye of a coach really helped, if left to my own devices I would have followed the schedule and stayed in Mammoth until Friday. We went down south, and fortunately, the move paid off. Two days before the race my head finally cleared. All that to say, toeing the starting line, I wasn’t too sure how the body was going to respond, 5 miles and strides is one thing, 5 miles after 21 is a different matter entirely.
You stack your chips for five months in hopes that it all comes together during a certain two-hour period on December 6. In the marathon business you get two chances a year. You get sick, too bad. Headwind, oh well. A muscle strain, sorry. Food poisoning, better luck next time. Freezing temperatures, try again in six months. Race morning comes and you hope, you pray, and you summon the memories of every tempo, every interval workout, core workout, long run, hill run, night run, and snow run and pray to Almighty God that it all comes together. It’s game time – there are no rain checks, there are no do-overs. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in workouts; this isn’t math class, there is no partial credit for showing your work – no matter how many YouTubes you make. If things don’t come together, you do your best to have a nice Christmas, you toast on New Years, and come January you put your hand back on the plow and try to nail it in a few months. Such is the beauty and glory of our sport.
Given the circumstances, my race plan moved conservative. Terrence had paced the first 18 miles at CIM a few times and gave me insight into the rolling nature of the course and the steady uphill sections. The elevation profile makes the course look like a screamer but overall I think it’s pretty fair. As is always the case with the marathon, the trick is having enough left in the legs to be able to roll that last 10k once the real racing begins. Terrence told me not to focus too much on splits but rather on an effort in the low 5’s. Had my final two weeks been sans sickness then Mike Morgan and I would have had the same race plan: Go from the gun, race from the front, chase the time, and see where the chips fell that last 10k.
Mike did go from the gun, I stayed conservative and because I never looked back, I never saw the main pack. I haven’t seen official splits, but Mike built a 20 second lead pretty quick and I imagine I had around the same on the chase pack. Essentially, we were both running solo. Somewhere around 10 miles two East Africans caught me and tucked in behind. At this point, the headwind was picking up and after two miles of doing all the work I waved them ahead and asked them to share some of the leading duties – they politely declined and sat on me through 13 (1:06:26).
Around 13, Trent Briney and a few more Africans joined the show. Trent and I share a bit of a kinship, namely, two guys chasing PRs from years gone by. I was happy to see Trent and even happier when he asked the Africans to help with the pacing duties.
“Two minutes!” he said, “I’m leading for two minutes, then you’re leading for two minutes!”
Trent led, then an African, then I took it, after which the plan went to crap. Trent shared his feelings with the group, “Nice teamwork, [guys]. “
But he didn’t say “guys” – one of the funnier moments of pack running.
Trent and I took the lead again. If anyone is wondering, large Americans make great wind shields.
Around this time, I started having stomach issues. I’ve had stomach problems in the past but it took me by surprise since I’ve had it dialed in training this year. At mile 15 I was feeling it pretty bad and ran a 5:21, the next mile I made a decision to stop and lighten the load, that mile was a 5:37.
After the pit stop I took off in an effort to catch the pack and after a half mile I was down by 23 seconds. The best part of it all was that I had such a peace, even then. Ryan and Sara had sent me some encouraging texts that morning. Ryan had said, “May the joy of the Lord be your strength” – as I chased the pack, I just kept repeating that over and over. “The joy of the Lord is my strength, the joy of the Lord is my strength.” I’m sure it sounds corny to some but rather than focusing on the head wind, the fact I was I was behind, or that I had just fertilized an innocent patch of grass on the side of the road, I was focused on the joy of worshipping God with the gifts He’s given and pouring everything out on the course. I thought about my dad and how one of his last requests before he died was that I’d be faithful with the gifts God had entrusted to me. Faithfulness is an arduous task, particularly in this business. I’d done everything I knew to do in preparation and now it was up to me to be faithful with this opportunity, this race, this moment.
The pack wasn’t my competition, it never is, the mountains climbed are our own – nine years since my last PR has taught me that.
I could see the pack up ahead and Mike up another 30 seconds. They weren’t the enemy, they weren’t there to steal my glory, they were here, at this moment in time, to excavate greatness, that without them the world would never see. At 18 I caught the pack, went by the pack, and started making chase after Mike. Mile 18 was a 4:56, 19 a 5:05, (1:42:56 at 20) and from 20-23 I didn’t worry about splits, I just focused on the chase. I ran 14:54 for that segment, after which I glanced back and only Bekele was in tow. We covered mile 24 in 4:54 and passed Mike.
The last 10 miles had been focused on catching Mike and I’d done that, unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one. I kept grinding and didn’t like the fact Bekele hadn’t been doing any of the work. I’ve been in enough races to know that the guy leading is doing the heavy lifting, the guy behind is along for the ride – particularly on a windy day like today. I needed to flip the script so I moved to the side and let Bekele go by. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough in the tank to match his move a quarter mile later. I covered the final 2.2 in 11:06, 2nd place. 2:13:51 a new PR by the narrowest of margins.
All fall my prayer had been to run a personal best. 9 years of running, striving, hoping to get back to where I once was. Times of death, doubt, and even questioning the importance of athletics. After my dad passed I nearly quit running and was ready to enroll as a full time seminary student. But to give up running would be to hold the Creator in contempt. He made me a runner for a reason, for this season, for such a time as this. There are those with more talent, but I love the grind, the miles, and finding out what the human machine is capable of accomplishing; most of all, and probably most importantly, I’m passionate about the sport and truly enjoy the act of running – all of which are gifts from above.
Was I happy? I was thrilled. We had a rule on our distance squad at Liberty, if you set a PR you weren’t allowed any negative comments about your race.
To hit the reset button on a marathon PR after 9 years is something special. Here’s to hoping I don’t have to wait until 2018 for the next one.
For more from Josh check out his website: www.JoshCox.com .