Running a personal best time won’t be on Ryan Vail’s mind when he steps to the starting line of the 2016 New York City Marathon on Sunday morning. The 30-year-old American, who missed this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon due to injury, is laser focused on one thing: beating as many people as possible.
“It doesn’t really matter if you run 2:09 or 2:15,” says the Brooks-sponsored Vail, who finished ninth in the Big Apple in 2014, running 2:15:08. “It matters who you’re beating in the field. It’s all about competition.”
New York, if nothing else, is a racer’s race. The challenging five-borough course that starts on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island and winds its way through Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx before finishing in Manhattan’s Central Park is not known to be a particularly fast layout. Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai’s course record of 2:05:06 from 2011 sticks out like a sore thumb amongst a sea of 2:08 to 2:11 winning times since 2002. The course resembles a long cross-country race run over asphalt—a profile that suits Vail’s personality, skill set and training grounds in Portland, Ore., quite well.
“I’m definitely taking a cross-country mentality [into it],” says Vail, who was a five-time All-American at Oklahoma State and has finished as high as 17th at the World Cross Country Championships. “The fact that you’re there with no pacemakers, it’s a tough course, and the weather’s been windy and cold the last two times I’ve been there. It’s really about racing the guy next to you.”
Vail’s gritty racing style and 2:10:57 personal best (at the London Marathon in 2014) put him near the top of a short list of athletes expected to contend for a spot on the U.S. marathon team that competed in Rio this past summer. But after that was thwarted by a trio of stress fractures that started in the summer of 2015, he says he’s using New York to help get his competitive career back on track.
After finishing fifth in the 10,000m at the U.S. Track and Field Championships in 2015, Vail developed a navicular stress fracture in his foot, his first serious injury in almost nine years. Less than four months later, he suffered a sacral stress fracture, a result, he says of “not taking [the rehab] as seriously as I should have.” With his back against the wall and a lack of time on his side, Vail did everything he could to be ready for the U.S. marathon trials in L.A. this past February, only to suffer a femoral stress fracture just 10 days before the race.
“I understood the risks attempting top marathon shape in a short period of time, but it is still gut wrenching so close to the race,”.
Heading into New York, Vail hasn’t felt as pressured to get fit so fast. He’s prioritized making recovery days and thrice weekly strength sessions staples of his training routine, while reducing his overall running volume from 150 miles per week down to 100 or 110, with one day completely off running each week. Vail says these changes have left him feeling better than he’s felt in a couple years heading into New York.
“I’ve actually felt a lot better than I have in a long time in workouts, not chasing that mileage target for the week and just listening to my body and forgetting all of that,” admits Vail, who posts his training publicly. “I think it’s benefitted me a lot. All those 150-mile weeks, they’re still in my body but right now I don’t have to be doing that going into New York. I just have to be healthy and get the good high quality stuff in. Eventually I’d like to go back to higher volume but right now I’m relying on that past volume that I’ve done.”
Vail steps to the starting line on Sunday feeling grateful for the opportunity to do what he does best: compete. Ten straight years of higher volume and consistent improvement prior to this most recent injury cycle give him the confidence that he’s ready to put his cross-country instincts to good use in a race that emphasizes place over pace.
“I just have to maintain confidence and patience and know that my fitness is there,” Vail says. “My workouts have gone great and I’m not going to try and short myself. I want to have the best New York I’ve ever had. I’ve been 9th, so I’d like to be in the top 10. I’m not going to throw anything out the window in terms of being the top American. Obviously Ritz (Dathan Ritzenhein) is running incredibly well right now but anything can happen in New York. I’m going to try and put myself in that position to be top 10 and race the best I can over the last 10K and see where I end up.”