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If it’s the first Sunday in November it must be the major race on my New York fall calendar… That’s right, the After The Leaves 20k at Lake Minnewaska, near New Paltz. After running the New York Marathon from 2002-2004 consecutively, and getting shafted by the weather every year (not to mention the crowds) I switched to this local race in 2005 when we moved upstate. It’s known as the most beautiful race for miles round – largely because it’s timed to coincide with the fall colors at their peak. Not that you get to study the beauty of the surroundings too much when you’re running your heart out, but the race also laps two high-altitude lakes – Minnewaska and Awosting – as it weaves its way up and down hills, including a couple of astounding views of the surrounding Shawangunk Mountains (“the Gunks”), and it’s hard not to participate without exclaiming “wow!” at least once or twice, at the sheer brilliance of nature’s bounty.

Lake Minnewaska on Marathon Sunday. Praise be to Gaia.

Because of the injury I picked up back in February skiing Hunter Mountain, 2007 is the first year since 2001 that I haven’t run a Marathon or something similar (like the Escarpment Trail, in 2006). In fact, while I managed to avoid an operation this spring, get my knee repaired through therapy and pick back up at a very fast pace over shorter distances, I haven’t even run a half marathon this year: the After The Leaves 20k would be my longest run for the last twelve months. Typically, I almost blew it. Having put in just enough long training runs, I got a sports massage on Thursday to loosen up my muscles, a treatment that leaves me very tender for the next 24-48 hours, but hopefully at peak performance three days later, on race day. Despite knowing all this, I ran some cross-country on Friday. My body didn’t like it. My muscles were sore and they didn’t appreciate the effort. The effect was to make my tender vertebrae yet more tender, give me a difficult night’s sleep Friday night, and then for me to throw my back out early on Saturday – essentially putting me in a much worse physical state than if I hadn’t had the massage to begin with. Epsom salts, ice packs, massage tools and old-fashioned stretches all failed to cure the pain, and despite the leisurely 11am start for the After The Leaves race and the opportunity for a Sunday lie-in, I woke at 5am in agony. The sun rose an hour or more later, to reveal yet another beautiful fall morning, while I laid on the sofa with a cup of coffee and some ice packs, bemoaning my combination of bad luck and stupidity. Campbell came and sat alongside me, and suggested I stay at home and give the race a rest. I looked at him like he was an alien, rather than the fruit of my own loins. Not run? Is the Pope a Catholic? The next I knew, my entire family had decided to come with me – as much to experience Minnewaska State Park for themselves as to cheer me up and along, but the effort was greatly appreciated.

Okay, so my back hurts and I’ve been up since 5am. But I’d sooner be here right now than running through the Bronx. Tony, Sunday morning, Lake Minnewaska.

Every decent amateur runner probably recognizes themselves in the previous paragraph, and they probably also recognize themselves in the following feeling: of heading off on a long race with tired muscles and sore legs, having overtrained and underslept, wondering how they got themselves so out of shape for something they were so looking forward to. And if they’d been looking forward to it that much, they probably decided to race it hard anyway, which explains how, two miles into the race, I realized I was going way ahead of my natural pace, and that for all my pride at keeping some of the better local runners in my sight, I would be doomed if I tried to keep up with them any longer. My legs were already complaining, and I was barely a sixth of the way in. I eased back from the pack, and waited for a fresh set of runners to catch up with me. It didn’t happen. In long distance running, everyone finds their pace after a few miles; I had found mine and it found me running alone. I ran miles three through six – the flattest miles of the race, around Lake Awosting and even along its rocky shores for a while, mere inches from the lapping water – in a mobile solitary confinement. No iPod, no one to pace with or chat with, certainly no crowds,nothing but my own body telling me that I ought to slow even more, but that if I did, it would be like admitting defeat, that surely I had it in me to run another hour at this pace after everything I’d been through this year.

All along, I had one perverse advantage. Half way through the race, we’d be faced with a two mile climb. It’s the kind of hill that saps most runners. But I love going uphill. It’s my strength. If I can keep this pace going until the bottom of the climb, I kept telling myself, I can do so to the top. And I did. The two miles passed quickly. I didn’t catch anyone until almost the very peak, but I seemed to feel more invigorated and more confident the more we climbed. At the peak, I realized that I was finally enjoying myself.

Finishing strong.

From that peak, Castle Rock, with the astounding view that all runners really should be forced by race laws to stop and appreciate for ten seconds, it was four long miles almost all downhill. I expected to get overtaken by those who are better at these downhills than me, but the only person who did so must have started late, given the speed at which he ran. With the aid of gravity, even I found myself racing those last four miles at 5k pace, despite runner’s knee kicking in on my left leg as I did so. The weather certainly helped my concentration; a chilly low forties with low humidity meant that I wasn’t dehydrating and I could focus on staying in flow. I finished strong, winning a sprint on the last corner against a straggler from the pack ahead, coming home in just over 96 minutes, about a 7:40 pace. Though the course was slightly different than two years ago, it was supposedly the same distance – 12.441 miles according to one runner’s GPS device – and I gained thirty seconds on my time from 2005. I also finished a little higher up the pack, and best of all, at the finish line, I felt exhilarated. As we all know, it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part, but if the taking part turns out to be miserable, then achieving a good time certainly feels like a victory. And that’s what counts. Or at least it did, for me, at After The Leaves.

After some lovely warming soup and a quick kickabout with the kids, we drove home round the back of the reservoir, Posie barely taking a corner without marveling again at the beauty of the fall colors, and she was right: this is maybe the loveliest time of year up here. (Apart from spring, summer and winter, of course.) When we got home, we replayed the NYC Marathon coverage in “real time,” as we otherwise got on with our Sunday. Between us, we’ve run the NYC race four times, and maybe we’ll get to do it again some time. But it was a certainly lot easier when we lived in Brooklyn, just a twenty-minute cab ride from the start line, and a lot more fun when the course included our our home street. Right now, I’d sooner run through nature this first Sunday in November than tackle those awful industrial streets in Queens, or hit the wall at mile 20 right as one hits the Bronx and the crowds disappear.

But watching the professionals so put everything in place and context. The fastest mile I’ve timed myself at is 5:30. The leading women ran 26.2 miles at a faster pace than that. (The leading men ran mile 17 at an astonishing 4:20!) In fact, the race between Paula Radcliffe and Gete Wami was one for the ages, the two women maintaining an almost identical distance between each other for twenty or more miles of the race, far ahead of any other runners, their potential photo finish canceled out only when Wami unsuccessful pushed on the 26th mile; Radcliffe, who had a child but nine months ago and had not raced a marathon in almost 27 months, responded with a spurt that confounded all scientific logic. The woman is a true phenomenon, and I apologize for saying anything bad about her when she quit at the Athens Olympic Marathon a few years back: like I could have finished the race in that heat!

Noel enjoys his own sporting bout, Sunday morning at Lake Minnewaska State Park.

Marathon running in the big cities is an incredible sport because you get to compete, in theory at least, alongside the world’s best. In its own way, local running offers much the same experience. At the bigger and better and more challenging races like After The Leaves, you line up alongside people that have run for county and sometimes for country, and you know that you won’t see them again until the finish line. Which means you’re ultimately running against yourself and your own capabilities – and victory is measured in small personal increments that balance time against mood against health against happiness. Based on all that, my lone long run of the year was a major success. And in a sport that is as much about camaraderie as it is about competing, it made me feel all the happier for Paula Radcliffe, Martin Lel, all the other 38,000 finishers at the New York Marathon who were hopefully similarly satisfied, and everyone else who ran After The Leaves in such beautiful conditions. We’re all winners.
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This post goes out to Ryan Shay. He died doing what he loved. Running keeps us healthy, but it doesn’t prevent the occasional catastrophe.

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