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How sub-elite marathoners are under recognized.

Here’s a great article that appeared in the New York Times discussing how running a 2:30 marathon is an amazing accomplishment yet these “sub-elite” runners have no chance of winning the big marathons.

Sub-Elite Runners Chase Improvement
Published: November 3, 2013

Greg Cass crossed the finish line in 2 hours 36 minutes 33 seconds, his lifetime earnings from distance running holding steady at $75.

“I think he won a pie once,” his brother Matt said. “You’ve got to count that, too.”

Cass did not break 2:30 as hoped in the New York City Marathon on Sunday. He will not soon be leaving his day job as an investment banker to train for the Olympics. Yet despite running into a headwind that gusted near 20 miles an hour and making three unintended stops because of a queasy stomach, he still recorded his second-fastest career time and finished 64th in the men’s race, in an overall field of about 50,000 runners.

“It is the quest for eternal improvement,” he said as he walked in the chill toward his home, about 10 blocks from the finish line. “And when you run a race like today, it leaves a lot of room for improvement.”

Cass, 29, is a member of a mostly invisible and underappreciated group known as the sub-elites. They have more than respectable times — the men finishing in the 2:20 to 2:35 range, the women in the 2:50 to 3:05 range — but have no chance to win the biggest marathons and receive little attention and even less financial reward.

Still, they are superb athletes, and although they may lack the speed of the world’s best, they are not missing the drive, discipline or commitment. Many log 80, 90 or 100 miles a week in training while holding full-time jobs. Cass’s career is more notable because he did not run track in high school or college.

“I always have a personal place in my heart when I see runners like Greg,” said Mary Wittenberg, the chief executive of New York Road Runners and the marathon’s race director.

In 1987, Wittenberg graduated from law school, began working at a firm, studied for the bar exam and trained for the Marine Corps Marathon, which she won in 2:44:34, qualifying for the United States Olympic trials in 1988.

“I’m the first to tell the elite runners, ‘Enjoy this; no one else gets to just sleep and train two times a day,’ ” Wittenberg said.

For some, the sub-elites are a throwback to distance running in the United States in the amateur era of the late 1960s and into the ’70s. There was a seriousness of purpose. Running fast was the goal, not simply maintaining health and fitness. Nearly every runner seemed to be working or attending school and trying to train for 70 to 100 miles a week, following the lead of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers.

Dr. George Sheehan, the author and running apostle, used to tell a story about a guy who asked a friend about his ex-wife in California.

“What’s she doing?”

“Oh, about six miles a day.”

Changing Times

This was an era unlike today, when marathon fields have swelled to tens of thousands of runners and participation has become more important than competition for all but a relative few. By 2011, the average finishing time at the New York City Marathon was a pedestrian 4:28:20 for men and 4:44:35 for women.

“The first running boom was made up of people who would get up in the morning and run to the horizon,” said George Hirsch, the chairman of the board of New York Road Runners. “Careers were suffering; marriages were taking a beating. There was this incredible drive.”

To shave precious minutes over a marathon’s 26.2 miles, to remove every superfluous ounce, nothing was too inconsequential to overlook. Rodgers once snipped the corporate sponsor’s name off his bib before a victory in New York, which drew an irate phone call. Even socks were considered an unnecessary load by some.

Now runners carry cellphones. Some even knit scarves.

“The shoes I wore were so lightweight, you could step on a dime and tell whether it was heads or tails,” Hirsch said.

When, at age 44, Hirsch ran a personal-best 2:38 at the Boston Marathon in 1979, his friends were not exactly dismissive, but they were not effusive in their congratulations, either.

“That’s fine,” they said. Plenty of people knew someone who had run faster than 2:40.

“My 2:38 has become a lot faster over the years,” Hirsch, now 79, said.

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When Rodgers began his remarkable string of four victories at both Boston and New York, he was a special-education teacher. (He also had his car towed while he was winning the 1976 New York City Marathon, and Fred Lebow, then the race director, took care of the $90 fee to get it back.) When Shorter won the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics, he was a law school student at Florida.

Shorter feels a kinship with runners such as Cass, he said. They remind him of himself and his desire for a balanced life, of his reluctance to become obsessed with one goal and risk extreme disappointment if he did not succeed.

“In a way, I used law school as a relief from training,” said Shorter, 66, who also won a silver medal in the marathon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “It only takes two hours to run. If you have the right kind of personality, I think you can be just as successful as the people who do it full time. I never totally agreed with the idea that you had to make it your living to do it.”

Old-School Approach

From his apartment on the Upper West Side, Cass has easy access to Central Park. Twice a week, he works with a trainer. He gets a massage every couple of months to rejuvenate his legs. Mostly, he adheres to the belief that he can get far with hard work and determination, without the need for cryogenic chambers and anti-gravity treadmills to facilitate healing and recovery from fatigue.

“In the back of your mind,” Cass said, “you always question: ‘Do I need all of the technology? Do I need all the time?’ ”

Referring to Rodgers and Shorter, Cass said: “It really is inspiring to know they blazed that trail, people who worked on the side and had lives on the side. Not putting all your eggs in one basket makes it more interesting.

“Of course, they were on a different level,” he said. “Their goal wasn’t to break 2:30. It was to win the New York Marathon.”

A basketball and soccer player in high school, and a defender on and co-captain of Columbia’s soccer team, Cass was not a classic candidate to become a sub-elite marathon runner.

He was tall for a runner, at 6 feet, and his collegiate playing weight was 185 to 190 pounds. He did not have the lightest or most elegant running form. His arms tended to sway across his chest. And his right ankle had been dislocated twice, once in high school and again in late 2007 during a corporate basketball game.

Any sport that required agility also required physical therapy to keep his ankle strong and flexible. So running in a straight line became his default mode.

Marathons appealed to Cass’s analytical, competitive nature and desire for structure. He was valedictorian of his class at Methacton High School, outside Philadelphia, and graduated from Columbia’s engineering school in 2007 with the highest grade-point average among the university’s athletes. Last February, after flying to Atlanta and then driving all night to New Orleans for the Super Bowl — his uncle, Dick Cass, is president of the Baltimore Ravens — he immediately went for a 12-mile run.

“Greg is the type of person who needs to be doing 20 different things, or he feels he’s not doing enough,” said his wife, Heather Francovitch, 30, a graphic designer who recently ran her first half-marathon.

To prepare for his senior season of soccer at Columbia in 2006, Cass ran a half-marathon. He finished in 1:34 and spent the rest of the day in bed in the air conditioning. His body told him not to do it again, but his mind told him he could run faster.

Eventually, Cass was drawn to the New York City Marathon, as much for the spectacle as the distance. He was a sports fan, and he lived in a city with one of the world’s great races. In 2006, Cass and Francovitch stood at Columbus Circle — in the marathon’s final mile — and watched runners stream past. Francovitch was moved to tears by one man, a grandfather who ran with the names of his grandchildren on his shirt.

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“Right at the end, every emotion you can imagine is written all over their faces,” Cass said. “Living in New York, I could appreciate just how huge the event was. It’s an event where you can run with the elites. Even if you finish one hour or two or three behind them, it’s a fun thing to do. Actually witnessing it in New York made me realize how inspiring it could be.”

Taking the Plunge

In 2008, Cass downloaded a training program from the Internet and began running 40 to 45 miles a week. By his account, he had no clue what he was doing. His idea of pacing was to run at a speed that felt comfortable and to hope he was still holding that pace 26 miles later. Still, he finished New York in an encouraging 2:52:56. Perhaps, he told himself, he could be decent at this.

In 2009, Cass bought a book about marathoning and increased his mileage to 60 to 65 miles a week. His body could not quite keep up with his exuberance, though. In one 10-day stretch, he ran the Philadelphia Half Marathon, the Fifth Avenue Mile and an 18-mile New York City Marathon tuneup in Central Park. He aggravated the patellar tendon in his knee, and while he later ran New York in 2:48:36, the final 15 miles felt like the longest of his life.

He felt he was on the verge of being able to run fast, but he still lacked a full understanding of the race. So Cass joined the Central Park Track Club. He ran the 2010 Boston Marathon in 2:39:20, a breakthrough of sorts, although in the final six miles, his quadriceps began to ache and “the wheels came off,” he said.

Afterward, Cass decided to skip the 2010 New York City Marathon and devote the next 18 months to preparing for New York in 2011. Working with Tony Ruiz, who coaches the track club’s road-running team, Cass changed his biomechanics, becoming more efficient and upright. He began doing track workouts. He ran 5- and 10-kilometer races. A body that was 185 or 190 pounds for soccer was pared to a lean 170 pounds.

“He’s an aerobic monster,” Ruiz said of Cass. “He had that toughness for the marathon. We just had to get him to focus on the idea that it takes more than toughness.”

In 2011, Cass trained 85 or 90 miles a week and ran New York in a personal-best 2:30:44, finishing 42nd in the men’s race. Still, he had been a little impatient. There seemed to be room to trim a minute or two.

The 2012 race was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy, which was just as well. Cass had injured his hip, running too many miles too early in his training. On what would have been race day, he ran the marathon distance in Central Park.

“It wasn’t symbolic about the marathon,” said Cass, who got married a week later. “I wanted an excuse not to run for a month.”

Ahead of this year’s New York City Marathon, Cass ran personal bests of 33 minutes at a 10K in Central Park, 20:48 for four miles and 1:11:25 for a half-marathon. He ran before work at 5:15 in the morning and added track workouts on Tuesdays; tempo runs in the park on Thursdays; and long runs of up to 22 miles on Saturdays.

He avoided being too regimented in his training and limited his peak mileage weeks of 80 and 85 miles, placing them later in his buildup to keep from overtaxing his body. A sub-2:30 marathon seemed within reach.

As Cass picked up his racing bib Thursday in a suit and tie, Alan Ruben, treasurer of the Central Park Track Club, shook his hand and said, “2:29.”

To Ruiz, the track club coach, Cass said: “Getting your bib makes it real. I’m feeling good. I’m relaxed. I feel healthy — that’s the big one.”

“The mental?” Ruiz asked.

“Nothing feels that stressful,” Cass said. “I think we’re in the right spot.”

One concern was the expected wind. Brace yourself coming off the bridges, Ruiz told Cass. Tuck in behind other runners. Realize you can make up time later.

“The main thing,” Ruiz said, “is you’ve got to keep your wits.”

On Sunday morning, Cass awoke at 4, had a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and took a taxi to Midtown Manhattan. The sub-elites were provided a bus to the race’s start, on Staten Island, and were permitted to warm up in the same area as the elite runners.

Referring to the eventual men’s winner, Cass said: “Seeing Geoffrey Mutai in the line at the Porta Potty is your one brush with greatness. Some people would prefer a more glamorous place, but I’ll take what I can get.”

Reaching the halfway point in 1:14:42, Cass remained on pace to break 2:30, but he found himself unable to consume any liquids or energy gels. He felt bloated. His stomach grew unsettled.

“Because it’s cool and windy, it doesn’t feel like you need to drink,” Cass said. “You’re not sweating. It makes it hard to figure out if you are doing yourself harm. Ultimately, you need to drink.”

Finally, at Mile 18, he took a pit stop. Two others followed. At the finish, a small look of disappointment crossed his face. But Cass could not think of anything he would have done differently in his preparation. He had finished among the top six-dozen runners in the world’s biggest marathon. And he was eager to run again.

“That is both the gift and the curse of the marathon,” Cass said. “When you finally get it right, it’s the product of 30 variables that you have maybe 50 percent control of. When you get it wrong, you try to analyze all 30 of those variables. It’s nearly impossible to figure out exactly what went wrong and how to make it better next time. But that’s the goal. To take a look at what happened and go back to the drawing board. And, if it’s in the cards, to give it another go.”

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