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Chasing elite athletes: What I learned trailing NYC marathoners

NYC Marathon runner Jen Rhines
On Sunday, I trailed marathon runner, Jen Rhines

I consider myself an athlete.

1)   I pick up at least one new sport a year.
2)   I have primary sports, secondary sports, cross-training galore.
3)   It’s not abnormal for me to engage in two or three different types of training activities in the same day.

But occasionally, I find myself in the presence of someone (or many someones) who make me feel like a total dilettante.

Like competitive marathoners.

Everyone knows the ING New York City Marathon attracts an extremely elite group of runners. But I’ve never had much time with them up close and personal—until yesterday.

On Marathon Sunday, I worked as a bike spotter for the news crews, radioing in positions for the top athletes and top Americans in the field. That means I spent the marathon on the course, shadowing just one athlete at a time.

Ashley trailed runners at the marathon
Me, my helmet, and my news mike at the NYC Marathon

I started with American Jen Rhines, and then, when she ducked into the medic tent at 77th Street, I picked up Abdellah Falil and stayed with him to the finish. He ended up in 7th place.

Watching Rhines from behind, I could see why I will never be a competitive runner. We’re about the same height, and I think I outweigh her by 20 pounds. Her body looks more cheetah than human, and her stride is so precise, there’s not a wasted degree of motion.

But it was Falil who made my day. I spent about eight miles with him. The guy had already run eighteen and he looked as comfortable as if he were seated on a Lazy-Boy.

He’d done a couple five-minute miles early in the race and then settled into a sub-five pace and kept it all the way to the end. In those last few miles, he started picking off other runners one by one, moving from 12th position to 7th.

Abdellah Falil finished 7th Marathon
The awesome Abdellah Falil, who finished 7th in the Marathon (

Falil and I would approach guys from behind, guys who are the world’s most elite runners, and they’d look like they were running at a weird tilt or had arms flapping like the elbows bent the wrong way—the mark of being completely obliterated.

But not Falil. The guy was stoic, precise, and graceful. He took the perfect line through every turn. He respectfully deviated from his trajectory to give the hand chair athletes room as he went by. And he passed the last couple guys along the south end of the park with complete controlled concentration.

I will never run a single sub-five minute mile in my life. But Falil inspired me. Tomorrow, when I go out for my sloth-like little jaunt over the Williamsburg Bridge, I’m going to channel that graceful Moroccan dude and see if I have any cheetah in me. —Ashley McCullough