For professional distance runner Ryan Vail, the New York City Marathon on Sunday will represent the beginning of a bridge to a finish line that is four years away on the other side of the world. After struggling with injuries that prevented him from competing for more than a year, Vail is finally ready to validate his ability against some of the world's top marathoners on Sunday (9 a.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN).
Vail pulled out of the U.S. Olympic trials for the marathon and 10,000 meters earlier this year to recover from his third consecutive stress fracture in 17 months. When the 30-year-old Portland, Ore., resident was cleared to start training in this past March, he progressed from initially walking for a few minutes and mostly aqua jogging to running up to 110 miles a week.
The New York City Marathon, the largest in the world, will be his comeback race since he last competed at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in June 2015.
"This is a stepping stone on the way back to the right path to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo," said Vail, whose personal record for the marathon is 2 hours and 10 minutes.
Vail, who is competing in the event for the third time, will race alongside several other U.S. elites, including three-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who will run it for the first time in six years. Vail was the top American finisher and 13th overall in 2013 and the second American and ninth overall in 2014.
With the goal of again placing top 10 and vying to be the first American to cross the finish line, Vail discusses his process and how he hopes Sunday's race will help reframe his path as he finally takes a competitive step forward.
Question: After more than a year hiatus from racing, the New York City Marathon will be an attempt at redeeming yourself. What do you want to prove?
Answer from Vail: This is a big test for me. I'm not going for a personal best. More than anything, not having raced in so long, I expect myself to be able to jump back in and have the mental toughness that I've had in the past and fight just as hard as any anyone else out there. I want to prove to myself that I still have it.
Q: How have you modified your training for this race coming off of three injuries?
A: I've definitely overreacted on a few occasions. I've taken five, six, seven days in the pool just because I felt a little tightness that wouldn't normally trigger any alarm. Because I've been so paranoid, I cross-trained more than I hoped to, but it was all about getting to the start line healthy. The most challenging part was not doing the amount of volume I normally do. I've gone up to 110 miles a week in comparison to 150 miles a week in the past. My cross-training has been almost exclusively aqua jogging.
Question: What's challenging about the New York course?
A: There are hills in it, but I don't think the hills are the toughest part. The two years that I've done it, there was a good 17 miles of headwind, and the course runs mostly from south to north. That's the most challenging, but something you can't control. Since there are no pacers and no one is going for time, everyone has to go through those conditions together. In the past, I've done a flat course for a lot of my road work going into a marathon. I found another loop that's really hilly and tough, and I've been doing my long runs around it, so it's a little bit closer to mimicking New York.
Question: What's your race strategy?
A: You never know what the race strategy will be. Just like in 2014, it turned into a fartlek effort with people taking the lead, and coming back, then taking the lead. You have to be ready to adjust your game plan on the spot, which is a reason why I like this race. That's something I do well.
Question: Four Americans finished in the top 10 at the 2015 race, among them Meb Keflezighi, who was seventh overall. But no American has cracked the top five since Meb won in 2009.
A: Obviously with New York, being as prestigious as it is, it brings in the best field in the world. Sometimes it can arguably be more competitive than the Olympics, depending on who shows up. I don't take that as a negative sign whatsoever. It's just a challenge to try to elevate U.S. distance running.
Question: You'll be alongside several other U.S. elites, including Ritzenhein. There's a race within the race.
A: That's one of the really cool things about these U.S. major marathons. There's actually a team aspect and camaraderie that goes into this. Of course we're racing each other, but it means getting out of the way for someone to get their bottle or helping each other out with pacing, just like you saw in Boston when Meb won in 2014. There's this idea that we want to finish well as Americans. Obviously, when it comes down to the last 10K, we're going to race each other to the death. But before that, there's camaraderie going into it, and that's motivational throughout the race.