SCHENECTADY – It was uncanny, the parallels between the respective men’s and women’s winners of the MVP Health Care Stockade-athon 15k in Schenectady on Nov. 13.
So much so, that I went in there with the option of writing separate result stories, and combined the two, instead, because they would’ve essentially been the same story, just plugging in a different name.
Lou Serafini and Karen Bertasso-Hughes both grew up in Schenectady County, both were in the midst of preparing for a potential fast time at the California International Marathon (CIM), and both were using the Stockade-athon as a steppingstone toward achieving that.
The codas to those dueling symphonies kept the theme rolling right along.
Serafini and Bertasso-Hughes each ran marathon personal records at CIM in Sacramento on Dec. 4, a gratifying culmination of goals set, and met.
The 31-year-old Serafini, who ran at Niskayuna High and Boston College, posted a 2:14:59 to place 11th overall out of over 8,000 finishers and 10th among men eligible for the U.S. National Championship that the CIM represented.
The 38-year-old Bertasso-Hughes, a Scotia-Glenville grad who played soccer at Union College before turning herself into one of the best road racers in the Capital Region, ran a 2:41:27 to place 79th among 3,254 women who finished.
“I knew the fitness was there, I just needed a day to show it,” she said on Monday. “I was happy it came together at CIM.”
“You crack the top-10 in those races, there’s a lot of really talented runners, let alone the marathon, which hasn’t been my strongest distance,” Serafini said on Tuesday morning. “So I was really, really happy to sneak in there around a lot of really, really talented runners, and hopefully that’ll be something I can build off of going into the [2024 U.S. Olympic] Trials.”
Here’s a recap of their performances:
Her finish time reflected a 6:10 mile pace, which didn’t quite get her home in under 2:40, but still was good enough for a PR by a substantial two minutes, 19 seconds.
Bertasso-Hughes, who won the Stockade-athon in 55:26 (5:57), has now run 26 marathons, but had to go all the way back to 2018 for her previous best, a 2:43:46 at Hartford.
“I wanted to break 2:40 and kind of went into it like that would be the game plan, and I stayed on pace through mile 20, 21, and then the wheels started to come off a little bit,” she said. “I think it’s definitely there, but any time you PR, you can’t complain.
“I had a bunch of A-B-C goals to keep myself into it. The training was great leading up to it, which is crucial. To get to the start line of any marathon healthy is a success.”
One key for both Bertasso-Hughes and Serafini was an awareness of how fast — but punishing — the early downhill parts of the CIM course can be, a feature that can mislead and eat up a marathoner and is a common refrain from runners who fall apart at a race like the Boston Marathon.
“People think CIM is a super-fast course, which it is, but it’s fast if you’ve prepared for it,” Bertasso-Hughes said. “If you didn’t prepare for it, you can’t just walk in there and run a really good time.
“So many people that I’ve talked to just thought they’d go there … and because it is fast, their legs get beat up. There’s a lot of rollers [series of hills], and if you’re not ready for the ups and the downs, your legs really take a beating.
“You always see people at Boston in the first half, which is technically downhill, and they’re like, ‘I’m done. The downhills destroyed me.’ So getting your legs ready for both is something I really focused on during the training, and I think Stockade-athon was a good tool to let me do that.”
That said, Bertasso-Hughes did experience a degree of dropoff in performance in the late stages of CIM.
“[It was] between miles 20 and 21. The next few miles weren’t bad, they were still pretty good and then the last few miles were tough,” she said. “It was a little bit more of a grind. I don’t know. I’ve still got to figure that out. This was my 26th marathon, you know? And still trying to figure out those last few miles.”
The stars are aligning in more ways than one for Bertasso-Hughes this fall.
She found out last month that her name had been drawn to compete in the Tokyo Marathon in March, which would give her the fifth of six major marathons needed to earn the Six Star Medal.
She has run four already, Boston, Chicago, London and Berlin, and could jump into the New York City Marathon for the first time ever with no difficulty when she chooses to.
Tokyo is the tough one, since there is a strict limit and a lottery on participation by general entry runners.
“It’s really hard to get into, and everyone said if you don’t take it [entry], you’re crazy,” she said with a laugh. “My final one will be New York City, which will at least be easy locally and logistically.
“I always had this thing where maybe it would be my final star, and the way it’s playing out, I might do it when I’ve turned masters, so finishing it up in New York as a 40-year-old and hopefully then being in the elite field with my time at 40 would get me there. So that would be kind of fun.”
Serafini is 2-for-2 in 2022, having posted a marathon PR twice, after running 2:15:54 at the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, in June, then knocking almost a minute off that at CIM.
His experience in Sacramento was similar to Bertasso-Hughes’, in that the grind of the final few miles became an exercise in mental management after having put himself in good position for a PR through the bulk of the race.
“It actually ended up being kind of a tough day for a lot of people,” he said. “I think a lot of people had issues with muscle cramping, and even I was starting to get some muscle cramping and was starting to get a little nervous that I was going to blow up.
“I came through halfway in 1:07-flat, which was right on what I wanted to do. Then when I realized I was feeling a little, I guess, crampy, for lack of a better word, everyone in the pack I was in all slowed down a little bit.
“Not a whole lot, from 5:05 [mile pace] to 5:10. I just stopped looking at my watch and just tried to run off of effort and run smart. I was able to get to the finish line feeling really, really strong and have a nice, big PR.”
Besides his finish time, Serafini was rewarded with a top-10 placement at the race that was designated as the 2022 U.S. National Championship, something Serafini has achieved several times at shorter distances, but not at the marathon.
He’s not done yet, but his 2022 races have been the end product of a challenging process.
“I’m really excited,” Serafini said. “It’s taken me a very long time to figure out the marathon distance. I feel like I’m finally getting it. I just feel more comfortable racing the distance now than I ever have before.”
Part of his success on Dec. 4 was keeping an eye on his watch early in the race to make sure he wasn’t pushing it too hard, then ignoring his watch later when it was time to simply run in rhythm and let the time speak for itself.
“You almost want to set speed limits for yourself early in marathons,” he said. “If you’re checking your watch too much at the end, you either have a tendency to press or let things get out of hand, or — I’ve had this happen — you see a split that’s a little slow and you psyche yourself out, and then it challenges you mentally.
“I think turning your brain off and just focusing on your form and your rhythm and being in the race really helps me get to the finish line and running a steady pace.”
His Stockade-athon victory played a role, in that he was able to remind himself what it was like to feel good running fast in a race, after having bombed in a half marathon a week earlier when he was sick.
His half marathon split at CIM was actually a minute faster than his final time was in the race prior to the Stockade-athon.
“It was good to just have a touchpoint along the way,” he said. “Stockade-athon, it was good to just get out there and have a solid performance where I felt really strong. Like anything, it’s a really great confidence booster, knowing that I can go in and run comfortably over 15k and run a fast time. That was also the first time where I was running 4:50 miles consistently. In marathon training, you do a lot of stuff at marathon pace, 5-flat, 5:10, 5:15.
“Then I knew the last three weeks before the CIM that I didn’t need to press. I knew I was fit, I didn’t have to overdo it.”
Another former Section II star, Scott Mindel (Shenendehowa, University of Cincinnati), ran 2:30:25 at CIM coming off a third in the Stockade-athon.
It was just four years ago that Serafini’s primary objective was a sub-4:00 mile, a goal he had been chasing through dozens of 4:10s before finally breaking through with a 3:59:33 in Boston.
He’s at the other end of the spectrum now, and believes he can get under 2:14 for the marathon.
He plans to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials for the third time, in Orlando, Florida in February of 2024.
“I’m definitely really proud of the fact that I have this range and can run a multitude of distances,” Serafini said. “I mean, there’s a lot of guys that can do that. The mile was an event that I was never sure if it was going to come together for me, and then there was that one magical season.
“Then the marathon seemed like something that would be natural for me, and then it wasn’t. It was half marathon, or 20-miler, even, I can handle it. But it took me a really long time to figure out how to run 26.2 for some reason. I get to that last 10k, and my body breaks down. Similarly to the mile, I stuck with it when there were moments when it seemed like it would never come together.
“And you never know when it’s going to come in running. And that’s the worst and best thing about the sport, waiting for those breakthroughs to happen. When they do, it’s really special. And the key that I’ve found in my life, which I’m very lucky and I think a lot of people don’t always find, is I think I’ve been able to find the joy in the process and in the sport. If you put too much pressure on yourself, it’s not fun, and even if you do get the time, it’s what’s next? You have to enjoy it, or it’s not worth it.”
LEFTOVER TURKEY TROT
Because I had to work on Thanksgiving this year and was going to be in town, I figured what the hell, I’ll just jump into the 75th Troy Turkey Trot for laughs.
Our photographer Erica Miller called me “a traitor” for not running in the hyperlocal race, the Foundation for Ellis Medicine’s Cardiac Classic (won for the gazillionth time by Serafini) in Central Park.
But I hadn’t run in the Turkey Trot in a looong time and wanted to get a first-hand look at it again despite no fitness of any consequence.
So I set a goal of sub-9:00 per mile for the 5k and somehow managed to pull that off with a dawdling finish time of 27:46. The primary goal was to have a fun time, and the Turkey Trot comfortably delivered that to the table on a big silver platter, as it always does.
You don’t go there to run a fast time, anyway, because it’s almost entirely an out-and-back, which means you only get one lane of city street. It was so packed I didn’t find consistent running room until the turnaround.
It took me almost a minute and a half to walk across the start line, and I was still passing little kids who were walking a half-mile in.
But you can’t beat it for the atmosphere.
If you show up trying to win the costume contest dressed as a turkey, you’re not trying hard enough. If you’re a middle-of-the-packer like me and show up trying too hard to run fast, you’re doing it wrong.
HMRRC WINTER SERIES
The race schedule naturally gets a little barren around here during the winter, but one thing you can count on is the Hudson-Mohawk Road Runners Club’s five-part Winter Series, which began on Dec. 11 with installment #1 and continues on New Year’s Day.
The races are based at UAlbany and incorporate the adjacent State Office Campus. They’re all on Sundays, starting at 10 a.m., except for the Jan. 1 Hangover Half. Mercifully, that one kicks off at noon.
You get a variety of distances in this series, so if a half marathon isn’t your thing, #2 on New Year’s Day also offers a 3.5-miler.
Winter Series #3 on Jan. 15 has a 3-miler, 10k and 25k, and the #4 schedule on Jan. 29 includes a 3.75-miler, 15k and 30k.
To get fired up for a Miami Dolphins victory in the Super Bowl on Feb. 12, Winter Series #5 has a 4.5-miler, 10-miler and 20-miler.
A club membership could be an easy holiday gift for that runner in your life. The top end is $15 for a year subscription and gets you free entry to all Winter Series races, which, at $5 per race, are really cheap to enter, anyway.