|Billy Demong performs a trial jump ahead of the Nordic combined men's team event at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center on Feb. 20, 2014.
On a windy day in New York — when the pro marathoners ran three to five minutes off their best times — Billy Demong made his marathon debut. And he crushed it, finishing the New York City Marathon in 2:33:05.
Of 5,000 runners, Demong — a 2010 Olympic gold medalist in Nordic combined — finished 52nd and was the 25th American male across the line, only 19:47 behind Meb Keflezighi, who was fourth. Averaging a 5:46 per mile pace, Demong achieved his pre-race goal by almost three minutes.
“Given the conditions, the course, and the amount of preparation I was able to do, I’m ecstatic,” said Demong. “A week ago, if you told me I was going to run 2:33, I would have been like cool, that’s sweet. Now I feel like 2:33 might as well be 2:10.”
With the crazy conditions and thousands lining the course, many screaming “Billy” (written above his race number), Demong found the atmosphere almost as exciting as the Vancouver Games when he won his gold medal in the large hill competition — the first U.S. Nordic combined skier to win a gold in one of the winter Olympics’ oldest events.
“You almost feel like it’s the running of the bulls, and you’re the bull,” he said.
Demong, 34, and his friend Sam Krieg, 38, hatched the marathon idea about a year ago — as Demong was gearing up for his fifth and final Olympic Games. The Chicago Marathon in early October was their original goal, and Demong set a goal of running 2:36. It was the same goal that Krieg, whom Demong describes as a “pain machine,” had set 18 years ago when he last ran a marathon.
But when the Nordic skier realized that he would compete again in Nordic combined this season, Chicago conflicted with Nordic combined nationals.
About eight weeks ago, the two men gained entrance to the New York Marathon. After a busy summer fundraising for the U.S. Nordic combined and ski jumping teams, along with rebuilding his house in Park City, Utah, Demong began focusing on running. At the time, Krieg thought Demong’s goal of 2:36 was ambitious. But then the skier stunned his friend.
“He went from a donkey to a stallion in about eight runs,” said Krieg from his home in Pocatello, Idaho, where he runs Krieg, a climbing and cycling bag company. “He’s such a fast responder. I think he goes to bed and is one percent faster the next day, then five percent faster the day after that.”
Demong said he was only able to run three or four days per week but made them count, either doing long runs or hard pace runs, like 5-kilometer races or two-mile repeats.
In New York, Krieg noticed that Demong was nervous the night before the marathon — “just like everyone else.” But the Olympian’s confidence seemed to grow as the starting line neared. Krieg reminded Demong of the plan: to run six-minute miles, then drop down the pace as they settled into the race.
Demong stuck with the plan for about three steps, joked Krieg. The two men ran the first mile in 5:16 — in such a bad crosswind that runners were getting blown sideways across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
“I have a racing brain, so all the logic in the world went out the window when the sub-elite wave started,” admitted Demong.
“Damn! @BillyDemong is starting fast in NYC,” tweeted Nordic combined coach Dave Jarrett.
Despite Krieg’s warnings to slow down, the two crossed the halfway mark in 1:15. At that point, Krieg backed off. Demong did not.
“He was willing to fail trying to succeed,” said Krieg, who a day after the event was still in awe of his friend’s performance.
He knew that he would either see Demong at the finish line — or walking deliriously in Central Park.
“He knew he was gambling,” added Krieg. “And he liked it. He likes to peek over the edge. There was no guaranteed outcome at mile 13. That’s the reason he has a gold medal and none of us do.”
Demong also liked the windy, cold conditions. He drafted off runners as if it were a bike race, not a marathon. Whoever he was drafting off, he knew he would eventually drop.
“(The wind) was unrelenting,” Demong said. “There was not a single part of the course where it wasn’t coming from the front, side or back. A tailwind sounds nice, but as soon as you’d get to a cross street, which in New York is like every 50 yards, the wind changed direction.”
For Krieg, when he saw the wind, he told Demong that running 2:40 would be a great time. But as the wind worsened, Krieg realized that Demong was adjusting his time goal down, not up.
“The excitement and intensity and wind whipping people apart, he fed on that,” said Krieg. “The thrill-seeker in him rode that wave of emotion. I don’t know if he dreams bigger or believes more.”
“My view of him changed yesterday,” added Krieg. “I saw someone plow into 30 mile per hour winds that were ripping people apart, and he wasn’t even scared. He never wavered. He flipped it into a positive.”
Krieg finished in 2:36 even. Demong felt good right to the end, pushing hard and trying to break 2:33.
“Congrats on an impressive 2:33 in your debut New York Marathon @BillyDemong!” tweeted Joergen Graabak, who won the large hill Olympic gold medal in Sochi, Russia — the same medal that Demong had won in Vancouver. “Do you think you'll be able to walk straight in Falun? #legday”
Falun, Sweden, is home to the 2015 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in March. When the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association cut funding to the Nordic combined team this year, Demong decided to continue competing on a limited basis. Primarily, he’s trying to find funding for the U.S Nordic combined and ski jumping teams.
“It’s a bit easier for me to sell sponsorship with my name on the roster until someone really steps in,” Demong said, adding that Bryan and Taylor Fletcher are “well on their way there.” He can also fill in the roster for relays at world championships and to help the team earn another qualifying spot on the world cup.
Demong is hoping to find a company interested in Nordic combined’s European TV audience.
“If I can monetize the 22 million viewers that our guys have twice a week all winter (in Europe), then I think I should be easily able to find a sustainable funding model for this sport, including ski jumping,” he said.
The challenge is daunting — far more daunting than running 26.2 miles into a stiff wind. But he is going to keep plugging away “because I believe in it.”
“Nobody’s ever really given it a hard try,” he said. “So I think it’s time that I try. I think I can.”
For Krieg, anything that Demong believes he can do, he can. His friend has a way of making anyone believe anything is possible.
Next year, the two men want to try another marathon — and shoot for 2:30 or lower. They ran the first half of the New York Marathon at that pace, so why not?
“I peeked over the edge at mile 13,” Krieg said. “He gave me the gift of realizing what’s possible.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.