Choosing between the joy of triumph and the wisdom of retreat
On Sunday, May 6, 2018, I ran in the BMO Vancouver Marathon as my Boston Marathon qualifying race. I finished in 3:13:57 — just inside Boston qualifying (BQ) time for my age group. Despite its high points, the race did not go well.
Last year, I ran a 2:54 unsupported marathon for my work commute — including stops — to see if I could break three hours. It turned out to be less of a challenge than I had anticipated. That fire that burns inside marathoners who chase ever faster PRs had been ignited in me. Around the same time, I started winning local, short trail races. In February, I ran a 1:16:33 track half marathon; and felt like I had withheld some potential in that race. This lead me to two concrete goals: run a marathon at sub-six-minute pace and run in the Boston Marathon.
The tough and hilly BMO Vancouver Marathon course is not the best place to test out a top speed for a Boston qualifying time, but the date worked for me and it was something I could roll into a vacation for the family. I signed up.
To train, I adapted a schedule from a mashup of “Advanced Marathoning” and Jack “Daniels’ Running Formula”. I did a lot of tempo runs and track workouts. I did big, challenging long runs with marathon pace miles at the end. I rested well between the hard efforts. Not every workout was a success, but I learned from the ones that failed. My pace improved dramatically. All indicators pointed to a sub-2:40 marathon on the right course.
I started rock climbing just after the New Year. In a gym on April 26, I slipped into an uncontrolled fall at the top of a bouldering route and clipped my left hip on a large hold near the ground before hitting the mat. It knocked the wind out of me. The bruise gave me a little pain on my run into work the next day. I powered through a tempo run at lunch. By late afternoon, I had unbearable sciatic pain shooting through my body as I limped back to the car. The following morning I was using trekking poles to hobble around the house.
The timing was uncanny. I was in the best running shape of my life, then suddenly I was eight days away from a race and couldn’t even walk.
I did my best to rehab my injury. I did more yoga in one week than I had previously done in my entire life. I foam rolled. I orbed. I had massages. I had chiropractic treatments. The injury healed quickly, but not completely. I felt well enough to run the day we left for the trip, but sitting in a car for seven hours was a setback. I was limping when I picked up my bib at the expo the day before the race. My son ran off at one point and I was too sore to chase him. I rested as much as I could after that.
The Starting Line
I almost didn’t make it to the starting line. I had arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 7:30am to get to the start around forty-five minutes before the race began. When I went down to the lobby, I saw George Towett fly by at an impressive pace. He would go on to win the half marathon which started earlier. But it hit me — the road directly in front of our hotel was closed for the half marathon, and runners were starting to come by. I hadn’t realized that this race ran on a different street than the marathon. In retrospect, this is the point where I should have grabbed my car from the garage and escaped while there were still wide gaps between runners. Instead, I asked the concierge to call the taxi company to change the pickup location. We moved it a few blocks off both the half and full courses.
I ran up the street to wait on the corner of the new pickup location. I noticed that I felt pretty good running. No pain or signs of muscle tightness I had been experiencing. By 7:45, I had accepted that my cab was a no-show, so I ran back to grab my car and drive over. The only driving exit from the hotel is through an alley which empties out into the street which was by then crowded with runners. A large truck was blocking the alley in front of me; its driver waiting outside the vehicle. I was trapped. Soon it was 8:20.
It wasn’t until a doctor needed to leave this alley that police arrived to momentarily route the runners to the opposite side walk. The officers made it clear to us that the doctor would leave first and would be the only one they would help. It was up to us to tailgate her if we could. The police had the doctor edge her car forward, then they started motioning for runners to go around. She made it out, and the truck driver in front of me took his time leaving behind her. The reroute ended as soon as he had made it onto the road. I was blocked in again. Suddenly a gap appeared naturally. One of the officers yelled to me, “GO!” and I bolted; making sure I was clear of people and obstacles. At 8:28am, I departed for a race that started in two minutes.
I had driven out to the start line the day before, which was fortunate because Google Maps wasn’t working for me and I had to navigate to Queen Elizabeth Park by memory. 8:30 had long passed by the time I reached the area, but I had hoped that the chip timer would still be running when I made it to the park.
I could see a swarm of runners a few blocks ahead. I figured I would just drive to as near them as possible, park, and run the opposite direction until I reached the start. There was a parking spot just yards off the route. I hopped out, locked up, noted the cross streets, and headed to the course. It turned out I had parked only two blocks from the starting line. I heard a horn releasing the final corral. I ran into the Orange Corral — appropriately enough as that was where I was meant to start. I thought for one moment about waiting for my watch to finish acquiring GPS satellites, but then I saw people sweeping the starting area.
I heard the chip timer beep as I sprinted away — the last runner to start. A staff member said to me, “Go get ‘em.” I had made it. Injury. Transportation nightmares. All the weapons the universe had used against me had failed. It didn’t matter how the race turned out at this point. My challenge was crossing the starting line. And I had just won.
The First Half
There is always an injection of adrenaline at the beginning of race. But none is quite so powerful as the one that comes from narrowly missing the start. I was elated to be on the course. I was celebrating in my mind. I had to compose myself. I had no chance to warmup or review my strategy. I started to think. The first thing I noticed was how hot it was. The forecast was for sun and temperatures over 70°F. It had to be close to that already. The first part of the course is exposed and I felt every bit of the heat.
It took about two minutes for my watch to acquire satellites. When it did, I realized I was running at about a 5'45" pace. I went out too hot for this course and these conditions. I hadn’t had any water since I left the hotel and was already getting a dry mouth.
Then I caught up with the crowd — the people at the back of the slowest corral. I entered the mire. My speed was about double that of those who run in this part of the race. I had to be careful to avoid collisions. There was rarely room on the margins to pass, so I was forced to do a lot of zigzagging; or run on the grass just off the road. The course started downhill as I brought my pace to a 5’55" mile. That seemed more appropriate. I cleared the bulk of the group without incident.
I caught up to the next corral and found this one more difficult to navigate. The pace from runner to runner was more variable. Which meant a lot of runners were doing their own zigging and zagging. A little over three kilometers into the race, I had cleared the second to last wave with a few shoulder bumps.
The third of five corrals was more dispersed than the prior two, but the route had also narrowed; making passing no easier. I passed the four-hour pace bunny. I was still holding a 5'55" mile. It had become instinctive through recent training, but I as my mind began to wrap around the entirety of the race, I forced myself to slow down.
I passed the 3h30m pace bunny as the adrenaline and anxiety of the start subsided. The BMO Vancouver Marathon course is lovely, and I finally began to take notice of the world around me. I brought my pace up to about 6'30". That felt more comfortable, and was plenty fast for the day’s goal. I felt discomfort in my hip and glute — a signature of my injury, but it wasn’t enough to perceptibly harm my performance. I had found my stride. I rarely checked my watch after that.
This marathon has a race inside the race — the King & Queen of the Hill. It’s essentially two chip timers placed on either end of the course’s steepest of its numerous climbs. It’s also notorious for destroying the race for those who attempt to win it. I opted to take it easy up the hill. But with a lot of experience in running up and down mountains, I wound up passing a lot of people here; including the 3h15m pace bunny.
Once on top of the hill, the course is fairly flat. It was getting warmer and the sun was unbridled. I hydrated at nearly every station — which is rare for me. About 12km in, I saw a women being helped by medics. She was laid out on the sidewalk with signs of heat exhaustion.
After a short out and back section, the course begins a long descent west. It runs out of the city down a forest-lined road towards the seawall. A thin layer of clouds moved across the sun and a light breeze picked up from the bay. As the road narrowed, the trees grew taller and closer — offering a long stretch of welcome, pleasant shade. I picked up my pace again.
I passed the 3h10m pace bunny. I wasn’t running hard. I was mostly just letting gravity do the work. I kept pace with a cluster of runners and we chatted a bit. The slope leveled off and the race was essentially flat from there. It felt like the hard part was behind me. My injury hadn’t reared its ugly head. I just needed to stay consistent. I crossed the halfway mark around 1:26, which put me on track to finish somewhere between 2:50 and 2:55. I felt strong. The hilly first half hadn’t made so much as a dent in my energy.
The Second Half
I had just passed the 3h5m bunny when I decided to lock my pace in at 6'30" for the remainder of the run. This was conservative by comparison to recent training. Around the 24km mark, I made a sharp left turn and a jolting sciatic pain appeared so suddenly and aggressively I nearly fell over. The injury had returned to its most insidious form. Two runners stopped to check on me and I politely shooed them away. I pulled over for a moment to stretch and massage my hip before limping forward.
I was reduced to a jog for the following two miles. The course began to gain slightly heading to the Burrard Bridge. It took some pressure off my injury; allowing me to pick up my pace again. My wife and son would be waiting for me to pass by on the other side of the bridge. The prospect of seeing them put me into good form. As I came down the other side of the bridge, I scanned the crowd and saw my wife. I ran up to her and gave her a quick kiss before my son ran out onto the course after me. I instinctively turned around to get him out of harm’s way, but my wife was able to catch him.
The gentle slope down from the bridge to the beach was enough to fire off my injury again. The lap around Stanley Park — something I’ve enjoyed as one of my favorite road runs in the past — was an endless trudge between walking and painful, spastic jogging. The pace bunnies I had passed in the first half were one at a time catching up and moving ahead.
I had trained hard. I booked a hotel and brought my family up here. I nearly missed the start of this race. But I was here and I had one goal: qualify for the Boston Marathon. The first half had given me such a strong lead on the required 3h15m finish that there was still a chance. The 3h15m pace bunny caught up to me. I pushed as hard as I could through the punishing pain to move ahead. I dragged the left side of my body along with my right leg. I started passing people whom I’d seen move ahead of me earlier.
With two kilometers to go, my right leg began to feel the fatigue of doing all the work. My pace slowed dramatically as the route bent uphill to the finish. I came around the last corner. A shot of adrenaline was injected at the sight of the finish line. I ran hard with a disjointed stride like a gazelle that had been taken down by a lion, but managed to escape and was running for its life on broken limbs. Two blocks from the finish my right calf cramped. I punched it hard twice and moved on. For the first time in my running career I did not run through the finish, but stopped right on it and limped away.
I finished in 3:13:57. About one minute inside of the Boston Marathon qualifying time.
I didn’t run for two weeks after the marathon. I continued my regimen of treatment, but progress was glacial. I felt as though the point I’d reached the moment before the injury was something I’d never experience again. That whatever happened was going to turn into that pinnacle injury athletes experience where there was life before and after it.
It wasn’t until five weeks later, on my first run beyond ten miles — and my first trail run since the injury — that I ran without pain. I was five miles deep into a backcountry route when my pace picked up and my mind melted into the natural surroundings. The joy nearly brought me to tears. To be back flying through the woods less like a visitor and more like one of its citizens. My appreciation for moving one foot in front of the other at a better than average rate grew inordinately.
At the time of writing, the injury has completely healed. I’ll be racing in the Sauvie Island Flat Marathon on July 4, 2018 in an attempt to get a better BQ time. When the Boston Marathon oversells, the registrants with the fastest times are entered. This usually requires running a qualifying marathon race at least five minutes faster than BQ.
Was it worth running this race? It’s difficult to answer this question without a bias towards justification, but wisdom can only be gained from honest answers. I was badly injured. There was no guarantee I would heal in time. It was unlikely I would fully heal in time. And I certainly wouldn’t have prolonged my injury by staying home. I technically BQed, but my goal was to actually race at the Boston Marathon, not just prove I can get the qualifying time; which I know full well I can easily do when I’m healthy. And now I must run a makeup race.
I had time to cancel. I wouldn’t have received a refund for the registration, but I wouldn’t have had the expense of the travel, hotel, and eating out for the whole family. There were some circumstances ahead of the trip which almost kept it from happening. The whole world was working against me on this one. Should I have heeded its message?
There was a joy that came with crossing that starting line. With passing nearly the entire field from the back. To overcome so much made it all worth it. For at least a moment. But ultimately, I would have to answer, “No”, it was not worth running this race.
But was it worth the trip? I stayed up there with my family long enough to make it into a vacation. We visited close friends. I played hide and seek with my son for the first time. We had one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had in my life courtesy of Yolks. We needed a vacation and while maybe one centered around a marathon wasn’t the best choice, we had a great one. My wife — who only got her driver license two years ago — drove all the way back from Canada. An ultramarathon for her.
At some point, my drive to meet a goal at all costs had to be pushed too far in the face of pragmatism to balance out my future actions. This was that point. While “DNF” is still not in my vocabulary, “DNS” might be.