I’d never understood the emotional journey of The BQ till the OTQ punched me in the gut.
After running 3:08 for my first marathon I was qualified for Patriot’s Day and didn’t look back. Sub-3 came next, and while I encouraged my friends to chase their qualifier, I had no real idea what it meant.
After all I thought, running is simply about aiming to better your best, right? Breaking 4 hours to some is similar to breaking 2:30 to others, a milestone of meaning that signifies commitment and progress. A process of picking the next threshold beyond your current best and dedicating to incremental improvement.
Which works, until you aim for a qualifier.
Thresholds are inclusive, we each get to pick our own echelon of meaning. Qualifiers discriminate, we’re all shoved into boxes designated by others without forgiveness. Endeavoring for a threshold defined outside yourself is foolish, reckless, and terribly seductive.
Which is what made me so sick.
“No. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna aim for an OTQ.” I reassured my wife, shortly after running a PR of 2:23. I’d just accomplished so much, and yet before I could appreciate the milestone it began slipping through my fingers, my eyes casting upwards toward an even higher goal.
My initial impulse in the chase toward 2:19 is panic.
A fierce commitment to enjoying my own journey had brought me this far. From 2:56, to 2:47, 36, 29 and finally 2:23, I’d progressed in this manner by holding external expectations at bay. I’d run for me. At my pace, on my terms.
This was different. Chasing a Qualifier feels dangerous, like unbuckling my climbing harness, letting go of the safe grip I had on this process and continuing to climb up an uncertain edge towards an external standard without the safety net of personally defined success.
This is terrifying, yet also a bit freeing. I know the old me couldn’t get there. To have a chance I must reinvent.
Now I must search for belief. Finding five more minutes of speed, if that’s even possible, demands stepping away from testing to focus on training. A year away from my next marathon, I have time to re-evaluate it all. Long enough to progress and adapt. But just because I’m managing to train at higher volumes and intensity than before doesn’t mean I can wrap my head around the threshold at hand.
This new pace still feels so fast. Almost cruel. As if someone picked a pace at which comfort didn’t exist at all. Since of course they did. The governing body of this race did the math and found the threshold at which most men falter. They settled on this as their benchmark to pick us apart.
There’s no sense in clinging to bitterness, it’s just wasted time towards progress.
Spring and Summer
Next I’m perplexed. A new PR in the 10k, then the Half Marathon, is fine, but is it enough?
Weight sessions repeated twice that I previously couldn’t complete once, translates to what exactly?
Wading in this tide of progress, free from assessment over 26.2, means I’m unencumbered by near-term demands. I can push and pull, overexert and then over recover when needed. I’m experimenting. Wobbling, as I attempt to walk a new line, hoping it will lead me high enough to have a chance at this seemingly impossible qualifier.
And then it all almost comes crashing down.
After months of feeling the gains of progress I’m jostled by the bump of an illness. Weeks down the drain. Even the slightest interruption to an athlete’s momentum feels like trauma. Only a handful of weeks till race day and each one feels like a scramble to catch up. “Maybe the time off will be a good thing!” a friend suggests in support.
But when you’re managing the thin margin of your ability, a half step back can feel insurmountable. Fixating on the distance lost, not the progress made, I begin to question it all.
Though I feel more able than ever, what does it all mean if I’m unable to hit this external standard? Is all this progress for nothing if it doesn’t earn me an invitation?
“How did I get here?” I lament. I’ve made incremental progress for years by adhering to my own motivations and I’m about to let it all sour under the scrutiny of external validation.
“F that.” This can’t all be for nothing I insist. I must appreciate this new ability. I must celebrate this newfound speed even if I’m concerned that it may not be enough.
The thrills begin to build as we near race day and previously impossible workouts snap into place.
A hard 20 miler while chatting.
High mileage weeks that actually feel manageable.
And finally 16 miles at qualifying pace. Difficult for sure, but maybe just manageable.
I’m ready for something, what outcome exactly I do not know. I’m prepared enough to take aim at this Qualifier.
My body is more capable at surviving at pace than ever before. We’ll see if my mind can match the mettle necessary for this entire endeavor.
As if stepping closer to the edge, coming right up next to the threshold of danger, my whole body begins to tense with trepidation about the fallout from a potential failure.
Proud of my progress but unsure of my fitness; there’s no real way to know if I am able. It’s unclear whether I’m more afraid of missing their qualifier or wasting such amazing fitness. Scared, I’m eager to retreat and just race within myself to a new PR. To settle and run in the way I have so many times before.
What if my stride crumbles? What if my body revolts at this pace for this long? A dozen marathons run and I’m still petrified of the unknowns.
“That’s not what got you here.” I remember. I’ve announced my goal to everyone I know because if it is beyond me, maybe I can cross on a bridge of belief built on the hopes and dreams of others. This attempt feels wholly outside of my experience. Maybe that’s the point.
I must endeavor to qualify because of what the threshold signifies — that I’m among a group who is able. If I aspire to be with them I cannot hide in the safe harbor of myself.
Resigned to fear, which seems certain, I swear off caution, which I cannot afford.
And so I launch.
As the sunrise begins to warm the horizon I embark on a wild ride up, down and around the streets to Sacramento. Gasping for air, I attempt to find my own rhythm as the pack of racers begins to splinter and I am isolated. Each of us must attempt to surpass this threshold on our own.
Nearing the penultimate mile, the sun having now fully risen and our calm faces having baked into grimaces, I sense aspiration and urgency in the voices shrieking from the sidelines.
They want me to be able. They want me to be better than just myself. In their voices I sense a vision for me as a Qualifier.
Except I’m not. And I begin to slow.
Though in awe of how quickly I’m traveling, I can tell it’s not enough. Subtly I feel the standard slipping away. Splits that only a year ago would have been a dream are now my demise.
Such success, yet not enough. Inside of the unimaginable 2:20, yet outside of their qualifier by 40 seconds. Faster than I could have previously dreamt. Slower than the standard they set.
Hours later as I collect my things I begin to softly sob. For no specific reason other than I’m exhausted, elated and sad. All at once.
The past year has been spent exposed, beyond my ability, in a terrifying place of pure ambition.
A year spent desiring a time set by someone else was tiring, revealing and ultimately rewarding. I didn’t meet their standard, they won’t yet invite me to their event, but it brought me higher than I had ever previously dared to dream.
Living within that zone of ambition is unsustainable, but it leaves you changed. My previous comfort zone had consisted of constant incremental improvement, training pains I knew well and welcomed. This leap towards their threshold forced me outside the zone I could control.
And I suppose that’s the point.
That in this individualistic sport where we control the inputs, the efforts and often the outcomes, we must sometimes look beyond ourselves for inspiration. Even if the true definition of success will always be you vs you, at times we need others to pull the best from inside us.