I’m finding my 10th marathon oddly daunting.
The answer of course is the endless “Because.”
Because I wonder how much faster I can go.
Because the record books are clear and I want to move up.
But most of all, because running fast is really, really fun.
The speed of a fast marathon is both fleeting and agonizing. Comparatively slow and much too fast.
When appropriately trained and reasonably fit the term “Marathon Pace” is an elusive estimation.
“MP” for short, it stands for how much you’re willing to wager for a little too long. MP feels like a lie you just may be able to justify.
A pace that felt too fast only weeks ago is suddenly….manageable. The body is incredible because it adapts. The pace isn’t great, it’s nowhere near “comfortable,” but when gambling correctly it’s oddly sustainable.
Late May 2013 — the sun arcs through the afternoon along the Willamette River only a month removed from the Boston bombing that ripped a hole in the running community and reignited my passion for racing. In the middle of a long run I glance at my watch and it dawns on me that I’m running 6:30 miles, and I’m…not…dying. “I can work with this” I realize.
My only goal at the time was to get a BQ for Boston 2014, a day that would prove to be one of the most memorable in American running history.
I had no idea how much more work was in store…
Approaching the Cal International Marathon on December 3rd this year I’ll attempt to run nearly a minute faster per mile than I did in 2013.
Trying to hold 6:30s turned into hitting “low 6s,” which evolved into breaking 6s for 26.2 in a row.
From there it’s been an escalation of expectation
As with many things in life, you can make it a long ways through daily habits and routine. Marathon training has become a lifestyle, and the paces have fallen accordingly.
5:50s gave way to 5:40s, which leads me to wonder, where does this all end?
Marathon goals bring out the best and worst in the human psyche. Ask others, “What’s your MP?” and you’re greeted with a mess of logic and emotion.
I wonder whether the same lizard brain that is more likely to buy an item at $4.99 than $5 is what leads runners when we reach for time goals beyond our ability.
”Success” as a Marathoner is mostly about setting the right goals
As we saw in Nike’s Breaking2 — Lactic Threshold doesn’t lie. While Kipchoge opened our minds to human potential, Desisa and Tadese demonstrated that no amount of grit or aspiration can overcome a pace beyond your critical speed. Too many marathoners say, “I really want to break __:__:__,” selecting a time that sounds nice aloud. A number they fancy. One that maybe even impresses their friends.
Too few marathoners state “I believe I’m in __:__:__ shape. I really want to perform on the day.”
I get it, I too adore the digits and relish a broken barrier, but to what end?
I’ve run 2:28, and yet, here I am, continuing to play the game, asking the same questions, “What would make me proud?”
Would 2:27 make me special?
Might 2:26 make it meaningful?
Would 2:25 make the memories sparkle more intensely? Decades from now if I’m fortunate enough to still be shuffling my Nikes down the road, will the visions of the past be more vivid if the clock stops on a certain numeral?
Maybe 2:24 is where real Marathon glory rests.
All these times still leave me far from the famed Olympic Trials Qualifier, or OTQ. Because nothing I’ve run to date shows I’m capable of 5:17/mile pace, I won’t shoot for it on the day. But I’ll gladly chase down the trail of carnage that the OTQ dream leaves along the road.
An OTQer is a remarkable runner and invisible to the sport. This cruel game we play cannot be justified by external validation.
This game of numbers is ephemeral and elusive; beautiful in its simplicity and ultimately meaningless.
These are our games to play, representations of physical and mental preparation and focus.
“He acts like a big dog, I can’t stand it,” someone lamented about another runner who knows the sport well, but doesn’t understand its meaning. I laughed, “We’re all on a spectrum, Kipchoge is over here and the last finisher is over here” I gestured with my hands far apart. “Eliud is the only one who can big dog, but he doesn’t. That’s what makes him so special.”
As marathoners we judge harshly by these numbers, telling ourselves we’ll be content with just a little faster.
A 2:12 marathoner is a statistical freak and almost meaningless to the sport. Thinking of 26.2 miles sub-5minutes bends my mind, but still leaves that athlete ages behind the winners. A 2:12 is no more meaningful than a 2:59. A 4:01 is no less than a 3:03.
But we play these games to see if we can, to prove our mettle to ourselves and others. For me it’s a game of wonder, doubt and love of the lifestyle.
We know from research by Teresa Amabel at Harvard that “progress towards a meaningful goal” is what leads to greatest fulfillment in life — so what does a runner do once meaningful goals have been accomplished?
It’s foolish to have sympathy for a marathoner who has hit his goals, but having broken 6min pace, and 9,000 seconds, I’m left wondering, “What’s next of meaning?”
Like a child on Christmas afternoon looking around at torn paper and unwrapped presents who longs to go back to the morning when the room was filled with anticipation and potential, I’m a Marathoner training for the future with a nostalgic eye to the past. So grateful for what I’ve accomplished, yet wistful of when Boston, Chicago and NYC were waiting to be unwrapped.
Part of growing up is realizing that what got you here won’t get you where you need to go next.
“I think you could do something special in Sacramento” — my father told me moments after I crossed the finish line in Boston this April. In the moment it was too soon, but the time has almost come to embrace the agony and execute the opportunity.
Despite getting much faster, a few things remain true:
- It’s still gonna hurt —badly — the essence of the craft is managing sustained suffering. Embracing the hurt.
- And I still doubt myself deeply in these moments of distress. Under the fog of fatigue I’m the same insecure kid who doesn’t think he’s tough enough, wants it enough, or is willing to work hard enough. Lactic acid and oxygen depletion does tough things to the body, but it’ll break the mind, if you let it.
Most of all — regardless of the finishing time, I feel swelling gratitude for the opportunity to be racing at these speeds. Only 5 years ago I was a retired racer, plodding along without direction. Those bombings left an emotional scar on runners around the world, shaking me to remember that now is all we have and running fast is the closest a runner comes to flight. As the significance of time barriers begins to fade I’ve become consumed by maximizing this moment in my life.
I will run forever, but only be able to race at this speed for so long.
I’m fit. I’m prepared. And mostly importantly, I’m surrounded by my teammates, my brothers of endurance — fellow marathoners.
We‘ve prepared together, we will perform together — but there are no guarantees with the marathon.
That’s what makes it beautiful.
“Marathon is life, it’s not about the legs, but it’s about the heart and mind.” — Eliud Kipchoge
Thanks for reading!
I always love to hear from fellow runners Bromka@gmail.com