Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Gambler, the Rookie, and me

If Kenny Rogers had decided to write a song about parenting instead of gambling—let’s say Walt Disney drove a dump truck of money up to his front door and said “it’s yours but the song’s gotta be family-oriented”—the lyrics might have gone more along these lines:

You got to know when to hold ‘em
know when to let ‘em go
know when to start walkin’
and know when to run

It’s rather a good thing that never happened, because those lyrics are pretty stupid-sounding, even if they do speak some truths. At least, they do to me. I find I function best in life when I’m allowed leeway to invent myself, yet I still found it challenging to figure out how I was going to invent myself as someone in a vaguely parental role. I had figured on going my whole life without being a parent, and even now I’m still trying to make “slightly older female friend-type person to three younger but still adult female friend-type people” an acceptable substitute for “stepmother.”

My first big test of my inventing prowess came today, running my 30th marathon-or-more race with J, my youngest friend-type-person, running her 1st marathon. If you’re a reader of this blog, you already know how our training was going, and you’ll appreciate the fact that I went into this race unhappily resigned to the knowledge that I would almost certainly not be able to run the whole way with J. At some point, I would have to let her go. At some point all parents have to do this on a figurative level, of course, but it kind of seemed like I had skipped right to that point—to the point where the parental figure realizes that the "child" is in control of their own life and doesn’t really need you and, oh, also, may very well be a whole lot better than you at the things you once tried to teach them.

So be it. As Kenny Rogers never said, you got to know when to let ‘em go.

There was one thing I knew I could do successfully, which J had asked me specifically and emphatically to do, and that was to hold her pace back in the early miles so that she didn’t try to go out too fast. It’s the number-one rookie mistake for marathon runners, and J knew she was likely to get caught up in the excitement and blast off from the starting line like the race was 26.2 meters, not miles. If there’s one thing I can do well in a marathon, it’s run slowly. I’d spent all last year only running trail ultras, which are longer than marathons and thus easier, in my view, believe it or not, because anything beyond 26.2 miles on tough terrain is so ridiculous you pretty much have to take it easy. This pleases me very much. However, that was last year; this year I’m back to road marathons, where taking it easy is only a means to an end—a hard, fast end.

We agreed upon sticking to a conservative 10-minute-mile pace for a good 10-13 miles before deciding how we felt about speeding up. This meant, of course, that we were never at a 10 pace for any one of those first 13 miles. Our first 6 or so were at just under 9:50; the next 6 a bit faster, the next 6 faster still. This was not surprising to me. J and I both like to get the negative split, meaning the second half of our race is faster than the first half; the problem for me was that in all our training runs J could run her second half so very much faster than I knew I could. If I tried to keep up with her, I had a feeling, as the song never went, I’d have to know when to start walkin’.

Some interesting things can happen in the late-but-still-not-very-end of a marathon. One of those things is you hit the wall. Cue the walkin’. The other thing that can happen is the flip side: you can realize, quite clearly, that you’ve got this, you can do this, you can finish this race and finish strong. You know when to run, and it’s now.

It happened at Mile 19. I’ve run enough marathons to know how I can handle 7 miles, and at Mile 19, I knew I had those miles on a platter. I could do this. I could run the whole way with J as I’d hoped but not expected.

Something else happened a few miles later. There was never any doubt in my mind or hers that J could do this—and she did do it, and incredibly well. But at some point in those later miles, J realized what all marathoners come to realize: this is hard. I knew when it was happening because I’ve been there so very many times myself. She was struggling. Her pace slowed. Her conversation became more monotone, monosyllabic. Still, a struggling J is leaps and bounds more fun to be around than a struggling me. My late-mile crankiness is just unpleasant; hers was actually entertaining at times. At one point we passed some signs on the side of the road that had quiz-type questions about the local university, whose sesquicentennial anniversary the marathon was commemorating. “Where did the statue of Alma Mater originally appear?” one sign read. “Uh, up your butt?” J muttered. Euphoric with endorphins, I thought that was just about the funniest thing anyone has ever said at any time in the history of humor. I was still laughing about it a good half-mile later. Ultimately what this meant was that I actually was able to fulfill my role as pacer and keep right with her until the finish.

As said, J did incredibly well. I don’t know many first-time marathoners who trained as smartly and had as solidly impressive a first race as she did. But then I knew that was going to happen. I did not know I’d be there for the whole thing until the whole thing happened. Ten years ago I didn’t know I’d be running marathons at all; five years ago I didn’t know that I’d ever be in any sort of parental position in my lifetime. Twenty-four hours ago I was all set to be frustrated and disappointed in myself the next day. Then all this. Runners have the annoying habit of going on endlessly about how much they get from running, but at the moment I can’t keep from adding to the annoyance because I’m still learning things from these races—the ways I can create myself, how I can still surprise myself, and, of course, when to run.


  1. At mile 21 I saw you and you were in great spirits!

    1. Yes, I was! It was great seeing you there -- thanks for volunteering.

  2. Fantastic! Such a cool way to add to your marathon experience. I'm sure J will never forget it.

    1. Thank you!!! Sad I missed the 9:30 reunion. Pacing together is the best.