I read a line in a runner’s memoir describing the Boston Marathon as only allowing a few types of runners: the fast, the old, and the famous. The author went on to explain that unlike most other marathons, runners must qualify for Boston by having run a prior marathon below a certain time (the fast) or else be a celebrity running for charity (the famous). As for “the old” part, she explained that the qualifying times were age-graded and got significantly slower as the runner’s age got higher. This is all factually accurate but irritating as hell to have to read. I’m not fast. I’m not famous. Guess what.
This pithy description also leaves out one important detail, which is the very reason the qualifying times are age-graded: as a runner gets older, running gets tougher. “The old” aren’t being let into Boston out of pity. They’re there because despite the fact that “the fast” might consider a 5-hour marathon laughable, when a 70-year-old woman does it, it’s damned impressive.
Still, I will fully admit that I decided to wait until my qualifying time went down to 4 hours before I launched myself into full-on BQ-training this year. Since realistically I’d need to be at least 3 minutes under 4 hours (since not everyone who qualifies actually gets to run Boston), my pace would need to be about 9 minutes per mile. No problem, except that in the dozen or so marathons I’ve done, I’ve never come close to that. The pace by itself as a general concept doesn’t scare me; I can run a mile in under 9 minutes—can do it while having a conversation, in fact, if I were ever inclined to talk while running. The marathon distance doesn’t scare me either; I’ve done races nearly twice that. Terrible, miserable races, granted, but still, done. What has me concerned is that this is one of the many paradoxes of running that continue to stymie me even after all this time.
Paradox 1: You’re getting older. You’re trying to run faster.
You know the famous game from Sesame Street, “Which one of these things is not like the other?” I think of that whenever I’m with my Sunday running group. All of them have run sub-4 marathons, some of them sub-3s. Most of them have already gone to Boston. All but one of them is younger than me, some of them a lot younger. There has never been a Sunday run where I haven’t wondered what the hell I was doing there. The honest truth is one of the main reasons I joined this group was because they start their runs at 9am, which is unthinkably late for most distance runners but works splendidly for a non-morning person with bad insomnia. Sure, I want to get faster, and running with fast runners will do that, but I also want to do it without hating everyone around me because the alarm woke me just as I finally reached REM.
The Sunday runners have a set 7-mile route, which we try to complete in under an hour. Seven miles per hour is roughly an 8:30 pace, which is around my half-marathon pace. It is not even on the same planet as many of the other runners’ half-marathon paces. This is an easy, relaxed-pace run for them; for me, it’s a tempo run, meaning I have to push it a bit.
The first time I ran with this group, I decided to kick for the last half mile and push my pace hard, just to see if I could do it. I’ve come to regret this decision, because I’ve felt the need to continue the tradition of the final half-mile kick ever since.
Paradox 2: You’re getting tired. You push even harder.
This last Sunday, the weather was pretty decent but several of the runners had raced the day before and were feeling it. “So, 9:40 pace?” one of them joked.
The joker was one of the sub-3 guys. “Are you even capable of running a 9:40 pace?” I retorted.
I’ll never know the answer, because we did not go anywhere near 9:40. Good weather in August beats hard racing the day before, because other than the first easing-into-things mile, all our other miles were below target pace. “Plenty of time in the bank!” I called after an 8:08. “We can slow down any time!” I pleaded after mile 5 left me nearly asphyxiating. “F*** this s***!” I screamed with one mile to go.
The other runners laughed. They’ve started to measure the number of swear words I use per mile as an indicator of my effort.
Right before my half-mile-left kick usually starts, there’s an intersection with a stoplight. I am not someone who prays, but this intersection tends to be where I make an exception. Please. Please let us get the red. I need to stop. I cannot keep running like this. If I don’t get to stop there’s no way I’m kicking. Please.
I did not get my red light. We crossed, turned left, and faced the long straightaway to the parking lot.
So I pushed.
The group pushed with me.
A little faster.
For just a moment I was able to forget that my lungs were full of flaming napalm. The cement weights on my legs had magically fallen off back at the crosswalk. For a few minutes, it felt good.
And then I looked at my watch and realized I still had 0.15 to go.
Finally, we finished, and once I could breathe a little more normally and walk without staggering, I looked around at the others. Something rather nice had happened: we’d done a solid run together with a good, strong finish. I think we were all feeling it. It was with that swell of emotion that I turned to the others and said,
“I hate all of you very much.”
They grinned, high-5’d each other and me. They knew what I meant, because this was another familiar running paradox: You say you hate it. You keep coming back.