Thursday, October 12, 2017

If at 16th you don't succeed ...

My first marathon was seven and a half years ago, and it was bad. I had developed an overuse injury about a month or so before the race—an odd one, just above the left ankle on the inner shin. I say odd because there aren’t a ton of moving parts right there compared to, say, feet or knees or hips, and there isn’t a well-known malady to call an injury in that area, such that I could have just said “plantar” or “piriformis” or “ITB” and other runners would nod knowingly. Regardless, whatever it was called, it was injured, and I ran the whole stupid race on it. Every step hurt. Ev. E. Ry. Step. A distance of 26.2 miles means roughly in the neighborhood of 50,000 steps. Fifty-thousand needle-jabs to the ankle in five-plus hours—like being a very klutzy heroin junky desperate for a high that never comes. You’d think after that experience I’d have learned a lesson or two. Funny thing about that is maybe I haven’t.

My second marathon was later that same year, in Chicago. I’d recovered from my injury and trained reasonably well over the summer, but it was one of those hot Chicago years, and none of my training had prepared me for hitting that shadeless industrial section at mile 20 when the mercury hit 80. As a result the last 10K was another suffer fest. You’d think I’d have learned that suffering isn’t fun—kind of the opposite, really. Funny thing about that, I ended up doing much tougher races in subsequent years, including an ultra nearly twice the distance with a heat index of a hundred. Granted, I didn’t exactly seek out those temperatures, but still, the point is I had more suffering in store.

My third marathon was back at the hometown race, and this time I trained well, with a great pace group and a cautious avoidance of injury. My group trained at a 9:30 pace, and we consistently hit that pace for all our long runs. Day of the race, we were all feeling confident. Two of my group members managed to do substantially better than where we’d paced and they broke 4 hours together. One group member ran exactly at 9:30. I did neither. I was the only one who ran slower than we’d trained, the only one disappointed, the only one left trying to figure out what went wrong. I mean, I know what went wrong—one again I’d hit the wall at around mile 20—but I didn’t know why. Funny thing about that is, six years later, I’m still trying to break 4 hours.

My fourth marathon was different. It wasn’t in my hometown, home state, or even home country. Just for kicks I had chosen the Reykjavik marathon because, hey, why not add jet lag to all the other obstacles standing in the way of a successful 26.2? The plane was full of veteran marathon runners, including a young woman sitting next to me who once ran the London marathon on a Sunday then flew back to the States to run Boston on Monday. She PR’d in London, in a time so fast I’ve erased it from my mind, the way people who have been traumatized block terrible memories (though she did not PR in Boston—slacker). On the bus ride to the hotel I got to talking to an older woman with several dozen marathons under her hydration belt, and when I mentioned my past 3 frustrating races, she gave me some advice. This time, she suggested, don’t worry about hitting a particular finish time. Don’t even try to hit a certain average pace. Make your only goal to be a negative split. Go out conservatively, at a pace where you know you could easily speed up—but don’t speed up. Midway through, if you still feel you could easily speed up, go ahead. You might not PR, but you’ll be able to run the whole thing without crashing.

It worked, brilliantly, and it was one of the best races I’ve ever done. Didn’t hurt that at the point where I usually crash, this time knowing absolutely for sure that I had this one in the bag, I had a gorgeous view of Reykjavik before me and more than twenty miles behind me.

Since then there have been 11 more marathons and 15 ultras, some great (running alongside my stepdaughter while she crushed her first marathon was a huge highlight), some ghastly (there’s a stretch of sandy riverside trail in the Pacific Northwest that I was certain at the time would become my final resting place). I’ve learned I hate Gu, love salty boiled potatoes, and can’t keep down anything, not even the head of a gummy bear, when the heat index is a hundred. I’ve learned other, non-food-oriented things, too, of course; you have a lot of time to think when you run long distances, which means a lot of time pondering the human condition in all its glory and absurdity, made potently clear in the act of pushing your body very hard for a very long time only to end up where you started.

Marathon 16 is coming up in just a few weeks. I had been hoping to qualify for Boston. My training had been going well. Then I got injured, my first running injury in nearly three years, and it stopped going well. You’d think that—well, I don’t know what you’d think, because I don’t even know what I think at this point. It’s not life or death, all this; it’s just running, but I still want it to mean something, even if I fully acknowledge that “something” is likely my own invention. Do I say that this is all about doing what I can and accepting what I can’t? Do I admit that the biggest obstacle in my life has always been me? Do I recognize that the point really is to keep trying, otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing this again and again and again? Yeah, all that, but none of that is news to me. I don’t really know what the takeaway to this latest endeavor will be, but funny thing is I suspect there’s still something more to be learned.

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