“I’m gonna tell you a story
I’m gonna tell you about my town
I’m gonna tell you a big bad story, baby
Aww, it’s all about my town…”
The philosophical marathoner knows that training and racing 26.2 is about wearing a familiar groove of speed, maintenance, and nutrition in your body all while preparing yourself to break into the beyond, dig deep, and redefine yourself, your legs, your inner athlete. In the months leading up to the race, you are earning yourself the personal glory that you are sure to reap as you cross the finish line.
A marathon well raced will be the embodiment of this dichotomy – a system tried and true used as a system to guide you into your unknown, to take hold of a new threshold. Trust + Fear. This is where personal bests are run, and true runners are made.
The hardest and most confusing part about this is that, those marathons where this delicate balance is thrown completely off can be the most beneficial on ones’ path towards that same inner athlete. This is the type of race that found me on Marathon Monday in Boston.
The race began beautifully – my taper had been solid and restful, my arrival in Boston smooth, our stay in the city delightful, and race morning hitch-less (unlike last year when I arrived in Boston without baggage and spent the next two days racing between the airport and Boylston Street attempting to recover it, and then when this option became impossible, attempting to replace as much of my lost running gear as possible before race morning.) Last year, I arrived at the starting line of the 114th Boston Marathon scattered, over-tired, feeling under-prepared and convinced that nothing else could possibly go wrong. And I was right – without a watch, trusty shoes or tried and true nutrition, I ran from Hopkinton into Boston that day more smoothly, under control, and faster than I had ever run 26.2 miles and finished the race elated, having qualified for Boston AGAIN, at Boston, and having officially categorized myself as a pretty darn good runner.
This last Monday, the sun was shining when our bouncing bus of athletes rolled into Athlete’s Village – filled with runners eager to hit the port-a-potty lines, and then the starting lines, in that order. The morning went quickly and before I knew it, I was seeded in my corral listening to the gun go off, surrounded by other Boston veterans, and quick pacers, and starting my watch with a deep breath and a glimmer in my eye. I had my eye on a 15-minute improvement on last years’ Boston time; a 15-minute improvement on my own personal record, and I knew that I would have to aggressively strike that runner’s balance to achieve it.
The first few miles of Boston came just as I remembered them – rollers trending downhill quickly with a pack, strong and confident, and with a screaming crowd wishing us well as we cruised out of Hopkinton and into the towns beyond. A smile crossed my face as I checked my watch – indeed, over the past months I’ve seen a huge increase in speed and strength and the numbers were ringing true. I was running fast – faster than I ever had before, and I felt smooth and fabulous. But I knew that there were many miles still ahead and I continued to remind myself to relax, hold back, and maintain – no matter how fast the marathon is being run, it is still a long race.
Finding this new fast groove was harder than I expected as I rolled into the 7th and 8th miles, through the smaller burbs, and past the quieter crowds who were still rolling out of bed and just getting the Patriot’s Day Party started. Nearing mile 10, when I thought I had nailed the pace I would need to cruise into Boston at a 3:05, a little wave of the deep came upon me – a twinge that I couldn’t identify;
More salt? Less salt? More nutrition? Less? More water? Too much water?
And a racing heartbeat.
Then, a headache came on and with that I was in uncharted territory – traditionally, I am expert at identifying that fine line of “good to push” within me but here, a series of conditions had come up that I did not know how to fix on the run. I tried slowing down, drinking more, eating more – walking quickly through water stations trying to shake my vision back into focus. No little bit of input seemed to help me recover and so, my legs still strong, I continued to push towards Beantown acutely aware that I would need to abandon my goal to make it into the City still standing.
I was probably a bit upset with myself, for not being able to pull from my racing experience to fix this race – to do this Running Rite of Passage justice. But really, I was bit delirious from pushing. I had never run a half-marathon as quickly as I did that morning, and I certainly had never run a marathon this quickly.
And, I was confused; how could this be happening after all of the time put in training, energy spent analyzing nutrition, and general good thoughts and intentions sent towards this very day. And yet, it was not enough.
In what seems now to be the blink of an eye, I flew through the throngs of girls offering kisses at Wellesley, cruised up and over the Newton rollers, conquered Heartbreak Hill with control and intention, heard the screams of pride and allowed them to carry me through Brookline, and into downtown Boston. As we turned the corner from Commonwealth Ave onto Boylston Street, the road begins to narrow and chants from the university students and Bostonians, blue in the face from screaming the names and numbers of runners shedding blood, sweat, and little bits of their humility on the streets of their beloved city overwhelm the running path and distract your every sense as your pound out the last two miles of this epic race. It was here that the dam within me broke; I managed to find my speed again, and with a little groan let it loose, knowing that familiar arms and the promise of walking, celebrating the task at hand, was waiting within the next minutes.
I crossed the finish line sated and humbled, significantly faster than last year, but not as quickly as I had hoped. Working to walk a straight line, and blinking with disbelief, I could not remember a race that required me to call so much focus to actually finishing healthy, nor one that made me question my dedication to a goal, and my constitution as a runner more than this Boston course. I do not recall a race that so quickly influenced me to train harder, race smarter, and find another starting line soon. But, I also cannot think of a race that so quickly reminded me of how amazing the human body is, how proud of mine I must be for internalizing everything I have asked it to do, and how it is only a well-oiled machine in the ways that I have trained it to be. I know that I am physically capable of meeting my 3:05 goal. But, if I want to actually achieve it I am going to have to give my little body and mind the time necessary to embrace this as a reality.
I am confident, and I am strong, and I am determined. But that goal is worth humbling ones’ self for, and so, in the months to come, I will wear that groove well and earn my keep, and ease my body into this fast new reality. The distance, the time, and the conversation with self must be well-known acquaintances’ before they can be claimed as friends or, in this case, accomplishments.
A short walk back to the hotel, hot shower, couple of salt tabs, a peanut butter sandwich and a little nap had me feeling better by dinner time, still a smidge disappointed with my missed goal, but pleased that improvement had been made. Well wishes from friends came flooding in reminding me that half of the success in running an event like this, for any runner, no matter how fast, is merely putting ones’ self to the test. And now, as I write this en route back to San Francisco I am already planning my next venture into the depths.
And so, I guess, I find myself being the type of runner in constant possession of an aggressive goal, competitive in my shoes, and always thinking about redefining myself at the next finish line. This race was a reminder of just how honorable a goal it is to get to know your body and your limits, and then to question both.
I missed my 115th Boston Marathon goal but all is not lost – I ended up accomplishing something that feels completely wonderful instead; gracefully missing a target, and falling in love with all that is possible if one puts ones’ puts mind to it.
See you in 2012, Boston.
” Because I love that dirty water
Oh, oh, Boston, you’re my home (oh, yeah)”
– The Standells’ “Dirty Water”