I thought I’d be celebrating today. Yesterday’s Riga Marathon was supposed to be The One… the one that would get me a shiny new personal record, a Boston-qualifying time… the one that would end our time in Latvia with a bang. Instead, it was a bust, and instead of celebrating, I am mourning. Mourning the loss of what could have been, the feeling of having spent countless hours of time and energy – literally blood, sweat and tears – into training for what turned out to be one of the most difficult running experiences of my life. It’s a heartbreak that rivals some of the broken relationships of my past, and one that some people may not understand, because after all, it’s only running. It’s an activity that I choose to do (and one that many people actually hate), and it is supposed to be fun. Why so much melodrama, you may be asking.
As I’ve written before in this space, including in my very first post more than five years ago, for the majority of my life, running has been my panacea. One some days, it’s what gets me up in the morning, and on others, it’s the only thing that keeps me balanced and feeling normal. If I’ve gone for a run and done nothing else productive during the day, I feel I’ve accomplished something. At some point more than two decades ago, running crossed the line between being a hobby and a lifestyle. When I’ve had to take breaks because I’ve been sick or injured, I feel completely lost. When I’ve had to introduce other aerobic activity into my life because my left knee isn’t always able to handle the high mileage that I’d like to pile on, I don’t feel the same. Cycling, swimming, pool running, yoga… all beneficial and fun in their own right, not none even remotely compares to the joy I get from running.
I’ve also found over the years that I most enjoy running when I am working toward a goal, whether a longer distance, a faster time, or more difficult terrain. It’s rare that I go through periods without training for something. Some of these goals follow a natural progression, like improving my time at a certain distance, or testing my body and mind to see if I can run just a little bit farther than the last time. I imagine that most marathon runners put qualifying for Boston somewhere on their list of goals, and I am no exception. In fact, it’s been on my list for nearly 17 years, since my second marathon in Philadelphia, where I finished in 3:47:34, just over eight-and-a-half minutes shy of the 3:40 I needed to qualify. That goal didn’t seem so out of reach at that time. I was 21, just hitting my stride and figuring out how to train for a marathon. I’ve narrowed that gap in the years since, running 3:42:29 in 2010 and 3:43:34 in 2015, but I still haven’t been able burst through that elusive 3:40 barrier. I thought that yesterday would be the day, but it wasn’t. So I guess it wasn’t supposed to be The One after all.
My training had gone very well. I managed to run some of the highest mileage I’ve ever run, averaging 50 miles per week, and completed more interval and tempo workouts than I’ve ever done before, all while staying healthy and injury-free. I still had to baby my left knee at times, but that, too, has become a lifestyle since I had major surgery on it in 2007. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am running on only one-and-a-half legs, but I have found ways to work with that and in spite of it. Overall, this training cycle was easily one of the best I’ve ever had. I ran three successful 20+ mile runs leading up to the race, and had one difficult 19-miler that I pushed through and convinced myself was good training in mental toughness. The one thing that didn’t quite make sense was that I had gained several pounds, which made me uncomfortable in everyday life but didn’t seem to affect my running times.
Leading up to race day, it was my head that was the challenge. The anxiety and stress of racing – all self-induced, because no one is making me do this, of course – has been too much for me sometimes, and I know I have let it ruin some of my races in the past. It’s something my dad used to call me out on, even in high school, before a track meet. Don’t psyche yourself out, he’d say. Well, guess what? That – combined with a couple of other things – is exactly what happened yesterday. Going into a race feeling confident is a tricky thing, especially with the marathon. In one sense, confidence is sometimes all that is needed in order to believe that we really can achieve a goal; on the other hand, the marathon is unforgiving. It is a distance that must be respected, no matter how many times one has run it before, because it is demanding, physically and emotionally, and it is a wildly different experience each and every time. Trying to muster up confidence for the marathon is not easy, definitely not for me. It is too easily drowned out by negative thoughts and all of the what if? scenarios that I know are counterproductive and even damaging, but somehow I allow those to take control.
The race began well, and the weather could not have been more perfect. M. and I ran together. Our plan was to keep a solid, steady pace together for the first 10.5 miles, until the course split and he would turn to head toward the half-marathon finish. I would then stay at our steady pace and focus on feeling strong and enjoying the race. The miles ticked by one at a time, at just the right pace: 8:04, 8:08, 8:11, 8:10… perhaps a bit on the fast side for the start, but nothing out of control. We made our way across the bridge and by our house, even seeing little Frieda sitting at her perch at our upstairs window, watching the runners go by. That was definitely a highlight. Around the 10K mark, I started to feel a tingle in my left leg, from my mid-quad down the side to my toes. I’ve had this feeling before – I don’t quite know what it is – but I’ve also experienced a host of strange maladies, some more debilitating than others, in the ten years since I had surgery. This particular feeling is difficult to describe: it is not painful per se, but it is extremely uncomfortable and gives me the sense with each foot strike that my leg will not support the rest of my body. I stopped a couple of times to try to release it by massaging my calf, where it is the most intense, which of course immediately threw my pace off and any hope I had of reaching my goal for the day was gone, because I knew – not as a pessimist, but as a realist – that I’d never be able to make up the lost time. I felt panicked, upset, angry, and sad. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to go home. We had just passed the 15km mark… I still had 27km to go. M. told me that I couldn’t quit, that I had to keep going because I’d be so upset if I didn’t, but if it was truly really, really bad, I could turn around with him and finish the half marathon. I thought about that option with each step as we made our way to the turnaround. This could all be over in about 25 minutes. I could call it a day and try again in Stockholm in three weeks. I could be home in less than an hour.
When I saw the half-marathon turnaround point quickly approaching, I had to make a decision. I suppose if I am honest, I knew in my heart of hearts that quitting was not an option. I’ve quit two marathons before – once in 2006 and once in 2007, and while that was the best decision for me on those days, it still didn’t feel good. I knew yesterday that barring some kind of serious injury that would cause long-term damage, the disappointment of not finishing would far outweigh the disappointment of running a slow marathon. I also recalled the words of ultrarunner Krissy Moehl, written at the top of her training plan for a 100-mile race (I’ve been thinking about it) in her book Running Your First Ultra: “Every life experience will help you success in your 100-mile race.” I thought to myself, even a shitty marathon must surely fall into that category, so I did the best thing I knew how to do. I slowed down to my run-all-day pace and put one foot in front of the other until I reached the finish line. It meant walking when I needed to, running when I could, and pushing through overwhelming waves of nausea that came and went during the last several miles. M. met me and ran with me at a couple of points, which really helped keep my spirits up, even though he himself was tired from his own race (which was great, by the way!). I saw the cheerful faces of friends along the way and tried to soak in their energy and at some points, even muster a smile. I finished in 4:42:25 under a cloudless blue sky, a full hour and three minutes slower than what I needed to qualify for Boston. It wasn’t the happy ending I had hoped for, or that I know I was trained for, but I didn’t quit. I finished.
As I sit here, reflecting on the day, it’s admittedly hard to shake the feeling of intense disappointment. I think most people can relate in some way to pouring so much heart and soul into something and not having it go quite the way we had planned. While it’s tempting to throw myself a massive pity party and wallow in thoughts of I’m never running again or I’ll never qualify for Boston, I am instead thinking about what I can do better for the next race. My last three marathons have all ended in disappointment, for various reasons, but I am certain of a common thread between them, and it has nothing to do with my training or my weight or even my bum knee. It’s my head. It’s the same head that somehow gets me through the physical pain of a 50-mile race, where my goal is simply to finish, but running for speed and time adds an element of pressure that I haven’t been able to overcome. It’s been far too easy to psyche myself out, and for too long. Worst of all, it’s caused me, in a way, to lose sight of why I do this in the first place. Running a marathon, as hard and painful as it can be, is ultimately supposed to be fun, yet very little about yesterday’s race was fun. It’s time for a change.
I’ll mourn this loss for just what it is – a small letdown in the grand scheme of life – and then I’ll carry on, that much stronger and wiser for the next time. Meanwhile, if I really think about it, I should be celebrating today. I just ran a marathon, for the 25th time. I wanted to quit, but I didn’t. I finished what I started.
In the same vein, I started down the road of training for and running that Boston-qualifying race a long time ago, and I will finish that, too, someday. I suppose some roads are simply longer than others.
Thank you for reading!