Monday, December 16, 2013

What exactly IS the point of running a marathon?

There are a million reasons why somebody might drop out of a marathon. OK, maybe not a million. But a lot.

Many are practical: a freak injury suffered mid-race; light-headedness that zaps your concentration; extreme cramps; extreme GI distress; hyponatremia; dehydration; heat exhaustion. A serious runner with a serious goal might bail -- upon realizing it's not going to be his or her day -- in order to preserve fitness for a backup race.

Poor judgment also can lead to a DNF: going out way too fast, or simply toeing the starting line without having properly trained for the distance.

And of course, some runners drop out simply because... well, because dropping out is easy.

Anyone who's run multiple marathons knows the feeling. A race starts to go badly. The body rebels. The mind swells with disappointment, frustration, disgust. "What am I doing out here?" "My finish time is going to suck. What's the point?" "I just want to be done." "Marathons are stupid."

The truth is, marathons ARE kind of stupid. One way to look at it is that we're paying $100-plus for the unique opportunity to run until our quads, hamstrings and calves twist themselves into pretzels, after which we walk around for the next two days like we're carrying a five-pound bag of ice between our legs.

But somewhere along the way Saturday -- as I struggled through the Kiawah Island Marathon and fended off my own very strong urge to quit -- I managed to find answers to the "What's the point?" question. Those answers helped me finish the race.

As most of you who follow me on Facebook know, I had headed for Kiawah feeling extraordinarily fit, highly motivated to pursue a second Boston Marathon qualifying time, having aced virtually every workout my coach (Kelly Fillnow) had thrown at me.

I also, however, felt trepidation. Sandwiched between two very good running days, weather-wise, Saturday's forecast looked to be an anomaly: unseasonably mild and humid all morning. My average finish time for the past five marathons I've raced in cool, dry air is 3:21. The last time I attempted 26.2 on a mild, humid day? I crossed the line in 4:05.

It turned out to be 57 degrees and 90 percent humidity at the start Saturday; 71 degrees when I finished. Ideal for a summer marathon, perhaps, but a shock to the system in December.

Now, I've decided not to bore people this time with a mile-by-mile recap, but I will point out some lowlights: Just over one-third of the way through the course, nine miles in, I was counting down backward from 100 -- a mind game I wasn't expecting to have to resort to until Mile 20 or 21.

When the half-marathoners split off at Mile 12, I wanted to cry. When the 3:15 pace group passed me between 14 and 15, I wanted to scream. Any second wind I'd been hoping to grab onto eased on down the road with the chatty guy wearing the orange T-shirt and carrying his little white flag.

The white flag. The white flag. Oh, how I wanted to wave one of my own, for an entirely different purpose.

What am I doing out here?, I thought. I could so easily drop out, just ask my friend who was cheering at Mile 16 if I could borrow her bike, pedal it back to the finish area. Or, hitch a ride with this volunteer passing by on the golf cart...

But I squelched those thoughts. And in my mind, therein lies the point.

Marathons things are supposed to be hard. They're supposed to pummel you to within an inch of your last bit of resolve. Beyond it, even. They want you to quit. They dangle a tantalizing carrot, and then three-quarters of the way through the race, they hide it behind their backs and are all like, "What do you mean? What carrot?"

According to Athlinks, I've run 93 races since the fall of 2008. I've dropped out of only two. Both were triathlons, and both were due to mechanical issues on the bike that made it impossible to continue.

The urge was pretty strong Saturday. Strong enough that my mind was rehearsing what I'd say to people in the hours and days ahead. "Oh, it just wasn't my day." "The humidity was killing me." "I wanted to save myself for Myrtle Beach." "I just didn't feel like running anymore."

But they were all excuses. Easy outs. Euphemisms for "I quit because I felt like quitting."

So at Mile 20 -- with 6.2 looong miles to go -- I stopped focusing on excuses and reminded myself the value of staying out there and continuing to struggle. "Kelly did the best she could to get me ready. She never gives up, and she doesn't expect her athletes to give up. I'm not giving up." "My wife and I have raised our daughter to understand that anything truly worth achieving or obtaining is difficult to achieve or obtain. What kind of example would I be setting by quitting simply because I felt like quitting?" And, "Will dropping out make me feel better or worse tomorrow/a week from now/a month from now?"

That last question is key. Ask yourself this, the next time you are in the darkest of places during a race, and strive for clarity as you answer it. I think you'll come to the conclusion I did.

Is there heartbreak involved? OF COURSE. While I recognize 3:28 is still a very respectable marathon time (landing me at 89th out of 897), missing a goal by so much does sting.

You all can surely relate, no matter where you fall on the board. A 2:20 is an out-of-this-world marathon time... unless you're an elite male trying to win Chicago. If 4:30 is your fastest time, and you're trying to go faster, 5:00 is going to be irritating no matter what your friend with the 5:30 PR says to try to cheer you up.

I finished the race, though, while 62 other runners who started the Kiawah Island Marathon did not, for one reason or another. I suspect that in time, I'll be as proud of this marathon as I am all of my others.

Revered running coach Pete Pfitzinger once wrote: "The marathon is a test of endurance. If you casually drop out of a marathon once, it will be all too easy to drop out again, as it legitimizes that option when things get tough."

I can't yet say I'm a 2015 Boston Marathon qualifier. But I can say that when things got tough on Saturday, so did I.


Anonymous said...

My 51 year old legs are hurting just reading this after running 5 miles. Can't imagine 26.2.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why people continue to run when I've seen all too many times the devastating toll it takes on your hips, knees, legs and back. I walk 3 miles every day and that keeps me in shape and my body won't fall apart when I get older.

Willy Loman said...

Good question. NO good answer other than: "because I feel like it."

Anonymous said...

As a veteran marathoner with only one DNF on my record (a blown Achilles at mile 18), this is beautifully written. Congrats on a strong finish. Indeed, you can say, "...when things got tough on Saturday, so did I." Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Ran my first marathon,(Chicago), this year, at 54. For me, it was all about telling myself those stories about why I HAD to keep going. Such a sense of accomplishment at the finish!