Monday, April 17, 2006

The longer something eludes you, the more important it becomes.

I ran my first marathon in 1995. It was the Pittsburgh Marathon. I had been sick and more importantly was naive about the rigors of the race. I had a rowers arrogance that I was above mortal men and could overcome, by force of will, any obstacle. I figured I could easily run under 3:00 hours, so that was my goal. While in retrospect it really was a decent first effort, ~3:15, I was humbled by the damage done to my body. I was unable to walk properly for nearly a week.

Since that time (and before today) I've run the Cape Cod Marathon 3 times, the Boston Marathon 4 times, Pittsburgh again in 2000, and two Ironman Marathon runs. Up until 2000, the goal was the same; break 3:00 hours. Each time the results were less than encouraging. Sure I got faster, but always my body was wrecked, and always I came up short. The closest I came to the goal, my white whale, was a 3:04:03 run in Boston in 1998. In 1999 I failed to requalify for Boston, and in 2000 I hit rock bottom (in my marathon career) by dropping out of the Pittsburgh Marathon. It was to be the last time I dropped out of anything. I took some time off from competition in general after that race. I had been fit for Pittsburgh, but I ran stupidly. I just didn't understand the marathon. I was starting to feel that despite the "dream goal" engraved on my ID tag attached to my watch, 3:00 hours may never happen. I was aging and I yet I wasn't getting any smarter.

Then a chain of events began. In 2003 I completed my first Ironman, and in doing so forced myself to reevaluate the concept of what is physically possible and what is not. Then in 2004 I became a Dad. Three weeks after returning home from Russia I ran the Cape Cod Marathon. The time was decent, a 3:08.42. It requalified me for Boston, for the first time since 1999. Even more amazing, however, was HOW I ran it. Steady even pacing, no tension, and an equally fast second 1/2. All other attempts invariably had a fade of 7 minutes on the second 1/2 of the course. Not this time. This was different. I was different.

I posted a 3:09 and change at Boston last year. It wasn't a big focus for me at the time. I was still uncertain about how many more marathons I'd run, because I was pretty sure I couldn't get the time I really wanted anyway. Last summer I completed my second Ironman and had a faster Ironman marathon (3:50) than the previous attempt, but it was well short of my goal, a 3:30 Ironman run. I figured I needed that to qualify for Hawaii. That did it for me. It convinced me I needed to refind my roots; to learn to run again.

Following Ironman I went on a quest to do just that. There were two key principles: I adopted a new more efficient running stride, and I commited myself to LOVING the long run. The first run out, the 2005 Cape Cod Marathon, was a successful 3:06:01. It showed me I still could challenge the old me. At 39, I wasn't all the way over the hill. And yet, 3:06 is still a long way from 3:00.

If you've followed my training log up to now, you'll know that I was setting a goal of a 3:05 with a dream goal of a new PR, maybe even a 3:02? Perhaps I'm just more mature. Perhaps I'm just lucky. Perhaps I am pretty good. Most likely some part of each is true. Today was perfect. What wind there was, was a crosswind (and not too strong). It was overcast for much of the day, with temperatures in the 50s. My revamped training program had left me feeling the best I've ever felt standing on the starting line of a marathon. It dawned on me that this was a day made for something special, and that thought scared me. By definition breaking through a barrier requires doing something you've never done before, and I wasn't sure I was up to it. And yet, with the voice of the British guy on the bus still ringing in my head, "I had to give myself a chance." Everyone talks about having to run the first 1/2 of Boston slowly so you have something for the hills. But the rub is, if you run too slowly, you put yourself so far out of it that you still can't run a fast time. Today I ran scared. I knew that I was on pace to set my best first 1/2 in Boston by a couple of minutes. The question was, what would the second 1/2, the hills and the cruel run-in to Boston yield? Quite honestly I was expecting to hit the wall at anytime. I didn't feel I even had a PR sewn up until mile 20. The official clock read 2:17ish. This meant a 42 minute final 10K would bring me in under 3:00! It was far from a lock as I had Heart Break Hill left to climb, and then the brutal run back down into Boston (and I'm only a 39 minute 10K runner on my best days). Sure it's largely downhill, but your legs just can't take the impact anymore by this point making it hard to run fast. But I had given myself a chance.

The Marathon is a 20 mile run, with a 10K race at the end. I cruised the first mile of the final 10K, but upon seeing mile 21, I resolved to go for it. This would hurt. I was again scared by the impending pain. It didn't matter. I no longer cared about finishing. I no longer cared about my PR. I wanted 3:00 hours, and because I didn't know my offset at the start, it had to be 3:00 hours on the official clock. I need to see a 2 at the beginning of my time as I hit the finish line.

I didn't think I'd make it. I thought I'd be damn close, and I'd tie up in the last mile or so. I mean, starting a surge from 5 miles out was insane. But call me crazy, as those mile markers kept coming past me, I kept pushing. The turn onto Hereford street was intense. The final turn to the finish on Boyleston was off the charts. I was praying. I was aching. I was trying not to run into people as I sprinted for all I was worth the final 2/10ths of a mile. I couldn't focus on the clock until ~50m to go. When I saw it, it read 2:59:30. I WAS GOING TO MAKE IT!!! I hit the mat and almost immediately started sobbing. I did it...at last.

I'm 40 years old, and I've finally completed a quest begun at age 29. In many ways it was as satisfying as my first Ironman, and in some ways more so. Ironman I finished on my first try. This one always escaped my grasp, and given the need for speed and not just endurance, time seemed to be less on my side. As I sit here typing the virtual novel (and contemplating editing it for readability), I again feel changed. A life goal has been acheived. If I never run another marathon, I'd still be content.

(PS: I'm pretty sure I'll run another one. ;-)