I finally broke three hours for a marathon. It was at a tough hilly course through Umstead Park in Raleigh, North Carolina and I ran two hours, fifty-seven minutes. I went out hard from the gun with an internal goal of running to the 20 mile mark at 6:30pace (2:10). I made it there in 2:11:30. Not bad given terrain which included five miles of single track trails along with those wonderfully soft bridle trails marked by a topography of steep rolling hills. I thought that if I ran hard for 20 miles and came close to my goal time, surely I could finish the last 10K in 50 minutes. This was an unorthodox approach, but it worked. I knew my body's capabilities after six weeks of 70 miles per week. I knew I had a race plan that I could execute based on my current fitness. I did it and everything else is just details. For those interested in race details read here.
For someone who does not really consider himself a marathoner, I went back to my notes, and I have completed 11 marathons over the last 13 years. I am like the retiree who keeps going to the office. He just cannot think of what else to do with his time. On my first attempt, I was 23 years old and I thought for sure that I would begin a marathon career by breaking the three hour mark. I ran 3:36 at Kiawah in 1998. I had prepared with a grueling Fall of hard training in Breckenridge, Colorado at 9,600 feet or higher. I ran 1:30 for the first half and 2:06 for the second half. I walked more than I ran from mile 16 to the finish. I wondered if I would ever come anywhere close to 2:59. I knew how to carry a bear by the end of that first race, but running fast for 26 miles was something I knew nothing about.
Over the next decade my greatest marathon successes were on the trails. I ran well in Breckenridge and at Black Mountain, but neither were races that had much to do with speed, but more toughness and mountain climbing. I was pleased with good results the two previous years at Umstead, but still found myself eight and fourteen minutes away from my big career goal. All of my road attempts, the attempts where I really should have been able to hold a 6:51 average pace, they were disasters, and I chalked it up to whatever excuse I could come up with at the time as a I saw 3:12, 3:20, 3:10, 3:30 and so on. Secretly, that internal voice that tells us what we are not, told me, you are not a good marathoner.
My father ran 3:04 for his personal best so I knew it was inside my bones to go faster. I had the genetics, but what else was missing? He had not begun running until his late 30s. I was successful by the end of middle school, running close to 18 minutes for the 5K when my tiny body had not even seen traces of puberty. Why couldn't I achieve this elusive goal in what was edging toward 30 years of competitive distance running? Was it toughness, health, training??? I could never say for sure, but time after time, race after race, I crossed the finish line in 3:12, 3:33, 3:20, 4:15. Some of these were trail marathons and not realistic places to even consider running under the three hour mark, but no less than five of my double-digit attempts at 26.2 miles were relatively flat and I crossed those finish lines scratching my head and quietly dejected. I'll be honest, I have lived a charmed life in the social world of running. Folks have given me more credit than was due and it seemed from other performances many just assumed I had run two something for the marathon many times over. Dern Frank Shorter, why did you have to make everyone care so much about the marathon? I pretended I did not care, but I did. I always did.
At least four of the last thirteen years, I did not attempt a marathon and I can faithfully say, I do not regret those lapses. It was so tiring to keep coming up short of my goal. I turned to the trails and had great successes and joys. The contrarian in me wanted my running to be something different than the masses on the roads, but I have always known that while I love the trails, there was an extra secret reason I sought them out. It was not just the beauty, serenity, and rhythm of the trails. There was a hidden agenda, an edge of self-deception and self-loathing. I was simply tired of dejectedly scratching my head while marathon prediction charts estimated something in the mid 2:40s for me. My pride kept me quiet in an endeavor which I could not give up. I had to return to running shorter and faster races again on faster surfaces. I could not hide in the woods forever. I had to strive for personal bests that I knew went untapped inside me. I could no more give up my version of running fast than I could arrest my need to breathe.
Perhaps I am just not a marathoner and similar words were my punishment for years of under-performance. Someone will be saying, what is he talking about, I wish to God I could run those times. I get it, but we each have our story and they are not solely for comparison with one another. That just won't do. It is useless to make apologies over the simple fact that we all have different internal engines, goals, and realistic expectations. Running has a universalism to it, but not in the details. The runner who completes a marathon in 4:30 is no less a runner than I was last week or today. In fact, he is out there dealing with hydration, nutrition, and fatigue another third of the time. In many ways, slower pace brings with it far greater difficulties. Still, we all have different skill sets and expectations. Keep in mind, if only I had leaned at the tape 54 minutes earlier, I could have snuck under Geb's marathon world record. There is always somebody faster and slower.
As for me, a finishing time beginning with a two alluded me for more than a decade and I was growing weary of not meeting what seemed a very attainable goal. But I kept at it. What else was there to do? I am a runner. A week ago at this time I was not planning to run a marathon, but now, even with an infection in my chest and sinuses, I have done what I so longed to do. It is strange to be on this other side. I feel good. I'm sure I feel many more things, but I am still sorting those emotions out.
Here's one reflection. Now that it is done, I feel vindicated in distance running, in this goal that was more important than I hopefully let on so it would not consume me. This need loomed over me like a cloud, but no more. As Florence and the Machine belts The Dog Days are Over. Oh, I have many more races to run, but I'm not sure the marathon is a top priority to me. It never really was. Only in the most indirect ways do I get paid for running. My performances have to be for enjoyment and the marathon is not my favorite. Give me ten miles of technical trails and you will see the face of swine in muck. I struggle to race for such a long period of time and to be honest, I get a little bored. I know my heart and mind find solace between five and fifteen mile races--long enough to enjoy oneself, but not so tedious. The marathon has become the marker in our running culture, but it is far from my favorite. Funny that I have so much to say about something I claim as a lower priority. Oh well, you figure me out.
I held myself to the goal that I would never go to Boston without a sub-three no matter the qualifying standards of the day. It was my own personal standard as a nod to the historical years when men my age needed a sub-three, and for a brief time even a sub-2:50. Looks like we are now returning to 3:05. I believe the standard should return to 2:59, and I have held this opinion for some time, but no one is asking me. Umstead will not get me there, because it is not certified, but now I know I can break three because I have done it and on a difficult course. Someday I will do it on a road course and I will go to Boston. I am in no particular rush. Boston and New York are on my list of must-do races, but no rush. There is time.
I've had a great Fall/Winter season and now I am off to a great start for a 2011 season of racing. I have recently set personal best's in the 8K, the 10K, and now the marathon. Based on the one road effort of these three, 27:46 at an 8K in Charlotte on Thanksgiving Day, here is my vdot information for the techies out there. You know who you are. To summarize: it is a useful tool and a great website for your own exploration and training. Vdot tells all kinds of things about training and racing and it can help you with your running plans. For instance, I might expect to break five minutes for the mile or run about 58 minutes for ten miles. I might just try both of those and some other races this year. 2011 is shaping up to be my best year yet as a runner. I love writing that as I roll into my 36th birthday this summer. So many will tell you why age and children and work keep them from being what they once were. I guess I have always been a late bloomer and now is my Spring, just rolling into Summer.
Perseverance paid off in the marathon and I am sure it will at many other starting and finish lines in races and endeavors to follow.