Why do I run marathons? They hurt. Sure, I could coast through one at a slower pace, but I try to beat my PR and I have to push myself. It is a 26.2 mile slow sprint. I’ve done three marathons, one each year for the past three years, and I wanted my fourth one to be a sub 4 hour run.
Today I caught up and passed the 4:00 pace runners at the 13.1 mile point. I kept ahead going up the hills and over the bridge. At mile 20 they passed me and I started to slip further back. I was using a variety of techniques for self regulation, focusing on moving grace (as much as possible when your legs cramp), to enjoying the spectacle of it all, appreciating little kids that stand on the side of the road giving high-fives, hearing words of encouragement from people who read your name off of your BIB and say “go coyote go”, to getting mean and growling at the pain and telling it that it aint nothing. Meanwhile, the 4:00 pacer got further and further ahead.
I stopped at a water station and took some ultima. It had electrolytes. I hit every ultima and water station on the course. I ate pretzels (hard to do when you are running). I ate gels and blocks on the course. I tried to keep enough fuel in my body after having the last three marathons hurt so much, and the last one in particular when my legs shut down and I finished at almost a 14 minute mile crawl. And still I saw the pacer slip further ahead until no longer visible. I told myself that I could catch up, that there was a 2 mile downhill stretch coming, and that I had yet to tap into the a different running gear that I had discovered on a recent long run. Yet I knew my legs were giving out. They were cramping hard. I couldn’t just stop, but had to slow down. I couldn’t just start running from a walk, I had to trot. I had stopped near a post and stretched. A person nearby had a sign that said “Grit got you this far” and I growled at the pain and pressed on.
Somewhere around mile 21 or 22 I had to stop at a tree and stretch. I leaned and pressed my chest against it and had my legs out away, stretching my calf muscles. Then, holding onto the tree, I squatted to stretch my thighs. Pressing my head against the bark of the tree, pain washed over me and I felt the last five miles as an eternity, that the pain would do nothing but become larger, that there was no way I’d make my goal of a sub 4 hour run. For a moment I could feel the emotional load building within me as tears welled in my eyes. I felt very alone and isolated and small, facing enormity of what still lay ahead of me. I wanted it to be over, to quit, to forget about it…
… for a split second. Gripping the tree trunk I slowly stood up. I wouldn’t make my goal of 4 hours, but I wouldn’t quit. I would finish. Perhaps I could still set a new PR (which is 4:09). It wasn’t over yet, neither was I. Though it hurt, though I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to keep going, I knew that my tank was not yet empty. There was more left and I intended to mine the depths of what I had, of who I am.
There are moments in life when, somehow, I’ve risen to the challenge, when I found the guts to go forward. I don’t run marathons because I get a runner’s high, though I’ve experienced them and they are sublime. I run marathons because it is a means of both testing, and tempering, my character. I can say that I have strength because of times like that at that tree, when everything screamed ‘you cannot go on’, I dug deeper and said “I’m not done”.
I finished with 4:15:50, which is my worse marathon to date 4:13, 4:13, 4:09 were my three previous. Yet I am very proud of this one as well. Some say that sports builds character. While others say that it doesn’t build character but instead reveals it. I think that it is both, that seeking out opportunities to push ourselves, and then truly giving what we’ve got to the task, is where we truly live. We build ourselves by testing ourselves. They are two sides of the same coin.
That is why I run marathons.