“In the marathon, anything can happen.” – Paula Radcliffe, world record holder for the marathon
As someone who has now lined up for 12 of these, Ms. Radcliffe’s words ring ever so true. I just never expected that “anything” might start a few days before the race when the email came with the official news. It arrived at 12:53 pm on Friday, just as I was preparing to drive north through cold and icy conditions, and the subject simply read: “MetroPCS Dallas Marathon canceled.”
After ten years of dreaming, tens of thousands of miles run during that time, and six months of hard training in this cycle, that’s not a scenario for which I was ready. The script I had written in my mind for how this weekend and race would play out went immediately to the shredder.
I stared blankly at the computer screen as the “good luck in Dallas” emails in my inbox gradually shifted off-screen while the “condolence” emails piled in. Though impossible to see at the time, the lining was glimmering silver on the dark clouds that covered Texas that day…
In a 3-hour scramble, I was fortunate enough to secure one of the additional spots opened up by the Bryan/College Station Marathon for the Dallas refugees. With that race on the same day, a new script was already being written, and there would be no time to even proofread it, much less rehearse it, before the opening act on Sunday.
– Check to see if all my teammates got in. Check.
– Book a hotel for Saturday night in College Station. Check.
– Arrange for a group carpool to College Station on Saturday morning. Check.
– Drive to College Station. Check.
– Pick-up my race packet and repurposed “Arthur” bib. Check. (Thanks Arthur!)
– Check into the hotel. Check.
– Drive the course. Check.
– Foam roll out the final kinks. Check.
– Grab a carb-loading meal with fellow Rogues. Check.
– Sleep. Pre-race Lucky Charms and UCAN. Final tips from my coach. 1-mile warm-up jog to the start. Check. Check. Check. Check.
Standing on the starting line, I reflected on the whirlwind that was the previous 36 hours. I was supposed to be in Dallas. In my head, I was ready for everything to be familiar. Having run the Dallas Marathon before and growing up running those streets, I know every inch of that course by heart. On this start line, nothing looked familiar except the faces of my teammates standing in the corral with me.
My race plan was finely tuned to the terrain of the Dallas streets. I had spent more than a month visualizing each point in that race. I had the major splits memorized in my head – no need for a pace band. On this course the goal was the same, but with different terrain a different plan was required and I had had very little time to reflect on what that meant.
I was confident and ready, but my mind was blank as to what what lay on the course before me. As I stared ahead waiting for the start gun to sound, I kept repeating in my head the mantra that I share so often with the athletes I coach: “One step at a time.”
And, we were off….
For those who have run a marathon, you know that the opening miles of the race can be a lot like taking a cool international trip. You are brimming with excitement and anticipation as you await boarding in the airport (or as you stand on the starting line), only to have those feelings muted when the reality of the ten hour flight (or 26 mile run) sets in as you get onboard (or on course).
For me, the flight started and I was hitting turbulence from take-off. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as the 1:30 pace leader for the half marathon flew past me in mile 1 [note: to hit my goal, I would need to average 30 seconds/per mile FASTER than him over the full marathon]. My first three mile splits clocked in 15-20 seconds slower than what I needed. Everything just felt labored through one mile, two miles, three miles, four miles, five miles, and then even six miles into the race. The weather was perfect, and the paces were supposed to be easy at that point but I was working too hard to sustain this effort for 26 miles. Steve, my coach, saw me at mile 4 would later say: “You looked like s**t.” I felt like it.
My mind raced with doubts already. How could this be happening? I shouldn’t be feeling this way at these paces. What’s wrong with me? What do I do if I can’t hit the paces?
I had spent all of my mental energy in the build-up for the race preparing for an epic battle over the FINAL six miles. I wasn’t ready for it to start in the first six. At mile 4, the half marathon split from the full, and I was suddenly running alone, as I would do for the next 22 miles. Alone with my mental demons, I knew that backing down from my goal was not an option. All I could do was try to hit the right paces, relax as much as I could, and just keep running (JFR, as we say).
As I am known to do in races, I spent much of miles 4-6 on the long straights running with my eyes closed, trying to relax my body from head to toe and keep my breathing under control. I was channeling my inner yogi and literally meditating on the run. Then, somewhere near mile six or just after, things began to click. My legs and body and breathing fell into rhythm with the paces that I needed. My effort level dropped to sustainable-for-26.2-miles levels. My mind stopped racing with doubts, and I just started to roll, as Coach Steve would say.
I saw him again near mile 8 and must have looked like a different runner. When I passed him then, I pointed to two runners well ahead of me on the horizon and said, “They’re in trouble.” Not only were the doubts gone at that point, but I had suddenly also become an over-confident bastard, very unlike me (!). What a difference a few miles can make.
From 8 to 18, the chase was on. I gauged my efforts by the rate at which those two runners were coming back to me. At the halfway point, I was a minute behind one of them (who was in 5th place at the time) and 80 seconds behind the other in 4th, gaining steadily. And, aside from the time I lost due to the slower start, my paces were dead on-track for my goal.
By mile 18 I had run myself into 5th place, and by 21 I was alone in 4th with no other marathoners in sight and feeling strong. The epic battle I expected in the final 6 miles never materialized. I didn’t get my final two mile splits, but I do know that miles 21-24 were the fastest four miles of my race. Although the final miles of any marathon are never easy, I never had any more doubts about how this one would end. When I hit the finishing straight, I could see the clock ticking comfortably in the 2:45 range as I cruised home, feeling a mix of relief and excitement that it was all ending in success.
I had done it, earning a new marathon personal best after 10 years of trying. I allowed myself a small smile and fist pump as I crossed the line to punctuate the moment, a “big” celebration for those that know me. A few minutes later in the finish corral the tears would start to well up, reflecting on the last ten years – 10 years of marriage, one, two, and then three kids, a graduate degree, two moves from Austin to Houston and then back, a major career change, seven other marathons, over 75 races, many, many, many, many miles run and finally, this goal achieved.
I know that this blog is already long, but please indulge me by allowing me to share some lessons from this 10-year journey:
1. From the weekend… plan for the unexpected.I talked about a silver lining to the race switcheroo, and this is it. I was so dialed into my plan for Dallas, that I had not allowed enough mental leeway for the unexpected to happen. If the race in Dallas played out the way this race did (with an ugly first 6 miles), I wouldn’t have been ready for it. I was too locked into the race happening a certain way, and I don’t think I would have recovered from such early struggles. Fortunately for me, the race venue change put me into a new, more adaptable mode which would ultimately make the difference between working through those first six, rough miles or letting them derail 10-years of work.
2. From this year… don’t believe your own bulls**t. We all do it. We tell ourselves stories about why we can’t do this or that. It comes out in phrases like “I could hit this goal, but <fill in the blank>.” After nine years, I was resigned to never achieving another marathon PR. The lies I told myself were fair and noble: “I have a wife and 3 kids. I don’t have time. I have my own athletes to coach. I should sacrifice my goals for theirs. I work hard. I can’t train as much as I need to….” And, it went on. Thanks to a goal-setting discussion with some friends from lululemon (thank you Tegra), I recognized the stories in my head were just stories, or excuses as you might call them. I had a choice. I could believe the stories in my head about why I couldn’t, or I could write new ones about how I could. I did that, and then I did it.
3. From the last 10 years… the journey is the destination. Some of you have heard me say this before, and in the context of a six-month training cycle, it sounds trite. As I think about the last 10 years though, this lesson is everything. Ultimately, if this was just about achieving a 35-second personal best, then this was a silly waste of time and energy. 35 seconds or 35 minutes, personal best or not, I have learned that the journey was really the destination all along. The sweat and tears shed, the commitment and discipline learned, the goals achieved, the sunrises and sunsets witnessed, the stress relieved, the fresh air breathed, the limits tested and smashed, the conversations had, and, most importantly, the friendships made and deepened in the miles along the way. That is what it is all about. Those are the reasons why I’ve done this for the last 10 years and will for 10 more!
PS. It takes a village to raise a marathoner. So…. thank you to the Rogue community for the massive tidal wave of support leading up to race weekend. Thank you to coach Steve (and John before him) for getting me to the starting line fit and ready. Thank you to all of my Team Rogue teammates for sharing miles on the road, pushing me in workouts and for showing me what is possible through your own racing breakthroughs. Thank you to my athletes for inspiring me daily as I witness the power of commitment and discipline to achieve big goals. Thank you to my wife and family for the unwavering love and support. Thank you to my friends at lululemon in the Domain for teaching me that big goals are possible if you have the courage to speak them. And, thanks to massage guy Levi and my friend the TriggerPoint Grid for keeping me happy and healthy on the roads.