I think the allure of running is found in it’s unpredictable nature. Those that have spent much time dedicated to the discipline of distance running know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter how fast you are. It doesn’t matter what your last workout was like. It doesn’t matter what your PRs are or when you last laced up, stepped out the door, and took off down the street.
You never know what you’re going to get.
Sometimes, you get going and feel like a world-beater. Miles click away without much thought or effort. You feel like you could run for days and never really have to work or struggle. These are the days that make you love running. They make you dream of crushing PRs. They make you feel alive and almost invincible.
Other times, you get three steps down the sidewalk and realize that every step of that day’s run is going to be a battle. It’s like you’re trying to run through waist-high molasses. These days are humbling. These days make you want to burn your running shoes and call it a career. After all, the couch and a bag of potato chips will never feel tough!
The nerves before a race come from this very phenomenon: the unpredictable. Everyone on the starting line wants to seem confident and ready to roll. Inside, everyone is hoping that today is the day their body decides to deliver the goods; everyone is fearing that today is the day their body decides to deliver a good dose of humility-inducing, waist-high molasses.
Standing on the starting line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I knew I was in shape. I had a workout log full of 12-14 mile runs at faster than 6:15 pace. I had long runs of 17, 18, and 20 miles all at about 6:35 pace and in the midst of 75+ mile weeks. I was ready to run fast. I was determined to run fast. I wanted to make the most of a gift: the chance to run in the 117th offering of the world’s most prestigious road race. And yet, in the back of my head (as well as every runner from number 1 to 27,000) I knew there was no guarantee. I knew that I was going to take what my body gave me, run as hard as I could, and pray that it carried me to the finish line. The goal was to run 2:50:00. I had qualified in Dallas in December of 2011 with a 2:54:34. I had trained hard, tried to taper well, and was ready to punctuate two years of focused effort with a big PR on one of the everyday road runner’s biggest stages.
The historic course of the Boston Marathon starts in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, a quick 26.2 mile jaunt from downtown Boston. It runs northeast through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline, then comes to a close on Boylston Street near Copley Square in the heart of the city. Thousands have run the course. Thousands more hope to at some point. On Monday morning, April 15th, 2013, I got my chance.
As I started down highway 135 out of Hopkinton, it only took about 3 miles to realize that my body just didn’t have it. By the fourth mile, I knew that something just wasn’t there. I can’t put my finger on what didn’t feel right. I wasn’t breathing hard. I was nailing my desired paces. Despite the downhill nature of the course’s early miles, it just seemed like my shoes were full of concrete and my legs were made of lead. Not a good combination for a guy who has 23 more miles before he hits a finish line. By the time I got to mile 6 in Framingham, I had already worked through one really rough patch. At mile 8, when things weren’t getting better, I said to myself (literally out loud): “Well, the wheels may fall off of this bus at any minute, but the last thing you’re going to do today is let the fear of failure make a coward out of you.”
So, I just kept hammering away. I like to run my long runs and my marathons in 5 mile chunks. Run 5 miles, clear my head. Run 5 miles, clear my head. On this day, I was one mile at a time. Each time I heard my Garmin watch beep to signal the end of another mile, I would look down, see that I had run somewhere in the 6:35-range, and praise God that I had moved myself one mile closer to the finish line before things got ugly. At miles 11 and 16, I hit really rough patches, but was able to push through them without a real change in pace. I made it up and over the hills of Newtown and Heartbreak Hill at mile 20 without dropping the pace. In fact, I made it up Heartbreak Hill and thought that maybe I was going to be able to hang on after all.
Then the bottom dropped out. It went south in a hurry. Here are my splits from throughout the race. They tell the story just as well as any of my words could:
6:37 — 6:33 — 6:31 –6:39 — 6:36 — 6:36 –6:38 — 6:33 — 6:37 –6:38 — 6:34 — 6:33 — 6:34 = 1:26:50 at the half
6:33 — 6:35 –6:33 — 6:37 — 6:43 — 6:41 — 6:43 — 6:50 — 7:33 — 7:25 — 7:11 — 7:28 — 7:30 = 2:58:43 at the finish
I knew by mile 23 or 24 that my race was now with the 3 hour mark. Truth be told, I knew it much earlier than that. I knew it way back in Ashland (mile 4). I just couldn’t let myself not go for what I had trained for. Instead, I dealt with all the fearful thoughts of the unpredictability of what was to come and just kept plugging away. When and if things got bad, I would deal with it then. And when they did, I did. The last 4 or 5 miles were drudgery. I knew the finish was coming, but it felt like I was never going to get there. People were passing me. It was depressing and discouraging. Somehow, though, I was still passing people as well. Fans were encouraging me by name thanks to my wonderful wife writing my name underneath my number on my race bib. No matter how tough it got in those last few miles, I refused to quit. I couldn’t stop. I had cheered too many times for the kids I coach to “dig deep when things get tough” to just throw in the towel and ease my way to Copley Square.
When I made it to the finish, there was no wave of accomplishment, joy, excitement, or relief. Instead, there was heartbreaking disappointment. I walked through the finishing chute and received my medal, some much needed food and water, and my belongings that I had checked way back in Hopkinton. I got some warm clothes on, walked to the family meeting area where I met my wife and our friends that had come out to Boston to cheer me on, and was quickly moved to tears by the feeling of unmet goals and expectations. Little did I know that in only a few hours time, those tears would seem so absurd, unwarranted, and ridiculous.
One of the things that makes life so interesting is it’s unpredictable nature. Sure, we all have our schedules and plans. In reality, though, those mean very little. When we get out of bed in the morning, we have no idea what is going to greet us. Sometimes we’re met with days filled with excitement and joy. Some days are filled with the mundane and ordinary. Some days are difficult, by 9:00am we’re just ready for them to be over.
You never know what you’re going to get.
When the 117th annual Boston Marathon began on Monday morning, no one had any idea the horror that would come in just a few hours time. The celebratory atmosphere throughout Boston that morning was no different than it had been every year since the race began. People showed up to the course in droves to cheer on the runners, just like they have every year. They brought signs, water, orange slices, noise-makers, cowbells. There were babies, children, parents, and grandparents. It seemed like any other day. It turned into a day unlike anything anyone could have possibly predicted.
4 hours and 9 minutes into the race, a bomb went off just meters from the finish line. About 11 seconds later, a second bomb detonated just a few buildings further down. Chaos ensued. For those near the finish line, time slowed down to a crawl. It felt like the tragedy was never going to end. The horror of the injuries and the scene unfolding around race volunteers and medical staff was unlike anything they were prepared to handle that day. No matter how difficult the circumstances around them, they refused to stop helping those who were in desperate need of medical attention. Those who were present deserve to be honored. They were heros. They were the difference between life and death for many of the injured on Boylston Street Monday afternoon.
Unpredictability. Life is full of it. The unpredictability of life can lead to our greatest joys and the depths of our despair. In the midst of all of it, no matter how tough it gets, we just keep moving forward. We muster all of our internal strength and fight as hard as we can in an effort to refuse to quit. As Monday afternoon turned into Monday evening, I quickly got some perspective on my “disappointment.” Had I run as fast as I would have liked? Nope. Did I beat as many people as I had set out to beat? Came up over 1,000 short. In the grand scheme of things, did it matter? Not really. For my wife, our friends, and me, life was going to go on. In the aftermath of Monday’s events, that was a humbling reality. That was a blessing. We didn’t do anything to deserve it.
I plan on being back on the starting line in Hopkinton in 2014. Very little could possibly keep me from being there. I’ll go to run in memory of those who were injured or lost their lives while watching this year’s race. I’ll go in support of their families and friends. I’ll go to get redemption on this year’s unmet hopes and expectations. If my legs didn’t hurt so bad today, I’d be out there working toward that goal right now. Between now and then, there will be a lot of running. More importantly, though, there will be a lot of living. Who knows what any of it will bring? Life is unpredictable, after all.
After taking some time to reflect on the weekend, I can only say this for sure: I’ll keep plugging away until I reach the finish line.
“…let us thrown off everything that hinders…and run with perseverance the race marked out before us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus…so that [we] will not grow weary.” — Hebrew 12:1,2,3