Friday, March 16, 2012

"I Got This!" The Story Of My Boston Qualifier

“I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within”
“I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing.”
Chariots of Fire

 *With Boston coming up, I figured it was time for another long, rambling, self-indulgent post, this time describing my Ten Year Odyssey to run A Boston Qualifier*

No Such Thing As Failures, Just Many Ways To Learn How Not To Do Something

I trained my ass off to quality for Boston. After the pain of my first marathon ended, I wanted to push the bar farther, to find some other rite of passage to prove myself.  I had heard about the mythical, classic race, and even non-runners know that Boston means something extra special.  Many times it came up with someone unfamiliar with the world of running that I’ve done a marathon  “Oh yeah,” they will say “but have you ever run Boston?” I can’t help but think others have had this experience. Most who ask this, don’t mean are you fast enough to qualify, but they assume that it is somehow a different kind of 26.2.  Still, it was an immediate measuring stick.

Shortly after my first marathon when the pain had finally subsided,  I remember googling “Boston marathon qualifying times” and learned that I needed to run a 3:10 to qualify. I quickly did the math and found it meant averaging 7:16 per mile.  So, I immediately took a warm up run to the local track, and then tried to assess if I could run a 7:16 mile and see what it felt like. I figured if I could run one of them without incredible strain, that after some training, I could do 26 of them.

My first attempt was around a 7:40 and my perceived effort was alarmingly hard. Not to be discouraged I rested and ran again, and since I was truly warmed up, hit a 7:05.  that was more like it. It was on. I had a goal, qualifying for Boston. I researched programs, did constant mathematical equations and mile splits in my head, thought about running at work and talked about it to people who didn’t give a damn,

 I really believe I was in the best shape of my adult life (adult life, that is) training for my first attempt for a BQ. I was running 55 to 60 mile weeks, I was doing intervals once a week – quarter miles, half miles, 8 x 1 miles– and I was doing regular races while training and recovering fairly well. I hit  a 1:29 half marathon, a 1:06 ten miler, and all the race predictors had me  right around a 3:10 finishing time, some predicted a bit higher, some a bit lower.  My confidence was growing at the same time my fear was growing.  I kept telling myself failure was not an option.

So, as any egomaniac hiding an inferiority complex would, I went out for a run most days trying to prove myself capable.

The  lack of confidence and constant fears meant I wanted so much feedback from my training data. All the time. Constant data.  Every run was measured, and when the doubts hit during a run I pushed myself to run a marathon pace mile.  I was so infatuated with training, always wanting to know if it would happen, so  for no reason on regular runs I would push it to marathon pace, already on dead, tired, non-recovered legs and thus damaging myself and not proving a thing,  foolishly wrecking what should have been a slower recovery run and stealing moments away from more key workouts in the near future. It would be my theme for years to come.

"Just remember this: No one ever won the olive wreath with an
impressive training diary."
- Marty Liquori

All this training lead up to my last 20 miler, a training run sponsored by Runnning Fit 3 weeks out from marathon day. I had been pointing to this even and wanted assurance I was in 3:10 shape, so I basically raced the training run, and ran a 6:58 pace for 20 miles on a hilly route. A 7:16 pace was needed to qualify.  I of course did the math and realized 6.2 more 8 minute miles would have given me BQ glory at the finish. Hellz yeah! I could do that!

Little did I know, I blew my whole training that day, emptying out all the marathon Mojo I had been storing up, and lost any hope for running my best event.  If I had run the first ten slow, sped up, and ended with some marathon pace miles, and then followed this last long run with a three week taper,  I would have been refreshed at the starting line Marathon morning and been fully 3:10/BQ ready.

But, Instead of training for marathon day, I wanted assurance and a guarantee, so I raced the training event just so I could point to this sweet time as proof I could BQ.

A week later, even this confidence wore off, so  I did another 20 miler only this time it was with slogging, dead legs -- 2 weeks out from marathon day, and did the Detroit Half Marathon the week before Chicago. Not only was it a  2 instead of 3 week taper, it was way too much for my ‘fair at best’ running genetics. This mistake would also continue for years to come.

And now in one hour's time I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But WILL I?
-Chariots of Fire (before the 100 meter)

Chicago came, and my mistakes continued. The start was packed, jammed together, making it impossible to start with any speed (this was before ‘chutes’).  I was so fearful of not running my BQ, that I ran an uneven pace, at first acting like a nut and running through people quite obnoxiously the first mile trying to hit my 7:16 and not fall behind. My runner’s etiquette shot out of my body like a one nostril snot shot.  Still, in the crowded field, I couldn’t hit my 7:16 for the first 2 miles but instead was closer to 7:30, and insanely made up for it by doing a couple of even 7 minute miles in a row from miles 5 to 7. 

With all of that, I was still on pace until mile 20, but when I got there, I felt much worse than I had at the end of my faster 20 mile training run 3 weeks earlier.  I employed the “just one more mile” mentality, telling myself that I just had to run one more mile, just one more mile at the same pace, and that the race ended at mile 21, so just make it another mile and don’t worry about the rest. And then the same for mile 22, and so on. 

My pace slowed, my legs hardened and ligaments so taxed it was like I had wet cement for blood.  I wasn’t going to make it, all my training and time and mental energy was a waste. Alarm bells rang in my head.  I fought and fought and fought against that prospect, pushing from some force beyond me, and what happened to me at this point was amazing. My legs cramped up so insane that bulges of muscle, like the birthing crowns of aliens, sprouted out of my thighs.  Huge bowling balls from my thigh muscles emerged. Walking was a struggle.  I feared getting pulled off the course, and if someone could read my mind and feel my body they would mandate it. I finished with an ache in my legs that has left a permanent psychological imprint. If there was a zombie attack, I would have been shot in the head cause I looked like the living dead. I was that guy you looked at and put in your memory banks saying “I don’t ever want to be him.”  I hit a 3:16 after running the last two miles averaging 10 minutes per mile pace.

“Most marathoners will tell you, around mile 20, they start praying for any kind of help they can get”  Saint Ralph

Instead of learning from my mistakes, I basically did the same exact training routine for the next 3 or 4 years with only minor modifications, and crossed the finish line with a marathon each year but always short of my goal.

Qualifying for Boston was a self-imposed mark. It was pretty artificial, and while I gauged it as what would make me a ‘real runner’, I realize everything is relative and that there are many faster folks who set the bar much higher; sub 3 hours for example, being able to run the Olympic qualifier, all sorts of other feats that make a BQ look a bit silly, but for me it became important.

Yet I still found myself failing in multiple attempts at qualifying, each time taking solace in all the psycho-spiritual-physical benefits of training, soothing myself saying ‘you just finished a marathon, how can you be disappointed?’ but still with a nagging ache in my heart and an unspoken sadness for not reaching my goal.

I started to wonder why my training had just coincidentally danced around the BQ time zone but never under. Was I psychologically stopping myself from being successful and running this time?  Maybe I was flirting with meeting my goal, but somehow my psyche was too scared to run faster and more comfortable with falling just short; a wannabe athlete accustomed to not performing and feeling less than, completely comfortable in not succeeding and falling to saccharine self-pity. 

“I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.” 
Chariots of Fire

There were many moments it hit me that I was going to my grave without having ever qualifying.  That it was a dream that would forever have to be deferred, and all the times I imagined what a BQ finish might feel like would have to stay imaginary and would simply never happen. .

Just a small part of me felt embarrassed since it was a pretty public goal of mine, although mostly it was just an existential failure and that my roar into the vast realm of the universe was in fact just a pip-squeak of a mouse instead.  That’s okay, a mouse has its place.

The horror, the horror.

Then kids came, and I was a little less into times and simply finishing. I ran a few 3:45 marathons, one just under 4, I did a trail marathon just to finish since it was heralded as one of the top ten toughest marathons in the country.  My races were spread apart, but as the kids got older and training was easier to fit in, and as the BQ times changed from a 3:10 to a 3:20 for my age group, I went at it again, trying to qualify, and felt like I had to unlearn some bad habits.  Insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results. It is being hard-headed and stubborn and sticking to beliefs, not in a noble way but in an ignorant dangerous way. It happened in my addiction and failed attempts to get sober, and it happened in my sobriety. I needed to trust some different training ways, some different approaches. I realized each race was an experiment of one.

So, I tried a whole series of new training methods, many of these have already been discussed in pasts posts, but I think the mix that worked for me was the following:

-Pushing my last longest run to 22 or 23 miles.

-Doing more long runs, finishing the second half of every other long run at projected marathon pace.

-Doing less speed work. My times showed I was fast enough, and speed work hampered the endurance runs that I really needed.

-Taking more time to recover, not worrying if I do a week of as little as 10-15 miles of running if needed.

-Calf sleeves, 2 calf sleeves really.

-Not pushing the training for false, overly reassuring needing confidence building runs.

-A 3 week taper instead of two

-Adding hills for muscle strength in those last miles

-Eating for recovery, and adding S-Caps; (sodium caps.) My sweat is so salty I finish events with white streaks on my face, and I swear the S-caps help eliminate even minor cramping

-Running with headphones. Yes, running the event with headphones too.

-Choosing a smaller race, in my case, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

--Pity from god who gave me a perfect temperature to run on race day.

Grand Rapids Marathon Start
All of these were part of my experiment of one, and it was an experiment I never knew would work.  I had been mentally defeated to a degree, and there was the mind games I had going on, that mental block, that fearful and uncertainty to find my personal “win”.   I intellectually knew all about the “you have to believe you can do it” (yeah, yeah, blah blah)  but it was in a weird Jedi training moment that I actually ‘learned this’ concept.

It happened 15 minutes before the start of the Grand Rapids Marathon, on a perfect, partly sunny morning.

My wife was dropping me off just before the start with time enough to take the mandatory pee, and get a nice starting spot in the chute. Grand Rapids was small, no need to elbow your way to freedom, and the cold wind and rain of the day before had gave way to what was a perfect running day.  Mid 30’s to start, up to mid 40’s by ten am.

“If I don’t see you during the race," she asked, "what time do you think you will be done?” 

“If I’m done in three and a half hours, and I know I will be done in three and a half hours, it will be 11:30. But hopefully earlier.”

And then it struck me. I said “hopefully earlier” with no backbone to it, yet I ‘I Know” I could run a 3:30 with complete certainly. If I didn’t’ think I could do less than that, the 3:20 I needed to qualify,  if I didn’t believe it, I was done and all set up for another failure. I already believed I wasn't going to make it, and my language had revealed this lack of faith.  Where the mind is, the body is sure to follow. 

I needed to believe it in my heart, not simply due to the training sheets, but believe it, and maybe even stronger, KNOW it. I know I can do it, and I know I will do it.

So it struck me.  I did my prerace routine and did a personal Jedi mind meld.  I know it, I Know it, I know it. I got this, I got this, I got this, I got this…

The  phrase “I got this” would be my mantra to push me. I got this, I got this, I got this. I must have said it 20,492 times in my head to myself during the race, and at the 20,493rd time, about mile 18, I believed it.  I had been speeding up the whole event, actually starting slower than marathon pace to get my legs warmed up, and then running about 10 miles just under 3:20  from miles 8 to 18, and here I was and I knew it, I knew it, “I got this.”   Your fastest races feel the easiest, and this was where I was at, there was no “might.”  I have been at those “might qualify" moments so many times in races before, so I knew this wasn’t one of those. A “might make it" means some weird energy might come from nowhere, but I always knew in my heart in those “might” races I was not going to make it. I just wanted to try, because to ‘try’ is to fail with dignity. But here I was at mile 18, with the biggest smile in every fiber of my being because I had energy left!  I was actually gaining energy, my instinct could sense things were different and as long as I made no mistakes and didn’t rip a muscle by pushing the pace erratically, I was good to the finish.

·      "A runner is a miser, spending the pennies of his energy with great
stinginess, constantly wanting to know how much he has spent and how
much longer he will be expected to pay. He wants to be broke at
precisely the moment he no longer needs his coin."
  Once A Runner

When I did finish, I wasn’t fully broke but probably had another marathon pace half mile or more in me, but my only fear was pushing too hard and ripping a muscle completely, so I raced sweet and smooth to the end. The tears came during the last .2, and I crossed the line and found a place alone to have a true holy moment.

Flying High Now

And here’s the truth, no joke, I finished at exactly the training time needed.  3:20:00 flat. Not a second too slow or fast, but right on time.

Mark Matthews

Knowing I would be physically and emotionally exhausted, I took the next day off work. It was a Monday, and my boss called me at home.  He’s calling to ask me about the marathon, I thought, which seemed very thoughtful because we’d become close over many years and maybe he understood how important it was to me. But that wasn’t the reason for his call, “take more than just this Monday off,” he said, “and we need to schedule a meeting.”

After 9 years at a job I overall loved, I was being laid off. Oh, the irony dripped from the walls. Breaking through this running barrier had brought on a whole slew of changes, and shortly after running the race of my life that had eluded me, I was cleaning out my office at a place that had been my second home for nearly ten years. It was a job where I was well known, comfortable, but was now just a memory.

I had always said I would trade away nearly anything to finally reach my goal, and that’s exactly what seemed to happen. But as doors closed, windows opened and I landed on my feet, and looking back, wouldn’t change a thing. Thank god I had the confidence of my run to deal with the layoff, and pretty much any challenge that comes my way, as long as I don’t give up.

Read "The Jade Rabbit" - A story of a miraculous marathon run

Reviews of The Jade Rabbit

Read "STRAY", by Mark Matthews, recently voted into the second round of Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Contest

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