Is it over already?
I tried and failed once again to keep myself from making that rookie mistake of going out too fast. Every time, I try to care about the splits, but I am bad, bad, bad. The adrenaline is simply too much for me. I indulged my inner horse, and just let it go. I am a terribly undisciplined runner. But luckily the crowd was thick and folks were forcefully elbowing for their positions, everyone struggling to press ahead. It never thinned throughout, so I soon settled back into a comfortable pace and just watched the shimmering, bouncing colorful snake we made as it stretched and writhed out in front of me. What a spectacle!
So I wasn’t spent by mile 16. That little bridge hill that used to give me such grief was easy this time, and I strongly powered up the Newton hills that closely followed. Even Heartbreak didn’t seem so bad. Sure I pushed. Sure, I slowed. But it just wasn’t so bad this year. And I flew down the hills just as I always love to do, an indulgence that I usually pay for later. But even now, my quads aren’t sore. Terrapin mountain has its gifts, it seems. A more competitive part of me surfaced briefly on the hills, and I was grateful to pass so many and still feel strong. But for some reason, I couldn’t harness that competitive edge. I just wasn’t fighting for speed. Just wasn’t pushing. Why?
Feeling a little dehydrated, I walked at several water stops to make certain I got a good drink. I ran very strong. But slowly. It was as if some part of me was rebelling. At some point after mile 20, I became most acutely aware of the state of my body. The skin on my face, neck and arms was being burned by the relentless sun (my sunblock rubbed off and lost to several dowsings at water stations) and now I could feel the numbness in my feet from the constant slapping of pavement, the achy joints and cramping calves I only get when running hard on pavement. I thought about running at age 80. I wanted to be able to. I reigned in and lightened my stride in an attempt to save my joints. Oh, where was my moxie today? Last year, I had felt it, had wanted to pull ahead, had elbowed my way through the crowd, and PR’d nicely. This year, even beforehand, I knew I would be slow. It wasn’t because of my training. I am stronger–even faster than ever, I know. But that friendly competitive spark, that push to give it my all was simply not there this year. Perhaps I had lost it somewhere in the mountains.
They say that three’s a charm. In finishing Boston #3, I learned a lot about myself, but in the end, it left me with more unanswered questions. I am still quite the newbie, after all. It was my slowest attempt at a race that is all about making a fast time. I blew it. What a shame, I thought.
At the expo, I felt like a fraud, alone in a sea of runners, a pony amongst the gazelles. What used to feel like a big family reunion to me now felt like someone else’s family reunion I had crashed. I felt set apart, a slow, roly-poly creature. I was so aware of that competitive spirit around me. There was a constant undertone of speed. It is all about the numbers, I was reminded. Numbers. I noted the 26.2 printed again and again on so many surfaces, a source of pride for so many, and to me, sadly, such an arbitrary number. Wistfully I looked about for hints and clues from the ultra world, but saw none. Then I bumped into a woman I had met before the JFK. It was great to see her. I felt a little less alone. She was running her 8th Boston, this time, with her brother who had traveled in from Oregon. He was far behind her in the seeding, but she was going to move back so she could run with him. It was so welcoming to hear of someone running Boston for an experience other than the numbers. Boston is a celebration of running, after all. It doesn’t have to be about numbers. I talked to some first-timers before the race. It was great to be able to answer their questions, give them tips about the course, and to tell them to relax and enjoy the experience. Most said that they were just there to finish; just there for the experience that is Boston–to feel part of it. But all of us hope for the best time, especially the newcomers. More than a strong finish, we want to finish fast. We want the numbers to reflect our effort, our hard work and training–to show what we know is inside of us–that steely core we know as runners we possess.
I was sadly failing at the number game this time. On the final 6 miles, I was ready to motor forward. But a painful ankle and slightly crampy calves–things I could have mentally powered through last year–kept me short. I ran in surges. My Garmin had died about half way into the race, so I was a little unsure of my pace once I started to stiffen and tire. At that point where all of the running strength is mental, I suddenly discovered my will had softened. Where in the Hell was my moxie???
As we made that hard last turn on to Boylston street, the part where I love to hotdog and floor it till I’m out of breath, I paused, even walked for a few seconds. Then I found it, the finish in sight, and ran hard. And ah, the relief! It felt so good to be done. This was new for me. Yeah, sure it always feels good to finish, but usually that sense of relief is overshadowed with a sense of accomplishment, with a joy that is giving it your best. But I hadn’t. I was sore, I was tired, I was burnt and dehydrated, but I was okay. Even talkative. Sheesh. I had turned into that chatty Kathy that running sometimes turns me into. It was so crowded this year there were several people finishing the same time as me, and we all congratulated each other. Then I spotted an Umsted100 race t-shirt in the crowd of finishers, and simply had to call out. Ultra=family, it seems to me. We talked ultra, and were instant friends. And it turns out we had a lot of mutual friends. He was racing for time, though half playfully in the way ultra runners do, having trained but two weeks, and I soon realized that finding that shared perspective was the highlight of the finish for me. Throughout the race, my mindset had really been elsewhere. I floundered to comprehend the loss of moxie, the change of mindset. I pondered: plenty of ultra runners still love to competitively motor through Boston as much as they love to competitively motor through ultras, races that are still to the newbie ultra me, lone, self-challenging ambles through the woods. I decided it was a temporary loss, a newbie adjustment, that my moxie would return. I would want to press through Boston again, and race for the numbers. But I had to go somewhere else first.
Still trying to shape my thoughts around this, today I picked up a book I had found on the giveaway table at work, and read my own feelings about it laid out in plain words, perfectly executed:
“A childish enthusiasm had prevented me from seeing that the marathon is really a spectator sport, and a false scale against which to measure our true capacity. What long-distance running is truly about is measuring ourselves against a challenge that exceeds simple arithmetic, covering miles that we had not necessarily foreseen. It is knowing how to cope when the world turns against you.” –Robin Harvie in “The Lure of Long Distances”
Slam! It all fell together then, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. I thought of the awards ceremonies at some of the ultras I had run, lighthearted mockeries of the pomp-and-circumstance-filled trophying that accompanies so many running events. There were awards for being the fattest runner and the runner who got bloodied the most on the course. Most of the awards were not trophies or medals, but fine outerwear. Ultra runners have a slightly different value system when it comes to running. They understand why they run, and that it has nothing to do with numbers or trophies. We all do it for ourselves. Sure there is competition, community, celebration and ceremony. But the proofing is mostly to ourselves and not to one and other. We crack wise about not training, not tapering or breaking all the training rules before a run. We run for the love of running and for what the untested distance and harsh terrain and conditions have to teach us about ourselves.
Any distance can be a challenge, be it 100 meters, 3, 26.2, 50 miles, 100k or 200 miles. The distance, the time, the numbers don’t matter. It is about pushing ourselves, about facing the unknown inside of us. Alone on the Boston course in a sea of runners, I had come face to face with myself, had called my motivations into question. I forced myself to not care about the numbers, because it shamed me to care about them. In the end, I realized I had run a good race. I may not have pushed to run my fastest, but I ran strong, I took care of myself, kept myself from injury and dehydration, mindful of the long runs for the decades to come. I hadn’t blown it after all. It is just that my values were different now. For better or worse, my goals had changed. It seems I had somehow moved beyond, to a different set of challenges. But even so, I knew this was but yet another step in some growth process as a runner. I had but to look at the plenty of seasoned and wise that traveled from all over the globe to run the Boston. And I knew I would be back.