For the past several months, I pushed myself hard to get into the kind of shape to attempt running the fastest marathon of my life. It's much tougher to get into this kind of shape than it used to be. On several occasions during my training cycle, I knew I was perilously close to pushing my body beyond what it could reasonably handle.
But, walking that fine line is what's required if you're going to attempt a personal best and truth be told, I was aiming for much more than a personal best. I was aiming to post a time that has been rattling around in my head for over seven years. It's a time that is emblazoned on my Road ID bracelet. It's 2:39:59. This time is nearly 4 minutes faster than the personal best I set in 2008.
I made a promise to myself that this would be the last serious marathon I would run if I managed to notch a 2:39:59 (or faster). My life has changed so much since 2008 and the opportunity to train seriously is very hard to find. This sense of finality permeated nearly every workout I did in preparation for this race.
When I felt tired and didn't want to run intervals, I reminded myself that I wouldn't have to round the track anymore once I accomplished my goal. When my legs felt like lead and mutinied in the latter stages of a death march, I reminded them they would get all the rest they needed soon enough.
Taper arrived and I was almost expecting something bad to happen. I have been thwarted on several occasions and hadn't been thus far. Race day was no longer months away, it was nearly upon me.
I like to think I've encountered just about anything one can encounter during a marathon. But, that's not true and never will be. There are always things we can't predict and can't control. For example, the weather.
The forecast for the Sunday of my race was just bleak. There was a 80-100% chance of rain predicted nearly all day in the days leading up to the race. I obsessively checked the Weather Channel every few hours hoping that the forecast might change. I have a pretty good relationship with the weather gods and I figured surely they'd smile on me on the one day I needed them to.
While I clung to the vain hope the weather might not be horrific on race day, I mentally prepared for a deluge, a tempest, and a very tough race. I've battled through torrential rain before. I've logged countless miles on the Marina in a stiff headwind. I would fight like hell to give myself a chance of posting a 2:39:59, angry weather gods or not.
I watched the movie '300' the day before the race and reminded myself of what the brave Spartans accomplished in a seemingly hopeless situation. I would toe the line like Leonidas and spend it all. There was hope as long as I could put one foot in front of the other.
I nervously paced inside a makeshift tent an hour before the race as 30MPH winds shook the tent violently. Sheets of rain periodically pounded the top of the tent providing a loud reminder of just how angry the weather gods were that morning. I made one last silent plea for a break in the conditions that went unanswered. Fuck it. It was time for battle.
I had tunnel vision as I approached the start. I would hit my splits no matter what. The weather wouldn't scare me nor would it slow me down during the first 13.1 miles. I would stay the course and at least give myself a chance to run a 2:39:59.
I tucked in behind a group of runners running a pace comparable to mine and tried to find respite from the headwinds that roared vociferously. The rain soaked me within the first mile. The only saving grace was a mercury reading of 55. It wasn't frigid.
My mantra for the day was 'focus and relax'. I kept repeating this to myself as I focused on running as economically and efficiently as possible. The weather wasn't bothering me, but it was still early. I rolled through the first five miles right on pace.
The headwinds kicked up a notch and despite being in the rear of a peloton of drenched marathoners, there was no way to escape it for the next 5 miles. I reminded myself that I have run against the wind many times in the Marina, but I had never run 5+ miles against 30MPH headwinds. I put my head down and just kept running.
I neared a critical juncture at 13.1 miles. I had somehow managed to run a split close to 1:20, but could I maintain this pace for another 13.1 miles? To my chagrin, I realized my legs were already feeling a bit heavy/stiff. I had nailed my target pacing, but at what cost? It felt as if I'd run 17 miles at my target pace.
I was going to have to make a tough decision. I could attempt to hold pace and likely crash/burn a few miles later or I could dial it back a bit and focus on running a strong race that would likely result in a slower time. In my head, I knew which option was best. My heart wanted to go in a different direction.
Grudgingly, I opted for the former route and dialed it back a bit. Despite dialing things back, I didn't feel good. My legs were heavy. I was tired physically and mentally. I found myself in a dark space where I was contemplating bailing out or perhaps just walking a bit.
I repeated my mantra of 'focus and relax' a few times, but the urge to quit came back with a vengeance. I stopped looking at my watch as I knew my splits were well off what I wanted when I first toed the line. Seeing these undesirable splits would merely serve to discourage me further.
I searched desperately for something that would keep me mentally focused despite the change of plans. What ultimately prevented me from bailing out during the no man's land spanning miles 13-20 was the thought that bailing out would send the wrong message to all of the runners I support. You have to fight. Kick, scratch, claw, or crawl, but FIND A WAY.
I got to mile 20 and found a short-lived second wind that carried me through another couple miles. The soreness and fatigue was now stacking up like a house of cards. One false move and everything would collapse. I tried quickening my pace a bit in an attempt to use a slightly different range of motion. It was a desperation move as I could feel the wheels coming off.
While I had been rocked from the very beginning of this race and had long since stopped looking at my watch, I knew I was running near my personal best. Mile 24 approached and I entered another mental valley as I started to think about how I'd been thwarted yet again.
I quickly silenced this voice and reminded myself of how infrequently I even have an opportunity to race and how important it was for me to spend EVERYTHING when the opportunity presents itself even if I was going to fall short of my goal.
I could now feel the pull of the finish line and despite all the challenges presented that day, it appeared I was going to finish. With only a mile and change left I tapped into a bit of anger and bitterness to find one last gear.
The weather gods had stepped in my way today and I was pissed. The brief adrenaline surge I got from tapping into this was enough to carry me across the finish line just a few minutes shy of my personal best.
I failed to post a 2:39:59, but astonishingly, I was happy. This was the first time I'd toed the line for a marathon feeling ready to really race in over 4 years. I had never raced in such difficult conditions. I'd been challenged mentally and physically from the very beginning, but I never faltered.
The clock didn't reflect a personal best, but there's no doubt in my mind, that I put forth a personal best 'effort' that on any other day would have resulted in a personal best and perhaps the elusive 2:39:59 I've been chasing all these years. Maybe falling short was also the universe's way of telling me I've still got a few great races left in me and this journey isn't quite over...yet.
So, I run because I still haven't notched the 2:39:59 I wanted. I run because I've got a few more great races left. Most importantly, I run because the journey continues..