On my refrigerator door, next to postcards and holiday cards I hardly remember putting there, hangs a magnetized picture from last year’s NYC marathon with the race caption “What Does It Take?” written in boldface font decorating the left upper hand corner. Unlike other memorabilia I collected from that race, this is the only one that survived the move to my new apartment. Ironically, it is also the only running picture that I have allowed myself to put up so far in my kitchen/living room area. And even though I am usually not a sentimental person especially when it pertains to running clichés and commercialized messages, I found myself thinking about this question more than usual in the aftermath of my 5 mile PR race this past weekend.
To be honest, I’ve been pondering the possibilities and imagining unrealistic race goals ever since I crossed the finish line and realized my time. After all, to average 6:02 min/mi for 5 miles when even my 4 mile PR pace is 6:09 min/mi is pretty wild. Add to that a 5:52 last mile after somehow surviving the monstrosity that is Cat Hill in the previous mile (when my best last mile time for any race of any distance to date is an even 6:00), and I’m having difficulty believing that it was even me out there that day. Needless to say, it was a pretty special race for me and one that I won’t forget for at least a little while.
But then quietly and insidiously, after all the hoopla and excitement wore off, my mind began asking my body questions that it cannot answer. So what’s next? Shouldn’t you do it again to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke? Should you run a 4 miler or a 5K to make your PRs a little more consistent? What about a half-marathon or your marathon? Can’t you adjust your race goals for those distances now that you’re running a wee bit faster? And the questions kept going on and on. What if that was your theoretical best? What if you never beat yourself again? What if that is your last PR for this year, for next year, forever? What if that is the beginning of the end? How will you know when you get there? If you knew, would you walk away like John Elway (after winning consecutive Super Bowls) or just trample on and on as a shadow of your former self like Brett Favre, refusing to leave the game until you’re way past your prime and no one really wants you around anymore, not even yourself?!
I don’t know why I get so introspective after big races and big PRs. Maybe it’s because I’m so frightened by my own success, frightened to know that with each success brings bigger goals, and bigger goals brings more work and more training, and more training brings me closer to the line between performance and injury, until eventually the line is crossed, my body breaks down, and I’m left to either recover to repeat the cycle again or accept the fact that I’ll never be the same. Isn’t this the natural life cycle of the athlete? You make goals, train hard, have success, build new goals, and repeat the process until you get injured, get too old to train or care, and give way to the younger folks so the cycle can repeat itself again.
I was talking to a friend in my running club yesterday who I respect greatly because we run, share similar professions that deal with helping children and never fails to speak her mind with me when I’m in the wrong (which is pretty frequent). She told me that although training is going well for her fall marathon, this will likely be her last hurrah at this distance for a long while and maybe forever. She has run a fall marathon for the last four or five years and has, every year, suffered a bad injury during training. Although she loves running, she explained that the arduous preparation for the distance is long and painful for her and despite her best efforts, she is never healthy enough to run her best on race day. She just wants to give it one last try this year before switching to swimming, biking, and running shorter distances.
I listened intently and was mesmerized by how much her story reflected my own. Although I’ve been fortunate enough not to have suffered any catastrophic injuries during marathon training for the most part, I developed a major cramp at mile 19 of the Boston Marathon which kept me from achieving my goal of a sub-3 marathon. I was most frustrated not in the fact that I didn’t run my time, but in the fact that the injury happened so suddenly and without warning. In the aftermath of that catastrophe, while reviewing my preparation leading up to that point, I came to the conclusion that I had worked hard, trained really well, and had given myself the best chance I could of having a great race. And because of some inexplicable derangement in the muscular contraction of my hamstring in the late stages of the race, everything I trained for, all the miles I ran, every speedwork session I suffered through in the blistering cold, would now be for naught. It hardly seemed fair! I didn’t do anything wrong! I had a hard time coming to terms with that experience and convincing myself to saddle up for another crack at it again this fall.
So I understand where my friend is coming from, even though I don’t agree with her decision. I think she should just concentrate on getting through marathon training uninjured instead of worrying about what’s to come after. I told her that if she can make it through her 16 week program without injury, anything is possible and she may come not to hate the training as much.
I, on the other hand, am already preparing for early retirement. Despite this study which provides scientific evidence why running is not bad for the knees, I am ready to hang up the running shoes at some point in the not-so-distant future. I will not be the old runner guy who feels a need to preach to all the newbie runners because he used to be able to run a 2:50-something in some marathon once in the distant past. I also will not be the guy who is carrying his middle-aged beer gut around with him out on the road for a few miles just to keep in shape. I, unfortunately for me, but fortunately for the rest of the world, have a little too much pride for that. Instead, once I decide I’ve accomplished all I’ve wanted to accomplish in this sport without having to sacrifice my body to the extreme, I’ll exit stage right at the pinnacle of my running career (a la Barry Sanders) and move on to other leisurely pursuits. I might dabble in tri-s or maybe give golf a try (even though I’ve never played!) I just hope I’ll know somehow, some way, when the time comes, that I’m running the best I have ever and will ever run without injury. Although I don’t plan for this to happen for at least a few years, if I develop a hammy cramp in the middle of a certain marathon in the fall, I might have to seriously reconsider expediting the process.
Sorry for this long drawn out explanation of where I thinking I am going in this sport! If you have to blame someone, blame Nitmos for his brilliant retrospective review on the first mile as the gateway drug of the runner. I’m merely completing his thoughts and figuring out how my last mile is going to go down.