Bewitching

My first inkling that I might like marathoning came when, on a whim, a friend and I decided to run around Madison’s Lake Mendota (about 24 miles the way we planned it). Sure, I was tired by the end, but we didn’t even start until after we both got off work (around 6pm) and I remember how quickly the miles from 10-18 flew by.

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smiling, mostly because I’m done, with my dad after 26.2 very humbling miles

It was almost a year later that I ran my first marathon, and although the race did not go as planned (every rookie mistake: went out too fast [as in, missed my 1/2 marathon PR by less than a minute] didn’t drink enough water, didn’t feel like chewing my shot blocks and figured it would be fine to just throw them away, stopped and walked, cried, got charlie horses, and eventually limped across the finish line), and it was, and I know we can’t remember degrees of pain and all that, but I think, the most painful experience of my life, I felt that the marathon and I had some unfinished business. I’d hoped to break 3 on a perfect day, but instead of adjusting the plan for a non-perfect (85 at the start) day, I plowed ahead stubbornly until I ran myself into the ground. I knew I could run faster even without training better, and probably even more faster if I trained smart.

That marathon has indeed been my slowest, but I’ve never felt the level of fitness I used to when hammering out mile repeats and repeat tempo runs (what? I did that?), doing Daniels-style T-L-T workouts, running 10 miles the day after 20 mile long runs, feeling like 7:30 pace was just too slow to stand.

When I think about this training period, I try to be fair to my current self. I hated my job then, and running often felt like the only productive thing I did in a day. I was 23. I thought I was invincible without even realizing it.

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with training partner Megan after Boston in 2009

None of the three marathons I’ve done since have been as frustrating, but none of the training has been as satisfying. I ran Boston twice, once, with the honor of honoring my late University of Chicago teammate with 6 weeks prep, and then later with my diligent 24 week buildup, and both times neglected to do any real speedwork and almost the exact same time. Then, last spring in a brief recurrence of invincibility, I signed up for the Gansett Marathon, did a bunch of 5 mile runs, a 25k race, a 17 mile run and a run I pretended was 20 miles but knew, even at the time, that 19 was pushing it.

So, this December, I thought: I’ll do this right. Who knows when I’ll have this much time again. I don’t have kids, I get to run as part of my job (coaching high school runners), and, as the winter went on, milder and milder, I felt even more obligated to take adventage of the clear running trail and the shorts-weather sunshine on so many January and February afternoons. After last year’s feet and feet of snow, I tried not to take clear roads for granted.

Either I’d forgotten how tired actually training for a marathon makes me, or I’ve become wimpy. Last night I had a dream about eating graham crackers. In the dream, I was outraged, because the graham crackers I found in my desk at school were low fat, but I was so hungry I ate them anyway. After today’s 18.5 miler, Nick and I walked a half-mile or so down the road to get sandwiches, and if I hadn’t eaten then, I don’t know that I would have all day. After my shower, I lay in bed reading and feeling my muscles spasm in little bursts all over my legs. Did this happen before? And what about all the short races I miss? I don’t have much leg speed right now, but I saw some runners after a local St. Patrick’s Day 4 Miler and I felt a nearly nostalgic longing to have been part of the race. I’d just run 18.5 miles but I felt unsatisfied and wished I’d run fast and short instead.

In the past, I’ve left marathons, proud of myself for finishing, but each finish has always come after serious doubt: why am I doing this? Why does this hurt so much? How can I keep going? Does the marathon ever not feel like this for anyone? If I could run a 2:25 marathon, or even a 2:50 marathon, would the pain be somehow different for being shorter-lived? Within a few days of finishing each of the marathons I’ve run, I think of something I could do better: go out easier, run less, run more, do more speed, do more long runs, introduce a mid-week long run… and then I come back to that run I did around Lake Mendota, or the fact that I can’t break :41 in a 200 anymore, and my willingness, even eagerness, in tolerating discomfort for a long time, and I think: marathon, I am not done with you, yet.

This training cycle I’ve done pretty much what I set out to do, hitting between 50-60 miles in 6 runs most weeks. I’ve done a mid-week 10-11 miler and I started Yasso 800s. I try to actually take my easy days easy (this is a new and difficult thing for me. On my college team, we rarely ran more than 6 miles on an easy day, but also rarely ran over 7:30 pace, and, let’s be honest, I’m an impatient person and I do a lot of my running alone, so it’s easy to switch an easy 8 for a moderate 6, almost by accident). I have been doing a lot of the things right that I thought were missing before, but I still don’t feel very good. My long run today was really, really hard, and not just in the way that 18 miles is hard, but harder than that 24 mile run on a whim (when the farthest I’d ever run before that was 14 miles).

Today, as I was limping down the stairs, I told Nick: remind me next time I want to run a marathon, that training for a marathon is an entirely different level of exhaustion than just running every day. But, I don’t remember that always being the case. Am I (selectively) forgetting? Am I getting older? Is there such a thing as a person who’d be an ideal 15 mile racer? Why marathons and not 25ks? Why the extra 11 miles? But, on the same token, what makes those extra 11 miles so awful? If I were training for a half marathon (rather than just occasionally jumping in half marathons for a tune-up or challenge) would I wonder why I hadn’t found a 10 mile race? Or a 10k?

What is it about these 26.2 miles that is so bewitching?

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after Boston in 2008 (my mom hates this picture, sorry, Mommy!)

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