I am not particularly adept at coping with failure. The past few days have been hard: hard to approach with a positive attitude, hard to get motivated about anything. A couple nights after I DNF’d in Baltimore, Alana says I called out in my sleep, “I’ve been toiling fruitlessly, all in vain!” I would like to make this self-pity phase as brief as possible, but I also have to acknowledge my disappointment. So let's talk about that Baltimore Marathon.
When I felt a cold coming on the Tuesday before my Saturday marathon, I knew my prospects weren’t looking good. If I was only feeling a slight tickle in my throat on Tuesday, that would give the cold the perfect amount of time it needed to develop into a full-blown illness by Saturday morning. But I did my best to get over it as quickly as possible: tons of sleep, tons of water, ginger-honey-lemon-pepper tea, and nyquil. I was resolved to at least go to Baltimore with Alana and start the race unless I felt dreadful, because the travel and the race registration were sunk costs, and it could still be fun. It was hard to make a race plan, because I didn’t know how I would feel on race morning, but I started to consider my options.
Daniels says that for every 3-4 km of race distance, you need one day of easy running, which means 11-14 days of recovery from a marathon. I’ve heard some people use an even more conservative rule, 1 day for every mile of race distance, and that would mean almost 4 weeks before you can work out again after a marathon. So in those days before the race, I resolved that it would not make sense to push through a sub-par marathon finish just for the sake of finishing, because it would cause me to lose two weeks of quality training time. If I were going to try and run another marathon this Fall, I would be better off not losing those two weeks. And if I wasn’t going to try to run another marathon this Fall - if I was going to move on to a new training block with lots of speedwork and shorter races - well, then I wouldn’t really want to miss two quality weeks to recover from a race where I didn’t even PR, either. Whether it was another marathon or something new, I just wanted to move on, and if I was too sick to run how I wanted to on race day, dropping out a few miles in would help me to move on more quickly.
I’m proud that I stuck to this logical plan, rather than ignoring my sub-par state of health and going for the finish. (Is it cocky if I say that, having run across Canada, I feel I have nothing to prove in the realm of finishing a marathon, even on a bad day?) At the start line, I honestly wasn’t sure how the illness might affect my performance. My nose wasn’t stuffed up or runny, so getting enough air wasn’t an issue, but I did have a lot of crap in my throat, and I had an inkling that my weakened immune system might prevent me from running as fast as usual at a given HR. On the other hand, this was the first marathon I’ve ever run in close to perfect marathon weather (48 Fahrenheit, sunny, and not too windy), so I wanted to at least give it a shot.
A significantly better-than-average national anthem was sung (this is always a very strange moment for me, just before the race, when my mind is on running but it is suddenly jerked back to singing), a gun was shot, and I settled into a conservative, 4-4 warm-up pace for the initial uphill - you gain about 250 feet in the first three miles of Baltimore, and I knew that if I was going to go the distance that morning, I’d need to ease into my race pace (splits were 7:14, 7:01, 7:20). We crested Druid Hill and ran through the park, zookeepers along the course brandishing penguins and ravens as we passed (cool!) Miles 4 to 7 (6:45, 6:30, 6:46, 6:54) were happy miles, because I felt OK, or at least somewhat in control, and it seemed for a moment as if I might actually manage a sub-3 if I could just stay focused, work hard, and keep my HR near 165 and my breathing 3-3. In miles 8 to 10 (7:05, 7:00, 7:02), that hope faded away as I realized I was working much harder than I would usually need to at a pace so far below the 6:40-6:50 race pace I had practiced: I kept leapfrogging with the 3:05 pace group because my body seemed suddenly incapable of keeping a consistent tempo, stomach cramps lurked threateningly in the background, and my HR dropped to the upper 150s as my body said “not today” and my pace sagged. Entering the supposedly lively inner harbor all alone, just behind the 3:05 pace group, I was surprised to see throngs of spectators making no noise whatsoever, just voyeuristically lurking there to watch me fall apart. By mile 10, I knew it was only a matter of time until I dropped out, but I decided I would at least cool down by finishing the segment of the race which went around the inner harbor.
I was running the back portion of an out-and-back segment, and it occurred to me that I might catch a glimpse of Alana headed in the other direction. I love cheering on Alana in races whenever I can, and she had had some mysterious foot cramps the day before which threatened to screw up her own race, so, my own race basically over, I wanted to give her whatever encouragement I could. Usually this means me hooting and screaming at her while she just furiously tries to keep up her own concentration in spite of my harassment, but I also know that she enjoys the attention. The truth was, I badly wanted her to finish, just so that our little team of two might have some success that day, but I also didn’t want to put that pressure on her. When I saw her, I jumped over the little divide and started running alongside her, repeating a segment of the course that I’d just run. “How are you feeling?” I asked. “Not so good… my foot hurts again, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish,” she said. I held my tongue and didn’t say how badly I wanted her to finish, how invested I suddenly felt in her success. I find that one can get weirdly, intensely emotional with great suddenness in the middle of a marathon, and this was one of those moments for me. I cheered her on, said to do what she had to do, and turned back around.
I was running through the inner harbor at my cooldown pace, and finally there were spectators shouting words of encouragement. A little boy yelled “you can do it!” at me and I silently thought, “yeah, but I’m not gonna.” A man said “you got this!” and I thought back at him, “your confidence in me is misplaced.” After a .3-mile detour to say hi to Alana and a 2.5-mile cooldown, I cruised through the halfway point at 1:37 and nonchalantly jogged off the course. “Anything in particular I should know about how to DNF? It’s my first time,” I asked a race official. He seemed confused by my question and just told me not to cross the finish line (duh).
The rest of the morning I spent crying, watching fast people finish, eating postrace foods which I’d paid for with my registration but hadn’t earned with a finish, trying to keep warm, and talking on the phone with my mom. She was tracking our splits on the computer and said that Alana had crossed the halfway mark at 2:03, but hadn’t hit the 18-mile checkpoint, so by that time, it seemed likely that she had dropped out of the race, too, probably due to foot trouble. But four hours into the race, my mom called me back and said, “She’s still in the race!” Somehow the 18-mile checkpoint had never picked her up, but she had hit 24 miles at 3:56 race time, and I was overjoyed to hear it. I found a spot to park myself about 500 meters from the finish line and scanned the crowds running by to try and find her. Finally, there she was, and she was looking great for mile 26! I made a ruckus on the sidelines, gave her a high five, and started running alongside the course with her to see her finish. She finished in 4:17:51, a solid new PR, and with much less of a positive split than her first attempt (4:26:15 in Philly last year).
I’ve never been happier for someone else’s success than for Alana that morning. It really saved the day, and gave us something to celebrate. Moreover, when I saw her hobbling around like a 90 year-old lady that afternoon, I couldn’t help but realize I had made an excellent decision in dropping out, and that I’d be back to hard, productive workouts much more quickly because of it. (Recall that DNF stands not just for “Did Not Finish,” but also for “Did Nothing Fatal.”) Races that Alana and I run together have always been special days with a lot of good feelings and a natural high for many hours after, but in this case, having her there was what changed a terrible day into a solidly good one. The same goes for our wonderfully kind hosts in Baltimore, a trio of singers who were formerly “friends of friends” but are now just plain old friends, and for their two dogs, whose licks and enthusiasm made it hard to feel too down.
I feel grateful for the kindness and patience of the people in my life, both that weekend and for all the long months of training before. I definitely “couldn’t have done it without them,” and now it seems that even with them I couldn’t quite do it. In the wake of my DNF, one of the worst feelings I’ve encountered has been a sense of guilt over all the time I spent training this summer. In New Jersey, I could have spent that time with family. At Hornby Island, I could have spent it with the Pipes. At Avaloch, I could have spent that time hanging out with my Trident bros. I am long past the notion that running is a “selfish” endeavor, but it is still hard to think back on all the times I had to force myself to do the uncomfortable thing, to leave the company of friends and family and work for this abstract goal that I never even achieved. My best attempt at consolation is the thought that in the Summer of 2015, I bought and paid for a 2:55 marathon finish. It hasn’t been delivered yet, but it is mine, and it is worth the price. Why am I even feeling bad about dropping out of a race when I was sick? When I eventually do run a marathon again, it won’t be 2:55... it will be faster.
Fortunately, since my cold began on a Tuesday, it was only beginning when I sang in a Trinity Bach at One concert on Wednesday last week, and it was nearly over when I sang in another one yesterday. And how better to soothe the soul and find some moral direction than to delve into some Bach? Yesterday at Bach at One, I sang an aria (see 30:55) with some advice that hit rather close to home:
Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen
Hilft der Sorgen Krankheit nicht;
Aber wer gen Himmel siehet
Und sich da um Trost bemühet,
Dem kann leicht ein Freudenlicht
In der Trauerbrust erscheinen.
There you have it. Weinen hilft nichts. Now, it’s time to get fast… more on that next time.