Monday, September 29, 2008

Changing Colors, Changing Goals

When I moved to New England over 15 years ago, I described that initial autumn as a time when I first realized that death could be exquisitely beautiful. The vibrancy with which we New Englanders are warned that another long winter is on its way is perhaps a salve for our inevitably dipping spirits. The days get shorter, a constant chill hangs in the air, and the vivid reds, oranges and yellows all-too-quickly turn to shades of dirty brown and gray. But, for the runner, that small window between summer's last lazy days and the freezing ground and falling snow is a self-contained paradise. All the hard miles logged during those hot and humid summer days pay off with a reinvigorated stride that allows us to feel - on a good day - like we might run forever.

As I took my first notable foliage-filled run of the year on Sunday, I thought about how well my training has gone of late. How I was completely naive and baselessly optimistic last year (and then again this spring) as I trained and set marathon goals. My ambition and resolve bordered on hubris, and I was thus twice humbled by the event to which I have dedicated virtually all of my "free" time since early last year. Chicago 2007 threw record heat at me and the almost 35,000 others who toed the line on October 7, 2008. Burlington, Vermont saw my race parallel my training cycle: a solid start followed by me barely hobbling to a sub-par finish.

Then, just as I was recovering from Burlington, I threw my back out when I bent over to pick up a single piece of laundry in late June. That forced upon me a full week of no running, followed by three-plus weeks of feeling like I was dragging my sciatica-hampered left leg along for the ride. Little-by-little, though, as I crafted and executed a more flexible training plan, my endurance and speed started to return. I ran a very slow 10K race in early August. I ran a less slow 5K two weeks later, with another decent 5K effort on a cross-country trail five days after that. All along, I increased my weekly mileage, and then added a sixth running day per week.

With the various setbacks, I decided (i.e., was forced to conclude) that qualifying for the 2009 Boston Marathon (to be run when I'm 40, and for which I need to break 3:20 to get in) was still out of reach, and that I should focus only on making a marked, yet incremental, improvement in Chicago this year. I accepted that reality with relative equanimity and trained so as to put myself in the best possible position to run under 3:35 and take another shot next spring (or fall).

As it has in so many ways, running has taught me another life lesson: that by loosening one's grip on something one desperately covets, one may have a far better chance of actually obtaining it.

When I did my first 20-miler of this training cycle, I followed a coach's advice and had the best long training run of my life. Then, two weeks later, I had an even better 22-miler on even tougher terrain. Now, I think that I might (just might) be able to get that Boston qualifying time, and - even if I fall short - I can do try without blowing up and having yet another colossally disappointing marathon.

Of course, much of this is out of my control, starting with the weather on race day. Cool temperatures will give me a fighting chance. A smart pacing strategy is key, as is proper rest (always tough for me), hydration, nutrition and a lack of race-day surprises. I have to avoid getting hurt between now and October 12th, hope that I suffer no cramps, avoid going out too fast and otherwise pray for a planetary alignment of the highest personal magnitude, so that the offhanded comment I made at my 30th birthday party - that maybe I'd run the Boston Marathon when I was 40 - becomes a prophesy a few months after that fateful day.

Bear in mind that when I said it, I'd never run more than about 6 miles at once, despite playing soccer since I was a kid. Marathoning and space travel were essentially similarly elusive and foreign endeavors in my mind, though I confess to knowing more marathoners than astronauts even then.

So, with Sunday's 17-miler going very well, with the last 5 miles run at or below my new goal marathon pace of 7:38/mile, I will go for it in Chicago. Since I am still working out the pacing strategy, I'll put it up in a few days. I know, not knowing may keep some of you up at night, but try counting mile markers and you'll eventually fall asleep. ;-)

Thanks for reading, and if you have any words of personal experience as you pursued (or are pursuing) your BQ dreams (good or bad as the results may have been), please drop me a line.



screaminzab said...

Good stuff, ESG. Screamin Zab here from the 3:20 thread. First time I have stopped over here.

What was the advice from the coach for your 20 miler?

You're in great shape. I haven't read every post, but it's amazing that you had almost all but written off the 3:20. Now, with a little help from mother nature, I think you will BQ qualify. I am interested in seeing your pacing strategy for the 12th.

I turned 30 last November. I hope I am in the shape at 40 that you are in right now. Good luck and keep up the good work.


Unknown said...

I'm so happy for you on how your last 2-3 months of training have gone. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said:
"As it has in so many ways, running has taught me another life lesson: that by loosening one's grip on something one desperately covets, one may have a far better chance of actually obtaining it".
Ironic that your training has gone better, when you took the pressure off of yourself to get that BQ... and look at what's about to happen.
Hope to meet you in Chicago!