Should I Take the Shortcut Home?

How many times have you asked yourselves that on a training ride or run? How many times has that thought crossed your mind during a race?

How many times have you quit?

I ran in the Motorola marathon this past Sunday, 2 days ago. I went into the race feeling well prepared. My total volume of running was lower than what I've had going into marathons in years past (I averaged about 35 per week), but the quality of the training was solid. I ran 3 half marathons between December and January as well as 3 long runs - two at 2 hrs 10 minutes and one at 2.5 hours. I felt pretty good on all the long runs, had one decent half -1:22.29, but ran so-so at the other halfs. I also rode about 120 miles per week. The overall training was solid enough that I thought I would be able to break three hours without suffering too badly.

Once again, the world has proven to me that things don't automatically go my way.

I showed up at the starting line feeling well rested and energetic. In times past these two issues have been my major concerns. Because of life in general I sometimes race with nothing in the tank or coming off a week of very little rest. That was not the case this time (although full rest to you and I could mean very different things - I worked 34 hours M-Th and took 3 night classes during the week, then flew out Friday for a Sunday morning race).

I started off easy and worked into my pace over the first couple miles. The first sign of problems to come came in the form of a tight calf muscle from miles 1 to 3. It went away quickly, but was replaced by a tightening of my left quadricep - the major one. This, in a marathon, is normal for most people. But usually not until around mile 15-20. Ideally, your legs remain loose for the majority and you can stay relaxed the entire course.

But as this muscle began to misbehave on me, I told myself to relax. It will loosen up. I ran along, breathing easily, low HR, lots of energy, at around 6:30 per mile. On course for a 2:55 or so finish. Fantastic.

Then the right quad started to go. In my training runs this might happen beyond the 2 hour mark. It didn't happen in any of the half-marathons. But once again, I find myself in the midst of the first third of a marathon with 'issues.' (I felt similar last year in the Ocala marathon.)

So I kept my pace. But the pain starts coming in waves. I kept my pace. Tightness is tolerable. Shooting pain every time you put your foot down is tolerable. I ran through the half at 1:26.59. Pain. Tightness. Left hamstring starts to go. Worse and worse. In combination it zapped me. As I rounded the turn at 16.6, my pace slowed dramatically. Not for a lack of trying, but because I could no longer lift my legs high enough to take a decent stride. F8ck this, I thought. F8ck F8ck F8ck. This sucks. I suck. This place sucks. This runner passing me sucks. But most of all, I suck. Obviously I don't have what it takes. I broke. I'm not tough enough. I just can't cut the mustard. I have an incredibly wimpy pain threshhold. I just plain suck.

That's what I thought. Soon after I was walking. If I'd known a shortcut to the finish line, I would have taken it, found my friend, and gone home. And you know what? I wouldn't have felt bad about it. Not in the slightest. I would have quit.

See, I've finished marathons before. I ran 3:09 in Jacksonville in 1995. I don't need to finish the damn thing. That wasn't a goal for me. It was 3 hours or bust. Well, it went bust.

As I completed what I began to think of as the walk of shame, I looked into my heart and asked myself why I wanted to run a marathon. Why did I want to break 3 hours. Why would I subject myself to this grueling event, after months (and years) of training, only to have it laugh in my face repeatedly. What was the f*cking point?

It's not like -in reality- I have a low pain threshhold. I've swum 22 miles in a day. I've rowed a big, heavy lifeboat 26 miles. I finished an Ironman in under 10 hours. I've pushed the limits on many different days and in many different circumstances. I've continued where nearly any other person would lay down and die. As far as anyone has ever told me and as far as I can tell, I am a fairly resilient guy.

So I realize that it is a goal. Nothing more and nothing less. I make my own goals. I don't have to run a marathon to be a good runner, or a good athlete, or a good person. Because the bottom line is - I don't have to do anything I don't want to.

That person looking back out of the mirror with judgement in his eyes - it's only me.

Maybe my inner drive has lost a gear. Maybe life has started to chip away some of that mental toughness I used to carry around like a shield. Maybe a full-time job and night classes are just too much for me and my training schedule. Maybe I am one big fat wimp and don't deserve to breathe the same air as you. Maybe God in his divine wisdom has declared that my running threshhold is two hours. Maybe I am just full of excuses because I just don't have that magic anymore.

Or maybe it just wasn't my day.

Maybe. maybe. maybe.

Maybe I should give up on this particular goal. I mean, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Two years of serious solid running and two times my body has given out well before my mind or energy level. Why?

No, I won't give up. But I won't bother trying again until I have time to run 50-60 miles a week (the level I was at in 1995). It's too damn frustrating. I remain cavalier, but it hurts. Somehow, I feel cheated. I feel like fate has conspired to keep me down. And no one can cheat fate. Or so the saying goes.

What can I do to redeem myself in my own eyes? Frankly, breaking 3 hours is the only thing that will do it. But I will put that goal on the backburner for now. And I remain a finisher, in spite of myself.

Instead, I'll hone my existing skills at short-course racing. Maybe I can get under 17 in the 5k this season. Maybe I can pull a 34 and change in a 10k. Maybe I'll blow the doors off a few people in a big triathlon. Maybe I'll have a run where I feel good, run like the wind, and smile when I cross the finish line.

Maybe. maybe. Just maybe.

Marty Gaal - Feb 19 2002