Last Sunday was the Baystate Marathon in Lowell. It was, I suppose, my goal race for the 2010 season.
I ran a respectable 2:49:56, my 2nd fastest ever, but I did it the hard way--going through half way on pace for a 2:47:30. As the splits (1:23:45 / 1:26:11) would indicate, it was a very tough second half. In hindsight it's easy to say that if all I was going to do is run 2:49 again, there are easier ways to do it, but all indications were that 2:47-mid was realistic and so it was worth a shot, no regrets.
Marathons are just really, really hard if you race them. There's no way around it. There is a process of eliminating possibilities that goes on where at the start you're just trying to give yourself as good a chance as possible for a great day--you can't accomplish anything in the first half but you can throw a lot of goals away if you're not careful. As you get deeper and deeper into the race, the universe of possible outcomes gets smaller and smaller and the runner's job is to continue to pursue the best possible outcome on the day. Faster is always better. It's a damn hard job.
I was racing my friend Andrew and we started together. We ran shoulder to shoulder for the first half and then, just past the halfway mark, he took off up the road. I was already starting to feel the effects of the slightly too fast first half--my right hamstring was beginning to tighten badly, and I knew that if I went with Andrew there would be a huge blow up on the horizon. I had a feeling Andrew was committing race suicide himself at that point, but you never know. Maybe he was having a breakthrough day. All I knew is I had to run my race. He opened up about an 80 meter gap on me by about the 17 mile marker but by the time we reached the Tyngsboro Bridge for the 2nd time (around 18 miles) the gap was not increasing and it may have been shrinking. I reeled Andrew in over the next 3 miles or so and eventually passed him between 20 and 21--it's a bit hazy exactly where.
Andrew and I exchanged some encouraging words and then I moved by and within a couple of minutes I didn't hear his footsteps anymore and the reality of what was ahead of me started to sink in. The race with Andrew was basically over, the goal of 2:47 was out the window, a PR was starting to look really unlikely, so what was left to fight for? The best possible outcome. It's vague and trite, but when you're suffering that bad it's all there is. Maybe I could still get in under 2:50 for only the 2nd time in my life. Maybe not. All I knew was I had enough invested to that point that I was going to leave no doubt. The lowest finish time, the lowest place, the best result I could get, whatever that was--nothing left to think about, go until they wrap you in mylar, I told myself.
The last 3 or 4 miles of the race were some of the most difficult of my racing life and I don't have the energy to recount the details. My pace was slipping, my hamstring was becoming a real problem and there was the nagging feeling that it could all go bad in a second and I might not finish the race. Baystate has a 1 mile to go mark and at that point I looked at my watch and realized I needed to run a 7 minute mile to break 2:50 and I wasn't sure I could do it. But it was worth trying.
When I finally reached the entrance to the stadium and the 26 mile marker I felt like, because I was still actually running, I would at least get the sub 2:50. My friend Jeff was there on the outfield grass in his mylar sheet having just wrapped up a 2:35 PR and gave me some encouragement as I began my kick, such as it was, around the warning track. A figure in a red Whirlaway singlet and black hat came into view and I thought it looked like my friend Dan who had gone for sub 2:30, but how could that be? It was--the marathon is a bitch.
I finished. I never gave in, so there's that. It wasn't a PR, or really anything, but another marathon and yet I was mostly satisfied.
Later, after putting on layers of dry clothes, chatting with other marathoners, eating some of the post-race grub and meeting up with my wife and girls for some well needed hugs, I shuffled over to Beerworks and met friends for a few beers and grub on the patio. My friend and training partner, Mark, was the only one there before me. We swore off marathons together, again.
It was a good season. From August 1st on, I ran a 17:08 5k (fastest in 6 years), a 1:19 half marathon (fastest in 6 years and 2nd fastest ever) and my second sub-2:50 marathon. And yet, I'm ambivalent. I guess that's how this works--we're never truly satisfied. But it was a good day, mostly. A good, hard day.