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Racing against the cutoffs

What if I couldn’t run anymore?

God, I don’t know what I’d do.

A little over five and a half years ago, I felt the itch to go run during an otherwise lazy day watching the waves on Cape Cod.

Those first couple miles hurt like hell, as I recall. And when I got done, I wanted more.

More time, more miles, more of that feeling you only get when you’re out on the ragged edge — that gray and scary area between what you thought were your limits and the discovery beyond.

Back then, two miles was the outer edge of what I thought I was capable of doing. Now, anything less than four or five miles feels like a waste of time. Like, why bother lacing up the running shoes for something so short?

But a few seemingly unrelated incidents this week conspired to remind me that every mile matters. That every second you spend pursuing the passion that in so many ways defines your life is meaningful in the moment.

Dancing with a DNF

Heading into the week, I was feeling cocky after coming off the heels of yet another in a string of personal bests — in this case another sub-6:00 50K that crushed my previous best. The Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon (previously known as the National Marathon) was to be just another training run. The plan was to go easy, running just hard enough to bring my friend Sara in to her first sub-4:00 marathon.

But then the freaky aches and pains started.

It started with my right I.T. band, the same one I’d injured last winter. It felt tight, sore and achy. Then the pain shifted to my hamstring in the same leg, first lower and around the knee, then higher and in the mid-thigh area, then back to the knee for another round.

Oh God. What if I’d injured myself on that last 20-mile training run when we spent the morning horsing around and blowing off a serious case of spring fever?

Had I pushed the mileage too high too quickly as I continue my transition to more minimalist trail and road shoes?

Was I bound for another round of physical therapy in Farouk’s House of Pain?

I backed off the mileage for a few days and let my body rest up after what had been a few weeks of hard-effort miles, but still didn’t feel quite whole going into the race.

I wasn’t going to cop out on Sara, though.

So with around 20,000 other half-marathoners and marathoners, I toed the line for my first road marathon since October 2010 and found myself enjoying the rare opportunity to run alongside such a massive crowd of endurance athletes, around 20,000 in all.

As we made our way to the starting line 10 minutes after the lead pack had begun their 26.2-mile journey — the field was that big — we set out at a fast clip and made quick work of the first eight or nine miles. And then the unseasonably warm temperatures and humidity settled in like a hot, wet blanket over the asphalt of DC.

Within minutes, Sara and I were both sweating buckets and our stomachs were doing back-flips. When Sara started backing off the pace at mile 10 and told me to go ahead, that she wasn’t going to get her sub-4 marathon that day, I totally got it. I was fighting off a wrenching intestinal cramp even as she was telling me to go on ahead, to not wait on her.

The last mile of a race is always the best, and most painful.

As I approached the 13.1-mile mark, where the half-marathoners would turn toward their finish line and the marathoners would continue the second half of their race, I seriously considered dropping.

I felt like crap.

It was only a training run.

I had a 50K coming up the next weekend.

My knee and I.T. band had been bothering me all week.

I felt like crap.

Sure, I could just stop and log my first DNF. No big deal.

I was at peace with it, all Zen and shit.

But as the half-marathoners made their turn to finish, I thought “fuck it, keep going.”

So I did.

And somewhere during mile 13, I found a porta-john and made a quick pit stop. And afterward, I felt a million times better. My stomach settled and I was ready to run.

So I thought, what the hell, let’s go for that sub-4 anyway. I’d have to make up some time to account for the pit stop, but it seemed doable.

And over the next 12 miles, I made it happen. Heat, shaky stomach, sore legs … whatever.

Despite the pit stop, I ran negative splits between the first and second half of the race, thanks in large part to a few fast miles at the end of the race.

What wall?

I was running a 7:20 pace during the last mile, and crossed the finish at 3:58:39.

Remembering the last mile

I felt cooked in the hours immediately following the race and could think of nothing but inhaling some much-needed food and crawling into bed for a nap and, later, an early bedtime.

But on Sunday morning, I felt great. My hamstrings were tight, but I had little soreness to speak of. The nagging pains that had been bothering me in the days leading up to the race were nowhere to be found, in fact.

And to be honest, I hadn’t been giving that much thought until I checked the (not electronic) mail after work on Monday evening.

In the mail was a card from my friend Phil, who I got to know during the Shenandoah Trifecta last summer. Phil is a hell of a runner who was training for his first 100 miler at the time — the legendary and scary-tough Leadville 100 in Colorado — and who had run the Comrades Marathon in South Africa not long before those glorious days of running in the Shenandoah mountains.

It was Phil’s praise of the Comrades experience that led me to enter that race as my goal event of the spring/summer season and his tips in the months since I registered have been a huge help all along.

But for all that advice, it was the simple “Good Luck” card that he sent that meant the world to me. It came at a time when, amid a hectic few weeks on both the work and home fronts, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the planning required for Comrades.

And it was all the more meaningful when I read his new blog entry that he posted later in the evening, the one in which he shared what it’s like to be forced to walk away from a guiding passion in your life.

See, Phil has a hip injury that pretty much means he’s done running. Forever.

I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Or I don’t want to, maybe. But his post eloquently captures what that means, how it feels.

A few nights ago, lying in bed, it occurred to me how strange a feeling it was trying to recall the last mile I had run.  And why would I want to remember the experience?  Is it because if I never forget that last mile and am able to memorize it in excruciating detail, I will always be able to, in some sense, hold onto running?

It’s a situation beyond his control, but it serves to remind me that even the basics matter.

Train smartly. Recover well.

Push yourself, but be kind to your body.

And remember that every mile matters, that every moment spent pursuing your passion is meaningful.

He can’t run anymore, but I can. And I’m going to.

And I’ll raise that glass of Scotch at Rivets, Phil.

One Comment

  1. Philip Turk wrote:

    Gosh, what a beautifully written post, Rob. What a pleasant surprise that made my day! I got a smile on my face right now as I write this. THANK YOU!

    Most importantly, congratulations on your marathon finish. Negative splits in that heat?! Outstanding!

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink