Monday, February 15, 2016

The Beast That Is The Marathon

Did you happen to catch the US Olympic Marathon Trials on Saturday? Watching people achieve their goal of making the Olympic team -- or even just making the trials itself -- is really inspiring.

No doubt, the conditions in Los Angeles were brutal, even to runners who have a wealth of experience. If you watched the women's race, you saw first hand what a physical meltdown looked like as Shalane Flanagan was running on fumes and instincts over the final few miles. If it weren't for the unwavering support of her friend and training partner, Amy Cragg, Flanagan more than likely doesn't finish third and make the team, and it's probably a safe bet she may not have even finished the race.

Flanagan said after the race she was dehydrated and "delirious", and you could see in post-race interviews she wasn't all the way there. And after reading lots of posts and on-the-ground accounts, she wasn't the only one. There was a lot of suffering going on out there.

That was pretty evident at one point near the end when Cragg and Flanagan passed one of the men's competitors (the race was run on a multiple-loop course) and he was jogging at what looked like an 8-9 minute pace. It led me to tweet this:

And keep in mind, the marathon trials are full of experienced, successful runners. Both fields were made up of former Olympians, as well as people who have represented the United States in international competitions, and others who have been state champions in high school or All-Americans in college.

All of them did their best to sim potential hot conditions, but you can sim training runs all you want, but race day is always different. The pressure (or in our case, anxiety) of a race changes things, and our bodies just react differently from day to day.

It just goes to show that the marathon is an absolute beast for everyone in the field, from front to back. I know elite runners usually look pretty good when they finish the race, but as a member of the media for two Chicago Marathons, I've seen elites 45 minutes to an hour after the race, and they look just as beaten down as the rest of us!

The physical, mental and emotional toll of a marathon is what makes the race unique, and so sets it apart from the other distances. It's what I really like about the race, and why I think that I may take a break between marathons, like the three years it will be when I run one this fall, but I plan on running them for as long as I can. You never really "master" the marathon, you are more subjected to its whims, which, again, is why I love the distance so much.

But if you run the marathon enough, you have a day like many of the guys and gals did on Saturday. I've run eight marathons, and I had a day like that: the 2008 Chicago Marathon.

I will admit right now that I had no business running the race. I was going through a ton of personal issues over the summer, and can't even remember my longest long run.

My summer began with my then-wife telling me she didn't know if she wanted to be married to me, and after three agonizing months, I told her at the end of September that we just couldn't do this any more.

I really have very little recollection of that summer, and I know that my training suffered immensely. I tried to train, but some days I just couldn't do it. 

So about three weeks after I made that decision, I tried to toe the line at the marathon. I already had one strike against me for not training hard, and strike two came when the weather was ridiculously hot for the second year in a row. I had made it through the 2007 Chicago Marathon, when it topped out at 88 degrees and the race was cancelled, but I managed the heat well and made it home in 4:28.

In 2008, the mercury topped out at 86, but my experience was so much different. As you can see from my 2008 splits (listed above) and my 2007 splits (listed to the left), it was a death march for the last half of the race. My 2007 race was about as perfect as it could be, my half splits were 2:14:13/2:14:15, but the next year I was doing great up to 13.1 miles, but the wheels fell off after that.

As you can see, it took me three hours, 21 minutes to run the second half of that race, and I hated every step. I was hot, tired, pissed...pretty much every emotion you could have, not to mention the baggage I carried to the start line. And to add insult to injury, just after Chinatown and Mile 21, I put my hand up against a utility pole to stretch out a painful calf, and drove a 2-inch splinter into my hand!

I went to the next medical tent and while I was waiting for help (other peeps had far more pressing issues than my splinter), I saw a cooling bus waiting to take people who dropped out of the race. I was so tempted to get on that bus, and the 2016 Mike probably would have, but the 2008 Mike was waaayyy too stubborn to make a smart decision.

So I pressed on, and finished, but the experience pretty much made me hate running for the better part of the next 2-3 years. I'm so thankful for my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Darcy, for providing me with the encouragement to get back going and to love my running again, and to want to do another marathon.

Because here's the deal: once you get 26.2 into your blood, it's hard to turn your back on the temptress. After 2008 I really didn't feel like running another marathon, but to run a great race, to get it right, like I did the year before, is my challenge.

And while I can't wait to try again in the fall -- maybe even twice (!) -- I'll always know that an off day is potentially out there. It's the nature of the beast of the marathon. But I can guarantee one thing, that just like me, the people that had a bad day at the Olympic Trials are going to try again.

It's a little scary to jump back into a marathon after a bad result, but past results don't guarantee future performance. I know deep down I am never going to slay the Beast that is a marathon, but I'm going to continue to try.

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