The kiteboarders are literally flying off the coast of Narragansett, RI. Seeing them work the waves makes me, a windsurfer as a kid, slightly envious. It also serves as a warning sign; a high wind is punishing the coast line. Then I have breakfast and something doesn’t feel right. My stomach is not going to like this marathon plan, I can tell.
Enough with the excuses. I ran the well-organized Gansett Marathon, which on a sunny, pleasant, windless day could probably be called a scenic course. It did not go as planned.
Fewer than 200 runners start at 8 a.m. Every single person in sight is in excellent shape; qualifying is the only way to get in, the standards are tougher than Boston. In the first miles I make my first mistake: I stay with the fast guys. Allowing myself to go out to hard on this course – a recipe for gradual runner’s suicide. I ignore the beeping warning signal in my mind and cruise along down the deserted roads. Up, up, up.
Somehow I thought this would be flat and fast, since we’re running along the ocean. But driving the course with Eddie the night before, I noticed with alarm the endless rolling hills, many of them long and steep. Not a flat stretch in sight.
I feel good and strong, running alone most of the time. No runner seems in the mood to draft. Fine, I’ll do it alone. The streets are deserted under a bleak, overcast sky. Then a straight 1-mile uphill stretch with a severe headwind around mile 11 serves as a blow to my jaw. I lose my running and breathing rhythm, not to mention my pace. The courage instrumental to a good marathon is slipping away.
My stomach feels locked. The Hammer gels will barely go down. Sips of water feel heavy, unwelcome. After seeing Eddie and drinking some unfizzed coke I struggle through the final 10 miles, feeling light-headed, soaking wet and freezing in the chilly wind, stopping twice when I feel sure the gels, water, muffins, bananas, coffee all need to come right on out in one great messy wave, ending my misery.
Memories from my first marathon in New Jersey (Ocean Drive, 2007) come flooding back. It was cold and windy, too. I fell apart. The pain I felt then stunned and overwhelmed me, resulting in a 3:56; Eddie gives me endless grief for this unpromising start as a marathoner.
Today I still pull out a decent last mile and a 3:03, 11 seconds from my PR. Yet I feel utterly disappointed. After months of committed winter training I get a complete collapse and a f#@&ing 3:03?
The rest of Saturday I spend replenishing and wondering once again what matters more: one’s finishing time, or the way a race feels? The stark numbers, without context, point to success under tough circumstances. In fact, my training and experience brought me within reaching distance of my PR. Maybe it’s just that blowing up between miles 20 and 25 feels so dramatic and complete. A sense of shock –what the hell just happened?– may be inevitable.
My friend and runner extraordinaire Cécile sends me two insights after the marathon. What a great day it is when ‘an amazing 3:03’ can be considered an off-day, she says. That makes me think. A year ago I wasn’t even dreaming of a time like that.
Try to treat yourself with a little bit of kindness, Cécile implores me. That may the hard part for athletes who demand much of themselves, not always realistically so. It is hard to do, when expectations of yourself –based on empirical evidence and hard work and dedication– are shattered. When a sense of identity stems, in part, from running well, it naturally messes with your sense of identity when you don’t run well at all.
I will try to be kind to myself. And even to Eddie, as I plan to help him up and over the Newton Hills in Boston on Monday. Without him, I would probably have stepped out in Narragansett. Yelling, talking and encouraging me, he prevented a DNF, proving once more that running for me is actually done in context, not in the isolation of the self-critical mind.