One supposedly helpful phrase from a trainer haunted me through much of my marathon training: “After 10 miles you should feel as if you have put in very little effort”, which is to say, ‘if you’re hoping to do 26.2 miles without it killing you, you should still be feeling pretty good after 10, otherwise…yeesh…you don’t wanna know’.
Well, I’m far from the rotund, wheezing ball of fat I once felt like, but it feels like there is no amount of fitness that’s going to make my legs feel like running is a sensible option. However, with the adrenaline-for-blood transfusion I had at the marathon start line, and having to slow myself down for the first hour and a quarter, I had my hopes of at least having a couple of endorphins to rub together by the ten mile mark.
At the ten mile mark all I could think of was that whatever discomfort I was feeling was definitely too much, and without question a harbinger of pain and failure to come. Motivationally speaking, the trouble was that I hadn’t been comfortable defining an absolute goal. I wanted to, but all the advice was not to, or to have a Goal A, but with a backup Goal B, followed by Goal C…which just leaves “Thank you God I am still alive”.
As the half-marathon point came and went my confidence drained along with it. My playlist had been on ‘Favourites’ for the last hour or so but I was beginning to think I might have to go with my very up-tempo, aggressive, really annoying if you have to listen to it for more than an hour ‘Workout’ playlist…for the last two hours.
It was shortly after this point that my friend Esther breezily caught up to me. Turned out her running buddy had wanted to go slow for the previous 10 miles and had gotten slower still, although they had never fallen further than 50 metres behind me. When he insistent she go ahead, she caught me up. The best part of the next hour and a half – miles 13 to 22, was spent catching up with Esther who I’d last seen with her husband Greg on a mission trip 22 years previously. He and I had bonded over binge-eating cherries direct from trees on a Japanese farm and rooting for Jordan vs Barkely in the 1993 NBA Finals.
Now his wife, a 3:30 marathoner, was offering to pace me the rest of the way as she completed her ‘Dopey Challenge’. I gladly, if sheepishly, took her up on the offer. The whole rest of the way she looked relaxed and easy, frequently taking off for photos with some of the innumerable Disney characters that lined the route.
Miles 16-22 were my personal nadir. And that’s a long time for a nadir. Even as I maintained an extremely consistent pace, I really wasn’t convinced that I could keep it up for the whole distance. At 16 miles, feeling sore and tired the idea I could maintain a 9:08 pace didn’t seem plausible, although I still felt determined. By 18 miles, I was no longer sure that I could be bothered. What was I thinking anyway, shooting for 4 hours? 4 hours is such an arbitrary number, and the accomplishment wouldn’t be meaningfully diminished by doing a 4:05 or 4:10. What’s the point in making myself miserable and in pain by pushing for something I might not be able to do anyway? And think of the crushing disappointment of really going for it and then failing? How much better, surely, to accept I can’t do it, cruise in (ha!) in 4:10 and be grateful, pat myself on the back and call it a job well done. Then regroup, book a second marathon and go for sub-4 hours on that one.
Except I couldn’t do that, couldn’t wave goodbye to Plan A. Not quite.
Fighting the above voices and persuading me to carry on trying for 3:59:59 were the following counter arguments:
- I had a far better runner than me actively trying to get me there at my goal time.
- Would I ever have that again? Probably not.
- My body is somewhat prone to injury, especially my hamstrings, and yet whilst sore, even at this late state of the race I didn’t feel like my body was breaking down.
- Would I ever again make it to this stage of a marathon without carrying an injury? Maybe not.
- If you’d offered me at the start of the race to be at the 18-mile mark precisely on goal pace, I’d have taken it every time.
So Esther kept pulling and I kept pushing…and praying. Not that I thought God was especially invested in my breaking 4 hours, but I was asking that my hamstrings held out and that I would be able to do as well as I possibly could…whatever that was.