Going short

I ran a horrible half marathon this morning on Long Island. So horrible that I’m not going to write an official race report, although I’ll give a summary in a bit. But I’m glad I ran this race because I had something resembling an epiphany during the final 4.1 miles of Gallowalking. That epiphany was that I think it’s time I gave up on the marathon. It might seem strange that this thought came to mind while struggling through a race that’s half that distance, but maybe with some explanation it will make sense.

The race started out extremely well. I’d gone in with low expectations, figuring I would just run a comfortable pace for the first few miles and see what I got. I figured I’d be running 7:25s or so. I had a great warmup, a mile around a little lake and then two 90 second segments at faster pace. For those I’d been shooting for around 7:30 but found myself easily running 6:50-7:00.

The race started and I was running at 7:08 pace and feeling like I was doing a general aerobic run. Mile 2 was 7:12 and I still felt good. Then for mile 3 we turned into a slight wind and my pace dropped to 7:17. Mile 4 featured more wind and I slowed to 7:40. The wind was becoming a problem fast, but I kept working. I came through the 10K point in the 46:40 range but was aware that I was starting to work way too hard while at the same time people were starting to pass me. The effort wasn’t sustainable. The wind was particularly bad along Jericho Turnpike, a full on headwind. My pace kept dropping and dropping and I felt more and more exhausted.

Just before the mile 9 mark we had to ascend a short, slight hill. At the top of that it was like someone turned a switch off. I bonked and suddenly felt like you do when you have the flu. I had no energy left. I pulled over and started walking a bit. My average pace at that point was in the 8:30 range.

We would turn out of the wind after that but my race was over. I accepted it pretty easily. The hard part was realizing that I still had so far to go. I alternated strolling and running, mostly running at a recovery pace, waiting to hit the entrance to Eisenhower Park, where I knew it would be just a little over a mile until the finish. I ripped off my D-tags  shortly after my meltdown, but Long Island seems to have no trash cans anywhere, so I had to carry them for miles. I finally realized that I could just toss them among the cups at a water stop, and I did so at the 12 mile mark. I think the wind must have blown them, or perhaps a little bird picked them up, because my sister tracked me as far as the 99.17% point (that would be, what, about 200m from the finish?) before I disappeared.

That was a longer summary than I’d wanted to write, but I can’t help myself. It took a long time to jog-walk 4.1 miles. I had a lot of time to think. First I thought about why I might be racing this badly. I have a couple of theories.

For one, this past week was one of the most stressful in recent memory, as a member of my immediate family nearly died on Monday morning and remains in a Manhattan ICU with several aspects of her physical and cognitive prognoses still unknown. I didn’t eat or sleep properly for much of the week. I barely ran. I spent a lot of time worrying, absorbing, doing and crying. I stood at the start this morning already feeling tired.

I may have gone out too fast, but that’s not a problem I’ve ever had, so I doubt it. If  only I’d been racing a 5K today — I probably could have gotten a PR. I think the cumulative exhaustion + windy run is what did me in. I’ve had a few very good races lately, so I’m not reading too much into this one.

Next, I realized that the last time I’d felt this way was in December 2009 in the California International Marathon. In that race, I bonked at mile 15, managed to make it another 3 miles on one engine and then Gallowalked around 8 miles. That was painful. Bad races are always a drag, but a bad marathon is a huge drag. I know people who ran bad races in Boston this year, a year that featured weather so favorable that a man ran a 2:03:02. These are people who prepared and know how to race and felt fine and had a 20-30mph tailwind. And still they had a shitty race. While I’ve realized in the past that you can’t control everything when it comes to the marathon, what I’ve observed recently is that you can do everything right and be handed excellent conditions and still fail for not apparent reason.

The marathon is starting to feel like a sucker’s game, the Three-Card Monte of racing. You prepare for four to six months, turn up, hope to get decent weather, and start running. You have no idea what will happen. In six tries I’ve run what I consider to be a good marathon exactly once. The other five ranged from okay to disastrous. Most of them were disastrous. I’m sick of spinning the roulette wheel year after year, because it’s preventing me from actually enjoying the experience of running my “goal” races. And if I’m not enjoying any aspect of the races I’m training for, then why on earth am I training for and running them? That was the epiphany.

I said to my sister yesterday that at this point I’m feeling grateful to be able to train and race free of injury. I truly am. Today I realized that I’ve had a few good races so far this year, the best being the Scotland 10K a few weeks back. The others were a 5K and a 4 miler. I hate the 10K distance. But perhaps that’s only because I don’t train for it.

What would happen if I trained for the 10K distance and focused on that for awhile? It could be very useful, the way I see it. Joining a team has been a good experience, and I am motivated to run as many team points races as possible. Of the 12 points races in the NYRR series, eight of them are between 5K and 10K. There are other opportunities opening up to score outside of the NYRR milieu. There’s also the Icahn track series, in which I can race anything from the 1500 to 3200. There are some great shorter XC races, like the Van Cortlandt summer series. And boatloads of shorter road races here in Westchester and in Rockland and Connecticut.

Since late 2008 I have wanted to run an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier. That’s not going to happen. Aside from the numerous setbacks I’ve had over the past few years, there’s the matter of stark reality to grapple with. Namely, there are masters women younger and more talented than I who are nonetheless struggling mightily to achieve this dream. If they can’t get there, then I certainly can’t. I could keep trying, but time’s rapidly running out for 2012. I’m 46 years old. I think I need to recalibrate my expectations of what I can reasonably achieve.

Since 2007 I’ve been in relentless pursuit of the marathon. I’ve enjoyed the half marathon too, and I’d still like to run those, today’s performance notwithstanding. But I’ve never seriously focused on anything shorter.

Who knows? Maybe I’d be good at it.

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