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.

24 Responses

  1. I don’t know what you have in you and I can understand your struggles and maybe your decision makes sense–I’m sure you would know much better than myself or anyone who posts on this blog. But, I would just say, I don’t think the week when you haven’t slept and have a family member in critical condition is a good week to make any major life decisions, with running or anything else. That’s kind of a basic psych 101 idea. But I wish you well in whatever distance you pursue, and just also hope you remember that all of us–at all paces (mine way slower than yours)–have good and bad races. Still I think you should allow yourself to focus on the other more important aspects of your life (i.e., family) for the moment.

    • I’ve already adopted five kids from Mali. Next week I’ll work on more important decisions, like whether or not to keep running marathons.

  2. You’re so smart and self-aware. 🙂 You don’t have to decide anything forever, just for now.

    If it helps to know, my 7 miles this beautiful, wind-free morning was like the Bataan death march. It has been a really, really difficult week.

  3. Awhile ago I wrote a post about how I find it interesting that people latch onto the marathon (and Boston in particular) and I think the fact that there is a number attached is a huge part of it. I know a lot of people that started running marathons with hopes of getting a OT qualifier and few of them have gotten there. Very few. I also mentioned that I spent a long time racewalking and a long time failing with those races because my head was never in it. Like your marathon experiences, I think I had one good 20k in numerous tries. It wasn’t until I actually stopped doing it that I realized I had no desire to racewalk.

    Anyhow, point being: running is so highly mental to begin with and running long distances gives you more time to think. Go short for awhile. It can’t hurt. Particularly if you haven’t focused on it. The marathon will be there, and I know people who have PR’d in it into their 50s.

    • I searched your site for that post, but couldn’t find it. How about a link?

      The crazy part of all of this is that I have actually enjoyed marathon training immensely. I miss my 20 milers. But I could never translate all that work into good races.

  4. I had a similar epiphany while walking in Boston a few weeks ago. Walking, wearing a race number. Screw it, I’m totally done with this distance. I genuinely like the mile, 5k, 5m and 10k. Screw to holy hell everything longer. I’d rather race.

  5. Sorry it was a suckfest out there for whatever the reason (you good on iron these days?). Of course, I back your idea 100% on changing focus. Like Angryrunner says, the marathon ain’t going nowhere, it’ll always be waiting for you if you choose.

    Keeping the joy of running is the main thing, in whatever capacity that is. I know there’s a lot of fun and great racing ahead for you still. Peace, girl.

    • While I can’t diagnose why I’ve been such a Charlie Brown in the marathon, I can look back on some bad half marathons and tie those performances to some kind of stress: travel, emotional, physical — usually all of the above.

      I’ll be traveling just before my next half in three weeks, so I don’t expect that to be a great race either. But I know enough now to not run 7:10s out of the gate this time around.

      Since I know you have also shelved the marathon for the foreseeable future, your sentiments hold particular sway for me.

  6. Good idea. Especially if you like racing. Your mile wasn’t too bad (on non-specialist training) — you might be good at the mile. Or the 400, or the steeple, or mountain running. Who knows? Always worth trying and experiencing different events.

    • I was watching a recording of the Penn relays and said, while watching the 400m relay, “If I tried to run that fast I would tear and/or shatter something.” The steeple terrifies me. As for mountain running, I think I have enough things to try with track, road and XC. But I get your drift.

  7. “The hard part was realizing that I still had so far to go.” That’s a bad feeling, reminds me of a couple weeks ago up in Boston. I think you’re smart to walk away from the marathon if it’s no longer a positive experience for you. But, be open to the idea of coming back to it someday. Maybe all you need is an extended break from the distance.

    • Yes, that realization mid-race is always awful. What’s funny is that I’ve thought I’ve been on an extended break from the marathon, yet it’s been enforced by injury rather than having been made as a conscious choice. So I’ve still been chasing after it all this time. I feel relieved to have decided to take an indefinite break from it.

  8. I think that a lot of adult-onset runners, especially women, in particular those of a highly analytical and cerebral character (not to narrow down the group of interest here *too* much) feel very drawn to the marathon once their competitive side is unleashed because it seems to offer the best chance of far-flung success. Most runners with a lick of sense quickly figure out that qualifying for the Olympic Trials on the track requires a great deal more talent than doing the same in the marathon, and so the natural thinking goes, “Maybe I can qualify for the Trials on sheer work and a little talent.” The thing is, not only does running 2:46 require more than a fair amount of genetic endowment (not as much as a <15:50 5K, but still plenty), it requires durability and a certain amount of luck. You don't get as many chances at a marathon, the training is inherently more hazardous in terms of both injury risk and fucking up a balance that's more delicate than it looks, and it can turn your mind to mush. This is all what makes a great run over 26.2 rewarding, but when the quest subtly takes on more of a Panglossian flavor than a genuinely noble one, it may be time to say fuck it, or at least treat the marathon as something you can opt for without being "marathon trained." I obviously am in pretty close touch with your comings and goings in this event in recent years and don't have an answer as to why it's treated you like such shit. You're no wimp, you haven't gone into the marathons either palpably tired or demonstrably underprepared, etc. There may just be some ineluctable physical element that defies the general picture of someone who's focused, able to tolerate heavy mileage, and manifestly ready to roll.

    One of my club-mates who's now your age was once known for running 100 miles a week, week in and week out, for years on end. He ran a 3:59 mile, a 29+ 10K and a 1:03+ half. He also went to multiple World Mountain Running Championships, so lest the rest of his resume leave doubt for some reason, he's not a pussy. But he only gave the marathon a couple of tries and fucking hated it. May have run 2:30 at Vermont City but I'm not sure if he even ran that well. It just wasn't his thing. It happens, and although you can drive yourself batty trying to figure out *why* you keep running aground in the long events, I like your idea of taking solace in the fact that there are plenty of other races to run (including mountain races — you might like those as a masochism surrogate) and distances to conquer.

    • You hit so many nails squarely on the head with this comment that I will not bother to enumerate them.

      My thinking at this point is to train for shorter distances, but add in enough “long” training that I can handle a half marathon (maybe I’ll make Grete’s Gallop my fall goal) without undue suffering. Scoring against 40+ women on my own and other teams is still a challenge, it being NYC. As far as my team’s internal ranking scoring goes, I get points just for crossing the finish line, even if I’m on my hands and knees — so that’s a bonus.

      The masochism is pretty well covered in the 1500-to-5000 distance, and I expect to continue to feel it in racing 10Ks. Oddly, I find 4-5 milers nearly ideal.

  9. I get kemibe’s drift.

    On tearing something apart in a 400, don’t jump in and race one without having done some sprint training (which needs working up to). On the steeple, the women’s steeples are lower and you don’t have to hurdle them – you can step on them. If you want to try hurdling, practise with hurdles set at the same height (they’ll fall over, steeples won’t).

    • I might try a 400 eventually for shits and giggles, although I think the shortest I’d go this year would be the 800.

      I can’t think of one local open steeple race ever, so I don’t think there’s much call for masters hobbyjoggers there. I can also be clumsy, so the steeple might be tempting fate.

      I am so lucky to have so many racing opportunities in this area. I’m looking forward to returning to the track at some point soon.

  10. Julie, all I know is that I was so whacked from stress last fall that I couldn’t even TRAIN, forget race.

    You don’t have to say “Never again!” You can just switch focus, and achieve at other distances.

    No matter what, I am sorry that you had such a painful experience on Long Island. As if it wasn’t already bad enough that you were out there, you had to have a shitty race, too?? Talk about insult to injury. (At least you didn’t bonk in New Jersey, or Florida.)

    I still think you’re great–you are one of the most thoughtful runners I know, on top of all your other great qualities.

    • Hey, is that some kind of slap at Long Island? Maybe I’m misinterpreting.

      Thanks for saying all those nice things. You’d think I’d have recently given you a big present or something. 😉

  11. Sorry it was such a bad race. I was one of the Boston blowouts during the “best racing weather ever” and I am still coming to grips with the why mes and the what went wrongs.

    Your indication of relief with your decision to focus on new distances is a great indicator that this is the right decision for you. I look forward to your many adventures in short(er) distance racing.

    • And I am sorry that Boston was not a good race for you. Thanks for the comment. As a result, I have discovered your blog, which I somehow managed to miss previously.

  12. Some wise commenters here. I usually give up marathoning at about mile 22, but it never seems to stick. One small quibble: It aint Gallowalking if you only start doing it late in the race.

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