At 9:05 AM on Sunday, May 19th, 2019, I passed the 20 mile mark. I had been running for exactly 3 hours. I was running a 9 minute mile.
I said to myself, “Right where I want to be.”
I started the Colfax Marathon three hours earlier. This was my first marathon. My goal was to finish in less than 4 hours.
The remaining distance was the equivalent of a 10k race. I had one hour to complete the race and hit my goal.
In November 2018, a neighbor asked if I'd considered running a marathon.
She was thinking about training for Colfax and wanted to know if I'd train with her.
I've run half marathons, Spartan Races, and Tough Mudders. I've always thought a marathon would be a nice addition to my list of race finishes. According to the internet, only 0.5% of the American population has run a marathon. I thought about it for two months before I signed up. I knew the training would be a commitment, but I finally bought a training plan and completed the first two weeks of training before I finally paid my entry fee.
Once I signed up, I promised myself I would follow the training plan as closely as possible.
Training for the marathon became the sole focus on my fitness routine. I didn't like reducing my time in the gym lifting weights, but I didn't have the time or energy to run and lift.
At first, the distances were easy. I was running four days per week. Shorter runs during the week and then a longer run on Saturday.
As the weeks went by, the distances got longer.
My Saturday distance eventually hit double digits. Then, I hit 13 miles. A half marathon. Then, more than a half marathon. Every week.
When you start a marathon training plan, you look at the planned distances, and you see the weekends that say 14 miles, 16 miles, 18 miles, and finally 20 miles. You wonder, "Am I going to be able to do that?"
These Saturdays arrive, you finish your run, and you think, "I'm running more than a half marathon just for training."
If you didn't already think of yourself as a "runner," you do now.
Your friends tell you about doing a 5k or 10k and you think, "I run more than that during my weekday trainings." You start to get a little snobby about your running.
The longest run, the 20 miler, was a date on the calendar I was dreading. At the same time, I felt like it would be the measure of whether I was ready for the marathon, and whether I had a chance of hitting my goal of a sub-four hour time.
It was long. I forced myself to run on a course with more elevation than the actual racecourse. I planned out my hydration and nutrition. I woke up at the same time I would have to wake up for the marathon. I tried to make the 20-mile run conditions as close to the actual race as possible.
I knew if I could keep an average pace of 9 minutes per mile, I would be able to make my goal, even if I slowed down in the last 6.2 miles.
I finished my 20-mile run in 3 hours, exactly.
“Right where I want to be.”
After you finish the longest run on the training plan, you go into your taper. This is where the distances get progressively shorter in the three weeks leading up to the race. I still ran four days per week, but as the distances got shorter, I felt better and better. I felt strong and confident. As I visualized the race in my head, I thought about where I would be each hour. I had it planned out perfectly. I had followed my training plan almost exactly.
As race day approached, I focused on eating and sleeping well.
I made sure I didn't have to travel for work and that there were no other distractions. I skipped going out at night the week before the race to make sure I didn't throw off my diet.
Then race day arrived.
My neighbor and I arrived at the starting line about an hour before the race started.
We were ready to go.
When we got into our starting corrals, I felt I had done everything I could to get ready for this race.
There were no doubts in my head. Nothing like, "I should have run more," or "I shouldn't have stayed out so late," or "I hope I don't cramp up."
Everything had gone according to plan.
In my starting corral, there was a pace runner holding a sign that said, "4:00:00". He said, "If you want to get a four-hour finish time, stay with me."
I considered it.
He said, "We're going to start slow. We'll run the first mile in 9:30. We’ll walk through every water station."
That's not how I trained.
I knew I needed to start slow.
I knew I needed to hit every water station.
But I hadn't planned to start that slow.
What if I stayed with the pace runner and I ended up short of my goal?
At the last minute, I decided to run the race the way I had trained for it.
I was sticking with my plan.
And for the first 20 miles, everything went according to plan.
The race tracking texts kept me updated:
6.4 miles on 57:43. Pace 8:53. Est: 3:52:49
I thought, “Excellent, right on pace, with a little extra cushion for the end.”
10.5 miles in 1:32:34. Pace 8:46. Est 3:49:45
“Even better. Wait, should I slow down a little? Am I going too fast?”
At mile 20, there was a banner we ran under that said, "Welcome to The Wall." Runners know The Wall as the physical and mental barrier you hit around 20 miles. "Thanks for the reminder," I thought to myself.
A few seconds after I ran under the banner, I got the text from the race tracking service that said I had passed 20 miles. My pace was 9:00 per mile. I was projected to finish in 3 hours and 55ish minutes.
“Right where I want to be.”
Except I wasn't.
My pace had been slowing over the past few miles even though those miles had been on the downhill section of the course. I had been meeting or beating the pace I wanted for most of the race, but as I started into the downhill section, I started to slow down.
My legs were feeling OK, but not great. There was the slightest twinges of cramping. I could feel where the cramp might happen in my calves and my hamstrings. I had run enough races to know that if you push too hard through those early signs of cramping, your legs will seize up and you can't run at all. The only thing you can do is relax, slow down a little, and keep hydrating as much as possible.
At mile 21, my pace was slower than 9 minutes, but I had a little cushion in my time so I could still hit my goal.
At mile 22, the pace was getting slower.
At mile 23, I was pushing myself as much as I could.
At mile 24, the four-hour pace runner passed me. Easily.
Not where I wanted to be.
That was the point when I knew I wasn't going to hit my goal.
I knew I was going too slow. I could push harder, but if I did, my legs would cramp up and I'd be walking.
Over the last two miles, my goal changed.
I wanted to finish without walking or stopping.
As I got closer to the finish line, I just wanted it to be over.
I thought back on my training. Maybe I should have pushed myself harder. Maybe I should have started the race slower and stayed with the pace group. I started having doubts about my doubts: "If I had stayed with the pace group maybe I would have still hit the wall and I'd be even slower."
Running into the park where the finish line was located, I saw the people lining the road cheering on the runners.
Many were holding signs. The one I remember most was, "Run like Pheidippides, but finish stronger." Pheidippides was the name of the Greek soldier who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. After he announced the victory, he fell over and died.
Smiling at the obscure historical reference, I told myself, "Just finish strong."
I saw the finish line and tried to pick up the pace. I looked for my family in the crowd. When I found them, I was able to make a sort of waving motion with my arm to let them know I saw them.
And then it was over.
Four minutes too slow.
I knew it was going to happen but seeing the 4 in front of the race clock made it real.
As I crossed the line, I just kind of wandered through the mass of runners. Volunteers were putting medals around our necks. People were draping those foil space blankets around their shoulders. "Why?" I thought. “It's not even cold. What the hell is everyone doing." Runners crowded around the bagel tent, grabbed bananas, and pocketed every kind of post-race drink the sponsoring vendors had to offer.
I was angry about the end of the race. All I wanted to do was get out of the crowd.
I left the finishing corral and stumbled into the park. The pain in my legs was starting to set in, and I wobbled when I walked.
Finally, I found my wife and my kids. They hugged me and told me how awesome I was.
I really didn't have any thoughts going through my head except for, "What the hell happened after mile 20?" I couldn't really understand it.
My son asked, "Are you going to do another one?"
"I didn't finish in under four hours," I replied. "I guess I have to."
I didn't post anything about the race on social media. No pictures. No short update like, "Colfax Marathon - Finished." Nothing.
I haven't shared my story until now.
After the race, I felt like I needed to give myself some time to let it sink in.
I did something 99.5% of people will never do.
I ran for 26.2 miles without stopping or walking.
I finished stronger than Pheidippides.
I finished in the top third of my division and overall.
I finished faster than most people who are completing their first marathons.
Why wasn't I excited about my accomplishment?
In the days after the race, I thought about what to do next.
Was it another marathon? Was I going to continue to run? Would I go back to the gym and focus on lifting and strength training?
I wasn't sure what would be next, but I had a feeling there was something missing.
I realized I missed training.
I missed having a plan.
I missed having a daily goal.
As I thought about my training, I started to think less about the day of the marathon and more about the days of training.
I can remember specific runs.
When I ran 13 miles, I was in Phoenix visiting my parents. I ran on a straight, flat trail along a canal, and my ankles were killing me the whole time.
On the longer runs, I started at 6 AM. Everyone else was in bed, and I could have run later in the day, but I wanted the run to feel as much like the day of the marathon as possible. For a 6 AM race start, I would need to wake up around 3 AM to eat breakfast and give my stomach time to settle, to get to the race start line, and to give myself time to go to the bathroom a few times before the gun went off.
And that’s how my weekends went for a few weeks. Get up at 3 AM, start running at 6 AM.
When I ran 18 miles it was a Sunday morning in April. I was running in a state park along a road around a lake. It was 7:20 AM, and I was all alone, with giant snowflakes falling around me. As I hit the 9-mile mark, my turnaround point, I was listening to "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica, and I felt completely at peace. I remember thinking, “I don’t need to go to church today. I’ve already seen God this morning.”
When I ran 20 miles, I was on a trail running next to a highway and there were construction workers doing their jobs. They waved and smiled, and I imagined them saying to themselves, "Better you than me, pal." At the end of that run, I imagined myself crossing the finish line and raising my arms above my head in triumph.
Running 26.2 miles is difficult, but consistently running for 18 weeks is even harder.
Over 4 months, 66 running workouts, 412 miles covered in just over 60 hours.
I completed 95% of the workouts and distance.
I made time to get my running done every week between family and work commitments.
It was difficult. There were days I didn't want to run. There were days my ankles and knees hurt.
I could have taken days off. I could have cut the miles short.
But I didn't. I showed up each week as the miles got longer and longer.
As I thought about the whole thing from the first week of training to that moment when I stumbled out of the finishing area and hugged my family, I started to think that finishing the race wasn't the biggest accomplishment.
My biggest accomplishment was getting to the starting line in the first place.
Yet, even though I accomplished a lot by training for my first marathon, I was still angry about not getting it done in under four hours.
No matter how much I thought about all the hard work and sacrifice during the training, and how much I enjoyed it, and the fact I finished better than two out of three other people, I still couldn’t forgive myself for not hitting that one goal.
Even as I started writing this, I wasn’t sure how I was going to resolve that I achieved something big, but one small part of it felt like a disappointment.
As I wrestled with this conflict, I stumbled on a realization:
Four hours was an arbitrary number.
This was my first marathon. I had no baseline for knowing what was possible for me. Why should I think I could hit this mark?
I knew I could run a nine-minute mile comfortably for a reasonable distance so I assumed I could run at that pace for 26 miles. My training said I could, but my training was my only experience. Every week, as the runs got longer, I was setting a new personal record in terms of distance. My 20-mile run was the farthest I had ever run. How could I possibly know what it would be like to run 26.2 miles? How could I think it would be possible for me to keep up my pace through the last quarter of the race?
I was setting my goal based on limited experience. Those are the kinds of goals that are easy to miss.
I’ve spent 2 months ruminating over this, and I think it's time to let it go.
I must learn and move on.
Now, I know what it is really like to train for a marathon.
Now I know what it is like to run a marathon.
Now I know that sometimes you don't hit one goal, but you accomplish a lot of other goals.
And that one goal you didn't hit becomes the fuel you need for the next race.
As I turn away from what I learned in my first marathon, I’ve come to terms with the results. With this experience, I’m moving on and looking forward to the next race.