No matter how much or how many loved ones tell you that they are proud of you for dropping out of a brutally hot marathon, there is something unsatisfying about it, and it has taken me a few days to get my head around exactly what happened at Boston and why.
As I sat in the chair in the medical tent at the mile 22 mark, I recognized that I didn’t have the spirit to finish. It was missing. Then I had a disconcerting thought: if I’m not willing to drive beyond the point where the needle says empty, I’m not cut out for any marathon, because all marathons require that, even when conditions are perfect. To run your best, you must be willing to face the dragon and to spit in its eye, again and again, until the race is done. It is the essence of the event.
The thought passed, and after an hour of decompressing in that tent, draped in cold wet towels and sipping iced Gatorade, I was loaded onto a bus with assorted cast-offs whose conditions were worse than my own. An Irish woman on the bus had run 63 marathons. This was her 64th, and the first that she hadn’t finished. I asked her what the high point of her race was. She told me that she actually had felt fine for 21 miles, but then she just didn’t feel right. When we got off the bus, the woman threw up.
The marathon was born as a dramatic event – Pheidippides died at the finish. Sports don’t get much more dramatic than that. In my preparation for Boston it is drama that I was trying to avoid. I have a young son and wife five months pregnant. Understandably, my personal running dramas are not high on the priority list. I hadn’t even planned on running Boston, and was surprised when I got an e-mail from the Boston Athletic Association congratulating me on my acceptance to the race. How could this be? A tight group of CPTC teammates had signed me up and paid my registration. What a gift!
I felt slightly ungracious, but I could not accept unequivocally, because, well, you’ve really got to want to run a marathon to run it, don’t you? I would base my decision on how my training unfolded.
As it turned out, training unfolded well. I layered in a lunch run to my daily work routine, and stuck to it. During the lunch runs I’d often include a fast mile on the track to get the heart rate up. Most weekdays I also ran the seven miles home. On Thursday nights I’d run the workout with the team, after which I’d run home. Add a long run on the weekend, and it all was enough to get me in shape to run a 1:22:19 at the NYC Half. This was good enough evidence for me to commit to Boston. If I raced it smart, I thought I’d have a shot at breaking three.
Then the weather happened.
I generally don’t race well in the heat, and so I adapted my mindset to enjoy the race. The absurd challenge of running a marathon in extreme heat demanded an absurd response: to have fun running a marathon in extreme heat.
And though I wouldn’t exactly call what happened out there fun, there were parts of the race that offered deep satisfaction. I liked what I saw. I now want to run the Boston Marathon more than I did before I ran (and didn’t finish) this one. I still want to see what those last four miles are like. And I want to feel strong while running them, or at least to have the spirit to spit in the dragon’s eye.
I lacked the spirit this time around because the conditions had made it so that I was no longer racing and it was no longer enjoyable. Running on tilt is the point of a marathon, but in these conditions running on tilt would have invited medical drama. We are taught on the Central Park Track Club to finish a race with dignity. In experiencing the Boston Marathon on my terms and not its, and calling it a day at mile 22, that is what, unwittingly, I attempted to do.