Why do I do this again? That question came to me as I started walking for the third time in the final miles of the Marine Corps Marathon in October. It wasn't rhetorical. I wasn't being sly. I really meant it. Every muscle group in my lower body was either locking up or in serious pain (or both). It was mathematically impossible for me to hit the 3:24 I'd been training to run for four months. A 3:24 would qualify me for Boston, a goal I've been chasing for a decade. That also happens to be my PR, which I'd set nearly seven years earlier. To run a new PR at age 46, well, I knew everything would need to be close to perfect. As Tolstoy warned, "If you look for perfection, you'll never be content."
Feeling miserable and more than a little sorry for myself, I truly wondered why I didn't quit marathons for good and stick with half-marathons. I seemed to be fine with those. In fact, I'd hit the halfway mark in 1:43, exactly as planned. I had just run the "Blue Mile," lined with American flags and photos of servicemen and women who'd died in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and high-fived Lisa Hallett, who founded the group, Wear Blue: Run to Remember, that had set up that inspiring stretch. The 3:25 pace team was still ahead of me. I'd planned to follow them until mile 20, then reel them in en route to a negative-split finish.
But I knew deep down it wasn't going to happen. I didn't yet understand exactly what mistakes I had made, but my splits, which I'd kept around 7:45, slipped a bit at mile 19, and again at 20. Then, while crossing the 14th Street Bridge, my momentum ceased in a way that's familiar to anyone who's ever driven a car into a tree. Somewhere between miles 24 and 25, the 3:35 pace team caught me. "Hey, you're the editor of Runner's World, right?" said the young, cheerful, spry group leader. He introduced himself as Kyle, and guiding his pack of precisely on-pace runners past me, said over his shoulder, "You have the coolest job. Lemme know if you want to switch lives!" I knew nothing about Kyle or his life. But under my breath I said, "Can we start right now?"
In hindsight, my first mistake was simple: I hadn't trained hard enough. I had nailed two sessions of Yasso 800s and logged several 40-mile weeks, but never 50. I had done a 22-miler but cut my last 20-miler short after getting sick. I had run the last three miles of my long runs close to marathon pace, but not always at it. I knew that running a PR on a tough course would require me to run at the edge of my ability for 26.2 miles. The bottom line is that I wasn't physically ready to do it.
My second mistake was having only one goal. Because I knew a 3:24 would take all I had, choosing a "B" goal, something short of 3:24 that I still would be happy with, felt like doubt or, worse, capitulation. Once perfection went out the window, I had nothing to fall back on. If I wasn't going to run 3:24, I didn't care if I ran 3:34 or 3:44. I was adrift, physically and mentally, a bad way to dig deep. Also, I had spent the entire race looking down at my watch. I must've done it 100 times. As a result, I barely noticed the monuments, the crowds, the marines at water stops--all the things that make Marine Corps so special.
My third mistake: not resting enough during my two-week "taper." The weekend before Marine Corps was the RW Half & Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Almost 6,000 runners took part, and it was terrific from start to finish. In fact, the week that began with our race and ended with Marine Corps, which I'd done with 12 RW editors and almost 300 readers as part of a Runner's World Challenge, was a 2013 highlight. But it was also kryptonite. In Bethlehem, I'd run the Hat Trick (5-K, 10-K, and half-marathon) and spent the entire weekend bouncing from kids races to seminars to movies to book signings to keynote speeches to dinner. In Washington, I hoofed around the city for two days and poured mental energy into the motivational talk I'd been asked to give at the prerace dinner. Instead of getting to sleep at a decent hour the night before the marathon, I stayed up well past midnight to watch my beloved Red Sox in the World Series. I'm not complaining; I did it all happily. But well rested I was not.
I finally crossed the line in 3:39 and quickly regained some perspective. When a marine in fatigues hangs a medal around your neck, it's impossible to feel sorry for yourself because of a footrace. Within an hour, I was hearing about all the PRs and first-time finishes achieved by so many of our Challengers. Within a few days, I was headed to the New York City Marathon--another annual highlight--where everything did go perfectly. No lingering bitterness from last year's Hurricane Sandy debacle, no sign that runners (50,266 finished, a record for any marathon) or spectators stayed away because big-city races have gotten too big or, post-Boston, too dangerous. I worked on the ABC/ESPN broadcast, interviewing remarkable runners on the course after riding to the start with them on the 5:30 a.m. bus. How could I wallow in disappointment after spending time with Sarah Reinertsen, an above-the-knee amputee who holds the world record for the Ironman and the marathon? Or Rick Salewske, who lost 300 pounds (!) via running and has kept it off for 11 years? Or the Caminiti sisters, who were each running their first marathon nine months after Melissa had donated most of her liver to Jamie for a transplant that sent her cancer into remission? Or Jen Correa, who'd lost her home and nearly her husband to Sandy and was running New York to put a horrendous year behind her once and for all? (The interviews can be found here.) None of them was running for time. They all had bigger priorities.
So why do I run marathons--or at all, for that matter? There are so many answers to that. But if I have to choose one, it would be this: to get better. I like how broadly that can be applied--to my times; to my physical and emotional well-being; to my desire for intense, heightened experiences; to my roles as a father, husband, colleague, and person.
While setting new goals for the new year, I will go back to the drawing board and apply what I've learned--or been reminded of--the hard way. I will train harder and more wisely. I will value time off my feet as much as time out on the roads. I will pick a goal race that stands alone on the calendar, with no work commitments beyond handing out a few business cards. I will not run 22.4 miles the weekend before.
And I'll remember how lucky I am to be able to run at all, and that the pursuit of contentment may be the best route to perfection. Not the other way around.
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David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.