Time for this runner to be a thinker
By Marlene Farrell
Editor’s note: This is Part Two of Marlene Farrell’s account of running in the USATF National Half-Marathon Championship in Duluth, Minn., on June 16. For Part One: www.runwenatchee.com/training/running-the-yes-race/
If we were to meet on the street and you asked me about my “big” race, I’d normally hem and haw and try to put a positive spin on it. But enough time has passed since the U.S. Half-Marathon Championship that I’m ready to be blunt: It sucked!
It’s not fun to aim high in an endeavor that means something to me, to work toward it, to feel the pressure, mostly from myself, to perform, and then to disappoint. Most athletes have been at this point at one time or another, but that knowledge does not ease the pain. In fact, the costs and benefits of racing don’t seem to balance like they used to. Maybe it’s time to run ‘Fun Runs’ with my kids and call that good enough.
But I’m not always so dismal. If you still want to hear the story beneath the story, here goes:
“Mandatory technical meeting.” I should have remembered that is protocol for an elite race. I realize the day before that my travel plans won’t get me to there in time, so I have some last-minute rearranging to do. Immediately upon hopping off a three-hour bus ride to Duluth from the Twin Cities, I hug my friend Anne and head to the meeting. The last thing I want to do is sit longer and aggravate the tightness that runs from my hamstrings to my lower back. Thankfully the meeting is brief. I hardly remember what is said (the most “technical” part of the meeting is a description of the personal water bottle tables and how it is prohibited to have someone hand you your water bottle). We sit midway back and slightly to the side. From there I can glance up from the agenda and take in the room. Some athletes are like me, with a friend or alone. Many are grouped because they are teammates from elite development programs like the Brooks Hanson Project or Impala Running. Or they are clustered with friendly competitors after frequenting the same starting lines of the elite race circuit. Runners like these are a calm, serious bunch. For me, a dilettante at the edge of this world, the room emanates the terrifying power of a sleeping tiger. I want to silently observe and then slip out before I get devoured by eyes that see through me to my small-town, train-alone self.
Preparing for a race, especially an important one, is ritualistic. After a homemade carbo-load dinner with some long-time friends, I am alone, draping my “uniform” on the bed, pinning on my bib (no number, just FARRELL in bold print), stuffing a gel in my shorts pocket, weaving my chip through the laces of my racing flat. I organize the other essentials, the race info, cell phone, Powerbar, water bottle, other layers of clothing for the bus ride and warm up. I get out my breakfast supplies so as to minimize the noise at 3:45 a.m. when the other house guests will still be happily dreaming. There is pleasure in these details and I’m reminded of all the other pre-race preparations I’ve done over the years, doing the tangible little things that matter. A lot of race factors are out of my hands — the weather, other competitors, and exactly how my body will respond when I put it to the test. Seeing my race outfit laid out, ready for dressing, gives me a modicum of control, fortifies me against excessive worry.
I refuse to complain about the 3:20 a.m. wake-up, which is earlier still if one is on West Coast time. Early rising is my specialty, perhaps a slight edge over racers that struggle to shake off sleep before dawn.
Anne drops me off for the elite bus ride. I choose a male seatmate. I don’t want to talk and women are more innately chatty. Instead, I sip my water, roll my ankles in the aisle and stare at Lake Superior, still and wide, reflecting the rosy streaks that cross the sky, pronouncing the approaching inevitability of the day.
The bus drops us off and we have a half-mile walk to the starting area and the elite runners’ tent. I want to walk, am thankful of the opportunity to stretch my legs in long quick strides. A part of me wishes I could walk all day, following the ribbon of highway along the lake edge. However, I’m here to run, not walk.
I stash my bag in the tent. The men’s race is first so most of them are warming up. Many women have staked a claim on a chair, getting off their feet with 50 minutes to spare. I’m too antsy so I jog out and back to the one-mile marker, which is two oversized blue balloons hovering sedately above the roadside. I’m relieved that my hamstring does not have the pinched feeling that’s been nagging on and off for a few weeks. Maybe the massage a few days ago, stretching and using a foam roller have worked it loose.
I feel smooth and loose but there is a missing element. Before successful races my muscles have a snappy exuberance, a light jumpy feeling like I imagine a dog team feels on the gang-line before their musher quick releases their tether. It’s an awesome feeling to possess this body that is almost quivering in anticipation. On those days I won’t even feel the first several miles because it will be like I’m running several inches above the ground.
Today a sliver of optimism remains, i.e. luck. Haven’t we all had races for which we felt poorly prepared or handicapped by life’s circumstances and yet we rise to the occasion and exceed our expectations?
If I did the math, I would know. This race marks the fourth highly competitive race that I have taken an airplane to. Sure I’d flown previously to some popular marathons and had a good time. For the three big races, “a good time” was not the plan. It was about a PR or negative splits and finishing high in the field. All three races ended up being about survival, about continuing on when my body pleads, “No more!”
My “Yes” race — as I had so happily characterized it when I first learned I was accepted — becomes a statistic. At the start I line up toward the back, soaking up the beautiful power in the hard edges, the heads turned to the first mile, the eager jostling, the last minute checking of a watch, straightening of shorts. In front, maybe not the tallest, but hard to miss in her thick dark hair and strong shoulders, stands Kara Goucher. My eyes stray to her and I am excited, not for myself, but for her, to dominate, to display her Olympics-ready speed.
The moments of my race, beginning after the starting gun, stretch unbearably long and thin. There is no blurring of the miles, no separation from my body as it propels itself with almost machine like precision. No, my body, and my hamstrings and quads in particular, blurt out a cacophony of complaints for the whole hour and 24 minutes of my race. At first it is warnings. By Mile 5, they are speaking loud and clear about their inabilities. I glance down at my legs in wonder, thinking, “What is going on? I’ve been good to you with a taper of easy miles, massage and stretching. You have a job to do. Now do it!” Another dangerous thought is, “This is only a half marathon. It’s supposed to be easy!” My brain is unable to persuade or coerce so it denies. “Yes,” the pace is slowing down but I refuse to let the line go slack. And with three miles to go, the temperature rising, the crowds thickening, my mind fights back. “Yes,” I have my slowest half in years. But, “yes,” I also lower, through sheer will, my pace back down into the 6:20’s for the final miles.
Not long before the U.S. Half-Marathon Championship, I had come across a Mahatma Gandhi quote. “Strength does not come from physical capacity,” the great Indian leader said. “It comes from an indomitable will.” This quote refers to resisting an intolerant government or surviving other crushing challenges. However, today those works speak to me. I know what I did, and there is satisfaction, despite what the clock may show.
The trip is about more than the race. It is about a reunion with dear friends. I replenish on good conversation, and seeing the Midwest version of the good life — Duluth’s art shops, lush and winding trails, and from a canoe. With all that said, the race is still significant. There’s a lesson for this running veteran. It’s an opportunity to step back from racing, for awhile be a thinker and not a doer, and search for a new approach to training and racing that suits who I am now.
Marlene Farrell is a Leavenworth writer and long-distance runner who has qualified twice for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. She also helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club.