Marathon … really??

For those outside of the Greater Boston area this weekend and next, you are probably missing one of the annual rites-of-spring that kisses the roads, streets and area paths. Today marks 29 days-to-go before the Boston Marathon and the Marathon hopefuls are now out-in-force striding through their final “long run” workouts.

Depending on the individual, it takes 3 to 4 weeks for a runner to recover completely from runs over 20 miles in length. So this weekend and next are the ideal times for such a workout. While the physiological benefits of  long training runs are debatable, few runners question the mental benefits of having-been-there (above the 20 mile mark), and survived, just prior to the race. This traditional “long run” marks the end of most marathon training programs.

Throughout the winter, several thousand runners trained in gyms and bundled up against the snow and ice storms. This past winter, the Boston weather was unusually mild, but I have led long runs where it snowed 6 inches during the course of that 20+ mile “final” workout. This weekend, hopefully, was the time for the 2012 runners to shed their winter running gear and feel the warmth of the sun.

As you drive around during the next few weeks, you may notice small groups of runners or perhaps a few more individuals out on the roads than usual. Many of them will be toeing up to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, on Patriot’s Day, April 16th, 2012.

The obvious marathoners are those who are including the “Hills of Newton” (one of which, is the infamous “Heartbreak Hill”) in their runs. Most are in their 20s and 30s. They are looking toward a 4-hour or maybe even a sub 3-hour marathon. (Running a marathon under 4 hours requires a 9 minute 9 second per mile pace.)

There are also some slower runners out there on the roads. Some may be older; some may appear less fit … but they are still running.

On race day, we know that most of the runners won’t be competing against the Kenyans or anyone else, but why are they there? They will be competing for themselves. They will be celebrating another year of training. Another year of wet socks and sore muscles. Another year of challenging hills and long runs that they’ve completed even when they had serious doubts.

Some may have reached their 3- or 4-hour marathon goal, years (or even decades) prior to this. Some did not…but they are still there. Why? Because they are there to celebrate the effort, not the achievement. They are there reminding us all that while the achievement is important, it is the memory of the effort that remains long after an event.

Looking back on years of my races & training runs, it is that cold morning that I most remember when the sun first reflected off the ice coated trees and the world was silent. It is that summer afternoon run when I ran out of water and limped home with a strained muscle. It is the smell of dew on the manzanita bushes on hills outside San Francisco, when the only sound was that of my feet on the gravel trail.

Sure, I remember the big races and the finish lines and the medals, but the personal efforts and private times are what I hold closest. These are why we return to the roads each year, if only in spirit.

Is there something magical about 26.2 miles that blesses a runner with such enlightenment? No, it’s rarely about the race. An upcoming marathon, however, a reminder that you do have to put on that rain parka and do that training run. It’s a reminder on Saturday night that you have to get to bed early … another long training run will come in the morning. Honestly, a marathon just an excuse.

That lone runner jogging along a road in the rain or across a busy highway overpass is enjoying a very personal time apart from family or work or life. Their legs may hurt, their hands might be cold, but they are making the effort to be better at who they are. When they return home, often wet and somewhat muddy, only they know what they saw or thought or achieved. Did they run fast or slow? Were they able to keep going when they wanted to stop or slow down? Did they run past the top of “that hill” this time without even noticing it? These become personal achievements that they take back to their “real lives” and draw strength from them when all else fails.

Training for a marathon is not always about fantastic vistas and achieving great goals. It includes setbacks and failures. It includes months where nothing seems to go right. It includes training runs that start on peaceful forest trails and end on crowded city streets. Runners learn to accept the setbacks, to shake off the bad luck and to keep going.

Perhaps one of the most understated, inspirational  quotes that marathon runners reflect on is not from a great athlete, but from Woody Allen, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It’s showing up day in  and day out, regardless of how you feel or what else is happening in your life. Becoming a marathon runner or a distance runner is about making a commitment to something and following through on that commitment.

When you see that runner along the road or on an overpass, I hope that you look at her or him differently. That runner is making a very personal statement. That runner is stepping out and reaching for something else regardless of whether a marathon or even a 10K run is in their future. It’s not the winner’s laurels that they seek, but a higher, more personal objective.

Give that runner a wave and an encouraging smile. We all benefit from the effort.


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