Thursday, April 19, 2007

Megha's theory of relativity

I suppose it's my turn to post a marathon story. I started writing this yesterday but couldn't quite finish. Just couldn't pull my thoughts together. Well here goes.

There is one thing about running that I embrace almost as much as I detest. Running is such a measurable, quantifiable sport. Very little is relative; times and distances are absolute. If you beat someone in a race, the reason is pretty simple: you ran faster than she did. It's not like football or basketball where there might be a handful of reasons why you won -- better defense, more rebounds, cleaner assists, bigger tackles, etc. With running, it just boils down to the time on the clock.

It's easy and satisfying to think about running in terms of time. One reason I think runners love the sport and love quantifying their performances is because net time does not leave much room for excuses. You can't blame your performance on your teammate's failure to pass you the ball or your coach's failure to call the right play or the referee's bad calls. Running performances are captured by the times. Setting goals is easier when you have a time to beat. Running for a time is predictable and safe. You can train for a time, but it's a lot harder to train to run against competition because you don't know how fast they'll run. I guess this is what makes running interesting. But I still understand running in terms of time.

It was with this attitude that I had trained for the Boston Marathon. I hinged my ability and my training more-or-less on two numbers: how many miles I trained and how fast I ran. It was as simple as that. I often tried to justify sub-par performances on high mileage, tired legs, hills, artic temps, high winds, etc. And sure, I gave myself breaks - both mental and physical - now and then when I was wicked tired or feeling sorry for myself. But when you train with really talented people day in and day out and see them race faster than you and run more miles than you and complete harder workouts in more grueling circumstances, you gain a lot of perspective on the sport. You take responsibility for your training and your performances and give yourself fewer breaks.

The irony of all this is that the more I compare myself to other runners and depend on their performances to gauge my own ability, the more peripheral they become to evaluating my performances. At some point, you stop comparing yourself to others and just decide on how many miles you want to run and how fast you want to race. Regardless of what everyone else does, you just run those miles and run that pace. At some point you stop doing it for everyone else and just do it for you. Maybe it's just me that does this. Who knows. Sometimes running is a very selfish sport because you can make it so individual and so measurable.

I had no idea what to expect for Monday's marathon. In my head, I wanted to run a 2:52 or 2:53. I ran a 20 miler a few weeks before at a 6:31 pace at the tail end of a 94 mile week, so I figured that with tapering and rest I should be able to maintain a 6:35 pace for the marathon. I know it was ambitious, but once I had the idea in my head, the goal pace just stuck. After hearing the weather forecast, I scaled back my goal time slightly to a 2:53:30 and picked up a corresponding pace bracelet at the expo. But I think in my head, I still wanted to run a 2:52 and hoped that the meteorologists were lying about the weather.

The weather forecast really bummed me out the days leading up to the marathon. I really struggle in wind, so hearing about the 20-25+ mph head winds was tough. A lot of runners are tough and can fight through the wind. I am not one of those runners. I get tossed around in the wind and get angry and discouraged. I mentally checked out of the Marathon days before the race. I wasn't excited about it and expected to be disappointed with my performance. I didn't even bring my 2:53:30 pace bracelet with me to the start line. I had given up on running a set time. Not really a good way to start a race, I know.

The night before the marathon, I got to bed around 11 pm and woke up around midnight to what sounded like nails being thrown at my bedroom window. The winds blowing from the ocean and the pelting rain shook my building and pounded against my window, and I really thought my window was going to break. It was loud enough to keep me awake pretty much all night.

Luckily, the conditions at the start of the marathon weren't quite that bad. We got so lucky. It was actually relatively warm - in the high 40s I think - and the rain had tapered from a heavy downpour to moderate showers. The winds in Hopkinton were still blustery, and my umbrella kept flipping upside down. (Who brings an umbrella to a race, anyway?) It was swampy and muddy, and there were plastic bags and ponchos everywhere - testament to the runners' efforts to stay dry.

I finally got excited for the race around 20 minutes before we started. At 9:40 am, Laura reminded me and Emily's brother Dave that Emily had just started the race with the elite women -- and I got instantly pumped! I ate half my jelly beans and a bunch more sugar and the high continued. Laura and I sauntered to the 2nd corral and basked in the super cool feeling of starting so close to the elite men and visualized Emily on the course. We stood on our tip toes to find Lynn (no luck) and studied the handful of other women who were starting in our corral.

The first mile was jam-packed - I weaved in and out to get my pace and find an open spot to run. First split was 6:38 -- which I thought was slow considering that the first mile is steeply downhill. I didn't freak out too much and just kept running comfortably. The next mile was a bit faster, and from then on, I just tried to add 6:35 to the aggregate time on my watch at every mile and run that time or faster for the next mile. By the time I got to mile 7 or so, I realized that I might have gone out too fast. But I felt so good, and I didn't want to slow down. And I was having fun.

I still don't know how to drink and run at the same time. To hydrate, I did my standard routine of taking 10 or 15 quick steps to every other Gatorade stop, coming to a full stop, guzzling the fluid, and then joining the race again. Other than that I didn't stop.

I went through the half in 1:24:35 (6:28/mile pace) -- the second fastest half marathon I've ever run. By the 30K mark, I had slowed a little but was still on a 6:33/mile pace. It was around that point that the hills started and the winds picked up. I swear I must have run 8-minute pace up some of those hills. By 35K, I had slowed to a 6:38 pace. I ran that 5K at a 7:06/mile pace. Oops. Next 5K was at a 6:56/pace. I was not doing so hot at this point. Luckily I saw all the GBTC folks around mile 23, and that totally lifted my spirits. I started screaming like a crazy woman. I swear there were at least 30 GBTC folks out there! I love the team.

So the race ended a few miles later and the only thing I was thinking about when I crossed the finish was how Emily, Lynn, and Laura had done. Sure, I was happy with my time, but I didn't think I ran a very smart race. Maybe it's because I hadn't been very excited about the race for the week prior. Maybe I had been too ambitious with my goal time. Part of me was disappointed and embarrassed that I had gone out so fast. But who knows if going out slower would have made a difference.

Looking back, I think that all four of us - Lynn, Emily, Laura, and me - are capable of running faster - a lot faster. I am so sure of it. I think we all have a lot more to give to the sport of marathoning. All four of us trained hard this season in some of the coldest temps, during the darkest mornings, and on the iciest sidewalks and roads. I know we can run more, and we can run faster. I'm glad we did well on Monday as a team. What I was most excited about after seeing the results was realizing that we have more passion and heart and talent and training to give to running and to the humbling marathon distance.

Apologies if this is a somber blog. I don't mean to sound ungrateful or greedy. I am quite pleased with Monday's race, but I think it might take all of us sometime to really understand our performances not just as absolute times or quantifiable results but as complex achievements to evaluate in the context of the conditions and in comparison with other women's times. Thinking about running like this make it seem so relative, though.

Well I am already thinking about my next race and my next marathon and hoping to run faster, maybe even get to that 2:52 mark soon. Down with relativity!

1 comment:

Lucas said...

Megha -

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think you did a great job of toughing it out when you began to slow down.

My experience was similar - perhaps I can compensate for my ineloquence by directing people to your post and saying, "It went something like that..."