It really is an amazing event. Sometimes I forget that just completing the 26.2 mile test that is the marathon is something that most people can hardly imagine doing. Let alone doing it at a high level. To the best of your abilities.
I am asked quite frequently how “hard” it really is, but no matter what response I give – I know that I am falling far short of doing the experience justice.
Surviving the race itself is one thing, but just getting to the starting line in one piece is quite another. To “race” the marathon, even for world-class athletes like the Olympic women who competed this weekend in London, the training is fraught with challenges, aches and pains, bumps and bruises all the while skirting injury as you push yourself to the limits of your weekly tolerances for mileage and pace. It is the only way to prepare to race that 26 mile 385 yard distance and reach the height of your potential. For every runner who makes it to the starting line in “perfect” shape, there are dozens who do not.
Desiree Davilla – owner of the third fastest US Women’s marathon time in history dropped out before the first 3 miles of the race were in the books this weekend. Davilla who suffered a hip flexor injury during training was not able to train through it the last few weeks. I told a runner friend of mine last week that while I admire her courage, and I’m sure she is going to show up and toe the line hoping for a miracle, she will not make it to the half-way point. Turns out I was off by more than 10 miles.
The race is just too cruel. It is too unforgiving. It seeks out any weakness in your body and looks to expose it. A tight hamstring, a sore knee, a strained calf, a week core. It is all going to come out in the wash before you are able to make it through to the finish line. The marathon in a lot of ways is like life. You just can’t fake it all the way through. Sure you can keep it together over a 5K or maybe even a 10K race if you are not absolutely fit and healthy. I even ran my Half-Marathon PR at the Shamrock Half this March with a bit of a sore instep on my left foot. It required a great deal of ice and anti-inflamatories leading up to the race to give me a chance to go out and run perhaps my best race at any distance in my life (1:23:46).
I could not complete my recovery run the next day, cutting it short at 2-miles, and had to take off a few days here and there over the next 2-weeks to get back healthy, 100% ready for Boston.
Davilla would have had to race twice as far.
Just not possible no matter how “tough” you are. If you are not fit, you are going to come undone over 26.2 miles.
Therein lies the beauty of the race.
If you are a spectator along the course at a major marathon, you may see an athlete pass you once or maybe twice. You see them approach, you yell encouragement which buoys their spirits. When I get a shout of encouragement during a marathon from a friend who has spotted me, Dawn and Landry, my in-laws or even Dom in 2010 at the Pittsburgh Marathon you have a moment where all of the pain you are experiencing goes away. That rush of adrenaline makes you forget your misery for the moment and you stride with great purpose and confidence. To the spectator you look “great”, but only after a few hundred meters do you again feel the cumulative effect of the miles on your body.
The commentators spoke this weekend about how marathoners go through “rough patches” during a race. That is not a throw away comment by any means. It is spot on in my experience. You feel lousy one mile and then can rally during the next. That is why the mental toughness required to be a talented marathoner in my opinion is as important as physical ability. In a shorter race, say 10 kilometers it is about pain management for 10 or 15 minutes. In the half marathon maybe even 20. But in the marathon when you reach the 20 mile mark, you still have 6.2 miles to go. The fastest I have ever covered that distance is 37 minutes and 30 seconds, and I most certainly had not run 20 miles to that point as a warm-up.
All you can do is dig in and run the mile directly ahead of you. There are no shortcuts. You can’t run mile 25 before you run 24, 23, 22 and 21. Just like life, you just have to keep pushing.
Watching the marathon on television is a different experience however as you can see the runners go through these rough patches, gather themselves, dig deep and rejoin the pack ahead. You can watch Tiki Gelana take a fall at a congested water stop, get back up, use the adrenaline to surge back up to the lead pack and run through rain-soaked London streets to win Olympic Gold.
You can see Americans Shalane Flanigan and Kara Goucher battle to 10th and 11th place finishes after hanging with the lead group of runners for close to 20 miles. Flanigan who medaled 4 years ago in the 10,000 was picked up off of the street by her training partner Goucher after lying down just past the finish line and not having the strength and energy to get up on her own.
When I hit the finish line in New York this November, after running the best marathon of my life I took three strides past the clock at Tavern on the Green and uttered the two words aloud that every marathoner has said at one time or another.
It was met with chuckles from the half-dozen finishers around me and the volunteer who was helping the runners through the finishing chute.
They, just like me knew I was lying. I would be back.
In the Women’s Olympic Marathon this year 2:23:07 was the winning time. Davilla’s PR? 2:22:38.
I was quite certain that Davilla had no chance of even finishing the marathon this weekend in London. But I am even more certain that she will be back in 2016. She is a marathoner. That’s what we do.