Monday, November 9, 2015

Failures and More on my Road to the Dream Big! Boston Marathon Team

As a kid, I only ever ran when training for something else. But in 1999, I raced my first marathon - in Seattle - just to see if I could finish.I did. I loved it. I finished in a respectable time, but also with a feeling I'd left something in the tanks.

Casting about for a new, more ambitious goal, I came upon the Boston Marathon qualifying times. The under-35, time to qualify at the time (its gotten faster since) was 3 hours 10 minutes - a 7:15/mile pace. That was a full 20 minutes faster than my Seattle time. But, maybe, I thought. Maybe.

I tried again in DC in March, 2002, and I missed it by 2 minutes, 52 seconds.  So close! And I'd felt a little sick that race day. So, I couldn't help wondering if, on a better day, and a faster course, I might just pull it off. Seven months later, in Cape Cod, I tried again, and got faster - by 31 seconds - but not fast enough. Significantly, on that third try, around mile 24, I experienced my first marathoners' "bonk" - I got fuzzy-headed. My hands got tingly. The color-coded, but somewhat vague racecourse map described "memorable hills." They proved to be more memorable than I'd bargained for. It was not a strong finish.

But, I remember thinking, as I lay there in the white canvas massage tent, where the line would later be out the door, but when I got there was still so empty that I was led to a massage table by two volunteers...I remember thinking (wow this feels good and), at least I found my limit. I finished empty.  And my Boston Marathon dreams melted away...

But not completely. By then, we were living in Boston, caught up every April in the city-wide fever of Marathon Monday. And so, the year I turned 35, the year my Boston qualifying time added 5 minutes, I tried again, and bonked again, and missed again - this time by quite a bit more. And I let go of my dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon for good (cemented some years later when the BAA made all the times faster by five minutes) - surprisingly, to me, in a wave of gratitude and gladness, not disappointment and sadness. Here is the story of race day, originally published on the dad blog I was keeping at the time...

And by five A.M., I was wide awake, gearing up in the cold and dark.

At 5:45, I was out the door and walking to the Metro's Braddock Road Station - where an unusually high concentration of lean, fit, running-gear-clad passengers were congregating.

I sat and chatted with a nice woman from Ontario, Canada, who was also returning for her first marathon after years and years.

We all got off at the Pentagon Station, and joined a new throng on a LONG march, across the Pentagon's parking lot, through security, and into the runner's "village" - two white tents in the middle of a massive, empty parking lot, ringed by lines of porta potties.

Under one of the white tents, they were holding a prayer service.  I walked up to the periphery.  A small band played a lackadaisical rendition (hard to be too fired up at 6:45 AM) of "How Great is Our God." I sang along, while trying to stretch. A calming moment.  It was still pre-dawn dark.  A military chaplain (who was plenty fired up for any hour of the day) took the microphone, offered a brief prayer, quoted Hebrews 12:1, with an emphasis on "run with ENDURANCE," and shared a five minute homily on "running with a purpose" - one of many reminders why this was called the Marine Corps Marathon.  He challenged us all to discover or recall the purpose for which we were running - and began a list of possibilities with the idea of running for all those serving now overseas, for fallen comrades, for the charities we'd raised money for, and...when he got to, "or to achieve your personal best marathon time," well, my purpose for running this particular race seemed kind of petty.  Still, I always appreciate a reminder to live a life of PURPOSE.

As the sun finally appeared, and the start time neared, I shed all but my throwaway long-sleeve t-shirt, and deposited all my other gear in my runner-issue clear plastic bag, with my sticker number 18602 along the side.   I dropped this off in UPS truck number 18 in the line of dozens and dozens of the familiar brown boxes.  Then I joined the throng for the mile-long walk to the start.

After passing under a bridge, I spotted the special, elite, V.I.P. porta potties. I remembered seeing and scanning some email about them.  I don't remember the cost to partake of their just-like-home flushing convenience.  It looked like someone was standing out front passing out hand towels.  There was a long line.

Not five yards past, a line of guys were taking advantages of the semi-private bushes.  I joined them.  "This the V.I.P. area?" I asked.  "It is," said somebody. "You got your ticket?" said another.

Then the rest of the walk to the starting line.  And I tried not to let myself think about how many more than the recommended (i.e., as close to none as possible) pre-race walking miles I had logged since the previous day. I started spotting the banners for projected finish times - 6 hours, kept walking. 5 hours, kept walking. 4 hours, kept walking. And finally stopped with the group in the 3:00 - 3:20 corral. Less than five minutes to the start.  Everyone bouncing, stretching, giddy.

To my left, 20 yards away was the starting line MC, beside the official clock, and a stoic guy dressed in plastic looking Grecian garb holding a flaming torch. 

At two minutes to go, the MC launched into a final, melodramatic, gung ho torrent of encouraging and you-go-conquer words that just washed over me and the rest of the crowd.

Then Jill Biden shot a gun.

And OH, SH*T! we were off...

Me and close to 22,000 others (probably over 10 Million training miles between us) finally starting.

My target pace for a 3:15 finish was 7:26 min/mile.  On that first mile, I wondered how long it would take to calibrate my pace, and whether I'd get an adrenaline boost to overcome the cold, cold early morning and end up with a time buffer from the get go.  No such luck.

I overheard a pair of runners talking about 3:15 as their goal too.  I set my pace off of them.  Until I we passed the first mile marker, and I checked my watch.  7:40.

I picked it up.

The next were a 7:16, then a 7:06, then a 6:59, and a 7:12, and I got to thinking I need to start slowing DOWN.  I won't be able to keep this up.

Around mile six, I started running with a guy named Brad.  Also with his name on his shirt.  Also 35.  Also targeting that Boston qualifying time.  And, unlike those two from my first mile, actually on pace - aided by a GPS watch that beeped at us and gave us our pace every half mile.  As we ran, we concocted and tweaked a race plan we thought would get us both to our goal.  A couple minutes ahead by miles 13, 14, 15, we deliberately stepped off the gas, to an easier pace we thought we could hold.  And we hung together until about mile 20, where, as we left the cheering crowds, and DC, and the final pairing of "Go Stefan! Yeah Brad!" we'd gotten used to over our nearly two hours together, as we made our way up the gradual ascent of the 14th street bridge, without words between us, over a minute or two, Brad went from running at my side, to five, to ten, to twenty yards ahead.  At one point he turned and flashed a thumbs up, as if to say, "You OK?"  I waved him on.

I replay that mile in mind, that point when I let go of my goal.  I wonder if maybe I just wasn't tough enough mentally, if that was the mind over body moment I didn't rise to, the push through the wall I didn't pull off.  Maybe that was the point I needed somehow to train harder for, longer for.  Ashley had prepared me with some powerful self talk for just that moment - chief for me, a college rowing workout memory of climbing back on that dreaded ergometer moments after failing to meet a goal, and obliterating it with my lifetime best.  Maybe if I had locked that image of my POWERFUL self in mind just so...maybe then I would have found my pace again on the other side of the bridge.  I still had a solid two minute buffer when we got to the bridge...

Or maybe that was my smartest moment of the whole race when, fighting a stitch in my side across the desolate, wind-swept 14th street bridge, my body said no.  And I said...


And maybe when I did, I avoided doing serious, permanent damage to myself. 

I'll never really know. 

What I do know, however, is that, when I gave myself permission to let go of a Boston qualifying time (that goal that had needled me for so many years, having twice come so very close), I was overwhelmed.  As my pace slowed to 8's, then to 9's, then to a final pair of 10+ minute miles, I was utterly overwhelmed - and not with a sense of sadness or disappointment, or even melancholy at the acceptance of the fact my fastest days are now in my past, and that this goal, this silly, sort of arbitrary goal of qualifying for Boston may always be just beyond my grasp.

No, I was overcome by the deepest sense of joy and gratitude -

That of the 22,000 people in this race, I'd somehow connected with this great running partner and new friend;

That old friends Doug and Lindsay, even though they had to navigate the mayhem with their two young kids, managed to meet me and cheer for me and run with me and encourage me, at miles 5, and 8, and 16, and 20, and at the finish;

And for friends Steve and Julissa, and their new baby Jessica, whom I couldn't help but stop to kiss at mile 23.5. And why not? By then, these were miles to savor, not to dread;

For whoever came up with, and spent the time creating, and delivering, and placing all of those signs for us along the otherwise lonely Hains Point at the race's half-way point.  Some memorable ones:







(and my favorite)


For the dozens and dozens of absolute strangers who called "GO STEFAN!" along the way - and especially that freckle-faced, braces wearing tween, whose absolute WAIL on STEFAAAAAAAN!!!! was so long and loud and heart-felt and piercing, I couldn't help but smile, and know, at least for a moment, what it must be like to be Justin Bieber;

For a sound mind and able body (in this military marathon, there were multiple amputees, rolling themselves along the course, surrounded by their comrades, jogging in solidarity with them.  Sobering and somber and inspiring.  How could I possibly be upset about going a little slower than I'd hoped in my home stretch?)

For Ashley;

For our kids;

For love and for life;

Sort of a cruel joke - though a relatively flat course overall, the last .2 of the 26.2 is up hill

When I finally finished, one marine wrapped me in a runners blanket.  Another hung a finisher's medal around my neck.

I hobbled my way to the massage station and saw a line of over a hundred going nowhere.  Most of them 10K runners with their orange bibs.  

I walked back up a little hill to a grassy spot in the sun, and I lowered myself to the ground like an 80 year old man.

As I lay there, trying to stretch, one stranger leaned over.  "Are you OK?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

Then another marine, Max from Chicago, asked, "Want a stretch?" - he'd just finished helping his colleague, who had just run too.

"That would be great," I said, my throat dry, my voice barely audible.

"Looks like you'll have to work on your salt intake," said Max, as he gently but surely stretched one leg, then the other.  And I noticed the film of white all over my arms and legs, and now his.

"That's salt, huh?" I said.

"It is," said Max. "It's all over me."

"People are going to start lining up behind me," I said.

"Anyone else is going to have to pay," said Max.

I thanked him, and he left, wiping salt off his sleeves. 

I eased myself to a standing position, and shuffled in to the Verizon tent, only a few yards away from where I had lay down.  They were offering free cell phone calls.

I dialed Ashley, hoping to catch her, and James, and Maya.

I got her voicemail.

Trying to leave a message, my voice trembled.  Tears welled up.

"It's not because I'm sad," I said, "for missing my goal..."

I was just so overcome, so physically and emotionally spent.

It is hard to put into words.

"You did it, Daddy!" said James, running to meet me at the airport in Boston, "You got the medal!"

I told him I won.

He never doubted it.

I put the medal around his neck.  "Do you like it," I asked?

"I like it," he said. "I like it very much."

Monday, he asked to wear it to school.

"My Daddy won this in the marathon!" he announced to his teachers, greeting him and me at the door to his classroom.

"Wow," they said.


And that



I really thought I was done after that.

But then I met and started running with a group in my neighborhood - the "JP Pavement Junkies" (JPPJ) - and discovered how much more fun training can be, how those miles can just tick by almost unnoticed, in conversation.  Many of them are avid marathoners. So, on any given week, the conversation that ranges around Jamaica Pond, into the Arboretum, through Franklin Park, or the Allendale Woods, up and down Lars Anderson hill, includes a race report from some recent Marathon. And for those who have done many, Boston is always described as being in a class of its own.

And the sense of Boston as our hometown race, and as something more than just a race, was cemented in 2013, by an act of domestic terrorism near the finish line.  A week after the tragedy, a group of us ran together to the memorial on Boylston Street. A year later, a group joined the solidarity 

Last, year, one of our crew ran and raised for Team MR8 - the foundation created in memory of, Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy who was killed.

And this year, with encouragement from several of my teammates (and colleagues - also running), I found myself at the BAA's charity page. I had always resisted the idea before - at first because I thought I just might qualify; later, because of the daunting fundraising bars (most have a minimum threshold of $5,000 or $7,000) - combined with the sense it fundraising in part for a worthy cause and in part for a less worthy cause - to subsidize my running.

Yet, scanning the possibilities, I came across Dream Big! and, surrounded as I am by women athletes I love and admire, immediately gravitated to their mission of making sure girls can play sports.  I know I would never let anything stand in the way of my daughter and her competitive streak. And I thought this is a cause I could raise for and run for.

Once upon a time, I ran marathons to chase personal fitness goals. This year, I am running, and running Boston, for more.

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