I was talking to a couple pals on twitter the other week about what makes someone a marathoner (actually, the topic at hand was what makes someone call themselves an ultrarunner, but the topic extends). For me, if any person who has traversed 26.2 miles with a bib on asks me this question, I respond, “you! You are a marathoner!”
But as that conversation went on, I wondered about my own response. I’ve called myself a marathoner off-handedly. But I’m more likely to simply define myself as a runner. Yes, I’ve completed three marathoners (trained for four, having DNF’d Marine Corps in 2013 – still a frustrating blemish on my record, but one I suppose every runner has to experience at least once). But am I a marathoner? By the aforementioned definition I’d give to anyone else besides me, yes.
We’re all toughest on ourselves, runners in particular. We look at great tempo splits and wonder why we didn’t push a bit harder on that last one. We cross a finish line with arms up in victory and 10 seconds later are already imagining our next PR. We run a half-marathon between our 26.2 treks and when people ask about our race – “you ran a marathon this weekend?” – we respond, ‘oh, no, just a half.”
Chatting with runner pals and runner acquaintances lately, talking about our fall goals and what’s next and mentioning my next marathon, I’ve been asked more than once if I like marathons. I never really know how to answer. As with anything else running-related, sometimes it’s a yes, sometimes it’s a no. Most times it’s a mix. I love marathon training. I love the structure, and how hard it is. I love the gains I see. I love pushing my limits, even if I fall apart (not that I enjoy falling apart, but that run you have after falling apart? The one you’re sure is going to be the worst run of your life and instead is a major breakthrough? There is nothing like that). I love shattering PRs at shorter distances along the way, feeling crazy strong because of the miles and miles and miles I’m stacking up in the weeks leading up to 26.2. But ask me how I feel at mile 22? It’s not a pretty place. It’s a dark, ugly, awful place.
And yet, there’s something magical about that, too.
So what do I want out of the marathon? I want to master it. Perhaps that’s foolish: the marathon is a beast. It’s an absolute monster. It can break you down in ways you can’t even fathom, even if you’ve run one (or more) before. But I want to feel – even just once – that I came out of a marathon victorious. That I beat it. That I found a way to get past that dark place and executed a plan almost perfectly. It’s a lot to ask. A lot of it comes down to training and discipline and diet and rest. It also comes down to weather and course and conditions and luck. The stars have to align.
Mastering a race means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me – this runner, this distance, this time in my life – it means to qualify for Boston. I want Boston so badly I can taste it. I think about qualifying for Boston – I think about running Boston – pretty much every single day. I’ve been hungry for it for a couple a years now, but the quiet, occasional thoughts, the dreamy sighs, the “what ifs” and “wouldn’t that be cools” grew from noncommittal to something I just have to have. Goal-setting is tricky, and we all have to acknowledge that we won’t always reach the goals we set, and often we’ll get something else out of the journey – something we didn’t expect. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach for the stars.
I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement from friends (including extremely knowledgeable ones when it comes to running) and family. I’ve got the shorter distance PRs that spell BQ potential. Since my first half-marathon in November 2010 and my 10th in May 2014, I shaved almost 30 minutes off my PR time, going from 2:10 to under 1:41. Between my first completed marathon in November 2012 and my second completed marathon in September 2014 (with an injury-related DNF in between), I chopped 25 minutes off my time. With a 3:52 PR, I have a ways to go before I break 3:35 (the BQ standard for my age group), let alone do so by enough to actually get into Boston given the registration process. Potential isn’t enough. I needed experience. I needed a plan.
In the spring, I ran Big Sur for a couple reasons: one being – it’s an amazing experience and a beautiful race I wanted to run at some point in my life; another being – get another 26.2 under my belt with (almost) no time pressure, get more experience, and get more than one marathon into my schedule in a 12-month period for the first time in my running career, something I know will be required for me to BQ at some point.
Just before Big Sur, I enacted the other big part of my plan. I reached out to my friend Mark and asked him if he would be my coach. I think he probably knew this was coming. 🙂 For an extremely reasonable set of fees, and following a detailed questionnaire to get to know more about me as an athlete (my running history, injury history, goals, goal race, cross training preferences, time limitations, speed workout experience, and other questions), Mark outlined a plan for me. We made some tweaks (I wanted more strength training, and to make sure I got to go to my Monday night group runs, for instance), and then fleshed out the details. We could have stopped there, but I knew I needed more to really nail my goal in the long term: Mark is also remotely coaching me, checking in on my workouts, answering my (tons and tons and tons) of questions throughout, and will make tweaks to the plan as life may require. He’s also there to kick my ass if I’m slacking or talk me down if I’m pushing too hard.
My basic training week looks like this. Note that this is highly specialized for me as an athlete; mileage/results may vary, as always.
Monday: double run, including evening group run (one run is shorter than the other), strength
Tuesday: tempo run (ranging from 15K to marathon paces, depending)
Wednesday: strength and core
Thursday: speedwork (ranging from standard track work like 800s, 1200s, mile repeats, etc., to easy runs that include late mile strides)
Friday: short run, yoga/core
Saturday: long run
Sunday: full rest day
The plan is on a lovely google spreadsheet, and sometimes I look at it and think, “BRING IT ON, LET’S DO THIS.” And other days I kind of think I’m going to wet my pants. But that, in a nutshell, is marathon training.
I’m just over two weeks in. So far I’ve nailed three speed workouts, survived a super-humid 800 repeat workout, managed 14 miles on the treadmill in Arizona on family vacation without wanting to kill myself, and run with as many friends as possible to get as much joy as possible out of every mile. I’m not going to enjoy every step of training – as I’m not going to enjoy every step of the marathon. But I want to savor the journey. I want to know that, when I get to that starting line on November 14 – whether I feel ready to BQ, or take a step closer, or if I know it’s not my day and I just need to give what I have that day – I want to know that the journey wasn’t wasted. That it isn’t all hanging on those few hours on the course. That I’ll be back for more, because I love it.