Thursday, March 6, 2014

Marathoning, in retrospect

I recently ran a marathon. And it was terrible. It was the worst run I’ve ever had, and it was the slowest marathon I’ve ever run, second only to the marathon that I stubbornly ran despite my torn calf muscle.

A marathon is 26.2 miles, and a lot can happen in those miles. Runners twist ankles, fall, bleed, and acquire new and mysterious injuries. Professional runners die running that distance. Marathoning has become increasingly mainstream in the last few decades, but it is not for the faint of heart.

My running partners and I set a goal of running a sub-4 hour marathon. A sub-4 hour marathon is a 9:09 pace. It’s a good clip, but not impossibly fast. This was to be my fifth marathon, and I felt confident it would be my best. I knew my weaknesses, I knew how to train, I knew what it felt like to push myself, and I knew how long those last 1.2 miles were after already having run 25 of them.

I created a training plan, and bolstered by my enthusiasm and the promise of blueberry pancakes, my friends and I proceeded to knock off mile after mile. We ran up and down hills. We ran in the fog. We ran in the sun. We ran past beach volleyball players with hateable bodies. You know—those tan women with sun-bleached hair who make wearing a paper bag look like couture. Yes, even distance runners hate those people. To be fair, the lone male among us loved running past the volleyball girls.

At mile 14 of the race, my last running partner dropped behind me. I thought as long as she could see me, she’d keep up, but after the race was over she told me she developed severe thigh cramping—something that’s never happened before. At mile 14 I was about two minutes ahead of where I needed to be based on the meticulously plotted racing strategy developed by my sister, who is a 2:55 marathoner. (That’s the insane pace of 6:40 per mile. I sort of hate her, too.)

Two minutes was a nice lead, but not enough that I could sit back and relax. I wasn't worried that I had gone out too hard—my sister and I anticipated this and figured any lead I had was padding for when something unexpected happened up ahead. I just didn't expect it to happen in the next three miles.

By mile 17, I was behind schedule. By mile 20 I was running 12-minute miles. And by the time I saw the finish line, I was just glad to stop running.

My husband and I have a code: he watches me race, and when he sees me, he says “You’re doing great! See you at the finish line!” and I answer “Yes!” This exchange informs him that I’m fine and planning on finishing this run, no matter what. As he says, “You better show up.” Not finishing this race didn’t even cross my mind.

When I look back on this race, all I can say is that it got very hot and very humid very fast. My training was great and I didn’t suffer any unexpected injuries. You can only do so much planning for the weather. The week before the race, my friends and I knew it was going to be hot. We drank extra water every day to stay hydrated. But you can’t train for a marathon the week before the race. By that point, if you haven’t done the necessary work, it is already too late.

It is disappointing to set a goal and not achieve it, but this marathon wasn't a failure. I finished the damned thing, and I did so with the support of my husband, my sister, and some good friends. It was okay that I didn't meet my goal, because my family and friends were still proud of me, and I was, too.


  1. Virginia, you are amazing in every way. You handled what turned out to be one frustrating run out of how many you have done with style and grace. Not to be cliche, but you ran that marathon. It could have "ran" you, you know? You have true inner strength, and the marathon is just one of the ways you express that strength. We are all so proud you, running or not, running fast or not, walking or not, injured or not.