Just thinking about running a 26.2 mile race is exhausting. I remember when I first started running, the idea of completing a marathon seemed impossible. When running a mere 15 minutes leaves you exhausted and gasping for air, you convince yourself that the people whom run this far must be blessed with a superhuman genetic composition that you do not possess. It wasn’t until I was completing long runs of 10-12 miles that I began entertaining the though that I might be capable of this “holy grail” of running achievement. I decided to go for it and jumped onto a beginner’s marathon training schedule and incrementally started chipping away at the miles.
Any time I set my sights on a new goal, I try to take in every bit of information I can that might prove useful. I scoured the internet for every bit of running knowledge I could find and harassed every runner I met for their advice. In this quest for info, I became aware of the importance of the Boston Marathon to the running world. The thing that sets the Boston apart from other races is that in order to participate you have to put up a qualifying time in another marathon. Reaching the Boston qualifying time (termed a BQ by runners) has become a certain standard of excellence among endurance athletes. Curious to see where I stood, I found the qualifying time for men my age is 3:15 or roughly an average of 7:25/mile. At the time, I did not know that it was possible for a person to run that fast for that long.
I continued my training as prescribed by my plan, and managed to finish my first marathon without walking. At the time it was the most horrible and wonderful experience of my life. And while I was unable to walk for days, I knew that I would be back. Later, in what is quickly becoming my style, I set the seemingly impossible goal of one day completing the distance fast enough to earn that Boston Qualifying time. For the past several years since, the run training that I have done has been single handedly focused on that goal. In 2009 I ran the Portland Marathon in 4:25 at 10:08/mile. The next year I completed the 2010 Eugene Marathon in 3:47 at 8:42/mile. And while my time in the race had drastically improved, I realized that in order to reach the next level I needed to get smarter about my training.
It was shortly after that race that I met a local runner named Erik Petersen that had not only managed to run a Boston Qualifying time, but was chasing his own goal of beating 3:00 in the marathon. Like is often the case when runners cross paths, we struck up an immediate friendship. And while I had met many runners in Eugene, Erik was the first serious goal driven runner I had gotten a chance to pick advice from. His advice was quite simple. “If you want to get faster, you need to run with fast people.” He recommended a free weekly speed group, the Eugene Running Company Speedsters, and put my name on their email list.
Weekly speed group. Sounds pretty simple right? Not for me.
I pride myself in the fact that I can push myself hard. And I have always been able to do it without help from anybody else. I have never needed a training partner to motivate me to workout, nor required a coach to hold me accountable to my schedule. There is something about the solitary nature of lacing up your shoes and running alone for hours that I find innately comforting. Conversely, the thought of jumping in with a pack of strangers for a social workout is absolutely terrifying to me. I can’t really explain why I feel this way, but meeting up with friends for dinner, catching up with an acquaintance for coffee, sometimes even going to the store for groceries are all social situations that can leave me paralyzed in my tracks. In the past I would have numbed my anxiety with drugs and alcohol, but without that crutch I am now having to re-learn how to get by. The day came for my first speed workout. I put on my running clothes, laced up my shoes and sat on the couch. I watched the clock tick up to the point that it was time to leave, then to the point that the workout started, but I didn’t budge. Eventually, resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to do this, I went for a jog alone.
Several weeks went by the same way. I would prepare for the workout, only to watch the clock tick past. Normally at this point I would have just given up on the prospects of joining this group. But the problem is, I needed this. I needed desperately to get my run time down, not just for Boston, but for the bigger goal of qualifying for team USA triathlon. I had set a benchmark for myself that I had to get my 10k time down to 40 minutes by May 2011 and the clock was ticking. I ran into Erik a bit later and he asked me how that speed group was going. I paused a moment before admitting to him that I hadn’t worked up the courage to go. “I’m scared.” I told him. I was afraid that he was going to see me as some sort of head case, but his reaction was anything but. Without the slightest bit of judgement he looked me in the eye and smiled. “I’ll give you a call the next time I go, so you can come with me.” Maybe he understood, maybe he is just that kind of nice person, but that was absolutely what I needed to hear.
I didn’t wait for Erik to call. The next Thursday I laced up my shoes, and with the support of my new friend at my back, I headed out the door to meet up with the speed group. The workout was great, but the people were even better. There were all sorts of runners there, from every age and ability level. The energy level was high as we all encouraged each other along. I stuck around afterwards and got the names of a few other runners and made a couple of friends.
I continued with the speed workouts, and began adding local fun runs to my schedule. I tried to make a point to stick near the finish line and cheer for each person as they crossed. I really just wanted to give back some of the encouragement that others were giving to me. But somebody took notice, and in December I was awarded Eclectic Edge Racing’s Monster Runner Award. I kept meeting new runners and making new friends. Before long I found myself bumping into people I knew all over town. I was beginning to understand the importance of being a part of a community.
I was having so much fun going to workouts, running races and meeting other runners, that I almost forgot why I had started the group runs in the first place. But week by week I was getting faster. As my race times were getting quicker, my place in local races was getting better. Before long I was starting to take home medals for placing in my age group and I was setting new personal records monthly. Even better though, was the growing group of friends that were there to cheer me on.
Last Saturday, I registered for my final race before starting my taper for the Eugene Marathon. It was the Oregon Marathon Relays and I chose to run the 10k. I lined up close to the front with a couple of my running friends and headed out with the lead group. My pace felt strong and after my first 5k the pack had thinned out and I found myself running alone. I felt good and kept pushing hard until I could see the finish line up ahead. I made the turn towards the end and could hear the crowd starting to cheer as the announcer was calling out the winner of the race. I strained to see who it was, but couldn’t see where the other runners were at. I turned up my pace and started sprinting in when I heard that it was my name that was being called out. I was winning the race!
I cruised across the finish line as everyone cheered loudly. People came to congratulate me, and a photographer was snapping off pictures. I looked at the clock. My time read 38:52. I had beaten my 10k pr by over 4 minutes and had beaten my 40 minute benchmark goal handily. Stunned, I stood there for a moment trying to take it all in. Other runners were finishing behind me and I cheered the familiar faces of my training partners on as they completed the race. We gathered at the finish chute and exchanged hugs and congratulations. I was so grateful to have people there to share this amazing moment with.
There are about two weeks left until the Eugene Marathon. I am both nervous and excited for this race. I am well prepared and have put in the effort necessary to put up a good time. My body is in top form and I am completely injury free. And after the thousands of miles i have logged in preparation, I am feeling confident about my chances of finally putting up that Boston qualifying time. While this goal seemed impossible at one time, I never gave up on it. Most every runner I know is going to be running the race, and I feel that with my friends there to cheer me on, I can’t lose.