Saturday, October 12, 2019

WHY I RUN My Quest to Qualify for the Boston Marathon

We all have passions. I read somewhere “Having a passion is a wonderful gift because it gives you a sense of purpose, a direction and brings meaning to life. That you don’t get to choose your passions, they pick you”. Running found me at the end of a half marathon in 2015 – a close friend had signed up a bunch for us to run the Santa Cruz Half Marathon and I decided to give it a try. At the end of the race the 1h.42min finish looked terrific! We had done some cross country back in high school but that was nearly 25 yrs ago and although not exactly a couch potato – with less than 8 weeks of training I was a bit surprised myself at that finish time. My buddy suggested “hey run the Boston Marathon”. 

That night I found myself reading a Runners World article about Boston that described it as the world’s oldest and most prestigious marathon, one that was extremely difficult to qualify for. At the time I only knew of one person who had run Boston. Someone who is a mentor and a friend, they’d told me the world of marathoning has 6 majors and Boston’s the most renowned of them all! But qualifying times looked very tough and the 3h.25min (3h.20min now) for my age group looked like a massive far cry. But the Boston bug had bitten me and it never left my mind. The first few races were half marathons where I tried to improve timing hoping to break 90mins and impress friends. We traveled near and far to find races that looked like good PR setups and ended up doing well in some shaving off nearly 15mins from the PR and (eventually) clocking 1h.28min at one of them. But getting past 13.1 seemed impossible. There was no gas left the tank and it seemed like I had peaked at that distance. I tried a lot of different training regimes but could not get past 13-14 miles. Then came the turning point – a cousin of mine who had run the London Marathon told me about Run Less Run Faster an amazing book with a disruptive approach to distance running. Running fewer days, reducing the pace and gradually increasing the distance seemed to do the trick. I ran my first long distance run a few weeks later – an 18miler at an extremely slow pace tracking about 9mins/mile. It was very hard to slow down at first but the run went down easier than I had expected. A lot of things fell into place after that and though many ups and downs I kept running. However, it took another year before I finally fully committed to running a full marathon and started the 16 week training. 

Eliud Kipchoge once said “Only the disciplined are truly free” and therein lies the holy grail. Running a marathon is a very hard thing - it forces you to plan, it forces you to persist, it forces you to get disciplined and that’s what ultimately sets you free. The training was painful at the start, the Sunday long runs were the most miserable thing and I dreaded those. Waking up early and getting out to run 20miles every Sunday – rain or shine, balancing family life, work related travel all while trying not to get injured and gradually building up strength was very hard work. 2 weeks before the first full marathon I twisted my ankle during an easy taper run and that wiped out a nearly 6 month build-up. The second try came off the rails when we decided to join friends for a 2 week RV trip in Iceland! Starting the 3rd attempt all over again seemed like pushing a massive boulder up the hill but somehow it kept rolling after I got it started and this time, I was able to stick to the plan. In Nov 2018 I ran my first full marathon clocking a 3h.18m.xx in my very first attempt and making BQ. But a month ago the qualifying times for Boston got tightened by 5 mins and what would have been a safe margin before seemed like hanging by my fingernails. Not wanting to take a risk I ran the California International Marathon (CIM) 4 weeks later hoping to take advantage of the training, mild weather and what looked like a decent downhill course (it has many rolling hills in fact). I did worse clocking in a 3h.22min. But by now I was sucked fully in the vortex of qualifying for Boston –and was consumed by that goal every waking moment. 

Giving up was not an option so I signed up for a Revel Race (Mt.Charleston, NV) 4 months later in April 2018. I trained hard, tapered well and was in outstanding shape felling really great going into that race and did extremely well nearly till the end. But it was a very hot day in Las Vegas and the 88F finally tore me down at mile 23. I hit the wall walking the last 3 miles to put up a 3h.40min. Disappointed, deflated and defeated, I was still unwilling to give up and by the end of that day signed up again for another full marathon  – a difficult mountain race 4 weeks later. I rested out for 2 weeks did a few short runs as my taper and waited hoping (once again) that the previous training would carry me through it. Unfortunately, 2 days prior to, the mild weather turned was showing another 80F forecast. Not wanting to risk it – I dropped from the race feeling like this was the final checkmate. Time was running out – it was getting hot and there weren’t too many races left before September. Plus, the thought of signing up for something 18 weeks out was just too daunting. I am 44 now and have the advantage to qualify in the 45-49yr bracket for Boston which would be lost in 6 months. So sometime on a Sunday afternoon in late May I opened up a US map and started going state by state looking for a flat (USATF certified) full marathon course. Many were sold out, others were in places that were too hot, windy or otherwise courses that were not ideal.

After a few days of intense search, somewhere on Findmymarathon I discovered the Tunnel Marathon in a small town called Issaquah in Washington – it looked like a gem of a course for a runner trying to qualify for Boston. Problem was the race was in 7 days and was sold out. So I emailed the race director and waited.. left them voice messages, more emails the next day and left several more messages. Finally, on a Monday morning I got an email back and a chance to speak with the Race Officials. After a 30min phone call listening to my story followed with a verbal guarantee that I would land a BQ - they granted an exception and let me run under the Friends of Quinn category. With zero training in over 5 weeks, a terrible taper my hopes were dimming as I stood at the start line fumbling to put on my headlight ready to enter the long dark tunnel. The race is called "Light at the End of the Tunnel". Reviewers online had talked about a 2 mile long tunnel that is pitch dark and cold. The headlamp lights about 2 feet of path ahead of you, dont try to cross anyone in the tunnel, form a very tight formation and be guided by the sound of feet pounding the dirt track. Nervously I turned on the headlamp waiting for the gun to fire. I was thankful for the chance and hoping to make the best of it. 

At a marathon you get to the start line by planning for the future but the way you get to the finish line is by staying in the present. “Be present and stay in the moment” – parting advice from my friend kept ringing in my head. The first 10 miles were a breeze, the course is a stunningly beautiful, fast downhill trail and fairly forgiving for the most part - it did make up some for my incomplete taper and tired legs from the previous attempt. I had a strong start, positioned in the front of the pack, very careful through the 2mile long tunnel (which starts at 0.7mi) to not trip or bump into anyone. At the tunnel exit I dropped the headlamp into a collection bin and sped up leaving the 3.15 pacer far behind. I was going too fast. At one point the pace was indicating a 3.05 finish. I reminded myself to stick to the pace chart, slow down and not let the adrenaline take over. Mild panic set in at mile 11 as I realized the 4 salt capsules neatly tucked inside the flip belt had dropped somewhere – likely when pulling a Gu gel pack out. Mile 11 was where they had to be taken to avoid cramping out later, it takes about 20 mins for the salt to fully kick in. Cramps are bad news for any runner and can wipe out the best races even a mile before the finish line. It had happened to me twice before where a solid race that could have led to PR came to a dead stop due to a cramp. A wipeout could not be afforded here, not today. I decided to wait out at the next aid station asking some runners if they had any salt sticks. After waiting for about a minute asking several folks there was no luck finding it. Precious time was ticking so I abandoned the idea and decided to go for it without any salt. But ofcourse a couple miles down I could feel a muscle pull deep inside the left calf and I knew it was coming. It was only a matter of time till that calf blew out. I glanced back and the saw the 3.30 pace group not too far back. This was not looking good, I had to stay near the 3.20 group and pick up pace in the second half if I had to have a chance. Slowing down to have them catch up would be a disaster. 

Against all logic I decided to actually run back to that group and ask some more runners. Luckily
one of them said they had some extra tablets but suggested we meet at the next aid station. It was going to cost a few minutes to join a 3.30pace group but the risk of a cramp was not worth taking so I joined the pack. We stopped somewhere around mile 16 and the nice man gave me 2 tablets. I popped them both, thanked him for being so kind, we high fived and I pushed ahead. The next 5 miles had to be fast – I picked up pace to make up for the lost time. Tiredness was setting in rapidly, the hard push at late stage had not helped. It is afterall a marathon and at some point it will try to break you. For most runners that moment arrives between miles 19-21 when you hit that dreaded wall. The first 20 miles are just a warmup, it’s the last 6.2miles (10K) that tests what you are made up of. As I passed mile 20 the cramping had started to flare up again, a slight change in posture was triggering muscle tightness. I tried to hold steady but the form was breaking down. By mile 23, I was struggling and in full panic mode. Its hard to describe the blackness and the pain that swallows you through those last few miles. I tried to stay present and not slip away. There were two runners ahead of me and we decided to start talking. It helped some but the wheels were starting to come off rapidly. I told the guys best of luck and started walking thinking some rest might help make the final push. Time was ticking as I continued to walk, quick look at the Garmin– 2 miles to go – this was slipping away. There was no one in sight – no runners no spectators only the forest and a long empty trail. I limped into a slow run dragging my left leg, not bending it ever so slightly and praying a full-blown cramp won’t break out.
By now I could hear faint noises in the distance. I am not sure when I passed the last mile markers but as the trail turned the sounds had grown louder. It was hard to see clearly at first, my face was covered in a lot of salt and it was burning through my eyes. Several alarms were going off on the Garmin – pace, heart rate, finish time were all off, 3h.12min elapsed time, 1.2 miles to go – even at a 7.30 pace this was all but over. I was dazed and fading in and out of consciousness. The distinct sound of a bell clanging woke me up. There were two girls holding a large red bell. One of them was waving at me and kept screaming something. I wasn’t sure how they got there or what she was trying to say. Everything was moving in slow motion and her voice was coming in waves. They were saying something about the finish line. I walked closer and asked how far it was – she pointed at the 26mile marker and then towards a large green inflatable. It didn’t make any sense; I was still 1.2miles away on the Garmin but the mile marker was showing 0.2miles left. Where did I miscalculate, how could my trusted Garmin be so off? It seemed like some kind of a miracle was unfolding in real time but my mind was too tired to compute what was going on. All I knew was there was a chance although I didn’t know how much of it was left. It was enough though to jolt me back up and just as soon as I woke up, the wall of sound hit. It hit like a lightening bolt – there were people, hundreds of them, all around, all shouting, cheering, bells clanging, lots of noise. I knew I had to move, it was now or never. I broke into a run staring emptily and endlessly into the eyes of people lining that trail – their energy driving me forward and forward one step at a time. As I made past the finish line the clock showed 3h.15min – it was unbelievable but somehow it felt real and I knew it was done. A lot of things happen very quickly after you cross the line at a big marathon, there’s volunteers with water, food, medals and ice packs, bigger crowds, timing tents and more photographers, its quite a carnival and its loud!

I took my medal grabbed some water, walked away from the crowds towards a rock and sat there in silence thinking about the past 4 years, the highs, the lows, the struggle and the pure bliss that was washing all over me as I sat there. It was surreal like a movie playing in my head. I could see my wife and kids as I thought about their love how it had powered me through all these races. The faces of my friends staring at me, smiling as if they knew this moment was going to bring me here. Everyone with their own struggle in life building careers, starting ventures, raising kids, fighting for them, battling disease and defeating illness but never ever ever giving up. All this time, we were all running - together. Was life a marathon and a marathon nothing but life? It sure seemed like it. As I thought of my parents I finally broke down and decided it was time to move. 

So why do we run and what did I gain by running a marathon or qualifying for Boston. If fitness is a goal, there are many easier (safer) ways to get fit and stay healthy. Why do people run marathons? What started out as a chase for glory (a Boston Marathoner who stood amongst the greats and has a Unicorn to show for it) somewhere turned into a quest for ultimate perfection, a deep desire to reach for the impossible and push my body and spirit just to see if it could be done. It was no longer about impressing anyone – it had become something more than that. I had found deeper meaning. Most people have heard that running a marathon is a very difficult thing, it goes way beyond that. Training to deal with a lot of pain over a very long period of time alters your perception about a lot of things in life. There’s something about running that distance that changes you as a person. Most of me is the same old self but in many ways, I am a much better version of myself.

Day to day stresses or issues don’t bother me as much as they used to. Whatever the issue or problem it can be tackled or will eventually go away if you stay the course long enough. In life and at a marathon you are playing the long game. There’s a school of thought out there that believes in the here and now – to live in the present and always be in the moment. And they are right for the most part. The danger however with always being in the moment is one can get trapped by the day to day experience – and that can sometimes bring you down. Runners are different. I think marathoners develop this paradoxical ability to do both –  to be in the moment and yet always be looking at things from a long term stand point. Marathon training makes you realize there’s a great expanse of time ahead of us so there’s no need to panic today or give up because something did not work out the way it was supposed to. As long as you think about that time and plan for it you will be ok.

The other thing running teaches you the hard way is that nothing great will ever come to you unless you are truly committed. You can read all the books there are and make the plans but will not get anywhere until you take that first step. They say “You do goal setting with a pencil but you do goal getting with your legs”. You have to take action! And that is what ultimately separates regular people from the truly great ones – the ability to take action and do the hard work that’s needed to get there. A few months back I watched Free Solo and heard Alex Honnold describe his experience
climbing the El Capitan. He is clearly a super gifted guy with a gift for climbing but that’s not what he’s proud of. Like he say's in the movie "Practicing that climb, memorizing every sequence, each hold and its texture for a 3000ft wall that he's climbed nearly 50 times over 10 years - its a lot of hard work and sweat". That’s a choice he’s made and lived with so that’s something he can proud of. I think we all have gifts that can be taken to the next level. I am just very happy that the effort and training I put in helped me become a strong runner and reach my goalAs I ponder upon what outside of family and work is probably the biggest accomplishment of my life – I think the greatest lesson I have learnt through 100’s of miles of running hard, breathing harder and observing myself transform through it all, has been this. 

The answers to our biggest problems and our greatest challenges are all inside us – running a marathon helped me find some of them.