The marathon is like a metaphor

In that both words have eight letters and start with “m”.

It was fairly early in 2019 when I made the decision to run my first marathon in over four years. In receiving an award notification for the NSF CAREER in late mid-December 2018, I was now reasonably confident I would sail through my tenure approval process and be given the chance to stick around for foreseeable and moderately unforeseeable future. With the 2015 Big Sur marathon retreating further into the rearview mirror, I wanted to get back into the long distance game before I completely forgot how to fuel for anything over 13 miles.

I also, genuinely, wanted to take another crack at the distance that has vexed me all three times I’ve attempted it: a slow-burn meltdown in 2012 at Philly, a lithium-ion crash at the 2013 Marine Corps, and a head cold at the aforementioned 2015 Big Sur that yielded a brilliant 20 miles followed by a final 10K march so miserable I literally don’t remember it.

I knew, having already gone through the 2016 and 2017 stretch of learning how to run all over again, that I couldn’t do this by myself. Even with The Lady’s marathon expertise, I felt professional guidance was a necessity. The Lady put me in touch with Caitlin of Fearless Feet Running, and after we returned from Ireland back in May, we hit the ground running–literally and figuratively.

That process was anything but smooth. As much as I would flail and rage against it, life still happened.

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 12.30.05 PM
Monthly mileage totals over the training cycle.

June was brutal, but relatively successful: with the exception of a missed race (just couldn’t make Rabun happen this year), I hit the mileage goals. The quality workouts, however, were another story: I was having to cut back on difficulty on almost every one–a sprint here, a rep there. The heat and humidity were already at their worst and I just wasn’t acclimated. A lovely trip to the mountains with dear friends helped break up the cycle a bit and generally relax while still acclimating.

By comparison, July knocked me on my ass. While I did manage to finally halt my four-year slide at the Peachtree Road Race and clock a faster time than last year, it was still comfortably above 50 minutes; the halcyon days of southern summer swelter had arrived in force, and simply stepping outside required Herculean strength and resolve. I also had to deal with a small twinge in my knee that took me out of running for a week. Certainly didn’t do my ability to acclimate any favors.

In August, we started the formal 16-week marathon training program. By this time I had a “base”–that elusive concept referring to one’s baseline abilities and assumptions that we’re starting some epsilon away from scratch–and instead of maintaining weekly mileage while increasing difficulty, I could start alternating each week with increased mileage and increased workout difficulty. Of course, the start of fall classes did nothing to help the process go smoothly, and the fact that I was slated to teach the single course I was least prepared for (of the five I’ve ever taught before) ensured that this month felt completely chaotic.

…at least, until September rolled around and left no doubt that it would be perennial contender for Most F*#@ing Absurd Month. My quality workouts actually went well, but I had two spectacular blow-ups in long runs this month: one was entirely my fault (pro-tip, don’t drink margaritas the night before a long run) while the other I blame on the still-Venusian weather. Real life did a real number, too–The Lady and I traveled three of the four weekends in the month: one to West VA for a friend’s wedding (with a stop the night before at UNC Chapel Hill…not exactly “on the way”), one to Pittsburgh for my first-ever invited seminar and to visit The Lady’s brother and his family, and a third to D.C. to serve on my first-ever NSF review panel.

That last trip to D.C. was at the end of September and start of October, which was also supposed to coincide with my first 20-mile long run of the cycle, but I was so burned out at this point I ended up getting sick and not running a single mile of that 20. In the subsequent weeks of October my running improved considerably, but at this point we were solidly in Peak Month and everything was hard. The shortest long run was 18 miles, and the weekly mileage regularly topped 45. While the weather was slowly cooling off, we still had frequent mornings with temperatures over 70F and above 90% humidity. And despite out-of-town travel dropping to zero, I was now in perpetual catch-up mode at work.

Which brings us, at last, to November. The “Taper Tantrums” are in full swing: I can fall asleep anytime, anywhere; everything hurts, even parts which have no reason to hurt; short runs feel terrible, and longer runs slightly better. I feel completely tapped out at work, and when I get home it’s all I can do to keep from scarfing down literal pounds of leftover Halloween candy and avoiding egg nog like the plague, lest it turn my blood to lead and all but guarantee that my marathon will end within the first mile.

I honestly don’t know what to expect from this marathon, partly because I haven’t had a chance to discuss with Caitlin yet, but also because of the simple fact that it’s been 4.5 years since my last and life has been so life in the last six months that anything between Phawkes’ 3:20 predictions (“Phawkes” is the name of my Garmin Fēnix) and my standing 4:17 PR seems well within the realm of possible, even plausible.

FiveThirtyEight linked their marathon pace calculator from last year in time for this year’s NYC Marathon, and for giggles I punched in the information they wanted: 35 miles/week (average) training, a 1:44:52 half marathon time on a moderate course (Swamp Rabbit in Feb 2019), and a 51:29 10K on a hard course (Peachtree this past July). Here’s what they thought:

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Courtesy of the FiveThirtyEight marathon calculator.

Seems as reasonable as any. But enough with reasonable.

Every fall it seems like the conceptual thunderdome of “which is a better metaphor for life: football or marathons” crops up. I spent a significant portion of my formative years having the football metaphor drilled into me: the gridiron as a stand-in for all the challenges and uphill battles you’ll fight on a daily basis, with the guarantee that you’ll get knocked down repeatedly, and the mark of a successful player is the ability to get back up to [likely] get knocked down again and [maybe] make a play.

16 years later (jfc I’m old), I embrace that metaphor with considerably less enthusiasm. While I don’t think it’s outright wrong, it’s definitely misleading: there are only so many times you can get back up before trying again could, literally as well as figuratively, be dangerous to your health. To that end, I’ve increasingly found the marathon to be the superior metaphor: it’s a long grind, especially with the training, and has its share of ups and downs. Sometimes it will feel great, other times you’ll wish you’d stayed in bed. There’s no shortcut–I’ve found one can “fake” their way through a half marathon without training, but with a full it’s just impossible unless you’ve put in the time and effort. Critically, you can’t put it all on the line at the very beginning; it’s not a sprint, so you better go out hard but make sure you’ve got something left for when the going gets really hard.

Photo Nov 02, 17 21 41
Georgia Tech’s 2019 Homecoming game against Pittsburgh! We lost. Badly.

I may be training for a marathon, but I’m also actively running one. I nailed a huge PR last December and took some time to recuperate a bit. Unfortunately, this fall, I attacked the hills a bit before I was fully rested and it hurt like hell. It’ll make me stronger down the stretch, but only if I take care of myself now. But in that recover-while-training synchrony, I’ve been frustrated by what feels like simply treading water: workouts where I’ve had to cut out reps because it was just too humid out, or long runs I had to bag because I was under the weather. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to get further than a week ahead in my teaching, I’ve pushed a couple grant deadlines, and I outright canceled my appearance at a top conference in October. In isolation, these felt like misses in my training, milestones I should have been able to hit but didn’t. Was I not training hard enough? Did I need to push even more? Maybe I could make up for it by cramming in more later?

It’s crazy how often the same identical neuroses crop up in marathon training and everyday life, and are handled oppositely. I get a small tweak in my knee? Take a week off, no worries, especially since it’s early in training; Big grant deadline? Push through it, pull an all-nighter if you have to, then back to work first thing in the morning because I haven’t made the lecture slides yet. Conversely: three weeks in a row of travel, feeling sick, sure I’ll take a day off from work; three weeks in a row of travel, feeling sick, but if I skip this 20-mile run it’s the end of the f#@!ing world!

I love what I do; I also hate my job with every fiber of my being. So, too, do I love and hate running marathons. Maybe I’ll give marathons a slight edge in sum because I often run to escape work, but never the other way around. Also because I can eat a lot more donuts while running marathons than I can sitting at my desk.

This is all to say: I’ve really, really missed this grindy, miserable, wonderful event, and I’m excited and terrified to see what I can do on Saturday morning. But no matter what happens, I’ll feel better again, I’ll have fun, and I’ll have the world’s best cheering section the whole way.

Photo Nov 02, 16 43 31
The Lady sat through a one-sided (not our side) football game. That’s true love.
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