It’s been more than three weeks since I ran the Shamrock Marathon, and I wanted to revisit the experience one last time before moving on for good (although running another race two weeks afterward was a good way to start the process). I needed to get past the raw emotions of those first few days post-race before I tried to synthesize my experience and put a finger on the reason(s) I fell short of my goal.
The truth is I will probably never know exactly what went wrong. (Does anyone ever figure out the marathon?) The turning point, it seemed, was during the taper. In the weeks of peak training I was tired but the running was second-nature. My last long run, at the end of one of my heaviest weeks of training, was the fastest 20-miler I had ever completed. But then came the taper, and I feel like those weeks only dulled my preparation. The actual race felt nothing like the long runs from my training cycle, despite following a well-rehearsed plan developed over months of training.
It was like my best friend – running – had come back from a long vacation with a nose ring and a tattoo. Things just felt different, and our relationship – which had once been carefree and comfortable – had become unfamiliar and cold.
If you had asked me three weeks before the race, I would have been brimming with lessons learned during this training cycle. But all that was called into question after the final result. The main takeaway is that my three-week taper period was too long. I should have run an 18- or 20-mile long run two weeks before race day. Otherwise I can’t really find fault with my training. You could always argue that I should have run more miles, but I ran as much as my schedule would allow and I supplemented the running with cross-training and other strength work.
In the end, what it comes down to is experience. I had run two marathons before, the most recent about four and a half years ago. But that might as well have been a lifetime ago. I am a completely different runner now, with bigger goals and better fitness. It appears the best possible scenario would be to run two marathon cycles back-to-back, immediately plowing the knowledge and fitness gained during the first into the second.
I feel a little let down that my training was the best of my life but was somehow compromised during the taper. How I wish I could go back to that moment three weeks before the marathon and tweak my course of action for that final approach to the race. But I can’t, and that illustrates the heartbreaking reality of the marathon. To train properly takes months of commitment and a good bit of luck. It’s a tremendous investment of mental and physical energy, and if something goes wrong you can’t just try again next weekend. You’re never guaranteed that things will come together in the same way for future training cycles.
For lots of reasons, my dance with the marathon is finished for now. It’s hard, having lived the life of a marathoner, to fall back into a more “normal” running routine. Sure, I’ve got some goals, but I would be lying if I said they were as motivating to me as running a strong marathon. Notching a fast 10k just doesn’t hold the same cachet. I enjoy 10-mile tempo runs, but after a while I will inevitably ask myself why I continue to do them when they’re not geared toward performing in a particular race.
It’s also hard to walk away from the distance without having reached my goal of qualifying for Boston, particularly as many of my online friends prepare to run that historic race in just a few days. For better or worse, I’m not a runner who can run indefinitely just for the heck of it. I need a goal to chase. The problem is that once you’ve chased the biggest goal, smaller goals just don’t have as much luster.
I didn’t intend for this to become a depressing post. I know these feelings will fade in time. I still have a sense of accomplishment after every run but otherwise feel like I’m in a state of suspended animation, without a clear idea of what’s going to happen next. That feeling extends to the rest of my life as we count down the final weeks before our next baby arrives and my chosen career field – print journalism – continues to implode. Nothing seems concrete anymore.
After all this, the marathon remains a mystery to me. Who knows if I’ll ever solve it, but I predict that there will be more opportunities for me to experience its joys and frustrations. It is the event with which I most identify. I enjoy racing shorter distances, but the marathon – perhaps because of its challenges and mysteries – continues to call with a siren song I can’t resist.