Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why Run 26.2 Miles?

Believe it or not, this is only the second most popular question I get asked. The most popular? “What do you think about when running that far?” That question is a modern inquiry, I think. Our world offers us so little sustained reflection time that we no longer know how valuable such time can be or what we would do with it. Runners cherish the time and know how beneficial it can be for dealing more effectively with every other area of life. Our forefathers who were runners probably only had to deal with the question at hand: why run a marathon?

My first marathon was all about finishing. So many times I had begun training for the distance, and so many times I had quit before paying a race registration fee. I believed I wanted to meet the challenge, but my desire for ease overcame my discipline. Was I so mentally weak that I could not dig deep enough to find the discipline to finish what I started? Oh, I had excuses, and I offered them anytime anyone asked how my training was going. Work. Travel. Alabama weather. The justifications sounded valid, as if my only course of action was to quit. In January, when I finally stood at the starting line in Phoenix with thousands of others, I realized I had already finished the hardest part: the preparation.

When I finally crossed the actual finish line, my wife was elated. “You did it!” she said excitedly, camera in hand ready to catch a victory smile. I shook my head. “I know I can do that faster,” I grumbled. I thought the camera was about to become an assault weapon. “What? Are you kidding me? You just ran 26 miles!” I relaxed. She was right. Finishing that day was my only goal, and I had done it.

So, why, after reaching goal, do I want to run the ING Hartford Marathon? Because it is no longer about finishing. I have proven that to myself. Now it is about potential. I want to achieve the possible and know that I have pushed myself to the point of being my best.

Returning from Phoenix, I thought this would be easy. I knew how to train for the distance. How hard would it be to just run it quicker? My optimism dissipated as my running fluctuated wildly within the range of mediocrity. This brought me face-to-face with a humbling reality. I needed someone to help me. I could not, on my own, figure out how to reach my potential.

Again, my wife spoke wisdom before my ears were ready to hear her words. “Why don’t you get a coach?” Am I that pathetic—that I need someone with a clipboard and whistle to scream verbal abuse while I run mind-numbing laps around a track? (You could accurately describe my views of coaches as archaic!) But then my mind replayed snippets from my first marathon. There were coaches along the course—coaches who stepped out and ran a few paces with their runners, offering encouragement and advice. I liked what they did so much that I wanted to be one! But at this point, I needed one.

A bit of searching brought me to information on a local running coach. I contacted him, and he responded with an application. That’s right, an application—like what you might fill out for a potential employer. Wait a minute, I thought. This seems backwards. I completed the paperwork and sent it back to him. I was so frustrated that I expected bad news. I believed he would look at my responses and say something like, “I’m not the right coach for you.” (In ending relationships, this line is “It’s me, not you.”)

His reply could not have been more different. “I’d love to work with you,” he said. “Let’s meet after this race next Saturday. You are running it, right?” Well, I was now. Meeting my coach apparently required a 15k run. “Great! Your finishing time will give me some more data to work with.” I groaned, imagining him standing at the finish, looking at his watch, and wondering, “Where is he?”

We met. He had finished the race several minutes before I had, but he was gracious. “That’s a respectable time for this course,” he said. “Now, let’s talk about your running and where you want to go with it.”

Working with a coach has been good for more than my running. Yes, I am improving and even getting faster. He thinks my potential is greater than I do, which is both encouraging and challenging. He gets on my case for getting down on myself and provides a more nuanced and balanced long view. In short, he helps me focus on the finish and not the potholes in the road. He educates, strategizes, and keeps me moving forward.

So, back to the original question: why am I excited about running in Hartford?

Yes, I am running for me. I do not want to regret never achieving what I could in this area of growing interest. And, in some small part, I am running for my coach. I want to perform as he believes I can—not to gain his approval, but to validate his excellent work. And I am running for my wife. She always supports my pursuits, and if I finish even a minute faster this time around, she will be initiating reason.

So bring on the New England fall colors and let’s run! Let’s discover what we CAN do because we’re told too often what we can’t. And as we run, may thoughts of gratitude for those who helped us get to the starting line bring on that beautiful tension of looking back while pressing ahead that can only running allows.

See you at the start line!