About 10 years ago, I started thinking more about long-term goals--setting them, working towards them, accomplishing them. Like lots of people in America over the past 20 years, I decided one fitness goal would be running a marathon. I think the explosive growth in the popularity of marathons has to do with the binary nature of the race. You either did it or you didn't. It's much easier to evaluate than something like "become physically fit." What does that mean? What weight, blood pressure, diet, sleep, and psychology satisfy the goal to become physically fit? Running a marathon is seen as a nice instrumental variable for physical fitness; it's reasoned that you can't complete a marathon unless you're physically fit.
It's not a very good instrument, though, because it's not only possible to complete a marathon without being physically fit, it happens quite a bit. Once you realize this, you have to include a time in your goal. Just completing the race marks a certain level of fitness, but what most people want when they set a personal goal to run a marathon is a higher level of fitness.
In 2005 I set a personal goal to run a marathon that year. I looked around and found a race in Houston in January 2006, and set that as my goal. But completing my associate's degree and moving to Kansas got in the way of training, and then our financial situation made traveling to Houston impossible. So I carried the goal over for a few years, until 2008, when I aimed for a marathon in Kansas City in October.
I trained well during the spring and summer, but when school started back up at the end of August, I no longer had time for training. The final six weeks, when I was supposed to be taking the final steps of preparation, I was actually regressing. On race day, I had vague hopes of finishing in about four hours. I was under two hours at the half-marathon mark. By about 16 miles, I was running out of steam. I ended up walking most of the way after 20 miles. I finished just under six hours.
I had completed a marathon, but in such horrible fashion that it barely even counted. I encountered plenty of people who said, "Oh, you ran a marathon? What was your time?" Then when I hesitated, they said, "I'll tell you mine first because there is no way you were as slow as me." Then they would tell me a time much faster than mine.
So I decided to run another marathon, and do better, and then check it off my list of goals and be done with it. I signed up for a marathon in Louisville, about two hours away from where we now live. It was eight months in the future, allowing for adequate preparation, and it was on a Saturday instead of a Sunday. I wanted to finish in 4.5 hours. Then I started running.
September was slow going. October and early November were great. I began to think 4.5 hours was very possible, and if I kept progressing as quickly, four hours would be possible for me. But on Thanksgiving I pulled my left hamstring playing football (one touchdown reception, one interception). I stretched a lot, tried to run a very slow four miles the next day (and only got through one), then ran 10 miles the next day. By the end of the run, I had very painful plantar fasciitis in my right foot.
I couldn't run for most of December. I wore a boot that stretched my foot. I rolled my foot on a rubber ball. I started running again right before Christmas, but could only go four miles before needing to stretch. I lowered my expectations back to 4.5 hours.
I expected some difficulty training over the winter, but I thought I could use a treadmill for the worst weeks of January and February, and then be back outside for the longer runs in March and April. But this winter was terrible, and I ended up having to do up to 20 miles on a treadmill a few times. That's a terrible way to spend a Saturday.
Anyway, going into the race, I thought 4.5 hours was a reasonable goal, and I had hopes that, if everything went right for me, I could be closer to four hours.
I started aiming for 10-minute miles, but I was coming in closer to 9:45. The weather was great and I felt good, so I wasn't trying too hard to slow down any more.
At 8.5 miles, I got a terrible cramp in my left calf. I limped to the side of the course and stretched as much as I could, then hobbled on, trying to get my leg to loosen up through use. By about 12 miles, I wasn't really limping anymore. When the 4.5-hour pace guy passed me at 14 miles, I was surprised because I didn't know I was in front of him. I started behind him, then lost track of him and thought he was ahead of me, even though I knew my pace was below 4.5 hours. When I passed my family at 20 miles, I was feeling good. I thought I had enough to finish well, and my calf was loose enough to keep running without much of a problem. It was between 22 and 23 miles that I began to slow down a lot. My calf tightened back up, the weather got warmer (the temperature was fine, but lots of bright sun and no shade for most of the final six miles). I picked it up at 25 miles, and finished under five hours, at 4:59:47.
So here's what went well: I ran the entire race, aside from walking for a few seconds at each aid station when drinking. I had a bad injury less than a third of the way through the race, and I still finished. I was an hour faster than my last marathon; if I keep lowering my time one hour each race, I'll be among the world's elite runners in just three more marathons. Now here's what went poorly: I wanted to finish in 4.5 hours and I was off that time by 30 minutes. I trained more thoroughly than I did in 2008, but I still wasn't as exact as I should have been.
Now that I've improved some, I can see how I would improve even more. I don't really like running marathons, but now I want to do another. With better eating and fitness, I could get down under four hours. Then I'd retire forever from this terribly stupid event.