Stop playing it safe!
It was a perfect day for a marathon and possibly a new personal best (PB) time. We had great weather with temperatures in the mid-40s at the start. Although we had some wind, it was much less than I had expected for the NJ Marathon which has a significant portion that runs parallel with the ocean. I was healthy, my training went well, and it is a flat course that which made me believe something special might happen as I got ready for my 13th marathon on Sunday. However it didn’t go as planned….. or did it?
Learning More from Mistakes than Successes
My main goal during my first marathon was to finish. During my second, I had planned to try an qualify for Boston. However, as I have shared previously, I won a Powerbar raffle and was paced by 3 professional athletes (read the fully story here). The result was that although I missed a rather aggressive goal of 3:10 by 11 minutes, I ran the first 18 miles at a sub-3 hour pace before the wheels came off and I walked and stumbled for the next 8. However, it was this race, more than anything else before, that taught me that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible. Although I missed my goal and experienced pain and frustration, I was motivated by the fact that if I could run 18 miles at that pace without proper training, I could go under 3 hours with some hard work and guidance. It took me 4 years to finally achieve that goal in 2010. The focused effort and careful planning that was required of me to achieve this objective created a methodical approach I embraced as part of training as well as in other areas of my life.
Trying Something New
A few weeks ago my neighbor Joe inquired about my plan for this race. Although he does not run, Joe is very supportive and knew that I had recently set a new personal best of 2:54 in 2012. He asked me why I didn’t just go all out and see what happens since I had nothing to lose at this point. He pointed out that I had run a dozen marathons and always had a very specific game plan going in. The idea appealed to me and I did as he had suggested.
The race started with 26.2 seconds of silence in remembrance of those killed in the attacks at the Boston Marathon. This was followed by our national anthem and then a couple of verses from Fenway’s favorite, “Sweet Caroline”. I joined in with the chorus and was relaxed as we waited for the race to begin. The race began at the Monmouth race track and our start was appropriately kicked off with a trumpet call used at the start of horse races.
There was such a relief once we began to move and I tried to relax and listen to my body to see if today was going to be as magical as I was thinking it could be. I even felt confident that my ulcerative colitis would not be a factor as I had followed my routine for the days leading up to the race without any problems.
It was a quick pace at the start and I was in a large pack that quickly began to stretch out. While this is a flat course, it has many turns which normally means many extra steps. This was confirmed as my Garmin indicated I had already run one mile despite the fact it took me almost an additional .12 miles to reach the first mile marker. This was a big discrepancy this early on but I decided I would run my own race and not focus on it at this point. However, it became apparent that I needed to be smart about tangents to ensure I ran as close to 26.2 miles as opposed to 27 miles or more. Running more than expected is not an infrequent occurrence and can be made worse when runners don’t pay attention or spend too much time running around people.
For the first 5 miles I ran alone hovering around 6:20 when 2 gentlemen joined me. No one spoke but we quickly formed a little pack that stayed together for the next 14 miles. Running in a pack is special and this is only the second time it has happened to me. It gives you motivation when you’re in front to push a little harder. At the same time, it helps you to relax and let the guys in front pull you and block the wind when you switch positions. It must have been an interesting scene to the spectators who cheered for us. My one running friend stood a few inches taller than me with a bright yellow singlet that contained Japanese writing. Our Hispanic friend stood a few inches shorter wearing a dark blue singlet. I finished this diverse group with my white USA singlet, glad to have company as I pushed hard.
Despite our combined efforts, it became clear that we were all slowing down but by mile 19 my 2 new friends pulled away. I was quickly slowing down and feeling miserable. It wasn’t my nutrition but rather pain in my lungs and my body refusing to react to my desire to pick up my turnover.
I kept pushing myself and it wasn’t long before I saw my Japanese friend fall back. For the first time in the race we tried to encourage one another to dig deeper but he didn’t have anything left and dropped back. My Hispanic friend was still a good minute ahead but wasn’t slowing. Then I figured it was time to give it another shot and try to catch up as the pain subsided.
Two runners who clearly knew what they were doing came up from behind me and passed at a good pace. I ducked in behind them only to realize we were averaging a 6:22 pace. I stayed with them and encouraged my new friend to join us as we went by. He was smarter and held back as I continued on with them for the next mile until I completely fell apart. I thanked them and dropped back slowing down until it was now my friends turn to pass me again and encourage me on. I tried to stay with him but it was short lived.
While I struggled for those last 3 miles I told myself to stop analyzing the situation and just run. With the finish line in sight I had one runner come up and pass me. That fired up my competitive spirit and thought “not at this point” at which point I picked it up and regained my position until I finished 23rd overall. While I never saw my Japanese friend, I did catch up with the other gentleman and we shared our thoughts on the race before heading our separate ways.
While I was able to run the first 19 miles at a pace that would have had me finish in around 2:47. I just couldn’t maintain it. The final result was nearly 2 minutes off my last PB with a time of 2:56:09 and a distance of 26.6 miles. Following the race I was not disappointed but rather invigorated. It was much like my experience in 2006 when I am began to ask myself if I have been truly challenging myself enough in my last few races.
I began to reflect on the outcome during my drive home and wondered if my cautious and planned approach has held me back from performing at a higher level in running and in other areas of my personal, professional, and spiritual life. One example that came to mind was when I was asked to be a Ruling Elder at my church. It was something I felt (and still do most of the time) that I was not qualified to serve in this manner. However, I have come to accept and understand that, with God’s help, I am able to do more than I ever thought possible. It was by stepping outside my comfort zone, taking on a responsibility much bigger than myself, and trusting in the Lord that I have grown spiritually and changed in ways I could have never imagined a few years ago. It was these thoughts and the realization that with the support of professional runners in the 2006 New York City Marathon, the encouragement of my congregation and the Holy Spirit, and the race this past Sunday that to truly grow, I must challenge myself.
So do I think we should all throw out our plans and just go for it? No. I do however believe that we must ask ourselves if we have given it our all. Do we have enough experience to take a risk with something we have tried several times without the results we wanted?
My next major race is the very challenging Leadville 100 Mile Ultramarathon in Colorado that begins at 10,200 feet and goes up to nearly 13,000 feet. Given this will be my first race at elevation and that this will only be my second 100 Mile event , I WILL play it smart and conservative (although most people would argue that those adjectives should not be associated with running this far in an oxygen deprived environment). However, I assume there will come a time when I have enough experience at this distance when I must ask myself if I should I give it my all and just see what happens.
I am not sure what is next on your list but I want to ask… Is it time you “stopped playing It safe” and find out what are you truly capable of?