Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” My plan for the NYC Marathon in 2011 was kind of like that, only I wasn’t punched and the only person I was fighting was myself.
I had been distance running for 10 years and decided it was time to go for broke. No shortcuts. No missed days. Nothing would take priority over running. I was going to crush my marathon PR (personal record).
As a base measurement, I ran the 2010 NYC Marathon in a respectable 3:11. After that, I figured it was realistic to take off one minute per mile and finish in 2:45. I told my wife, Rachel, what I planned to do and promised our 5-month-old son, Shane, that I’d run a 2:45 in a year. I know Shane was really impressed because moments later he pooped his pants.
I hired a coach. And a nutritionist. And a sports psychologist. I started writing a blog. I stopped drinking alcohol. I ate nothing that came in a package. I went to bed early and, true to my plan, never missed a day of training. I was physically transforming. I’d look in the mirror and think, “Yeah, this is what a fast runner should look like. My cheeks are even sinking in.” I shaved my head.
“To be completely candid, I was becoming a better runner and a worse person.”
It’s fair to say I became obsessed.
Rachel and I were counting down the days until the race. She because she wanted her husband back and I because I had something to prove. I’m still not certain who I was trying to impress. Myself? My brothers? My father? My wife? I wanted everyone to know that I was fast. Really fast. Because if I was fast, I’d merit respect.
To be completely candid, I was becoming a better runner and a worse person.
I was self-absorbed and single-minded. Running had become my life and there was no inner voice yelling, “Get a life.” Those who knew me couldn’t wait for this ordeal to end.
On the night before the race, Rachel presented me with a gift that brought me to tears. It was a scrapbook of letters from friends and family saying how much my efforts had inspired them. I didn’t think I deserved the admiration – yet. I had eaten 800 pounds of kale, furiously worked out 365 days in a row, put my job, my marriage and my sanity at risk, run through diarrhea on seven occasions, transformed my face into a cubist sculpture, and nearly cried once a week for two months. But I hadn’t yet run a 2:45.
As I paged through the book, overcome with emotion, Rachel told me, “Whatever you do, don’t stop before the finish line.” So I promised her I wouldn’t stop. Then I buried my head in my hands and sobbed.
Race day morning arrived and while standing at the starting line, I realized that I wasn’t excited. I just wanted the whole thing to be over.
My plan was to average 6:11’s for the first half and 6:20’s on the back half. If you have ever run New York, you might notice a major flaw in this strategy: You don’t ever want to “bank” time in a marathon, particularly in New York. Countless studies have stressed the importance of saving your gas for the second half and running it quicker than the first: a negative split. But that’s still beside the point.
My first mile was a good pace, a 6:30, but I became concerned it was too slow. So I ran the second mile in 5:50, then immediately cursed myself for making such an early blunder. The voice in my head wasn’t making life any easier. “You idiot. What were you thinking? You’re done. You’ve ruined it. Just drop out now.”
I had obsessed over my physical training. And in doing so, I completely neglected my psychological and emotional preparation. Come race day, this left me vulnerable and exposed. The demons in my head took full advantage and had a field day on my fragile psyche.
There wasn’t one mile throughout the entire race where I thought, “I got this. I am going to do this.”
“The time on the clock did not define who I was -- being a husband and a father did.”
I hit the halfway mark on pace at 1:23, but the pit in my stomach tightened because I knew the inevitable wall was coming. Mike Tyson’s punch in the mouth was waiting for me as I entered the Bronx.
I slugged up mile 18 and saw 6:40 on my watch. Concrete filled my legs, and an overwhelming sense of sadness and embarrassment came over me. The dream was over. My carefully crafted, year-long game plan had completely unraveled. I was so obsessed with 2:45:00 that I couldn’t enjoy the fact that I was still well on pace to run a PR.
With 200 meters to go, deflated and miserable, I was looking all over the grandstands for Rachel and Shane. Yes, I promised I wouldn’t stop, but I had also promised Shane I’d run a 2:45 and that clearly wasn’t going to happen. Shane and Rachel were the only reasons I didn’t drop out of the race at mile 20. I knew they’d be waiting for me and they were patient spectators for the worst show on Earth: me training for and running a marathon.
So there I am looking in the grandstands when I heard my father-in-law shout my name. In front of him was a teary-eyed Rachel, who knew I had fallen far short of my goal, and a little boy who just wanted his daddy to hug him. I walked over to Rachel who said “I love you so much.” I attempted to reply with the same words, but I was too choked up to say anything at all. She asked if I wanted Shane, and I did. So she handed Shane to me over the orange fence and I immediately crumbled to the ground, cradling him as I fell. It’s the only time in my life that I experienced what can be described as an out of body experience. Everything around me went white. Total silence and stillness. Just me and Shane on the ground. Runners were flying (or limping) by joyfully with the finish line in sight. I only had eyes for Shane. Clutching him and feeling his presence was a much needed wake-up call. The time on the clock did not define who I was ― being a husband and a father did.
I ended up walking through the finish line with Shane in my arms. The walk to the baggage pickup and exit was another mile from there, which is the last thing you want to do after running 26 miles. My body was quickly deteriorating and holding Shane was proving to be difficult. A volunteer was kind enough to put us on his golf cart and take us out of Central Park.
The first person I saw was one of my best friends, a former Division I soccer player. With a grin, he said, “I’m glad you lost today.” I wanted to give him a Mike Tyson, but I had no energy and didn’t want to drop Shane. I couldn’t believe he said that. “You’re glad I lost?!” I sneered.
“Yup,” he responded. “You won’t understand for a while, but this will make you stronger.”
He was right. It took the help of a brilliant therapist, an extremely perceptive, patient, and affectionate wife, and the unconditional love of family and friends to make me realize what exactly happened out there. My failure on that day was trying to become someone I’m not. I tried to become more of a runner, oblivious that I became less of a person. It was my personal best; I just wasn’t my best.
“If we only compare ourselves to others, we’re doing ourselves a huge injustice.”
I tell you this story because we runners love to plan. We love to be in control. We do it better than most. Control and plan. We have our detailed running logs and charts. We plan what we’re going to wear on race day and what songs we’re going to listen to at certain miles and what we’re going to eat and where we’re going to eat it. What we don’t plan for is the unexpected. Something elites do impeccably well is run in the present. They have a plan, for sure, but they are willing to deviate from script when necessary. Maybe it’s too hot, so they have to pull back. Or maybe their competition isn’t going as quickly as they had thought, so they decide to surge at mile 15 and become the first American to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 and send an entire country into an unprecedented running tizzy. (I’m talking about the man that is Meb.) Or maybe, just maybe, they finish humbled yet grateful because they learned that not all plans pan out, and disappointment can be as valuable a lesson as success.
My failure five years ago has helped me better relate to the runner who finishes shaking his head in disgust and, ultimately, makes me better at my job. I don’t tell the runner I’m glad he “failed;” I give him a high five and remind him he did the best he could today. My experience in NYC 2011 helped me understand the difference between obsession and dedication. But far more importantly, that experience has shaped who I am. Had I achieved my goal of a 2:45, I might have concluded that self-centeredness is the path to achievement. I might have thought that to run fast is to be “great.”
If we only compare ourselves to others, we’re doing ourselves a huge injustice. And if we become so attached to a plan on race day, we may fail to appreciate all of the hard work that we put into that race.
To all future marathoners, I encourage each of you to focus on more than the outcome or your finishing time. Consider everything else that’s going on as you run those 26.2 miles. Notice the kids who have their hands out waiting for your high five. Notice the volunteers who are standing out there with water to make your day a little smoother. Notice the other runners whom you’ve never met, but for one day are your teammates. Shake hands with the runners who finish near you. Hug them if you feel so inspired. Then stick around for a good 10-20 minutes to cheer on the runners you passed because they made you stronger.
The marathon tests us as runners, yes, but it tests us more as human beings.