It isn’t always easy being a runner. It isn’t always easy being the Penguin. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to be both and to be true to either. One of the canons of the Penguin philosophy is that running – all running – is joyful in its own right. It’s the act of running, being in the moment of the motion, which brings satisfaction. And it’s the process that matters most, not the outcome.
But some runners wrongly think that this focus on participation rather than competition means that performance doesn’t matter. People who routinely finish races before I reach halfway sometimes believe that all that matters to me is being out with friends on an easy jog with water tables and police protection. That is not the case.
I get the greatest satisfaction from races when I have given my honest, best effort. Other mid-pack runners tell me the same. Consequently, we feel bitter disappointment when we don’t achieve a goal. Our devastating sense of failure is no less profound when our goal is solely personal. Such was the case for me at mile 18 of the Tuscon Marathon last December. As I walked off the course, the pain in my body was no match for the pain in my spirit. A sense of failure – the feeling that my legs had betrayed me, that my training had failed me and that my strategy had been flawed – overwhelmed me. It was of little consolation that my goal of running my first sub-5:00 marathon in nearly two years meant nothing to anyone but me.
Those around me were quick to point out the objective reasons for my failure. I’d run a very difficult marathon, as a training run, only four weeks beforehand. I’d run a marathon-pace half-marathon the week before. I’d also taken two international trips in four weeks, and had come down with a monster cold and sinus infection just a few days before the race. Yes, there were reasons.
But on Sunday morning, as I walked to the starting line, those reasons seemed like excuses to me. I’d trained hard, planned carefully and dreamed about this moment for months. I was ready. I’d done all the work necessary to succeed. In the months leading up to the race, I’d calculated how much I could push my body. I arrived at the start prepared for, and expecting, only one outcome: a sub-5:00 marathon.
The race initially unfolded according to plan. I hit the halfway point at 2:27:32, right on target. At mile 15, I was still there. By mile 17, I was three seconds off the pace, but still hopeful, even though I was beginning to feel the signs of impending disaster. Then, in one sputtering, stuttering moment, my dream shattered. My legs, my lungs, my entire body gave out. My will was no match for them. As I hobbled and wheezed my way to mile 18, I was forced to concede defeat. I would not succeed on this day. My race was over.
As friends and colleagues congratulated me on my wisdom in stopping, I smiled wryly. Yes, I know I did the right thing. I know I’ll run other races. I know that it’s never smart to push through that kind of pain. I know that I showed respect for my body. I know I acted like a true athlete. I know.
But somehow that didn’t keep my heart from aching. In the end, knowing you’ve done the right thing doesn’t stop you from wishing you hadn’t had to.
Waddle on, friends.