Sometimes the Marathon wins, but that’s the point

Standing on the roadside at mile 25 of Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, my son was concerned. As I shuffled past in a cramped facsimile of my usual stride, 20 minutes later than expected, he asked my wife, “Is this normal?”

A veteran of many marathon sidelines, she answered, “Yes. More often than not, this is what it looks like at the end of a marathon."

I’ve been fascinated by the distance since my first attempt as a 16-year-old, way back in 1980. That day, I’d managed a 3:23, despite hitting the wall and stumbling home in a depleted daze. Thirty-seven years since my debut, I set that first mark as my “realistic” goal for my comeback as a 53-year-old after eight years away from the distance. I had planned on writing an account of how much easier it is now than it had been then, given how much I’ve learned. The marathon gods had different ideas.

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On race day, even my “ideal” goal of sub-3:20 had seemed conservative and eminently doable for the first cool, scenic 15 miles alongside Lake Superior. But then, as the sun soared higher and hotter and my pace slowed, I found myself clinging to, then letting go of, one lesser goal after another, until all that was left was the Jackson Browne refrain playing in my head: “If it takes all night, that’ll be all right.” No matter how ugly it got, I was determined to finish.

It was a familiar place to be. I have ended up here in all but six of the 27 marathons I’ve started. More often than not, the marathon controls the plot and we runners play bit parts in its great drama of attrition. You have to respect a distance that can reduce you to survival four out of five times, despite the best laid plans and preparation.

I eventually limped home, far off my stated goals. It would be easy to consider this a failure and all the training and focus a waste. And it would be appropriate to decide that the distance is too long and I would have more satisfying experiences by training to excel at shorter distances rather than being mediocre at one over my head.

But there are times in our lives when we need to tilt at windmills, times when the scale of the quest frightens us, focuses us, and motivates us to stretch higher than before. The fact that we’ll more than likely fail is largely the point.

About that failure: I’ve learned that even when the marathon wins—perhaps especially when it does—we discover truths about ourselves. When all goals were abandoned, when it didn’t matter if I walked, crawled, or curled up in the ditch, I found a core that still cared. I found myself still pushing through the fog toward the finish as fast as my compromised body would allow.

Nearly a week later, still suffering residual aches, I feel a contented pride in the effort that produced that pain. I’m not, however, satisfied with race-day heroism. I came away from the race with one compelling thought: I can do better. I know from experience that the marathon gives up its fruit reluctantly, but it can be had. To have succeeded the first time back would have been somewhat disappointing. It should be hard. It has always been hard.

I have learned a lot since that first marathon—about training, biomechanics, nutrition, and strategy. I’ll use all of this knowledge as I set my sights again on toeing the line. And I’ll add to that knowledge one thing I relearned last week: The marathon usually wins.

A version of this article appeared on runnersworld.com