While Tyler was running his marathon in Vermont, I was four hours away sitting comfortably in a coffee shop in Concord, waiting for updates via text message. I had signed up for athlete tracking on the race website, hoping that this would enable me to follow his progress. But unlike in Boston, which had timing mats every 5k, Vermont City had mats only at the 10k, 10M, half marathon, and 20M, and I never did get the 10M split. That meant that I had long periods to wait in between updates, and nothing at all after 20M.
Tyler’s early splits looked a little quicker than planned but very even. Even is always a good sign. He split 32:53 for 10K (5:18 pace), 1:09:03 for 13.1M (5:17 pace), and 1:45:54 for 20M (5:18 pace, including the toughest hill on the course). It certainly looked like he was holding it together, and a 34-minute 10K would bring him home in under 2:20. At this point, I was too nervous to wait for a half hour, so I went for a short run, fully expecting that I would return to see that final automated message on my phone that recorded Tyler’s finish.
But when I got back, there was no message.
As the minutes dragged on, I kept looking at my watch, fearing the worst. I knew that a lot could happen in the last 6.2 miles of a marathon, and I kept looking at that last message with the 20M split, doing sickening calculations of how much time had elapsed since Tyler’s chip had sent out its last signal.
Finally, just after 11:00 and three hours after the start of the race, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. Words can’t describe the sense of relief I felt hearing Tyler’s voice on the other end. I no longer remember his exact words, but they were something like, “Hey Jon. I won the race. I ran 2:20.”
I was nervous for Tyler before Boston, but then it was the nervousness of knowing how much effort someone has put into preparation and hoping that on that day, the preparation pays off and the race goes well. I knew how well-prepared Tyler was, but I also knew how anxious he was about the race. I feared that the combination of anxiety and intense emotions surrounding Boston 2014 would cloud his judgement at the start, and that he would be caught up in the general craziness and run the early miles much faster than he had planned, only to come to grief in the Newton Hills. The last few days before Boston were rough for both of us and probably for the other 35,000 runners as well.
But this was different. Leading up to yesterday, Tyler was relaxed and confident. He talked about how much fun it would be to have his family and Mariana in Burlington for the weekend, how grateful he was for the perks he got as an invited runner, and how cool it was to be on the runner’s panel with Joan Benoit Samuelson. It seemed as though he was prepared to accept the outcome of the race no matter what it was. At the same time, he felt good, and he thought he was ready to finish in the top five.
No, this time, I was the only one who was anxious, and my anxiety had a different source. What Tyler was doing racing five weeks after Boston was not reasonable. Where was his coach to tell him that it was foolish to attempt this? Where was the voice of caution? Oh yeah, that was supposed to be me. If this didn’t go well, I would really feel like I had failed him. I would be like the bad dad who gives his kid the keys to a sports car the day after the kids gets his license.
But instead of a calamity, Tyler’s race was a triumph, not only a top-five finish but a victory; not only a good time, but a PR by over a minute. Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but by having a good race, Tyler not only established himself as one of the top marathoners in New England, but saved me from a lifetime of hearing “I told you so” from my running buddies.
In truth, of all the things Tyler has done in his life and his running career, this victory (and personal best) coming just five weeks after his first marathon in Boston has done the most to make me question all the things I thought I knew about running. In particular, I’m beginning to wonder how much of what I know is merely what is reasonable and/or conventional.
It wasn’t reasonable to follow a marathon with another marathon so soon, so why did I go along? Well, for one thing, anyone who has been paying attention knows that Tyler’s training has gone beyond what would be called “reasonable” for some time now. Being able to run 22 miles a day at altitude redefines the whole notion of recovery. Before Tyler started training this way, I knew it wasn’t reasonable, and I wasn’t even sure it was possible — at least I didn’t know anyone who had ever done such training. Furthermore, looking at Tyler’s training logs and observing how fast he recovered from workouts that looked terminal to me, the density of hard work did not seem reasonable, although I was forced to accept that it was possible for Tyler to feel good a few days after a near maximal effort.
When Tyler said he felt good a week after the marathon, and that all his runs were starting to get fast again, I was cautious and I tried to be reasonable. Wait and see, I said. Take it one day and one workout at a time. Don’t make any commitments just yet. And all the while, I kept expecting to see those familiar post-marathon signs of fatigue — the physical and mental inability to produce the supreme effort required by another 26.2 mile race. Not only did Tyler produce that effort, in many ways he produced a better effort than in Boston. He ran more evenly, closed more strongly, and in the final two miles when he passed the leader, he held nothing back.
What I didn’t know when I took his call was that he had collapsed at the finish and had been carted off to the medical tent. I had to read about that in news reports later. Talking to him on the phone not forty minutes after he crossed the line, his voice was already happy and full of life. He sounded better than he had after Boston.
Someone — I think it might have been Dr. Tim Noakes — writes somewhere about how most innovations in training are the result of individual athletes finding success by experimenting on themselves. Paavo Nurmi invented interval workouts by running them with a stopwatch in his hand. Emil Zatopek went into the woods to run 40×400 with no coach present to tell him that he was a lunatic, and he became the best distance runner of his generation because of those workouts. Lydiard worked out his training on himself, and refined it by observing its effects on Halberg and Snell. Maybe Sebastien Coe was an exception, but Coe and his father were so much an inseparable team that perhaps in the end, the elder Coe’s coaching was indistinguishable from self-experimentation.
The point is that in all these example, the magic was in the athlete. The magic is almost always in the athlete. If there is a coach around, then the coach needs to observe and pay close attention, because he just might learn something.