[To be clear, *I* am not running the Boston Marathon on Monday, but my daughter is, and that makes me almost as nervous as if I were doing it myself. Even though I know she is strong and prepared and will come through all the difficulties, I offer this essay to acknowledge all that she and so many others will be going through mentally the next few days.]
I envy anyone who can stand at the starting line of a race and feel confident.
I envy anyone who can stand at a starting line of a race without feeling stung by doubts, distracted by unhelpful visions of the difficulties to come.
I envy runners who in the days leading up the big race are excited and happy, who just can’t wait to stand at the starting line where they will laugh and smile as if a race were no more frightening than a harbor cruise with an open bar. Where does this optimism come from, I wonder, and why don’t I have more of it?
I envy the runners who don’t care about their time. I envy them their goal of finishing the race without regard to whether it was the best they could do. Running to finish is a fine and admirable goal. Running to finish is also straightforward, with every step taken bringing the goal that exact amount closer. No matter how far the race, the goal is always in sight: it is the next step, the next bend in the road, the next mile marker.
But running to find out what you’re capable of is a harder and more elusive goal. It imposes stern discipline on the early miles; running with too much elation when the running is easy exhausts the body’s energy systems prematurely; on the other hand, holding back might leave too much fitness on the table. And if one successfully negotiates the early stages, running to one’s potential requires that in the latter stages of the race, you shake off the body’s entirely reasonable requests that you slow down and save yourself the trouble, and later, its demands that you not beggar the body’s reserves.
No matter how hard I try to prepare for these crisis points, I can never quite bring back what it feels like to be late in a race facing the decision about how hard to push. I think that if only I could conjure up the feeling, I could prepare for it. But I can’t bring myself to that mental place, and so my thoughts just go round and round and my anxiety increases.
In the final days before a marathon, after so much preparation, it’s crazy how unpredictable the race feels. In my experience, no number of long runs will truly convince you that you’re entirely ready for the unknown challenges that lurk out there after you’ve run hard for a couple of hours. Minor problems that seemed inconsequential during short training runs can become major issues when they’re magnified over 20,000 foot strikes. Will it be blisters, chafing, cramping, stomach issues, or some previously overlooked weakness in a strand of gristle that turns out to be crucial for maintaining the semblance of a running stride? There are so many ways to go off the rails, and there’s no way to prepare yourself mentally for all the possibilities.
Really, all you can do is trust in your training and try NOT to contribute any more craziness to what is already a crazy undertaking. Maybe the most important thing is to not try to do too much, not think too much, but instead embrace the uncertain nature of the event and occupy the mind with some task completely unrelated to running.
I commented to Joni that a few days before the marathon, I was prone to picking up and binge-reading volumes of literary comfort food like the complete Sherlock Holmes or P.G. Wodehouse’s Wooster and Jeeves stories. Anything to settle the mind.
Maybe that’s all you can do, when all the training is done and you’ve reviewed all the logistical details for the twentieth time, just settle the imagination, which, if left to ponder the unanswerable questions about what’s waiting out there in the wild grey yonder, would race itself to exhaustion in increasingly tight and frantic circles.