Over the past few years, I’ve faced many training sessions and quite a few race days when I thought I couldn’t be more unprepared for the rigors ahead. Whether it was injury, lack of training, unwise choices leading up to the race, or mental distraction, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to wrestle with that insistent voice in my head asking “What the hell are you doing here?” And yet, with every passing season, I find that it’s possible to be even LESS prepared, and I marvel that the lackluster readiness I felt in those previous races looks in retrospect like robust fitness compared to my current state of near total breakdown.
I raced Sunday at the Doyle’s Emerald Necklace 5-Miler, although I was dealing with a literal pain in the butt from a piriformis issue, hadn’t managed a normal run in a week, and had a bad chest cold. The day before I had spent most of the day stumbling around the house, drinking countless cups of tea, and coughing conspicuously to make sure everyone knew how bad I felt. I didn’t run, and went to bed three hours earlier than usual. The next morning, Ann made some remark about since I wasn’t racing, maybe I could do such-and-such for her, and I replied “Not racing? Of course, I’m racing.” At that point, I could see that her genuine concern for my welfare was waging a battle with her exasperated reaction that I deserved every drop of misery I was about to bring on myself.
In fact, the race went fine, and by “fine,” I mean that I’d gone into it with low expectations, and exceeded them. As is almost always the case, after a tentative and slow warmup, I started the race conservatively and felt better with each mile. After hacking and coughing right up until the start, my illness seemed trivial and faint when I actually got going and had something else to think about. Much later in the day and well after I had departed the scene, I’d relapse into my former state of achey self-pity, but during the race itself, I was granted a reprieve. It’s very strange how that works.
One of the consolations of running with little ambition and feeble preparation is that it seems to free the mind to take in moments that otherwise might escape notice in all the excitement of chasing a PR or battling with the lead pack. I’ve been struck by how, when I’m trailing my speedier teammates by a straightaway or so in a track workout, my mind suddenly takes a mental image of the scene that lingers long after the session is done. A couple of weeks ago, I had such a moment battling the wind around the far turn at the Harvard Track. It was as though I became completely detached from the struggle, like it was a still photograph that I could take in as if it were hanging in a gallery. It was very strange to be disconnected from any feeling of effort or pain, but rather to “see” it, as from a great distance.
Yesterday, as I tried to summon strength for a strong final sprint on Williams Street, I had another such moment. Although I had been able to see the finish banner from several hundred meters out, it was with only about 80 meters to go that I became aware of the finish line clock, and I saw that I had a chance to run under 32 minutes. The actual time didn’t matter — had someone asked before the race, I would have claimed that I wouldn’t care if I ran the race in forty minutes — but there was something about that clock, ticking off the seconds to an arbitrary barrier that suddenly transported me to a dream-like state. And in that state, I was both running and not running; I was making progress and I was standing still. Everything that I had felt up until that point was forgotten, and only one thing was important: to arrive at the finish line before the tick that would change 31:59 to 32:00 and judge me a failure for the rest of my life.
As runners, we are creatures intimately familiar with time and distance, but sometimes distance is infinite and time stands still, even as the clock keeps ticking. This was one of those moments. There was the distance to the banner — I could see it and sense it — and there was the clock that kept updating it’s fell message, too quickly, I thought. I felt like for all my striving in that moment, I was entirely powerless to affect the outcome of this contest between me and the inevitable passing of the seconds, days, and years.
And because I’m a runner to the core, even though this was a meaningless race on a meaningless day and one that I had dismissed as nothing more than a miserable training run, I couldn’t ignore the clock and its maddening progress. I knew that the ultimate race was hopeless — whether I succeeded or failed to break 32:00 on this day — but I kept sprinting for all I was worth.