I’m sure you’ve heard the quote, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be.” Often it shows up as a meme on Instagram with the backdrop of tree branches blowing in the wind or the ocean gently lapping the shore. Often it’s used to commiserate about letting go of an emotionally unavailable person while holding out hope he’ll return, but a person we all know, but are afraid to tell the poster, will never actually come back.
Could this trite old saying apply to running? What happens when we hold on to a running goal too tightly?
On Sunday, May 21st, I lined up for my sixth marathon, my third with the goal of running a Boston Marathon qualifying time. Having moved up an age group and thus gaining five minutes for my qualifying time, I thought that this would be it. Sure, I respected the marathon by carefully preparing — possibly the best training cycle I’ve ever had — and when it came time for race day, I knew that it wasn’t a guarantee but I was quite confident.
The Cleveland Marathon usually has a history of weird weather, bad courses, and a lack of mylar blankets at the finish. But I tried not to focus on the things I couldn’t control. It also helped that the course was a throwback to the early days and featured many miles highlighting the gems of my hometown. This was due in part to it being the 40th anniversary of the race, but also because Cleveland is finally starting to embrace its identity as a small but scrappy and cute city. Thanks, Lebron! (And, um, thanks for allowing runners to use the bathrooms at your office, Quicken Loans Arena, before the race.)
I was excited for this race not only because I believed I would qualify for Boston, but also because I got to run the streets of my city revived. And for the latter, the race lived up to those expectations, but there still weren’t mylar blankets at the finish. When it came to the actual race, though, the distance won. But I didn’t lose. The valuable lessons were many. They always are.
This time around, I started out slower than the previous two marathons (around 8:25 pace). This helped a ton. I was in control, smiling, and despite the crowded start, happy to be out there on these streets. We even got lucky with a cool start. The meteorologists called for possible thunderstorms, but the sun made a surprise appearance. Things were looking good.
After the first few miles, I noticed my GPS was beeping a bit before I reached the mile markers. I also noticed that the 3:40 pace group was a few hundred yards ahead of me. I’ve learned in the past not to trust the pace groups no matter what they say at the expo. This was why I invested in a GPS for longer races. So while I let the pace groups do their thing, I was starting to grow concerned when every mile marker was 0.1 miles after my GPS beep. Sure, it’s never perfect in most races, but 0.1 seemed like quite a bit of a difference.
Around mile eight, I did start to pick things up as I was feeling good (8:15 pace). Call it a mix between cockiness and naiveté. Whatever it was, I was ready to start making a move. I even started to tear up when we reached a loud neighborhood. “I’m gonna do this!” I said in my head. “I’m actually going to do this.” Ahhh, the marathon.
By mile 11, the early GPS beeps were really starting to get to me. I looked around to see if anyone else was having the same issue but they were all wearing headphones. Eventually I saw a man without headphones and asked him if his GPS was beeping early. He nodded in agreement but he also said he overheard that the pace group was a minute ahead of pace. This calmed me a bit as I forged ahead.
The next mile I came up on a woman who had overheard my concern about the early beeps. We shared a mutual frustration at this point but discovered a mutual goal as well. Her name was Megan and she was trying to run her first Boston Marathon qualifier. We both were in the new age group and we both had tried a few times without success. We were able to talk pretty well at some 8:10s and we figured we had crossed halfway right on pace given the total time on the clock. We decided today was going to be our day and we were going to get it done together. It was destiny!
We continued to run together at 8:10s, though our conversations started to wane. Our goal at this point was to get to mile 20 feeling ok. After all, the real race started then, right?
As we got closer to a turnaround point between miles 17 and 18, our pace started to slow. We reassured each other that it would be ok and to not worry about the pace group ahead or the long mile markers for they were the things we couldn’t control. What we could control were our reactions to the current challenges.
Around mile 18, my boyfriend James met us up by the sidewalk and jogged in the grass for a bit. I asked him what the text messaging splits were saying and while he reassured me we were doing ok, I knew it would be quite the task to get faster. At this point, I made the decision to pull back a bit more. I was still set on getting to mile 20 and seeing if I could pick things back up. Megan soldiered ahead and I cheered her on. But the slow fade continued to take over.
I did get to mile 20, just over 9:00 pace at this point. And then the forecasted rain finally started to fall. It was still warm outside and quite humid, so for a while it felt good. What didn’t feel good was realizing at this point that I still had 6.2 miles to go and I wasn’t going to qualify for Boston unless I started running 7:00 pace. I started to feel sorry for myself, the usual 20 mile mental nonsense when things aren’t going your way.
I knew I could finish this. Thoughts of dropping out were few and far between this time. Part of that was that my mom and her boyfriend were waiting at the finish in the rain. But it wasn’t only standing in the rain that made their efforts noble. Nope. In 2013, they waited for me at the finish of the Akron Marathon. I was stranded on the DNF bus so I never got to see them for even a sympathy hug that day. Finishing now was for them.
And my sanity.
Those last 6.2 miles were pretty brutal. And while it was hard to use some of my newfound mindfulness skills to compete with the clock, it was easier than in the past to accept where I was. I realized that maybe I’m not Boston ready yet. The marathon is so different from the half and 5k, two distances I enjoy and feel more comfortable racing. When I thought this, I could actually smile a bit more. And have a beer at Cinnamon’s running club beer stop at mile 25.
Things didn’t go my way that day. I finished with a 3:54:39 and while my GPS said I ran 26.44 miles, the raw data wasn’t my concern. At the end of the day it was all about the experience. And overall, I had a good one.
More importantly, I was a bit concerned that if I didn’t reach my goal, I would struggle hard with some post-race blues. Ironically though, the opposite happened. I felt how I thought I would feel if I met my goal and BQ’d. I was relieved.
I was relieved that I let go of the tight grip I had on my goal. I was proud of the fitness I had built up for this race and the effort I had put into race day. It also made me hungry for more. I have so much more to learn and experience with this distance. I’m not entirely sure when the next one will be, but I’m letting the big goal go for now. And if it comes back? Well, then it was meant to be.
Have you ever wondered if maybe the marathon isn’t your thing?