Starting Over

“How’s training going?”

I’ve come to feel this strange mix of shame and remorse and self-pity when someone asks me that, now. The 2018 Boston Marathon is about two weeks away, and I’m grossly under-prepared. 

“When I was at this point in my last training plan, I think I was running 55-65 miles a week,” I say, “Right now, it feels like I’m averaging about 5-6 miles a week.” 

My lack of preparation for this race has turned what should be a proud moment in my (albeit, brief, amateur) running career into an experience that, in some ways, already feels soured - and I haven’t even picked up my bib for the race, yet. 

By way of background, the Boston Marathon is the oldest, continually-run marathon in the world. It’s one of the only marathons in the world with minimum qualifying standards to get in, which makes it this sort of proving ground for the world’s best marathoners. For perspective, just to get into the race, I had to run a marathon in under 3:01:37 (6:56/mi pace). With that fast of a benchmark just to get in the door, merely qualifying for the Boston Marathon is considered a crowning achievement for most runners. 

I qualified for the Boston Marathon after just my second race. 
So, why do I feel shame when someone asks me about how my training is going?

It’s about where I am, and it’s about where I’ve been. I was looking at an old training log of mine last week, and I saw that at this point in my last training plan, I had just wrapped a 13.1-mile run at an average pace of 6:30/mi, with my final mile completed at a 5:42 pace. It was one of the fastest miles I’ve ever run, and it was the fastest half-marathon I’ve ever completed. 

More than the results of that particular run, at this point last year, I felt strong. I was growing as a runner every time I laced up my shoes. I’d found this sweet spot in the sport - where I was intimately in sync with my legs and my breath and where training had become this sort of cure-all for whatever I needed. Some days, running was this serene escape from whatever was going on in my head; other days, I’d find myself thinking that something magical was happening on the track, as I’d put up faster and faster times in workouts than even I thought I was capable of.

I remember thinking to myself, “Maybe this is my thing.”

But it doesn’t feel like that, now. 

Right now, I’m nowhere near where I was 10-months ago. My most recent 13-mile training run was completed at a pace of 8:49/mile; more than two minutes slower per mile than I was last year; my fastest mile wasn’t even under 8:10 - which is a speed that used to feel easy for me.

The hardest part of any marathon training plan isn’t the long runs; it’s not the speed workouts, or the taper. It’s not finding the right shoes, the right race, or the right nutrition and hydration plan. 

For me, the hardest part of any marathon training plan is deciding which parts of my life I’m willing to put on hold for 3-4 months. 

For instance, in the last 90 days, I’ve snowboarded more than 50 times. I’ve gotten certified in avalanche safety. I’ve traveled almost every weekend. I’ve moved into a new apartment, in a new city. My girlfriend has applied and interviewed for jobs all over the country, which, in turn, has led me to apply and interview for jobs all over the country. I’ve spent time with friends, I’ve read books, and my girlfriend and I have been kicking around a handful of ideas for businesses we want to start. Those are all good things! 

It’s been hard to decide which of those things to put on hold, because I want all of them. I want to run and feel fast and strong, and I want to spend time exploring and taking advantage of the small window each year there is for snow sports, and I want to be the best partner I can be for my girlfriend, and I want to be the best team member and contributor to my employer that I can be.

The hardest part of running isn’t deciding to run, or deciding to put your best foot forward in every workout you do; the hardest part of running is deciding which things you won’t do - whether that means not doing something you love at the level you’re capable of, or whether that means not doing something at all.

I’m not afraid of putting up a less-than-stellar time in Boston.
I’m afraid of getting injured.

If you go into a test underprepared, you might not score very highly. If you go into a presentation underprepared, you might not close a deal. If you go into a 5k underprepared, you might not win the race. But, if you go into a marathon underprepared, you start to run the risk of major injuries. And, I know about that firsthand. Back in 2015, I ran the Vancouver Marathon without having completed critical components of my training plan, and wound up with a stress fracture in my foot that kept me away from running for over a year. As I write this, more than anything, that’s what’s on my mind. I’m not afraid of putting up a slow marathon time in Boston; I’m afraid I’ll get hurt if I push too hard there without having prepared properly.

And, as much as running the Boston Marathon means to me, it isn’t the only race I plan on running this year. I’m already registered for the Mount Hood Marathon in July, and I’m registered for the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge Series Championships in November. As much as I want to put up a fast time in Boston, or try to push myself between now and that race, I can’t. It’s not worth getting hurt.

So, the challenge that I’m working through now is about accepting and embracing where I’m at. It’s about acknowledging that I’m not going to put up anything close to a personal best time at the 2018 Boston Marathon. It's about swallowing the simple fact that success in running, like most things in life, is determined by a person's consistency and discipline and willingness to make sacrifices - and recognizing that I don't deserve to put up an impressive finishing time this year in Boston. It's about realizing that I haven't earned the right; that I haven't put in the work that's required.

It’s with that mindset, that before I’ve even picked up my bib for Boston, I’m beginning the process of starting over. I’m two days in to building up my base again. I’m starting to strength train again. I’m accepting and acknowledging that a strong performance in a race isn’t the result of any one day on a course, but rather, the culmination of putting in consecutive days and weeks of becoming the best person and runner I can be. I’m re-learning to love the process of training; of striving for improvement every day instead of being attached to any particular day’s outcome.  

It’s hard, for sure - to look at where you’ve been, to see that you’re not there right now, and to accept responsibility for that. It's hard to swallow your pride; to put your ego aside. But at the same time, it’s empowering: to know where you’ve been, to know that you can get back there, and to know how to do it. In some ways, it takes realizing that speed isn’t something you lose or you find; it’s something you build. 

And I'm stoked to get back to building.

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington