People who run ultramarathons like to joke about how “cute” marathons are. Once they start gunning for fifty, sixty, a hundred miles or more, well, they like to sneer that 26.2 becomes a mere training run, a warmup, hardly worth the bother. Yeah, that’s crap. I guarantee you no ultrarunner who’s honest would be able to tell you they chose to run ultras because marathons got too easy. A marathon is tough, no matter who you are, no matter what your pace, no matter what distance you prefer to run.
The truth is, I prefer to run ultras over shorter races because to me, ultras are easier. They are so ridiculously long, so far beyond most people’s comprehension of what a human being is capable of doing, the strategy for me becomes simple: just keep going. Doesn’t matter how fast or slow; as long as you’re still relatively upright and moving forward, well, as they say endlessly at races, you got this. Granted, this attitude is not universal to all utrarunners; the really good ones care about pace and finish time and PRs just like any other really good runner of any type of race, but for me, I turn off the GPS function on my watch when I run an ultra. Pace is no longer a crucial statistic but just another brand of salsa. The goal becomes simply to enjoy running again—for many, many hours.
There was a time when I used to do this for marathons—didn’t set goals, didn’t much care how I finished so long as I enjoyed the journey. But human beings are fickle creatures; when something amuses us, halfway through laughing out loud we’re already breaking into a yawn. At some point in my marathon running career I felt the need for a new goal, and when this happens to a runner, the options are fairly limited. You can try to get faster, you can try to go farther, or you can try to do a different type of race. I ruled our different type immediately; I suck at swimming and cycling, so triathlons are out, and I’m not so much interested in races that throw obstacles in your way like snake pits and burning tires and barbed wire fences. Call me wimpy; the biggest challenge I want in a race is deciding whether I should have Pringles or M&Ms at the next aid station. So I went with farther, ran ultras, tried to keep from becoming one of those smug assholes who calls 26.2 a training run. I was mostly successful in this. And yet, “faster” still whispered to me from time to time.
You can’t be a runner and not hear this whisper once in a while. Even a runner who “doesn’t care” about their finish time will still most likely find out what that time was at the end of a race. If you really didn’t care about time, you’d walk (and even then you still might care, because there are some race-walkers who are crazy fast and competitive, which I know for a fact when they zip crazily by me in races). But what feels good about running to most runners is in fact speed. The high comes from pushing, not holding back. And once you feel that high, as with any addiction you want more—a measurable more.
The ultimate measurement for marathon runners is, of course, Boston. Because I am a thoroughly average runner, I never thought about BQ-ing—qualifying for the Boston Marathon—when I started running. It was about on par with qualifying for the Olympics, in my mind: so not even remotely in the realm of possibility that there was no point even considering it. And then I turned 45. Every five years the qualifying times get slower, and at 45 a woman needs to run under 3:55 to BQ. At 44, it’s 3:45, a time that would require me to pace a full minute faster than my PR. Not even if you poked me with an electric cattle prod every mile would that be possible for my 44-year-old self. But 3:55 at 45? Might that not be just on the edge of possible even without cattle prods? Faster. Run faster.
I should have smothered that whisper with a sweaty sock. In the three marathons I’ve run since then, not one has been a BQ or even a PR (personal record), and none of them was enjoyable. The last one was early November, in Indianapolis, and it was the worst of the three—not only because it was the slowest but because I can’t for the life of me figure out what went wrong. In the week before the race, I felt strong, not beat up from overtraining, and I was focused, hadn’t been splitting my efforts between a BQ marathon and a 50-miler at the same time and failing at both. On race day, the weather was spectacular as only a perfect fall day can be. Most of all, I was not actually aiming to BQ. All I wanted was a one or two minute PR, just so that I could know that I am, in fact, capable of running faster. There was one slight glitch; my very out-of-date Garmin failed to connect to a satellite, thus I wouldn’t be able to know my pace at any given point, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. I run ultras that way, after all, and sometimes it’s best to just run by feel.
And sometimes what you feel is sucky. At the halfway point I realized I’d have to run the exact same pace in the second half of the race in order to get that very small PR. That would have been great if I’d been feeling great, but there was this other whisper, you see. No, not so much a whisper as a faint, plaintive mumble. I can’t do that. The problem with running by feel, you see, is that at some point when you’re pushing yourself in a race, you’re going to feel bad. This is not the bad feeling that comes from low self-esteem. This is the bad feeling that comes from running a long fucking distance—because 26.2 miles IS a long fucking distance, sorry ultrarunners, it IS, no matter how much you claim otherwise—and from running that long fucking distance faster than you’ve ever run it before, faster than you may very well be capable of running it at all.
So far in the recorded history of the world, no one has run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours. Most people won’t be able to run it in under 3 hours. The majority of runners never run it in under 4 hours. This is not because they don’t try hard enough or don’t want it badly enough or have lousy attitudes, even though I’ve been told all of these things are true of me—and told most often by me. This is because there are limits to what we can do, and they aren’t based on your dreams but on physical reality. I want to run sub-4; my body may not let me. The thing is, it’s hard to know exactly where those limits have set an absolutely unscalable wall and where they have just, say, thrown a burning tire at you to dodge. This is why we keep trying, and why we encourage others to do the same. When someone says “here’s my dream!” you may want to smack them and say “wake up!” but often you don’t, in part because you don’t want to crush them but mostly, if you’re honest, because you don’t want to be the source of their inspiration to prove you wrong and the center of their victory laps when they do ultimately prove you wrong. So we say “go you!” We say “you can do it!” We say “don’t give up!” It is easy to say these things to others; it is not always so easy to believe them when you say them to yourself.
Another runner who’d had a less-than-satisfying marathon that weekend told me it’s a lot harder to run a slow marathon than a fast one. It seems like a paradox but it’s not. If a runner considers their marathon slow, it’s probably not going well. At that halfway point, knowing how hard it would be to even just barely reach my goal, and every point beyond then, when my aching body made it ever more apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, it became very difficult to think of any good reason why I should keep going. Oh, I knew I was going to finish; to all those people who beamed “you finished!!!!” at me to console me for my lousy race, I retorted that the only way I wouldn’t finish was if I’d gotten shot. They laughed, but I was serious—and probably could have added that it would depend on where the bullet hit and what caliber it was. On any given day, I can run 26.2. As a runner who primarily focuses on ultras, the distance doesn’t scare me. But I can’t run it fast, and what’s more, running a race that distance doesn’t thrill me the way it used to. One road marathon is very like any other, whereas every trail ultra is different, and I like that. I enjoy new experiences, trying different things, and a large part of the reason I moved to ultras is because I want to enjoy running. I was very much not enjoying that marathon. I wanted it finished—and I wanted to be finished with marathons in general.
So yeah, I finished the race. I didn’t enjoy it, didn’t get even remotely close to my goal, don’t have a clue why. Am I finished with marathons? Of course not. I’ll run one again someday. That’s not optimism and determination talking; that’s called being realistic. I’m still capable of running a marathon, so I probably will. But it won’t be any time soon. The first goal of running for anyone who isn’t paid to do it is to enjoy it. Sometimes enjoyment means giving yourself a challenge, pushing yourself to achieve that challenge and exulting when you succeed. Other times it just means feeling the great joy that comes from doing something that reminds you that your heart is beating, your body is moving, and you’re alive, right now. I didn’t get either of those things during that race, so my goals have changed. Run, and enjoy it. That’s all.
And yes, I am aware that a 50-year-old woman needs 4 hours flat to BQ. I suspect that when I reach that age, every “happy birthday!” I hear will be followed by a faint whisper: faster.
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker