The simple answer is that I don’t have a very strong Ironman run. To be blunt, my Ironman run has sucked five times. I began the sport of triathlon as a strong runner. In sprint through half-iron distance races I usually have a challenging swim and have had my ups and downs on the bike, but I have always been able to pull it together for the run. Yet when it comes to the full iron distance, the opposite seems to be true. Starting the year off with a solid solo marathon could be a great strategy to improve this.
The plan: I will safely build some strong run fitness through the winter, when swimming and trainer rides are a drag. I can do tons of zone 2 training to work on metabolic efficiency and build an endurance foundation in my legs. I can boost my confidence in my ability to run a fast marathon by posting a time 15 or 20 minutes faster than my goal Ironman time. I can carry all of this with me into an Ironman training program beginning in April.
The plan has been successful thus far. I have logged (not including taper) an average of more than 60 run miles per week and I have done so injury free. I have added some speed work in the past 6 weeks and am feeling pretty sharp. So that’s why I’m running a marathon and that’s why I’m doing it now. At least that’s what I’ve been telling people, and myself. To really explain it, I’m going to have to make a long story longer.
I have never, in my opinion, run a marathon. Yes, I have completed the 26.2 mile distance a number of times, five of which were in Ironman races, several more in training. But to me, running a marathon is much bigger than a long training run or even the run leg of a 9-hour event. A marathon is like a marathon of running… It’s literally the word given to anything that seems impossibly long. It is also short enough that the winners can do it at a pace that most humans can’t hold for more than 10 seconds, most runners can’t hold for more than a minute, and most competitive runners can’t hold for more than ten minutes. I respect the hell out of ultra-running, Iron distance and ultra iron distance racing but they are not a marathon. My respect for the marathon is enormous to say the least. And for many years my fear of it might have been bigger.
I was lucky to have some really great coaches in my life. Wrestling coaches have a way of showing tough love, a kind of unconditional support with a demand for a work ethic that I have taken with me throughout my life. I learned how to compete alone on the mat and understand that my results were the consequence of my work. “You get what you give.” But it was on the track that I was able to apply this work ethic to my genetics.
My track coach, Chris, led me there by example. He ran with us while training himself to run a marathon. When he broke 3 hours in the Boston Marathon, I cut class to follow along on the library computer. I was so proud of him, yet completely dumbfounded as to how he could hold a sub 7-minute mile for that long. The standard was set for me then. If I were ever to run a marathon, I would want to break three hours just like my coach.
My older brother Gilby is a life-long runner. In high school he was a super star. He was fast, he worked hard and he had an exceptional amount of respect for the sport. His dedication to the running inspired newspaper headlines about the guy who wins the cross-country race and sticks around to shake all of the competitor’s hands afterwards. This was not to be cocky. He genuinely respected anyone who shared his love for running as a sport.
He went on to captain the cross-county and track teams in D1 collegiate athletics and is now the coach of a very successful nationally-recognized high school track team. A few years after Chris, Gilby took on the marathon. He too had a goal of running sub 3 hours. He achieved it in his first attempt, despite hitting a wall at mile 20. But at this point in my life, I had given up my dreams of running a marathon and decided that weight lifting and swimming were the only physical activities my body could handle.
I remember a conversation with Gilby while he was training for that marathon. He told me he would do 20 mile runs at a 7 minute or faster pace. My response was probably something like “Yeah, but can you bench 325?” which was my way of saying “I’ll never be able to do something like that. Nor do I have the guts to try. You should be really proud of yourself.” That year, Lance Armstrong ran his first marathon. Gilby’s time was faster. I didn’t hesitate to share this fact with everyone who’d listen.
The physical fitness of Gilby and Chris, both high school teachers, both track coaches, who now have families and lives to juggle, was impressive. But what impressed me more was the guts they had to take on a marathon. The mental focus to train, day in and day out, for a goal that you will only actually accomplish on the day of the event. 5k, 10k and half-marathon runners all run the distance of their event in training over and over again. They know how fast they can run on a good day and how slow they will go on a bad one. Marathon runners usually top out their mileage at 20-22 miles. They also do those runs at a much slower pace. They leave 4-6 miles at race day to chance! Their race day performance remains a mystery, yet they have the confidence and focus to declare a goal and execute.
Many of my friends signed up for bucket list marathons just after college and I was extremely proud of them for doing so. They tried to get me to join them, but I knew that I could never run a marathon unless I could give it the full attention and respect that it deserved. I couldn’t run a marathon and not have the same goal as Chris and Gilby. It just meant too much to me. Instead, I would just not run a marathon, or run at all for that matter. So I didn’t.
I didn’t run more than a mile at a time from October 2001 (age 18) to January 2007 (age 24) and I have run in just one run-only race since 2001 (in 2008 I ran a 7-mile road race that I signed up for on a bet the night before). I had planned on running cross-country and track in college. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be competitive and consequently over trained. I was plagued with knee injuries and frankly, happy to have a way out. I didn’t enjoy running at that level. So I quit, half way through Freshmen year cross-country season.
I started running again in 2007 when I realized that my injuries were due to overtraining and that I really missed running for fun. I found triathlon and was thrilled to have an excuse to stop pressuring myself to perform on the run “I had to swim and bike first.” A few years of intense training passed and I started to speculate that my run fitness was stronger than it had ever been. Thankfully though, I didn’t have to test that.
Triathlon to me is an adventure. I get to start with my weakest and most disliked discipline. I unwillingly give all of my competitors a head start. Then I fight like hell to catch as many as I can. I get to be an underdog every time I race. This, to me, doesn’t take guts. It takes a hell of a lot of training. It takes discipline and hard work but it doesn’t take the kind of guts that racing for 26.2 miles takes.
But through triathlon I have learned a lot about myself as an athlete. I have learned what Larry Lewis says: “A bad day out on the course is better than any good day in the office.” I have learned to love the process as much as, or even more than, the result. I used to think that the suffering was important to make the glory feel more glorious. I now understand that the suffering is the glorious part.
Two years ago, this Saturday, my daughter was born. I’ve always wanted to be a father but never in a million years thought I would be ready. I always imagined, for some reason, that it would be entirely too much responsibility for me to take on. How could I be so obnoxious to think that I could handle such a task. “Someday” though I would magically have what it took and I would know when that happened. I didn’t necessarily choose that day. It happily surprised my wife and I. I don’t think I ever would have decided I was 100% ready.
Looking back over the two most incredible years of my life, I also realize that I put too much pressure on myself to rise to the occasion. What I should have had more faith in was my ability to accept and feed off of the help and support of others. The love and support of my friends and family make parenting more rewarding than I ever could have imagined. I’m learning to stop thinking I will one day wake up and know what’s next for me. I am at my best when I prepare well now, to the best of my ability, and have faith in my future self to execute.
On March 12th, my daughter Rafaela’s second birthday, I will run a marathon. So, why a marathon? Because to me it is still the ultimate physical challenge. Why now? Because I am ready.