As of Monday, the Boston Marathon is eight weeks away. This is when training gets serious.
On the next five Saturdays, I will run a combined 88 miles. That’s an average of nearly 18 miles per long run. It will include a 22-miler, marking the first time I will have run more than 20 miles when it hasn’t been in a race. In a way, all of these long, long runs will be great. In a way, they will be grueling and possibly a bit painful. Above all, they will be worth it, but they will also be more than a little boring.
I think when most non-runners think of running marathons, they mostly imagine only the race, the 26.2-mile monster with thousands of runners on the roads and rows of spectators with signs and volunteers at aid stations every couple of miles. And they wonder how it’s possible. I frequently hear, “there’s no way I could ever run a marathon.” And I’m pretty sure it’s usually intended as a compliment. But here’s the thing:
No, not everyone can run a marathon. But, honestly, 90% of the people who tell me they could never run a marathon probably could run a marathon. Maybe they couldn’t hop off the couch today and go run a marathon, but could they plausibly train for a period of months and complete a marathon within the course limit if they earnestly attempted it? Absolutely. The question is, could they ever be dedicated/borderline-insane enough to complete the requisite training to put themselves in position to complete a marathon? And, to that, the answer for some people (though fewer than they realize) may be “no.”
The race everyone sees and imagines is the icing on the cake. It is the treat at the end of a long, lonely training season. It is the payoff for months of grunt work. And, because of the support you get along the course and the adrenaline rush of race day, it’s not really quite as hard as the training. It’s merely the reward. To get to that reward requires many weeks of dedication and tedium. Nobody is cheering for you on an empty trail at 7: 30 AM on a February morning. The spectators are in bed or eating pancakes in their bunny slippers. If you don’t bring your own water, you’re not getting any. I suppose the lack of cheesy signs saying “you’re almost there!” could be viewed as a positive.
I don’t typically plan marathons beyond my next one. I wait to see how the next one goes, how I’m feeling physically and mentally after the race, before deciding to run another one. Boston will be my 11th, so 10 times previously I’ve finished one of these monsters and still had the hunger to lace ’em up again for another round. It’s tough to know how I’ll feel after Boston. This race will be the pinnacle for me. If the races were the extent of it and I didn’t have a day job and two little daughters whom I have to ignore for entire Saturday mornings in order to train, the decision to run more and more marathons indefinitely would be an easy one.
The truth is different. While I love running and will never stop appreciating it, the latter stages of marathon training do wear on me mentally, and I feel guilt over leaving my girls at home on Saturday mornings. So I can’t say with certainty if I will run more full marathons after Boston. Granted, I probably will, but this is the period of training that sows doubt.
Anyway, let’s cast doubts aside for the moment and get back to the trails. This past Saturday was abnormally mild and pleasant for February in Illinois, so I ventured out to a preserve known as Waterfall Glen where I met a handful of my Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Team in Training running cohorts and put in my miles.
In addition to being quiet, peaceful, and generally well-maintained, Waterfall Glen is a treasure for Chicago-area runners thanks to the presence of some actual hills!
The above shot is of the final climb of what’s affectionately known as Big Bertha, a half-mile uphill stretch comprised of a handful of separate inclines. Getting up it is a chore, especially when done in the midst of a long run. But it’s great preparation for any marathon, especially one with hills. In the past, I’d usually encountered Big Bertha in the latter stages of a summer 16-miler, when I was largely spent. This time, I’d only run a few miles when I descended Bertha, and decided I’d try something different. I would stop at the bottom, then turn around, and charge up Bertha as hard as I could. Make it a fun test. And so, I did just that.
The result: I ascended Big Bertha in 5 minutes flat, a respectable 10-minute pace for what’s essentially straight uphill. My legs definitely felt the effort later Saturday afternoon, but that’s what you get when you eat Big Bertha for breakfast.
After the climb, it was back to the flatness of the Prairie State, which placed the Uncle Tupelo song “Flatness”in my head for the remainder of the run. Truth be told, it’s not a bad running song…
Yes, that’s Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame on vocals, except this was five years before he formed Wilco and seven years before I began listening to Wilco in college and 12 years before Wilco became mainstream trendy. So this is just a long excuse to demonstrate that I’m super cool because I listened to Wilco years before you probably knew who they were. I also happen to think Wilco peaked with the Summerteeth album way back in 1999, but I digress.
Anyway, despite the monotony of the longest training runs, the health benefits, clear mind, and ultimate payoff of race day do tend to make it all worthwhile in the end. Plus the medal. Medals are nifty. As Tweedy says at the end of “Flatness,” “there’s darkness in this life, but the brighter side we also may view.”
Eight weeks to Boston.