|It’s not about the medal
I woke up Saturday morning not intending on trying to finally qualify for Boston. But…
For 3 years now it has been my ultimate goal to overtake that time standard set by the Boston Athletic Association which determines if you get to enter the oldest and most prestigious marathon on the planet. In my mind, running the Boston marathon is not the goal but just qualifying for the race is the real reward.
The qualifier was supposed to happen two weeks earlier in Austin. The Freescale Marathon in Austin has the fast course and generally good weather. All my training was geared towards Austin. But the morning of the marathon a thunderstorm rolled through followed by intense sunshine. The next day the newspaper said it was the perfect day to WATCH a marathon, not run one. It was like a sauna. I crashed and burned early on in the humidity and I was a considerably short of my goal. In terms of qualifying and the training I had done, it was a complete disaster.
But the weather for the Cowtown marathon two weeks later was perfect - mid-40’s and no wind. There was just the occasional slight drizzle which helped keep the runners cool. The Cowtown course could best be described as rolling. I would not categorize it as a fast course and it is very difficult to maintain a constant pace. I knew this going into the race so I devised a pacing plan that contained variable splits. I used the elevation chart to determine when I needed to speed up and when to slow down. I wrote the plan on a small piece of athletic tape I attached to my Garmin GPS on my wrist. The goal was to just have a solid run. Qualifying for Boston on the Cowtown course would be tough. But I wanted to put myself in a good position pace wise so that if I felt good I could give it a go and just make it under the wire.
The pacing plan worked to perfection. I slowed down on the uphill miles and surged on the downhill miles. I crossed the half at a perfect 1:37:30. Miles 16, 17, and 18 were fairly rough but I knew if I could survive them I could surge the final miles and obtain a personal best time and a possible chance at a qualifier. Miles 20-23 were the fastest I’ve ever run at that stage in a marathon. Could this be the day? Could a qualifier happen unexpectedly on a tougher course just 2 weeks after a huge disappointment? The only way to find out was to give it everything I had the final three miles. It was time to leave it all on the course. I calculated that I needed to average about 7 minutes per mile to make it. I had just run a couple of miles that way and I knew I had the capability. I just had to dig deep. It was what I called “Game time”.
Now, the previous year I had run the Cowtown marathon, but only the first two legs of the relay. I was familiar with the course through mile 18. After that it was all new territory for me. With only two miles remaining I made the turn back towards downtown. While looking towards the skyline of Fort Worth my heart just sank…it was uphill. And there was a 10mph wind coming out of east directly in my face. But this was the closest I had ever come to the qualifying standard so knew I had to push as hard as possible. Giving up was not an option. The 25th mile marker came along and there was another turn into a steeper hill. I glanced at my watch. I was unable to do simple math in my head from the exhaustion, but I knew I would have to run hard. I made one final turn towards the finish line which I could now see in the distance. I heard someone shout “just 4 more blocks!!”. I looked down at my watch…3:15:57, 3:15:58, 3:16:00. It was over. I was 4 blocks short. (Note: Though my qualifying time is 3:15, the BAA allows the truncation of seconds, so my actual standard for my age is 3:15:59)
I was still surging as hard as I could. Jennifer and Dawn were running next to me yelling something and all I could respond was, “Look at the clock! Look at the clock! I can’t believe the clock” I crossed the finish line in 3:16:57. Just 58 seconds separated me from a ticket to the starting line in Hopkinton, MA on April 18th. I was 4 blocks short of my goal after working hard for 26 miles. That very thought overwhelmed me. How could I work so hard and come up just short? There would be no more chances to qualify in 2005. The deadline to qualify was only days away.
At that point in the finish line area I did what just seemed natural - I cried. I really didn’t want to. I’m not a dramatic guy. But having just finished a marathon my emotions weren’t exactly buried deep. Then something happened that I’ll never forget. At the time it was a little bit funny. But the more I think about, the more it has taught me. After I got my medal and Mylar blanket a finish line volunteer saw my unstable emotional state and came over and put her arm around me. “Are you hurt? Are you ok?” she asked. Through the tears I said, “No, I’m fine, but I just missed going to Boston by only a minute.” She walked with me and said, “Oh no! I’m so sorry! I know how important that must have been to you. But it will be ok, because you did well, and….I love you.” The look on my face must have been priceless as those words stunned me a little. I guess I looked at her a little perplexed because she followed with, “And do you know what else? God loves you too.” I know that must have elicited a smile from my face.
I continued through the finish line area to the food tent. I found a chair and sat down completely stunned by what had just happened. Then the funniest thought went through my head. “If God loved me, then why was there a head wind in the final two miles of the marathon?” I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony.
No matter what your theology may be, the finish line volunteer spoke of a truth in those few little words that turned a tremendous disappointment into a tremendous life lesson. What she really told me was, “There are some things bigger than you and there is always something more important than you. Never lose sight of that”. She couldn’t have been more right.
Running can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand it gives us something that allows us to set lofty goals and go after them, like running our first marathon or setting a personal best at some distance. We use it to get into shape and to better ourselves physically. But that is where the mixed blessing comes in. What happens when we fall short of our goals? What happens when we have setbacks like injuries? What happens when we don’t see personal improvements? Running can be a great friend but it can sometimes kick us the shin.
The irony is that sometimes in our weaknesses and failures we stumble onto greater truths. In the case of running, it can show us that there are things more important and bigger than what we want for ourself.
For example, running is part of a path to good health. But staying in shape is also good for our children and those around us we love. It hopefully means we will live longer. I want to be around a long time to see my kids grow up and have their own kids. And hopefully I’ll be healthy enough to see them have kids as well. I want to set an example for my children that they too will live a healthy lifestyle.
Running is also about relationships. Over the past few years of running I’ve developed tons of friendships I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Those friendships are so much more important than the times on a finish line clock. And I’ll have those friendships no matter if I am fast or slow. They’ll be with me if I’m overweight or underweight.
But most importantly for our team, the biggest truth happens when we don the purple singlet bearing the words “Team In Training”. That’s when we are running for so much more than ourselves and for something much greater. We are running for life itself. We run to celebrate the lives of those who have survived a blood related cancer and we run to remember those who didn’t. We run for those parents of small kids with blood diseases to let them know they are not alone. My kids have never been that sick, but if they were, I can only imagine how lonely and helpless the feeling must be.
I’ll keep setting running goals and trying to reach them and I know you will too. But when we fall short we must remember that there is always something greater…and that is really why we run.
by Philip DeYoung