Burn the boat
“Stop overthinking it. That’s the goal. No reason to beat around the bush.”
Patrick replied in his deadpan demeanor. The man seemingly increases in clarity and certainty under duress.
I am not that man. I was overthinking it. I was stressing.
After a marathon PR beyond my wildest dreams, 2:23:27, people had began to inquire and prod, “So, you gonna go for the OTQ?”
I bristled. I demurred. I shrugged off the reply with a mumble.
The Olympic Trials Qualifying standard is currently 2:19
2:18:59 is too fast.
5:18 miles are too fast.
Why even try?
Because the Olympic Trials Qualifier (OTQ) defines the nation’s top tier marathoners. The standard is chosen to reveal only the most remarkable. It’s statistically determined to eliminate 99.999% or so of all American marathon finishers.
And that’s fine. That’s the point. It’s not supposed to be easy to qualify for the Olympic Trials. After all, it’s the pool from which our three representatives to the world are selected every four years.
The USA Track & Field committee’s job is to set the difficult stage. In 2016 they chose the scorching streets of LA to mimic the conditions of Rio and they got more oppressive heat and humidity than they’d hoped. It was a cruel reward for the hundreds of dreamers who’d invested so much in pursuit of marathon excellence.
They will do their job.
Will we do ours?
Having run relatively close to The Trials standard it’s my prerogative to try.
All running is relative. The times and splits aren’t emotional or physical, they’re precise and unrelenting. Which is why we love them. In a world of seemingly fluid meaning and truth, the pursuit of endurance and speed, a lifestyle of managing physical fatigue, feels oddly calming.
Along with other men of the Bowerman Track Club Elite (The amateur division of the professional team filled with Olympians) I’m committed to the craft, to the journey and to the audacious dream of the impossible.
And yet, as a husband and a father, this pursuit cannot and should not be my entire focus. I’ve heard of people putting their running ahead of their marriage and their children, just that idea breaks my heart. Our task is to maximize our spirit and our speed while life allows. This has not been a lifelong goal, and it will not be our defining moment. But it will be remembered, by us if no one else, that when the opportunity arose, we stepped up.
This winter at the Cal International Marathon a train of dreamers will leave the station on 2:18:59 pace and I’ll be on it. Because I can.
Even if I probably can’t.
Everyone I know says I can’t.
The time tables look grim.
My competitors will likely scoff at the very notion.
And my friends, those who have hung up their flats and see the sport more clearly from outside the haze of ambition, though supporting me steadily, can’t see their way to betting on my success.
It’s so unlikely that it’s stupid.
It’s an absurd goal that I’m neither talented enough nor focused enough to achieve.
The pursuit of an audacious goal is as worthy a lifestyle as I can imagine.
Days structured around family, work, and a hobby difficult enough to break you feels as proper a way to frame life as I can picture.
Falling into cadence with a marathon pack is delirious and elusive. Simultaneously running entirely separate races, while gaining strength and confidence from the collective, no one checks your admission to this train, you just buckle up your lactic threshold and ride.
After all, in the pursuit of speed the purpose isn’t breaking “barriers,” and it’s certainly not comfort or control. The purpose is more speed — to feel the sensation of flight beyond your limits — and yet to somehow endure.
To try to do something you likely can’t with the possibility of success.
That’s all fine and well, but 2:18:59 is still too fast. I’d have to PR in the marathon by 4 minutes and 28 seconds.
Which is a lot.
Except if it isn’t.
I’ve PRed by 5 minutes in the marathon five times, in the past five years.
Though not all PRs are equal, courses, weather and competition determine a great deal. The fundamentals are the same: it will require a new approach to the marathon, yet again.
Moving from 2:47 to 2:41 required me to believe I was gonna make it all 26.2 miles without bonking.
Moving from 2:41 to 2:36 demanded I set a big goal: to break 6 minute pace.
And so, while going from 2:23 to 2:18 is too fast for too far, it just might be possible, with a few additions:
Training at a new level
To this point I’ve gotten away with relatively low mileage. 75 miles done in six runs a week (for maximum time efficiency) during peak season, but only 50 miles per week averaged over the year. This must increase, which demands more time and increased risk of injury. A big goal would demand more time and should include calculated risk.
Acceptance of the unknown
Many a fit athlete has relinquished their best performance before the starting gun simply because the uncertainty was too great. There are too many details, too many elements beyond their control. The endeavor of racing a marathon, actually testing yourself for 26.2 miles, demands confidence in an outcome that is unknowable. This year will demand more acceptance of greater uncertainty. No one knows if I can make it that far. No one. Not my supporters or my doubters or me. This must be alright.
Commitment to race the final 10k
Finding these final 268 seconds won’t allow for a moment of contentment. Looking back on last year, I slowed over 10 seconds per mile in the final half hour. Sure my legs were dead, and yes I was in “pain,” but also, secretly, I knew I’d done it. I knew we were on track to surpass our expectations and everything under 2:24 was gravy.
The seduction of settling is awfuly persuasive when you’ve been running hard for over two hours. The body compels you to quit. The only way through this gauntlet is simple, raw, intense competition. I must prepare to fight anyone around for every step.
Embracing the agony
Last May, as the world stared, mouths agape, Eliud Kipchoge leaned into the impossible dream of Breaking2. We jumped from our couches, fingers pointing accusingly at our screens, “Is he, is he, SMILING?!?” we scoffed incredulously.
Whether a smile, or the most beautiful grimace the world had ever seen, Kipchoge willed the creases of his face upward, burning his final fumes of optimism as the elusive two hour barrier pulled agonizingly away inch by inch. I must emulate The Zen Master.
Each of these additions alone is insufficient. All of them together probably aren’t enough.
Honestly, when people first began asking if I was going for an OTQ I hadn’t yet wrapped my mind around it as a possibility. Initially it was easier for others to see my task at hand than myself.
But now I’ve got no choice.
The boat’s been burned.
The only path now is forward.
Along with several other men of the Bowerman Track Club I’m committed to the craft, to the journey, and to the audacious dream of the impossible.
See you on December 2nd.
“I don’t want a never ending life, I just want to be alive while I’m here” — The Stumbellas
As always, I love hearing from other runners, please be in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org