There’s safety in collective concern.
It’s easier to set limits together, to agree what isn’t possible and take a moment to lower your standards in unison. But it’s a hollow hug; an empty endeavor.
The marathon is mythical because it churns through aspiration with the force of nature. Goals crash onto the rocks; dreams are left fractured and bare, a harbinger for future racers about the perils of ambition.
Marathoners who dare to dream of personal records do so eyes open, body exposed — risking injury, fatigue and frustration for months, years— uncertain if they’ll even arrive on race day intact.
The essence of marathon training is management — scientific art of managing time, miles and collective fatigue.
The essence of marathon racing is balance — applying that structure to a wave of turbulence and uncertainty.
“5:30s. That’s the pace” Patrick remarked about December’s marathon, in his casual matter of fact tone.
“Uh, huh” I nodded.
I knew this was coming. We don’t discuss pace much, but a man who’s run 5:34 per mile doesn’t look backward. Having run 5:40 pace myself I had a partial sense of what I was in for.
As marathoners there’s no real point in talking about pace. After all, you don’t pick it, it reveals itself to you — gradually, in frustrating fits and spurts, marked by fleeting moments of stability under duress. You find it over many miles, through many workouts.
I knew full well that while I’d tasted intervals of steadiness at 5:30, they’d hardly lasted long enough to feel comfortable.
Maybe it would never be comfortable.
Maybe comfort wasn’t what I should be seeking.
“Come out, it’ll be fun, a bunch of guys are gonna run 5:30 pace” a friend promised while recruiting me to a local 10k. I agreed, knowing it’d be casual, but aware that I was underprepared.
A pack of guys shuffled to the line informally and awkwardly soliciting pacing plans, “So you were thinking 5:30s, right?”
“Alright, that sounds good.” I replied, knowing I was bluffing. Not that it mattered. The warm summer evening had barely begun to cool, shadows only starting to hang across the track.
The gun cracked and our little pack began trading the lead.
“Easy, easy” we reassured one another as the splits heated up. After 8 laps of trying to find the rhythm I pulled around the outside, “I’ve got this one.”
Pushing, straining, I leaned into the curves. But I was drowning and I knew it. Taking on acid too quickly.
Stepping off into the infield at 3 miles I smiled and shook my head as the dwindling pack pushed on. Today didn’t matter. A casual workout with friends wasn’t the concern, but December lingered darkly.
“So those are 5:30s…wonder where I’m gonna find 23 more of ‘em” I marveled.
When the waters of the Columbia met the flow of the Willamette they moved sand, smoothly over ages, and formed what became a local marathoners dream — Sauvie Island. The main road runs 12 miles around with one hill that’s all of ten feet total. We waited as the late summer morning heated up.
“Here he is!” I laughed as Patrick’s BMW raced into the parking lot, windows down, music blaring. We’re a punctual crew. We don’t waste anyone’s time, but we’re also not gonna leave a guy on his own over just a few minutes.
“What’s the pace today, Tyler?” we asked our friend who was headed to Berlin the next month to race. “5:40s is the plan” he answered reasonably.
“Alright, you’ve got it” I assured him, knowing full well that we’d give him some, then take a few for ourselves.
Rolling out at 5:40s exactly as a pack of 6, the collective energy swelled. There’s comfort in a pack at pace. After 6 miles things began to heat up. Tyler off the back sticking to plan, Patrick off the front. 5:22 and still going. Before I knew it he was a speck headed into the pastoral distance. His signature gait, a former wrestlers carriage, with that left hand swinging behind his back. I knew this view too well.
“Can we meet on Sunday?” I asked due to childcare constraints.
“This one is a grind, we want to get it out of the way” Patrick rejected. He’s right, this one can suck.
21 miles slightly slower than “marathon pace.” But when that pace isn’t clear you can get yourself into trouble.
The crew embarking on this run were five athletes entered in December’s California International Marathon. Representing the Portland, Oregon based Bowerman Track Club, named for Nike’s founder Bill Bowerman: Patrick Reaves (2:25:51), Chris Yates (2:28:16), Peter Bromka (2:28:44), Chris Maxwell (2:32:34) & Chris Platano (debut).
“We’ll start in the 5:40s, but I don’t mind if we’re as slow as 5:50, let’s not overdo it.” We all agreed.
1st mile 5:59, 2nd mile: 5:40 3rd: mile: 5:41
We were together, and as the sun rose over the fog, we were chatting. But it was early.
By mile 15 the fatigue of 90 minutes at 5:40 pace was offset by collective giddiness. It’d gone unstated that we didn’t think we’d still be together at this point. But we were all still there, even Maxwell, the kid of the group. I’d been glancing at him for an hour and while he’s quiet, he’s strong. He has a right to silence, we were running faster than his PR pace. I wondered how loud the doubts were inside his head. We all knew he belonged at this pace, if he’d allow himself to believe.
“If we have 5 guys break 2:30 in Sacramento I’m gonna lose it,” Patrick remarked. The proud leader of our crew, he’s both athlete and coach. We trust his methods because he demonstrates them daily. Without him we’d all be runners. With him we’re a team of racers.
Over the final miles Patrick and Yates rolled away from me into the fully risen sun. I gained comfort from their strength. It feels good to know I’m not pushing fully.
I glance down for the mile 20 split — 5:30.
There it is.
“Did you see that split?” I asked
“Nah,” Patrick replied unconcerned.
“1:11:30. Yeah. So there’s that.”
We were 13.1 miles into our 16 mile “dress rehearsal” practice run 3 weeks out. While we had headed out on pace, we’d somehow gotten going a bit fast.
“You’re gonna roll some dudes in Sac,” I remarked excitedly.
“Yeah we are,” Patrick replied matter of factly.
Tapering for a marathon is physically confusing because it both relieves your muscles from aches and pains you’ve felt for months and instills them with strengths you may have never experienced before.
Race day is a journey marked by familiarity: no new foods, new footwear or new clothing; carried out on a stride I barely recognize.
“We’ll see what they’ve got,” I wondered.
Race Day — time to ride
Returning to bed I lay awake calm and confident. The wave is about to crest. I can feel it.
Two more hours till this journey begins.
Having become accustomed to the chaos and logistics of major marathons, the collective calm of our group is humorous. Getting to the line of Chicago, NYC and Boston requires emotional armor from the anxiety of 40,000 athletes. Today our crew is so jocular we could be heading to the mountain to ski. We’re calm because we’re aware that the only thing to fear lies two hours of running away.
“Hey look, a super moon,” someone points out as we make our way to start line.
“A fuckin’ Super Moon?!” I laugh to myself at the absurd perfection of this day.
Fast course. Deep field. 42 degrees. Clear skies. Might a Super Moon be a bit much?
Heading to the line with the Bowerman crew I can’t stop thinking of my former Tufts University teammates who have also embraced the marathon. Over a decade removed from college, all of us now fathers with real jobs, I know how much they would give to be standing on this line. Slower than all of them in school, I’ve somehow put myself in position to run much faster than they ever have today.
I promise myself I won’t waste a step.
Popping off the line, downhill, following a pack of the top marathoners in America our pack settles into formation right on pace. Having lost Maxwell to minor injury three weeks back it will just be Patrick, Yates, Platano and myself pushing on together.
Chris Platano is a great runner, first time marathoner; a tricky combination. The previous night I’d texted to reassure him that he was prepared for today. He’d responded with thanks, but also revealed that he was coping with the stress by lowering expectation, “I’m thinking around 74 through the half.”
That’s 5:39 pace. Fine for most, too slow for today.
I encouraged him to believe in himself and run strong. I hope to goad him into joining us out at 5:30 pace.
He’s here. Our team is intact.
Mile 2–6–5:31, 5:22, 5:28, 5:29, 5:31
I’ve been warned of the rolling nature of this course, and here come the waves, the uphills, the crests and the precipice.
“5:30 pace” actually means 5:30 effort, which demands calm, focused running. We’ve formed a pack of a dozen others with the same intent for today.
I’m getting ahead of myself mentally. Slow down, break it down, simplify. The solo miles I’ve run at the Boston Marathon in the past have taught me to zoom in, way in. Pick a spot, run to that spot. Repeat again. Make it boring.
10k — 33:56–2:23:20 pace(!)
Calm the emotions.
10k is NOTHING.
“Cute quarter of a race,” I scoff.
Mile 7, 8, 9–5:32, 5:30, 5:29
Pulling next to Patrick, Yates on my right side, we’re running three wide as I glance back to find a string of men lined up silently behind us.
“Guess we’re making the pack today,” I mention to Patrick, who seems slightly less comfortable than expected.
Turning to Platano, “Just the dress rehearsal to go,” I lie straight to his face, referencing our successful 16 miler and pretending the next 90 minutes will be anything similar.
“Yup, here we go!” The Rookie replies innocently.
Physically I feel fine, not great, but my emotions are battling. The optimist is counting his money, lining up a stack of chips called 2:24, while the pessimist is throwing a fit. “That’s all a loan!” he screams responsibly. “Watch yourself or you’ll give it all back and more!”
“Shhhh,” I repeat. Run this block. Run to that intersection. See how dull you can make it.
Mile 11, 12–5:21, 5:23
At these splits we’ve burned off much, if not all, of our original pack.
But who’s this?
We have a newcomer who’s caught us. Honestly I’m surprised.
Miraculously, I feel physically fine. My body is doing things I’ve never really dared to dream. Unfortunately my mind isn’t keeping pace. Odd questions begin to creep in, “How will my calves react if I run this pace for over 2 hours?!” I stress. Lacking answers I focus ahead to the next spot on the pavement and continue.
“BROMKA WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” I hear screamed in panic and disbelief from the sideline. My friend Paul made the trip from San Francisco to cheer, but he wasn’t expecting us for 1–2 more minutes. He stands frozen with his arms in the air and mouth agape, I throw a thumbs up and a smile ear to ear.
Oh yes, it’s on.
I’m EXACTLY where I wanted to be. Since the moment I hit the 13.1 split three weeks ago I knew I wanted to duplicate it on race day. I couldn’t even bring myself to say it aloud, but I remember how I felt in that moment and it’s where I wanted to be today when 13.1 miles from home.
“This is why I do this,” I remind myself. This is the intersection of fear and potential. Like a surfer laying in position on his board as the wave of a century swells, I’ve positioned myself to succeed or fail in the next hour. The moment I’ve dreamed of for months has arrived. Here we go, popped up on the board, I’m tipping into the slipstream, ready to ride.
Mile 14 & 15–5:23, 5:22
Pulling alongside Patrick, pushing to lead the pack, I’m officially overexcited.
Ten miles to run and my feet feel like they’re barely touching the ground. But my emotions are about to boil.
“I’m pushing too hard,” I relay to Patrick
“Too soon,” he cautions, clearly laboring himself.
But I feel good! I need to go!
No. Stop it. Tuck back in.
Stop being childish.
Reaching down I hit my watch for the split,
Like a customer who’s been given the wrong change and glances around to see if anyone noticed, I feel a surge of excitement, as though I’m cheating the system without getting caught.
Mile 17, 18, 19–5:20, 5:23, 5:23
“We’re running strong guys, when we reach this pack ahead we’ve gotta pass ’em strong, don’t let them latch on!” Mike from Boston calls out to us from the front. He’s flying and must be feeling good. I’m impressed by his race savvy, but wonder, “has anyone talked to him about the final 10k?”
The race begins in a mile.
About this time a wave of pain rolls from my back through my pelvis to my hamstring. “Wow! That was odd,” I marvel. I’ve heard of racers screeching to a halt suddenly in the marathon. It’s never happened to me, but I wonder if this is what occurs when you fling yourself over the edge of a marathon. I guess we’ll find out…
Mile 20–5:25 — The Wall
Over the years I’ve come to laugh about “The Wall” a bit. The quintessential marathon moment loses its luster once you’ve made it “over” or “through” multiple times. The Marathon will get you, but it doesn’t have to happen here.
I’ve broken away from Patrick slightly, and Yates has gone on ahead, skipping along lightly as always. I hate to leave Patrick, but if you’re gonna hang tough during the hard spots you also have to glide on during the easy ones. I figure it might help him to have someone to chase.
Mile 21, 22, 23–5:28, 5:32, 5:35
Sloping down a long stretch of pavement my whole world begins to feel like being at a bar at closing time. They flick on the lights and you realize what a shit hole the place really is. My world that was just rockin’ is now a dump.
This party is officially over. My legs are turning to shit and I have 5 miles to the finish. Beginning to panic because the splits are slipping I realize that they’re workable, if I force it. The wave is getting choppy, I must find my balance.
“8k to go, time to race!” I demand out of habit, but I know there will be no real racing today. Those shots have already been fired. This will be a battle to the line, demanding everything I can muster not to give back every second I’ve secured.
Mile 24, 25–5:38, 5:41
Whose that breathing down my neck?!
I’d recognize that rhythm anywhere. Peaking left I see Patrick charging!
Having counted him out, I should have known better. The man’s run 4,000 miles a year for a decade, he’s not about to give up now.
“Compete for every spot!” he demands as he swings past. I know he’s right, and I know I barely manage to care.
I implore myself to lean into the pain. I’ve prepared for this suffering for weeks, but it’s unlike I expected. My breathing is fine, and my legs don’t exactly hurt, but they are stuck. Rigid. Unable to move. Like attempting to sprint with 10lb weights on each ankle, moving fast feels simply impossible.
Everything you’ve worked for. Everything you’ve dreamed of, do NOT give it all back now!
“OUCH!” With 2,000 meters to go I feel a stabbing pain in my toe.
Glancing down in distress I realize a previous blister beneath the nail has refilled with blood. Amidst a storm of suffering this is a superficial wound.
I slam my foot down with authority, bursting the blister — soaking my precious white racers in red.
Arms pumping I turn the corner to the finish in disbelief as the clock rolls over to 2:23. Like a gambler tossing his earnings into the air, I can hardly manage to care about the incremental seconds.
Across the line I crash into Patrick, who’s standing, arms wide, grin even wider.
“WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!?!” I scream to all of Sacramento.
Yates casually drops that he broke 2:22.
Patrick at low 2:23.
Me at 2:23 mid.
And here’s Platano across the line only a minute later!
We’ve hit the jackpot and completed what we’ve dreamed of for over half a year.
Together we’ve averaged 2:23:17 for the marathon. 5:28 pace.
Together we dared to dream, paddled into position and precariously balanced the line between safety and success.
Thanks for reading!
My previous piece leading up to this incredible day, Why Faster?
The essay I’m most proud of, “Raised a Runner”
I always love to connect with runners, if you have questions please reach out, Bromka@gmail.com
Video of the finish of CIM, make sure to listen till the end…