“What about the Kenyans?” my mother asked.
“What about them?” I replied, confused.
“If you qualify, how are you going to handle them?” She answered matter of factly.
It’s at this point I realized I’d mis-communicated my goal.
Posting “Burn the Boat” online last year, declaring that I was attempting to slip under the Olympic Trials Qualifying mark of 2:19 for the marathon, certainly wasn’t intended as a slight to the Kenyans. Dreaming of being permitted to participate in the race that will select the three US runners for Tokyo was far from stating that I thought I’d be in contention. It just sounds like the greatest marathon I could ever hope to race.
But, so far, I’m 41 seconds short.
The truth is, I need more time.
Time to continue to build the momentum that began back in 2013.
Last Fall, as the final weeks before the 2018 California International Marathon approached, I realized that my fitness was accelerating rapidly, just possibly not fast enough for the impending deadline of race day. You can only increase marathon training incrementally. Sure you can attempt to elevate effort rapidly, to push hard in the short-term, but this most often leads to setbacks in the medium to long-term.
The event demands a lifestyle lived for years. Even months are painfully too fleeting for the necessary adaptation.
So just weeks after my near miss in Sacramento, expectations and training ramped up for Boston 2019.
A chance to continue building strength, this time with a purpose beyond simply chasing times.
Showdown in Beantown
The pressure of splits weighed heavily in 2018. The year was spent constantly glancing at our watches in search of 5:18s, sub-2:19 pace. While the pressure produced some success for the BTC Elite, two Trials qualifiers and a handful more on the cusp, we’re hungry to just race.
Setting aside splits and paces, my aim is to finish higher at The Boston Marathon than I ever have before. While that may sound fluffy, or less audacious than “Burning the Boat,” having finished 30th place in 2016, 10th place American, I’ve got a bit of work to do…
That 30th was soft, I’ll be the first to say it. Just months after the 2016 Olympic Trials, many great racers weren’t there that day.
Top 30 at Boston demands more preparation, and continued focus. When the gun goes off on that downhill start, the pack blasts forward leaving many able racers in its wake. Clawing back into the Top 30 demands a balance of patience and audacity, as well as risk. The BTC men will be tracking our splits, applying a “2:19 effort” to an undulating course, in order to position ourselves within striking distance off the top of Heartbreak Hill.
For a sport that’s most often only about searching within yourself, this year we’re aiming to blow past others when they break.
Honestly, it feels a bit strange to anchor personal goals relative to the performance of other athletes, but this is where I find myself. The road of inspiring time barriers ran wide and paved for the past several years. Breaking 2:45, 2:30 and then 2:20 were classic milestones worth covetting. But, similar to the confusion I experienced when I’d run 2:28 and wondered “Why Faster,” I’m now attempting to navigate goal setting down a gravel road without a map. A PR is always a PR, but sometimes you need to flip the script when searching for inspiration.
The Bowerman Track Club is bringing eight men to Boston prepared to hurl off Heartbreak, crash down through Kenmore and attempt to win the Team Championship. In 2016 we got two-thirds of the way there. Scored by the lowest cumulative time for a team’s top 3 runners, we had the fastest two. But our third was racing his 1st Boston. “He finally got humbled by the marathon” his mother remarked to me. (Harsh mom!) But it was true. Tyler had danced to a 2:29 with relative ease at his second marathon. If you keep showing up the Marathon will humble you eventually.
This year we’re back, and we’re bringing reinforcements.
A Spring training cycle continues this spiral towards strength further upward. But to what end?
For what ultimate purpose?
The Top Hundred
“How good a marathoner? Like, top hundred? Or top couple hundred?” My cousin asked at Christmas. It was a fair, question. All this talk about their cousin being a runner, a marathoner, but what does that really mean? How good exactly?
I aim to finish in the top 100 at the Olympic Trials on February 29th, 2020. That distinction, just as arbitrary as any, would be a crowning finale to this marathon journey I slipped into five years ago almost by surprise.
I’m well aware of how many great runners there are in this country, which would solidify the meaning of such a finish. So much talent, so much speed. 14 minute 5Kers. 29 minute 10Kers. You could fill a stadium with men faster than me at all those distances.
But not the marathon.
“Why can’t the marathon just be 20 miles?!” A new recruit to the BTC bemoaned.
“Because that’s where speed runs out, strength takes over and experience is a multiplier.” We counseled the young gun.
Having seen the rolling, looping course for the 2020 Atlanta trials I want a chance at those men as the adrenaline of the Olympic pomp wears off and the drudgery of the marathon settles in thick.
Of course, there is one major issue to this particular goal: I’m not yet invited to the race.
I still need that OTQ.
2:17 is the new time
Having improved my best by 4–6 minutes each of the last five years, there seems little value in targeting essentially a putt of improvement.
Cutting 41 seconds is enough for an OTQ, but insufficient to fuel this lifestyle another whole year. The fire necessary to train this hard cannot be sustained aiming for incremental improvement.
My 2:19 proved that 2:18 isn’t inconceivable, but I only know that now. When we hurtled off the start line under 5:20 pace I had no idea whether I’d even make it 26.2. Or if I’d shuffle home at a hobble.
Now that I’ve endured on that pace train for nearly the full distance, the mystery of the effort is removed. Which is why we’re constructing a new puzzle. Goals must scare you stiff to extract the necessary effort.
2:17 commands such respect. Racing 26.2 miles at 5:15 pace is gross. It’ll be terribly hard. And that’s fine.
We’ll be ready, myself and several BTC teammates, to lead our own pace train to 2:17 if necessary.
And why 2:17?
No other reason than because two of our teammates already have. Numbers sound nice to everyone, but digits are abstract and hollow until you’ve witnessed them personified. Among teammates, in the thick of training, is where the true meaning is manufactured.
If they’re 2:17 marathoners, why can’t we be too?
“Time is an unrelenting motherfucker.” A teammate texted me a week removed from our miss at CIM 2018.
The California International Marathon on December 8th, 2019 is approaching. Not quickly, but it lurks. It haunts.
Boston will be a celebration, a festival of ability and shared endeavor.
But CIM, for all it’s net downhill and weather perfection, scares me straight.
Because when all excuses are removed, and relative place is set aside, you are once again confronted with the runner’s life-long foe: the clock.
By 9:19 a.m. on December 8th, 2019 a handful BTC men will have yet again thrashed themselves against the amateur marathoner’s dream of distinction: The OTQ.
What will begin as a team effort, will gradually be stripped back to its essence: solo strides, hurtling through space, attempting to pull a fantasy down into reality.
“KEEP FIGHTING! FIGHT FOR IT BROMKA,” my friend Paul implored me last year with only minutes to spare.
His words still echo sharply in my memory.
Those words grant momentum to rise each morning, they create hope for the coming year, and imbue meaning into the intent.
Once again we will cloak in the ephemeral armor of Marathoners and crack ourselves open over 26.2.
These goals are simply tools to deliver us on the day prepared to pull the most from ourselves.
Because they are meaningless.
As is the marathon.
But to us it is everything, because it shapes how we structure our lives.
“Do you ever get anxious?” a friend asked recently. Not a runner, he and I were just two old friends, now husbands and fathers, having a beer, reflecting on life.
“Not in the micro, not daily, but sometimes in the macro, about life.” I replied. “But running helps with both.”
Much is said about the stress relieving benefits of getting out the door for a daily run. That much is known.
What’s less discussed is the psychological safety of living within a cycle of training. While the annual burden of New Year’s Resolutions weighs on the masses, runners head out the door focused intently on creating meaning and progress in the next 10–12 weeks. And again. And once again.
“I get that it’s arbitrary. I understand that PRing in the marathon isn’t intrinsically helpful to the health and safety of my family. But it keeps me sane. And that helps.”
The aspiration of most Kenyan athletes is to use running to escape. To break free from poverty. This is true for all but the very best.
Which is why when the greatest of all-time, Eliud Kipchoge, says “The Marathon is life.” It gives us pause.
Olympic Champion. World Record holder. He has every reason to let go. But he doesn’t.
He’s risen to the event’s greatest height with the same methodical repetition that brings meaning to each of us as marathoners.
Rise, run. Live, smile.
The Marathon is life, because it embodies the effort, discomfort, joy and heartache we experience throughout our lives each day.
Its essence is difficulty; as is life. As a game we play, it makes the emotions tangible, which grants us fleeting feelings of being in control as the years of our lives spin and pass.
It hurts. But it helps. And that’s what makes it beautiful.
Thanks for reading!
My other stories can be found at peterbromka.com
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org