The art of the marathon is more than about speed. It is about strategy, mindset and execution.
My definition of success, on a personal level, is likely very different than a lot of runners. A big part of my definition is wrapped up in the experience. My experiment of one is a personal journey. Success hinges on developing and executing strategy. A 4-month build up to race day means finding a way to peak at the right time and knowing you’ve done your best from the starting gun to the finishing mat.
In advance of running St. George, the little details mattered: bags were packed days in advance, a cleanly shaven head, upgrading the rental to a Camaro convertible for the drive from Las Vegas to Utah, downloading new music and organizing a play list.
After boarding a bus, the next 5 hours would come down to waiting for the start and execution.
Runners start in the dark and run for miles before the full light of the sun rises above the mountains and buttes. The downhill start means it’s easy to go out fast — too fast if one isn’t careful.
The strategy sounds simple: run conservative the first half, push hard the second half and aim for a negative split. There are rolling hills early — with the first at mile marker 1.
Unexpectedly, near the 2-mile marker, I find the answer to a question lingering in my mind for the past few months: if a Boston qualifying time is out of reach for me or I can’t achieve a personal best, what will be the motivation to keep running marathons?
Another roller appears at the 3-mile mark, but it isn’t until passing the 7-mile mark that first imposing challenge stands before us.
Passing through Veyo, runners embark up the side of a volcano — a visually and physically imposing task. Several more hills through mile 11 prove taxing and can use up valuable energy. Here, if runners aren’t cautious, they’ll burn out their legs before the halfway mark with the quad-busting declines still ahead.
In this point-to-point race, mountain peaks and buttes offer breathtaking sights. The red and white sandstone glow in the early morning sun. The reviews, classifying this as one of the most beautiful places to run, are deserved.
Volunteers are well-versed in their duties at the water aid stations while spectators gleefully cheer. St. George also receives exceptional marks for organization, and the reasons are readily apparent in the details. Organizers tout Runner’s World ranking the race as the one of the very best organized marathons. It is exceptional, but not readily better than Twin Cities, Chicago or New York. One facet worth noting, though, is the pre-race expo. It isn’t overwhelming or large, but rather classy, easy to navigate and offering quality merchandise.
During the race, my focus is singular on running each mile to the best of my ability.
For each runner, the motivation to complete a marathon is personal. It takes sacrifice, determination and commitment; being “all in” for a marathon sometimes comes at a great cost, monetarily or otherwise.
St. George serves as a reminder to why I love racing. There is an art to running marathons. The perfect race involves more than science. Developing and executing a strategy, and delivering one’s best performance on a given day, is an art.
The science of running is covered in-depth — training, nutrition, speed work and a number of other aspects — through websites dedicated to running. But each person is forced to find her or his own motivation. Each runner must find the tenacity for the marathon.
By the time the halfway mark arrives, the time on my watch offers a stark reality. A tad slower than I hoped. Any plans on qualifying for Boston would require my legs to carry me over the final distance faster than all but one of my previous half marathon races. Any chance of securing a spot into the prestigious race, which now bases entries on running well below qualifying times, would require my fastest half marathon ever.
At this point, my spirit isn’t swayed despite the enormity of the task. My hope is undeterred. Running a sub 3:15 marathon is my A goal, one that might be possible but also a stretch. My B goal, a bit more realistic, is a bit more manageable.
In the second half of St. George, the most spectacular views come into view from miles 14 to 16, but I wasn’t stopping to take pictures.
Leaning forward, gravity shares the workload on the down slopes. There are still some rolling hills ahead. The road’s angle, banked to help motorists navigate the curves, through miles 21 and 22 proved to be the greatest challenge in fighting off cramping leg muscles.
Purposefully, I avoid looking at my watch for most of the race. The exceptions came at the halfway point and when I reached the 23-mile mark. At this point, I discovered the remaining task: cover the final 3.2 miles in less than 22 minutes and earn a Boston qualifying mark.
It was time to press the pace. The next 3 miles would need to be covered quickly and another downhill offered hope.
This year’s race offered temperatures nearly 10 degrees warmer than normal. The sun’s intensity, virtually undetectable during the first 3 hours of the race, became noticeable.
For runners hugging the left side of the road near the 24-mile mark, relief came from misters showering them with water. A group of us positioned ourselves to run for a few seconds beneath the cool reprieve.
The mile split flashed on my watch. With my best effort, I covered mile 24 about 15 seconds slower than what was needed for to qualify. The final two miles are essentially flat, assuring a Boston qualifying mark was out of reach.
Five years had passed since notching my best marathon time, set during the 2010 Chicago Marathon. The following year, a negative split on the Grandma’s Marathon course nearly gave me a new personal best. In the years since, there have been two moves, weight struggles, injuries and loss of motivation — all prompting questions about whether a 3:20, my goal for St. George, was possible.
Recently, I read an article about goal setting for masters runners (anyone 40 or above). It piqued my interest in a search for motivation to keep running marathons. The author waxed poetically about being realistic, encouraging older runners embrace age-graded performances and age group bests rather than focusing on personal records.
That’s a mindset I refuse to accept. At this race, just a few days removed from my 43rd birthday, I want to believe the best is still possible.
All around, determined runners coaxed their legs onward as cheering spectators encouraged them through the final 2 miles. Some runners hobbled, while others stopped, to ease aching and cramping legs. The anticipation and excitement of the finishing stretch, still out of sight, motivated my own desire to stop. But not until crossing the final timing mat.
Making the final turn toward home, the marathon would soon come to an end. A roaring crowd celebrated runners through through the final few hundred yards.
For me, the clock stopped. 3 hours, 17 minutes, 37 seconds.
More than 2 minutes beneath my goal.
And a new personal best.
A few moments later I heard a voice calling my name. My friend, Jamie, ran a blazing fast time, and congratulated me on the finish. Soon, his wife, Kaley, with an exceptionally inspiring performance to her credit, soon joined us. A short time later, over pizza and beer, we shared stories of an amazing race. As terrific as the St. George experience turned out, the best and most enduring highlight was having the chance to share it with friends.
Congratulations also are in order to the other North Dakota representatives who finished the race: Michele Peterson and Michelle Langton, both of Grand Forks.