In my limited experience, running a half-marathon — I (Ben) ran my seventh this past weekend, Cincinnati’s own Flying Pig — is an exercise in failure. (Running a full marathon — something I’ve never done, and never will — is an exercise in willful self-torture.)
The trick, so far as I can tell, is to fail a little bit better than you did the previous time.
I trained better for this half-marathon than any before it. My training runs were more consistent, and more satisfying. The concept of a “runner’s high” is still a bit alien to me, but I can say I’ve tasted it. I actually looked forward to my long Saturday runs at Lunken Airport. A runner friend of mine who also runs there calls it his “sacred time.”
To the skeptical, non-runner observer, it may appear as though we are in exquisite agony. But I can testify that there’s actually something good taking place, in spite of — sometimes because of — the pain.
Because I felt so good about my training, I had high expectations for my finish time. I ran the Music City Half-Marathon in Nashville in 1:43:13 two years ago — my personal best, and a somewhat out-of-body experience. I ran last year’s Flying Pig in 1:48:47. My goal this year was 1:45:00.
This may or may not be fast to you. The thing with running is that it’s so individual. My 1:45:00 may be your 1:12:35 (this year’s top male finisher) or your 3:00:00. It doesn’t matter. You’re competing against yourself.
This past Sunday morning, I lost.
It was pouring. I happen to like running in the rain. To keep my iPod Nano dry, I wore it in my armband sleeve around my left tricep. You can’t see the screen once you slide it into the sleeve, so I preset it to my running mix but waited to push play until I crossed the start line. When I did, I anticipated hearing the comforting, familiar sounds of David Byrne and Brian Eno singing “Life Is Long” — my lead-off hitter. Instead, I was perturbed to hear not “Life Is Long” but rather Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie singing “Foux Du Fafa.” I had toggled onto “Flying Pig” before sleeving my nano, but somehow it had toggled up to “Flight of the Conchords.”
No no NO, I thought. My fragile running ego needed David Byrne and Brian Eno in that moment — I had begun almost every training run with that song. Bret and Jermaine were messing with my head. I became Murray Hewitt.
Fact: Feeling like Murray Hewitt is a crushing blow to your self-esteem, particularly if you’re going for speed.
Crossing the Taylor-Southgate Bridge, I had to remove my Nano from its sleeve, scroll out to the playlist menu, find “Flying Pig,” and get back on track. This is a relatively straightforward task. But with the rain, and my wet fingers, and the peculiar charms of my Nano clickwheel, it toggled from “Flight of the Conchords” to “Girls” — continually skipping over “Flying Pig” — for what felt like 20 minutes.
I could feel the stamina being sapped from my bones.
I finally landed on “Flying Pig,” kick-started Byrne and Eno, and decided to keep the Nano in my palm for the duration of the race.
I was just a little off-pace through two miles. There was still hope.
But something was wrong with the volume. My Nano sounded, literally, water-logged. Only one earbud was playing music, and at half-volume, like the headphones weren’t completely plugged in.
I like my running music loud.
“Drunk Girls” — track 3 — at half-volume is like a morning after hangover. Very painful. You play it loud, or you don’t play it.
Through three miles, my pace was still on goal. Mentally, I was in a nightmare, running through molasses.
People have told me that if you can run a half-marathon, you can run a full. It’s all mental.
Yes, I want to say. I know it is. And mentally, all I can bear is 13.1 miles. And that’s on a good day, when everything goes right.
The next thing that didn’t go right was my right heel. It has bugged me off and on for the past few months. The more I wondered if it was really bothering me, the more it bothered me. With each stride I imagined a little heel gremlin chipping away at the bone with a miniature jackhammer.
Imagining you have a heel gremlin, much like feeling like Murray Hewitt, is not conducive to running well.
Around mile six you start the climb into Eden Park. This was when I realized I didn’t have a full tank. So far as I can tell, you just never know what runner you’ll be on any given day. Did I overtrain? Did I start tapering soon enough? Did I get enough carbs the night before? And enough sleep the night before that? Did I drink enough liquids this morning? Should I have grabbed a Gatorade at the last station instead of skipping it? All these questions, like a herd of wild animals, stampede through your mind and destroy whatever carefully laid plan you had all mentally laid out for yourself.
Turning off Gilbert Avenue and up Eden Park Drive, I resigned myself to failure. And then I kept going.
That’s the only credo I have as a moderate running enthusiast who clocks in with one half-marathon a year. Running is about being beaten, and humbling yourself, and plugging on. Which is all I knew how to do.
At some point I noticed that it had stopped raining. I didn’t mind being soaked. It was nice not to be hot. The Nano shut down around mile 9 — my Nike + iPod program told me I had run 2.55 miles to that point — and then suddenly blared back to life, though the volume was now locked in at full blast. I needed something, so I sacrificed my long-term hearing just to get through four more miles.
Almost every stride between 10 and 12 was an accusation against me. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, my mind was a bad neighborhood you avoid at night. I was doing the math in my head, and I knew I couldn’t hit my goal. All I saw were runners passing me. Young runners. Old runners. Female runners.
You see a lot of runners with scripture verses on their shirts or penned onto their legs and shoulders. A friend of mine has been telling me I need to memorize scripture, so I started playing verses in my head. Philippians 4:13. Hebrews 12:1. All the popular runner ones. I thought about friends who were on the course too, and I prayed for them. I was tired of a litany of failure running through my head, and I had no more sticks of my own to beat it back. So I prayed.
My prayers were answered in that the people who laid out the course did indeed keep it 13.1 miles. Actually, I think they were answered more than that. I ran the last mile at an eight-minute clip. My heel still hurt. My right knee was chiming in. I knew I would not hit my goal, or beat my time from last year. My Nano was probably broken. I was chafing. But I was going to finish. There is no failure when you finish.
When I turned onto Pete Rose Way for the final straightaway, I picked my rabbit — an older man with even more body hair than myself — and went after him. Do not fail at this, do not fail at this, I kept telling myself. He still seemed so far ahead. Eventually I closed the gap and passed him, and as soon as I did, I realized I had nothing left whatsoever. Do not let him pass you! Do not let him pass you! I kept thinking.
I crossed just before he did. My time was 1:50:05. I took the medal a cheery young volunteer draped over my head. I stumbled in a daze to the food corral. I jammed into my mouth whatever I saw. Then the rain started again, and I stood there shivering, and thought to myself about what a strange, happy failure this foolish enterprise is, and how I will be back again next year, lining up for more.
Thank you to my Sunday running partner Sarah McWhorter, for the pacing and the companionship. No run is ever bad when you’ve got a partner.
And most of all, thank you to my awesome wife.