Orrin Konheim wrote this piece after the Army Ten Miler and his personal experience with said race. Orrin has written geek pieces for us in the past, but this one is a departure, and quite frankly, he made me laugh. As laughter is part of my health regimen, I thank profusely thank Orrin.
The Army Ten Miler in Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia this past week featured a whopping 35,000 people meaning there were 34,999 people other than myself with interesting excuses for why they wanted to put their bodies through such an ordeal.
For me, running had been part of my identity since as a high school sophomore I ran cross-country and discovered quantitative proof that I could athletically be good at something. Lately, I have been an occasional trail runner during the summers, a spectator, and have veered into writing about track as a freelance writer, but it has been nine years since I actually did the most important part of running which is run an actual race. Sooner or later, it was time to change that.
The impetus was when I heard that two brothers who both served as captains of my high school team, Will and Tony, announced the sudden death of their mother, Anne (a nationally-ranked triathlete), in a freak car accident on the way back from a race. A strong sense of painful nostalgia hit me the last time I published a big article on track and field as I thought of all the past friendships I’d made with other runners that aren’t as strong as they once were. A year later, I went to Anne’s wake not expecting to enjoy myself but simply to lend my friends support in a difficult time. Instead, what I found was what’s known as an Irish wake where the family was celebrating her life. The fond memories I had running alongside the Tony and Will, the reunion I had with other runners I ran with in high school, and the ease of conversation with other track figures that day discussing things like negative splits and interval training sparked something in me to at least give the process a try and eventually see it through to the end.
Considering I had never run more than a 10K and seven and a half miles in training (most of my long training runs didn’t go very smoothly), I had severe doubts throughout the entire process of whether I would complete the race. The process left me with severe pain and a feeling of grand accomplishment and I learned a few lessons of the way. I can’t tell you about the 34,999 other runners in the race, but here’s what I learned:
It helps to have a reason to run and to remember that reason My initial stated intention was an honorable and noble goal, but realistically, it was also because I just wanted to run a race and practically, I needed every possible reserve of motivation that I could find. When it came to pushing myself to run on long runs, I discovered that what was most important was simply to not embarrass myself. Will and Tony are runners with accomplished careers (Will ran at the University of Oregon and beyond; Tony was often our team’s fastest distance runner while also being our best hurdler, a state qualifier in the middle distances, and casually competitive in all the jumping events) who had pushed through many miles and I didn’t want to have to tell them I never got around to it.
As time went on, more and more people (the people at Pacers Running Store who provided invaluable help, practically anyone who I told I was running a race, etc) joined the list of people I didn’t want to disappoint and each of those disappointments weighed on me through the hardest miles.
I even thought of the concierge woman at the hotel across the street from the race’s starting point where I borrowed the phone ten minutes before start-up. I was thinking of how embarrassing it might be if she asked me how the race went when we went back to the hotel to hail a cab and I’d have to tell her I DNFed.
Running can be a powerful social adhesive but not always the way you expect Sure, the actual act of being on a team together produced a lot of close friendships but there were so many other roundabout ways running has bought me closer to others. One of my dad’s cousins would regale us with stories of running several decades ago during otherwise awkward family gatherings. One of my first dates came from a track meet. One of my best friends in college came when we both were manhandled at the cross-country team tryouts and had to hobble back to campus together. And I’m not even counting the friendships I eventually made with the runners who embarrassed me on the track during those tryouts.
Likewise, this should work two ways. I was hoping that a social element would help my running. However, I found that when going with local running groups that I felt too competitive with them while running and that the post-race socializing sessions at bars weren’t really conducive to bonding because we were all too tired and beer felt about as appealing to me as poison after a run.
Instead, I found my salvation to come from a friend named Tripp whose connections to a shoe company got me a pair of sneakers when mine were stolen and who was available for advice at all hours. I first met Tripp when he worked at a shoe store six years ago and I was trying to put together a training season before I succumbed to the onset of a cold Winter. When he came by with the sneakers and I offered to buy him lunch he said “no, I just want you to finally finish a race.”
When I was nearing the race, my sister and two acquaintances of mine were so impressed with what I was doing that they started asking about how I could possibly run that far and how they could do the same. Never mind that there were tens of thousands of people who ran the very day I ran (and finished far ahead of me) and there was an even greater number of people who ran half marathons and marathons: I was the closest connection they had to running greatness. Knowing that I could never have completed that race without Tripp, I felt like I had to pay it forward and threw out what advice I could offer. These conversations with Tripp and with the people who asked my advice became the most meaningful part of the experience socially for me.
At some point, you have to accept the chasm between what you thought you would be and reality
Part of what kept me away from the sport for so many years was knowing that it would be too hard to match my previous times. I was getting to the point where I didn’t want to run on treadmills because I was constantly reminded when looking at the dashboard of the perils of aging out of my glory days.
At a certain point as the limits of my speed became more and more apparent, I had to make a choice: Either go out at an unrealistic pace and die on the course, or aim for completion. What would have once been failure–a nine- or-ten-minute pace over long distances–was not just a new standard for success but a challenging one that would require me to play all my cards right on the course
The consistency to run such a race is about running on days you don’t want to Someone asked me recently if running makes me feel good. A lot of talk about running focuses on the good feelings, accomplishments and endorphin highs, but for me, I would have to add a caveat: Running feels good IF you’re in the mood to go for a run. I’m not sure how sacrilegious this is to admit, but my level of enthusiasm for excessive mental and physical work varies.
On top of that, there are other factors that would keep me from running. I’m not a morning person and so I had to find time in my schedule to fit in a run. Often, it would be pushed to the evening or even midnight and I’d have to fight the fatigue. This was also a summer that was mixed with ungodly levels of humidity and days of rain storms.
Training also isn’t just about running at times you’re not in the mood but also pushing yourself further and faster than you would otherwise want to do as a recreational runner. Don’t get me wrong: Running fast can be more fun than jogging. However, pushing yourself is about going a little beyond what’s fun and comfortable.
Anxiety can be good to an extent I began to realize that my nostalgic memories of running were rose-tinted: I remembered the victories on the track and the times when I blazed through long runs with a feeling of near-infinite capacity. However, these difficult long runs bought back the sensory memories of the pains I felt when I mispaced myself and had a long way to go before the end of the race. To think of what it would like to be in the middle of a ten mile stretch with those levels of pain and not having the option of backing out was enough to fill me with quite a bit of dread.
Fortunately, the anxiety pushed me to better research and prepare. For the first time as a runner, I read books on how to run long distances and learned what happens to the body as you run. I tried to put careful thought into what I would wear and eat the day of the race in advance and even started planning water breaks.
Whereas it used to be adrenaline and the faith that multiple runs before a race would guide me to a fast time, it was now concrete knowledge of how to run that I hoped would get me over the hump.
There’s still a lot I don’t know As Tripp and Will can testify by how often I have texted them with confusion, I am still a long ways from being an expert on what to do. It’s pretty mind-boggling how often something has come up this training season that I had never experienced before. At a certain point, I realized I simply can’t control all the variables on race day and made peace with that.
I’m writing this two days after finishing the race, and I just went to a doctor who told me I had severe contusions and advised me on three or four treatments including a recommendation to use crutches that I don’t have. Two thoughts are going through my head now: 1) I don’t even know if I ran this race correctly and 2) Not even the doctor has certainty over what to do with me.
I also don’t know what my future holds for running but I want to do a 10K and improve my performance from last month before my current level of fitness wears off. I don’t know if I’ll make it there considering the doctor’s evaluation, but I’m extremely excited to try when I can get back on my feet.