I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2009. Although I came into the race super fit, having just lowered my half-marathon PB, I knew within 12 miles that I was in for yet another long and disappointing day at the 26-mile, 385-yard distance. At 16 miles, I saw my family, who, at great inconvenience to themselves, had come out to stand in the rain for a glimpse of me. My brother Josh broke form the curb and ran alongside me for a few seconds, checking in.
“How’s it going?” He asked.
“Terrible,” I said disgustedly.
“Because I suck at running marathons!” I barked.
This was not mere tantruming on my part. I really did suck at running marathons. I’d run my first one ten years earlier, starting out at 2:45 pace, hitting the wall at 18 miles, walking for a while, and ultimately finishing in 3:38. My next marathon followed the same pattern, though I was able to improve my time to 3:11. When the 2009 Boston Marathon took place, my PR was down to 2:41, but my times at shorter distances suggested it should have been closer to 2:35. True marathon mastery still eluded me, a fact that was underscored by my performance in Boston, where I finished in 3:18, having been reduced to walking yet again.
Things didn’t change until 2017, when I ran eight marathons in eight weeks as part of an adventure that I documented in my memoir, Life Is a Marathon. Only the last of these events—the Eugene Marathon—was run as an all-out effort, but by the time I got to Oregon I was no longer the same runner who had fallen short of his potential in every previous all-out marathon. I finished that race in 2:49, well shy of my PR, but I was 46 years old then and exhausted from eight weeks on the road, and my training had been far from optimal during that time (featuring no speed work whatsoever, for example). What mattered to me was not my time but how I had executed the race. When I reviewed my performance afterward in my mind, I realized I hadn’t made a single mistake in my pacing, nutrition, self-talk, or any other dimension of race execution, and that I had therefore, for once, done the very best I was capable of that day.
Five months later, at the Chicago Marathon, I set a new PR of 2:39, confirming that, at long last, I had mastered the marathon distance.
Fast forward to this year. Two months shy of my 49th birthday, I completed the brutally hilly Atlanta Marathon in 2:46:59, feeling very much on top of my game still. But then the bottom dropped out. I returned home from Atlanta carrying a virus that would lay me low for an entire month, decimating my fitness. When I was finally healthy enough to contemplate an athletic comeback, I quickly decided to race a virtual marathon that was then 5.5 weeks away.
It was a crazy idea, but somehow it just felt right. Only after it was behind me did I fully understand why. It’s no fun to suck at something, of course, but being so good at something that it’s no longer challenging and/or you’re no longer improving isn’t much fun either. I think I looked at the challenge of seeing how well I could prepare for a marathon in 5.5 weeks, and how well I could execute a marathon with questionable fitness, as an opportunity to test and stretch my marathon mastery. And it proved to be just that.
About halfway through the condensed training process, I got myself into a bit of a hole. A planned 23-mile run turned into a 12-miler, and my next two runs weren’t much better. I felt like a zombie. Having planned the most aggressive training ramp-up I thought I could handle, I knew it was highly likely that I would have to make some adjustments along the way to avoid burnout and injury. So that’s what I did, and eventually I got out of the hole.
When race day rolled around, I had only the vaguest sense of what sort of marathon performance I was capable of, hence how to pace myself. Different components of fitness are gained and lost on different timescales, and I was aware that I’d regained a lot more speed and aerobic capacity than I had raw endurance. Frankly, I would have been much better off racing a virtual 5K than a virtual marathon. The best plan I could come up with was to run the first 10K at 6:49 per mile (setting myself up for a sub-three-hour finish, barring disaster), then assess.
I started a little hot, completing the first mile in 6:44. The textbook move at that point would have been to forget about those five seconds and make sure to run the next mile in 6:49. But my body was telling me something else. Based on the nearly 50 previous marathons it had absorbed, my body knew what to do, and I knew to trust it. Long story short, I went on to complete the marathon in 2:54:42, averaging 6:40 per mile for the full distance. My half-marathon splits were 1:27:51 and 1:26:41. My last two full miles were my fastest, but not by much—6:29 and 6:31—indicating flawless pacing. I neither ran out of gas before I finished nor finished with gas in the tank but ran out of gas as I finished.
If it sounds like I’m bragging, it’s because I am. I was on Cloud 9 for the rest of the day, as high as I’ve been after any race, not because I’d lit the world on fire with my performance but because I’d been literally coughing up blood just eight weeks earlier. Later in the day, after my third or fourth beer, I recalled something Dave Scott said to me during a weekend I spent shadowing him in Boulder, Colorado, while working on a profile for Inside Triathlon. Dave had won the Ironman World Championship six times, yet he told me that the two races he was most proud of were both losses—his second-place finish in 1994 at age 40 after a five-year retirement and his final Ironman two years later, in which he overcame a disastrous bike leg to move up from 26th place to 5th during the marathon. After my virtual marathon experience, I understood more deeply why Dave looked back on these achievements so fondly. More than any of his victories, they tested and validated his mastery of Ironman.
Mastery is a mindset. When you possess this mindset, you aren’t really focused on outcomes; you’re focused on the process. Outcome goals are merely a facilitator of the true goal, which is to get better and better at the skill of racing (or playing the violin, or brain surgery, or whatever it is you’re trying to master). Mastery-minded athletes would rather be stretched in the process of losing than win easily, and they get more satisfaction out of making the best of bad circumstances than achieving a goal only because everything went their way. They’re also more likely to regard sucking initially at some skill—like racing marathons—as a reason to keep trying, not a reason to try something else.
Which is why I now want to master ultramarathons, which I suck at as much as I once sucked at marathons.