Virtual Marathon

It’s hard to believe it was this year—January 21st, 2020, to be exact—that my mom came to stay with my wife, Nataki, and me. She has Alzheimer’s disease (my mom, not my wife) and had deteriorated to the point where my dad was no longer able to care for her on his own. I couldn’t bear to see her placed in a facility just yet, so after consulting with Nataki, I offered to take her in.

Everybody we knew who had already been through what we were about to go through warned us that it would be even more challenging than we thought.

Their counsel reminded me of something my friend Bernie said to me before my first marathon:

“No matter how hard you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be harder than that.”

Bernie was right, and so too were the people who gave us a reality check concerning our reverse-parenting intentions. I recognized going in that much of the burden would fall on Nataki, who doesn’t work and who therefore has more time for such things as making sure elderly houseguests don’t accidentally set fire to the kitchen. But the reason Nataki doesn’t work is that she has bipolar disorder and can’t handle a lot of stress in her life, and the stress of looking after her mother-in-law quickly proved to be unacceptably harmful to her mental wellbeing. So, after just six weeks, we shipped mom back to Rhode Island.

By this time I was sick, having picked up a certain virus on a trip to Atlanta. The worst symptom was a relentless, racking dry cough. In the most hellish stretch of my monthlong illness I coughed for 30 minutes nonstop as soon as I got up in the morning and for 30 minutes again right before I went to bed at night, often disgorging blood, or bile, or both. One time I coughed so violently that I injured several ribs. Prior to that moment, the most excruciating pain I had ever felt was when I suffered a third-degree ACL tear playing soccer at age 14. My rib injury hurt just as much, and every single subsequent cough (20 coughs per minute times 30 minutes equals . . .) hurt that much again. To get a better sense of how it felt, stab yourself in the lung with a letter opener 600 times. Fun stuff.

A few weeks after I recovered (temporarily, as it turned out) from the virus, George Floyd was murdered. Having married into a Black family in 2001, I take racism a bit more personally than does the average white guy, and I took this latest atrocity very personally. But what really sent me over the bend was the ugly backlash against the social justice movement that came out of Floyd’s lynching. A poisonous mix of indignant fury and helpless dismay ate me alive as I watched American racism skulk out of the shadows and become “cool” again, unprovoked verbal and physical assaults on people of color who were just minding their own business becoming as commonplace as rain. Unable to think about anything else, I put more energy into angry tweeting than I gave to my work, which was already suffering as a consequence of the pandemic-induced recession. A big chunk of my income comes from selling online training plans to endurance athletes who are preparing for races such as the Boston Marathon, and, well . . .

In August the wildfires hit. Where I live in California’s north Central Valley there’s little risk of losing my home, but this year the fires were close enough and extensive enough for the smoke to make outdoor exercise impossible for weeks at a stretch. I adapted as best I could by running and cycling indoors, even wearing a mask (luckily I had plenty of those lying around) for some workouts. On the (literal) darkest days, my eyes stung and my head throbbed and my esophagus burned regardless, effects that, unpleasant though they were, I accepted as a passing nuisance and that’s all—certainly nothing that might change the course of my life.

October 6th is the date the course of my life changed. A single, random poor workout became a bad patch in my training, which became a downward spiral in my fitness and health, which became a chronic condition that shows no sign of abating almost three months later. Crushing fatigue, extreme exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, brain fog, tingling extremities, wild fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure, phantom smells, and other symptoms indicate post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, which normally manifests immediately after acute COVID but appears to have existed as a latency in me for six months until activated by inhaled smoke particulates. Many long-haulers are being diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), an incurable autonomic nervous system disorder often brought on by viral infection. Key symptoms are crushing fatigue, extreme exercise intolerance, shortness of breath, brain fog, tingling extremities, wild fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure . . .

As I sit here at my desk with a numb left foot on the morning of December 31st, I find myself becoming a bit nostalgic already for this crazy year, and I’m certain this feeling will only intensify in the years to come. Ever since I was a wee pup I have craved intense experience. As painful as it is, I love endurance racing because it is freaking intense. I feel so damn alive when I’m immersed in that acid bath of purposeful suffering. And for me, 2020 was nothing if not intense. Sure, I suffered a good deal, but because much of the suffering I experienced was unfamiliar in nature, I found it interesting and challenging, a new place to explore and learn. A bad trip is still a trip, after all.

Novel challenges also present rich opportunities for self-discovery and growth. The moment that sticks out came in late March, during one of my nightly coughing spells, when I was shocked by the sudden realization that I felt a pinch of disappointment when this particular episode turned out to be not quite as unbearably awful as preceding ones. Am I a masochist? I wondered before concluding that, no, I’m just a person who has been through enough in life that I rely heavily on toughness to cope, and coughing violently for 30 minutes straight with injured ribs was, if nothing else, a terrific opportunity to test and hone my toughness. I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just something I learned about myself that I wouldn’t have learned had 2020 been smooth sailing.

I tried to find—and largely exceeded in finding—the opportunity in each of the challenges I faced this year. Although I hated to raise the proverbial white flag so soon after bringing my mother into my home, I will forever treasure those six weeks, during which I was able to express my love for her in ways I never had before. And although at times the surreal mainstreaming of white supremacy made me want to go live in a cave, it also gave me a chance to listen to and encourage a college-age cousin on Nataki’s side whose diapers I used to change and who is now active in the fight for social justice. And although it sucked to lose a month of running to my initial illness, I relished the subsequent comeback, learning valuable lessons about the possibilities and limitations of accelerated fitness building in the process of going from bedridden to a 2:54 virtual marathon in six-and-a-half weeks—lessons that I can pass on to the athletes I coach, even if my own marathoning days are over.

Having said all of this, I will also say that I hope next year is nothing like this year. But I would say the same thing if 2020 had been smooth sailing start to finish. I mean, who the hell wants to live the same year twice?

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.

“Really? Why?”

“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.

$ubscribe and $ave!

  • Access to over 600 plans
  • Library of 5,000+ workouts
  • TrainingPeaks Premium
  • An 80/20 Endurance Book

 

30 day money back guarentee

For as little as $2.32 USD per week, 80/20 Endurance Subscribers receive:

  • 30-day Money Back Guarantee