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A Marathon Season Deferred

Words by Peter Bromka

You signed up for a marathon during a pandemic? You committed 
despite so many unknowns? You believe in brighter futures. In deferred dreams. In the possibility that if you work toward incremental steps, repeatedly, you can gradually create something better. You must be the type of person who’s able to squint at a shitty situation and say, “True...but on the other hand...”

Of course. You’re a Marathoner.

“These better not all be for you…” my wife snarked as she laid eyes on the stack of new shoeboxes by the door.

They were, but I assured her they had a purpose. With over 1,000 miles between me and the Boston Marathon on October 11th, it was time to reload. An indulgence I’d been anticipating since 2019. Sure, I bought new things in 2020, but I did so without conviction. Typically, I’m diligent about regularly rotating running shoes in order to avoid injury, but in 2020 I put extra miles on tired trainers; it really didn’t matter. An extra day off here or there wasn’t an issue; there weren’t any true tests on the calendar. To be a marathoner you have to run marathons. But last year passed by in limbo, racers stuck in the circling flight pattern, neither ascending nor landing.

This fall, that changes.

This season these boxes will be broken down.

These shoes will be beaten up.

We will be marathon runners once more.

I assured my wife that I’ve committed to transforming all of this expensive foam into fitness because I’ve committed to a day on which I’ll either succeed or fail. Pressure is opportunity. Uncertainty provides meaning. After a year fixated on a repetitive routine of distancing and mask-wearing in pursuit of safety, concern for the relative “risk of failure” in a marathon feels trivial.

I long for the familiar difficulty of marathon training. It’s never easy, but like being reunited with long-distance love, this fall we will each revisit the movements of our favorite pastime with excitement and trepidation. Sometimes to succeed in the future, it helps me to revisit past moments of meaning. But it’s been so long since my last marathon build-up that I’ve had to scrounge around in my running memory for the keys to past successes.

Whenever I go for a second run I think about mile 22. That’s the point in the race where you’re running on tired legs. I remember how my stride begins to shrink; those closing kilometers are all the motivation I need to get out the door twice in a day.

Whenever I lift weights, I picture the final half-mile sprint. That’s the point in the race when you’re pleading with your knees to lift while they feel firmly stuck to the cement. I push and pull metal to failure in my basement, in hopes that it’ll prevent actual collapse out on the road. Entering that final half-mile, when places and PRs are at stake, I find it helps to have practiced summoning one last bit of strength.

Whenever I’m in the later sets of long run workouts and the discomfort has jumped from a murmur to a holler to a scream, I bring my mind to the 24th-mile marker when all you want is to be done and yet over 10 minutes remain. I count to 20 in my head, sing songs on repeat; anything to jam the frequency of my doubt that increases under fatigue.

And whenever I can’t get to sleep at night, I bring my mind to the meditative state of the middle miles. I try to channel the course’s turns along the mile markers in the teens, when you’re floating in the moment; not exactly comfortable, not overly exerting.

This trance absorbs my mind and sends my exhausted body to sleep.

So, as I steel myself in preparation for this fall’s marathon build, I consider a couple general states that I’m expecting to encounter in the months ahead.

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The Hunger

“I forgot how hungry you get when you ramp up mileage!”

I texted some teammates this spring. Second breakfasts, workout bars between meals, an extra scoop of ice cream – anything to tackle the caloric deficit and satisfy a body constantly demanding more.

The task is having enough healthy calories on hand to stave off the impulse to take down an entire bag of mini-candy bars when your glucose levels start crashing.

When increasing mileage and workout intensity I’ve often found myself in a kind of kitchen deja vu, “Wasn’t I just here?!” I wonder as I search for yet another snack. It seems impossible to believe, but consuming so much often becomes a chore as you seek to keep pace with an accelerating metabolism. Still, there’s almost nothing that beats tucking into a hearty breakfast after a long run. When you’re marathon training, even your meals play a role in achieving your goals.

The Time

All that marathon training asks is: run as many miles as you can. Sounds simple. Yet finding that ever-elusive balance forces an athlete to constantly reassess. To “write training plans in pencil,” as they say. 

Miles are squeezed in the morning, noon, and night; whenever the hours allow. Sometimes I rise with the warm summer sunrise, or jog between meetings, passing by other people’s picnics, layering on more effort. Friends will inevitably find out about your marathon goals because of how much time and planning it takes to train. If you weren’t already talking their ear off about paces, fuel packets, and flats, then congratulations, but your ambitions will reveal themselves when they invite you for a late-night BBQ , a mid-morning get-together or an unstructured weekend away.

The amateur marathoner’s schedule acts like a candle burning at both ends, and the middle. The body won’t make it 26.2 miles on a whim, so marathoners must attempt to package life’s unpredictability within the structure of a training plan. You can move a workout around, or shift a long run earlier, but if you sacrifice too many sessions at the mercy of family obligations and kids’ commitments, your training level suffers.

Maximizing your aerobic ability while maintaining a job, supporting a family, and sleeping enough to recover, is a matrixed scheduling Rubix cube, but marathoners solve it. They find energy that most people don’t think exists and test themselves in sessions few can imagine. 

The Patience

The most likely outcome of a marathon block is failure. That’s where the best odds lie. When pushing your body repeatedly toward a shiny goal, the opportunities for injury or burnout are numerous.

But defeat isn’t assured. The task in each prospective marathoner’s hand is waking each day prepared to balance near-term ambition with their body and mind’s ability at the moment.

One Saturday during a previous marathon buildup I found myself frustrated and exhausted. I blew up at my family and stormed out of the room. After a few deep breaths, I reluctantly admitted that it was my fault. “I’m sorry...that was rude...I think I’m just really tired.” I offered to my wife and son sheepishly.

That Saturday I was attempting the marathon parent’s logistical lie: trying to do a full-length morning long run session and then show up for an afternoon full of family activities. I was failing.

A long slow breath can ease the tension, for both runners and their loved ones. But sometimes you must admit defeat and grab a nap. Building the body’s capacity to hum along at sub-maximal effort for hours demands support from more than just yourself and training partners. Patience is required from everyone involved. 

The Emotion

A month out from nearly every marathon I constantly want to cry.

Not for any single reason, but because as my weary mind rides the roller coaster of life’s emotions, with the deadline of a tremendous goal looming, it just wants a release. But I remember that this too will pass when the taper kicks in.

After the initial excitement of the build-up, and the
thrill of completing initial long sessions, the fear of deciding on a specific goal time is mixed with generalized fatigue. Like a stovetop with all burners on blast, the range of marathon training emotions matches the mix of systems being stressed. Sprints, tempos, intervals, and long runs - no session is spared in the build-up to 26.2. Physical fatigue is understandable, but emotional exhaustion can come as a surprise.

Typical defenses are left raw and exposed. You just have to give yourself grace, look to that chosen day on the calendar, and hang on.

The Satisfaction

The most surreal moment in a marathon are the seconds between the gun firing and actually crossing the timing mat. You feel like a skydiver scooting toward the abyss of a plane’s open window.

“Are we really going to do this?”
“Am I actually able to?!”
“Here we go!”

Hours of adventure, emotion, and discovery unfold relentlessly. By the time you arrive at the finish line, you’ll have lived blurry stretches of sheer intensity sprinkled with moments of unforgettable slow motion. The only guarantee is that it’s beyond your control. As marathoners we do this, we subject ourselves to the chaos, discomfort, and uncertainty of 26.2 miles of effort and uproar because on certain selected days, we want to find something in ourselves, and feel something together that eludes us on ordinary hours at home.

“I was able to run a mile again recently without stopping. So that’s progress,” a friend who’s suffered from long haul Covid said one day when I checked in on him. “Appreciation” doesn’t do justice to the feeling of having endured the past year with strength. I have expansive gratitude.

Marathoning isn’t a sacrifice. The journey requires time, demands effort, and pulls energy from elsewhere, but I’m able to summon the exertion necessary because I don’t consider it an obligation. Sure, there are mornings I can barely get out of bed and afternoons when my legs protest more miles, but the ability to train is a blessing. It’s a privilege to invest in my own strength. Following a year in which the world faced levels of hurt and heartache that we could barely comprehend, those of us still able to endeavor with a healthy body are the fortunate ones.

Re-entry can be traumatic. “Languishing” was the term coined to describe the feeling of each pandemic day feeling the same. An endless, repetitive ennui. But many runners are now realizing that after a year away from typical meetups, social sessions, and competitions, they feel hesitant to return quickly to the former “normal.” These fall races likely won’t feel normal; they probably shouldn’t. Those of us fortunate enough to arrive in summer ‘21 vaccinated and strong, able to breathe deeply without concern and push ourselves without hesitation, have had a year to better realize that a marathon place or personal best cannot define the worth of a running life well lived.

The opportunity to run again in our favorite places, to compete against our favorite people, must occur with a greater global context, and amount to more social meaning. Marathoning in 2021 won’t be the same as it was before the world paused, because we each have a perspective on life and an appreciation for health that we couldn’t previously comprehend.

And so we make a promise:

As we test ourselves over distance and contend against time, for little more than the love of running, we will do so with the fresh memory of those who no longer can, and a continual appreciation that on this day we are able.