In November 2013, I completed the Brooklyn Marathon in 3:30:44—a satisfactory time made more so by the fact that I’d run the New York City Marathon in 3:30:38 only two weeks before. I was receiving the congratulations of my peers in the South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC) for my stamina and consistency, when Graham—a sub-3:00 marathoner in the group—suggested that I was looking too good. “You should be running faster,” he said.
Naturally, I scoffed at the idea. After two disastrous marathons in 2011 at which I’d run headlong into The Wall and crawled in at 3:50-plus, the fact that I was consistently turning in 3:30 or thereabouts was, for me, a triumph. I’d decided my ongoing running strategy was to stay at an 8:00-minute-per-mile pace and grow old disgracefully. Plus, I thought, at just shy of fifty, I was sixteen years older than Graham, with considerably less talent. If I perhaps improved by a minute or two, then I might get a chance to qualify for Boston again (as I had in 2012 under the old dispensation of sub-3:30 for 45–49-year olds). As far as I was concerned, I’d done pretty darned well considering my age and ability.
Yet as I hobbled out of Prospect Park, I thought more deeply about Graham’s comment. It was true that I was a reliable and steady runner, but why wasn’t I leaving it all on the course? Why was I spending so much effort to caretake times in multiple marathons rather than putting everything on the line in one. Was I that scared of failure and bonking? Or did I fear what success might cost me in time and commitment? And just what did he mean by faster? When in April I ran 3:31:26 into a headwind in New Jersey, I couldn’t help but wonder what Graham saw in my running. “You should be getting 3:23 into your head,” was his response.
Something about that specific time, and coming from a respected colleague, stuck in my mind. Over the spring and summer, I concentrated on track work, strength and core training, and plyometric exercises with SBRC. I ran my usual four 18+ long runs, but approached them with purpose rather than as a chore, and adopted different strategies with each, so that I felt energized at the end of them rather than checking them off my to-do list. I completed my Yasso 800s with verve, adhering to a 3:23/3:24 timeframe until I didn’t have to look at my watch to know my speed.
I decided to run Chicago again: site of one of my ignominous 3:50s in 2011 and a redemptive 3:34 in 2012. As I stood in the corral, I considered my options and inevitably settled on a slow-and-steady 7:55-per-mile pace to 13.1 before deciding whether to speed up. I had 3:27 in my head. Yet as the early miles ticked by and, without any effort, I failed to run slow enough for 7:55, I realized I’d have to review the situation. By half-way, I was only thirty seconds shy of a pace that would bring me in at 3:25, and I changed my plan again. I’d no longer look at my watch and attempt to calculate each mile, but just run in a zone that felt good. As it turned out, that zone was a 7:48-per-minute mile. I came through 30K at 2:26 and 35K at 2:49, and crossed the finish line at 3:24:09: a four-minute PR, and a BQ for 2016.
It’s possible that, a year on from that Brooklyn Marathon, I’d simply trained more efficiently, given much needed variety to my workouts, and become stronger and fitter. It’s also true that the weather in Chicago was perfect, the crowd support terrific, and the course as flat as ever. But I’m inclined to believe that my improvement was also due to being allowed not to self-sabotage. I’d internalized Graham’s remark in such a way that it undermined my own strategic caution on the day, just as my own notion of steadiness and consistency had, in fact, held me back from running with more risk and, yes, more freely. That such an observation had come from someone else perhaps enabled me to solidify a story I’d told myself but hadn’t believed, precisely because it came from inside me: I can run faster than 3:30.
I joined a running club because I was tired of slogging around New York City’s byways by myself and wanted a community that would support my efforts, no matter how weak they might be. What I hadn’t truly appreciated, however, was that support can entail someone telling you that you could be better and giving you the permission to set goals you yourself might never have envisioned. It might seem obnoxious at the time, but it can change everything. And you know what? I can run faster than 3:24.