On Running and Progress: A Report from the Flip-Side

"But there was one thing I did miss, and when I realized what it was, and thought about it, it became something of an obsession. ... What it was was this: When you're a competitive runner in training, you are constantly in a process of ascending." --Q. Cassidy

"We do not know what a body can do." --Spinoza

I had decided to run Avenue of the Giants because, well, it is beautiful [yes, it was] out there on the Northern California coast. Also, it was located close to one of my oldest running friends, a fellow named Andy. Another high school buddy, Jamey, would be running the first 15 with us. It would be a chance to visit him, to run together. We were both as fit as we'd been in a long time and thought it would be great to pace each other through to a couple of PR's. We would run fast, like we had when we were young. Such was the plan.

I'd been doing everything right. Running a lot. Mostly easy. Sometimes hard. I'd run more mileage than ever in my life. Averaged 80 miles a week for 6 months straight. Hit a lifetime half-marathon PR (1:12:51) in the buildup to the race. The internet is a great tool for convincing yourself that you know something. I'd convinced myself that I was something of an expert on this whole marathoning thing. Dispensing advice like lollipops. My training log backed up all this advice. Living proof that I knew what the hell I was talking about: I was putting my ideas into action.

I was training--giving myself over to a process of ascending. The numbers did not lie. They were big and bold. The work was done. And here it is: the TRUTH that every runner must not question. The SECRET behind all secrets. The lynchpin of the runner's whole way of life. This we believe: a straight line can be drawn between work and results. This is the justice, the meaning of the quixotic quest. We are runners, and while the world might fall to hell around us, we will wring out of that vast and swirling entropy a small slice of order. Things fall apart. Runners improve. We are constantly in a process of ascending.

Well, let me let you in on a little secret. What your daddy told you--that if you work hard, you'll get ahead--that was just him hoping that the universe would turn out differently, better, for you. We repeat this lie to ourselves just to get out of bed, to get out the door. We do not know what a body can do.

None of this, of course, was running through my head at the starting line. I was thinking the same things I always think. Relax. Let the pace come to you. Trust in your training. [This last mantra might have given me pause: why should I have to trust my training? Might it betray me?] The gun, and we're off. My friend and I soon find ourselves at the crest of the wave, running easy. We hold back, grinning. Looks like it's just gonna be us, I say.

First mile: 6:14. Not too fast. But here the first doubt...too slow?

The first 6.5 miles winds gradually and relentlessly uphill. The plan was to run 6:10's and that's what we did, more or less, arriving at the turn-around in 39:54. It wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy. And dark thoughts began to rumble through my brain around mile 5: is this effort sustainable? Should I be feeling "effort" at all?

The next 6.5 were supposed to be easy, as the course reversed itself and tumbled gently back down. But as we started down the hill, I began to be struck by waves of effort and fatigue. The plan had been to run 5:50's, but I told my buddy let's take it easy, run 6:00's and just recover. But the effort kept building. At mile 11, I was struggling and gasping. My rhythm was totally off. We would pass the car again soon at 13. I was frustrated: the thought began to nag at me: Should I drop out?

No. Stick with it. Maybe this will pass. The lead bicyclist for the half marathon comes around a curve at us and yells out: "Watch out! Here comes the half marathon!" We had no lead cyclist, and around the next bend, the road filled with half marathoners, heading the opposite direction. We were left with a sliver of space. I was brushing up against an oblivious pack (why are they all dressed in purple?), nauseated by their disregard, frustrated by having to fight for an inch of space. Jamey surged to the lead and broke a small path for us. It was a mile, or so of running against this steady stream, then we broke out to the starting area, halfway done. Andy's wife, Rebecca, handed us some water bottles and we headed out for the second half.

At this point, I was still on pace but struggling. Andy felt better, but he suggested we back off, run a mile at 7:00 pace, and try to regroup for the second half. I said okay, but I was unable to do so. I had reached a strange point: either hold on all the way or let go completely. If I let my effort down at all, I would be running 10:00 pace, not 7:00 pace. So, onwards.

The course had cleared out and I was able to relax a bit. Mile 14 dropped by in 6:10 or so. Mile 15, I even started to feel good, thinking: finally! this is how I should be feeling. We ran 6:00 for that mile. I had found a bit of a rhythm. Jamey finished up his run, and Andy and I sojourned on.

Everything was rolling along okay, then Andy's hamstring blew at mile 17. He was done. And just like that I was alone in front, 9 miles to go. Let's get it done. I took a deep breath.

The next three miles I let my effort down slightly, now running those 7 minute miles. I was feeling more confident. 8 miles to go. I run this distance every day. I hit 20 in 2:04. After the war that was the race thus far, this seemed a small miracle. 6.2 miles to go. It was a long 6.2 miles.The unique pain of the marathon set in around mile 21. When it settles on you, the mind drifts up and away from the body. I remember mostly that the body was just running and I was watching it run, slightly bemused by the fact that it would continue. On it ran, on a rhythm that was almost purely unconscious. The body doing only what it had been doing for the last 2 hours, what it had been taught to do for the last 6 months. I would notice sounds, a gentle rasping. Who was that? It must be me. I was running past marathoners, still on their way out. They had been saying: looking good! but they stopped saying anything around mile 22. I was not looking good.

But the miles clicked off, steadily, somehow. I began to pass walkers. The 10k, I realized, and this was the back of the pack. I was a pale and listing haint, a rasping specter watching my body move past these people. They were from a different dimension. They would glance over at me and look away, just as quickly. They said nothing. Mile 23. The crowd of 10k runners thickened. Some were running. I was just another of them, stumbling through a strange and indifferent crowd. My stomach tightened to a knot. I wretched, violently. Then felt better. Mile 24. I would make it. Mile 25. I saw Andy, Rebecca, and Jamey: the first ones brave enough to cheer this stumbling and grimacing being. Reb told me: just around the curve and over the bridge. Not far to go.

Mile 26. Footsteps coming up behind me. I thought it was the 2nd place marathoner. I had been expecting him for a while; I turned and no it was a 10k participant, trying to outkick me. No. The footsteps faded. I finished at 52 minutes in the 10k, 2:47:51 in the marathon. No one noticed that I had won. A gasping ghost stumbling anonymously through a crowd of jubilant finishers. I felt no joy, only relief.

Since then, I have had many congratulations, and I do understand that it comes off as strange and not to be pleased with a winning race and with a time that is faster than most dream of running. I get this. We want to believe that every story finishes well. That we make progress. And that all victories ought to be celebrated. In this manner we make sense of the world. But it was not meaning or sense or desire for victory that propelled me those last few miles. It was blind habit, demons, and dread that pushed me forward. The runners I passed as I neared the finish could not stand to watch me. They do not want to see despair on the face of the leader. They want running to be victory and progress.

What sense is left if the winner can finish a race defeated?

Today, again, I head out for another run. I have to make the numbers change. Go longer. Get faster. Make true the lie that our daddies tell us: with hard work, we will make progress. Forget the death march. Recreate the myth of the process of ascending. Go further. What else?


  1. great report! congrats teammie!

  2. Jeff- was very proud of you that day! I know how bad you were hurting just before the half way point. It was awesome to see you persevere & take the W - even after you knew it wasn't your best day.


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