Executing on race day can take years of experience, some good luck, and more
It’s pouring down rain and the asphalt surface is slick with the hours of precipitation that have already hit the ground. They fall at an unprecedented pace, some bouncing off, others melding into the road surface, each pooling together and rolling away.
In their midst are the feet and fluorescent shoes of thousands of people, anxiously awaiting the moment of go time. Some feet, hardly staying on the ground, lightly bouncing up and down; others, standing their ground, firm and in a confident “you can’t break me,” stance.
It’s funny to think that on this day – a coveted date on the calendars of many, for several months - we’re all in this together. Those many mind-jolting early alarms, fatigue riddled legs, and weekend hours spent slogging out miles, coming to this riveting peak, where power hits pavement and minds become hyper-focused, relentless in the pursuit of greatness; relentless in the desire to master the reward that is promised from the persistence of continuing to show up. This day, this moment, this unwavering showing of grit, toughness and resilience however, isn’t just about this moment or a reward from this most recent twelve-week training block. In fact, it has been in the making for many training blocks.
This year’s female NYC Marathon winner, finishing in an impressive 2:22:48 is the 36 year old Mary Keitany. Second place spot was filled by a 35-year-old, and the infamous Shalane Flanagan, only a year off of winning the marathon, came third at age 37. Most of the time we don’t pay attention to age as one of the important numbers in running results, and instead focus on times, splits, and distances. But there is a common thread that is weaving its way through the elite female running community, and it’s not just that they are killing it in every way.
It’s that an overwhelming number of the elite women who are stepping up to podium finishes, and slaying courses, are in their thirties. They have been running for years, and literally, have thousands and thousands of miles under their feet, stored in their legs, experienced by their bodies.
The marathon is one of the most unique and exclusive races. Exclusive not as in who can and can’t run it, but exclusive in the nuances surrounding the success of a race of this calibre. Any marathon runner will tell you, that the marathon is its own thing. It’s one single shot to put into play an accumulation of weeks of training and workouts, and victory on the day needs the perfect alignment of weather, training success, physical health and mental toughness that all line up in the perfect position. It’s not like a 5k race that you can try again the next weekend if things go poorly, or a track race that can be delayed or rescheduled due to rain. We only have to look to the 2018 Boston Marathon to know that rain stops very few on their quest for marathon completion. Ironically in fact, it’s days like Boston, that set down a foundation for a quest far deeper than one single rainy race.
Because that one single race day, is not the stage.
The winner of the Boston Marathon, Des Linden, perhaps says it best with a phrase she filed for trademark on after her Boston win: “Just keep showing up.”
After 13 years of knocking on the door of a marathon major win, Linden filled the running world with tears and heart-warmed smiles, as she fought to victory on that fateful Boston day. This may have been her shining moment, and to the outside what looked like a great day, but really, it was a piece of a far longer journey that spanned over years of experience, let-downs and “almost,” moments.
Paula Radcliffe, the woman’s marathon world record holder, analogizes it as a series of steps. Every race we complete, mile we run, or training block we persist through, has something to teach us, experience for us to gain and insight for us to learn. Each thing we do in our running career or on our running trajectory builds a layer on the steps. And each layer eventually leads to a new step where we take the leap and go up a level. But without the layers underneath – continuing to show up, getting back up after races gone awry, or regrouping after weather ravaged marathons – there are no layers to build to a new step.
And so we tackle each part of the journey, and then rest, recover and learn, because in many ways, the mistakes build the biggest layers.
And more than just the mistakes, is the experience. Having the fitness and ability to run a marathon and being able do it is far different than knowing how to do it. The strategy and tactical nature of a marathon mean that like a job or career that you become skilled in doing over years, you also become skilled in running a marathon. It sounds odd to think about being good at the execution of the race itself, as opposed to just being good at running, but in many ways, you can’t have success without having them both.
Consider again, in the recent New York Marathon, where Allie Kieffer came out with a personal best, and yet, what she deemed a disappointing race. Her disappointment isn’t stemming from poor running physically as much as from poor tactical decisions, and strategy errors on the course. A talented runner, with only a few marathons in her experience arsenal, she and her coach will be the first to acknowledge that there is space for growth – and more marathons to run to get there.
Throughout all of this, we haven’t even touched on the mindset and mental approach inherent with marathon success. The outcome of a race is fought in the last fleeting miles, and in the depths of the mind, not the depths of the muscles. Hardening oneself physically is only a fraction of the marathon battle to be fought when it comes to hardening oneself mentally. In many ways, the pain and struggle that come with a marathon go against everything the body naturally wants to do: you tell it to keep going even when it is tired, you force it to push harder even when it hurts, and you ask it to give you more even when it has, in any other ordinary situation, reached its threshold of potential.
And it isn’t until you run enough races and push yourself over enough of those pain barriers that you have these “a-ha” moments where you learn what you are capable of and how deep you can dig. This doesn’t come from one race or two, a few years, or training runs. This comes from years of hardening and pushing, a few times of pushing too hard and blowing up, and then hitting that happy medium where you learn to embrace pain like your old friend: “oh hello, nice to have you back.”
Whether it’s the need for race day conditions and tactics to align, the time required to build a foundation and experience, or the case for mental and mindset optimization, one thing is clear: being a talented athlete is not the only thing that matters when it comes to performing as a runner.
Jordan Hasay lined up for her debut marathon in 2017, placing third at the Boston Marathon in a stunning 2:23 flat – the fastest debut ever by an American women. In October 2017 she lined up in Chicago, recording another impressive performance with a 2:20:57; the fastest time for an American on the course. Fast forward to the end of 2018, and Hasay hasn’t made another start line, succumbing to injury late in her build-up for first Boston, and then Chicago.
Mary Keitany, in 2017’s New York Marathon was a warm favourite to take out her 4th consecutive New York title. But there was a biological factor working against her: she got her period.
And so, seasoned marathoner, novice or elite, we step up to the line.
And whether the day aligns or it doesn’t, the training pans out or it wasn’t the optimized plan for results, we can all walk away knowing one thing: that well of experience that we need to fill up, those layers that we need to build, and those muscles and minds that need to be hardened, are indeed steadily moving progressively forward with each race we conquer and persevere through to finish. And in many ways, that’s all we ever started out to achieve from running anyway.