Running the Long Road to Victory
By Kevin Wright
Posted July 2014
October 28, 2012. This day was surely a defining one for me not only as an athlete, but as a person striving to live life in a particular way. It was huge on so many levels, but completing the Marine Corps Marathon set in motion a series of events that would not ultimately be punctuated until nearly 18 months in the future. At the time, I was ecstatic to be competing in and finally to finish my first ever marathon race. It was only in those final few miles that I had been able to pull down my finish under the three hour plateau- and thereby solidifying my Boston Qualifier.
Fast forward one year to fall 2013, and the icing had now become the cake. Through all that time as it passed, other milestones were reached and celebrated in their own right. Nevertheless, in the back of my mind a small voice kept whispering a single word… "Boston." Whispering turned to shouting on certain days- especially in the aftermath of the tragic bombing of the 2013 race. This brought a heavier emotion into training and racing for me along countless runners in this country and abroad. Not that there was ever any question in my participation in the 2014 marathon, but my sense of perspective was heightened immensely from those days forward. Now the time for reflection and anticipation had passed and the day had come to begin my 5 month Boston training block.
Training began with physical reluctance and mental enthusiasm as it so often does. Initially, running again after some days or weeks off is always tough. For me, the 40 minute "easy" run in November was anything but. My goal time as asserted by Coach Shelly of 2:39 seemed laughable at this juncture, an outright impossibility. I hope to credit her multiple times throughout this piece, but I will do so firstly here: she was perhaps the only one who believed I could reach such a level. She said it with conviction from the outset and pushed me to redefine what I thought my limits were. This is quite significant given where I was at the time in terms of fitness. My first race in the new season occurred on December 15, 2013 in Kiawah, SC. My half marathon time came in on that day well over the 1:20 mark. How was I to believe in earnest in my Boston goal time when running slower than that pace for 13.1 miles felt so demanding? And on a pancake flat course with great weather to boot. Shelly did not flinch.
With a new VDOT established and no other interim races scheduled, training intensified. The next two and a half months of work would go on to change everything and prove to be the difference. While it is easy to look back and point that out, it should be noted that this block was the most difficult training regimen I have ever attempted or completed. Suddenly my typical week was filled with a track workout, two trainer rides, multiple easy runs with striders, several yoga/strength sessions and a long run that usually included quality mileage. Listing workouts in this manner perhaps appears deceiving in the face of the difficulty I alluded to. It was the intensity of workouts however, not the volume, that had such a profound effect on me. In fact, my average week contained less than 40 miles of running- which is almost unheard of in the realm of conventional wisdom for marathon training. Credit again, to Coach Shelly, for recognizing that my aerobic base had largely been created in years prior… to include four years in a college running program during which my weekly averages were way higher.
The focus clearly shifted to track work and long runs. At this point in the calendar year of 2014, living in Northern Virginia most likely became my biggest training obstacle. Adjustments to fit workouts in were an almost weekly struggle between endless snowfall, ever-present ice, frigid temperatures, and wind that seemed to peel flesh right from bone. My appreciation for clear, open road and track skyrocketed and was savored when found. On the other days, I was merely salvaging anything that conditions would allow. Every strider, interval, and quality minute was valuable this past winter. In a way, I am very grateful for this adversity. Completing hard workouts in the directly in the face of it would add fuel to my fire and lift my spirits. Outside of Mother Nature, I had one more major source of opposition.
Myself. Admittedly, comparing what is challenging from one athlete to the next is often irrelevant if not counterproductive. But suffice it to say that I put my body through things I never thought to be possible. Imagine starting a track workout or long tempo with nothing but lactic acid washing through the legs. Hitting even one mile or repeat at prescribed pace was sometimes a foregone conclusion. The battles that rage in the mind during such situations are completely unimaginable to anyone who has not been to that dark place before. When every fiber of being resents the pain, the mind is all that is left. It is at those hellacious boundaries, though, that we grow tougher and get stronger. The beauty of the marathon is analogous in this way to the training it commands… the greatest light comes at the very end of the tunnel for those who are able to endure. The number of times I had to reassure myself of this fact leading up to Boston is much too great to quantify.
As the month of March came to be, so did affirmation for me. My first "tune-up" race was a 10 miler run in Reston on March 2nd. It may be normal to have doubts when one trains and goes largely untested for a significant period of time. Lining up for the 10 miler, I had my doubts. On paper and in theory, holding my T pace and running a time approaching 57-58 minutes was achievable. Affirmation comes in the form of bringing theory into reality- and I was able to do so on that day. The race gave me a newfound confidence as I finished in under 57 minutes with a slight negative split. To come within 30 seconds of my collegiate 8K PR not once, but twice in a row, was something extraordinary to me. Finally, I was starting to feel ready.
A pair of 5K races followed, the second falling on a date only two weeks away from Marathon Monday. It was that second 5K, run at Frostburg State University, that held some symbolism and vindication for me. I managed to put down the fastest 5000 meters of my life o n the home track of my alma mater with three of my former teammates in the heat and our former coach volunteering as the lap counter. Both of my parents also bore witness and were the first to congratulate me upon stopping the watch at the line. If I needed any final reassurance, that was it. April 21st could not come fast enough.
No matter how hard you have trained and how much positivity you can conjure up, doubts and questions begin to creep in during the final days leading up to a major event. Did I really work hard enough? Am I eating the right things, getting enough sleep? Is my race plan well-designed? All of these thoughts and many more ran through my head at one time or another. As usual, the last night of sleep before a race of such gravity was an atrocity with so much to think about and nothing to do but wait for morning.
At long last, that morning did come; bringing with it a sense of relief and utter tranquility. Finally I could allow my mind to focus on what I had prepared so long for and travelled so far for. Others sometimes ask me if I am nervous or anxious prior to a race. It is hard to confess this with modesty, but I truly am not. My counter is this: if an athlete knows in their heart that they have done everything he or she could do to prepare for an event, what source can there be for nerves? In a race as long as a marathon especially, one is much less affected by opponents and the margin for error is higher compared to track events. If you know what you are capable of, nothing should stand in your way- provided you plan and execute properly.
Race day therefore becomes a liberating final test, a celebration. It is a time to enjoy, released from the burdens of training and diligent preparation. This is how I felt on Marathon Monday until mile 20.5. Before getting to that mark though, I got to take in all the fun that the Boston Marathon experience has to offer. This included riding a school bus for the hour plus trip to the start in Hopkinton, only to be staged in the Athlete Village for hours to follow. The only challenges here were keeping warm and making good choices nutritionally. The last step in staging was to be paraded down to our predetermined starting corrals. It was in this last pre-race phase that I saw my first familiar face since leaving my mom in Boston; fellow FeXY Jacob Gilden was there in my wave. It was great to have a few minutes to wish each other well. There was an air of calculated excitement amongst the competitors in these venues, right until the gun.
A solid three minutes of time ran off after the gun before I could start my race. Once there, I ran immediately into an issue I did not plan adequately for. Very few others in my corral had such ambitious goals as I did. So few, in fact, that I was forced into a swerving, spectator-dodging, chaotic first several miles. Although I had intended to start off with mile paces no slower than 6:15, it was everything I could do to run sub 7s on the sharply descending mileage out of Hopkinton. I knew this would have a dramatic effect on my race as a whole, but there was nothing to do but to try to make smart passes and run straight lines as best I could. When things finally did clear up fully around mile 8 or 9, the damage to my careful plan had been done. Instead of trying to reverse things right away, I got into my mid-race rhythm and resigned myself to let the 13.1 mile checkpoint be what it would be.
My race plan for Boston called for me to be no slower than 1:21 at the halfway point to allow for some realistic chance at a negative split and sub-2:40 finish. As I came through in just under 1:22, I knew that those chances were pretty slim. In planning, I was ideally hoping to be as close to 1:20 as possible, given the hills in the second part of the course. My adjusted goal was just to continue clicking off miles in the low 6s as planned until reaching the town of Newton, where everything would start to shake up. I was able to do that without incident and reached the first of four "Newton Hills" in mile 15 feeling good. This part of the course was the biggest unknown in terms of my planning and what to expect. How much would the hills affect me? I was about to find out.
I have always loved running hills. When used in training, hill repeats can yield similar benefits to an interval track workout. It is the potential gains in mental toughness that draw me in however. In my time at Frostburg, there was no such thing as a flat run. To do an "easy" or "maintenance" run of longer than 15-20 minutes called for steep inclines in any direction one might choose. I am a huge believer that humans can become accustomed to any situation if exposed to it for long enough. In this case, getting used to running up and down steep grades for four years has become a useful side effect for me in the seasons since. In races, I try to think about the most daunting slopes as an unfair advantage to me and anyone else who embraces them. In my head, it is just another Frostburg ascent to be tackled.
I escaped the first three of four hills with little more than a few seconds added to my pace. This left me with the infamous Heartbreak Hill to come at mile 20.5, also the known location of my one on-course supporter, my mother. Heartbreak was a longer hill with a good gradient and one worth planning for, but surprised me somewhat given the amount of lore surrounding it. Its location relative to the course and it being the last in a series of rises has created its notoriety versus the difficulty of the incline itself. With a smile and wave to mom, I reached the crest and embarked on the final stretch to Boylston Street. It was here that I had hoped my race would begin in earnest. Time to get to work.
Have you ever wished you could stay in a single moment in time for the rest of your life? Many of them in my memory have been associated with training and racing, but none come close to the sheer bliss that came washing over me as I accelerated down the hill next to Boston College. I had just successfully navigated the first 21 miles of the Boston Marathon and had no reason to hold back now. I started slapping every single high-five I could get my hand on. Throwing caution to the wind, I was yelling back at the co-eds, giving their energy right back to them. It is in moments like these where one grasps what it might be like to taste invincibility. I could run forever, take on anything. I was no longer running, I was flying on the strength of all the hard work and discipline it took to get me there.
But five miles remained. I knew that my original goal would still be a stretch, but it became clear to me that I was on the verge of something special. With that in mind, I decided to drop into a pace that was harder yet manageable to the finish. The downhill mile after Heartbreak turned out to be 5:43. When I saw it come up on the Garmin, I took it as a challenge to hold onto 5:40s. In retrospect, this seems like a ridiculous thought to have at that point of a marathon. My T pace for the bulk of my training was 5:47, which was also close to what I averaged at the Reston 10 Miler in the previous month. At the time, it was just what I thought I could do. With each mile from there on, I reassessed my potential finishing time. It seemed more and more like it would be tremendously close to 2:40 on the nose. With one mile to go, I needed just one more mile near my current pace to go under.
The last mile of a marathon must feel like the longest for the vast majority of racers. In this instance, it may as well have been an eternity. To accentuate this effect, BAA conveniently added 400 meter checkpoints for the final approach. With one lap on the track to go, my sub-2:40 time was still in jeopardy. If I had anything left in the tank, the time was now. Movements for a person in this state become instinctual, even primal. No conscious thoughts pass through the mind and everything else on the planet other than the finishing banner is blotted away. With my last step on the timing mat, I reached down and hit the stop button. 2 hours, 39 minutes, and 55 seconds.
For the distance runner, racing is in its truest form a means of expression. Performance is so often bound to who the athlete is as a person- a testament to lifestyle, heart, determination, and willpower. This is the ultimate reason why I race. It is not just for the challenge or the competition, nor the medals or personal records. Not for glory or recognition from others. I race to find out who I really am.