Coming back from a disappointing marathon

Monday morning. The wind has stopped, the rainclouds have blown away and the sun is shining from a clear blue sky.

Last week I spent days smarting from the previous weekend’s disastrous marathon. Opinions about what went wrong, offered by ignorant – and quite obviously deaf and completely egocentric – people got right up my nose. I considered hibernating, perhaps forever, to hide my shame from public view. Then the smarting gave way to the post-marathon blues, and I moped around, eating cupcakes and chocolate, and feeling out of sorts. I flipped through Runner’s World and read An Accidental Athlete on my Kindle.

Cupcakes and Runner's World to beat the post-marathon blues

Cupcakes and Runner’s World to beat the post-marathon blues

And something he said, the accidental athlete, John Bingham, inspired a little attitude adjustment in me. He writes about seeing athletes cross the finish line, angry with themselves because they had not made some or other personal goal, angry that they had finished a few seconds slower than their last PR. And he reminds the reader that no finish line is guaranteed. No start line, even. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. Sarah Brightman is quoted as having said that, but I’m certain it comes from Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Anyway. It’s true. Any number of things can happen to prevent us from turning up at not only our next race, but even our next training run. Being able to run (being able to be active in any way) is a gift, no matter what your belief system, and it’s transient.

You don’t know when you have run your last best race, he says. Your last best race might still be ahead of you but it could just as easily already be behind you. Cross the start line and the finish line with joy. The next start line is not a given.

And yes, last week’s run was pretty damn and bloody terrible. It really was. And still I can be grateful. Grateful that I have a body strong enough to even train for a marathon. Grateful for a body strong enough to turn up and do the distance, no matter how slow and no matter how far off from the goal. And grateful for a mind strong enough to keep me pushing forward, even in the face of a most humiliating defeat.

And maybe I should stop calling it humiliating. Maybe I should look at it as humbling, instead. There is no shame in finishing a marathon, not at any pace. No athlete, whether one is bold enough as yet to refer to oneself as an athlete, should feel humiliated by his or her marathon time.

Finishing a marathon at a painstakingly slow pace because of injury or any other handicap (and I mean ‘handicap’ in the way jockeys are handicapped) is humbling and it inspires gratitude. You’re at the back with people who have overcome or who are overcoming all sorts of difficulties to be there and to make it to the finish line. At the back you see courage, determination, humour, pain, empathy, camaraderie and shear grit. You see admiration and kindness in the eyes of spectators. They want you to finish. They want the best for you. And we all, all of us at the back, want that for each other. We encourage each other, not so much by speaking, because our voices left us kilometres back, but by nods, smiles, and knowing looks. A raised eyebrow and a shake of a bowed head can speak volumes.

And there are lessons to be learnt in bad runs. Once you stop stamping your feet and raging ‘If only …’ you learn a few things. You learn some stuff about race preparation, about training, about racing and, most certainly, about yourself.

And so I sat down and starting googling, as one does, how soon after running a marathon can one run another. The answers vary. Some writers have hard and fast rules – no more than one marathon a year, no more than two marathons a year. Others say that running more than two marathons will slow down your growth as a marathoner. If you want to grow as a runner, you need to limit the number marathons you run. But, if you just want to finish a marathon, and are not concerned about the finish time, run as many as you feel you are able.

And then I found Hal Higdon’s article. To be honest, I was simply looking for a running writer to tell me that it would be okay to get training for another marathon only a few weeks away. I need to right this aberration of a marathon. I need to run a sub-five.

Because I am capable of it and because I want to qualify for the Two Oceans Ultra.

He mentions Amanda Musacchio, a Boston Qualifier, who ran the Marine Corps Marathon three weeks after Chicago. He calls this ‘insanity at its purest level’ and then goes on to add that, being similarly insane, he wasn’t one to point a finger. He had, on several occasions, run multiple marathons with only a week or two break. Among his super-human marathon feats are the six marathons he ran in six weeks to celebrate his 60th birthday, and the seven marathons he ran in seven months to celebrate his 70th. He also ran ten marathons during the course of one year so that he could run his 100th marathon at the 100th Boston Marathon. (As it turned out, that marathon wasn’t his finest – even Hal Higdon has bum races!)

So I copied his eight-week marathon programme onto my computer and converted the miles to kilometres. The Vital Winelands Marathon was exactly eight weeks away (well, seven now) and fitted in perfectly with Hal’s programme. I added the dates (27 September to 14 November) and added in races that could be used as training runs. It’s running season in Cape Town and every weekend offers a great opportunity for running.

And, despite a sleepless night (ho-hum) and a raging South Easter, on Sunday morning I turned up at the start line of the Cape Town Festival of Running 21.1 km Classic. It was kind-of a full circle moment. This was where I ran my first half marathon a year ago. It was in this race that I ran a full 15 km, without stopping, for the first time. I came in at 2 hours 40 and was beside myself with excitement. The walker became a runner on this race.

This Sunday, the Significant Other lined up with me again. And Firstborn Daughter and The Boyfriend also reported for duty. She was not too excited about being there. The wind was howling and she felt not much inclined to be spending over two hours battling our famous South Easter. The Boyfriend had never run further than 12 km, had, until recently, not been enthralled with the idea of running. The Cape Town Classic was going to be his first attempt at running a half marathon. He was so keen that he was the first one in the house who was up and fully dressed, and pacing up and down the passage, ready to go.

This time around, the Cape Town Classic was going to be a training run. Nice and slow. No personal bests, no sprint for the finish. I was simply going to see if all the bits still worked. I was going to see if I even wanted to run again. And that’s how I ran it. Nice and slow, with a smile on my face. I chatted to other runners, didn’t walk up the hills and didn’t speed up running down them. I just kept a nice, steady pace, mostly well below 6:30/km. There was no rush to finish this.

For the first time ever I managed to stay with an Itheko Lion of Africa bus. I love this club. They have such spirit. They are a running club in the true sense of the word. They form numerous buses, each with a club member setting the pace, calling encouragement and keeping everyone together. No one gets left behind. The women wear scarves to cover their heads, they wear long black tunics under their baggy club t-shirts and over long black pants. There is nothing cool or streamlined about what they wear. And they are just amazing. I have, in previous races, tried to tag along and have never managed. They may seem slow, they even walk sometimes, but they’re deceptive. They have always made it across the finish before me. Way before me.

I tucked behind a bus heading up Victoria Road towards Twelve Apostles. They provided some shelter from the wind and I stayed behind them even when I felt the pace was a bit slow sometimes. One runner stepped aside to make way for me to pass them.

‘No, it’s okay,’ I said. ‘You guys always beat me.’

‘No, no,’ she replied. ‘In running there is no “always beat”. There are good days and there are bad days.’

Ah. Yes. If only some of my smart Alec, full-of-bravado-from-their-first-marathon fellow runners knew this.

At about 15 km, along the little incline at the end of Camps Bay, I joined an RCS Gugs runner. He was taking a bit of strain and was slowing down. He looked ready to walk the little hill. I fell in next to him. ‘Come on,’ I said each time he slowed down. We reached the top without walking and then continued alongside each other along Victoria Road. We stopped at the water fountain, had a slug of water and shared my sachet of sticky GU (way too late, really, to make any difference to our run) and continued together into Bantry Bay. At about 19 km, after running at a pace of 6:11/km, I said ‘Go! Go win!’ and slowed down. He headed off alone, just in front of me.

At around 20 km I slowed right down to about 7:00/km. I’m not sure why. But it doesn’t matter. I wasn’t racing the clock. I wasn’t racing at all. I took a walk, smiled at the marshals, exchanged banter with the other runners, took in the view, ran a bit, walked a bit. And I fully appreciated how great I was feeling this Sunday compared to how I felt at the same distance the previous Sunday. By then I had already taken two Panado and had walked most of the last 7 km. By then I was in agony and knew that the day was going to need all my grit and courage.

I finished the Cape Town Classic in 2:24:57. Strava has me down at 2:25:26 because I forgot to stop my Garmin – my usual affliction. In the marathon I arrived at 21,1 km in 2:41:09. This Sunday I felt energized and fresh after 21,1 km. Last Sunday I was looking for a stretcher.

Today I feel full of enthusiasm for the week of training. Today is a rest day, although I feel like a racehorse waiting for the start gate to fling open. Tomorrow is 5 km, Wednesday 10 km and Thursday 5 km. Nice and easy. A tapering/recovery week. Saturday morning is a 10 km run, and on Sunday I will line up for the Chappies Challenge. It starts with a steady 200 m elevation, so I’m going to have to access my vasbyt again. But I’m ready. I’m going to do this thing!

“You cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair”

Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

Cape Town Festival 21.1 km Classic medal. Race one of at least five before the Winelands Marathon done.

Cape Town Festival 21.1 km Classic medal. Race one of at least five before the Winelands Marathon done.

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