How 14 Failed Runs Got Me to the Chicago Marathon

failed_run

I was still running high after a successful winter of training and a mammoth marathon PR in April. But an unusually cold spring quickly gave way to an unusually humid summer, and by the second week of July I knew something was wrong.

July 5 was a buildup run: Hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up and hold pace for a couple of miles, speed up again and hold pace again. I burned out after the first section. I just didn’t have it. The next week was the same run and the same result. That weekend, another failure.

Weeks of this turned into months. I stopped enjoying my training. I started hated it.

I was discouraged. I’d never struggled like this in all my years of running. But I was not defeated.

Every running morning, I got up, laced up and headed out. I slogged through many a workout, alternating walking and running after the running part failed. I forgot about my pace. At worst, I could manage only a tenth of a mile of continuous running. I take that back: At worst, I stopped my watch and walked home.

It was the slogging—continuing past the point of needing to walk, of feeling like a failure—that prepared me for where I am now, oddly confident on the eve of the Chicago Marathon. Every run since my 20-mile disaster (it was supposed to be 22) has been good to great. My stride has returned along with the cooler weather, and just in time.

Despite all my failed runs—14 of them, I counted—over the last four months, I am finally (FINALLY!) ready to take on this iconic race, just not how I imagined it. I may not have it in me to achieve my original goal (cut the gap to my Boston qualifying time in half), but I’m feeling good about my fallback plan (PR).

If a new PR isn’t in the cards, that’s OK, too. I’ll forget about my pace like I did in all those failed training runs and simply enjoy racing through one of the country’s greatest cities. Win-win.

Why I Spent $24.95 on This Awful Race Photo

marathon_misery

I received the email with my official marathon photos. You know the one. I clicked the link to access the proofs, knowing full well I wouldn’t like what I saw.

In this case, it was proof that I was indeed suffering during the race. This was January 2013.

One particular image so finely epitomized my experience that I grabbed a screen shot of it—though I couldn’t bring myself to pay for the download. The screen grab stayed where I saved it, on my computer desktop, for over three years. Occasionally I’d call it up and look at it, and I’d recall the misery of that moment.

It was past mile 20, after I’d hit the wall. I’d given up on my plan to walk only through the water stations and was instead willing my body to keep moving at all. I’d also given up on my time goal, cursing my failure to achieve what I worked so hard for. I hated the taste of my gels. I hated a lot of things. I was past the point of exhaustion—physical and psychological—and I had an eternity to go before I could be done with it all (and, not surprisingly, go directly to the medical tent).

I look at the picture now, and the pain is as real as it was then.

This week, I finally paid for the digital download. $24.95 on my credit card. Three years after the fact.

Why in the world would I keep the screen shot on my desktop for so long—or maybe more curious, why would I ever spend hard-earned cash on such a forgettable photo?

Because I don’t want to forget what happened. I don’t want to forget how I failed, or how I felt. Ever.

Two weeks ago, I ran the marathon of my life, and I have all the happy pictures to prove it. (I bought them right away.) I’ll cherish these photos, along with the memories they evoke, for as long as I have room for them in my brain and on my hard drive. But I’d better not forget that awful 26.2 in 2013, either. And now I’ll always have that picture to look back on—in unsightly 300 dots per inch. I want to zoom in and see the anguish in my face and remember the wall and the water stations and the wayward goals. I want to remember what went so terribly wrong on the racecourse that day.

It’s by reflecting on our failures—and learning from them—that we lay the groundwork for improvement. I’ve elevated every aspect of my running since 2013, I’m pleased to say, and with this awful picture now in my possession, I’ll know by exactly how much.