Ding ding dong dong. The bell tower alarm goes off, like it does almost every morning. Only it’s 4:30, not my usual wake-up time of 5 or 5:30. That half-hour makes a lot of difference, and at least right now, I’m really missing it.
Eyes half closed and brain still half struggling to comprehend what’s up, I fumble to press “snooze.” But there will be no more snoozing. When I have my wits about me, I focus on the phone, swipe a couple of times to shut off the alarm, and roll out of bed.
For runners like me, these are moments of truth.
Three days a week, I wake up and lace up and head out the door. What started years ago as a means to an end—I ran primarily to perform well in an upcoming race but didn’t really enjoy any of it—morphed to become an indelible part of me. I identify myself as a runner now as much as a husband, a father, a churchgoer, a creative director.
Even with my love of running, I need a goal to maintain motivation. Usually, it’s a race. These days it’s to finish the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5. No—not just finish it. Set a personal record. And like my shoes won’t put themselves on my feet, this goal won’t happen by itself. You can either do the work when it needs to be done, or you can continue snoozing.
My training plan calls for 8.5 fast miles on this particular weekday, as it did the previous two weeks. Those last two efforts, however, did not go well. They weren’t total failures, but they weren’t successes, either. Started out too fast? Didn’t eat well enough beforehand? Or was it that I didn’t eat well enough the night before? Did I not hydrate properly? These questions rattle through my mind as I allow my body to ease up, about halfway into the run. This happened two straight weeks. Ugh.
The plan has this fast 8.5-miler for six of seven weeks, so if I want to hit my goal for the workout—heck, if I want to hit my goal for the marathon—I’d better figure it out. I can either deal with this demon or give in. And I’m not getting up at 4:30 to give in.
The day before the third, pivotal session, I hydrated well and ate a carb-tastic dinner (chicken and ziti). When I got up, I scarfed more carbs and good fats (whole-wheat bread with peanut butter) in addition to my usual banana. Perhaps as important as these food and drink tweaks, I prepped my head to be in the right state to wrestle a run I’d repeatedly struggled with.
After a check of essentials—headlamp, watch, water, gel—I venture out.
These fast paces seem easy for the first few miles. That’s nice, I tell myself, but stick to the program. Rein in the pace. Keep the breathing steady and relaxed. The hard stuff is coming, and you’ll need those feel-good reserves. I often visualize my body as a steam engine, with the carbohydrates in my system serving as coal in the fire, and like a shovel-wielding train engineer, I’m continually assessing the fuel situation and ready to react: How’s the power right now? Need anything to keep it up? No? OK, then, let’s push on!
Some days, the stars align and I have a fantastic run. Other days, even when conditions seem to be the same, things can go well and then very suddenly fall apart. I might have an inkling why, or I might not. Experience has taught me to appreciate the good days and not agonize (too much) over the bad ones.
This particular day, at oh dark hundred, the stars aligned. The first few easy miles gave way to a gut check in the middle stages, and then a push past halfway—over the hump!—until I could sense the downward momentum and practically feel myself finishing strong, well within my time goal.
With the sun only starting to peek through the trees in the neighborhood, I cross the imaginary finish line at the end of my street, and I stop my watch. Resting my sweaty hands on my fatigued, sweaty knees, I exhale forcefully a few times to slow my heart rate, then I straighten up. Endorphins flood my system. As I turn to walk home, I reflect on what this success feels like. I savor it.
People ask me why I do this. Why I run crazy distances at crazy paces at crazy hours. Why I run at all. This is why. I’ve hit a high point for the day, and for all intents and purposes, the day hasn’t even begun. It’s worth setting the alarm for 4:30 a.m. now and then, knowing you’ll be missing a precious half-hour of sleep, and getting up in the black of night, to test your limits in pursuit of something you want. You should try it.