Okay, it was the right thing to do. So why does it hurt so much?

It isn’t always easy being a runner. It isn’t always easy being the Penguin. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to be both and to be true to either.

One of the canons of the Penguin philosophy is that running – all running – is joyful in its own right. It’s the act of running, being in the moment of the motion, that brings satisfaction. And it’s the process that matters most, not the outcome.

But some runners wrongly think that this focus on participation rather than competition means that performance doesn’t matter. Folks who routinely finish races before I reach halfway sometimes believe all that matters to me is being out with friends on an easy jog with water tables and police protection. That isn’t the case.

I get the greatest satisfaction from races when I have given my honest, best effort. Other midpack runners tell me the same. Consequently, we feel bitter disappointment when we don’t achieve a goal. Our devastating sense of failure is no less profound when our goal is solely personal.

Such was the case for me at mile 18 of the Tucson Marathon last December. As I walked off the course, the pain in my body was no match for the pain in my spirit. A sense of failure – the feeling that my legs had betrayed me, that my training had failed me, and that my strategy had been flawed – overwhelmed me. It was of little consolation that my goal of running my first sub-5-hour marathon in nearly 2 years meant nothing to anyone but me.

Those around me were quick to point out the objective reasons for my failure. I’d run a very difficult marathon (as a training run!) only 4 weeks earlier. I’d run an on pace half-marathon the week before. I’d also taken two international trips in 4 weeks and had come down with a monster cold and sinus infection just a few days before the race. Yes, there were reasons.

But on Sunday morning as I walked to the starting line, those reasons seemed like excuses to me. I’d trained hard, planned carefully, and dreamed about this moment for months. I was ready. I’d done all the work necessary to succeed.

In the months leading up to the race, I’d calculated how much I could push my body. I arrived at the start prepared for, and expecting, only one outcome: a sub-5-hour marathon.

The race initially unfolded according to plan. I hit the halfway point at 2:27:32, right on target. At mile 15, I was still there. By mile 17, I was 3 seconds off pace, but still hopeful, even though I was beginning to feel the signs of impending disaster.

Then in one sputtering, stuttering moment, my dream shattered. My legs, my lungs, my entire body gave out. My will was no match for them. As I hobbled and wheezed my way to mile 18, I was forced to concede defeat. I would not succeed on this day. My race was over.

As friends and colleagues congratulated me on my wisdom to stop, I smiled wryly. Yes, I know I did the right thing. I know I’ll run other races. I know that it’s never smart to push through that kind of pain. I know that I showed respect for my body. I know I acted like a true athlete. I know.

But somehow that didn’t keep my heart from aching. In the end, knowing you’ve done the right thing doesn’t stop you from wishing you hadn’t had to.

Waddle on, friends.

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  • Sheryl says:

    I always feel that you are talking to me! Well said.

  • Nancy Spalding says:

    You describe a physical breakdown very well, John. And for your body’s sake, I’m glad you pulled out. But there are mental breakdowns too. My only DNF came at the beautiful Valley of Fire marathon in Overton, NV. It came 7 weeks after the death of my only brother. The first half of the race is in the lovely Valley of Fire State Park, with all the half marathoners running with the marathoners. When you leave the park, the remainder of the race was along a 2 lane highway with very little traffic and fewer runners. Normally I am very good about getting into my own head to finish these races, but that day all I could think about was that my brother was finally gone, dead by a cancer that took 14 years to kill him. At about the 14.5 mile mark, I turned around and ran back to the finish line. The race director was kind to give me credit for the half, and I finished last, having run 16+ miles instead of 13.1. But I don’t think I could’ve run the full distance that day with the grief that was in my heart. It was the right thing to do.
    Waddle on, Friends…

  • Linda says:

    I love and so appreciate you posting this. I just opted to not attempt NYC Marathon despite, like you, being on par for my first sub 5. I raised a lot of money. When I woke up at 3am feeling like I was hit by a bus, fever, sore throat with nasty pus. I tried to talk myself into mind over matter, my body has reserve, all those people donated money they worked hard for. All those hours of training. Sadly, it was a DNS, did not start. Honestly, this was my last marathon attempt. I don’t have the desire any more. I only signed up to encourage my friend on the course as she was rolling iff a DNF.

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