Racing a marathon is a big gamble. Unlike a 5k, 10k, or pretty much anything else, the marathon requires an incredibly committed training cycle and it's a one-and-done kind of day. Whereas with a 5k you can just try again the following weekend if you want, with a marathon it's going to take some time to recover in order to be at optimal form to race another one. The countless hours of running, mental preparation, fueling, and emotional commitment are summed up in a few hours on a Sunday morning. And I've yet to run a good one.
So what happens when 4 months of my life committed to running don't turn out the way I planned? What happens when the race doesn't go well? Is it possible to bounce back from the embarrassment and physical pain of an off-day on marathon morning? The answer to that last question is yes, and I'd go further. If approached in the right way, a bad race can be good for the soul.
Life is a series of new events, unknown challenges, and surprises. Anyone who thinks they have complete control is living a fantasy. The same is true in running. While we have the reigns in many areas, we don't control the weather, unknown race day factors, or sudden illness. We are also not impervious to mental struggles, bad racing decisions, or physical let downs. In other words, "off-days" are both in and out of our hands. They're our fault or they're not, but there's no going back. And this is where the secret lies.
Everyone knows the famous story of Michael Jordan being cut from the 8th grade basketball team and then turning out to be a decent NBA player (even if it was for a rival team for my Cavs). The way we react to disappointment and discouragement says a lot about us but these challenges might be more important for our growth as a person in terms of our emotional, mental, and spiritual development than any PR we can run.
Bonking and racing badly in Toulouse have been really good for my soul because it was a solid dose of humility, of the awareness that despite my best plans I'm not in complete control, and that we all have limits. There are a lot of factors for why I didn't perform up to my capabilities on that morning but instead of thinking just about them, let me finish with where I go after a bad race.
1. I must realize that I'm not the center of the universe, that life goes on, that running is great but it's not the be all-end all, and that there are much more pressing concerns in the world other than my desire to run a sub 2:45 marathon.
2. I must embrace the humility and weakness that comes from these kind of days. Instead of being cocky and blaming the wind, bad fueling, or my coach, it's extremely important to say "no, I didn't have it this time, but I'll keep working hard." Plus, humility and weakness are the central themes of a certain message in Matthew 5-7 called the Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus which contain the best ethic for life that have ever been written down.
3. The most important lesson is just about perspective. Every day is a gift. Every run is a blessing. Every marathon is another beautiful challenge. The pressure that I put on myself is completely self-imposed and not rooted in anything "real." My son has no idea what the difference between running 3 hours and 2:45 is (and neither might you if you're not a runner.). Running is not about these kind of things in the end, it is about joy and humility and grace and love. That's where speed and records come from.
So, as hard as it is, I'm embracing defeat in order to grow as a person, not just as a runner, but I'm hoping that the next marathon these lessons will serve me well in accomplishing my goal. I'm not letting go of trying hard to hit 2:45. That's still there, it's just that it's important in a different way than I originally thought.