On the Eve of the Race I Thought I’d Be Running

Upon crossing the finish line of the Cleveland Marathon last year, I stopped my watch, looked at the 3:05:11 it displayed, and thought of my dad’s birthday. April 15th. The 123rd Boston Marathon, I knew, would be run on April 15, 2019 and with the race I had just run I was sure that I would be in it. After navigating the chaos of the finish corral I collected my gear bag, retrieved my phone, and texted my old man. “I think we’re going to be spending your birthday in Boston next year.” I would spend the summer confident, but not certain, that I was right in my prediction. When September came and the registration window opened I submitted my entry, said a prayer, and hoped an invitation email would soon follow: “Dear Mr. Wheeler, Welcome to the Boston Marathon…” It was not to be. As the second week of registration dragged on whispers online hinted that almost all the slots had been filled with the Week 1 registrations, reserved for those more than five minutes under the qualifying standard. My 4:49 under the time was close, but not quite there. I kept my faith. A 4:49 was not that far away from five minutes. Finally though, the hammer fell. A twitter account dedicated to the event tweeted out the year’s cutoff time: 4:52. My 4:49 was three seconds short of that. An email from the BAA an hour later confirmed my denial. My schedule was now, I was sorry to say, wide open for my dad’s birthday.

At 10 am tomorrow I will be sitting in front of my TV as the 123rd Boston Marathon begins. I know it will hit me, as it has all week, that this is not where I thought I would be for this race. For a few minutes, I’m sure, I will imagine that I am there in Hopkinton, surrounded by 30,000 other runners, fulfilling a goal I set for myself in the summer of 2011 after I crossed my first finish line. I will see myself craning for a look at any elite runner I can see and taking in the “Welcome to Hopkinton” sign. I will wonder what my emotions in this moment would have been if I had been just three seconds faster.

Since that first race in 2011 my running has almost wholly been focused on building myself into a runner capable of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Years have been planned around race training cycles, at trying to coax an extra five or 10 seconds per miles out of my legs. There have been milestones: the first time I broke 1:30:00 in the half marathon (it took me three years longer than I first thought it would), the first time I ran 20 miles (I don’t miss 20-mile training runs — the plans I follow no longer call for them), the first time I ran 50 miles in a week (this number keeps climbing). There have been hard-earned lessons. Running fast in general requires far more miles per week than the 20 I was initially willing to invest. Failing to strength train invites all sorts injury issues and keeps you from hitting your full potential. Trying to coax more miles out of your shoes after your feet start to ache is dumb. Just don’t do it. Seriously, don’t.

Often, the most enriching experiences reach into nooks and crannies and crevices of life far beyond the experience itself. Such has it been for me and running. It is why, disappointed as I am today, I can experience the disappoint I have been carrying since September and still smile at how much richer my life has become since I first laced up in 2011. I have adopted new hobbies, explored new areas, and formed new relationships as a result of my running. Take cooking. I truly learned to cook in graduate school, a year before I first laced up. Running encouraged me to dig deeper into it. If I was going to have to fuel 50-mile training weeks, I might as well enjoy what I’d be eating. I still thrill at finding a new recipe that looks so good I have to rush out to buy the ingredients that night so I can make the dish. I also began gardening; healthy cooking could only benefit from having fresh produce growing 20 yards outside my door. In the years since I have found that few things make me happier than turning on an Indians game on the radio, cracking open a beer, and weeding my garden or picking the newest ripe vegetables as dusk settles in.

Running led me to more fully explore Northeast Ohio’s Metroparks system and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The Towpath, a multi-purpose pathway, runs through it and I have logged thousands of miles on it. The park also is full of gorgeous hiking locales: heights and valleys, ledges and meadows, streams and lakes and waterfalls, all there for me to clear my head and recharge my batteries after a hard workout or race.

I have formed friendships with fellow runners, reconnected with old friends, our bonds now strengthened by our shared love of running, and helped others get into the sport. I started a podcast (I link to our youtube channel here but you can find us on most podcast platforms) where my cohosts and I discuss running’s current events, our own struggles and successes with training, and interview fellow runners of all walks of life to learn how they manage to struggle with what we all struggle with: balancing the sport we enjoy with the demands of everyday life.

Finally, there has been the subtle but significant change in the way I view life and progress and the pursuit of goals. Running as I do, with only two major races a year, means that I spend thousands of hours a year preparing for less than ten hours of actual racing. You would think that I feel intense pressure on race day; six months worth of work could be thrown out with a bad race. I do not view it that way though. I have come to view consistency, and not a lone day’s result, as the goal. In the words of two of my favorite authors, Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg: The goal is the path and the path is the goal.

I generally know now what I need to do during a training cycle to be successful. Consistency, day in and day out, is the key. With each cycle I introduce new stimuli, nothing too drastic, but small progressions that I hope will advance me just a little more as a runner. My race times have steadily decreased over my 8+ years as a runner as a result. If I can maintain this consistency I can arrive at a start line confident that I have put in the work to have a special day. If that day does not go as planned, I have still built a strong foundation for the next training cycle and learned valuable lessons along the way about what works and what does not.

It is a simple approach and it has impacted all areas of my life. It has made me a better soccer coach. Where I may have sought shortcuts in my younger coaching life, or lamented the less than speedy progress of a team I was coaching, I now have far more patience. Being a runner has helped me get back into the mind of a developing athlete. A bad workout I have makes it easier to talk a player through handling a poor performance or a disappointing game result. Likewise, I have become more sanguine about the areas of my life I am not content with (and there are plenty). It would be easy at times, to look at where I am at and then where I want to be and become overwhelmed by the gap between the two. The slow but steady progress I have made as a runner has helped me better understand that that gap can only be closed if you are willing to hit the road and log the miles. Run the mile you are in, commit to it daily, and the gap will shrink.

So I am not destroyed that I am not in Boston. I am looking forward to receiving the email that invites me in and tells me I’ve earned the right to run with giants. Tomorrow I will do what I have done every Patriot’s Day since I first crossed a finish line: I will watch the Boston Marathon, marvel at the elites, enjoy the images of the scenery along the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boylston St., and imagine how I’ll feel when I get to have my once-in-a-lifetime experience when it is my turn. I’ll swear to myself the same vow I’ve sworn as I’ve watched each of those past races, that someday that will be me and I will smile, knowing that someday is as close as it has ever been. Then I will head out for a drink with my dad. It is his birthday after all.

Good Reads on Boston Before Monday’s Race

It’s Boston weekend and here is some of the best reading I have done as I get ready to watch Monday’s race.

Sarah Sellers was the surprise of 2018 when the practically unknown nurse anesthetist finished second to Des Linden while running only her second marathon (!!!). In Sarah Sellers and the Craziest Schedule in Running the NYT takes us through Sarah’s demanding schedule (120 mile weeks while working 30 hours at her job) and her goals for Monday, 2020, and beyond.

SI’s Previewing the 2019 Boston Marathon: Who Are the Top Contenders looks at the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s elite field. Given that the weather is again looking cold, wet, and windy, predictions are hard, but I will go out on a limb. I’m looking for Edna Kiplagat and Geoffrey Kirui to win the women’s and men’s races respectively with Jordan Hasay breaking out for the American women after an injury-filled 2018. Jared Ward battled injuries in 2017 after his 2016 Olympic games but looked strong in New York last year. He is gunning for a sub-2:10:00 and with the new marathon standard for Olympic qualification has plenty to run hard for. Des and Yuki will both finish top-5, but neither repeats.

Mario Fraioli’s The Morning Shakeout is one of my favorite weekly running destinations. His newsletter covers several topics this week but he shares a few thoughts on this year’s race.

Des was long one of my favorite runners before she broke the tape in Boston last year. In The Champ Wants to Win Again Runner’s World covers what the whirlwind year has been like since her Boston win. She’s crossed the country doing interviews and appearances, changed coaches, placed sixth at New York, and has zero running commitments beyond Monday.

The course in Boston is as much a star as any of the runners. Wired, in How the Boston Marathon Messes With Runners to Slow Them Down, details how Boston’s course, which with its net downhill should lead to fast racing times, actually beats runners up and slows them down significantly compared to other major races.

Finally, Jared Ward is one of the US men’s elite runners I have been following closely since he made the 2016 Olympic team. Described as the running nerd, Ward is a marathoner, professor, and usually rocks a pretty epic ‘stache. In 26 Things You May Not Know About Me Ward gives us some quick insight into his life and passions outside of running.

Things Fall Apart: Five Steps for Handling Setbacks

Three weeks ago while many were surrounding themselves with shamrocks and green beer I was enjoying a little celebration of my own. A 15-mile hill run served as the capstone to the hardest week of running I had ever attempted and amidst comfortable spring temperatures I ran through the green golf courses and backyards that line one of my favorite running trails in Northeast Ohio. When I stopped my watch, recording the near-record time I had just completed for this course, I paused to take inventory before walking to my car and changing out of my sweat-soaked running shirt.

The hard week of training was over. I had smashed through all three of my quality workouts, the hilly long run, a tempo-hill combo run, and a set of Yasso 800’s that indicated that, yes, the sub-3 hour marathon I was gunning for was within reach. The new strength training regimen I had adopted seemed to have infused my body with improved recovery capacity. I was running as hard as ever and, though the familiar wear and tear and fatigue of marathon training remained, I often felt fresh when I headed out the door to begin my hardest workouts. Nine weeks down, nine weeks to go until Cleveland.

That confidence made the injury I sustained two days later that much harder to bear. The pain I felt deep in my calf at the end of my interval session, another workout that had gone well, came out of nowhere. This was not the sort of acute injury that comes with landing wrong on a rock. I had run through my intervals fast but in control only to find during my final recovery that I suddenly could not land without a deep aching pain rolling up my left calf. I went through a range of emotions, first dreading the worst, that I would be laid up for months, my year was over, then calming down and making contingency plans for all sorts of timelines. The pain became manageable and for two weeks I slowly built myself back up, massaging the tender areas, carefully adding mileage, attempting a first and then second hard workout, coasting through both. I dared to believe that I could still reach my Cleveland Marathon goals: a new PR, another BQ, breaking three hours. Truly, I believe those goals were all within reach. But then a new pain developed, in my right leg, up front and to the outside of my shin. This pain was worse. Walking was a chore. Swelling developed just above my ankle and if I bumped that area I thought I’d see stars. Where this pain had come from was just as mysterious to me as the initial calf pain that had laid me up. The conclusion it led me to, though, was more obvious. It was time to let go, take real time off, and heal.

Steps for Handling a Setback

1. Put the setback in perspective

In the moment any setback takes on an outsized appearance. Take mine: a race I was gearing up for has been taken from me. The chance at earning another BQ before the Boston qualifying window opens in September is at risk if my injury lingers. Certainly there was no guarantee my race in Cleveland was going to go well, but I had not considered the possibility that I could, conceivably, spend much of 2019 trying to get to a start line health. However, despite the largely emotional nature of this setback, and the uncertainty of when I can get back to full training, it has been helpful to measure this setback against others.

I missed almost all of 2013 with IT band syndrome, complicated by my relative inexperience as a runner and the life-consuming experience that was being a first-year high school English teacher. My inauspicious marathon debut was marred by a string of injuries that plagued me for a year. This setback is relatively, for the time being anyway, minor. My initial calf strain was mild. After three weeks it largely feels like it is back to full health, and I will be diligent in how I treat it going forward. My right leg pain is almost gone too, though the sore/tired feeling that accompanies mild strains remains. But just four days off of running has made a major difference. I feel, I hope, that in two weeks I will be ready to resume relatively hard running. That will cost me a race, but it is a small price to pay for putting myself back into a position to run healthy the rest of the year.

2. Perform an honest assessment of what went wrong AND what you were doing right

After every training cycle I enjoy sitting down and reflecting on what went well (hopefully after running a successful race) and on what went wrong. Even after the best races there is going to be a facet of my training that I could have done better or performed with more consistency. With training on hold, I have had time to sit down to figure out what led to my injury. Just as important, I have noted what went well. I am, after all, less than a month removed from feeling like I was in the best shape of my life.

First, I know that I reverted at times to an old bad habit of overstriding, which can place excessive stress on certain tissues, including the calf muscles. There were also times in recent months where a run or even just a day on my feet would leave me with pain on the inside of my left leg. I try to be mindful of my stride, be it walking or running, and that attention to form led me to realize that my left leg seemed to whip around in a circle rather than smoothly flowing from back to front. This is an issue of hip control, largely a weakness of the gluteus medius which helps stabilize the hips. While it is important to continue to rehab my calf, I also need to make sure I am working on strengthening my gluteus medius so that when I begin running again, my stride is more fluid.

As for what went well in training, I can point to my aerobic fitness which was as strong as it has ever been — my times were a solid 10 seconds per mile faster than last year — and the new strength training program I adopted which was helping my body recover faster than ever from hard efforts. To be honest, it feels like I have a roadmap toward breaking through to a new level when I get back to running. I just need to heal up so I can begin.

3. Reframe the setback into a comeback story

Positive energy beats negative energy. This is not a new age, feel good philosophy. There is science behind how enhanced mood promotes improved performance and output.

Setbacks introduce negativity where there was once so much positivity. A shift in mindset is needed to change that and the shift is well worth it. I am being kept from training, there’s no sense in denying that. However, I can recognize that the injuries provide me the opportunity to shore up my weaknesses so my training is not interrupted next time. I get to work hard so I can return to running as soon as possible. Being denied the opportunity to run and to race now means I will appreciate it more when I am able to do both in the near future.

Comebacks are energizing. They provide an opportunity to leave behind a difficult time and return to the business of trying to reach your full potential. They provide the opportunity for catharsis. There have been times over the last three weeks where I have felt like I’m stuck in a hole. I can dwell on that, or accept it is where I am at and that any climb has to begin with stepping off the ground onto a first rung.

4. Be realistic

I cannot wait to be back in the thick of marathon training. Sixty mile weeks and a constant state of fatigue? Bring it on! However, I am not looking to jump into the deep end immediately when I return to running. I’m still hurt, I have muscular imbalances to deal with, and I have identified my form as a culprit in my injury. I need to give myself time to build back up before I up the intensity or I risk turning something minor into something major. Really, it may have been me pushing too hard to strengthen the calf that led to the second injury to the front of my right leg.

Returning from injuries takes time and the path will likely not be a linear one. I remember almost ten years ago reading about Meb’s comeback from his 2007 hip fracture, an injury that almost ended his career. An important part of his comeback was knowing when not to run. Niggling pain he may have run through in years past he learned to take a day of rest for. You don’t want to be the fittest person not able to make it to the starting line.

Make sure you prep psychologically for being realistic. Acknowledge that the road back will be bumpy. That prep will make it easier to bear when things take a small step backward during your comeback.

5. Plan a few fun things for your downtime and for your comeback

As much as I want to be in the middle of training I do have to acknowledge that having some extra, unplanned time for myself is nice. Spring is finally here in Northeast Ohio and I am blessed to live near a bevy of gorgeous places to hike. I plan to take advantage of my downtime to treat myself to a few hikes when I would have otherwise been slugging out ten-mile tempo runs or 16-mile hill runs. I may go see a movie. I may day drink once or twice with my dad. Time is a non-renewable resource. I am crazy not to use some of my time off of training for a few activities that recharge my batteries and take my mind off my disappointment.

My mind is also on the future, however. With the weather turning nice, hundreds of miles of nearby nature trails to run on, and another marathon build up awaiting me, I am listing out several runs I am looking forward to completing in the near future. The trees are still bare here in Northeast Ohio but soon enough the foliage will fill out, the weather will warm, and the terrain I last ran through will look and smell and feel different. There is something special about running through the Cuyahoga Valley early on the summer day before the heat sets in. Often there is a mist off the Cuyahoga River, the sun ripples through trees, the day is just beginning. Ten miles can fly by on days like those. Those days are waiting for me. I’ll be back soon.