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.

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