Failure… and Redemption!
Okay, here’s the deal. I didn’t run the Portland marathon last Sunday as scheduled. Some stuff happened and I didn’t do it. I was initially pretty bummed about this, and I debated about whether or not to write a blog post about it, but ultimately I decided to go ahead and do it because the story involves overcoming some pretty nasty fears, and isn’t that what you’ve signed on to read about? (if not, please to scroll up and refer to the title of the blog).
Anyway, it went down kind of like this. I did the New York Triathlon in July, after which I felt totally bullet-proof and awesome. I did a triathlon, yo! Clearly, now would be the ideal time to jump into marathon training, say, four weeks in to the marathon training already in schedule. Well, it didn’t happen like that, but basically it did. Initially, I was going to do the Providence, RI, marathon, which is in mid-October, and this would have given me enough time to recover from the triathlon and start marathon training (Side note: triathlons and marathons each require a long lag-time for training, usually about four months.) Then, due to some scheduling issues, I wasn’t going to be able to do the Providence marathon, so I started looking for another one. The one I really wanted to do (and still very much want to do) is the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. This is where you run the race alongside marines in full 50 pound gear or whatever, who are cheering YOU on. Because you’re only, you know, in shorts and running shoes, and the marines are in full f*cking gear and broiling uniforms besides, running alongside YOU, encouraging you. Eh. Now that I’ve written it out, it seems like less fun.
Anyway, I did initially want to do that marathon, but it was full. I also wanted to do the Chicago marathon, but it, too, was full. So I found the Portland Maine Marathon, and it looked great. The only downside was that it was pretty close, time-wise, to the triathlon. I would have to overlap my training.
And overlap I did. Not only did I overlap, but, because I felt like a bullet-proof superhero coming off my first triathlon, I idiotically chose a training program designed to get you to run a PERSONAL BEST for your marathon. The schedule was, to put it mildly, intense. Not only did they have you running more than I did for my first marathon, it was a LOT more. It included not one, not two, but three 20-mile runs. Actually, the last one was be a 22-mile run. But, like I say, being all high and sh*t off my triathlon, I thought, no problem.
Turns out, it was a problem. Not only did I not pay strict attention to the subtleties of the training program, which stipulated that you run the 20-mile routes at sub-race pace (I didn’t), but they also stressed that the other runs you did during the week were also supposed to be slower, with just intervals of sprinting and going all out and whatnot. Which I also ignored.
In case this is getting technical and boring, let’s just say you want to get strong enough to lift 100 pounds. But instead of starting with smaller weights and working your way up, you just go yanking at the 100-pound weight, thinking eventually, hey, if I pull hard enough, I’ll pick it up, but instead you just wind up pulling your shoulders out of their sockets.
Okay, it’s not quite like that, but you get the idea. Anyway, during the training process, I felt myself getting weaker and weaker. My magnificent training partner of a wife, Lori Culwell, had been following me on a bike with a backpack full of Gatorade and power gels while I did my long runs, because she is incredibly awesome. But even she noticed I was getting slower and slower. I tried to chalk it up to my bad head. I actually had a couple of pretty nasty panic attacks while I was out running, but I had managed to finish the run each time.
I guess I felt like if I could just face my fear and push through, I’d be okay. And, drum roll please, I was super, incredibly wrong. So picture this: It’s the day of my 22-mile training run. It’s been threatening rain all day and it’s humid as hell, but we decide to go ahead and go for it. Now, the route that I’d been training on is this incredibly beautiful paved trail that runs through Putnam and Westchester counties. I would go down half the distance, and then turn around and come back. Which is fine when you’re doing ten miles—five down, five back. But on the 22-mile run, you’re going out eleven and… you get the idea. Anyway, we head out, me running ahead with my trusty pack mule behind me, and I’m not feeling good. I can’t get out of my head, I’m fighting panic the whole way. But I get down to mile eleven and turn around, and then, about two hundred yards in, my legs say: No. No, Stephan Cox, we will not run anymore. We are tired and you are an idiot and we have been trying to send you a message and you have not received it.
And then, it started to rain.
We are eleven miles out, and it starts to rain. And I’m not talking a jolly, Gene-Kelly-dance-number-style rain (kids, ask your parents); I’m talking the-sky-opening-up, Old-Testament-style, God-smiting-the-Pharisees-type rain. It just dumped. And because there was nowhere to go, we walked. And walked. And walked. We walked the eleven miles back to the car. And Lori, God bless her, laughed the whole way. And eventually, I laughed, too.
Because what I realized was, it wasn’t my panic problem getting in the way; it was my hubris. I thought I could do something that my body wasn’t designed to do, certainly not at this age. And those eleven miles gave me a good three hours to come to terms with that.
Anyway, I took a week off from running. I was honestly scared that I was never going to be able to run again, that I had ruined it for myself. But I didn’t. In fact, on the day of the marathon, I went back to the running trail, Lori bringing up the rear on the bike, and I ran the best half-marathon of my life. No joke. I had a personal best. It felt great. It felt… like redemption.