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April 25, 2006

The Sub-Three Thing

(Author’s note: I get entirely too analytical and introspective when I’m tapering for a race. It’s like the physical energy I normally use for running is transformed into nervous energy during race week. This is a somewhat rambling post, so proceed at your own risk of boredom...)

Previously in this blog I’ve mentioned one of my primary marathon goals: covering the distance in under three hours. It will be my target for Big Sur this weekend, as it has been for just about every marathon I’ve done over the past several years. So I thought I should explain what I’m up against.

First off, running a sub-three hour marathon is pretty darn tough for any runner on any course. Doing so at Big Sur, with its relentless hills and typically unfriendly winds, is a very impressive feat.

And for someone like me to accomplish it at Big Sur is almost unbelievable.

I hinted yesterday that I have an idea of my “outer limit” of athletic performance. I think that if I maximized all of my genetic variables, at my peak racing age, I could probably have been something like a 2:40 marathoner. Admittedly, this is pure speculation, but I’ve done enough races at various distances to make an educated guess as to my capability.

But I’m not at peak racing age anymore. So if I were to rearrange my life tomorrow and completely commit myself to being a competitive runner, I could probably run something between 2:45 and 2:50.

As for the person I am right now, with the balance I’ve currently struck, my best performances land me right in the neighborhood of three hours.

Maybe a few minutes under, maybe a few minutes over. It’s always very close.

There isn’t much margin for error. If I miss a week of solid training or blow off a couple long runs or carry a minor injury to the start line, my chances are pretty slim. If weather conditions are bad or if I don’t follow the proper strategy on race day, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that I’ll be a few minutes over my goal time (see also: 2006 Napa Marathon).

I don’t often run sub-three. In fact, I’ve fallen short many more times than I’ve succeeded. It used to be extremely frustrating. But over the years, I’ve come to think I like it that way. If I could run sub-three every time I lace up my shoes, I would lose my appreciation for the accomplishment.

When I was a novice runner, I trained for years to break 3:10 and qualify for Boston. It was a monumental deal when I finally did it. Now that running 3:10 is more routine, there’s really no excitement in reaching that particular benchmark. But I do find the same thrill in chasing three hours now.

The number itself really doesn’t matter, except for some reason the “zero” numbers (3:20, 3:10, 3:00) are more psychologically compelling. I felt just as happy running 3:10 to qualify for Boston the first time as I was with my first sub-three marathon. The primary satisfaction was in having a goal that initially seemed out of reach, but eventually became attainable with prolonged, determined training and a courageous, focused effort on race day.

The notion of running a sub-three-hour marathon is like a beacon that pulls me through endless mornings of training. It’s the idea that makes me run in the rain, helps me wake up at 4:30 to do long runs, and compels me to do track workouts by myself when the rest of the group doesn’t show up.

In many ways, I really don’t have any business running a three-hour marathon. I’m far too big. I eat WAY too much. I don’t get nearly enough sleep. I never train as much as I plan to. I don’t take care of injuries or illnesses properly. I’m not genetically predisposed to be an efficient runner (and if you don’t believe me, I’ll post pictures of my parents and sister someday – nobody will ever mistake my family for a 4x400m relay team).

Yet this is the person I am. This is the balance in life that I’m comfortable with. And marathoning is the event I love.

So here’s what it typically boils down to: if I train like a madman for a few months, get just enough sleep to keep my car on the road on the way to and from work each day, and have sufficient discipline to keep my appetite under control for a while, I can approach the three-hour barrier with a legitimate hope of dipping below it. If I fail in any of those measures, the deal is off.

I’m actually thankful to have this challenge that intimidates and inspires me all at once. When I get philosophical about it (you know, as in this entire post), I feel like this specific goal in this particular event is what I was made to chase after. It’s like God created this exact situation for me, where I’ll only find success by bringing out the best in myself in training, then taking a leap of faith on race day.

Will it happen this weekend? I honestly have no idea. I think I’ve done a decent job with the “bringing out my best” part. All I can do now is wait to take the leap of faith on Sunday morning.


Blaine Moore 4/25/06, 10:15 AM  

Three hours was a big deal for me, too. It took me 6 tries. When I did break it, though, I broke it with style and had a 15 minute PR. It was a great feeling to be at mile 19 knowing that I could run a full minute per mile below goal pace for the rest of the race and still make my goal. I went under 3 hours at the Mystic Places Marathon in Niantic, CT.

olga 4/25/06, 10:40 AM  

I absolutely LOVED this post, start to finish:) Go, Donald, give it your best shot, and be happy with the outcome as it happens:) I'll be with you (mentally, of course, on dusty hot AZ trails).

robtherunner 4/25/06, 11:02 AM  

All the reasons you stated for having no business running sub-3 is right up my alley as well. Just look at my pictures from Mt. Si and you can tell I am not the typical slender and sleek runner you would normally see under 3 hours. I need to tell Michelle she needs to start taking pictures of me from a distance to make me look smaller than I really am. I keep thinking I should stop lifting weights, go on a diet and maybe I could shrink my upper body a bit, but I am who I am. I will be waiting for race day results on Sunday.

backofpack 4/25/06, 12:51 PM  

Donald, I like your philosophical, nervous-energy posts. I also like the way you think everything through - I'll be waiting for the race report too!

stronger 4/25/06, 3:51 PM  

I'm feeling a sub-3 left over from Napa. Napa was saving it for Big Sur.

Scott 4/26/06, 2:50 AM  

Good luck this weekend Donald.

I'm struggling with many of the same concepts that you're currently writing about, though on a different level.

I have little doubt that I CAN do a marathon... it is just finding the right balance of all of the disparate pieces of my life to let the training unfold...

DREW 4/28/06, 9:08 AM  

Your three last posts have really struck a chord with me. My 10 year old is anxious to get into a 10k, I've been thinking a lot lately about potential and balance and goals and all the stuff that can drive us crazy. I've also been pondering my next race and thinking about what the next year will bring, and that of course brings to mind Big Sur.

Keep up the good work - in your life, in your running and in your writing. Run strong on Sunday!

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