Marathon minion

I suppose watching a marathon is not as hard as running one. Spectators do not get as sweaty. Some sit in lawn chairs, but most stand up, wedged against barriers and each other. There is not much movement on the sidelines. The cheerleaders can only tip toe up and down, squinting, trying to discern one white t-shirt from another, whooping occasionally and randomly turning the camera on, then off, just in case. We strike up conversations with other wives, husbands, children, friends, people with nothing to do on a Sunday morning, but mostly we just stare at our watches and calculate pace and half times, secretly worried that despite our support someone we love is just out of sight, lying in a heap in the mud with twitching legs and an oxygen mask.

I come from a marathon family. My father and both sisters have completed many, individually and together. My sisters run competitive times. Even my son runs half marathons. We have a genetic propensity – low resting heart rates and large lung capacity. We also have addictive tendencies. It is adds up to fast, fit people and me.

This week my sister ran the Boston marathon and I was her one woman entourage. Some friends from work and I made her a sign from a flattened packing box taped to stretcher boards. We perched on step stools for an hour waiting for her to run by. When she did, she looked up to a few screaming fans and her name emblazoned in block letters. She raised her arms above her head like a champ. Later I found her wrapped in a commemorative Mylar cape, clutching free bagels. I hailed us a cab back to the hotel. My job was done.

The Boston Marathon should leave me feeling inspired. These are not ordinary marathon contestants of all shapes and paces. A runner has to qualify to enter Boston and the race is capped at 25,000. People who make the time requirement and deadline are some of the best amateur athletes in the world, thrilled at the privilege of running a very difficult and legendary race. Walking through the Running Expo the day before, I was amazed at a huge crowd watching a real-time video of the course, intently memorizing every turn, oblivious to the tumult of buying and selling around them. These are focused people. This is not a spur of the moment, wild hair, roll off the sofa and do your best sort of activity. My sister has been planning to run for several years. For her, running the Boston marathon was the realization of a long term goal.

I should have walked into my house when it was all over, dusted off my clearance sale trainers and ran back outside again. I was a runner once like the rest of my family. I ran cross country in high school and placed third in the Watermelon Days 5K in Dike, Iowa. What would it take, thirty years later, for me to be the fourth person in my family to run the Boston marathon? I could start by walking 30 – 60 minutes a day, then jogging at 2 – 5 minute intervals, building up to running 30 minutes without stopping, increasing my mileage and beginning a moderate road race schedule. I could lose weight and lift weights twice a week. Realistically I could run the Boston marathon in two to three years of planned, hard work. I know how to do it. I imagine a real-time course laid out in exact increments. I am resistant, but I fancy that my rationalizations go beyond laziness.

I am ambivalent about goals in general. When I was a young woman I spent hours each January writing, recording, color-coding and posting at least two goals from every category of my life. Over time I recognized a pattern. I always wanted to read, write, exercise and be nice more; eat junk, sleep, get mad at my family and procrastinate less. More, less, more, less, year after year after year, I never seemed to change. I became discouraged by my seemingly intractable nature. Eventually, I just stopped writing them. I felt a surge of freedom abandoning any formal resolve for improvement. I found that I was better at making the right decisions as they came up rather than planning for them. Forecasting too far ahead made me rebellious and I looked for ways to sabotage my own campaigns. I read, wrote, exercised and was nicer if I approached each opportunity with a clean slate.  

Professionally, I have had to temper this present tense philosophy. In the name of strategy and performance management, I teach that it is not any goal, but bad goals that are the problem. An achievable goal is SMART, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Timely. A bad goal is murky, without behaviors to checklist. Using this template, I could calendar my way to success, whether running a store or running a marathon. First the goal, then the plan, then commitment and attention span.  There was a whole lot of SMART in the gaunt cheeks and loose strides of the marathon participants this week. 

To run so far and so consistently, a marathoner may have to forgo the haphazard, day to day existence of an experiential nomad. They have to look ahead and envision an invisible horizon, charting backwards a path through distraction and fatigue. They have to decide again and again to do something that in the moment seems ridiculous and must replace a million more sensible options with the madness of foot on pavement, resolute to an internal momentum. They are not as sidetracked as I am, obsessed with discovering meaning in whatever pops up in earshot or eye-shot, stumbling like a monkey from shiny object to shiny object. With every run, they log a routine toward a defined future, spooling out in a quest or conquest of spirit. I thrive on being available, sitting still for what comes next, indulging my untamed indolence in the spontaneity of rest.

Then I laugh at myself. In considering my running revival, it is the preparation that preoccupies me. I assume that with the proper goal and follow-though, completing the race itself would be a given. A 26.2 mile given. This hubris comforts me, justifies my inaction. I don’t run, not because I worry I won’t finish, but because it seems a compromise to begin. I remember my vague jealously as I offered to carry part of my sister’s swag after the race. As spectators, this is what we do, cheer and serve, but inside we question our own stamina. Could we run as well, would we, should we? All this before and after, but during the race I watched loyally, as runners zoomed by, together on separate treadmills, lost in their own thoughts of crossing the line.

5 responses to “Marathon minion”

  1. — Initially read “Marathon Mignon” and was expecting a cooking post…

  2. Nice post! I’ve been running a little bit these past few months — I am now able to run a mile and a half on hills, and probably could run 2 miles on flat ground — and I feel a lot of admiration for people who run marathons. A friend of mine and her husband are training to run the NYC marathon next time it comes around. I’ve watched the NYC marathon but nothing more than standing on the sidewalk cheering as the runners go by. Another friend used to go bike ride the course starting in the early morning before the runners.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    1. DIKE, Iowa? You jest?
    2. S.M.A.R.T. goals- Nice to see someone else who knows Prochaska and Diclemente, their book Changing for Good is a pretty useful. Have you ever read Motivational Interviewing by Rollnick and Miller? I’ll bet it would be good for management, since it’s a similiar model for change.
    Have a great weekend.

  4. Rachel says:

    This one had me on the edge of my seat, PB. I am similarly recalcitrant about setting goals. All that church indoctrination really ruined it for me (that and journal-keeping) .. we had lists and charts and public humiliation and commemorative jewelry. Blah. It got to the point where I would “set goals” for things I had already accomplished, just to keep up.

    Having said that, I really like running, even though I am slow, and I try to add a little something (speed, distance, time, whatever) on each attempt. I once trained with the AIDS Marathon group to run the Chicago Marathon, and before an injury, was up to 17 miles. For all my cynicism, their rah-rah positivity worked, and taught me mental tactics I still use. Maybe there is something to this goal-setting thing, after all.

    What’s it like to motivate people for a living? As a teacher, I wouldn’t know (heh).

  5. Oscar says:

    I wish there were a photo of your sister wraped in the commemorative Mylar cape, clutching free bagels. But that sentence worked just as well! Your such a lovely, witty writer and I always look forward to reading your posts.