Tuesday, August 12, 2014

3:30 or Bust

Last weekend, I was disappointed with my result at the Paavo Nurmi Marathon.  I was slower than 3:30.  If my goal had been to break 3:20, and I finished in 3:29, I would have been OK with that.  I’d understand that it was a hot day, and my time was good under the circumstances.  I look at 3:30 differently.  It’s a line I don’t like to cross.  Regardless of the circumstances, I divide my marathon finishes into good results and bad results.  3:30 is the dividing line.

My obsession with 3:30 evolved over time.  Today, most people consider 3:30 to be a fast time.  In the early 80s, when I started running, 3:30 was an average marathon time.  It was solidly in the middle of the pack.

When I ran my first marathon, I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I wasn’t following a training plan.  I did long training runs, gradually building them all the way up to 26.25 miles.  Other than the long runs, my training mileage was paltry.  When I started training, my goal was 3:15.  By race day, I had revised my goal to 3:30.  I was on pace for 3:30 for the first 14 miles.  Then I fell apart.  I did a lot of walking in the late miles.  At some point, I told myself I had to run the rest of the way to break four hours.  I finished in 3:59:39.  In training, I had run 26.25 miles in 3:44:32, so I knew I could do better than 3:59.

The following year, I ran my second marathon.  My training was better, but I still didn’t know what I was doing.  I didn’t go as far in my long runs, but I did them faster.  My mileage was still inadequate, but it was better.  I started the race with a goal of 3:15.  I finished in 4:05:41.  One of my friends said, “Dave, what happened?  I thought you were ready.”  Back then, 4:05 was considered slow.

It was four years before I ran another marathon.  I followed a training plan.  My training was interrupted by injuries, but I was still better prepared.  My only goal was to finish.  I finished in 3:28:20.  That was a big improvement, and for the first time, I was happy with my result.

Over the next few years, I kept improving.  In 1990, I qualified for Boston with a 3:09:47 in the Seattle Marathon.  Two years later, I improved to 2:58:17 at Grandma’s Marathon.  That was my second Boston qualifier.  It was the only time I ever broke three hours.

After that, I let myself get out of shape.  I was going to be taking night classes for the next few years, so I didn’t think I would have time to train for marathons.  In fact, I still ran them, but I had to revise my goal to finishing.  I wouldn’t break 3:30 again until 1996.

By this time, I was in the 35-39 age group.  To qualify for Boston in my new age group, I needed a time of 3:15.  In 1997, I lost weight, improved my training, and ran Grandma’s Marathon in 3:14:01.  I set a lifetime goal of qualifying for Boston at least once in every age group.

Over time, I noticed that I beat 3:30 in roughly half of my marathons.  When I didn’t, there was always a reason.  Sometimes I wasn’t in shape.  Sometimes I was sick or injured.  Other times it was an unusually difficult course or the weather conditions were harsh.  Whenever I was well-prepared, healthy and the course and conditions were reasonable, I broke 3:30.

Over the next several years, my training and fitness varied dramatically.  My weight was up and down like a yo-yo.  It was never an extreme weight gain, but it was enough to adversely affect my times.  My median marathon time never strayed too far from 3:30.  Somewhere along the way, I set another lifetime goal.  I wanted to keep at least half of my times under 3:30.  Over time, I came to think of it as a win-loss record.  Anything under 3:30 was a “win.”  Anything over 3:30 was a “loss.”  I wanted to have a winning record.

When I reached the 40-44 age group, I needed 3:20 to qualify for Boston.  I couldn’t run 3:20 to save my life.  Three times I ran 3:21.  I finally got a Boston qualifier for my age group by running the Tucson Marathon.  That course is almost all downhill.  That was the only way I could qualify.

In 2005, I had a wake-up call.  I was running the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans.  The course was almost entirely flat, and the weather was perfect.  I paced myself perfectly.  I broke 3:30, but just barely.  I had to fight for it all through the second half of the race.  Suddenly, even breaking 3:30 on a flat course took everything I had.

Later that year, I did my first double.  I ran two marathons on the same weekend.  I was working on running marathons in all 50 states.  When I saw an opportunity to run marathons in Rhode Island and Connecticut on consecutive days, I had to go for it.  I realized I would have to go slow.  I was going to have two losses.  That brought my lifetime “win-loss record” to 22-24.  I began the next year with another “loss” on a hilly course at the Hogeye Marathon.

In my first 47 marathons, I qualified for Boston only four times.  Then three things happened.  First, I turned 45.  Now I could qualify for Boston with a time of 3:30.  Second, I finally got serious about losing weight.  In 15 weeks, I lost 15 pounds.  I’m only 5’4”, so that’s a big difference on my small frame.  Finally, I started cycling on the days I wasn’t running.  It was like doubling my training overnight.  I qualified for Boston in six consecutive races.  I also started racking up “wins.”

For five years, qualifying for Boston was almost synonymous with breaking 3:30.  The same year I turned 50, the B.A.A. changed their qualifying standards.  Qualifying for Boston and breaking 3:30 continued to be synonymous even after I turned 50.

I was pursuing various long-term goals that led me to keep running marathons in different states.  Before long, I had qualified for Boston in half of the states.  I set a new goal of qualifying in every state.  I reached that goal in January when I finally qualified in Nevada.  Now I have two obsessions.  I want to beat 3:30 whenever possible, and I want to qualify for Boston whenever possible.

Excluding ultras, I’ve done 194 marathons.  My “win-loss” record is 125-69.  Paavo Nurmi was a “loss” this year.  Maybe 3:39 was a good time under the conditions, but a loss is a loss.  Maybe someday, I’ll be too old to break 3:30.  Maybe someday, I’ll have to reassess what’s a “good” race.  Today is not that day.

In most races, only a small percentage of the runners are competing with each other.  Most of us are competing with ourselves.  We each have to set our own goals, whether it’s finishing, setting a new PR, qualifying for Boston, or having fun.  My goals are no more valid than your goals.  This is where I set the bar, but your mileage may vary.

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