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.