Almost four years ago in Victoria, I stumbled into a pub to have my traditional post-marathon pint of Guinness. The summer of 2014 was the last of three summers that were dark, harrowing, painful-growth experiences, and the one thing that had kept me moving through it all was that I had a BQ to run. The narrative was that I was going to go to Victoria, qualify for Boston, and then I would have Boston to look forward to. My previous race had been a 3:46 in Ireland, and I reasoned that if everything went well in Victoria, then I could easily make up for about 11 minutes I needed if there were no crazy winds, slow half-marathoner road blocks, and certainly no waiting several minutes for a Port-O’Potty with a crazy line that hadn’t in fact been stationed every 5K as promised. The probability of being forced to run off and awkwardly pee in front of a judgmental sheep because I literally couldn’t hold anymore would be low in quaint but thoroughly urban Victoria. 3:35 or bust!
It was a bust. Instead, the wheels had come off around mile 16, and I found myself run-walking most of the last ten. Still good enough for 3:42, which was a shiny new PR, but seven minutes short of a BQ. The last ten miles had been rough- I hadn’t been kind to myself, and a few days later the tears and 1000 yard stare had been dutifully documented by the race photographer. I sat down with my pint, ordered some conciliatory poutine and felt sorry for myself.
What transpired next was one of the most influential running conversations I’d ever had. The woman next to me, also drinking a woe-is-me pint, had missed a BQ by less than a minute, and that was after not squeaking in under the cutoff for the 2015 Boston field. You can BQ and NOT get to run Boston?! WHAT. Now I’m really not going to get there ever. We laughed over our shared misfortune, but as she’d already run Boston a few times, she had sage words of advice that I took to heart. Keep trying…You’d be amazed at the progress you can make with a coach…one day everything will come together and it’ll be even better because you’ve worked at it for so long. I came home and moped for a few days, found my resolve, and then put a plan into motion.
Things fell into line in short order. A friend of mine had a coach he’d worked with and he had only glowing, positive things to say about her, so I contacted her and felt like I’d found someone who knew their stuff, would call me out on excuses but also not run me into the ground, and would be supportive through the whole process. Step one accomplished. On to step two, find a race… Nothing is more motivating than a shot at redemption. In 2013, I trained myself into the ground getting ready for the Barcelona Marathon. A week out I started having hip pain so severe I could barely walk, but it was already built into the travel plans. Maybe it’d magically get better and I could run the race without problems? Nope, not the way bursitis works. Instead, I limped around one of my favorite cities in the World, watching everyone the race I had trained so hard for. It’s a flat, fast course, the weather tends to be fantastic, and it would be an excellent reason to go back to Barcelona. It was less than five minutes between when the idea popped into my head and when I registered. Operation BQ BCN was put into motion.
The night before the race has gone down (at least so far) as the last night that I had truly terrible pre-race anxiety. I talked myself out of even starting- within 24 hours of arriving in Barcelona my hip started nagging me again, and it led to a restless night. At about 2AM, I decided at the very least I was toeing the line. I was staying halfway through the course in Gràcies, and I decided I could at least run a half marathon. That decision was enough to help me get a few hours of sleep and get to the starting line, which is when everything really, truly started to lock into place… so well into place that I decided to leave my key with my finish line bag. Maybe I’d BQ, maybe I wouldn’t, but at the very least I was finishing getting the damn Barcelona monkey off my back! I got in the starting corral for the sub 3:30 runners, and in the blink of the eye, we were off to Europe’s the Final Countdown. I knew there might be a few tears along the way, but as an Arrested Development fan, I was starting with a giant smile.
Three hours and thirty minutes later, propelled by Brazilian samba groups, spirited cheering of Som-hi! and Mol bè! I rounded the corner past the Plaça Espanya and saw the giant numbers on the clock counting up- 3:30:01… 3:30:02… 3:30:03… It’d be the second marathon in a row that I finished in tears, but these were happy tears. The journey back to Gràcies involved the unwelcome discovery that metro stations in Barcelona do not have escalators going down to the tracks and many glasses of Cava to help deal with that discovery, but I’d done it.
In the time since, I’ve run Boston twice and even won an ultramarathon, but my first BQ still counts as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a runner. It was that moment, after three rough years, where I allowed myself to start to think of what was possible. Hell, if 26.2 miles could feel that not-terrible (I refuse to call it good. That last 5K was rough and the only thing that kept me going was chasing Oleguer) what about *more* than 26.2 miles? Thus ultramarathoning Jessica was born… and three years later found herself registered for a 100 miler… but that’s another story. None of it would have been possible if I hadn’t slain some demons I’d been carrying around. Many of them were demons I had created myself, but the worst of them had been fed bitter meats by supposedly well-intentioned others. Step one is this process is have the dream and don’t ever give up; step two is surround yourself with good people. The Sports Medicine doctor I saw about shin splints in high school who made the comment that I just “didn’t have the body type to be a competitive distance runner”… to the would-be coach at a party who made the comment of “you’d qualify for Boston no problem if you just lost 5-10 pounds”… for the record, file both of these under ‘THINGS TO NOT SAY TO ANYONE EVER’. I was savvy enough at 18 to not make the follow-up visit with that doctor, but his words rattled around in my brain for years whenever I was having a rough patch in my running life. It took me over a decade to make the jump from half marathons to marathons because I convinced myself that I couldn’t finish. When I finally did finish, I still convinced myself that BQ-ing was out of the question. And yet…
I’m actually glad Boston lowered the qualifying times because it increases the likelihood of when a runner BQ’s, they’re actually get into the race. There’s been a lot of talk (mostly griping) about the new cutoffs, but most of it ignores the fact that this is effectively what the benchmarks have been for years. I had nightmares both times I submitted my registration that I hadn’t squeaked in, to the point that in 2017 I had a back-up race planned. I’m a little bit annoyed that the five minute cushion I thought I was getting is no more, but I was also gunning for a finish well under the 3:40 cutoff, so it really doesn’t change much.
In the sixteen years since I toed the line of my first half marathon, among the biggest lessons I’ve learned is nagging doubts have a way of adding seconds and even minutes to miles. They make it that much harder to get in hill repeats on cold, dark, wet nights, and in those middle miles of a race, when the adrenaline has worn off and things are starting to get real, they can come at you like a flock of Hitchcock birds. You can convince yourself of just about anything, and maybe…just maybe you should use that power for good and build yourself up- convince yourself that you can do it! If you don’t the first time you try, it just means that the story has another chapter and there’s still something you need to learn.
What that woman in the pub said is absolutely correct- when you work towards something for a long time, it is all the sweeter when you’ve finally pulled it off. More than that- I can say that my first Boston was the success it was because of everything I learned in the process of getting there. When the time is right, it’ll happen. Try something new in your training- hire a coach you trust, try new workouts, tweak your diet, start incorporating strength training… hell, make the effort to get a full night’s sleep and be ready to be amazed at the difference it makes.
Keep training, keep fighting, and keep believing.
And as one very wise Irish Gran told me the night before the Connemarathon, “Make sure you have your pint of Guinness!” Whether it helps you sleep or is the reward for finishing a training cycle, or you want your “Guinness for Strength” you’ve earned it.