2016 has been HARD. With a Paralympics in September most of us marathoners lost our little bastion of downtime in the summer (typically between the middle of July and the middle of August). Weariness was not an option after the games, as the Berlin Marathon was a week after Closing Ceremonies, and if even if you skipped that one, as most did, the Chicago Marathon was a mere two weeks later. By the time New York rolled around in November, we had been training and racing hard since the beginning of January. Fatigue had laid the foundation for a home on my shoulders, and looking around at my competitors, I could tell the neighborhood encompassed us all.
"Yeah, I'm fit, I'm ready for Sunday (race day), but I am so excited for this year to be over," was the common response when I asked my friends how they were before the New York City Marathon.
Despite the pervasive daydream of napping on a beach, sun bathing my skin as waves lap the shore, the Chicago and New York City marathons offered me a chance to redeem a year that had gotten a little off track in Rio.
Athletically speaking, Rio was a disaster. After struggling and striving for 9 months to leave behind injury and illness I thought I had succeeded. I was strong, fit, and mentally fresh heading into games, yet underperformed and battled with yet another illness. Historically, this would have sent me into a tailspin. If I had had a medal free games in Beijing, for example, my careeer may have ended shortly after. I'm ok with losing, but I'm miserable at underperforming. Nothing has the potential to frustrate me more than putting up a performance that I don't feel reflects my ability level. If I had had a medal free games in Beijing, my careeer may have ended shortly after.
In my post-Rio blog I discussed not letting the ripple of one bad performance turn into a wave of disappointing races. Admittedly, at the time it was written, those were just words. I planned on following them, but we all know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Those have been hard words for me to follow in the past.
I'm happy to note that I have evolved as an athlete and as a human. I was able to follow my own advice, and it speaks to the strength of the idea of Maximizing your Potential (#notjustahashtag #actuallyaphilosophyitrytoabideby).
One of the most important tenets in my personal journey to maximizing my potential (more on this in future blogs) is "recognizing, and learning to love, the process." What would have sunk me beneath a wave of negative thoughts and bad performances in the past was the fact that I held each race as a singular and momentous point in my career. Races were important! If I did well it meant I was fast and doing everything right in my life. If I did poorly, on the other hand, my raison d'etre would be sapped from my body by some back-alley hack surgeon, leaving me a withered, infected, worthless husk of a human. Dramatic, i know. Each race was viewed in isolation, and the results were only important in isolation. There was no process. There were no incremental gains, no thoughts wasted on positives to be gained from one race that could help me succeed in the next. Only success or failure.
Now, however, I've finally come to love the process, complete with its ups and downs. After I bombed my 800m in Rio I sulkily pushed laps around the warm-up track outside the stadium until the lights were off and one of my coaches told me if I didn't leave I wouldn't have a bus back to the village, but when I left Rio I also left behind those feelings. I reminded myself of the process. Maximizing my potential, realizing just how fast I can be, was never a journey that ended in Rio. That was merely a checkpoint to see how much progress I had made. Winning or losing in Rio had nothing to do with becoming a faster and more complete racer. I was still in the process of improving, and the upcoming Chicago Marathon gave me another opportunity to reap the rewards of the work I had been putting in this year.
My attitude still hadn't changed the morning of the Chicago Marathon. I was in my fourth week straight of antibiotics and not yet feeling 100%, but I woke up race morning upbeat and ready to go. "What have you got today?" I asked myself. "How can I maximize my potential in this race?" YES. I literally asked myself this question while I was warming up, and I even wore my wristband that says "maximize your potential" (this is one of the (numerous) reasons my girlfriend tells me i'm not cool). I reminded myself of the process and the fact that Rio was not representative of the work I had been putting in. Here was a chance to push myself further.
At the end of the day, it worked.
Chicago can be a forgiving course and I took advantage of it. It is flat and fast, promoting packs of racers to stay together. I wedged myself in the lead pack and managed to stay out of the wind and out of the lead for much of the race. During the occasional surges by Swiss robot, er, wheelchair racing phenom, Marcel Hug, I was one of the strongest in reeling him back in. Most importantly, I managed to stay calm and not overthink my situation when we approached the final sprint to the finish, en masse, and I wasn't feeling how a 100% healthy version of me should have felt. Staying calm allowed me to muscle up and over the final bridge without letting pain lead to self-doubt and, invariably, a reduction in speed. I swung around the final corner of the race in third place and managed to close slightly on the top two, Marcel and Kurt Fearnley, before hitting the line.
It may have been a month after the games, but I hit the podium, losing only to the gold and silver medal winners from Rio, while beating much of the same crowd that was in the Paralympic race. Potential was maximized on the day, and my trust and love of the process was intact and validated.
The New York City Marathon was my chance to prove that my resolve to not be a headcase could last longer than just one race. The task turned out to be an easy one.
NewYork has always been one of my favorite races of the year. It gained this status because it is the one race a year that I am guaranteed to have a lot of my family come to, but it retained that status as I have become better and better at pushing my body through the grind of the course. As I've noted in previous blogs, this is easily the toughest course of the season.
This year, however, I almost reveled in the opportunity to tax my body to the fullest. For the first time all year I entered a race 100% healthy. The fatigue of the year may have laid roots on my shoulders, but I was ready to finally see what all the hard work I had done in trainig would look like when I was healthy.
I road that opportunity to another third place finish (again to Marcel and Kurt... guess who i'm motivated to beat most next year?). The race was hard fought, but uneventful on my end. I climbed well on the Verrazano Bridge to start the day, cresting in Marcel's draft, not far behind Kurt, but Marcel coasted away from me down the backside of the bridge. While he coasted away from me and up to Kurt, I hit the bridge alone and began the arduous tasks of trying to catch the top two, and avoid being caught by anyone else.
It was a tough and lonely day. While Kurt and Marcel were almost always within sight, teasing me as they got to work together to get through the stiff wind, the gap slowly grew as the race progressed. I ended up finishing three minutes behind the leaders. It was the hardest I've ever had to work for third, but I was happy to note that the two fastest marathoners of 2016 gapped me by less than a mile over 24.
That night, with champagne glasses raised high, Kurt, Marcel, and myself, along with our friends and family, toasted the end of the season and our surrender to weariness. Though even as we chatted about upcoming vacations and sun-drenched beaches, a small voice in my head wouldn't stop pestering me about next year. I guess I've learned to love the process.