This is not at all what I wanted to be writing right now, so I'm going to do my best to get this out of the way quickly, without terribly compromising the quality of my writing. (It probably won't turn out to be either, though.) Here goes:
First, if a picture is still worth a thousand words, then this one more or less spares you from having to read the rest of this:
(Yes, it cost $5.00 to get out of the giant parking lot at Monmouth Park after the race.)
The longer version, starting with the acknowledgments and disclaimers: Yes, it is, by many accounts, "stupid" to try to run two marathons in two weeks, even if the first marathon felt like only a moderately difficult training run. Yes, people have the right to charge whatever they want for a marathon, and since people are willing to pay a lot, registration fees keep going up. Yes, there are no guarantees that even on what you think will be your best day, you will actually perform.
All that said, leading up to the Kentucky Derby Marathon last week, and especially after the race, if you had asked me what sort of shape I thought I was in, I would have answered, in all honesty, 2:50 shape. My legs felt exactly the way they did before Boston in 2011, where I went just under 2:50 (which, at the time, I didn't think was even remotely possible). So even though I had run a marathon a week before this one, I felt that, as a "flat, fast course," this was a good opportunity to qualify for Boston. And, with my upcoming ultras, starting with the MMT 100 in two weeks, leading up to Badwater in July, this was just about the only opportunity to qualify for Boston before my legs will be too trashed from running ultras to run a fast marathon. (Remember, that qualifier has to be in by an unspecified time in early September, and it better be good.)
So even though over the past week, my legs felt just a little flat (but by no means wrecked), and I was sick on Friday with some sort of stomach bug, and I spent most of Friday and Saturday getting yelled at by somebody who will remain unspecified, which (to cut short a much longer story) culminated in $84 of tickets, and a $125 tow job (which, as an aside, makes me angrier than just about anything else on this earth, as people in the towing business are the lowest scum on earth), I still drove 4+ hours to Nowhere, New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, so I could pay $155 to register for this bad marathon. At this point, I was feeling like the whole thing was baloney. (The expo was, quite literally, as the only edible samples there were . . . bologna. Seriously.)
Outside of all of that was a lodging mess. People were in, then people were out, and I did finally find a place to stay, but they didn't need to make me the subject of derision (albeit somewhat rightly so) when they found out that I paid $155 to run this marathon to try to qualify for Boston. (As pacers, they were running for free, which is probably about what this race is really worth.)
In spite of all of that, I managed to make it to the 5 a.m. wake-up call, so that we could spend an hour and a half driving what should have been 45 minutes to the start of the race, complicated by the single-point-of-entry parking system. (In truth, we pulled some questionably legal maneuvers that shaved about an hour off of our parking time - otherwise, we would have been scrambling to get to the starting line.)
And in spite of all of that, I managed to be smiling and enthusiastic about a situation that, objectively, was pretty much bullshit. I was the only one in the sparsely populated "A" corral smiling and singing along to "Sweet Caroline," in my discarded women's sweater-shawl (courtesy of anonymous half-marathoners flush with disposable clothing). Everbody else looked nervous, scared, and cold. For me, in spite of a lot of garbage in every other aspect of my life, there was still joy in racing.
And for the first 20 miles of the race, I felt in control. I felt strong. I felt like I was really going to do this. While I wasn't out super-fast (just over 1:30 at the half, and 2:18 at 20 miles), I felt as though it was a controlled effort. The course really was pancake flat, although being near the shore, it was not without the wind-to-the-face, particularly when the course snaked in the direction of the shore, which it did quite often after the half-marathon mark, to add mileage without having to close down any more of New Jersey.
But somewhere between mile 20 and mile 22, the wheels started falling off. Things started hurting, my form faltered, my stride rate slowed, the wind-to-the-face intensified, and by the time I hit the 22 mile mark, the clock said 2:37, and I was broken. I contemplated my options, which included muscling through, maybe salvaging an 8-minute mile pace, and finishing in around . . . 3:10. As if I haven't already failed three times to qualify since October running approximately 3:10 (Baltimore: 3:09:27, NCR: 3:11:something, Rock N Roll USA: 3:07:12). This was painful. I had no gas left in the tank. This was no longer fun.
So I chose instead to reduce the pain level and try to death-march my way to hopefully less than a 3:40, but this random woman would not let me quit. She claimed to be hurting a lot, and was reduced to run-walking (how she got so far ahead of me is beyond me, although there many opportunities to cut the course, not that I'm accusing anybody of anything), but she wasn't hurting so much that she couldn't periodically come up from behind me when she was walking, push me in the back, and tell me to keep moving. She wanted to finish the race with me. I wanted to be anywhere but there. I would run ahead, get tired, start walking, and just hope that she wouldn't come up behind me again. But she always would. And it would start all over again.
As I got closer to the finish, more than enough other people came up behind me as I walked, patted me on the back, and told me to "c'mon, run." What part of "3:05 was ten minutes ago" don't you understand? I thought to myself. At one point, I said some unkind words to one of them out loud, which a couple of clearly non-runner passerbys actually smiled at. It was the first smile that I had seen from anybody all race, which made me feel a little better, until I looked down at my shirt and noticed that my right nipple had bled all over my shirt, probably the worst nipple bleed I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of them. No wonder people were giving me horrified looks all day.
Eventually, like everything else in this life, the race ended, just after the random push-in-the-back woman sprinted past me (she wanted it more). I ran a 3:25:something, but who really cares, the point was that it was over.
For my trouble, I got a huge heavy albatross . . . er, medal, hung over my neck, a bottle of water, a banana, a tiny chocolate chip granola bar, and three pieces of saltwater taffy, each of which were half-stuck to the wax paper wrapper. Pretty lame, New Jersey. As soon as practicable, I sat down on the sidewalk by the ocean, waiting for my ride, and the inevitable post-race shivers (it was windy and 50) to come. I didn't have to wait long for either, as the slowest was pacing 3:30. In the meantime, I put my head on my knees, blocking out the sunlight, and contemplated my lot in life. I drove many hours and spent way too much money on this. There was nipple blood on my shirt and salt on my face and I reeked of A&D ointment. I was a smelly, sloppy failure.
I got out as fast as I could, considering that it was a mile walk to a shuttle bus to the parking area, and now I'm here in Baltimore writing this, after a distinctly unsatisfying round of Taco Bell, the only thing that seemed appetizing when I finally regained my appetite. (I again no longer have an appetite after that.)
So I'm sure that this all comes off as a disorganized pity party. I entirely acknowledge that. But I guess that's the thing about racing. You set goals and make plans and you hope that they work out. And when they do work out, you look really awesome and you feel really great and life is beautiful. And when they don't work out, at best, you're left scratching your head wondering why they went awry, or, worse yet, you're ashamed and humiliated.
Five attempts to qualify for Boston since October 2012. Baltimore, NCR, George Washington Birthday, Rock N Roll USA, New Jersey. Hundreds of dollars in race fees, hundreds of miles of driving, over 16 hours of wasted running. So why keep trying?
Well, I'd like to go back to a sentence that you either skipped or probably already forgot by now. The one where I talked about singing and smiling in the starting corral, not because I'm always a singing, smiling kind of guy, but because of the gratitude that I had for being on the starting line, in spite of a lot of bad stuff, and the opportunity to do something really awesome. Standing there today, I secretly hoped that Boston 2011 wasn't just some sort of wind-aided fluke, and that I had the potential to run 2:50, or even faster.
Today, it didn't work out that way. And at the risk of the terrifying potential that it may never work out that way again, I stubbornly, and perhaps foolishly, choose to believe that with continued hard work, and a little luck, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow . . . it just might. (So go ahead and throw stones.)