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THE "I" IN TEAM
My first 26.2 was the Philadelphia Marathon in 2010. At the time, I had only run one half-marathon and had no interest in running any longer, much less twice that distance. “Why would anyone want to do that to themselves?”
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Coach Plummer has guided both sprinters and distance runners in their training. He runs competitively for the Central Park Track Club and trains year-round for road races, indoor and outdoor track, and cross-country. He is also a USA Track and Field Level 1 certified coach.
I asked my marathoner friend whose race stories were colorful and deep enough to leave me secretly intrigued. Towards the end of the half-marathon I ran, I was at my physical bottom: the tank was empty and yet the machine governing my body still pushed me forward. As painful as that was, the experience stayed with me and left me yearning for more. Then one day I received a text message from Jason, a friend with whom I had run all my races: JUST REGISTERED FOR PHILLY FULL. My eyes widened as I looked at my phone. I knew what it meant; I couldn’t let Jason tackle his first marathon alone. I dutifully opened my laptop and registered, replying 20 minutes later with: I’M IN!
Jason and I trained together over the next few months. During the week we mostly did our own thing, but on Sundays we always did our long run together. Each one was a new record long: 16, 18, 20. We had no idea what a fartlek run was but, going on instinct, we threw a few bursts of speed into our runs to mix up the pace. Afterwards we would stretch and limp over to Jason’s apartment to watch football and feast on pulled pork and cornbread. We both stayed healthy and uninjured, which is 90% of marathon training, and in early November we scored bleacher seats to watch the finish of the NYC Marathon up close. Shalane Flanagan dropped to her knees after finishing third in her marathon debut. Jason and I felt pumped. In just a couple of weeks that would be us! Not exactly finishing third, of course, but finishing, arms lifted in exultation, the mighty marathon conquered at last. We set out two goals: finish the race, and break 3:45. We made a pact to stick together throughout the whole race, no matter what.
On race day morning, after our usual morning routine, we scurried to the start line and saw the great Bart Yasso with a megaphone, waving and smiling to the huge crowd of runners hopping up and down to stay warm. This was it! The day had finally come! The horn went off for our wave and Jason, who had a GPS watch and always kept track of our time and distance, forgot to push the button. This threw us for a loop, but we stayed positive and ran by feel. We shared the first 13.1 miles with the half-marathoners that day. We toured downtown Philadelphia, with swarms of people on both sides of the road, cheering us on by our first names, which were printed in big letters on our bibs.
After the halfway mark things changed. We lost the half marathon pack and faced a long road that held no promise of cheers. I could tell Jason was struggling. I slowed my pace to his, but he finally grunted, “I just don’t have it today.” I countered with, “But today is the day. You gotta push through! It’s supposed to hurt; that’s the point.” He shuffled on until the 22 mile mark and finally stopped. We slowed down and I panicked at what to do. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ve gotta walk this out. Don’t wait for me. We’ve trained so hard for this. Go get 3:45.”
I was torn. Finally, I nodded and said I’d see him at the finish line. I picked up my pace. I felt strong. “Only 4 miles to go!” I thought. Then, just a few minutes later, something strange happened. I felt horribly guilty. I imagined Jason stranded by himself, doubled over in pain, without his training partner. I had broken the pact. We were supposed to stick together, no matter what. I hesitated, slowed my pace, and almost turned around, but something told me to march on. The finish line was in front of me, not behind me. This was a race after all, not a long run in the park. Just then I heard “Yeah, Herbert!” from a young girl and I saw an entire row of cheerleaders with their hands out, each one giving me a high-five as I ran past them. They gave me the burst of motivation I needed to hold strong to the end. I crossed the line at 3 hours and 44 minutes.
I learned a lot of lessons that day. It’s not easy to train with someone and then realize during a race that you might be at different fitness levels. What happens then? Are you still training partners, or are you opponents? Do you stick together no matter what, or allow one another to experience the full fruition of training? The fact was, I felt great that day and Jason didn’t. It could have been for any number of reasons. He didn’t want to hold me back, and what he did was truly admirable and humbling. That day, thanks to Jason, I transitioned from a hobby jogger to a competitor.
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