I did not intend to run a full marathon, in Tempe, in early October. No one in their right mind would do that in Arizona, because it is still too hot. But, I just did exactly that–a full marathon, early October, in Tempe. And the experience taught me again of the power of a support network when trying to accomplish any difficult goal.
I am a native Arizonan, and have lived here most of my life. I know that October is still hot–especially by marathon standards. But, on October 9, 2021, I ran the Virtual Boston Marathon, but on a course in Tempe and Scottsdale (virtuals can be done at any location–that’s the point). It was hot, hard and slow. And, of my now 21 marathons, it was my clearest experience with training and running that I simply would not have done without my crazy friends in the East Valley Runners Club. My own will power, even habits, would not have been enough to get me through this one–but my active social group was.
I have learned a lot, and written a little, about the constant battle between our awareness that we should be exercising more and the difficulty actually doing it. Even the ubiquitous (and well-supported) recommendation that we get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week is met by less than a fourth of us. We tell ourselves we just need to be more “disciplined,” but science is helping us understand that we probably do not have enough of willpower to cover all the places we need it, especially since our ancestral wiring is signaling that we should continue to eat a lot, and move only when either chasing food (walking or running) or being chased as food (definitely running).
Of the “discipline” enhancing hacks, ways to make hard changes stick besides just willpower, bringing in other people on or effort is likely the best. This can be in the form of a coach, an exercise partner, a club, a team, a social group, or an online community. Even after years of running and otherwise exercising, I completely cashed in on this kind of support to stay active through this recent hot, humid, long, sticky, miserable, unbearable, summer in Phoenix Metro (I’ll apologize to our Chamber of Commerce in November)–to train for the Virtual Boston Marathon.
The 125th Boston Marathon was held on October 11, 2021. There are many great marathons out there, and the fastest marathon records are not at Boston. But, it is still the most coveted marathon event among amateur runners, because you have to be a pretty damned fast amateur to even get to run it. Most marathons have no such requirement. For example, I technically have a Boston qualifying time that still didn’t get me in, because of the number of qualified applicants ahead of me that year. I still don’t like to admit I’ve never (yet) qualified to run Boston.
This year the Boston organizers decided to let some others in on the fun of the Boston Marathon, without qualifying or going back to Boston. Due to Covid-19, the 2020 Boston Marathon became the first one in their entire 125 year history to be cancelled. This year the Marathon was back (still with a more limited number of live runners), but they added another “first” in their history–a Virtual Boston option. Running events were among many events that were shut down completely as the world dealt with Covid-19. As race organizers across the world tried to figure out how to stay relevant, and runners tried to find ways to be motivated, “virtual” races started to pop up all over. These events allowed a runner to participate in an official race, but usually on their own (or with their group), on a course of their own creation, and at a location of their own choosing. Once the runner confirmed completion of the distance and their time, the organizers would register it as another race for that runner, and send out the corresponding “bling” (What we put ourselves through for a medal and a t-shirt!). So, the Boston organizers decided to add that as an option this year.
The virtual option was very different from the live one–no qualifying time, no time cutoff for completion (one consecutive effort was required–no dividing it up), a half marathon option, do it wherever, and do it any time the Friday (October 8), Saturday, or Sunday before the live event on Monday. Again, that it be in one consecutive effort, and the full distance, were still expected. So, to register, you needed a pulse and the registration fee. About 28,000 runners took them up on the offer–including me.
That decision doesn’t look all that odd, unless you are in Arizona. In Arizona, it is demonstrably a bad idea. The typical training program for a marathon is about 4 months of several runs every week, some long, and almost always a long run on the weekend. That means the training for an October marathon takes place in June, July, August, and September. If you are familiar with hell and miss it, just come to Arizona for those months. And, if you ever want to know what it would be like to run in hell, again, just train in Arizona over the summer.
So, how did I make such a mistake? Three unforgivable, but human, reasons. First, the announcement that there would be a virtual Boston option was made in January, and registration opened in March. If you are familiar with heaven and miss it, just come to Arizona January through March. So, mistake number one was based on forgetting that winter and summer in Arizona are very different.
Mistake number two was that many of my running friends were registering–peer pressure. And, as is usually true with peer pressure, I had visions of huge numbers of my friends doing it, and my being the only one who didn’t. Oh, and one of my running friends who wanted to do it is also my wife. As I will get to later, our local numbers turned out to be much lower–but enough to help us all get through.
Mistake number three was that, since this was a virtual event, and we could hold it anywhere (San Diego, the North Pole, anywhere cooler) I was sure we were NOT going to do it in Phoenix Metro, because we all know that Arizona is still hot in early October. I was so looking forward to a trip to San Diego (or the North Pole) for the marathon. Wrong again. We ended up doing a course one of our friends mapped out on Tempe Town Lake and into Scottsdale. It was actually a reasonable course, if we had had the ability to adjust the thermostat.
In spite of these questionable decisions, once I was registered, I wanted my damned medal and t-shirt. I also wanted a reason to stay active through the summer–the true purpose for registering in the first place. This is where the friends come in handy. Those of us who had registered for this, and for some other events happening in the early fall, were collectively out there, scheduling our training runs, asking who would be there, checking in on those who missed, and running together–through all those hot and humid summer months. And we did it! We ran together and got ready for the event.
Ah, yes. The event itself. Sometimes you get lucky here in October on the temperature. There are days where a cool front comes through, and the temperature drops from lows in the 70s to lows in the 60s. This would be a life-saving change for our virtual marathon, because, without such a drop, we would be starting, even in the early hours, at a temperature in the mid 70s, and finishing a few hours later in the mid 80s. This would be challenging. But, with a temperature drop, those temperatures would be low 60s and top out in the mid 70s. For distance runners, that temperature shift is much bigger than it sounds. And that temperature drop happened! The day AFTER our marathon. I’m not making this up. Check the weather sites. So, our marathon was a hot one.
Again, here come “people” to the rescue. Even having trained, when I saw the conditions in which we would be running, I was ready to consider my registration fee a donation to the Boston Athletic Association and skip the run. But, I had a dozen or so crazy friends (including my wife) still planning to do either the full or the half, on Saturday morning, starting at 4:00 or 4:30 am. We even had some volunteers doing a couple aid stations on the course–nearly as many people as were running. During the marathon itself, another magical experience happened. During most standard marathons, everyone is pretty concentrated on pushing their own pace, and focusing on getting the best result they can. There are some brief interactions with other runners, but not sustained, and conversations are generally short. But, for this one, there seemed to emerge an unspoken agreement among a handful of us to truly run it together. We ran, but also talked, laughed, shared stories, and looked out for each other. But, there were other runners from our club who were not with that core group. When my group had started our second half loop, we were coming toward some runners who were “behind” us, still heading to the turnaround. We saw one of them sitting on a large electric box on the side of the path, who was clearly struggling. We all stopped to assist. My scoutmaster experience teaching first aid kicked in, and I could see (you guessed it anyway) the heat exhaustion symptoms were all present. The runner was starting to pass out. We laid her down on the box, and lifted her legs up to be above her head and, when she was coherent enough again, got her some water. As she recovered, she became immediately concerned about everyone losing time on her behalf, and tried to send us on our way. We convinced her that someone had to help get her back to the launching area (which was still probably a couple miles–no way to get a car to where we were). I volunteered to be that assistant for two main reasons. First, I didn’t really care if I finished. Second, the struggling runner was my wife (she is totally fine now!).
When we got back to the support station, we were at mile 16 of the marathon. I, of course, assumed I was done as well, and planned to just drive my wife home. It was hot (mid 80s by then), I still had 10 miles to go, my group was miles ahead of me. Some of the other runners had also stopped, and would also not finish the marathon. And, if I continued, I’d be running alone. This wasn’t even a regular marathon. But, my wife was having none of that. I was encouraged to continue, and I could tell she was going to feel responsible for my first-ever DNF (did not finish) if I didn’t go back out. So I did. I eventually managed to hook up with most of my group. And I finished the 26.2 miles to accomplish the Virtual Boston Marathon.
Will power vs. support group? There is no way that I would have finished this one without the positive peer pressure to train, the company during the run, and the encouragement to go back out after the “first aid” incident. My own self-discipline would have fallen short. But, because of the many other people involved in my running activity, instead of a DNF, I’ve completed my 21st full marathon! It was a great reminder to me that succeeding in any significant challenge is more likely (and more fun) with support from other people.