At the beginning of November, I ran my 20th full marathon. It may have been my hardest. All marathons are hard, but I have never before really thought I would likely not finish. Even my very first marathon, in 2013, by the time I hit the typically most trying stretch, say mile 18 or 20, I knew I would get to the finish line. Since then, I’ve had a lot of different experiences with my finishing times, energy levels, training variation, spacing between events, attitude toward events, etc.–but I’ve never had a DNF (did not finish), and never really felt like I was having that “can’t go on” experience. Well, this time I certainly did.

I was doing just fine at mile 13.1, halfway. In fact, I was moving at a Boston Qualifying pace at that time. I have finished 4 marathons at about that same average pace, so this was not completely crazy for me. But, by mile 16, I was done. I knew I was headed for my first DNF. At mile 18, I actually started walking toward one of the “rescue” vans, to be driven to the finish area.

As I did so, I ran through a mental checklist of what must be going wrong; why I was stopping:

  • Training–I must not have trained adequately. Well, this is almost always true for me. But, I had trained as much for this event as most I’ve done. So that seemed unlikely.
  • Injury–I must be hurt. Cramps? No. Sprain? Nope. Muscles shredded? Well, yes, but they are still working. I’m simply not injured.
  • Dehydrated? Probably, but no more than usual.
  • Nutrition? Nope. Probably better than usual.
  • Lack of sleep? Another strike–at least as much as many events, and more than some.
  • Elevation? Undoubtedly (start above 7,000 feet), but I have experienced that several times before–including on this same course last year.
  • Went out too fast? For sure. But that just begs the question as to WHY that was too fast.

I finally had to concede that it was truly all in my mind. I had an ATTITUDE injury. So, now I had to make another decision. Did I really want to face myself (and others–never underestimate peer pressure) with the explanation that my first DNF happened for no good reason at all? I just quit because I didn’t want to run anymore?

No. I got back on the course and talked my brain through another admittedly miserable 8.2 miles, to complete the 26.2.

Since the marathon, I have thought about why my mind or attitude gave out on me. Who knows? But I do have some plausible theories. I am not a skilled or natural athlete, but I went from never doing distance anything to running multiple marathons every year, for 7 years now. In the last 12 months, I ran four full marathons and one challenging trail event (Seattle area). I never really backed off training this year. My running heros can do that, and much more. But I think I finally found my limit, and it caught up to me at mile 16. Next time I will try to burn out during training instead of an event.

So, the Mt. Lemmon Marathon was not a great personal performance–one of my slowest times. But, endurance athletics is likely more about training our mind for everyday life than it is about training our bodies for events. I now know, better than before, that I can talk myself into continuing even when most of “me” has demanded that I stop. No doubt, that lesson will come in handy in other aspects of my life. In that respect, this month’s marathon may be my most important marathon so far.

Being a painfully slow learner, I still only took two weeks off before starting training for my next one. I have to run the Mesa/Phoenix on February 8, right?.

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