Monday, June 17, 2013

8 seconds.

in 1989, greg lemond was pedaling for his life in the penultimate stage of the tour de france, and he was doing it alone.

lemond entered the last stage of the race, an individual time trial between himself, his will, and the clock, with a 50-second deficit to french leader laurent fignon. wearing a funny helmet, resting his elbows on funny padded handlebar extensions, and tucked into a downhill skiing position, lemond insisted on no time checks, and no data on his bike. he just needed to pedal. fignon, for his challenge, went bare-skulled, with only his spectacles and scraggly blond ponytail to challenge the wind. riding a classic bike with frequent updates on lemond's pacing progress, fignon pitched himself through downtown paris in pursuit of the diminutive american challenger.

lemond put 58 seconds on fignon to win the tour by the narrowest margin in history, by riding the second-fastest time trial in tour history. lemond rode 54.55 km/h to win by 8 seconds.


at the 39k mark, the original 3:05 pace bunny and group caught up to me. i knew i was flagging and faltering, but i didn't realize by how much until i tried to latch on. it felt like the group was flying. nevertheless, i saw the possibility of losing every goal of the day as those feet churned past, so i did what any self-respecting cyclist about to get dropped would do: i tucked in. there wasn't much wind to tuck out of, but i tucked in nevertheless, adding myself to the (very reduced) count of white bald guys chasing a 3:05 marathon time. we must all be about the same age. we must all be chasing boston. please god let this man with the sign and the bunny ears get us there. please. please...

at the last water station, a measly kilometer from the finish, the group somehow slipped past, and i lost touch, gatorade cup in hand, dream splashing to the pavement. and i looked up. and i squinted to find a big red finish arch. and there was nothing. there was only a heat-bedazzled stretch of pavement, runners going forward, and runners coming onward, and it was endless.

there was no finish line!


that morning, i knew i was ready. i didn't know what i was ready for, if it was just to complete this crazy distance, or to go under 3 hours, something achievable by only 1% of runners in the world, or to at least make boston qualifying: 3:05:00. my girls wished me well. i had friends at the start. it wasn't raining. the portapotties were endless. it was going to be a good day.

i lost justin and the pace bunny by 4k.

i was on a good day, and i was going to make the most of it. i was flying. i had to tone it down, get it back up to 4 minute kilometers. i didn't want to burn out. but it was fine. it was almost easy. at the halfway timing mat, i was slightly behind schedule but certainly in good form to bring it in for any of my goals. the body was starting to pipe up, letting me know what was working, and how much longer it could do it. we were on the cusp now. there was oxygen and carbon and sweat and fascia and tendon and system. there was pump. and flow. and the clock was ticking.


i got closer to the horizon, searching wildly for some saving grace, some completion, some end. i saw the girls. we waved. i must be close. but i still could not see that damn line! and then there were runners coming at me, and we were turning, and we were back in another corral and THERE WAS THE LINE! except, it was so far away, and there were so many other people semi-rushing toward it, and i needed to step on that last timing mat, get my seconds, be done with so many months and miles.

and then it was done.

and as soon as it was, i wondered if i should have, could have, gone harder. maybe i could have pushed just a little bit more in those last few kilometers. maybe i could have hurt more, driven something past its comfort zone. and then my legs locked up and alternated between collapsing and locking, and i lost the ability to steer my body. stumbling into and through the throng of finishers toward the medals and gatorade table (the one salvation of the finish), i knew that i had done it, and there was nothing left. i was done. there was no room to go harder.


i couldn't find the girls. we hadn't made a plan. there were no huge alpha signs designating a 'find your family with last name _______ HERE' area. there were just hundreds and thousands of faces, some weighed down with oversized medals or plain bagels or the 25th half cup of too-strong gatorade. there wasn't even any chocolate milk. all of a sudden, i got really sad. i had run so far, for so long, and all i wanted to do was be with my family, and i couldn't find them. i had semi-collapsed into a sitting position on a grassy knoll near the 1k to go mark, so i butt-scooted to the nearest tree and hauled myself to standing. walking backwards down the ridiculously small decline, i started shuffling back to the finish area. after many trips into and out of the fencing marked 'athletes only', i finally found some small plastic signs listing a few alpha ranges. and there were the girls. and then i was done.


8 seconds is a staggering margin. in my debut marathon, after months of preparation and intervals and long runs and even following a training plan for the most part, i missed the boston qualifying time by 8 seconds. it is small, so small that most people ask, 'are you SURE?' when i tell them, and others offer to help with an appeal letter. yes, i am sure. no, there is no need to appeal. i will just have to run another marathon. and i'll have to run it faster.