Monday, September 28, 2009

Start the Bus

It all started with one line. I was in the middle of "Again to Carthage," John Parker's sequel to what many would call running's equivalent to the Gospel, "Once a Runner." I settled into bed, legs stiff and achy from an interval workout, and read the following exchange between Quentin Cassidy and his coach Bruce Denton:

Still. It's just the best of times.
"Bruce," Cassidy said, muffled in the sand.
"What are you pondering?"
"I was thinking how nobody realizes how much there is to this part of it."
"What part of it?"
"Training. Hanging around. Travel someplace to race, someplace to train. More hanging around. Eating stuff, get a degree. Hang around some more."
"That's the life all right."
"What I mean is that someone sees a race, and they think that's what you do. They sort of know you had to train, but they weren't watching then, so they don't understand how incredibly much of it there is. But to us, it's almost the whole thing. Racing is just this little tiny ritual we go through after everything else has been done. It's a hood ornament."
Cassidy went silent for a time and Denton assumed he had gone to sleep.
"Bruce," Cassidy said.
"You told me once not to worry, that things would work out."
Cassidy turned his head, opened one eye.
"It's okay, Bruce."
"You don't have to worry about this on my account. I don't have anything to prove."
"I just want to make it on the bus one more time."
Cassidy hopped on the bus to qualify for the Olympic Marathon trials. My goals looked a tad more modest, say, finishing the 2008 National Half Marathon in under 1:40 (which I did). But since that race, I started talking to my Uncle, who used to coach track, and my dad, who ran at the University of Florida, and we started carving down some of those times that summer with a series of weekly interval workouts (I tapped into more than 30 years of track knowledge, which meant quad burning intervals and lung stinging tempo runs). The next thing I knew, I cruised to sub-20 minute 5Ks. Thanks to a little McMillan Running tool called the "Running Calculator," it told me I should be able to run a 3:09 marathon, i.e. a Boston Qualifying time. God bless the internet.

14 months, more than 1,000 miles, two pairs of asics, a stack of cover-to-cover worn Runner's Worlds, and a couple of empty Biofreeze tubes later, I crossed the finish line at the Vermont Marathon in 3:08:41, officially on the bus to Boston 2010.

When I line up at the start for each race, particularly the ones of the ten-miler, half- and full-marathon variety, I like to take a moment and look around at my fellow runners and take in the nervous chatter, the last minute stretching, and final equipment adjustments (gotta get that number and those shoelaces just right), and think about what they have gone through to get to that point. Were there injuries? Running in the snow, the rain, the broiling summer heat? Days where you couldn't get out of bed and days you felt you could run forever. Are they running for someone watching on the sidelines, or watching from beyond?

The point is, we have all come to that line for different reasons, from different places, and with different goals in mind. But the common thread (pardon the pun), running through all of us is we have made it to the starting line. Is my story any different? Maybe in some respects but I'm sure other runners reading this will be able to find some commonalities and relate to my stories (we've all ground out workouts, felt the guilt of missing runs, and the elation of clicking the stopwatch and seeing a new PR). But maybe you haven't seen the canons lining the top of Matthew's Hill at Manassas Battlefield and tried to feel the fear and the rush of northern soldiers running for their lives across that field, or the way the leaves look around Burke Lake when autumn is just about to disappear, or running with your dad for the first time in more than a decade to hear the stories he built over the years, spending an hour on the phone with your uncle who wants every last detail of the race you pounded out so he can tweak the training program, or what it's like to have your wife riding along side of you shivering on a bike and carrying a backpack of water for you, or to hear your mom already wanting to book tickets to Boston...11 months out from the race.

Whatever your reason, and whatever your purpose, I hope you'll come along on my journey to Boston and wherever else this bus takes me.


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