Lessons From a Marathon Not Run

The author running in the 1992 New York City Marathon.

Thousands of runners who had trained for months didn’t get to run the canceled New York City Marathon this weekend. I feel their pain because four weeks ago I went through similar emotions. All that rigorous training. It felt unfair, a cruel joke. Runners train to run.

My marathon plan began a year ago. After five episodes of atrial fibrillation, I lay on a gurney at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York as medical assistants prepared me for a pulmonary ablation. The procedure went perfectly, and afterward, I felt a renewed desire to return to running, the sport I had fallen in love with as a hyperactive 18-year-old.

Could I stage a marathon comeback? I had run nearly 30 marathons. The last competitive one was 14 years ago. But now I wanted to test my limits again, to run as fast as my present body could carry me. I did everything I could to take chance out of the equation, including starting my training in March and joining the competitive Central Park Track Club.

As the months ticked by and my condition improved, I re-examined all I knew about marathoning. With the patient help of the Central Park coach Tony Ruiz, I discovered an older runner’s version of the training I used to do. Nearly half a lifetime ago, I had run the New York City Marathon in 2:46. Now, older, slower and heavier, I would need to be smarter.

I learned to minimize impact on my joints by running on softer terrain. On long runs, the staple of any marathon training regime, I grew patient with pace.

One can never fully control what will happen during the 26.2 miles of the race, but one can rehearse what energy drinks to take and how often, what to eat before the run and dozens of other such details. By October, I had honed these routines. Running the marathon would be like performing the symphony I had practiced hundreds of times.

Then, four weeks ago, five days before completing my last week of serious training, a soccer ball came rolling toward me. When I kicked it back to the fellow who had lost it, my groin muscle, used to functioning one way, didn’t like the position I had suddenly put it in and rebelled: it promptly flared up, leaving me to hobble off the track as my teammates began their workout. I managed to climb onto a bus and reach an emergency room, where I was pleased to learn I didn’t have a hernia but not so pleased when a doctor told me I had likely torn an adductor muscle.

A week later, an M.R.I. confirmed that I had torn the adductor longus, a long, sensitive muscle that plays a supportive though important role to the tougher adductor magnus. A doctor recommended surgery. As my leg turned black and blue and reddish from the back of my knee to my right buttock, my marathon dreams were crushed. Months of training evaporated in an instant. I wouldn’t be able to show off all my hard work, wouldn’t be able to sweat and wave and rejoice and cry through the city I loved.

As dramas go, this is more pathos than tragedy. One reads about breast cancer survivors going from deadly prognosis one year to the finish line of the marathon the next, and runners from war-torn countries lifting themselves from abject poverty onto the winner’s podium of the world’s major marathons. Then this monstrous Sandy hits and people living just a few miles from me have far, far greater needs than any possible need I have to return to form.

Yet the storm and that soccer ball have kicked me back to running essentials. It has reminded me that running centers and stimulates my life, making me more positive, more capable and willing to do good in the world.

The writer Haruki Murakami writes in his book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”: “Running is both exercise and metaphor.” Perhaps it takes slowing down a moment, even being sidelined, to recognize and grow from the parallels.

Yes, it’s frustrating not reaching my goal, after investing so much time and rising to a high level of fitness. But hadn’t I lost 20 pounds, refound fast-twitch muscles that I dearly missed and learned to de-stress through the patient discipline of months of running? Did I really need the photo op on a public stage to prove what I had achieved?

Coach Tony posted this on Facebook: “Just finished my volunteer shift today, and it was truly an eye-opening experience. People were grabbing, opening and gulping down water like it was the blood of Jesus! And as disturbing as the marathon cancellation was, and it was very disturbing, it pales compared to what I witnessed today.”

Like thousands of others, I was not on the starting line of the New York City Marathon on Sunday. I missed the race because of injury. Most people missed it because of circumstance. Yet we may have learned similar lessons. By starting my training so early, I thought I could eliminate chance, but it is chance that makes running and life most challenging. And I learned that fixating too strongly on a goal is a sure-fire way to eliminate the joy of pursuing it. Life — and always tragedy — trumps running, and that’s the way it should be.

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source: WELL By CHARLES LYONS

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Categories: Runners, Sports

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