September 23, 2020

Marathon#6: A Chasing After the Wind

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun, all of them are misty, a chasing after the wind.

(Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Windy. It was going to be windy. The forecast ten days out from Marathon#6, with me in the form of my life going into it, and it was going to be windy.

I checked the Bureau of Meteorology site every couple of hours. Not sure why. Maybe I thought it was going to change. Maybe I have OCD. Go figure. But ten days out, the forecast for the southwest town of Busselton where my sub-3 marathon was going to happen (had to happen/might happen/surely it couldn’t not happen, could it?), and the weather was not going to be kind.

Still, anything can happen in tens days, right? I mean you can get a whole new Supreme Court Judge elected in that time, so surely the weather would shift. The day after the race was forecast to be calm and cloudy, perfect conditions for a sub 3. The weather is never that predictable, even in Perth, where summer goes on for five months and every day is ridiculously warm and clear. But spring? That’s a tricky one. Is it winter? Is it summer? Who knows?

Well perhaps Nyoongar Australians know, as before the arrival of Europeans six seasons – not four – ruled the roost down under in our part of Australia. The season we’re in now – the season my race was in – is Djilba, which looks a little like this:

I mean does that look like windy and cloudy to you? Sure does. And as the days got closer to the race and the weather for race day looked pretty much the same (perhaps even a bit worse?) I gotta say I fretted a little. It all felt so… well, so misty!

Misty. That’s the word in that verse from Ecclesiastes I quoted above. It’s often translated “vanity” or “meaningless”, but the wisdom writer isn’t saying that life is either of those two things. In fact as you read the book there are many good God-given things in life. Don’t despise them!

But don’t depend on them either. The writer is saying that the permanency of life, and the goals we set ourselves in life are like mist. Things are are there and then they are not. They are gone, just like that.

It’s just like that early morning mist where I go for my interval trainings on the river-side path. It’s there at the start of my session. Gone when I finish it, when the only mist left is the steam rising off the top of my bald head. And I wondered if my three hours might become misty if the wind played havoc with the race day.

So three days out. Windy weather predicted. Two days out. Windy. It was windy packing the car for trip to Busselton. Windy driving to Busselton. Windy going out for a pre-race dinner of pasta. Windy going to bed. Waking up at 2am on race day after a stress dream. Not windy! Woohoo! Going back to sleep and getting up at six. Windy! Darn!

Getting my race face on

I drove to the start line, one eye on the road and one eye on the trees bending in an increasing southwesterly. The race would be along the beach front, so not a lot of protection there. I had a bunch of friends and Strava buddies running this one, with at least one I knew aiming sub three. So we were going to run as a pack and help each other pace and shield from the elements. We could still do this.

The course was a four lap loop of 10.5-something kms, with a few diversions along the way. The wind would generally be tailwind (good) going out, and headwind (bad) coming back. Our aim was to go out steady with the wind, perhaps a few seconds faster than goal pace, then try to limit the damage coming back in. If we could do that for three loops, we were still on for sub three, even if the last lap would be a physical and mental battle, as it often is after 32km of a marathon.

Rather than clock-watch the actual time, or go according to single laps, my coach Simon told me to set my Garmin to record nine 5km interval splits. That’s 45km, so I would only use part of the last one (unless I took a wrong turn somewhere). I figured 20:50 per 5km – 4:10 per km – and even if one of the 5km splits was above that time, Simon reasoned that my mind would reset for the next interval, and I could relax into it.

And that’s pretty much how it went. For well into the 30km territory at least. We went out as a pack, and kept to just under 4:10 per km going out, and limited the damage into what was a gusty, but not nasty (yet) southwesterly on the way back in. Lap one completed. We finished the first two laps (the half marathon distance) in good shape, we’d kept with each other, and our headwind kilometres were only three to five seconds above our tailwind ones. So far so good.

And then the wind picked up.

Now there’s something great about the middle section of a marathon. If you’ve trained well and you’ve done your race-pacing runs, then you should be breathing evenly, running smoothly, and have a moderate heart rate at the 27-30 km distance.

And so it proved. I felt like I’d put in all the training I needed. I’d even PB-ed my half marathon distance a month or so before, and was running a marathon pace much faster than I used to run a ten km pace back in the early days of running. All my PBs have come in 2020 (hey, how was your 2020?), and I only needed to go ten seconds in total faster in this marathon compared to the last one to break the magical three hour mark.

That was a great feeling. Indeed I remember thinking it as we got into the heart of the race. But even at that point, going out for the third loop I was super conscious that the hard effort into the wind would mean making up for lost time was dangerous.

A few of my kilometres in that lap were down in the low 4 minutes as the wind gusted at our backs. But use up too much energy and you’ll pay for it on the turn home. Our third turn into the wind proved harder, with the gusts pushing into our faces, and us trying to shield each other. Some splits dropped into the 4:20s, and that meant we were losing our margin for error.

We turned for the fourth lap as the wind really picked up, around 55km per hour and gusting up to near 80km per hour at times. And at your back, that’s not even that helpful because it’s pushing you and then dropping off, pushing you then dropping off. You have to steady yourself and stay in rhythm.

By this stage my running buddies were dropping off a bit too. The wind wolf sensed it. We were now strung out, isolated and vulnerable to its fangs. I kept within a couple of seconds of my pace for the outward run, and knew that if I could nail a few slowish, but not too slow kms at the end I would go close to my goal.

That didn’t happen. I turned at the final loop and was hit in the face with a teeth-gritting blast that refused to go away the whole way back in. In fact it seemed to pick up, (or was that just because I only had six kms to go?).

Everyone, either passing me or being passed by me was running like a slo-mo scene from the Matrix, bending into it slowly (honourable mention – and exception – to the young second-female finisher who blasted out the last two kms and beat me by 50 seconds with a blistering final run-in).

I only looked at the actual time on my watch with one km to go. 2:58. Not even Eliud Kipchoge has a two minute km in him. I knew it was a great race, in fact the best marathon I’d run despite not being a PB. But that wind had whipped away the sub three from me, and all right at the end. All of my km splits up to 37km show me on track, and after that it was a sheer grind.

And as I headed up the path, past the crowds sheltered behind the glass alfresco at the cafe, it all felt a bit misty. It was right there in my hands up until the last interval split on my watch, but it just fell away from me and I came up grasping air. Misty indeed. Where did it go?

I pulled up over the line and hands went to knees, exhausted, happy enough, but knowing on another day in calmer conditions, that was the elusive sub 3.

I sat there, shivering as the wind took the heat from me in record time, exhausted, watching my race buddies and other friends file in and do pretty much the same. Tony, another great coach and runner who coaches several friends, had run 2:50, though he was in 2:42 shape. He consoled and congratulated at the same time. Running can be like that. There’s something misty about it. Something chasing after the wind about it. Yet I love it nonetheless

The writer of Ecclesiastes loves life too. He had the opportunity to suck the marrow out of life as a leader of a nation. As a lover of pleasure and women. As one looking at the finer things of life and enjoying them. He plunged into it all and saw that God had given humans many enjoyable pursuits.

But his take-away after all that? It’s misty. These things appear, we enjoy them, but they can disappear just as quickly. Like wealth. Like love. Like health. Like a sub-three marathon. All can become a chasing after the wind and can leave us breathless with vain effort if we let them.

The writer of Ecclesiastes wants us to enjoy these good things, but not to enjoy them “too much”. In other words, they cannot be the things that we put all of our hopes and meaning into. Our hope has to be in Someone who is eternal, not something that is ephemeral. Someone immoveable, not something misty.

All the training in the world won’t guarantee the desired result. All of the wisdom and wealth in the world to build an empire won’t guarantee the person you hand it on to won’t squander it. It’s good, but it’s misty. And therefore, ultimately, it’s a chasing after the wind.

And to be honest, knowing that truth is what makes running so much fun to me. Even chasing after a PB in the wind. If my hope were in running, if my efforts and results were where I found meaning, it would indeed be frustrating. It would not be fun. It would hateful. Just ask Andre Agassi about tennis. Better still, read his book Open.

If the misty things of life were all I had I would be anxious all of the time, and goodness knows I get anxious enough as it is. I would be ruled by the black and white numbers. I would be fretful about the weather. Agonising over injuries, or failure to meet targets. Running, like so many things, is a great servant and a terrible master. Better to treat it as enjoyable but misty, as my oft injured coach Simon does. That will keep you sane.

Oh, the final irony, that the writer to Ecclesiastes would love? I woke up next morning to pack up and go home. It was cloudy, calm, and breathless. The ocean on our doorstep was like a millpond. The native peppermint trees gave off the sweet aroma of fresh showers of rain and the memory of a gale. The blowy weather had proven to be as misty as my sub three, and we drove back home to Perth to increasing sunshine.

Result? 3:02:53. Misty by that much.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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