I pitched this piece to a couple of magazines. No bites so it will find a home here.
My local running club, Macon Tracks, has an annual Challenge of the Miles. Set a goal and then log miles every month with prizes for the successful runners at the club dinner in January the following year. For 2018, I set a goal of 1,000 miles and crossed the line late in December to reach my goal. In our society, it’s not enough to have the same goals every year, so despite my narrow victory the year before I set a goal of 1,100. It was a bad idea for two reasons, but I’ll explain that after I say why I upped the number.
By January of 2019, I had signed up for my first half marathon—Snicker Half Marathon in Albany, Georgia—that would take place in late February. This decision was big for me since I had only a few months earlier run my first and second 10K races. Between December and January, I had already logged more than 100 miles in each month. Clearly, I would continue that pace, especially since I had encouraged my oldest son’s girlfriend—and one of my students—to take up running. What better way to engage my running than by encouraging her successes? After a sub-two hour run in the Snickers Half and an exceptional 10K (only my third) the following week, I thought the 1,100-mile goal would be attainable. In late May, I also began the Runner’s World #RWRunStreak, which I maintained for 60 days. The Challenge of the Miles was in the bag, or so I thought.
Most runners experience some kind of wall during a race. Whether it is mental or physical, there is a moment when doubt overtakes the intended pace or expectation of completion. I had learned the year before that I also hit a wall with my runs during the summer. Macon’s blasting heat and humidity overwhelm me, raising my times and my breaking my will. In 2018, I made it through August with some alterations of runs and not worrying about pace. In late September of 2018, my energy level fell to zero. The ten days of 100+ degree temperatures as we headed into that October did not help. I had learned that the heat and exhaustion had taken a toll, but only missing probably four weeks of runs and with some planning in the final three months, I made the 2018 challenge.
This past August played out much differently. Coming off sixty straight days of running (several days per week were one-mile runs), I felt good but tired. I had also competed in my second Peachtree Road Race and bested my first race by more than a minute. Doesn’t sound impressive except I have only been running for two years and the July 4 race this year took place under red flag conditions.
And then a doctor put me on an antibiotic that had an odd side effect. Without any signs of typical dehydration, I went on a mid-day run and noticed I could not finish running up hills and felt terrible. I shook off one of those runs, but they began to add up. I noticed a sense of straining to run up inclines that weeks before I only thought of as flat sections of runs. In fact, I started to see all the places where my body had to work to go up an incline. My mind upended me as much as any physical stress. My pace began to slow at what felt like exponential rates. Sub-10-minute mile training runs—a staple of my training—turned into plus-12-minute mile runs. Even shifting to early morning runs did nothing to change the outcome. By the time I finally figured out I had become dehydrated, I also realized that all my focus on running had detracted from my job and family. For three weeks, I logged no more than three miles per week and one of those weeks involved zero runs.
September was worse. I had begun the year logging 100+ miles per month and nine months later I barely registered twenty-eight. I had failed at the 2019 Challenge of the Miles.
Failure is an interesting concept in American society. Celebrating the successes and hiding our failures, we often frame our lives in relation to the visible outcomes of others. I willingly posted all of my monthly achievements in the 2018 challenge, even when I thought I would miss the 1,000-mile goal. Had I made peace with my failure? Not really since my competitive spirit calculated what I needed to do to make up the lost miles and factored that into my runs in the final two months of 2018. Why had I failed to meet the goal this year? Running in the middle of November with a friend and running coach, Art Remillard, I realized I had not fallen so far that I could not recover. The mental switch flipped, and I began to realize how much success I had this year.
Three years ago, I began a couch-to-5K program designed mostly to help me with a goal to complete the Georgia sections of the Appalachian and Benton MacKaye trails. I had done something similar almost six years ago when I trained to hike with my son and his Scout troop at Philmont Ranch. After completing that 100+ mile hike, I reverted back to a sedentary life. Fifteen years ago, my mother died and my father, who had gone blind, became part of my caregiving responsibilities. He had gone completely blind the year before my mom’s death. Remarkably self-sufficient at the time, his health has deteriorated in the past five years, often because of choices he made thirty years ago—the age I am now.
For me, then, running is no longer about hiking those trails; it is about altering my health later by what I do now.
I spent much of the first two years saying, “I am not a runner.” Over 2,000 logged miles during the past three years, with more than 1,900 of those miles coming in the past two years, I must confess that I am a runner. I had to reorient my notion of success this year. I felt the thrill of meeting the challenge last year, but the challenge doesn’t define my success. It gives me something to aim toward. But the reflection on that goal is the more important lesson for me. In the year of my running failure, I successfully ran PRs in 5K and 10K races, completed my first half marathon, had a sixty-day running streak, and signed up for my first marathon—Snickers Marathon in March 2020. I logged 910 miles, missing the challenge number by a little under 200 miles. It was a big miss. The year, however, has not been as much a running failure as a reorientation toward success. I have learned a great deal about my body—my limits and how much more I can do with my running than I thought—and my frames of reference. While missing the mark, I also ran farther in one day of running than I ever have in fifty-two years on this planet. I failed in some important ways but learned far more than if I had met that Challenge of the Miles.