Training for Life

Have you ever trained for a marathon? I have not (and probably never will). My body starts to hurt around mile 3 and that’s that.

My husband is a marathoner, though, so I have an up-close window into the sport and I’ve learned some important things about life through the lens of marathon training that are relevant even if you aren’t a runner. Even if you’re thinking “marathon shmarathon, running 26 miles is nuts,” keep reading.

To be able to run 26.2 miles takes MONTHS of training, discipline, and dedication. At their peak training, marathoners are running 40, 50, 60 plus miles EACH WEEK. If you happen to live in New England, training for the Boston Marathon, which happens in April, requires running in truly atrocious weather (think freezing cold, ice, and snow).

As fun as that doesn’t sound, for my husband (and clearly thousands of others), the allure of the storied, challenge-of-a- world-class Boston Marathon is like a gravitational pull. He ran it a couple of times in college, but a major injury in his 20s sidelined him from distance running. He has been a reliable fan ever since. When we were still dating, we spent an April afternoon sitting on the curb at the marathon halfway mark eating sub sandwiches and cheering for the runners. That was my first marathon, and every year since we look forward to Marathon Monday.

Because the Boston Marathon is more than a long run. For elite runners, it is a world-class race. For charity runners, who have dedicated months of their lives to raise money for their charity and to train for this superhuman athletic endeavor, it’s the challenge of a lifetime. Many of these runners have compelling, sometimes earth-shattering stories about why they are running or who they are running for. For the locals, it’s a rite of spring, a community-gathering on a massive scale with a festival-like atmosphere. Friends and neighbors emerge from the hibernation of a long winter, joining together along the race course to rally the runners toward the finish line.

Over the almost 20 years that we have been cheering on the sidelines, my husband has mentioned wistfully that he wished he could run Boston again. In late 2019 he decided to give it a shot. He trained as a charity runner, but just before his peak run in March 2020 the COVID-19 lockdowns began. The Boston Marathon was cancelled for the first time in its history. That fall, the Boston Athletic Association offered a “virtual” marathon. So he trained for that, running five 5.24 mile loops around our neighborhood. He finished, and many neighbors and friends came out to cheer (from a distance), but it wasn’t the official course with the Boylston Street finish and, it turns out, it’s not really the same.

So he trained some more. He ran a different marathon in the fall of 2021 to attempt to qualify for Boston, but hit the wall at mile 22 and could not keep his pace. He was determined to run the Boston Marathon in April 2022, though, so he found another charity with marathon bibs and committed to raising money for them.

This time he decided that to avoid hitting the wall, he would train with more miles than ever. He ran over 350 miles by his peak run. He ran in ski goggles in the snow. He ran in small loops near the house in case the weather turned too treacherous to continue. His nutrition was fully dialed in.

And now April 18 is on Monday. There’s a flutter in my chest just thinking about it. We have both dreamed about this day, he to finally cross the finish line on Boylston Street one more time, me to cheer him along the course where we have cheered for so many.

I caught myself a couple months ago projecting narratives about Marathon Monday, from the weather to the crowds to the smile on my husband’s face. I noticed myself weaving this tale of glory and triumph about April 18 and realized what a good fiction writer I could be. I mean, how could I know what the weather in Boston would be like in April!?!? That’s a fools errand within days of the event let alone a month ahead of time. If you want a lesson in things you cannot control, New England weather is a good one.

But Monday is supposed to be a perfect day for marathoning, 55 degrees and partly sunny. It should be perfect.

And I still got the story wrong.

Long story short, after complaining for a couple weeks about his ankle feeling funny, my husband was diagnosed two weeks ago with a large blood clot in his leg. He went from running 50 to 60 miles a week to lying on the couch with his leg propped up on a pillow, sleepy from a high dose of blood thinners. No marathon. (And, no, it’s nothing to do with COVID.)

So this is the lesson, or one of them: the race was always going to end. It’s the culminating achievement of months of training, but there is the day after and the day after that. And ultimately, hopefully, that’s what you are training for – the long game, life.

The truth is, the structure and rigor of marathon training kept my husband emotionally and physically fit throughout the rollercoaster ride of these two long pandemic years. It got him out of the office and outside during a time when it was particularly easy to lose track of the days let alone when you last left the couch. The deadline of this particular marathon forced him to figure out what was wrong with his ankle quickly. In another context, it would have been easy to assume it was nothing, which could have been truly catastrophic.

Of course these last two weeks have been a doozy of emotions. That marathoner’s rigor runs hard up against controlling outcomes if you are just disciplined enough. But life has a funny habit of getting in the way of our plans. So we find ourselves holding both grief and gratitude in the palms of our hands. It’s that old tenet of both/and. It’s both extreme gratitude for the clot being found with medication to stabilize it. AND, it’s deep grief and disappointment over getting so close to this marathon yet again, coupled with the worry and processing of the actual diagnosis. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, disappointments and challenges. Ultimately, I guess, what else would we be training for than to have muscles to flex, resiliency ones and physical ones, when we need them most?

Good luck to all the runners on Monday! We will be basking in the vibe of the event and cheering hard at the halfway mark – and likely shedding a couple tears as well. Both.

Breathe.

We will be alright.