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Chasing the Unicorn

Wellness

Written by
Justin Carpenito

Less than half of 1 percent of the U.S. population has finished a marathon. Of the finishers, around 10 percent are fast enough to qualify for entry into the Boston Marathon. I have run farther than the marathon distance over 30 times, and the half marathon distance close to triple digits, and still haven’t made it to Boston. I am not giving up hope, however, because the pain from failure is temporary, while quitting lasts forever. This is my story.

When someone identifies as a marathon runner, there is the dreaded question: “Have you ever run the Boston Marathon?” If you have, you are considered a “real” runner and have instant credibility. You have earned the right to wear the Boston Marathon jacket with the unmistakable logo, which is a unicorn. While there is some debate as to the origin of the unicorn being used as the symbol of the Boston Marathon, the race’s website states: “the now iconic Unicorn stands for striving for excellence. . . . even it can never be achieved.” 

My quest for the unicorn began during my first midlife crisis. I was never athletic growing up, and at the age of 35, was overweight, out of shape and miserable. After reading the book Confessions of an All-Night Runner by ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes, I was inspired to start running. My thought was, If Dean can run for hundreds of miles at a time, I can at least run a half marathon. I did, and then was ready for the next challenge: the marathon.

After running my first marathon in 2009 for charity, the goal was to get faster and to earn an entry into the highly respected Boston Marathon. As with any great accomplishment in life, however, this goal is much easier said than done. In order to get the desired result, it was going to require a relentless commitment to excellence, and I was up for the challenge. 

I ran my fourth marathon. After hundreds and hundreds of miles of dedicated training, I was ready to push myself to the limit. Unfortunately, with a massive race-day adrenaline rush, I made the rookie mistake of running the first half of the race at a pace that put me on track to finish the marathon way faster than what I had trained for. While I thought having a lot of time “in the bank” would help me cross the finish line under my goal time, the last half was an unqualified disaster. I hit the proverbial wall super early, and realized that the rest of the race was going to be a painful grind.

At mile 22, I began to walk and berate myself. How could I have committed such an injurious act of self-sabotage against all of my hard work and training? Suddenly another runner came along and yelled in my face, “No walking allowed; start running now!” In a state of shock, I started to run alongside my new motivational coach. For the next three miles he asked about my running experience and goals, while intermittently screaming “inspirational” curse words and multiple threats for me to keep running. He kept yelling that we were on pace to finish in my goal time, but I pulled a muscle and could no longer run since every step felt like being stabbed with a knife. Before he left my side, he turned to me and said, “With a mile to go, your worst case today is a personal record, but if I catch you walking over the finish line, I am going to slap your face!”

I didn’t get assaulted that day, but did miss qualifying for Boston by mere minutes. Mere #%$&*@^ minutes that have haunted me for the last six years! Nobody cares how fast you ran sections of the course; all that matters in the end is your actual finish time, and based on my personal goal, anything other than a qualifying time for Boston represented failure. I failed, and being a failure sucks. 

 

Photo by Ross Comer

“Boston or bust!”

on getting in, I ran multiple marathons in a short period of time using the mantra “Boston or bust!,” each time injuring different parts of my body and ultimately burning out, swearing off marathons and hating running.

Over those years, the qualifying standards for Boston became even more stringent, I became slower and during the frequent periods of injury, no longer a runner. Since I was president of the Eastside Runners Club, I felt like a hypocrite and resigned. Plagued with injuries from miles of pounding the pavement, one of the board members recommended that I try trail running. Trail running, I thought, isn’t that for hippies?

With my Boston plans officially busted, I tried trail running, liked it and began the transition from focusing on running fast marathons to slower but longer distances. For ultra runners, having completed a 100-mile event provides instant credibility. One of the most respected ultra races is the Western States Endurance Run. A first-time qualifier has less than a 4 percent chance of actually getting in, which gave me a new challenge! 

I was running again, but it became a massive time commitment since the training couldn’t be done at 4:00 a.m. on a treadmill or on the street; running trails had to be done in the daylight, so weekend marathon and 50K races along the West Coast became my “training” runs. Over the next few years, I completed multiple trail marathons and 50K events, ran 40 miles on my 40th birthday, finished a tough 50-mile ultra marathon with 17,400 feet of elevation change, suffered through two failed 100K attempts and failed at a last-minute 100-mile attempt that ended at mile 53 with a blown-out Achilles. Once again, after hundreds and hundreds of miles of dedicated training, I failed to reach my goal. 

I couldn’t run a street marathon fast enough to qualify for Boston, and couldn’t run a trail ultra marathon long enough to reach the 100-mile club. I purged everything in my life related to running. Running was dead to me—again.

As anyone who has tried to accomplish something difficult and came close but ultimately failed knows, you can walk away and make excuses, or regroup, learn from your failures, work on strengthening your weaknesses, and focus on relentless forward progress. I choose to focus on progress, because the alternative is to admit defeat. 

Mentally, I am ready to take a final shot at qualifying for Boston. Physically, however, the level of fitness built over years of running marathons begins to diminish within a few weeks of no longer training. My final attempt to qualify for Boston will be the 2017 Eugene Marathon on May 7, which will mark two years from the last time I ran a marathon distance or longer. With age, each step becomes harder, recovery takes longer and the reality of time not being on your side becomes undeniable. With the obvious hurdles addressed, my focus will be on the things I can control and the parts of marathon training I still enjoy (at least at the present moment).

Training for Boston is more than just about running; it is about striving for excellence. The training becomes a positive lifestyle that provides structure and focus on a clean diet, specificity of training, maintaining a healthy racing weight, proper sleep for recovery, etc. In essence, training for Boston helps me to be a better version of myself and a role model of discipline for my children. I am hopeful that through my quest, they will see that as with accomplishing any great achievement in life, when things become difficult and the desire to give up is strong, they can find strength in the knowledge that the pain from failure is temporary while quitting lasts forever.  

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