Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elite Pressure

Monday (as many runners know) was the 115th running of the Boston Marathon. The holy grail for marathoners. A course I'll likely never step foot on, as more and more runners are bitten by the Boston bug, forcing the Boston Athletic Association to tighten qualifying times to maintain the allure and exclusivity of the premiere event.

Come Monday and I'm at work, per usual, and unfortunately D.C. is a bit too far away from Boston to receive the free the local CBS online coverage of the race, but I'm following along with twitter and constantly refreshing for real time updates. Never before have I cared in the past what happened at Boston or have I ever followed the progress of a marathon from work - but I guess the goal of completing one myself, and me being tuned in to the world of running, has me thinking differently.

My interest was piqued after my aunt and uncle in-laws, Jennie and John's visit to DC when they recounted their own Boston experiences for me. I was further intrigued as one of our favorite running bloggers, Jim from 50 After 40, was making his debut at Boston. I loved that I could track his run as the race went on seeing how well he was doing and that a PR was in his reach. The minute I realized he had finished AND PR'd at Boston - I was so excited for him and his accomplishment - congrats Jim! And finally there was the whole allure of the two American women I kept reading about, Kara Goucher and Desiree Davila, and the real chance they had to win the women's race. No American, man or woman, has won Boston since 1985.

I was so glad I tuned in as both races had thrilling finishes. Sadly Desiree Davila was beat out at the last second by Caroline Kilel, (from - you guessed it - Kenya) yet she still ran a personal best by 4 minutes, and the fastest marathon by any American woman. Kara Goucher also ran a personal best, and finished 5th - all a mere 8 months after having her first child.

Today I realized that Kara's post-Boston blog entry was up. I couldn't wait to read it, as she was the media darling leading up to Boston. Davila wasn't covered nearly as much. Kara graced the covers of both Competitor and Runner's World the month of the race and was very open about her desire to win - I can't imagine that kind of pressure, the pressure of the elite athlete.

Her recap of Boston was great, and she was especially complimentary of Desiree and her accomplishment. The underlying theme of her performance was that her body was tight, she was just having one of those days, wasn't feeling it. This comment struck me the most:

"Every runner has these days occasionally, so you probably know what I’m talking about. There’s no real explanation for them, just as there’s no explanation for those special days when you feel incredible. All you can do is hope you don’t have one of those unexplainable flat days in your most important races."

Bingo! It's so true - I have good days and bad days and I have no idea why my good days are good and the bad ones are bad; however, the difference between Kara and myself is that it doesn't really matter if I have a bad day that just happens to fall on race day. Obviously I would prefer for the days I feel incredible to fall on race day, but if they don't, it doesn't hold the weight of me not winning Boston - because I won't win any race...ever. Even if I don't feel the best, I'm going to power through, because my real goal for now is just to finish. I guess in a way that's kind of freeing for me. It doesn't mean the difference of setting a record, or obtaining an endorsement deal, or winning the cash - it's just about finishing and reaching this goal of doing something I've never done before.

I can't imagine that kind of pressure, because it was still a marathon. Kara invested 2 hours and 24 minutes of her life into that race. Unlike short distance events that are seemingly over before they even begin, a marathon is an investment of time and strain on your body. She couldn't wake up the next morning and try again like she could with a 400 meter race. She'll have to wait at least weeks, even months before her next marathon (and another year to try again at Boston). So for an elite athlete that's been training for months for a marathon like Boston and on race day to have one of the unexplainable bad days - that's got to be an awful feeling.

With my new found respect for elite marathoners, I'll wrap this post up. I realize training is their job and they get a lot of perks, but if they aren't winning - they aren't making money or getting endorsement deals. Even if Kara had felt the best she's ever felt in her life on Monday, we have no way of knowing if that would have been enough for the top spot on the podium, but sometimes it sucks that it all comes down to a bad day coinciding with race day.

Footloose and pressure free,


  1. Thanks for sharing! I can't imagine what it must be like for those who qualify to run!!

  2. I completely agree, and love Kara's advice. When doing my marathons, I was often criticized for quantity over quality... but I argued back that by doing more marathons, I had more of a chance of catching one of those perfect days when you feel great and can go for a PR. Could I have done better with training? Sure - I think I can go a lot faster than I've gone so far. But I also think it's helped a lot to not have to rely on ONE random race that may or may not be my best.