IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A MARATHONER

05.17.2018

A strange title to be sure, but maybe not after you hear the story.

 

Boston. 6 Star Finisher (2018)

Running in the Zone (me) was very excited to sit down with a runner who had (as of Boston 2018) just completed the Big Six or Abbott Marathon Majors races to become what is known as a Six Star Athlete. I was primed with questions that all us eager runner types would find interesting: How long did it take (first to last)? Did you qualify, buy your way in, use charity entries, get lucky in the lotteries? Ummm, ……………. how much did it all cost???

OK, let’s step back for just a moment and get everyone on the same page. The Abbott Marathon Majors and the Big Six races that the mortal man must run to qualify to become a Six Star Finisher, represent quite a list of global running races! In annual order the events are: Tokyo (Feb), Boston (Apr), London (Apr), Berlin (Sept), Chicago (Oct) and New York City (Nov).

How it looks, approaching the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Recapping the general introductory stuff, just a bit more: it takes luck and/or money (and the will to spend it on running), if you expect to achieve this goal. I was also going to say a bit of speed since you generally need to qualify for Boston, but if you were right down to it and only had Boston left, there is the Charity Entry as an option. Some of the events will let you ‘buy’ your way in with a travel package that includes a guaranteed entry. After researching all six races, it seems like the two most certain ways to get in are to be fast enough to meet the qualifying standard for a guaranteed entry, or to buy the travel package with guaranteed entry. For most of them, the lottery is a pretty so-so option considering the odds of success.

OK, so now everyone is kind of in the same place here and should understand why I was so excited to sit down with someone who actually owns one of the NIFTY completion medals showing all six races.

What happened next is where the title originates and by which it was inspired. At first I was shocked, then amazed and finally realized I couldn’t agree more.

Our intrepid runner actually said he would prefer that his name wasn’t even used, because that isn’t what he wanted people to take from his experience or this write-up of the whole thing. I pointed out that while I understood his point, SOMEBODY actually went and ran those races! That said, I am going to do my best to stay true to his sentiments and intentions in talking publicly about this matter.

So! What ‘village‘ was responsible for bringing this marathoner along? Our Superhero, we’ll just call him Major Tom for obvious reasons, is a long time member of the Forerunners Marathon Clinics. As he puts it, the community of runners, coaches and supporters. That is the village to which our title refers. As he talked, I realized how many of us who are part of that community probably feel exactly the same way. I am particularly happy and humbled to try to convey his feelings and core message.

Let’s start at the beginning and see if I can do justice to the story and the information shared.

As for many of us, at first running was kind of a health and wellness thing for our Superhero. He would get up early before work, get the gear on and do a modest run of up to maybe 10K. Every three months or so he would enter a half marathon somewhere around Vancouver, but more as an excuse to justify why he got out of bed to go for a run when asked by his non-running friends. He was “Training.” Over the years he ran probably a dozen half marathons, before someone planted the seed in his mind one day: “You should do a Full marathon! It would be a great bucket-list item!” Like all good ideas, once it was planted, the idea grew over time until he decided to do something about it…

So, with a little bit of Dutch courage one night (all the best life decisions are made this way, right?) our Superhero decided to test his luck and put his name in for two race lotteries. If he was only going to run one marathon in his life, it had to be a good one! New York or Chicago were the obvious choices (apparently). He told me he forgot all about this after the evening, something about waking up the next day a little hazy, but a couple of weeks later he got the “Sorry, try again next year” email from New York (a common experience). He confided in me that there was even a little relief when the rejection came. He admits it may have been one of those “What did I just do?” kind of things. Then, a couple of weeks later, there was another e-mail. “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the Chicago 2014 Marathon.

A sense of panic quickly set in! What was he going to do? He figured he’d continue to do what he had always done, get up and go for a run… but just a bit longer! This didn’t quite go to plan. He went for a couple of longer runs of 25km – 30km with what he called “horrible results”. He found out what “The Wall” felt like half way around Stanley Park one day and couldn’t get over the mind games that he kept playing with himself as well. You know the thoughts that sneak into your mind sometime around the 30- 35km mark of a marathon when everything is hurting? Yes those ones…

Where it began in 1986, Forerunners on Fourth Ave.

So he found himself in a bit of a dilemma. He knew that because getting into the race is pretty hard and a lot of people miss out, it would not be right to just blow off the entry. Still, he felt he couldn’t do this alone either. After a few conversations with a couple of other runners  and a little internet research, he walked to the Forerunners store on 4th Ave.

He recalls the first night that he showed up to the clinic. Butterflies in his stomach, he started to question his decision about joining when the Coach started talking about pace groups and times. It should be noted our Superhero has never worried about his times, but I’ll get to that later. He also recalls feeling like an imposter. Everyone was wearing marathon t-shirts from various events they had run. To his eye, they were all serious runners and he was definitely not. He mentioned that everyone seemed to know everyone else really well. People were hugging, joking and talking like they were all life long friends. He figured that all the people in the clinic would obviously be running Victoria, it is only a short ferry ride away after all, which meant he would be on his own for the Chicago Marathon. Oh well, it’s going to be a one and run event anyway he told himself, so, “Suck it Up”.

Major Tom nails the first one.

Shortly after, while doing a speed workout with the Forerunners folk, he began talking with one of the group leaders, She asked him if he was training for anything, the answer obviously being Chicago. Her response: “Me TOO!” Within a few moments, there were several more people in the group who revealed they were also running Chicago. He didn’t realise it at the time, but he would have a little “community” there with him and a group of people who would push him along the way through his little journey.

Some of the ‘Villagers’ that did Berlin together!

Once into the Forerunners group, and the various training options offered, he found himself part of a close-knit group of people of similar talent and ability as well as the larger community of all the people of various levels of talent/ability that make up the clinics. It felt good. It felt welcoming. It became a kind of stimulus to work at running and to challenge himself to improve on his own abilities. Now, our man is hardly a back of the packer, but he is still waiting to break three hours, soon probably, but not done yet. It doesn’t matter, but does give context.

Typical Saturday morning at Main Street. Pre-run, marathon clinic.

I don’t want to seem to be jumping on his personal band wagon, but as we talked I realized we couldn’t agree more on the community and encouragement side, and I AM fast becoming a back of the packer. It is part of what makes the magic in the running community. And, while we are talking here about a specific situation and a specific community of runners associated with Forerunners, it is a common experience in running groups whereby you do become part of a true community that supports and encourages.

Maybe this is a good time to get some basics of this particular story, out of the way. It is no secret that all SIX of the Big Six got done, so here is the sequence: (1) Chicago (2014), (2) New York City (2015), (3) Berlin (2016),  (4) London (2017), (5) Tokyo (2018) and (6) Boston (2018). It would be wrong to suggest he only ever ran these six. It isn’t so. Needing to qualify for Boston required hard work and a good race to ensure a time fast enough to meet the ‘fastest first’ policy now applied to the BQ. While there were a number of “Crash and Burn” events, he actually BQ’d twice in 2017. The first time was by 43 seconds, which was not fast enough to guarantee a spot, so he tried again and succeeded 6 weeks later. This time, finishing with time to spare.

London Marathon. Oh! Did we mention Major Tom is from Australia?

Once all this began, the ‘village’ kept him moving forward and for four of the six races, some of the ‘villagers’ came along for the ride. OK, nobody was just coming along. Everyone had their own reasons and goals, but the race(s) turned into something far more than a race with time goals and PR attempts. Far more. It was the experience.
One of the experiences related to me was the impression of finishing the London Marathon. Apparently, the vista before the runner as he approached the finish near Buckingham Palace was so amazing and perfect on the day, and knowing he would not likely see it again, he actually slowed down to take it all in and savour the moment. Would that we might all do that; experience such a moment.

Something I know about our Superhero is that he doesn’t much do ‘technical’. Oh, he has a sport watch with GPS that he uses, but is known in races to tape over the face so he can’t see it. I’ve seen him do it. I actually ran the first race at which he ‘just qualified‘ for Boston, and saw his watch. He just likes to run as his body tells him he should. After, he is quite ready to assess how well he did with it. Although I can’t personally say I’ve ever taped over my sport watch, I do understand his point and I know I get far more out of it post-run when I analyse what went right and wrong, than I do while running. Maybe I need to get that tape out myself one day soon. Whatever, his approach and success is inspiring.

NYCM is in the ‘books’.

We know that all six of these major marathons got done, but that wasn’t the primary message of the story. Before getting back to the community of the Forerunners training groups, I must relate one more anecdote from the roads.

As anyone who pays attention knows, Boston Marathon 2018 was one of the most brutal Boston Marathons in recent history. If you don’t know, it was raining the proverbial cats and dogs, was very windy and was cold. With the wind-chill factor, the commentators of the elite races stated that temperatures never got above 0°C. Apparently it did warm up marginally later in the day but was still very, very cold.

Making it happen on one certifiably AWFUL day in Boston.

At the bottom of Heart Break Hill, there were nine runners going all about the same pace and had been for much of the race. That happens in big events. You often wind up in a small group that never seems to really break up, at least for a long way. One of the more assertive members of this intrepid little group said something like: “Right, three in front, three in the middle, three in back. We are going to do this thing together.” They took turns of about 200m, with the leaders dropping to the back and next row moving up, until they were through that section of the course. Amazing story, but yet another aspect of what runners do together.

Tokyo Marathon (2018). He looks pretty happy. Just one to go. Little did he know what Boston was going to be like!

Back to Vancouver now and the four years from 2014 to 2018, over which the Major series was done.

Don’t worry, we aren’t going to review every workout and minor race done over that time! What is important is that the clinics and run groups go pretty much year-round. You can do that in Vancouver, although some of the winter runs can approximate this year’s Boston Marathon, at least for wind and rain. What is special about that is not that we silly runners will go out in such conditions and run/train, but that our common coach, one Carey Nelson, has for more than 10 years been out on that course manning a water/aid station, waiting for each of us to make our way through. Some of the better runners, cover the distance pretty quickly on our long runs (usually Saturday mornings), but until I began coaching the Learn to Run 5K clinic, I was the pace leader for the slowest marathon pace group and trust me when I say we were a LONG way behind the fast kids!

Water station on NW Marine (UBC Hill).

Coach Carey was still there for us. He could have been out doing his own training, because although he is a one-time international elite runner, he is nonetheless very much an active and very good runner. He is not alone though. This is a bit of a norm with the founders of the store, Peter and Karen Butler do such duty when needed, and other coaches too, as the stores have expended from one to two, to three.

A few of “The Villagers” stop by to wish a local Olympian well. Major Tom is in the back right.

In what other world do you see Olympic athletes not just supplying truly expert and often personalized coaching advice, but also standing out in the rain so clinic groups can keep hydrated, providing tissues for runny noses and if necessary taking people off the course when something isn’t going right. This is the kind of thing that is meant by the community of runners.

Another thing is the encouragement and inspiration that comes when part of such a group. Before a race, clinic members support and push each other to improve. By push, it is not meant as the idea of cracking some kind of whip. No, nobody who runs (or plays other sports), always goes out, every time, feeling great and running to peak performance. It is on those days that the others drag us along (in a good way) when we just aren’t feeling it. Other times it is you who is doing the ‘dragging’.

In representation of “The Village”, Coach Carey symbolically ‘presents’ the Six Star Medal.

When it is all said and run, this community sits down after a workout or after a race over a coffee, beer, food to just kick it all around. Congratulations go along with the ribbing. Trash is talked, but heartfelt concern shown for those needing support. Individuals come and go as life dictates, but over the years a group seems to endure and to have the spirit that inspired this man who wanted me to write about that part of the experience that got him from a sometimes lonely early morning run to the owner of a fancy Six Star medal, supported by this amazing community made up of all its components, only some of which is described here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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