Messages from Marathon
by Roger Robinson
Never think you have mastered the marathon. If you ever succumb to the pride of mastery that the Greeks called hubris, or forget how cruel the marathon can be, think of Paula Radcliffe and Paul Tergat. Before Athens, they looked so sure, so supreme, so perfectly prepared that their failure broke our hearts. Radcliffe’s irrepressible eagerness and chirpy bobbing prance reduced to sagging legs and tears of despair; Tergat’s famed fluidity collapsed into a jerky stumble—these were images indeed for the land of Oedipus Rex, the broken, blinded king.
But in sport, every tragedy creates room for a triumph. Mizuki Noguchi, Catherine Ndereba, and Stefano Baldini were not total surprises, but how many expected Deena Kastor to spring like a new Paula through the last miles, or Meb Keflezighi to flow to the finish like Paul?
“Was it physical or psychological?” the media asked about Radcliffe, as if a runner is neatly divided into such component parts. “Was it the heat, the hills, or the pressure?” They wanted the sound-bite solution, and in running there almost never is one. A more useful question is what insights can we gain from these Athenian tragedies and triumphs. Every marathon runner, fast or slow, can learn lessons for their own racing from what happened there. I offer four:
1) No marathon runner can produce 101 percent every time. Paula’s 2:15:25 and Paul’s 2:04:55 made them world record holders but also took them into undiscovered country that wrings the soul, however blithe they appeared at the time. “You can’t keep going to the well,” was how one coaching friend put it as we lamented about Paula. It’s not a question of trying hard—no one tried harder than Paul and Paula. That’s part of the problem. They suffered what I have called the “psychic shock of running a great marathon,” that subconscious memory by which the mind at the deepest level of the will declines to take the body into such painful territory again. So when the media ask, “Is it mental or physical?” the answer is “Yes.” It lies in a complex fusing of the two, as Nature’s ingenious fail-safe system figures out what we’re doing to ourselves and evolves a new immunity.
Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, Rob de Castella, Toshihiko Seko, Steve Jones, Joan Benoit, Ibrahim Hussein, Naoko Takahashi—and I could go on—all managed two or at the most three truly great marathons, then went from boil to simmer. Even Grete Waitz, Bill Rodgers, and Tegla Loroupe, who won often and look like the exceptions, only dug into that psychic substratum two or three times. You can race super-level cross country and 10Ks for years, as Paul Tergat among others has shown, but the marathon’s unique mix of excess and intensity gives it a perilousness that burns deep.
Moral: Don’t race too many marathons, not if you want to truly race them. When you achieve the dream race, back off and do 10Ks or cross country for a while.
2) It may seem strange to talk of intense hard training as fun, but it’s a pleasure that characterizes many successful runners, and Paula Radcliffe more than most.
Somewhere before Athens she lost it. There she looked intense and anxious, changed from old runner-friendly accessibility into reclusive obsession. There was a haunted look in her eyes, not the old twinkle of someone doing what she loves for a living. Every moment of every day had been devoted to the one objective. Her life was measured out in massages and medical checks. Even after the Olympic fiasco she was talking revealingly of “having checks to find out what happened.” What happened was not in fact a great scientific challenge. Another British athlete expressed it succinctly to a BBC commentator, who reported, “I asked how he felt, and I can’t repeat exactly what he said, but it means that he is very very tired.”
With her physical therapists, public relations consultants, pre-race ice jacket, arcane ritual of stretches, nose-strip, sunglasses, and socks, the once springy, skipping Paula has become weighted down with the accumulation of details that are each designed to lighten her. She used to run like a dancer. Now she runs like a committee. The essence of running is so very simple—run faster than the others and you win. Once you become obsessed with analyzing the process and yourself, you lose that simple spark.
Moral: However hard you compete, run for fun. Make running a major part of a full life but not the whole. Run because you like it. To keep the joy of running will help you run faster than a platoon of analysts and a bagful of gadgets.
3) The third big reason why Paula and Paul failed was because they got beat. They allowed themselves to be out-thought, out-maneuvered, and out-raced. Mizuki Noguchi read the course, the conditions, and the competition to perfection. She attacked hard at the hardest point and was braced to sustain it. Paula had dithered half-heartedly in the lead and had no response ready when Noguchi suddenly took command. If you’re the fastest gun in the West, always expect to meet someone faster. Ditto Vanderlei de Lima, who asked the question long before anyone else was willing to answer it, seized a place in history, and might have won but for being grabbed by that attention-infatuated fool in a miniskirt. Baldini and Keflezighi were rewarded for judgment and initiative in the pursuit that Tergat never showed. Somewhere in his transition from unbeatable cross country runner to fallible marathoner, Tergat lost the ability to take control of a race. At the press conference after his first London Marathon, against Khannouchi and Gebrselassie, I asked what each of the three leaders had been thinking with 5K to go. Tergat’s reply was, “I was thinking something is going to happen—and it did.” That told me why he didn’t win. Something happened again in Athens.
Moral: The purpose of tactics is to exploit your own strengths and prevent your competitors from exploiting theirs. So when you run tactically make it count, Choose the moment to make it happen, know that it will hurt, but use the pain to create determination in yourself and doubt in the others.
4) Deena and Meb taught the oldest marathon lesson of all and the one that millions of runners ignore. When you feel good in the early miles, don’t speed up—slow down! When the cruel demons of the marathon seduce you into thinking that this is the promised day when you will improve by 30 minutes, think of Deena, think of Meb. Wait, wait, then wait some more. Get it right, as they did, and silver and bronze may glitter on your shelf for life. The plot of every marathon for every runner is a long novel, not a short story. You have to hold the whole shape of it in your head as you work through the first pages. This is no sport for people with a short attention span. A runner with a 2:21:16 PR could have felt the leaders’ 2:24 pace was easy. Kastor knew better. She chose her pace and her moment (see Moral 3 above). She allowed for the heat, saved strength for the hills that would drive great wedges of time through the field, and began to race hard when she could carry the effort over the hills and sustain it for much greater speed on the downhills beyond to the finish. Same with Keflezighi, who got every scrap from himself and might well have won gold.
Moral: The best way to run fast is even pace or negative splits. Go out slow. Know the course, and be ready to race the whole of it.