2:35. That’s the number in my head. Not long ago, it was 2:40. It used to be 2:50 and 3-flat, and 3:10, and even 4-flat at one point. But right now, it’s 2:35.
I find myself square in the middle of that strange runner no man’s land. Somewhere in between the attainable Boston Qualifier and the unattainable (sadly) Olympic Marathon Trials Qualifier. What I have is the relentless pursuit of racing against two things: the unforgiving clock and myself. Racking up miles and wearing down shoes – and at times nerves – to shave off seconds per mile, while being trapped in a never-ending, mostly ascending spiral of train, race, repeat.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s with this mindset that I let out from the house again. It’s the first really cold day. I have to swap shorts for tights, and the grass crunches with frost underfoot. The air feels deep and cold as it fills my lungs. I keep the pace light, still feeling out where my body is with the ghosts of my recent marathon still haunting my joints. But even still, it’s good to be back.
The wind is sharp against my cheeks. My legs turn over and with them my thoughts from past results to future finish lines. Because as John L. Parker wrote, there will most certainly be “more trials and more miles.”
My running friend and I like to talk about races as way points. They are stops along a journey – to where, neither of us are sure. Self-discovery? Self-destruction? Self-awareness? But so far, neither of us have allowed ourselves to be defined by one race as “the ultimate,” the period (or exclamation point) at the end of our running sentence. Instead, we’re stringing those sentences together into a novel where neither one of us knows the ending. So we run. We race. We evolve. We repeat.
I spend the first half of the run retreading my last race, a 2:39 finish at the 2017 Richmond marathon. I piece together the shards (the below-average temperature, a 12-mile stitch, a back injury seven weeks out) that led me to fall short of the number in my head – 2:35 – knowing that sub-2:40 would have been fist- pump-worthy just a year ago (and unfathomable a decade ago) and now seems somehow…disappointing?
The sky begins to lighten, pushing back the few lingering stars. The pace comes easy now and I’ve ironed out all the cricks. I break through the plume of breath that clouds in front of me on the exhale. I float up hills with the ease that comes without the burden of expectations.
I flash past Margin Lane on the strip of neighborhood street where I usually run mile repeats. I reflexively think of my mental cue “edging back the margins” that normally comes at this sign, but my breath is hardly a whisper and the adrenaline doesn’t drop in, not this time.
For now, I’m just running.
I drift away for a moment to Parker again. This time it’s Again to Carthage and soon-to-be marathoner Quenton Cassidy and coach Bruce Denton are lying face down on the beach, enjoying the contrast between hot sand and cold, quivering muscles speckled with ocean water. After a moment of silence, Cassidy utters the line that is the namesake for this blog, “Whatever happens, I’m just happy to be on the bus running again.”
The dawn breaks now and the clouds glow like campfire coals. I smile because it’s almost a little too poetic, this new beginning.
I return to the house flushed from a good effort, another run in the books, another race behind me, another cycle begun. It’s officially on to the next way point, another chance to edge back the margins of whatever it is we’re after. In this case, for right now, the number in my head is 2:35.
And in a little less than 15 weeks, I’ll be sitting on a big yellow school bus aimed toward Hopkinton and the mother of all start (and finish) lines. But there’s still plenty of time for all that. For now, I’m just happy to be on this bus again.
I hope you’ll come with me.