The Sword

It’s Tuesday morning. Steely, gray clouds lord over the sky and mute the dawn. Rain spatters my sunglasses, an optimistic addition to my attire. But none of that matters. I pull my hands from my knees and inhale deeply to slow my heart rate. Sixty seconds left, I whisper audibly to no one in particular. Hands on hips now, I ease over to what had been the finish line of my ninth 800-meter repeat, and now marks the start line of my tenth and final. Eight hundred meters. A half mile. That’s all that separates me from my taper.

Since the half marathon roughly five weeks ago, I circled five key days on my calendar: the Tuesday morning sessions and the Saturday morning long runs that remained before Boston. These represented the five opportunities I had to grab as much fitness as possible before stepping to the line in Hopkinton. I took each milestone one at a time, never looking farther than what lay just ahead. “Get the most out of each day. Survive,” I told myself.

I checked my watch again. Thirty seconds. The workout had been hard from go. Yet, charged with running 10×800 meters in 2:35-2:30 with 90 seconds between each, I had been no slower than 2:34 to this point. My legs still held some of the fatigue from my final 20-miler just three days ago, one where I laid down a 59:16 ten-miler in the middle. This morning, I had locked on to the pace despite the strain. I knew the effort. I knew it was going to hurt – again. But I also knew that there would come a moment, or perhaps several, in Boston where I would have to decide if I was going to concede to the pain or marshal the ferocity to push on in spite of it. I counted down the final five seconds, 5-4-3-2-1 and galloped off down the road. One more half mile.

The metaphors are many. Hay in the barn. Smoldering embers. But for me, it’s one my uncle passed on in our early days working at that sub-20:00 5K. The sword. Those base, easy, and long runs forge the blade, while the tempo and interval sessions deliver the slippery, sharp edge. But in this buildup in particular, in this sword, there’s an essence, a spirit that exists behind those pounded out miles on the road and trail. The physical elements may form the sword’s hardness, but the true strength comes from those with whom you surround yourself. The friends who run alongside you and hold you up, meet you for breakfast, or simply shoot a text out of the blue (or daily) that says, “How’s the training going?” or “Killer run yesterday.” My coach, who buoys me up during the darker weeks and magnifies my confidence when things are rolling. My parents, who dutifully read this blog each week and urge me on. My wife, who supports and encourages me, indulges my early bedtimes and quirky routines, and who can floor me after a long run by simply saying, “I’m proud of you.” The sword, you see, is more than just the materials it’s made of, but the soul that resides in it.

I pound down the slight decline, willing my legs to turnover, putting myself through it one last time. I’m aware of Margin Lane flashing by in my periphery marking 200 meters. My breathing is calm, but I know this is only temporary. On cue, the heaviness begins to seep into the tops of my quads, but I think of the quote from Franz Stampfl that’s carried me through this section nine previous times, “Sure it’ll be painful, but what’s pain?” I manage a weak smile. I spot Piller Way, i.e. 400 meters. Gun lap. The equivalent of one more trip around the track.

Days began to fall like dominoes, time seemingly accelerating with each passing workout. I felt like every time I turned around, I was staring down another interval session. Yet, the sword got bigger, sharper – infused with fitness, strengthened with support. It reminded me of an old Jonathan Beverly article where he wrote, “I can sense tumblers falling into place, unlocking the ‘thing behind everything’ that makes all else seem second-rate, as John Updike described in Rabbit, Run. I’m riding the wave, hitting the sweet spot, in the zone, in flow. As I finish the workout, I feel invincible, fully alive, connected and powerful.”

The road starts to pitch upward. The initial bump is enough to chop my stride, but I push on and reengage at the top and set about tackling the final 350 meters. My breathing is ragged now – raspy, throaty exhales that eschew errant fluffs of spit. My quads ache but I summon one last surge to combat what feels like a sudden slowing of pace. The stop sign, the finish line, the taper come into view and I lock onto it and let it guide me in like a tractor beam. The houses turn to buildings and I’m on Boylston, the clock edging toward my goal. My arms pump furiously, urging my legs to match the tempo. An errant step here, a wild elbow there. No time to dwell, just keep it together. I break the plane and immediately click the watch. My head tilts to the sky first to exhale one last ragged breath, then I steal a glance at my watch as my hands drop to my knees.

2:32. I let out a “whoop!” and start off on the three-mile cool down that officially marks the end of this training block, the beginning of my taper, the final mental preparations.

The number in my head – the one that I started with 16 weeks ago and even farther back than that – is still 2:35. This winter has been fraught with challenges: schizophrenic weather, nagging injuries, and lingering illness. In the thick of it, the unsexy January and February months of simply putting one’s head down and consistently putting one foot in front of the other, I logged into my email to find my Runner’s World Daily Quote waiting for me. It was one that has stayed with me and become somewhat of a mantra for my friend and I as we thrash ourselves through long interval workouts on non-descript neighborhood streets, grind through long runs, or simply get out the door each morning. It read, “Fate whispered to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm.’ The warrior replied, ‘I am the storm.’”

And this warrior has a big goddamn sword that’s ready to lay waste to 2:35.

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