How I found a finish line when there were no start lines.
There are people who delight in goals and new years resolutions, and then there’s me. I live for them. Few days are more sacred than January 1, which involves a careful process of setting big, audacious goals for the year ahead.
I started 2020 with two goals: to give an extraordinary speech at SaaStr (a tech conference of 10,000 people), and to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
It was like I thought to myself: “what are the two goals I should set that would definitely include travel, large gatherings of people, and generally excellent health and stability in the world?”
These are the kinds of goals you set when you haven’t yet heard the whistle of the train that’s barreling down the tracks in your direction.These are the kinds of goals you set when you know that races will happen, travel will happen, running with your friends will happen, and the only thing standing between you and Boylston Street is to prove that you’re fast enough to run that race in Boston.
And then came the train.
Together but apart, we the overachievers watched our ambitions and resolutions and plans crumble, the race cancellations come in, and all the ways that we defined success halt abruptly. As if lightning had been spotted and we were all being escorted off the course, suddenly denied our finish lines.
For those of us who live by mile markers, watch beeps, and qualifying times, the crisp black and white world faded to a dim heather gray, the color of sweatpants and sourdough starter. And we hated sweatpants.
Everything felt a little mediocre, and the last thing I wanted was permission to not do my best. Qualifying times and PRs felt like they were replaced with praise for “getting by” and “surviving it all.” Those of us longing for a starting gun and a little adrenaline-revving external validation looked on the permission to “just get out there” with disdain and distant dread. We winced when our kids’ teachers told us that “good enough was good enough” and to “just try” because we worried about them falling behind, and we worried we were falling behind. We wondered if we’d feel smart and sharp and fast again.
I had to get out there and win at something. I needed it. Luckily, so did a few of the other goal-setters in my life.
With every race ahead of us cancelled, a crew of four work friends began showing up for dawn patrol in Nebraska in March, bundled up almost beyond recognition. We missed our office. We missed the bustle. We missed achieving things with an amazing group of people. It was awful at first, slow and ugly, and we walked (walked!) with great relief every time our watches beeped at the mile, which later gave rise to our team name, the Beeps.
Thousands of miles away, a similarly bored friend built us some workouts — speed work and yassos and hills and tempo runs — and we diligently ran them, as if our coach might yell at us if we didn’t finish the last 800. Strava helped.
We built running fitness, but we also built mental fitness. One of us got Covid. Two of us became roommates. All four of us left our jobs and used the miles to deliberate, to grieve, to plan what’s next. And while at first, we promised each other it was just about getting out there and running together, the workouts worked, and we started getting faster.
So we raced, like all of us did in 2020, with made-up races and reluctant spouses cheering us to a fake finish line. But the Beeps PR’d nearly all of our distances in that time. We bonked sometimes and we won sometimes. When the temps hit 20 below in Nebraska, we held a 5K in an unfinished warehouse with a 300 meter loop. We made our kids hold out dixie cups of water and Gatorade and cheer loudly. And it didn’t feel like racing, but it felt like progress. When we all four got into the lottery for the Chicago Marathon, we didn’t believe the race would happen. But we didn’t tell each other that. We just built a new program and got to work.
I knew that the miles and workouts were building to something, but I didn’t know what it was until suddenly, it was time for the shakeout run in Chicago, and suddenly, I had no doubt of my ability to hit my goals.
In the week before the race, the usual Taper Week Scaries didn’t show up. I didn’t check the weather for Chicago even once. I didn’t watch every race course overview video shared with me. I didn’t consider lining up with the pacing groups. I programmed my watch to allow me to walk for 30 seconds at each mile, because I race best that way. Would it slow my time? Yep. Would it keep me strong? Yes.
And on the night before race day, I slept. This never happens.
The last 20 months had given me a new mental fortitude to run 26.2 miles without regard for anyone else’s decision on whether it was a good enough effort. To know my effort, to rely on my team for support, and to run my own race.
I kept expecting the nerves to kick in, but they didn’t. I spent the time before the race giving calm words of encouragement to the Beeps, and I spent the first mile delighting in the sounds of thousands of goal-setters’ feet hitting the pavement together, finally getting the start line we’d been longing for since 2020.
I never once looked at the full elapsed time on my watch, and I never wondered if I was on track to qualify for Boston. And the wall never came, either. I surged when I could and worked to make the hard parts easier. When I crossed the line, I knew I had run an excellent race without ever looking at my watch. It was a five minute PR.
Did I qualify for Boston? I think so? I think so. But if the last two years have taught me anything, it’s that everything that can change, probably will. This year’s Chicago qualifies for both the 2022 and 2023 Boston entries. My time isn’t enough for 2022. But in 2023, I’ll be in a new age group and as of now, my time qualifies. The uncertainty of all of this would have crushed me in the past. Now, I know I’ll run Boston in the next few years. I’ll get in, or I’ll get faster, or I’ll get older. But I’ll run down Boylston Street with the Beeps.
Two years without start lines and finish lines taught me that now, my races are mine to own, good or bad. Now, I rely on my own best effort, since I never know if a race is on and can’t count on my registration becoming a reality. Now, I can find the biggest joy in a shakeout run with my crew, knowing we are ready to cheer each other on to our best races.
When it comes to mobilizing and motivating a team,
When it comes to pushing my abilities beyond what I thought I could do,
When it comes to achieving new speeds, running it my way,
Special thanks to Olivia Wolf and Kimberly Bailey for capturing so many of these moments, and to the Beeps: Brooke, Dusty, and Kimberly, for walking with me at every mile.