This past weekend was the 50th running of the New York City Marathon. After being canceled last year, about 33,000 runners competed this year.
Ten years ago I ran the NYC Marathon. It was the third of the four full marathons I’ve run, my second NYC Marathon, and the only one that was horrible. The other three were enjoyable (as much as marathons can be) — in those others, I ran my own race, didn’t worry much about my time, took in the sights and experience, and learned some life lessons along the way (check out Mile 21 Thinking IFOD on this point).
What was horrible about the 2011 NYC marathon for me? I was consumed with my time. Based on my training I thought I could break 3:30. However, during the first few miles of the race, I knew that I was having an off day as my heart rate was elevated and running at my planned pace felt harder than it should have. Instead of slowing a bit and running at the pace my body wanted, I pushed on at my goal pace. The result was disastrous. As the miles wore on it felt like I was falling apart — my wheels slowly came off off — and by mile 18 I could no longer hold the pace. I ran slower and slower and slower. The last few miles were excruciating and were probably the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done. My final time was 3 hours 49 minutes. After crossing the finish line I was wobbly and lightheaded. An astute volunteer noticed my physical distress and steered me towards the medical tent where I spent about 30 minutes recovering.
When I saw my wife after the race I told her “that was horrible, I don’t know who I am or why I am on this planet — my entire life is a farce. I think I should have a hot dog.” Then I threw up.
Reflecting back on my four marathons (and half marathons and triathlons), I realize that the only person who cared about my time was me. Nobody else cared. Further, only my closest family and friends even cared that I ran a marathon (and even then they didn’t care much). And why did I care? If I had run it in 3:30 it wouldn’t get me anything. That time would have not qualified me for Boston or provided any particular notoriety. A 3:30 marathon is just a middling time. As is 3:49. Who cares?
As I’ve reflected back on my 2011 NYC Marathon experience over the past ten years I’ve realized that there are all sorts of things I care about that nobody else does: what I weigh, how many pullups I can do, how many books I read in a year, my sleep score on my Oura Ring, and so on. I’m sure everyone has these things — stuff that’s only important to them.
I’ve attended a few funerals of some amazing people over the past year and I’ve noted what was said about them: “she focused on you — made you feel like you were the most important person in the world”, “he cared about you and was always there for you”, “he had a great sense of humor and made everybody a bit happier”, and so on.
I’ve been thinking about what I would like to be said about me at my funeral. I don’t think anyone would say “he stayed within five pounds of his goal weight from age 33 to 42” or “he read 102 books in 2019“, or “he ran a 3 hour and 30 minute marathon.” In fact, maybe some of my obsessive goals actually detract from how I’d like to be eulogized. For instance, time spent marathon training could have instead been spent with family and friends. Getting up at 5am while on vacation with my family to run 16 miles maybe wasn’t the best use of my precious time on this planet.
I recently had a conversion with my mentor (brilliant polymath Spencer Burke) who said the following “most anything done to an extreme is detrimental — it is in fact possible to have too much of a good thing.” I think he’s right (which is hard for me to accept).
So, the ten-year anniversary of my horrible marathon experience has reminded me of the importance of balance. And how I should spend more time thinking about other people and less time obsessing on things only important to me.
Running to me is about living ‘in this moment’ out on the trail path and natural surroundings.
People who wear their medals all day after a marathon are childish…..I get it, you ran a lot today. NOBODY CARES
I enjoyed running a marathon with you and haven’t the faintest idea what our time was, however I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation.
Awesome story John. I get it. I worry about personal things that I feel I should be capable of achieving or maintaining and I’m finally (at 51) starting to realize that nobody really cares. We can dig deeper into the discussion over something decidedly better (yet existential as hell)…..red burgundy.
Dude, you are so wise. Thank you so much for the IFOD!
This is a great IFOD. Love how you share in a generous way.
Makes me think of the Buddha and the concept of the middle way. A personal mix of mind and soul.
I have been asked to write my own obituary- it is a worthwhile way to examine what really matters.
Thanks for sharing
John – Although I have not completed a half or full marathon, I do run every day. Each day and week I tend to set lofty running goals no matter my schedule, location, and/or physical condition. I find this tendency to be present in many other aspects of my life as well. But, balance is key in all that we do if we are seeking true happiness. Once unbalanced, it is much harder to re-center. If left unchecked, then the peaks and valleys become more extreme which can negatively impact all aspects of our life. There is nothing wrong with personal goals and aspirations but, we must learn to be solely satisfied and not expect others approval and interest. Actually, most people tell me I’m crazy for running each day and say that if I should see them running, then it is because of bees, a bear, or a bomb!
You are right, no one really cares about our daily “works”, goals, and endeavors because they have their own. When we depart this world, we will be remembered by how we made people feel, were we intentionally present in our interactions, and were our deeds bettering others. One good deed can pay forward ten times or more. I strive daily to find balance in all that I do knowing that today very well could be my last.
Thank you for sharing this experience.
Wise words sir. I can’t even remember how many 1/2 marathons I’ve done, much less my times. I do remember the ones I ran with my wife, friends and colleagues though. In January I’ll be running another one. Why? We bought a (used) minivan this summer to take our kids across the country. I found out the lady I negotiated with to buy the van led a charity to support moms with special needs kids in Houston. As I was writing the check for the minivan that was $500 less than the asking price, she told me they are a benefactor in Houston’s 1/2. I haven’t run a marathon since our 2nd kid was born but the only rational thing to do with my $500 of negotiated spoils was to donate and run to her cause. My kids got to see the country, Steel Magnolias of Houston get a little extra coin, and I have a great story. I still don’t care what my time will be; I’m grateful to just get off the couch because there’s a goal set. I too think about what will be said about me whenever the day comes, I wonder if they’ll say I’m a good/lousy negotiator :-).
Oliver, I don’t know you but I need to tell you that this story makes me like you 🙂
John – amazing. You raise a great issue we should all confront:
What do we want our eulogy to be?
What is our eulogy likely to be?
This is lovely John – thank you.
my 1 Cent: Sometimes it is not the extreme obsession but what is motivating the extreme obsession. If my getting up early to ride my bike (because I believe it essential for my physical and emotional wellbeing) during a family vacation means I am then relaxed and cheerful and all in on whatever is planned for the rest of the day – that might be better than the alternative. Insisting my training is more important than family activities and using my obsession as a way to disrupt everyone else’s vacation is the pathology. I believe we can admire and appreciate dedication to a goal and we can admire and appreciate kindness and sacrifice. For me it is the intention that matters. AND PS — Spencer is so amazingly wise.