From Framework to Finish Line
I run because I meet a better version of myself after mile six. Until recently, however, I would stop shortly thereafter. According to the model I had built in my mind, the health benefits of running greatly diminish after mile nine, so how could someone be brave (read: insane) enough to run a full marathon?
How could they reject such sound science? Is it really worth using up one’s limited share of luck in life on a marathon lottery? Why not just go for a run in the park?
My viewpoint began to change when a senior manager at the Bank shared with me that while facing significant challenges in his life, he completed the Boston Marathon three times. That conversation left me wondering: maybe running a marathon is about more than physical health. Maybe the challenge of running a marathon can equip you with the tools you need to deal with larger challenges. He also suggested the idea of a training plan. It turns out there was some science behind the madness after all. I began to feel the calling.
Last August, a member of my local running group informed me that he needed to transfer his Marine Corps Marathon registration to someone, since he couldn’t participate. I had always thought that the Marine Corps Marathon was the coolest race. Running alongside elite soldiers in uniform and in the nation’s capital would make anyone’s first marathon social media posting ceremonial. My calling had found me without me having to go through a lottery system.
The race was to take place on Oct 22, 2017. Typical training plans for beginners are designed around an 18-week or longer time frame. With only ten weeks in hand, I had to make a plan of my own. I began my preparation by reserving all of the books with titles containing the words “marathon” and “endurance training” from my local library, peppering my vocabulary with acronyms like BQ and SUB4. My running routines , previously categorized by playlists like The Michael Jackson Hour, The Beatles
Time, and Peking Opera Break were now categorized by “long run,” “interval,” and “tempo.” My wardrobe brands Ann Taylor and Banana Republic were replaced by running gear brands like 2XU and CWX.
Being ready to run a full marathon without injuries is mentally challenging and physically demanding. Learned from my years of repeated failures to carry out New Year’s resolutions, I knew that a project of such complexity and scope cannot rely on a single-line operation and sheer willpower. I needed a framework, and as a portfolio management professional, , I adopted the three lines of defense, risk management framework.
The principal risk I identified was injury. The chief purpose of exercise for me is to live longer with confidence and competence. Plus, getting injured defeats the purpose of exercise.
The first line roles and responsibilities of my marathon project were to train to run and run to train by following the plan–the simplest role, but the one doing the majority of the work.
The second line roles and responsibilities were to assess the reasonableness and conduct oversight of the execution of the training plan. In addition, the second line was to use quantitative indices such as VO2Max and resting heart rate to establish risk tolerance and limits accordingly. The runner’s high is a pathway to Zen for people with little tolerance for being idle. Receiving disciplinary reminders along the path is not pleasant but vital to sustain multiple highs and keep injury at bay. I recruited two other women who were training for the New York Marathon to be my trusted advisors and part of my second line of defense. They helped me keep my pace and maintain my posture during long runs. At the most tiring times, they threw out advice like “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” I thought they made that up on the spot. If the excess oxygen pumped into one’s brain results in such a deep line, I guess I could continue a couple of more miles.
The third line roles and responsibilities were to design and adhere to the right diet needs. I had been following a combination of Paleo, Atkins, and vegan diets which reflected the top five selling diet books every year for the last decade. The common theme was: carbs are your enemy. To train for a full marathon in ten weeks, I had no choice but to be an ally to carbs. Every morning, a staff member at our Main Building café watched me stack four big bowls of steel cut oatmeal. I couldn’t tell whether he
assumed I would give the extra to homeless people on my way back home or sell them on the street for a quick profit. I couldn’t offer an explanation without bragging about my big plan, so no words were exchanged. He must have finally concluded that the likelihood of me handing cold oatmeal to homeless people was low (after all, there was a more effective way to be kind called United Way) because one day, he confronted me and popped the question I had been waiting for weeks: are you going to eat all that? ”Yes,” I answered, more enthusiastically than I had for my engagement proposal. What a relief for both of us.
The collaboration among the three lines worked well up to the planned final long run of 21 miles. My first line was tired and also boosted by the success of the last run of 18 miles a couple of weeks earlier. Adding another eight miles to 18 seemed like no big deal at the time; why bother repeating the boring practice? My second line tried to nudge me with data and discipline but eventually succumbed. The third line was preoccupied by the sudden deregulation of carbs and legalization of tiramisu. The 21-milerun never took place.
The race day started with beautiful weather; my only concern was that the temperature could rise up to over 70 degrees later on. The first ten miles were effortless like I planned. All three lines of hard work seemed to pay off. My pace was strong and steady and if I could continue at that pace, qualifying for the Boston Marathon (the holy grail of amateur distance runners would be within reach.
As I ran closer to Arlington Cemetery, all cheers subdued and I found myself running on a road lined with portraits of fallen Marines. I took a quick glance at one. It was a smile reminding me of a younger George Clooney. The number under the portrait indicated that the smile had never reached beyond 25 years old. Years of engineering training has left me with the involuntary habit to identify pattern from numbers and derive meaning from data whenever they are present. The discovery of numbers thus activated this analytical part of my brain. The mean age of the fallen marines was around 25.5 with a
standard deviation of 3.47. As I trudged along, I incorporated more data into my calculation hoping that the mean would increase, though I was not sure how to wish for the standard deviation. But the average age did not budge much. I was drawn to this race for the glory brought by the marine uniform but I did not prepare for the weight of what it symbolized. Yet the sudden heavy dosage of gratitude was much needed for me to re-embrace the air, the water, the opportunity to love, the ability to give, the privilege
to work and the luxury to run. I departed from the road but that path will never leave me.
The rising temperature started to get to me. I gradually developed this exhausted feeling as if I had been surrounded by negative people for too long like my children whining about a sports loss. In my view, a competitive spirit, if not paired with the ability to be happy, is the ultimate human tragedy. (Shakespeare agrees with me and documented it in great detail, so I won’t comment more.) But I had never felt this type of exhaustion from running before. My pace was collapsing and my body was in pain. A quick pinch on my waistline indicated that my fat reserve was not entirely depleted; in fact it was still plentiful. Then it struck me that I had developed this exhaustion after mile 18. Had I completedthe planned 21 mile practice run, I could have delayed this collapse in my energy, if not prevented it. The only incident I failed in my framework was haunting me. The rest of the journey was best characterized by my first post-race text: “At mile 20, under the burning heat, I reached an uncharted territory of myself and my life.”
I had a comprehensive checkup with my doctor weeks after. He granted me permission to run five full marathons annually. While I have no intention of meeting this quota, the pursuit of a better version of myself will continue.