Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Quitting Marathons: Confessions of an Addict

Three and a half hours into the Chicago Marathon, the race was cancelled. The cancellation was due, apparently, to record-breaking hot weather, running out of water, and fear that medical personnel wouldn't be able to care for all of the potential dehydration and heat-related illness cases.

Anecdotally, many marathoners who participated in the Chicago marathon are angry. As a former marathoner, I can understand that feeling.

Yet, here is my opinion on the matter: Cancelling the marathon was a good call.

For one, I know myself and how stubborn/determined I can be. I know my former "finish at all costs" and "ignore the pain" marathon mentality. I saw this mentality in myself and in fellow racers. The race organizers also know this mentality and know that it combined with unseasonable and record-breaking heat was a dangerous combination.

Had I still been running marathons yesterday, I would have finished it. Or put myself in the hospital trying. Or worse.

Secondly, as "doing a marathon" has become the "it" athletic feat for the masses, some of whom are ill-prepared, inexperienced, and/or lack knowledge as to how to propertly hydrate, we can expect tragedies such as death and severe injury in marathons to continue. For, runners know that a marathon is supposed to be a painful experience. Inexperienced runners or first-timers don't know what is "normal" pain and what is dangerous or lethal pain.

Thinking back to my very first marathon, the first organized race I had ever run in my life, I was stupid. Determined and motivated, sure. But stupid nonetheless. When I lined up to run that race, it was an 80 degree humid St. Louis day and I didn't know this was considered less-than-ideal marathon weather. By mile 20, the farthest I had ever run in my life, my hip was throbbing, I had a pounding headache, and felt as though I could not cool off. I spent the last 6 miles limping, walking, and jogging while promising myself that, like an alcoholic looking into the bottom of the night's last whiskey, this was the last time.

Fast forward 6 weeks later and I was already planning my next marathon.

In short, I was an addict.

Over the span of about 4 years. I completed 6 marathons, 1 ultra-marathon, many road races of various lengths, many triathlons of various distances, and 1 Half-Ironman triathlon. I trained hard during these years and improved my times in each successive race considerably. These tangible improvements were a strong reinforcement to keep doing what I was doing and to squeeze more and more training into my already packed schedule of law school and work.

I quit for three reasons. I didn't wake up one day with any breakthrough reason to quit. It was more of a gradual tapering off of training, followed by not entering or planning for an organized race. But looking back, here are my reasons:

One, I had recurring foot and hip pain that would not go away no matter how long I refrained from impact training. The thought of premature hip-replacement surgery or a broken foot isn't appealing. And even now I wonder if I have some permanent damage.

Second, when I saw triathlons becoming the newest yuppie fad, I knew it was time to get out. The competitive spirit in marathons v. triathlons is very different. Pure runners often encourage their fellow racers. For, the competitor, for many marathoners, is the marathon beast itself. Or themselves. I found many triathletes to be a hyper-competitive breed as the competitor, for many triathletes, is those in one's age group. A race is often about how high one can place in one's age group with little real respect for the race itself or improving your own times from race to race.

I used to read discussion boards where average athletes obsessed over thousand dollar bikes and swimming gear in efforts to shave minutes off their unimpressive times. In short, I didn't feel that I saw any real love of the sport that one sees with, say, baseball (or running). I saw obsession, mostly. And status-seeking. I saw triathlon gear and age-group rankings becoming the athletic yuppie status symbol. This attitude isn't true of all triathletes, of course, but it is a disturbing trend.

The biggest reason I quit, though: It was no longer enjoyable. And, looking back, I question if it ever was. I wonder if I used obsessive exercise the way some people use drugs and alcohol: escape.

My life for four years centered around my obsession. For instance, I was obsessed with never missing a workout. I planned how to squeeze more miles into my week to improve my running/marathon times. And, if you have an understanding of the type of training it takes to train for a triathlon, you know the difficulties of trying to sufficiently train in three different disciplines (swimming, cycling, and running) when you only have 7 days in a week and other life obligations. This obsession, as you can imagine, is quite an impediment to one's social life.

See, it was my goal to work up to an Ironman triathlon. I know now that I won't do it. And that's okay. I've seen and read about many people who have and of the many, many hours it takes to train for this extreme even. I admire people who have the courage and will to even train for such an event. Especially the non-professional triathletes who must train 3-6 hours per day while also holding down "real" jobs.

But for myself, training for extreme sporting events got to be an isolating endeavour.

For instance, I want to spend more time with friends and family than I do solitarily training and obsessing about The Goal. I want to stay in shape and live a healthy lifestyle but not obsess over every piece of "fuel" and "energy" that I put into my body. I want to eat pizza and drink frothy coffee drinks. I want to enjoy the comraderie of team sports while not fretting about missing a workout to play a game of softball instead, and then worrying that it was the "wrong" kind of workout for my training plan. I want to sleep in on saturdays and not wake up early to go on a 3-hour run. I want to go on vacation and not worry about missing a bike workout or swimming workout during a training regimen because I can't bring my bike with me or can't find a pool. I want to spend my money on vacations and going to good restaurants, not on the latest "tri-bike," newest wetsuit, or expensive race fee. I want to go on bike rides with my friends who will care if I crash on my bike, not competitive rides where crashers are ignored in that ever-present quest to shave minutes and seconds off one's time. I want to swim in a lake and not get kicked in the face and stomach.

I want to live a balanced life. And more and more, I found that my life wasn't balanced at all when I was pursuing a training goal. It really wasn't "about the journey" at all. It was all about the destination. And, that narrow-minded focus was preventing me from living a life that was rich in other ways.

To refer to yesterday's article, I am free to take watercolor classes on the weekends and not have to squeeze a training session in before or afterwards. I can play on a football team- allowing me to be with my friends and work toward goals that benefit more than just me personally. I can go out on Friday nights and have some drinks without worrying how it might affect the big race down the line.

So yes, I guess I'm trying to say that I'm happier now than I was during my workout addiction days. I feel a teeny pang now and then knowing that I'm not in as good of shape as I once was, but I take solace in the lack of exercise anxiety in my life.

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