I ran 2,325 total kilometers (1,445 miles) over 8 months. That is the equivalent to nearly 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) per day for 243 days. It is the distance from Toronto to Miami. During peak training, I ran 100 kilometers (62 miles) every week. Between running, stretching, rolling and cross training, I trained for 15 hours a week. This was all done to achieve my goal: running a marathon in under 3-hours.
In the last year, I have run four marathons and several shorter races. I went from roughly a 4-hour to a 3-hour marathon; a 25% improvement.
My mother inspired me to run. She has run 17 marathons. She defies age. At 66, she has more energy and drive than most.
A friend invited me to join his 2016 New York City marathon team; this was my shot. I had never run. The thought of running for hours was intimidating. I had excuses not to do it; a bad ankle, a bad knee and back pain. But because running means so much to someone I admire, my mom; I had to see for myself what it was about. I was surprised to realize I enjoyed it.
I made time to train. Running became sacred time; I could detach and let my mind wonder. The experience of running the New York City marathon is surreal: 50,000 runners, amateur and professional, and a million spectators cheering. For the 3:48:01 it took me to run the marathon, I had goosebumps.
Following my first marathon, I would run another marathon for two reasons: to run with my mother and to better train and see how much I could improve.
November 3, 2018, was the opportunity to run with my mother. Together we ran the Nice to Cannes marathon. All my life, my mother has been supporting and cheering me on to the finish line. On that race day, I was able to return the favor and encourage her, stride by stride, until we crossed the finish line in 4:36:00. It is one of my most cherished experiences.
A marathon in under 3 hour was next. The old excuses continued to linger: “What if I fail? What would people think? It’s too hard. I’m not a real runner. It’s irresponsible. Training is too time consuming. I’ll get injured. Just running a marathon is enough. My business needs me. It’s arbitrary anyway. What’s the point?”
But I believed that an ambitious goal and committing to the discipline required would help me in three ways. First, it would create structure and discipline in my life. Second, celebrating small victories throughout my training progression would fill me with hope. Third, it is something that I had wanted to do for a while but kept succumbing to my excuses why not to do it. My experience proved me correct in all three ways.
I registered for the Paris, Toronto and New York City marathons, hired a running coach and began to share my marathon goal publicly.
My first practice with my running coach was on a February morning at 6:30am. There were four inches of snow on the ground. It was so far below freezing that it hurt to breathe. I had to run 800 meters five times (in 3 minutes, 45 seconds per heat), followed by several more kilometers. That was my first glimpse into what it would take. “I can’t believe I just did that,” I thought. I relished the challenge.
Next, my treadmill runs were filmed to dissect my stride. To crack 3 hours, everything needed to be correct. I focused on the first principles: learning how to run properly.
From there, I developed my aerobic capacity. “Slow down, to speed up” as famous ultra-Ironman Rich Roll says. It is counter-intuitive, but for months I ran long and slow based on my heart rate, which started to slow as I trained. My capacity improved. My body was then ready to increase pace, maintain a low heart rate, and I could run harder for longer.
I ran the Paris marathon on 14 April 2019, 8 weeks into training, to gain more race experience ahead of my target race, the Toronto marathon. I ran Paris in 3:27:40 beating my 3:30:00 goal. I felt fantastic, confident that a sub-3-hour marathon was possible.
May and June 2019 were for developing speed. I set multiple personal records. A 10 mile race in Philadelphia at 1:09:02 and then back to back 10 kilometer races at 0:39:00 and 0:38:58 in Toronto and New York, respectively.
By mid-June, 4 months before the Toronto marathon, my training level increased. My typical training week included Monday as an off day, the one day I would sleep in past 7:00am. Tuesdays were for speed: a combination of 400-, 800-, 1,000- and 1,600-meter repeats near full speed plus running drills. A total of 11 kilometers (6.8 miles). Wednesdays were easier with a slow 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). Thursday was 12-16 kilometers (7.5-12 miles) with some form of sprints and drills. Friday was another slow and easy 12 kilometers. Saturday was a long run of 34-37 kilometers (21-23 miles), during which I would run intervals at marathon pace. Sunday was another 10-14 kilometers (6.2-8.7 miles) to round out an average week of 100 kilometers (62 miles). I stretched and rolled each morning and did [solidcore] once a week.
I did not feel like myself during the week of the Toronto marathon. I was anxious, preoccupied and low energy. Eight months of training was coming down to a single day. “What if I failed? How would I feel? Would it have been a waste of time?” These questions and my self-imposed pressure burdened me.
The morning arrived. “This is it,” I said to myself when the starting gun shot. I hit the 5 kilometer mark ahead of pace, then the 10 and 15 kilometer marks faster than planned. I was pushing hard and excited to bank those precious minutes. I hit halfway at 1:27:44, 0:2:16 ahead of pace. The race reached a crescendo at the halfway mark, where many runners crossed half marathon finish line. In the second half of the full marathon, I left the roaring crowds behind. For me, that was the moment that I realized the magnitude of the task. I was wet and cold. I questioned what I was doing: “Did I train hard enough? This is more painful than expected. How can I hold this pace? I’m exhausted.”
I wanted to stop. It was too much. But I could not let myself down. Not after everything I put into this. I pushed.
I turned onto Bay Street. I could see the finish a few hundred meters away. A sub-3-hour marathon was mine!
In a daze, I remember mostly hitting the pavement on Bay Street. I tried to get up, only to stumble over again. I could not process what had happened. I continued to fixate on crossing the finish line under 3 hours.
Two unknown runners saw me collapsed on the street and helped me to my feet. Together, arm-in-arm, we crossed the finish line in 3:01:37. It took me 0:3:46 to cover the final 500 meters. My next memory after my collapse on Bay Street is in the medical tent at the finish line, hooked up to an IV, surrounded by concerned medical staff. I never truly lost consciousness, but I have no memory of the last 500 meters or of the finish line.
I had succumbed to dehydration and exhaustion. I had feared indigestion and slowing down, and failed to eat and hydrate according to plan. My brain ran out of glucose, causing a momentary blackout, and so I collapsed. A mistake I had known not to make, but in the moment, I was not thinking straight. It was careless.
I am so grateful to the two unknown runners who stopped when I fell. They sacrificed their own races in order to help me. Their selflessness is remarkable.
Had the situation been reversed, I am not sure I would have done the same. I like to think I would. But after all my training, pressure, and with success within my grasp, would I have thrown it all away for a stranger? I do not know, but they did. In spite of the competition, they did the right thing and acted with true sportsmanship
The New York marathon on 3 November 2019 was 14 days after the Toronto marathon. “Should I even run it? Is it safe? I’ve pushed it hard enough already,” I thought. I was shaken by my experience in Toronto, but physically I felt ready again. As the mental angst waned and doctors confirmed that I was fit to run, I was keen to have at it again.
“Why not? I now know what it takes,” I told myself. The New York marathon course is notoriously difficult with hills and bridges, but it has the loudest crowd. This time I knew the importance of fueling and hydrating properly would strengthen me.
Following the Toronto marathon, the pressure to run sub-3-hour marathon had dissipated for two reasons. First, I now knew what it took to run a 3-hour marathon. Second, I was rejuvenated by joy and meaningfulness, both of which I had lost sight in Toronto. The unknown runners instilled in me gratitude to be out there and not take it for granted. Sport is supposed to be fun after all!
Before the marathon, runners congregate in Staten Island. They sit anxiously trying to stay warm and keeping the nerves at bay. But unlike before the Toronto marathon, I was not fussed. I was excited and glad to be there. An experienced Polish runner told me it took him four attempts to crack 3 hours and on the day it happens, “you’re going to know before it even happens; everything is going to go your way” he told me. And with that, I was off. One of thousands of runners bumping into one another along the Verrazano Bridge. A beautiful blue sky morning in New York. The weather was perfect. Things were looking promising.
I did not let the first couple miles control me. “Sit back instead of weaving in and out of runners,” I coached myself. I was slow to start, but as we entered Brooklyn my smile grew as the crowds cheered. “Here we go, this is why I’m here! Feel every moment of it. Relish it. Remember it.” These positive thoughts stayed with me throughout the race.
By kilometer ten, I caught the 3-hour pacer. I had started behind him because of the crowds in the starting corral. “Don’t pass him until the second half,” I promised myself. Just before the start, two marathon mentors advised me not to run the first half faster than 1:29:30. I let the pacer go out as I slowed to hydrate at the water stations, then I reeled him back in. This time, I was sticking to the plan.
In Brooklyn, friends cheered me on. It was moving to see them, and I was emboldened. I met the halfway point at 1:29:41; exactly where I wanted to be. “I’m already done half!” I thought. “I feel great! I think this is what the Polish runner was telling me about.” Over the Queensborough bridge we went. As we funneled into a narrow uphill passage, the group slowed. I lost the 3-hour pacer but did not lose hope. I still had forty seconds to spare.
We turned up First Avenue to a roaring crowd. The echo reverberated off the midtown skyscrapers and was deafening. I saw my girlfriend, Anne, and my parents as I flew by. Their screams of encouragement inspired me through the most daunting stretch of a marathon. Kilometer 25-40 (mile 16-25): where a marathon is made. The first half is easy, but during this stretch, the difficulty truly sets in. Unlike in Toronto, I stayed positive. I picked up my head instead of letting drop. I gazed confidently at the horizon. I reminded myself how lucky I was to be there. I smiled even more. I cheered. The positivity energized me and prevented my mind from wandering. Not once did I question if I could do it. Not once did I wish I were doing something else. Not once did I think of the finish line. I reached a perfect running state.
As I ran the hills in the Bronx and into Central Park, I knew a sub 3-hour marathon was tight. Tired, but not experiencing the tunnel vision I had in Toronto, I increased my effort. I picked off one runner after another, catching, then passing them. At 2:52:00 I was two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the finish line. Running the last two kilometers at a 4:00 minute/km pace (6:26 minute/mile), would be tough. But my hope did not dwindle. “One more effort,” I told myself. “One more surge. I have a fighting chance.” I picked up my knees and surged forward. Rounding the last corner with the finish line in sight, I was going all out with a smile to match.
I finished at 3:00:17. Better yet, I remembered and cherished every moment of it.
I ecstatically crossed the finish line. I completed my best race. I hugged the first person I saw. High-fived the next and congratulated the others.
I did not know how I would feel after the race. All that time, effort and dedication, then it was done. Would it have all been for naught if I did not run sub-3-hour marathon? Would I feel differently at 2:59:59 than 3:00:17?
In the following days, I pondered: “over 3 hours, could I really not find 18 seconds to spare?” I was so close. I do not know where I could have made up more time. Perhaps on the Verrazzano Bridge zig zagging through the mob? Perhaps on First Avenue increasing my pace earlier? But there was no obvious mistake. No excuse. I had given it everything. It all went my way. And yet 18 seconds slipped away.
I came up painfully short of my goal; running a marathon under 3 hours. But for the very reasons that the 18 seconds slipped away, I did not feel like I failed. There is nothing I am kicking myself for not doing differently. Not during the race. Not during the 8 months of training. Because I held myself to such a high standard, I have no regrets.
I did not feel that same way after the Toronto marathon. My hydration and fueling mistake cost me my shot at a sub-3-hour marathon. I only had myself to blame. For 8 months, I was disciplined in my training, and executed according to my plan; yet when it mattered most on race day, I failed myself.
Mistakes and failing are part of life. It is in the moments of failure, of uncertainty, of hardships that we glimpse into others and ourselves. That day in Toronto, I glimpsed into two others; the unknown runners. They reminded me why I was running: to inspire others and myself. It was a powerful lesson for me. That lesson is far more important than my race time, and if it took collapsing and falling short of my goal to learn it; so be it. Failing was worth the lesson learned.
On that day in New York, I ran the best I could. I reached the closest thing to a perfect race. I am proud of my effort and I welcome the next marathon challenge - that is the lasting feeling of accomplishment.
One day, I will understand what running a sub-3-hour marathon feels like, but what I know today is that at least I tried. Time after time, it would have been easier to cower from the challenge, to not set it, not to publicize it, to become a prisoner of my own excuses. To not have tried to run a sub-3-hour marathon would be the ultimate failure. In that, I did not fail. I can say confidently that I succeeded.
I turned 35. With luck and continued good health, I have now probably lived 1/3 of my life. I picked up a few things from my 35 rotations around the sun.
I set myself a goal to run a marathon in under 3-hours. That’s a really fast pace for an amateur runner. But I wanted to set myself a stretch goal, diligently train and see what would happen. Could it actually be accomplished? Could I do what I had believed was impossible for me to achieve? After I raced the marathon, how did I feel? Did it feel like failure or success?