Training for a marathon may be one of the most selfish things a parent with young children can do. You're taking off maybe four times a week for an hour or more, running between six and 10 miles. You spend practically an entire morning each weekend jogging increasingly ridiculous distances, to the point that you're worthless afterward - can't hardly walk, much less pick up your child.
But that's exactly what I spent these winter months doing, despite the needs of my toddler son and my pregnant wife, who works full-time, all in preparation for the L.A. Marathon March 9.
My father took up marathoning shortly after the birth of his first kid (me), and we've joked that its appeal is the chance to literally run away from your responsibilities. But usually neglectful parenting is in the name of something ostensibly fun - becoming an alcoholic or a meth addict, maybe, or at least befriending strippers. This was in the name of near-torture. Getting out of bed super early to run along city streets before the sun is up can be as unpleasant as it sounds.
The thing is, you feel great afterwards (and sometimes during). That "runner's high" is a big part of what hooks people. But like any high, before long you're chasing it, again literally. After a while 10 miles doesn't get you that same great feeling, and 16 miles makes you feel like shit. (After a really long run you just want some Advil and a nap.)
Worst of all, for me, six weeks out, my training was interrupted by sharp knee pain, diagnosed as IT band syndrome, which typically befalls runners who build their mileage too quickly. I got a cortisone shot and then spent two hours a week with a physical therapist, keeping me from my family even more.
Why did I keep on? It was nice to maintain a tradition started by my father: He was an elite marathoner, and my own speedy half-marathon in the fall hinted that I might have a bit of his genetic spark.
But what it really comes down to is vanity.
I could have run a few miles every other day, for fitness, with far less damage to my body, and my family life. But it's nice to feel good at something, and there's a weird "warrior" mentality that's tied up in athletic prowess and other non-politically correct subjects. For some reason running a marathon impresses people, much more than, say, playing on a softball team.
Most everyone applauded my effort, even my wife, God bless her: For some reason, society lionizes distance runners, despite the fact that it's not at all healthy. (People die.) Even my Episcopal priest was impressed. "Those races are always a kind of spiritual exercise in my estimation," she told me. "Between the discipline of training and the achievement of completing it, it's definitely a way of honoring the Holy One with our God-given bodies."
Plus, after all those diapers changed, all those hours trying to coerce my son into brushing his teeth, this was something for me. It quickly became a large, nerdy part of my identity. I talked for hours with fellow runners about jogger's nipple, goo, and foam rollers.
Plus I knew that, in my mid-30s, my body would be incapable of fast times before too long. And so I set a lofty goal: to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which for a man my age would require a time of 3 hours and 10 minutes. Sure, that's much slower than the Ethiopians who won L.A. this year (the top man ran 2:10, the top woman 2:27), but it's still a tough challenge.
Rebounding from injury, I intensified my training, culminating in a 20-mile run three weeks before the big event. Covered in sweat and my own salt, I needed a shower badly, but couldn't make it past the refrigerator without stuffing cold leftovers in my face. (Another benefit of training: eating whatever you want.) My pace was good, though not Boston fast. Still, folks assured me that the roar of the crowd - as well as three weeks of tapered training - would propel me to speeds unmatched.
It wasn't the case. That morning, clocks sprung forward, meaning I was up at essentially 3 am to catch a shuttle to the starting line at Dodger Stadium. Once I arrived there were 25-minute lines to the bathroom, and since I hadn't earned an elite "corral" start near the front, a 25,000-person traffic jam slowed us all at first.
Despite warnings from, um, everyone, I began sprinting as soon as I could, zigging and zagging around other runners, swinging wide around intersections. Foolishly determined, I passed more than 8,000 people in my first 10k (as I would later learn from my "splits" report), probably adding nearly a mile onto my race. Folks, this is not how you run a marathon..
By mile 18 I was bushed. (One onlooker asked if I needed aid assistance.) My entire body begged for mercy, and I resorted to walking for stretches. Somehow, though, I sprinted that final mile.
That may have done me in. I raised my arms as I crossed the finish line, but could barely move the rest of the day. I was dehydrated, nauseous, and, despite a traumatic ice bath, sore below my waist to the point of barely being able to walk. My son asked me to spin him around in circles the way we like to do, but I couldn't pick him up.
My time, 3:23, was respectable, though well short of Boston and my Dad's great times. But I felt foolish. I'd inconvenienced my family for months for the purpose of causing myself the greatest pain I'd ever experienced?
In this way, perhaps I could relate to my wife. We speculated that a marathon is the closest a man can come to understanding what childbirth is like. And that's not the only similarity: While I immediately swore I'd never do it again, my wife noted that many post-delivery women swear the same thing, until the pain memories subside a year or two later and the process repeats itself.
For me, it didn't even take that long. Within days I was already contemplating how I could do better.
But this time I'm going to do it differently. I talked to my mother about how she dealt with my Dad being out of the house all the time running; after all, before long there were three of us kids. She says that, beyond the extra household duties, she just didn't feel like a cheerleader.
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"I got annoyed with the runners for being so full of themselves and not being appreciative of my support," she says, adding: "Yet it is a big achievement - I knew I shouldn't be so petty as to object to the moments of glory."
I've certainly been quite full of myself, which is why, the next time, there will be no more quest for glory. To qualify for Boston, I'd probably need to train twice as hard - my Dad ran 100 miles at week, almost double my peak. But I'm not going to do it.
I'm will keep running, but sensibly, with respect for my family's needs. After all, the next time I cross a finish line, there will be not one but two tiny little faces waiting for me.