Hunting the Great White Whale: A Sub-3 Boston Marathon

     “Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”
                                — Herman Melville, Moby Dick
     With a month left before the 2012 Boston Marathon, I am chasing a pointless yet irresistible target: running the race under three hours. The goal is forcing itself upon me because I ran New York City in 2h59m19 four months ago, my first so-called sub-3. Yet there’s no obligation and no obvious reward in this hunt. I am pursuing my personal record: It is I, I, that madly seekest it.
     Unlike Captain Ahab in the Herman Melville novel, I’m not seeking revenge against a gigantic white sperm whale that destroyed my boat and ate part of my leg. But I share a similar stubbornness, if not rage, in the pursuit; it’s the Captain Ahab in every marathon runner. The only way to endure self-inflicted pain for 26.2 miles (and months of preparation) is to be consumed by a sometime destructive drive toward a single goal. Like Ahab, we also ignore the sage advice of the Starbucks in our lives and make ill-fated decisions.
     “Are you ready for your race?”
     This year, as usual, I feel unprepared for the marathon. The litany of my training’s flaws is endless. I incorporated too few races, such as 5-kilometer or 10-kilometer races, which are more efficient than regular training runs. I worked too hard on my speed and tore a hamstring muscle in January: as a result, I couldn’t work hard enough on my speed in the two following months. I ran too many times alone on a treadmill, without the comforting companionship and friendly competition of fellow runners. I may have run my long runs — 20 miles or so — too fast, and as a result I may be peaking too soon. I developed shin splint on my left leg and failed to give it proper rest to heal.
     I’m familiar with the hilly course after running Boston in 2008 and 2010. What’s required to achieve a sub-3 there is simple and frightening. I would need to run the first half in 1h27 or less, matching or beating my personal record on the distance (established, ironically, during the New York City Marathon). On the second half, uphill portion, I would need to run a pace 7 minutes a mile or less: that’s about 20-30 seconds faster than my training runs. Like in New York, I would need to run full out for three hours.
     Regardless the challenges, I’m doggedly following my training plan. The sad truth is — and this is hard to admit to myself let alone write for public consumption — I might only be satisfied with 2h59m18.

     With so much energy spent toward a single goal, it’s hard to recognize satisfaction — short of the goal itself. I need to learn from Moby Dick. Captain Ahad didn’t survive his fateful chase of the great white whale, and that’s where I want the analogy to end.

By A. Burnham Shute (Moby-Dick edition – C. H. Simonds Co)

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