Saturday, April 28, 2018

Gratitude Versus Expectation: A Marathon Meditation

When the Boston Marathon competitors complete their dawn pilgrimage to the Starters’ Village in Hopkinton each year, the conversations turn to previous versions of the race. In 2018, as we shuffled for warmth in the pouring rain and glanced at the mounds of ice surrounding the tents, comparisons were made to the heat of 2012 and the rains of 2015. In 2019 and beyond, the weather on race day 2018 will have a special place during these pre-race chats. It will not be a mere passing point of reference drawn from a Marathon veteran’s mental scrap book, but an epic retelling requested by one who missed, escaped or avoided it. Details about the will-breaking rains and headwinds will be feasted upon by those who missed it while it evokes an un-nostalgic shiver among the narrator-survivors.

On more springlike days, there is a festival atmosphere in Hopkinton. The runners scatter and sprawl on the school fields to savour arrival and cobble together this version of prerace ritual. They stretch, splay out on the grass, and relax - zone out in their own way. Selfies at the sign marking the start are taken. In 2018, they huddled for warmth in the tents, jammed to near standstill, the runners shuffling their feet in the muddy bog as the hours to the each wave’s start slowly ticked by. There was an airport expectancy. That may be the case every year, but with the weather as bleak as it was, the race start felt more like a demanding evacuation exercise instead of a premiere sporting event couched in a century-plus of tradition.

Beyond the overnight sleet and ongoing rain, there were cold temperatures and strong winds that only promised to intensify throughout race day. Many of the spectators who brought signs to the race route eschewed the pithiest old school running signs for Pixar’s lexicon: “Just keep swimming.” The descriptions of the race weather will vary from runner to runner when these Boston veterans return to Hopkinton or the tales of this exceptionally epic iteration of the Marathon are recounted over Thursday night beers or Sunday morning long-run brunches among running clubs. 

Those volunteers hoping to collect discarded clothes on race day on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters stood in the torrents to little avail. Despite expectations of warming up, people kept their clothing on throughout and discarded little on route. If ever the temptation to drop a layer welled up, it was pounded away by a gust of wind that stunned you with a sheet of rain that metaphorically or psychologically stopped you in your tracks or sent you reeling backwards. There is the reality for some runners that it actually stopped them. As I encountered the headwinds, I dreaded the possibility of the cold rain pounding my forehead until the aching numbness of the third eye set in to double me over in a full-body wince. My thin toque managed to fend off that sensation.

Runners would admit that they really wondered why they were racing through these conditions merely for the sake of completing a marathon. For myself, a first time participant in Boston, there was only the most fleeting thought about quitting. I was propelled by the sense of privilege of being on that storied route. There was an overarching sense of pleasure in running that route and having that experience among my races. I noted but did not mind the rains and headwinds. 

As I have slowly come to realize during my previous 10 marathons, the mental component is crucial.  I ran my first Boston Marathon with a serenity that made the miles disappear behind me with little doubt or anguish about the remaining steps. When the rain made its mark it did on the day, I took the pressure off myself and proceeded. I decided the goal would be 3:40 and precisely ran that.

Coming away from the race, I have contemplating the relation or opposition between gratitude and expectation. When expressed from a more A-type mindset, expectations can quickly turn into an anvil to lug up Heartbreak Hill while a sense of gratitude can keep you steady, serene and clear of the flight or fight reactions that accompany a more tense frame of mind.

The opposition between gratitude and expectation echoes the tortoise and hare parable. The elite runners had more expectations during the 2018 Boston Marathon and the sense of gratitude had likely been eroded by years of rigorous training, top level competition and calculating each step, bite and stretch with an eye to peaking for the right races. They were working with not only higher expectations, but the calculus that amounts to risking the outcome of a future race by expending so much energy in a losing battle. To that point, it is significant that Yuki Takeuchi, the 2018 winner of the Boston Marathon runs a compulsive number of marathons, a number the limits the stakes of each individual race and, consequently, his expectations each time he toes the start line because another race is not too far down the line. (Takeuchi raced a half-marathon six days after completing Boston.) There is a willingness to seek fun rather than reward as is evidenced by his Guinness record for fastest half-marathon in a panda costume and less chance of being enslaved by an arbitrary goal such as a certain time, ranking or compensation.

The weekend warriors made up the gap between themselves and the elites, in many cases, with the sheer mass of gratitude they brought to the start line. Finding the gratitude when facing adversity — whether in running or elsewhere in life — keeps you engaged and striving, even if the progress is not evident or satisfying. Parenting, work, relationships and creating are just a few areas of life where you can be stopped in your tracks. It is common to assume or expect that things will just happen and that a high performance state will be entered with mere desire for it. However, there is slogging and strife at times. Finding the gratitude to realize that you have at that moment, the privilege, the energy and resources within to accomplish something and leave your mark is great way to actually position your self within sight of the possible. Shedding or examining your expectations and assessing your perspective at a given moment in terms of expectations and gratitude (or privilege) can reshape a challenge or a moment into one were success and contentment can outstrip frustration and hardship.

My other running posts:
Big Sur 2014 
Vancouver 2016
Nashville 2016 - missed my BQ by 9 seconds
Calgary 2017
Edmonton 2017 BQ
Portland 2017
Prelude to Boston 2018
Boston 2018 (1)

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