On March 4, 2017, I embarked on yet another 26.2-mile footrace in Albany, Georgia. Restless from a lack of sleep and stomach distress the night before, I still managed to blaze through the quaint city at a respectable 7:21 mile pace. How I felt good in that singlet as the sun warmed my back and a gentle breeze danced through my short hair. Three hours and ten minutes – or less – that was the goal for the day. The finish time? 3:12:26. I thought I would be mired in disappointment as another attempt to qualify for the famed Boston Marathon fell short, but it was a grand day. It was a bittersweet symphony.
Like other teenagers at the time in June of 1997, I was swept up in “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, an English rock band from the town of Wigan. The first track off the band’s third studio album, Urban Hymns, “Symphony” would achieve widespread critical acclaim and go on to be nominated for Best Rock Song at the 1999 Grammy Awards (“Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette took home the trophy).
Unsurprisingly, the first line of the first verse is what anchors this anthem of a song. “Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life.” Lead vocalist Richard Ashcroft speaks of the trappings of money in “Symphony,” but it’s fair to say that the whole of life is full of ups and downs, joy and sorrow – bittersweet moments in time. Running, too, is a bittersweet symphony, a dance on the roads and on the trails. For those that affix a time goal to a race, as I did in Albany, a finish will inevitably be bittersweet. Though the time may fall short, the fact that the race is completed is surely momentous nonetheless.
Running is hard. Running is a hard exercise. In the words of Adam R, creator of The Boring Runner blog, “No matter how fast you are, if it is hard, you’re probably doing it right.” Why is there such a stark dichotomy between various runs then? Why are some are fantastic and some downright awful? Low blood sugar, dehydration, too much mileage, inadequate sleep, and even weather play a role in a run that goes south quickly. I credit lack of sleep as the only culprit for my higher marathon finish time, though other runners probably deliver respectable performances at their races in spite of lackluster sack time. Bodies respond differently to race morning – or so it seems.
What’s the antidote to the bittersweet pill of a race that falls short of one’s expectations? Dean Karnazes, an accomplished ultramarathon runner, has a few words on of wisdom. “Runs end. Running doesn’t.” Suppose we take his quote a step further. “Races end. Racing doesn’t.” While I don’t anticipate another marathon for many months as my body requires ample time to heal and return to full physiological strength, I do intend to revisit the marathon again. Be it fall 2017 or winter 2018, those 2.5 minutes past the 3:10 mark must be rectified. They must be rolled back.
Why the persistence? Boston. The Boston Marathon. Here’s how Amy Hastings describes the race. “There is a unique energy surrounding the Boston Marathon that you can’t help but feel. It includes every runner and every person along the course. It brings every person there together as one.” There is no time in race history that this unity Hastings alludes to was evident like it was in 2013. Bombs ripped through the finish line, but the city rallied around the runners and spectators in a way that has never been seen before.
I’d very much like to be part of that scene, to burst down Boylston street amidst a frenzy of fans cheering on the young and the old who dare to stare down 26.2 miles on Patriots Day. In the chance that I qualify for and subsequently run Boston, I know that it too will be a bittersweet symphony. Speaking of music, I can hear the crescendo building on the streets around the United States and the world.
Pick a race. Any race. A 5K or 10K or 15K or half marathon or full marathon. Visualize the surroundings at the starting line or the finish line. What do you hear? I hear hundreds, maybe thousands, of shoes clapping across the ground; spectators are screaming out names; a band is jamming on the side of the road; clanking cowbells are filling the air; “Gonna Fly Now” (1977) is blaring from a stereo parked on the front lawn of a family. I’ve encountered all of these sounds at some point over the years. They are the soundtrack to the running life, a melody that infuses mile after mile with vigor and energy and grit. Some races are amazing and some are deflating.
Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this (running) life.