When Back Up Plans Fail

I’ve advocated before for always having a back up plan, nyc-marathonbut the more I think about it that isn’t necessarily true. Having a back up plan can sometimes blows up in your face, not only once but twice.

Back in 2011 I decided to run not 1 but 2 marathons in a month, first the Chicago Marathon and then the New York City Marathon. Chicago was the ‘real’ race where I would try to run my fastest time ever (below 2:50:00) and NYC would be a running tour of the 5 Burroughs. Ideally, the latter would be more of a vacation than a race. (Yes, I’m one of those weirdos that has to be productive even on a vacation.)

Of course, it did not turn out that way. Things rarely go as perfectly as I plan. First Chicago…

The Chicago Marathon is in early October. The average high temperature for the day is about 66 +/- 10 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2011 the high temperature was closer to 90 than 80.

That weather was a clear warning sign that I should back off of my original 2:50:00-Or-Bust plan, but I ignored that. Deep down in my mind I rationalized I had a back up marathon if things got ugly in Chicago. AND…things got ugly. Go figure.

At mile 15 (of a 26.2 mile race), a running friend who was spectating saw that I struggling and jumped onto the course to give me moral support. (Technically this is illegal so s/he will remain anonymous.) The conversation went as follows:

Friend: How are you feeling?

Don: SHITTY! (While gasping for air)

Friend: Well if this isn’t your day remember that you’re running New York

Don: Don’t f***ing tell me that!!!

Friend: Oh sorry. (Steps off course to avoid taking more of my verbal abuse)

So that pep talk didn’t go as planned…

The well-meaning advice brought my subconscious back up plan to the front of my mind. I gave up less than 15 minutes later. I figured it was better to save myself now and recoup for NYC 4 weeks later. I was being “strategic”. “Thank goodness I had a back up plan”, I thought to myself.

Fast-forward 4 weeks to New York. I was going for 2:50:00 again. The weather was cool. There were no excuses this time. (Even though the NYC course is much more challenging than Chicago. Those bridges are beasts!) I was going to will myself to running my fastest time. And then the same thing happened…

I started struggling at mile 15 and things got worse from there. My legs cramped up. My stomach cramped up. (If you’re curious what that can lead to, Google “chocolate rain runner” Umm…yikes! Search at your own risk.) Nothing was going right, but I resolved to finish the race. I didn’t care about my finish time anymore. paparraziI only cared about finishing, even if I had to walk to get the finish line.

And walk I did…until I saw a friend with a camera about a half-mile from the finish. He was taking pictures of runners going by and was specifically waiting for me. He was literally waving his arms to get my attention so he could start taking photos.

No marathon spectator goes to see a friend WALK a marathon, and no self-respecting runner wants to be caught on camera walking during a race. Pride can override physical pain in brief spurts. So I started running again. It would only be for a few moments. Then I could resume walking. And then a funny thing happened…

I looked at my watch just as I passed the “1/2 Mile to Go” sign. It read 2:56:30, which meant if I ran the rest of the race in less than 3 minutes and 30 seconds (a 7:00 mile pace) I would still break 3 hours. grinchAnd the Grinch’s heart grows 3 sizes…

Breaking 3 hours may not have been my original goal, but it was still a very respectable time. (Many runners consider that time a lifetime achievement.) It would redeem me and validate my naive back up marathon plan. Did I have a 7:00 minute mile in me at that point? I didn’t know, but it was close enough that I was going to try!

I gave that last 1/2 mile everything I had. I left all of my energy on the course in Central Park. I knew it was going to be close when I crossed the finish line. It could go either way. 1 second was the difference between redemption and further public humiliation. And my finishing time…



For shame…it was so embarrassing that all I could do was laugh at myself. The back up marathon plan is a loser. There are some situations where you have to go all in and roll with the punches knowing that the shit can hit the fan and you’ll have a big mess to clean up. Running a marathon is one of them.

Thanks for reading.


P.S. In case you’re wondering, I still have yet to break 2:50:00 in a marathon.


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