Sharks and Minnows

Photo and cropping job courtesy of Marathon Foto

When I pictured myself running the Boston Marathon, it was cruising downhill on a crisp, but sunny spring New England day. A couple weeks out, the weather forecast called for rain, and a 15 MPH wind from the west, which would be nice. The rain would be annoying, but as long as the wind was at our backs, everything would be okay. A week out, the wind forecast shifted to a 20-30 MPH headwind with temps in the high 30s and low 40s. These were some of the worst conditions the race had ever seen.

I don’t like race reports. It’s hard to go back and be in that experience once it’s over. I’ll share what got me through the experience in the hopes that these strategies will help someone else. For Boston, I thought about middle schoolers. I should probably clarify that. I’ve been coaching middle school track and field, and it’s a good thing because that last sentence would sound kind of weird otherwise.

I’ve devised a system that works for me during races. It keeps me from thinking about how much warmer and drier I would be in the medical tent, or back in my hotel room with a hot shower and a steaming cup of coffee. I think about people I love, and things in my life that I am grateful for. During Boston, I thought about my kids quite a bit. My oldest daughter will be heading off to college next year, and it’s too soon, and I’m too young and emotionally immature to handle that. I thought about how amazing she is, and that I need to tell her I love her more often.

I thought of the middle schoolers I coach, including my two younger kids. Everyone talks about how annoying middle schoolers are. Yes, they can be annoying. So annoying. They have these chemicals in them that they don’t know how to handle, so they deal with it by being loud, obnoxious, and moody. They are also amazing to be around. They’re still kids and they do kid things like dance and sing together in practice, without the self-consciousness of high school kids, or the awkwardness of adults.

There is something about watching kids run that gets me excited. Again, as a coach. They have this naturally good form. They drive their knees, and their heels come all the way up to their butt on the backswing. Their heads are up, chests are out, and their arms drive forward. What happens to runners as we age? Why do we lead with the heels? Why do we shorten our stride? Why are we stingy with our energy? I guess we’ve been burned too many times. If I started Boston as a middle schooler, I wouldn’t last 5 miles because I’d be chasing everyone who passed me and end up running sub-6 minute pace for a few miles, then walking with my hands on my head, face flushed red, and gasping for breath. But, that form, that’s what I channeled.

We play this game in practice called sharks and minnows. Even the shot-putters play it, and they actually run. Fast. It’s a common game. One person is the shark in the middle of the field, and the other 60 or 70 kids (minnows) line up on one side of the field and try to make it to the other side without getting tagged. If they’re tagged, they become sharks. This goes on for 5 or 6 rounds until everyone is chasing the last couple of minnows. The kids complain about running repeats, but when they play this game, when they are minnows, they run 100-meter times that beat anything I’ve seen them run in a race. And they’re smiling the whole time.

We lose that smile, too. I made jokes during Boston. Freezing, soaked with rain, and I would step in a puddle and yell out “dang, now I’m wet.” People around me would laugh. And then 15–20 minutes later, I’d make the same joke, and people would smile, and then 15–20 minutes later, I’d make the same joke again, and people would roll their eyes. I’m a dad, it’s what I do. It kept me going.

Have you ever seen Kipchoge run a race? He smiles like a maniac. He’s laying down 4:34/mile pace at the end of a marathon and he’s got this huge grin on his face. He says it makes him go faster. It works. It works for the kids, too. I tell them to smile during their race, but they never do. They push, they strain, they try too hard. Racing isn’t fun, sharks and minnows is fun.

I pushed too hard at Boston. In the back of my head, requalifying was a goal, so I didn’t adjust my pace for the weather. The cold, the wind and the rain took their toll, and the too-fast start caught up with me around mile 16. I slowed down (I don’t count the intentional Wellesley slowdown at mile 13). I reminded myself that running that race was a long-term goal that I had worked hard to achieve and that I was grateful and lucky to be there. I decided to just run. I stopped looking at my pace, I slowed for water at the aid stations, and I smiled.

I probably looked like an idiot as I turned down Boylston Street and the rain came at me horizontally. I didn’t care. Mouth open, arms wide, running towards the finish with my eyes closed against the rain and the wind, and letting the tears mix in with all of it.

I recognized that feeling, that middle school not caring how much is left, or who is watching, or what time I’m going to get, or how I’m going to make the two-mile post-race walk back to the hotel while dealing with hypothermia. I was fully in love with that moment, legs stretching, but not forcing anything, running like a middle schooler avoiding the sharks in the middle of the field like my life depended on it.

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