My fellow Hyack Masters teammate Joe ran his first half marathon a week ago and has written up a series of posts about his adventure on his blog See Joe Run. See Joe Swim. His experience strongly paralleled those of my youngest sister when she ran the LA Marathon back in ’94 or ’95, and since I’ve always intended to do a post about American Sis’s own particular talent I think this would be as good a time as any to write it.
If I can presume to say Canadian Sis and I could swim in our youth then I can also presume to say American Sis could run. Certainly her physical appearance screams runner even today. Both Canadian Sis and I ran as well, both of us competed in cross country, and we both enjoyed some moderate success. American Sis, on the other hand, was not a swimmer (though not so long ago when we were laughing at her swimming ability she told us defensively, “You know, when I go swimming people think I’m a good swimmer”), but whatever her deficiencies in swimming she more than made up for it running. She does have one other quirk which separates her from her older sister and me – she hasn’t a shred of competitiveness in her. As a child in elementary school she won everything, any and all distances and often against children years older, a true phenom. Yet after moving up to Junior High School she abruptly stopped running. I asked American Sis why she stopped preparatory to writing this post and she told me the story. It turns out in her first PE class at junior high the track coach dropped by to take a look at my sister and he and the PE teacher started discussing what events and distances the school would have her run right there in class. Now I’m sure this happens all the time when a new prospect comes in but to my sister this talk about what races she would enter smacked of ownership and impulsively she decided right then and there she wouldn’t run for them at all. And she didn’t. She waited until high school before edging back into competitive running by rejoining the track team. With her running reputation apparently still very much intact she was entered into a cross country the next week but did badly. Afterwards the coach rounded into her in front of the team for failing to put in an effort and not trying. To this day my sister is indignant about that. “I’ve never run any other race in my life harder than I did that one” she told me, and personally I think the fact she actually said ‘harder’ points to her having one of those rare off days all athletes experience once in a while, because with Sis the words hard and running just aren’t used in conjunction with each other. The pressure to win meant she quit running again. The following year, however, the school principal convinced her to help a rugby player train by running with him, and then encouraged Sis to run a little on her own. At the end of her senior year the principal approached her again, this time to run the 1,500 for the school at the high school regionals and Sis accepted. At first not taking the race very seriously she found herself with the trailing pack well behind the leaders until she decided on a whim to try to catch up. Whenever I meet up with her former high school classmates they still bring up how exciting it was to watch her move from a third of a lap behind on the final bell to second place and Provincials qualification after catching and passing one runner after another. At the Provincial High School Championships she decided to pace herself by staying with the girl who had beaten her before going into her final kick. A reasonable strategy but ultimately a failure as her chosen ‘rabbit’ wasn’t particularly competitive. Once again she found herself too far back, this time behind a quality field, and even with her now trademark closing kick she failed to medal. She did however go under five minutes, an excellent time considering her lack of training and poor tactics. And that was the end of her limited competitive career.
One day in 1994 or 1995 she called and told me she was going to run the Los Angeles Marathon, more than a little tentatively because she knows of my negative attitude about the masses’ fixation with the marathon. After asking a rather perfunctory “Why?” and then listening to the typical gibberish people spout off when they want to run the distance I inquired about her training and when she was planning to race. “Well this year’s marathon is in (whatever month it runs)”, she said, which was about six weeks off. “That’s not too bad”, I replied, my interest perking momentarily, “it’ll give you a full year of training to prepare”. “Actually”, American Sis conceded, “I’m planning to run this year’s marathon”. Well I don’t swear, especially at family, but let us just say our conversation after that was short. My mother went down to provide race support and afterwards Sis called me to fill me in on her experience. It went OK, nothing eventful happened, and though she was happy she did it she likely wouldn’t do it again. I, of course, was more interested in her time, which turned out was a couple minutes over four hours. Surprisingly slow for my sister, even taking into account she didn’t train. Some further discussion and it turned out the time was actually the official time she crossed the finish line because she didn’t bring a watch with her (so typical!). We had to adjust her time for the several minutes after the start a non-seeded runner actually takes to cross the start line to begin the race. So her ‘real’ time was closer to 3:50, marginally better but still slow given Sis’ typical running pace. Never having run a marathon I figured she must have done a lot of shuffling and left it at that. It was only when mother came home did I learn American Sis had to stop and walk for four or five miles at the 20 mile mark of the race because of severe leg cramps. That explained her time, and of course she was never going to admit her problems to me knowing my attitude about inadequate training and the marathon itself. But a sub 3:30 would have been more what I would have expected from American Sis for her first marathon ... assuming she ran the distance without breaking down, something which wasn’t possible because she sought the accomplishment of running a marathon without putting in the necessary work. That’s what happens to people who don’t prepare for a distance like the marathon properly, even those with prodigious talent like my sister. And for those readers out there who are actually still considering running a marathon some advice. Take a look at a map of your planned marathon and think if there isn’t a more reasonable distance on which to test yourself. A member of my old running club always liked saying, “If God had intended us to run more than 400 meters he wouldn’t have given us cars.” A sprinter of course. But as I grow older and wiser the common sense of that statement becomes clearer every year.