Plan Z, or How I Nearly Wasted a Perfect Day to Run a Marathon

I have seen “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” somewhere between 50 and 9,000 times. That’s a conservative estimate. Anyone who has been forced to watch a movie over and over and over (and over) again with a small child knows what I am talking about. Along with two thirds of America, I recently went through the same thing with “Frozen.” (“Let it go, let it go…”) After the first 10 viewings, my ability to critically analyze the SpongeBob movie was worn away. I can now reflexively recite lines from it, even though it has been a few years since our family’s last viewing. (There was a period when the DVD disappeared for TWO WHOLE YEARS, but miraculously, one of my kids found it deep in the bowels of an oversized green chair in our den, and then we got to watch it hundreds more times before my kids outgrew it. My lovely wife, Jen, never fully explained her role in its disappearance.)

Anyway, there is a scene near the beginning of the movie when Plankton, the rival restaurant owner to SpongeBob’s boss Mr. Krabs and his Krusty Krab restaurant, is agonizing over how to finally steal the heavily guarded Krabby Patty secret formula. In talking with his robot wife, Karen, Plankton complains that he has tried everything from Plan A to Plan Y. Karen asks, “What about Z?” Plankton says, “Z?” Karen says, “Z, the letter after Y.” Plankton looks into his file cabinet and says, “W, X, Y…Z. Plan Z! Here it is, just like you said! It’s evil. It’s diabolical. It’s lemon scented. This Plan Z can’t possibly fail!” And off the movie goes with Plankton’s Plan Z.

In the weeks leading up to a marathon, people stop me and ask me this question more than others: “So, what is your goal?” (That’s a lie. People generally avoid eye contact with me when they see me coming, and only after I track them down in store aisles or at the library do they say, “Oh, hey, guy, I didn’t see you. What’s new with you besides your running?” Then I talk about my marathon training, and they feel obligated to ask me something about it, so they usually ask about my goal.) I feel the need to come up with a specific time. Since my personal record (PR) is 3:14:14, I stick close to that and say that I am aiming for something close to my PR.

Secretly, though, there is a more fully developed plan in the back of my mind. I have several levels of goals mapped out, each one a step back from my long-shot dream time all the way to my last-ditch effort to salvage the race.


The 2014 Chicago Marathon shirt, for those people who dislike clothing that is colorful. Or attractive. Actually, it kind of works in that “Urban Bike Messenger Gray” way. But it seems as if they just wanted us to buy the more colorful (and attractive) shirts available at the marathon expo.

Going into the Chicago Marathon this fall, I had a fairly successful training season. I had been doing long runs with regularity, my speed work was consistent, and the times that I was able to run shorter races were all pointing toward a time that would be slightly better than my PR in the marathon. There are websites devoted to converting your race results in one distance to a potential result in another, using complicated algorithms and results from previous runners. Or maybe some guy in a singlet and running tights is sitting at a computer randomly typing numbers on his keyboard. Whatever the method, some of the sites are fairly accurate with their predictions. (I particularly like, but Runner’s World and McMillan Running also have decent converters.) And my predictions were coming in around 3:05 to 3:10.

These were my goals, then:

  • Plan A: 3:05, or 7:03 per mile
  • Plan B: Around my PR at 3:15, or 7:26 per mile
  • Plan C: My age-group Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3:25, or 7:49 per mile
  • Plan D (my Plan Z, really): Just finishing the marathon

The night before the marathon, Jen and I were talking about my race-pace goal. She said, “But what about your ultimate fantasy?” I said, “Do you mean the one involving Keri Russell, America’s sweetheart from the WB Network’s ‘Felicity’? I’m not sure how that applies here.” She said, “Um, no, I was talking about the marathon. And yuck.” “Oh, that,” I said. “Ultimate fantasy: Run a 3-hour marathon.” “Then why don’t you just go for it?”

Not having had trained for that particular goal, I thought it was a reach. A month before, I had run a half marathon in 1:29:02, or 6:48 per mile; a 3-hour marathon requires twice that distance at roughly the same pace, or 6:52 per mile. But the more I thought about it (the marathon thing, not the Keri Russell thing), I wondered what was holding me back from crushing the marathon in under 3 hours.

So on the morning of the race, as I was standing at the starting line with 45,000 other runners getting ready for my wave to start the race, I saw the 3:00 pacer standing there with his sign. These pacers run with a sign on a stick that must be balsa wood to be so light, and you can follow them the whole race to meet your target pace. (But only if they are good at pacing: in that half marathon that I did, the 2:15 pacer was running all by himself a few yards ahead of me, at 1:29 pace.)

On a gorgeous October morning, with temperatures a marathon-perfect 45 degrees, with a light wind and a mixture of clouds and sun, I found myself running with a massive army of 3-hour dreamers crowded around the pacer. Every mile we clicked off, I felt more empowered. “This could be the day,” I’d think. “I can do this!” At mile 5, as we ran through Lincoln Park, the crowds of spectators along the course cheered loudly as we passed. As the miles wore on, the cheers kept going. I could hear people say, “What does that sign say? Oh, these are the 3-hour marathoners!”

One of the 3-hour dreamers was a guy dressed in a Minnie Mouse outfit. I have no idea why people wear costumes to marathons. I get the idea: they want to lighten the mood and entertain the crowd. I just don’t know why they choose certain costumes. A person in a cop costume chasing a person in a robber outfit, okay, that makes sense. But in one marathon, I got passed by a guy in a hot dog costume. Why? And why, 30 seconds later, did I get passed by a guy dressed as a hamburger? So along with Minnie Mouse was someone dressed like Alien. Not an alien, mind you, but Alien, the character portrayed by James Franco in “Spring Breakers.” And yet the crowd cheered more wildly for him than for Minnie Mouse.

Anyway, I approached the halfway point (13.1 miles) on pace. I couldn’t believe I was where I was. The crowd is particularly large and loud here, as the marathon course makes a famous right turn at Franklin and Adams Streets. Jen was going to be near the 14-mile mark with one of our children, and I was nearly in tears as I got nearer to where they would be. When I saw them, I gave them a big thumbs-up and pressed onward. Just after 14, I slowed to take a Gu Gel and drink some water; when I went to pick the pace back up and catch the 3-hour pacer, I thought, “Uh oh.” I didn’t have anything left in the tank. I kept trying, but I watched the massive gang of 3-hour dreamers pull away from me. And just like that, I hit the proverbial wall. Way too early.

I had hit the wall in previous marathons at miles 18, 20, 22; heck, in the one Boston Marathon that I ran, I had an injury flareup at mile 14, but I managed to walk-run the last 12 miles. This, though, was a shock. It reminded me of that Ernest Hemingway quote from “The Sun Also Rises”: “How did you go bankrupt?” “Gradually, then suddenly.” I then realized my mistake in trying to race faster than my training would allow. But all the should-haves in the world were not going to help me in those last 12 miles.

I have a lot of mantras that I try out in the more difficult parts of long runs.  They are mental cues to keep me going and to make sure that my mind does not convince my body that it’s time to stop. Sometimes I have said, “Find another gear,” until I actually do. Sometimes it’s, “Fight and scratch and claw through every step.” Sometimes I dedicate each mile to someone in my life who means something to me. This time, though, my brain was too focused on the negative. “How am I ever going to hold on for 12 miles?” I thought. Then it was, “Well, there are 10 long miles left; what now?” But I kept going, even as my calves tightened and my quads ached. And even as everyone passed me.

By mile 18, I thought, “At least the 3:05 pacer is still behind me.” And then he passed me. “Okay,” I thought at mile 20, “I’m still in front of the 3:10 pacer.” And then he passed me. “All right,” I thought, “I still have a lead on”—then the 3:15 pacer swept by me—”are you freaking kidding me?!?”

So it was down to Plan C and Plan D/Plan Z. Get the Boston qualifier (BQ) or just finish the race. A few times, I stopped for hydration and found myself lingering near the aid stations. “It would be so easy to sit here for awhile,” I’d think before starting up after 15 seconds passed. My 6:52 pace fell to 7:30, then 8:30, then 9:30. But then I got to mile 23, which is around the point where the course turns back north almost 3 miles straight up Michigan Avenue to the finish, and I thought, “This is it. Right here, finish strong, or at least finish not-weak.” Not exactly by best mantra ever, but I like to say that whatever works for you in a marathon is what works. So “finish not-weak” it was.

And somehow, despite everything that I did to thwart my own efforts to get that BQ, despite ignoring what my training told me, going out too fast, forgetting my mental cues, and turning all negative at the least opportune stretches, I managed to avoid Plan Z and finish not-weak with a time of 3:20:10. That’s under my BQ and hopefully good enough to get me into the 2016 Boston Marathon (the 2015 one is already full).

“Finish Not-Weak.” Is that a thing now?