words by Scott Smith
“Well, Scott. We’ve got a long ways to go.”
Blunt but ultimately sincere words from Coach Ben Rosario after I had just run probably the worst half marathon of my life (which unfortunately is saying something). I knew he was right; the clock is a cruel but fair judge and I had just ran two minutes slower than what the leaders at the Marathon Project would be coming through the halfway mark in just under two months. If I wanted to be part of that group there was a long ways to go indeed.
Summer training in Flagstaff is traditionally when I get the most motivated and subsequently the most fit. However, this year, with what little was on the schedule race wise, that motivation waned enough to never harvest any of that subsequent fitness. This sport is tough enough when you’re at your best, and when you’re anything less than that it will expose you. All I could muster through the summer of 2020 were some mediocre, at best, pace jobs for my teammates and one good 400 as the anchor of a 2×400 with Kellyn during an intrasquad meet, which we won. When I found out the Marathon Project was going to officially happen I was ecstatic. I was towing a semis worth of withdrawn incentive, and it takes some effort to get those rigs turned around in a short time. Immediately following the half marathon I headed to Flagstaff to, in the words of a text my wife sent to Scott Fauble, “get [my] butt in shape.” The first workout back in Flagstaff was a fartlek during the later miles of a long run. It shouldn’t have been near as difficult as it was, and I was getting dropped early. About halfway through it became readily apparent this semi would be needing a wide berth to get headed back in the proper direction. I took a quick pit stop to throw myself a little existential pity party on the side of A1 Mountain Road and then proceeded to finish up well behind the other guys. That evening as I lay in bed wondering how in the world I was supposed to get through this segment, I committed myself to enjoying it. Yes, it was absolutely forced at first and even on easy runs I would incessantly remind myself “You like this. You enjoy being around your teammates. You have fun. This is fun.” I force fed myself the positivity needed to find enjoyment until I tolerated the taste.
It would be disingenuous to say the segment went amazing from that point on. It did, thanks in large parts to my teammates, go much better than it would have on my own. Well enough to believe that I was in at least as good of shape as when I ran 2:11 in Chicago. The conundrum I found myself in was that it didn’t go THAT much better. I wasn’t sure 64:30 through half was something I was capable of, first even doing, and second not having it cause me to crash and burn the semi, that I had worked so hard to turn around, into a fiery wreck. At one point I resigned myself to the 2:11 group, telling myself that I could still have a great day going out a bit slower. A small part of me that eventually grew into the whole part of me knew that there could be some regret in that decision. Through some conversations with old teammates and friends I eventually came to the conclusion that there really was nothing to lose. I didn’t think I would regret going out with the front group and blowing up as much as I would regret going with the second group, having a good day, and wondering what would have happened if I went with the leaders. And as Tulsa troubadour John Moreland sings, “There ain’t no glory in regret.”
The race itself was uneventful for the first 20 miles, which is exactly what you hope for in a marathon. But my body certainly felt the pace earlier than normal, as this was the fastest I had ever gone out. The pacers, Frank Lara and Mason Ferlic, were absolute metronomes out there and couldn’t have made the journey any smoother, which definitely helped. As I came through the half two minutes faster than I ran less than two months earlier, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself that I had already come a pretty long way. The real racing lay ahead though, but I felt so good that I periodically would remind myself, “You belong here, you’re going to win this thing.”
After another routine fourth loop and heading into mile 18 or so, I could tell the pace had taken a toll on some, but the group was still large. “One more loop,” I told myself, which would put us around the 22 mile mark. If I could get there nothing else mattered. The previous hour and fifty minutes didn’t matter, the guys’ accomplishments around me didn’t matter. All that mattered was covering that last loop faster than everyone else. As I came into the last loop, my dad provided a less than eloquent but poignant reminder of this by yelling, “Race these guys, Scotty, race these guys!” (That’s just a brief insight into the expert level coaching our youth teams received with him at the helm. I’d put our combined winning percentage around .500.) Shortly before the final loop, Mick Iacofano, an athlete I actually didn’t know, went to the lead. A belief I’ve always tried to subscribe to is that there are no credentials during the final miles of a marathon. Generally, this is a tool for me to rationalize competing against guys who may be better on paper. However, it works both ways and while I didn’t know who Mick was, I knew he looked strong and he was to be taken seriously. I now know the name Mick Iacofano.
The next move somewhere in the 22nd mile came swift and it came strong—initiated by former teammate and superhuman, Martin Hehir. I did my best to cover his 4:50 22nd mile but it eventually broke me and the rest of the field as he was able to stay clear for the win despite a tenacious last few miles from Noah “the Drodfather” Droddy. (I used this nickname once before in a strange article I wrote about racing with a mustache, but I’m not sure anyone read it so I’m gonna throw it out again here and see if it sticks.) With a couple miles to go Fauble came by me and offered some words of encouragement. I was unable to really stick with him, but I know Scott never really dies at the end of races so if I could stay close I probably was running well too. Another “surprise 2:09 guy,” Ian Butler, came up on me somewhere around 40k. I was able to latch on to him, and we traded back and forth for a bit. At 800 to go Ben was barking out “2:07:14, 2:07:15!” I don’t race with a watch and Marty was too far ahead for me to hear the splits from the lead truck anymore. I was pleasantly surprised when my oxygen deprived brain cells crunched the numbers and relayed to my body that we only needed 5:30 pace the last half mile to break 2:10. A barrier I revered. A barrier I knew at certain points in my career I was in good enough shape to take a crack at but began to wonder if maybe those days were behind me.
As I realized my final time was going to be under 2:10, I felt a sensation I can only recall experiencing once before in my career: when I finally won a conference championship my fifth year in the 1500, after a handful of podium finishes in various events. The feeling of unburdening relief. The feeling that comes with physically actualizing a notion you knew to be true, but was taking so long to manifest you allowed yourself to wonder if it bordered on a fib. A fib that may have started to seem like delusion so much you double check with your wife to make sure the clock was correct upon finishing. She assured me it was.
Regardless of what happens moving forward with my career, I feel like this performance provided me some level of closure. Despite not switching teams a bunch, I feel like I have had something of a journeyman career. I don’t have any standout performances, just some solid results. I have been sixth at the Boston Marathon, which under normal circumstances would have provided me that ease of mind that all this toil and strife was not in vain. But, while I am immensely proud of that sixth at the 2018 Boston apocalypse, I didn’t learn a whole lot from that race. It was absolutely the fittest I have ever been and I thought under normal circumstances a top 10 performance and whatever subsequent time that produced would have been warranted. When Ben and I debriefed about the race it was a short meeting, as we didn’t have the opportunity to glean any training insight from what may very well be my favorite race. I have always wondered if that sixth place was kind of a fluke and maybe I was just the sixth-fastest person not to get hypothermic. That still might be the case, but now I have a time I am equally as proud of to back up that performance. I know there were at least a few people who may have not expected a 2:09 out of me, but I’ve tried to never concern myself with the opinion of people who thought I couldn’t do something. Granted, I also have never really been good enough to have people come out and say I can’t do something. So maybe that has made it easier to care more about proving people right than wrong. The people who believe in me at times believe in me more than I do. I get far more satisfaction out of proving those people right than proving anyone wrong. Those people who are proven right don’t need me to affirm their belief. They will be there for me whether my performances match their expectation or not. It just feels nice to validate their belief in me, and ultimately my belief in me
We’ve come a long ways.