On Trying (and Failing) to OTQ

By David Melly

December 10, 2019

If you want to truly see humanity in its purest form, go to the finish line of a marathon. You’ll see bodies strewn about, some wobbling upright and others pasted to the pavement, all exhausted in the same pursuit. You’ll see tears of joy and sorrow, faces lit up in triumph or vacant in defeat. What you won’t see is one ounce of pretension. Somewhere in the 26-mile journey between start and finish, everyone seems to lose their ability to care about how they appear to the world or what anyone might think of them. Destroying your body for hours tends to do that to a person.

At races like the California International Marathon, you’ll also get a chance to witness a uniquely gut-wrenching phenomenon. Twice, as the clock ticks toward 2:19:00 and 2:45:00, you’ll see the highest highs and the lowest lows of the sport of running in the course of a few seconds. At CIM, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of runners all chasing the coveted Olympic Trials qualifying standard, and the concentration of talent around that mark inevitably means that someone’s dreams will come true at 2:18:59 and someone’s heart will be broken two seconds later. Unlike the Boston Qualifying standard, which varies based on age and the number of participants signed up, the OTQ times are universal and unyielding.

In my first-ever marathon this weekend, I shot my shot at sub-2:19 and came up short. I didn’t have quite the agonizing finish that those 2:19:0x guys did, but I did have the pleasure of coming through 21 miles on 2:18 pace only to watch my pace slip, then crater, as fatigue took hold of my legs and a battle for the standard became a battle to finish in one of the longest, hardest 5Ks of my life.

On the starting line, I felt oddly calm. I’ve felt more nervous about rabbit jobs than I did for my one-shotter marathon attempt. 1 mile in, I knew it would be a good day. 10 miles in, 5:15 pace felt like any Sunday long run with the boys. Coming through halfway, I was right on pace and felt fresher than when I started. At 20 miles, I said to myself: “I have a buffer. I can do this. I’m going to do this.” Two miles later, it was a struggle just to continue putting one foot in front of the other. I hit the wall and the wall won.

In those last few miles, I thought about the people who matter most to me. On some level, running is a solitary pursuit and some underlying degree of motivation has to be intrinsic, but I find it incredibly powerful to think about the people I want to make proud, the people I love and care about who are on this journey with me. My training partner Jeff, who woke up at 5 a.m. to work out on weekdays even though he could’ve slept in. My roommate Jonny, who gives me piriformis (i.e. buttcheek) massages in exchange for beer. My teammate Cole, who took care of me when I came down with food poisoning 6 days out and was puking my guts out in the bathroom of the Tracksmith Trackhouse (sorry guys). And so many more – it truly takes a village to run a marathon.

When I crossed the finish line around the 2:22 mark, I didn’t cry. I was too empty, too hurt to do anything that rational. I think I laughed – the hollow, ominous laugh of someone who poured their heart and soul into a pursuit only to be reminded just how unforgiving the world can be sometimes. When I found my support crew on the sidelines, they hugged me and told me they loved me and were proud of me. I was proud of myself too – I truly believe I gave it my best shot, and I’m mature enough to know that 2:21:59 isn’t a bad debut – but that didn’t make it any less of a bummer.

I found my friends who qualified and gave them hugs. I found my friends who didn’t and gave them kisses. I called my parents and my coach, the three people I know will be proudest of me regardless of what the clock says.

Was it worth it? Yes. Would it have been more worth it if I had qualified? Absolutely. I’ve always been more of a competitor than a philosopher when it comes to running, and chasing a qualifying mark is more motivating to me than pursuing the vague notion of “how fast can I go?” But I don’t think I’d still be running if somewhere along the way I hadn’t accidentally fallen in love with the sport itself.

My go-to joke when people ask why I’m still at it is that “being a runner is the second-worst thing you can be, after not being a runner.” I’m infinitely more satisfied having tried and failed than having left potential untapped, having walked away wondering what if. Maybe someday I’ll wake up with no goals left to accomplish or no desire to pursue them, but until then, I’ll keep risking disappointment for a shot at fulfillment every damn time.

I’ve been to a lot of marathon finish lines and the beauty of humanity laid bare gets me every time. But CIM also let me see a different moment, one that I’ll never forget as long as I live. So many of my favorite running memories are tied to competing, scoring points for my team, and winning. But that morning in Sacramento, I ran mile after mile next to dozens of people just like me as we shared bottles, blocked wind, and chased the same dream. Not one of us cared about place; we weren’t playing a zero-sum game. Some of those runners I’ve known for years and some I’ll never know, but in those moments, we were all brothers.

Gratitude is easy on good days. The bad days force you to take stock of what’s most important to you, and for me, it’ll always be the ability of the running community to bring people together and bring out the best in all of us. It’s because of them that I know more good days aren’t too far away.

David Melly

David began contributing to CITIUS in 2018, and quickly cemented himself as an integral part of the team thanks to his quick wit, hot takes, undying love for the sport and willingness to get yelled at online.