by Dante Zappala
I make the turn on the Falls Bridge from MLK Drive to Kelly Drive. And I’m rolling. I’m halfway into a seven-mile, steady state run. The goal is to run at target half-marathon pace. The workout is designed as a check-in with myself: I need to know what I’m capable of when the moment comes at the Philly Half Marathon in November.
The Drives have markers every quarter mile, so I am peeking at my watch and interpreting the splits through my various gauges: the soreness in my legs, the intensity of my breathing, my overall sense of fatigue. Is this really half marathon pace or is it seven-mile race pace? Am I being honest with this effort, or am I just trying to impress myself? Can I really hold this for 13 miles if I have to?
I have to keep asking myself because every time I click the lap button at each successive mile marker, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. This is a good 10 seconds faster per mile than what I did during this same run six weeks ago.
I charge down a short decline onto the east side of the river. I’m running downwind and downstream now. The pace picks up. This is the truth.
Knowing the truth is the most important tool we have as runners. This is not a sport you can fake. You are either in shape to run a certain time or you are not. Many factors may prevent you from actually running that time, even if you are in shape. But the opposite is never true. Miracles don’t happen in distance running. Every achievement is the result of a proportional amount of work.
At the same time, it is very easy to lie to ourselves. Workouts are designed to give us a desired adaption. In the case of my seven-mile, steady state run, I want to train my body to be efficient at race pace without completing the entire race. While running 13 miles at this effort is the ultimate goal, if I tried to do it in training, I’d possibly fail because of the cumulative fatigue of the workouts I had done in the days prior. And I would certainly compromise future workouts with the added recovery I’d need.
The principle is to not race in training. It takes away more than it gives. Therefore, the specific challenge in these workouts is not to go as fast as I possibly can go for seven miles. The challenge is to first discover and then get intimately familiar with a certain tempo. In mile six, I stepped slightly over the line, not even three seconds per mile, but I knew it and backed down by just that much.
The truth can serve as inspiration as much as it can be humbling. Truth is inconvenient. No matter, it is always revealing. I have all these great clichés to describe what I’m feeling as I take a self-imposed day or two break. In the days since that spectacular training run, I had several not so spectacular runs. I also tweaked my back doing something innocuous around the house and took a knee to the chest while wrestling with my recently yellow-belted 8 year old. Bending down and deep breathing hurts. This is less than ideal when it comes to running.
Despite that, I set out to do a similar workout, but on the track this time – 3 x 2 miles at slightly below race pace with a quarter-mile jog in between. My goose was cooked after the first rep. I inexplicably did the second but mustered the common sense to stop right there. The cliché filled my mind. The truth freaking hurts.
A certain other truth has filled the headlines this week. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon has been deliberately withholding information about the number of chemical weapons that were found in Iraq during our most recent war there. More than 5,000 chemical warheads were discovered and almost immediately, their finds were covered up.
The reason is that these finds didn’t actually support our rationale for war. They did not prove that Iraq had an active WMD program. These weapons were relics; products of the pre-First Gulf War era, a time when the United States was complicit in helping to manufacture and supply these weapons.
This truth is deeply personal for me. My brother served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and in 2004 was killed when his team inspected a suspected chemical weapons factory and the building exploded. That factory had no active program. I still don’t know why it blew up. But the consequence is unchanged. Sherwood is forever gone, and our campaign after his death to end the war was largely predicated on the fact that the threat of chemical weapons did not exist.
This revelation does not change much of that narrative. In fact, it further compounds the negligence, hubris and deception that led us to re-invade Iraq in 2003. The soldiers that made these discoveries of degrading chemical weapons buried in the sand suffered significant injuries as a result. Because the weapons they found didn’t exist in the eyes of their superiors, they were denied treatment and medals.
Here we have yet one more tragedy of the Iraq war directly attributable to lies. This is the problem with the truth: it is both patient and stubborn. Efforts to suppress it make it even more potent when it inevitably burrows its way to the surface.
Eventually, we’ll know it for ourselves. We’ll know a few miles from the finish line. We’ll know when we look our veterans and our widows in the eyes and tell them how much we appreciate their sacrifice. Because in these instances, we cannot do anything but reckon with ourselves and flashback in our minds.
In the buildup to this occasion, were we honest or were we seduced by the lies? These moments are either filled with the substance to carry on with purpose and dignity or they are completely hollow, forcing us to traverse the black hole of our own fraudulence. There is nothing in between.
And still, either way, it’s the truth.