Aiming to Compete, Not Just Complete

by Mark Johnson

Burning up and exhausted, just about to finish the 2018 Bayshore Marathon

I thought my buddy Matt was joking.

There’s no way I could do it—imagine me, running 26.2 miles without stopping.


Are you crazy?

I feared Matt was just that. His texts, arguing why we absolutely had to run the 2016 Bayshore Marathon, left me grimacing. But, he said, what better way to celebrate my life-changing weight loss?

He had me there. I bulged to 317 pounds in 2016. Within the next year I shed a person, getting down to 195 pounds at my lowest, thanks to encouragement from Matt and plenty of running.

The 5Ks and 10Ks I started with proved daunting enough, leaving sweat-stained shirts and sore legs. Now Matt was talking marathons?

But, somehow, he convinced me. The idea of cutting even more off my gut and training to do something that few people even contemplate motivated me.

So I tightened my shoelaces and ran through the pain, the sock-soaking rain, face-searing wind and treacherously icy roads, with Led Zeppelin and Katy Perry roaring in cheap, off-brand headphones. “Roar” is an uplifting running song, by the way.

After a long workday spent staring at computer screens, hitting house-lined streets or winding, forested trails—and sprinting through side stitches and gasping for breath—became my masochistic norm.

And race day, sure enough, finally came.

Nerves wracked Matt and me. Hundreds of runners sported shorts, hats, singlets and brightly colored Nikes. They stretched and joked with each other, downing last sips of water before stepping to the starting line. They all seemed so confident.

I questioned whether we’d make it to mile 15.

But we ran—and walked—and ran some more. 

Mile after mile scorched my legs. Seeing my friends cheering toward the end kept me going, and then the finish line was in sight. The sheer joy of finishing and weight of the finisher’s medal sparked an addiction.

Matt and me with our medals and the sheer joy of finishing the 2016 Bayshore Marathon

The marathon craving has brought me across the same finish line every year since. I look forward to running the sun-scorched blacktop along the sparkling waters of the Grand Traverse Bay again.

But this year, it’s different. The first marathon proved I could do it. That I was strong enough. Crazy enough.

Now, I aim to compete, not just complete.

Cutting my 4:25 best to finishing below four hours is a start. Training harder to cut more—down to 3:05 or faster—gives me a shot at qualifying for Boston.

The Boston Marathon is a sacred race. I’m obsessed with it—I debate taking work off each year to watch the runners on TV, racing through nearby towns before finally finishing in Boston. The world’s greatest compete there year after year in what’s turned into a celebration of runners and patriotism.

I’d give anything to join my running heroes like Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Linden, Meb Keflezighi and the thousands more who toe the blue and yellow starting line in Hopkinton. 

I have my own group of Traverse City Track Club runners pushing me there. We meet only on Saturdays—different schedules and all that—to train. It helps knowing they’re braving the same chilly wind and icy sidewalks. It makes that blaring 5 a.m. alarmone you never get used tomore bearable.

This is what winter running in northern Michigan looks like, but runnning with a fun group helps me forget how miserable it is.

Hitting my goal looks pretty simple: Drag my drowsy behind into a running outfit; join dozens of diehard gym rats when I’d rather be alone, in the middle of a Netflix binge; and eat healthy recipes filled with vegetables and lean meat my beautiful fiancée cooked up, even though a cheesy pizza sounds amazing. Cutting back on the Friday night Miller Lites might help, too.

The supportive words, accountability and fun Matt and my running crew provide help me stomach those sacrifices. They give me confidence and make the most impossible feat seem realistic.

Like Boston. But, for now, I’ll settle for a Bayshore personal record.

Lita, my now fiancée, and me at the finish line after I finished the 2017 Bayshore Marathon.