The Boston-Qualifying Mindset

“Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.” – Thomas Watson, IBM

I just came across this quote in a blog post called Failure Club, by Eric at Roc the Run. The post is about Eric’s dedication to qualify for the Boston Marathon, no matter how badly he has to fail in order to get there. For me, it was an incredibly moving post to read.

The best part? Eric is not even close to qualifying right now.

You know that please-let-this-be-over-before-I-puke feeling that it takes to run a 5K PR? Well, to qualify for Boston, Eric would need to hold his current best 5K pace for an entire marathon.

But you know what? I think he will do it.

How can I say this, when I don’t know anything else about him? Because his post grabbed hold of my soul and shook it, the way a piece of music, a line in a favorite book, or the smile of your child does, when you recognize in it something that is purely, unmistakably you.

This is the mindset that it takes to BQ

A lot of people have asked me how in the world I qualified for Boston, when my early marathon results showed nothing that could be mistaken for even slightest bit of natural talent for running.

To answer the question, it’s simple to list the steps I took to stop getting injured and eventually get faster. Proper cadence, foam rolling, speed workouts, long runs that approached goal pace.

What takes much, much more explaining — and without which the other stuff wouldn’t have ever had the chance to happen — is the mindset that was required.

The hardest part, I tell them, was to actually believe, after I finished my first marathon in a painful 4:53:41, that somewhere I still had a 3:10 in me (the Boston-qualifying time that I had naively penciled in as my projected finish when I registered).

I told myself that I was slow because my training was weak due to injuries. “Once I figure out how to keep my shins healthy and complete a full training program, then I’ll qualify.”

Three and a half years later, I figured out how to keep my shins healthy, and I ran my second marathon — a full hour faster than the first. Finally, I felt like I had really “run” my marathon.

Reality struck when I realized I was still 43 minutes away from Boston, and my ace had already been played.

Where the heck was I going to find another minute and a half per mile to shave off?

Be willing to fail, again and again

In a way, it was like those cults you hear about every so often, the ones who publicly predict a doomsday date in the weeks ahead. They fully believe what they’re telling everyone — but then what happens when the date passes without so much as a thunderstorm, and they’re proven indisputably wrong? They simply find a miscalculation, revise their prediction, and go back to believing again.

That was my trick too: with each subsequent marathon, I found another reason to grab onto, in order to convince myself that this one would be my Boston qualifier.

What’s different between this mental sleight-of-hand of mine, and that of the end-of-days cult, is that my evolving belief was backed up by slow, but steady, progress. Real progress, the kind that comes from “being doubled over on my knees, sucking wind at the end of another 400 meter repeat,” as Eric correctly imagines his qualifying will require.

And so I put everything I had into qualifying for Boston. I read books. I learned new ways to train. I incorporated more speedwork, more hills, more tempo runs, better nutrition. I told all my friends that I was going to qualify, and that they should come watch me to do it.

Not someday, but this time. And I believed every word of it. What happened?

I failed.

Then I failed again.

And then I failed again.

And finally, one time, I didn’t fail. At the Wineglass Marathon in October 2009, I ran my BQ, after seven years of trying.

Five failures, one success. But that success is what I’ll remember when I’m 70 as one of the biggest victories of my life.

Eric’s post resonates with me so strongly because, in just a few lines, it captures perfectly what it felt like to be so determined and so focused on one thing — to know that this huge goal, which should have seemed impossible, was instead inevitable.

If running Boston is on your bucket list, then I suggest you read Eric’s post and adopt that mindset too.

Photo by Susanna Bolle.



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  1. Sweet post — if you don’t try you’ve already failed. I’m going to run my first marathon in June. Prior to starting my training in September, I had never run more than 5.5 miles; last Sunday I ran 10, the furthest I’ve ever run, and this Sundary I will run 12. But here’s the crazy part, the part that until now I have only told a select few, this marathon is just training for the 100 mile ultra marathon that I will run next year. I might be headed towards failure, but I am going full-steam ahead.

  2. Nice post Matt and the project you and Jason have in the works TOTALLY has my curiosity buzzing! I ran my first marathon this past October and was able to pull a sub 4 after 2 years of running (and being an old guy of 46…lol). I might as well set my sights high and see what is possible and if it doesnt happen….then I’ll know! Thanks Matt!

  3. Love this post. I am female, 46, so my qualifying time is, well, pretty darn easy compared to you men. But that doesn’t mean I don’t shoot to better myself every time and that I don’t have goals that go well beyond my qualifying time. So I completely relate to this post. Well done.

  4. Thanks for the share, and the confidence. I will get there I am sure of it!! See you in boston some day 🙂

  5. Love this post and love hearing from others with the same mindset! I am 11 weeks out from my second full and my stretch goal is a 35min PR which would get me my BQ. Most people think I am crazy but I believe it is totally doable 🙂

  6. Oh wow. This is so awesome! I love this post and hung on every word. I’m a 35 year old mom of three. My youngest child turned 1 yesterday and I am training for my first BQ 🙂 i ran my first marathon in over 5 hours and my slowest in over 5:30. Until this fall my PR was a 4:35:09. In October I ran my 8th marathon in 3:41:56. It was a 54 minute PR for me! But I missed my BQ by less than 2 minutes. I am not giving up! I don’t care how many times I have to fail. I will keep fighting and it will be worth it! I can’t wait to go check out Jason’s and Eric’s posts.

  7. I just recently found your blog. I am so impressed with all the great info. I find so many vegan sites have mostly indulgent and junk food recipes. It is really refreshing. I try to focus my blog on whole food recipes that can help your body, not just kill the cravings for omni meals. Thanks for all the great info, you a re doing a great job spreading the vegan word. Good luck in your marathon.

  8. Thank you so much for this post! I don’t think it could have come at a better time. Last Sunday I ran the Miami Marathon in 3:35:05…5 seconds shy of the new BQ time for females 18-34. I “sprinted” the last 1/2 mile at a 6:30 pace and watched the seconds fall with the finish line in sight. Last year I ran Disney and missed the old qualifying time by 56 seconds. It has been a heart wrenching journey, but I know my race will come 🙂 Happy Running!

  9. Thanks for this – really interesting approach to the idea of fsilure 🙂

    I only discovered this blog last week and have already gone through all your archive. Excellent resource. Thanks

  10. I ran my first marathon in Oct 2008 in 4:21 and thought what it would be like to BQ (3:15:59 then). I started working towards it and have had a few setbacks but have made big improvements.

    Oct 2008 – 4:21:24 (Hartford, CT)
    Nov 2009 – 3:56:25 (Philadelphia)
    Jul 2010 – 3:40:56 (San Francisco)
    Nov 2010 – 3:39:16 (New York City)
    May 2011 – DNF (Vermont)
    Nov 2011 – 3:16:37 (New York City)

    In November I attempted a sub 3:10 (the revised target) in New York City and finished in 3:16 on what is not exactly an easy course. I know I just need to keep improving and soon I’ll be there.

    Thanks Matt for reminding me that while I’m accumulating failures in my quest for a BQ – I’m getting closer everyday. See you in DC.

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