If you have been following my recent Chronicles (come on, there has to be at least 3 of you out there, right?), then you may remember that I started running. Despite my best efforts to separate myself from my husband’s runner identity, I couldn’t resist the undeniable satisfaction that comes from running through the trees, haphazardly clambering over rocks and smiling at chirping squirrels like a Disney Princess before face-planting on the dusty trail. I ran consistently for 4 months before getting knocked up for the third time. The gravity of morning sickness soon made walking to the bathroom to pee seem like an overwhelming feat, and the thought of running made me want to sink even deeper into the couch I barely moved from. Needless to say, I stopped running for a couple of months. Now in my second Trimester, I’ve started to shuffle slowly around the trails, but I wouldn’t quite call it running. Until May 2016, future running goals.
My short-lived runner life culminated in the Flagstaff trail half marathon, before the onslaught of pregnancy hormones commandeered my body and turned my demeanor akin to a perpetually hypoglycemic endurance athlete. Up until that point, the farthest distance I had ever completed was about 7 miles (one time) but my husband assured me that I would be just fine to cover the 13.1 mile distance. Being the obeisant, trusting wife that I am, I laced up my trail shoes and headed to the race. What we both didn’t know, however, was that the Flagstaff marathon is notorious for being one of the “most challenging” marathon courses in the country. Or, maybe my husband knew and consciously failed to mention it. Smart man.
I asked my husband for advice as he stood on the start line for the full marathon, which began thirty minutes before the half. Having never competed in any form of endurance sport in my life, I truly had no idea what to expect- physically or mentally. He said to drink when I was thirsty, eat if I felt hungry, and enjoy the ride. “Golden information,” I thought, but that is my husband’s race philosophy- don’t over think things, and don’t over complicate them either. Let’s use his recent experience at the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco, for example, where he schooled 90% of the competition. While everyone was divvying up their specifically flavored Gu’s in Ziploc bags and instructing their crew on which type of electrolytic beverage was needed at each particular aid station, my husband was stashing Uncrustable sandwiches into the pockets of his hydration pack and eating Tootsie rolls for breakfast. Unfortunately, I would soon discover that while this carefree strategy works for my husband- who has spent his life becoming in tune with his body- it does not work for someone like me, who often confuses thirst with the need to eat 4 chocolate chip cookies.
My husband had also advised me to go out easy, and to treat the race like a leisurely long run. That had been the plan, but as I took my own place on the starting line, a peculiar thing happened. My usual laid-back and amiable disposition quickly transformed into that of Donald Trump aggressively racing to be first in line at a toupe convention. I looked around at my competition and thought “you are all going down. I will buy all of the ginger guinea pig fur hair pieces and will be the fairest of all the land. You have NO CHANCE.” You see, the last time I had been in any sort of athletically competitive position was during my years as an elite swimmer, where every time I lined up behind the starting block, I aimed to annihilate anyone standing in my way of a gold medal. Subconsciously, this mindset obscured the obvious lack of training and experience I held for my current event as an extremely novice runner. When the race started, I took off faster than I had ever run before. Ever.
I tried my best to hang with the lead women as the course quickly began one of its infamous ascents. My lungs were burning as much as my quads and calfs, and for a brief moment, I was enjoying the thrill of adrenaline being fueled by my spirit of competition. Unfortunately, that moment was indeed very, very brief. After about 3 miles, my ambitious efforts gave way to reality as the race continued ever upward. The giant marshmallow my husband had offered me on our drive to the race- his own breakfast of choice that day- had apparently not provided enough sustenance for my body. At mile 4, I heard my husband’s familiar gait approaching from behind as the marathon course looped around, but turning my head required too much effort. I waited for him to run up to me and heard him yell “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” Apparently he had expected to see me a long time ago, crowded alongside the other runners of my amateur ability.
“I’m muther effing running,” I thought, but didn’t have enough breath the allow those words to materialize.
“Are you having fun?” he asked optimistically.
That seemingly taunting question fueled me with enough energy to yell a resounding “NO!”, and I was even shocked by the Golam-esque nature of my voice.
“SLOW DOWN!!” he advised ardently as he cruised past me to stay in the lead with Jason Wolf, another local ultra runner.
This time, I heeded his advice and slowed to a reasonable pace. People began passing me- first one by one, then in pairs, and then in droves. It was difficult not to feel discouraged and for the rest of the race, I was sure I would drop out. But at each mile marker, I told myself “just do one more mile, then you can drop out.” I guess I did that 13 times.
My legs felt stiff and were cramping like I had never before experienced. I felt overwhelmingly hot but had goosebumps all over my body (which I later learned is a sign of dehydration.) I approached the 8 mile marker, and it became blatantly apparent that 7 miles does NOT equal 13.1 miles. I grabbed 3 gummy bears and some Gatorade as I ran by the aid station with the convoluted determination not to stop. Or, perhaps more accurately, I knew that if I stopped moving my legs there was a large likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to get them going again.
Miles 9 through 11 were absolute torture leading nonstop uphill, and I inaudibly cursed the race planners as the sadistic Roman emperors they appeared to be. When I came to a fallen tree on the trail, it took nearly all of my dwindling energy to lift my aching legs to an unnaturally high level to summit it. As I mounted the log, I looked towards the sky with my hands outstretched and yelled “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!” like Russel Crowe in Gladiator. It seemed like a fitting thing to do at the time.
Luckily, the last 2 miles of the race were relatively flat, and I somehow willed my body to keep going. “The faster I run, the quicker I finish” was my mantra throughout the race, which is quite apposite to my husband’s “enjoy the ride” philosophy, but it got me to the end. I ran through the finish line and fell promptly into my husband’s sweaty arms, who had finished the race 5 minutes earlier. He had done well, although he and Jason had taken a wrong turn towards the end and in order to compensate for the half mile discrepancy, he was directed on a loop which turned his marathon into a 30 miler. Still holding my tired body in his arms, he looked at me and said with such sincerity “I’m so proud of you. That was the hardest course I’ve ever run.” I didn’t know whether I wanted to kiss him or punch him, but both options seemed to require too much effort and so we slowly hobbled over the the finishers tent.
Throughout the race, my husband’s previous assurance that pain is cyclical was the only thing that kept me going. During moments of terrible discomfort, I told myself that the agony would ebb and flow rather than intensify over the course of the race. Well, the pain was always there, but sometimes it lurked in the background like Ben Carson in the Republican debate- there but ignored with minor effort. Other times the pain was raging and indignant, but just when I thought I couldn’t handle any more, it would gradually subside and allow me to continue with tolerable discomfort.
I had a lot (a lot) of time to think during that race, and I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between my physical experience with the cyclical nature of pain, and how it relates to our everyday lives. There are often things we encounter that seem insurmountable- as though we are not emotionally equipped to deal with the burdens we face. Sometimes these periods are brief and fleeting, while other times the trials drag on inexorably. But no matter how short or long our trials last, the pain and struggle eventually subsides. It may lurk in the background, but it will become tolerable and even, at times, comfortable. Often, the thing that discourages us the most is the notion that the pain may stay in the forefront of our lives forever- whether it be grief, depression, anxiety or any other hardship. Luckily, although it may seem implausible in the thick of sorrow, the pain does indeed ebb and flow, come and go.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that achieving the seemingly impossible feat of completing my half marathon- where I was tempted and even determined stop every few minutes- made me realize that life needs to be taken one “mile” at a time. The pain of a particular life’s mile may feel unbearable, but the next mile may bring relief and even a sense of accomplishment.
So don’t drop out when your legs get tired. Just pop a few gummy bears and keep on keepin’ on. There just may be a hot, sweaty bearded man waiting for you at the finish line.