Monday, November 1, 2010

26.2 Miles Further

Wow. One day after running my first marathon and I feel amazing. I feel like I can do anything today. Well, that’s not true. I am unable to stop smiling.

After 5 months of training 3 and 4 times a week; forfeiting my weekend nights in order to be in bed early so I could run 8, 12, 15, 20 miles at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in 90% humidity with a cruel sun beating down on me and my running partner (or a 2 hour run in the pouring rain – oh yes we did and no it was not liberating); and having to manage this huge commitment around full time graduate school, twenty hour work weeks, and Arabic classes; fighting sore muscles week after week and a strained IT-band; I did it. I ran a freaking marathon!!! And I never walked once!! I never gave up!!

Let’s talk about those last 6 miles. Miles 20 – 22 were hard. We were crossing a seemingly interminable bridge, the elements were whipping us around, and half the runners around me were walking. It was discouraging and it was silent. Everyone had lost energy and the adrenaline was gone. Disappointment was abundant on that bridge. It was every woman for herself now.

Miles 22 – 26 were insane. They were the ultimate test of perseverance. I have never felt such a mix of physical and mental exhaustion and, predominantly, fear of failure. I had missed my supporters on mile 19 and therefore hadn’t had any calories since mile 15 (they had all my Clif bars and gels). I was running on empty and my head was foggy. I felt light-headed and couldn’t concentrate to get back into my running zone. I needed food so desperately that I fought back tears of frustration. At one point, I screamed out for food and a runner threw me some jelly beans. Thanks mystery man. I nearly ate the paper wrapper. No shame.

With my body running on empty, all I had left was head and heart. So, as they say, I dug deep. I spent a mile doubting I could finish the race without walking. Then I spent a half-mile talking myself out of walking, reminding myself that training had shown me that walking is just as painful as running after 20 miles. May as well endure the pain running and get this marathon over with. Finally, I went back to the most important lesson I had taken away from 5 months of marathon training. Progress is painful and pain is progress. Pain is important and can be a positive force in our lives. Pain is a teacher.

So, as one sign read in those last 3 miles read, I “embraced the suck.” When I saw the crowds and heard the cheering at the finish line, I felt a euphoria coming over me. “Holy crap! Here it is! It’s over!” The last 0.2 mile was a hill, but I embraced that too. I sprinted up that damn hill and across the finish line. Where the hell did that energy come from? The human body is incredible.

Everyone told me that I would want to run another marathon after my first one. Had someone said that to me during mile 20-26 or right after finishing, I probably would have replied with some vulgarities. I spent 3 miles cussing my decision to run a “stupid ^%*$%#@” marathon. But today, the morning after, I am thinking it isn’t such a crazy idea. Maybe I will run a marathon again someday. First though, I need to get back to some friendships and other sources of happiness that I’ve neglected for three months.

Undoubtedly, running 26.2 miles was one of the most awesome things I have ever done. I learned so much about my body (mostly that it’s amazing) and even feel quite natural talking to, say, my knee or treating my body like a good friend. Yes, I have a relationship with my body. It has been awfully supportive of my stupid ideas (running 26.2 miles). We are buds.

I also kicked an inhaler habit during my training. Since being diagnosed with asthma at 8 years old, I have strengthened my lung capacity to 90% from running regularly for the last 6 years. Even so, I always used an inhaler before exercise as a result of some scary exercise-induced asthma attacks years ago. When I started running 10 and 12 miles, however, I realized that there was no way the steroids in my lungs were pushing me through the longer mileage. The physical need no longer a possibility, I began to think it was a mental dependency. So I stopped taking it before my runs and carried it instead. After some getting used to and rough starts, I stopped carrying it and decided that I no longer had exercise-induced asthma. The power of mind over matter.

Mostly, though, from marathon training and running as well as the onset of graduate study, I am keeping this pain theme in mind. Pain as progress; progress as painful. Perseverance and determination will get me through anything. I am often overwhelmed, stressed and tired from trying to balance far too many things in my life. I complain too much, throw pity parties, feel lost, get angry with the wrong people, lose patience and forget to have fun or relax. My ambition makes me crazy at times; I am my own worst enemy, for sure. But when I cross a 26.2 finish line, beat an chronic illness, speak in a third language, graduate with a MA – when all the work pays off – it is ALWAYS worth it.

Please forgive my complaining along the way.