When I began my new life as a runner, I went through most of the Couch to 5K program in the spring of 2010. In August, after reaching a reliable 30+ minute threshold of consistent running, I began training for my first marathon. And after I finished the St. Jude Marathon on December 4, I took the winter off from running…half because of a sense of entitlement, and half because I’d been contending with a knee injury and wanted to give it a good long rest before starting over again.
I returned to running in mid-February and was staggered by how hard it was to get back into it. I honestly thought I’d be able to knock out a halfway-decent 5k on my first run after two and a half months off. I even agreed to do that first run with my brother, who had started running around the time I stopped. I didn’t know then that he was fast enough, even early in his training, to run 3 miles in the time it took me to run 2…even back when I was in the peak of my ability.
So, in the past 3 months, I’ve been reconstructing things I had learned during my marathon training…some of them feel like brand-new lessons…others are things I already knew but had forgotten throughout the long period of inactivity. The Marine Corps Historic Half, which I ran on May 15, 2011 and finished in a time of 2:41:10, brought a lot of these lessons home to me, both old and new. I’ve been meaning to write them down all week, so here they are…in no particular order…just the thoughts of a newly recommitted runner.
Things I learned / re-learned / remembered during the MCM Series Historic Half….
- Walking doesn’t make the 13 miles go by faster. If I have to walk for a few minutes, fine, but I didn’t come here to walk this thing. Run as much as possible. The more I walk, the longer it is before I get to the finish line.
- The brain is a liar. The body knows what it can handle, and it can handle far more than what the brain says it can. When my mind is telling me I’m too tired to go on, and I’m close to overload, and I must stop and walk or I’LL DIE, I have to remember to say to my brain, “You’re lying. I’m not anywhere near the limit of my capability. My legs know they can keep going.”
- If I have to walk, I’d better be walking an uphill. There’s really no excuse for walking on a level stretch or a downslope, except in case of injury.
- My eventual goal is to not walk at all…I hope to run the Rock & Roll Half Marathon in Virginia Beach in September from start to finish with no walking, hills included. I will not accomplish that goal unless I start, NOW, forcing myself past the exhaustion and continuing to run when I feel like walking.
- On a related note, pushing past exhaustion is a learned thing…a skill acquired through practice. The body (and the mind) learns to overcome exhaustion by…overcoming exhaustion. I won’t learn to do it until I start doing it. I have to practice this just like I have to practice my form. I have to acquaint myself with exhaustion mindfully: learn what it feels like, pay attention to what my body feels like when I encounter it, practice the positive mental exercises that combat it, and re-train myself to welcome the feeling, not dread it. Eventually, I have to get to the point where I can feed off it.
- Mike (my brother) told me last week: “No one is making you run. You’re doing this because you decided to.” No one else in my life would care a whit if I stopped running. Whether I run or whether I don’t does not affect anyone but myself. No one else benefits from my running. It is perhaps the only thing I have ever picked up that has no value to anyone but me…which means it is perhaps the only thing I have ever done entirely for myself. Writing, crocheting afghans, teaching, the various things I do to be a friend to those around me…all those things are done at least partially for someone else’s approval…sometimes entirely for someone else’s approval. There are people in my life whose approval of my running I may crave, but that could never be enough of a reason to get me out of bed early in the morning on a Saturday to do a long run, or make me sign up for a marathon, a half-marathon, even a 10k. It’s nice to get a pat on the back for running a race, but at the end of the day, I am the one who decides to do it, and no one benefits from it but me.
- And that thought leads me to something I read just a few minutes ago…a quote from George Sheehan, one of the greatest runners in American history and winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, as quoted in A Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, by Amby Burfoot: “The most important thing I learned [about life, from running] is that there is only one runner in this race, and that is me.” My brother’s version of this sentiment on Sunday was the ever-popular “Run your own race.” Another article I read yesterday expressed it as, “Running a race is not about winning…it’s about finishing what you started.” Usually, I have no trouble remembering that it’s my race (my Camino) and that I need not compare myself to others. This has become more difficult since my older brother (my only sibling, and, as is the case with many sibling pairs, my first and most natural rival / adversary / opponent) took up running and immediately eclipsed my ability level, and by FAR. Despite his best efforts to remind me of what I already know, that I need compare myself to no one and nothing but my own PR, it is a daily struggle to overcome the all-too familiar feeling of inadequacy next to the person I have watched excel at his every endeavor for my entire 33 years. In the Historic Half, which at the last minute he decided to enter, he finished 50 minutes ahead of me and walked back along the course to run it in with me, gently urging me on all the way with praise and encouragement, sometimes from just ahead of me, sometimes in my ear over my shoulder. Once or twice he ranged farther ahead and I took the opportunity in my exhaustion to walk a moment, and then found that his purpose was to crouch and take a picture of me, and had to force myself back to a run with a wry grin, knowing that he knew full well that I wouldn’t allow myself to be photographed walking in the final stretches of the race. My brother has been a source of motivation and support, and I know that the last thing he wants is to be a source of discouragement…so I know that it must be a primary goal of my mental training to return to what I knew back when I was beginning…that winning has nothing to do with the order in which you cross the finish line. It isn’t even about crossing the finish line. It’s about crossing the threshold of your front door with your running shoes laced up, and closing that door behind you.
There is only one runner in this race, and that is me.