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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Marathon: Lessons from 26.2

As of three weeks ago, I've completed four marathons. I started five, but one race (Chicago- my second) got canceled mid-race due to crazily hot and humid weather on race day. I'm a slow runner and I'm not so passionate about running that I lace up daily or even close to daily. But I like the challenge of the marathon. The lessons from the training process and the race itself go beyond running and exercise: they carry themselves into the broader picture.

I'd like to say I only needed to run one marathon to solidly learn what I needed to and that I ran the rest just for fun. I couldn't say that without my nose growing a few inches. I need the reminders that come with preparing for and running the race.  Let me share a bit of what I've gleened:

1) Know when it's time to slow down or even stop. 

Running many miles takes its toll on the body.  At various points during my training, my body didn't respond to running with the grace I'd hoped.  I had problems with my calves- a part of me that had never plagued me before- and my feet, and my shins. As a result of the persistent pain that worked it's way through me (or really mostly just through my left leg), during some of my progressively longer long runs, I did a lot of walking.  The heat (even in a milder-than-usual summer), which I regard as my exercise arch-nemesis, didn't help. A couple of weekends I skipped my long runs altogether, thanks to the sage advice of my coach and my chiropractor (more about them later). What my body needed those weekends was not to be pushed further, but to rest and heal.

It's not always easy to know when to push through pain and when to tend to it.  Striking that balance is not easy (for me) in training or in life. I am constantly pressing the outer edges of my limits, with the hope that the perimeter of my ability may continue to stretch.  Stepping away from the boundaries and back into the middle for rest is vital.  Doing so allows us to approach the limits again with renewed strength and energy to keep pushing.

2) Listen to people who know more than you; seek them out. 

I was fortunate enough to have a running coach and a chiropractor who played major roles in my making it first to the start line and ultimately to the finish. One day when I asked my coach about the persistent pain in my calf, she advised me to take a couple of weeks off of running.  I looked her in the eye and said, "I know you're probably right, but I'm standing here looking at you and trying to decide if I'm going to follow your advice."

She replied, "You can stop running and allow your body to heal or you can keep running, injure yourself worse, and never make it to the race or even risk more permanent damage. Your choice." When I went to my chiropractor hoping for a different response, he only reinforced what my coach had said. I heeded their advice. After a couple weeks of crosstraining, I started running again.

Later as another niggling pain made an appearance…and then stuck around, I was again advised to skip the weekend long run and instead cross train. I biked that weekend, working the muscles that I wanted to work, but relieving my body from the pavement pounding that was the source of my problem.

It is important to set aside ego and bravado when people who know more than we do and who have our best interest at heart speak to us.

3) This is not a solo gig.

I ran many of my long runs and the race by myself…but not really. Thinking that's the case is a denial of the people who deserve better than to be ignored or forgotten. A friend offered to run parts of my long runs with me.  She was with me for a few miles of my best training run and my worst. On the day of my worst run, I was demoralized almost from the get-go.  It was horribly hot and humid and I just didn't feel great. Without her I'm not sure I'd have had the heart to keep running that day. Without her on the day of my best run, I'm sure it would have been a little less grand as she helped me to set a good pace. On race day, she sent me a text saying she'd be running some "solidarity miles" with me.  It was great to think of that as I ran.

All through training, friends, family and people from my running group checked in with me: "How's training?" "How soon is the race?" "Are you excited?" "Are you ready?" They encouraged me: "I saw you running. You looked strong!" "You'll do great!" "You are ready!"

My parents travelled with me to the Twin Cities. As I ran, they spent the morning moving from spot to spot along the course, cheering for me as they shivered in the cold (while I ran in short pants and short sleeves). I also benefitted from the thousands of cheering strangers along the course, the amusing signs they'd made, the volunteers at the race expo and at water stations along the 26.2, the massage therapist students giving free 10-minute massages after the race (and my own massage therapist who took extra time to knead out the aches and pains still present a couple days after the race). When I finished the race I received so many congratulations and affirmations.  Without so many people rallying for me, or more plainly put, loving me in big and small ways, I cannnot imagine running a marathon or, for that matter, doing much of anything I've been able to do in my life.

4) Perspective is important. 

I had a time goal for this race, a time I'd narrowly missed when I ran my first marathon. When I started the race, I was right on pace.  I felt great. I ran the first half, not even walking through water stops. Mid-race as I felt myself getting tired, I decided to slow down for a mile or two, with the aim of speeding back up again to finish the race.

After a couple of slow miles, I took a reality check. I saw two options: 1) try to speed back up, be miserable for 2 1/2-ish hours (as I said, I'm pretty slow) and probably still not meet my goal or 2) keep running and walking, perhaps slower than I "could" while enjoying the sights and sounds around me. I opted for #2. My time was about 20 minutes slower than my goal, but I ran and walked the second half relaxed and very often with a smile on my face.  The smile grew as I neared and crossed the finish line.

I am no more or less compassionate because of my race time. I am not a better or worse writer or singer or sister or friend because of my race time. No one likes me any more or less because of my race time.  I think the same could be said if I didn't finish the race… or start it. There are goals I set for myself that do have potential to help me live more compassionately or to change the world for the better. The number of hours it takes me to run 26.2 miles isn't one of them.

It is important to assess what really matters and what really doesn't. If it doesn't matter, it's not worth stressing over.


Almost as soon as I finished the marathon, I started thinking about running the next one. Maybe that's me telling myself I have more lessons to learn. Maybe somewhere deep I know I still need to learn these lessons better.  Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment. I don't know. I'll let you know after I cross another line after 26.2.

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