About two and half years ago I learned about Girls on the Run; a nationwide running program for elementary age girls that taught teamwork, self-esteem and positive body image while training for a 5K experience. Because I was in seminary at that point, I didn’t have time to coach but I could spare one afternoon for a practice run and then the Starlight Run final event. I was partnered with a fourth grader who was on the team for her second year, Stephanie. Because of our green shirts, during the practice run, Stephanie and I talked about how the several hundred girls and their buddies looked like ants and we need to keep moving to keep our queen happy. It was a pretty successful practice and I looked forward to our final event together a month later. Unfortunately Starlight wasn’t quite so successful. My girl had a few too many energetic bursts at the beginning where she would sprint full blast for a block or two, then have to walk as she tried to catch her breath. It was a little bit frightening as I tried to keep up in downtown Portland with a girl I barely knew amid thousands of other strangers (about 500 of whom had the same shirt we did). Around halfway through the run, Stephanie got a side-ache from all of those sprints and started crying that she wanted to stop and wanted her mom. But the course was a big loop through downtown and the only way I knew to the end was forward. So for the next mile and a half, Stephanie slowly walked and cried while I tried to just keep her moving forward and distracted from the pain. I knew that if we just finished the run, that was what she would remember: finishing. Not the pain. Not the tears. Just that she had finished.
Last weekend, during the Newport Marathon, I thought a lot about Stephanie because I was having my own physical and mental breakdown. This was my second marathon and one I had been training for for months (including 3 half-marathons in about six weeks to give a good idea of a realistic time goal). I had the right outfit, the broken in but not quite done shoes, the routine breakfast, and a fully charged iPod with music and a Stephen Colbert book on tape. I also had bronchitis which had kept me up most of the night and passed out coughing the rest. Adrenaline and stubbornness got me up that morning at 5:15am, and my mom helped me get to the starting line. The first 5K loop was just fine; we wandered through a neighborhood around the park, the morning cold starting to burn off and the legs remembering what they were here for. Then it was down through a cute area of shops and restaurants that my mother and I had wandered through the night before. My favorite part was on the boardwalk; running over the wooden boards with boats lining one side and the sea air wafting in. I felt like I could run forever in that section. I had finally figured out how to use my Garmin watch (third try was the charm) so I could keep track of my pace and stick close to my 12 minute per mile goal. I slipped off during a needed porta-potty break but was basically on target for the first 16 miles. Then I started to feel exhausted and unhappy and saw myself in tears by the time I was at the finish line. My legs were okay and my feet were sore but still usable, and yet I started to just feel tired in my heart and soul. By mile 18, I knew that if I laid down on the side of the highway, I would fall asleep. I had to walk. I hated myself at that moment. I hated that I was about to fail. I had a reasonable time goal and so much training behind me, but the night without sleep was victorious. In some ways it was good that I was dehydrated because it kept me from crying, which might have freaked out the volunteers or the cheering random drivers who would pass every few minutes. I walked for about a mile before I texted my mom to share what was going on. Thanks to my iPhone, I was able to share my situation on Facebook as well, which led to some needed pick me up encouragement later on. After about a mile of walking, listening to music, and fighting to urge to just lay down, I thought of Stephanie and my belief that if she finished, that’s the memory that would last. After another mile, I was able to accept that I was not going to “run” this marathon, but I was going to “complete” it and no one would think me a failure (except myself, but I’m working on that part). I listened to the random shuffle of music on my headphones and stared at the water on my left as I slowly walked back into town. I focused on the idea of “giving in” to the exhaustion and illness I was feeling, but not “giving up” by stopping. That part I could onto: I did not stop. After about three or four miles, I was in a better mental place but still very very far from the finish line so I challenged myself to run from one light post to the next, with the promise I could then walk as much as I needed. After a few successful, though painful, attempts, I increased the distance to two light posts and then to three, still walking in between as much as I needed to breathe again. With one mile to go, and hopes to beating my previous marathon time (which it turns out, I had totally remembered wrong), I began to jog that final stretch, seeing finishers headed the other direction and the busier intersections mean that I was close to the city again. After one last panic at how to cross the street to the finish line (there was no way in h-e-double hockey sticks I was going past it to the crosswalk), I was so grateful to see my mother and receive my fused glass medal at the finish.
During my first marathon, in October 2012, I learned that I could survive running 26.2 miles. During this marathon, I learned that I could survive walking. Hopefully the Portland Marathon in October 2013 won’t require quite the same level of breakdown to have a breakthrough.