One of the things I love most about where I live is my proximity to Central Park. Every morning, Rubi and I walk one block to the park. We join a group of humans and dogs in a grassy area with plenty of room for the dogs to chase one another or tussle in the mud.
Close by is the road that encircles the park and often there are races. Watching them, I’m reminded of the summer I ran four half-marathons in three months. When I say “ran” think “controlled stumbling.”
I started with an app: Couch Potato to 5K. It came complete with a playlist and started with a walk/run rotation. A cheerful woman’s voice said, “Run!” and I ran; then she would call, “Walk!” and I walked. Soon I was running 5Ks, running three minutes, walking one.
Then, in November 2014, I joined a Facebook running group called CJ’s Holiday Challenge. It was focused on the two months between Thanksgiving and January 25th, and led by Coach Jenny Hadfield, a well-known running coach in the “real world.” The group was geared to folks of all ages and running abilities.
Before joining this group, I was an uninspired runner; I tried to get in three runs a week, but they weren’t very long (no more than three miles), nor were they consistent. I signed up for a 5K “race” each month, to keep me motivated. But being a part of this group opened my eyes to bigger possibilities. Suddenly, I was seeing posts from people who ran at my pace (a 13-minute mile) who were doing 10Ks and half marathons and even FULL marathons! If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I was going on sabbatical from June 1-September 10. Why not do a half marathon a month during that time?
I shared my idea with the group and asked, “Am I crazy?” The answer was an unreserved, “Yes!!” But, the other members added, in a good way.
I cemented my plan by putting it boldly in my Winter holiday letter. By mid-February I had picked out and paid for all four of my races. I was in!
When friends asked me why, it was hard to explain. I merely said I was going to learn things I needed to learn during the training runs, and the races themselves.
Here are the lessons I learned during that summer of sweat and pain.
It doesn’t matter if anyone else believes in you, if you believe in yourself.
I realized during my training that there were some caring people involved in my life that didn’t expect me to make it to my first half marathon, let alone getting through all four, people who met my training goals with disbelief and my accomplishment of them with sheer amazement. I said to one friend, after I had completed my first double digit mile training run, “You didn’t really expect me to do that, did you?” She admitted she was surprised.
Frankly, I was a little surprised by my own tenacity. It would’ve been easier to keep putting off those long runs; they took up so much time! I was slow on a good day and my average pace, as the miles increased, got slower and slower. It took 2:15 hours to run 10 miles! It required planning to make sure I had enough time to run it! But I kept faith in myself and steadily increased my miles until, four weeks before my first race, I ran 12.4 miles on a long Saturday morning. I came home from that run and, as I was gulping down a Gatorade, I suddenly burst into tears. The reality hit home then; I was doing it! I was actually training consistently for a half marathon! All those years of being non-athletic, all the friends who didn’t think I would follow through, all the times I doubted myself, were washed away in those tears. At that moment, my own belief in myself took a secure hold. It would carry me through a summer of injuries and illness, to the finish line of my final race.
The race isn’t about the starting line or the finish line; it’s about those lonely miles in between.
There’s a certain sense of excitement when the gun goes off and the race commences. For a while, I would be in the thick of a pack of runners, with many runners passing me and me passing others as we all jockeyed for position and found our paces. Soon, we would all be in our respective places that we would hold for the rest of the race. I would play “leap-frog” with a couple of the other runners at my pace. I might steadily overtake and then when my watch beeped for my one-minute walk break, they would slowly overtake me.
It wasn’t crowded there, in the middle miles. Far ahead of me were the faster runners, behind me were runners even slower than me, including those who walked the race. I was in a solitary place with only my leapfrog buddies to keep me company.
It was in those miles, alone, with no one to cheer me on, where the only sound was my labored breathing, that the true race was run. Ultimately, I would reach that glorious 13-mile marker and put what little I had left into play, crossing the finish line where cheering people waited. Then I would dazedly accept my finisher’s medal, knowing the only reason I got there was because I slogged along in those lonely middle miles, persistently putting one foot in front of the other, with no one witnessing my efforts.
When you don’t reach your goal, you get choose to focus on how much you missed it by or how close you came.
My goal was to run a sub-three-hour race.
Shortly after I had done my 12.4 training run, I had seriously injured my right knee. I rested for a few weeks but when I ran six miles the week before my first race, the pain was so great that I had to call a friend to pick me up, a couple of miles from home. I’d gone to physical therapy twice the week before that first race, and my knee was taped up using the kinesio tape. Before the race I downed 400 mg of ibuprofen and too off.
It was the Thelma and Louise half in Moab, UT, so named because the course ran along the Colorado River where the final scene in that movie was shot. The taping and drugs evidently helped because I didn’t feel any pain until mile 9. Then it came on with a vengeance. I stayed with my pace of run 3 minutes, walk one minute, the entire time and was impressed with my final time of 3:05:41.
I spent the next four weeks before my second race focusing on physical therapy for strength and recuperation, doing very little running prior to the Fourth of July race in Colorado Springs. I finished at 3:11:46. I was discouraged but it couldn’t be helped. At mile 11, my legs quit working. I switched the tempo to running 1 minute, walking 3. That was a miserable race!
Then came my third half—the Georgetown to Idaho Springs race. The on-going PT was really working; however, I had gotten a miserable cold that had kept me in bed for the better part of two weeks. Ironically, this was the best race of all! I felt like I was flying down the mountain. I abandoned the run/walk ratio of 3:1 and just ran until I felt the need to walk. Then at mile 11, my left calf starting cramping, causing my toes to spasm. I walked until it stopped, then ran again.
I crossed the finish line triumphantly with a final time of 3:00:47, just 48 seconds shy of my goal. First, I was disappointed. I kept replaying those final miles, wishing I had powered through the cramp. Then I realized that 3:00:47 was a GREAT time for me! I had a good race; a race that was fun to run!
I hoped that the Disneyland Half marathon in southern California would be my crowning glory: a race at sea level, with much better pre-race training runs. Instead, I entered this last race with trepidation. I’d hurt my back the week before and it was still painful. I again relied on the power of ibuprofen.
There were over 15,000 runners in the race, and we were set loose in corrals of hundreds of people eight minutes apart. When my corral was released, at first I tried to get ahead of the crowd. I dodged around people, tried to find openings, and was generally not having fun.
That’s when I noticed what many of the other runners were doing. The first few miles of the race wended through the streets of Disney California Adventure, then onto the streets of the Magic Kingdom itself. Hundreds of workers and many characters lined the course to cheer us on. Mickey, Minnie; Beauty, Beast; Buzz Lightyear, Woody! Runners were lining up 20 deep to have their picture taken with these luminaries.
Suddenly, I realized that all summer I’d focused on the stress, injuries, and doubts. I’d worried about, rather than rejoiced in, the races. I remembered it was never about being faster, only about finishing. It would have been easy for me to opt out of any of these races at the last minute; that I ran them all was the victory.
At that moment, I stopped jockeying for a better position and just took in the magic of Disney I snapped a couple photos as I “raced” along. I took in the cheering Disney staff and the beauty of the Happiest Place on Earth. As we entered Angel Stadium and headed down onto the field, hundreds of people in the stands cheered us on as the official game announcer welcomed us in. Towards the end cheerleaders chanted, “We are proud of you! We are proud of you!”
I’d done it: I had completed four half marathons in three months. Injuries and illnesses sidelined me, but I never gave up. The victory was mine. I became a distance runner.
While unpacking boxes in my apartment, I found my medals from those races and was filled with nostalgia. I haven’t really run since, but the lessons remain. Maybe I’ll take it up again. Central Park is just a block away, after all; and I still have that app on my phone.