Engage the mind to get through the toughest miles.
I wanted to throw up, to cry, and most of all to walk.
Things were happening in my body that I had never felt before. My hips were screaming, there was an amazing sensation of pain following my IT band and curving around my left kneecap.
I have never been a runner. I completed a half marathon in September, but I have always used the activity as cross training, not my sole activity in life.
This is what marathon training does: it takes up your life. Every moment seems to be devoted to the next meal, run or rest period. This part doesn’t bother me; rather, I like the rigors of following a training plan and enjoy the running for the most part. To my surprise, I had hit a point in the training that I would rather do my long runs; I looked forward to them as something at the end of the week. They gave my mind a break to do nothing and be present with myself.
My short runs seemed annoying, and made me anxious. I loved being able to go without time constraint, and let my body and mind settle into a couple of hours of running.
Then I hit mile 18. The hips, knees and shins were all beginning to speak to me. This sounds crazy, but around mile 18 everything seems a little crazy. The voice in my head was telling me to stop and walk. My body was screaming. It was hot. I was thirsty. I think I needed to poo. Anything to get out of running. I was at the point of breaking down, the wall.
The wall is one of the most beautiful things that can happen to a person. It is the point when any activity becomes too much and the best answer is to quit. Often times the mental stamina to overcome the wall takes more than the effort to do the activity itself. This is the true breaking point of breaking open. This is the space of newness and growth.
I once had a coach tell me, “The first wall will suck, but you will get over it. The second wall will be bigger, and suck more, and hopefully you will be finished soon and you just deal. If you hit a third wall, that really sucks, they never get better and you never know when they are going to hit, but they always pass.”
Well, great. This wasn’t going anywhere. I had started to use my breath to get over it, a bit of running meditation. I was thinking it would help to keep my mind in the present, and put my mind at ease. But, what good is mediation if you really don’t want to be in the present moment?
One morning when I was getting ready to run, I looked at all the gear spread around me: iPod, watch, water pack, heart rate monitor, snacks etc. and found myself laughing. This was supposed to be freeing. The time of day when I am not at my computer. The brief moment when I could shut off the chatter and move without thinking. This was my mediation, yet it was being crowded by gadgets. Since that morning, the iPod has become frivolous and unnecessary. The sound of my feet on the gravel draws me to the moment. The sun rising is no longer accompanied by Flogging Molly or Madonna. I started to sink into the present moment in a way I never had before.
How come at mile 18 my mind could only follow the breath for .10 of a mile? Why wasn’t this working? The wall was getting bigger. Anxiety blossomed in my stomach. This had never happened on any of my shorter runs. I probed deeper into my self, yet the deeper I went, my body felt pins and needles in combination with severe doubt. I might not be able to finish.
I wanted to walk. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to stop and cry, oh what a beautiful wall. I was thrilled to think I could run 18 miles without hitting one, yet this was only mile 18. What would happen during the actual marathon?
The pavement stretched before me for what seemed like endless miles. I usually enjoy running on hilly, curvy roads, or trails. I had decided that I should start running on flat, straight, surfaces, like the marathon. Now I longed for the curvy unknown.
Vomiting was becoming the best option.
Was it my running partner that kept me going, or the sheer will to overcome the wall? I focused on the beautiful water next to me that I would jump in after the run. I fantasized about the carbonated cold beverage at the finish. I even fantasized about hitchhiking to the car. However much I tried to distract myself, my mind had its own game plan. Stay right here! There is pain that needs to be addressed! One foot in front of the other now seemed impossible. The miles wouldn’t pass quick enough.
Every book I had read about running said to make small goals. Don’t focus on the big picture, break it down. Three miles became cross this bridge, make it to the shade, now the next shade, pass the guard rail, make it to the gravel, now the pavement etc. all the way to the car.
And then I was done. Twenty two miles finished. The peak of my training program completed. I should have kissed the ground.
The lessons from that run are still sinking in. Walls will always come, but how we choose to get over them, and what we get from them is the lesson. The more I run, the more I want to see how far I can go. There is so much beauty in the present moment, sticking with the pain can be more of a reward than any distraction I allow myself. By allowing myself to really feel what is happening to my body, I am gaining more compassion for myself and others who train for events.
There is a kind of hysteria that comes after doing something entirely new. The mind opens and a new space is created for the next possibility, the next mile. Next Friday will come, and I will hit the road a little bit more humbled, a little more aware and a bit more ready for whatever my mind dishes up in the last miles.
Rebecca Schwarz is in a state of constant awareness of just how amazingly glorious this existence can be on a small island in the middle of the Pacific. Monday mornings, early morning runs, channel crossings, belly laughter and her nieces are some of her favorite things. Sweet potatoes, kale and beets make her heart happy. She is contemplating filing her plate too full with the endless amounts of things to do in this life. If you want to try your luck put a note in a bottle and hope that it reaches her, or email her email@example.com. All encouragement is appreciated regarding the marathon on 1/20/13!
Ed: Kate B,