Today I completed my first half marathon.
It was hard.
Up until now, every race that I have run—a 5k, a 10k, and a 10 miler has been fairly easy. I trained for the 5k and sailed through it with newbie-runner excitement. The 10k was a bit more daunting, but I was able to find exhilaration in the challenge of pushing myself to run farther than I had ever run before. The 10 miler I was scared of, but quickly found my stride, inspired by all of the wounded warriors participating around me.
Today was nothing like any of those previous experiences. Today was hard, today was tough, today was grueling and uncertain, today was painful.
More so than with the previous three races, going into this race I knew I did not train anywhere near enough, and that I likely would not be able to run the whole thing. Though, deep down I really wanted to.
And unlike the previous three races, this race lacked a motivational cause to push me forward like the fight against cancer or support of our troops. It simply was a fun race, the Rock N’ Roll Half Marathon to be exact.
A race solely and simply about each individual runner, solely about me.
From the start of the gun, I could feel that this was going to be a difficult race.
I just wasn’t feeling loose and energized like I normally do. And my plan for the day got messed up early on when my running coach canceled on me only two hours before the start.
I was preparing to run the farthest distance on the least preparation I had ever attempted, and my coach wasn’t even going to be there to see me off.
I was nervous and feeling a bit lonely.
Then early on in the race, cramping came like I had never experienced before. It started coming on so bad that I began scanning my surroundings to see where I could bail out if needed. Of course we were in the middle of the woods, probably the worst spot to experience race trouble throughout the whole course.
And even worse, the dreaded major hill of the race was swiftly approaching.
“What do I do?” I thought.
For this race I had made a loose plan given the distance. I planned to run to mile six where the big hill would be, and then assess whether to walk or run up it. I would then continue on running to mile eight, where I would then take each mile as it came and start run/walking on and off until the finish.
I did not like this plan.
I was disappointed at the thought of having to walk any of this race. And deep down, I hoped that I could somehow run the whole thing, even the big hill.
So what did I do when the cramps hit and the big hill was now before me?
I started to slow my pace, to focus on my breath, to breathe through the pain. And then, almost naturally, my mind started repeating the mantra: “this too shall pass.” These cramps will pass, this hill will pass.
I also started thinking of the last year and a half of my life. How it was full of pain and heartbreak, and uncertainty. And how now, today, many of those things have passed. They hurt like hell, but I still continued on through the pain and the hurt. I slowed myself down, learned to be more present and mindful, focused on my breath more, and somehow made it through.
It worked again today, and I was at the top of the hill and the cramps had subsided.
Halfway through, but still a far ways to go.
As I thought, getting to mile eight from there was fairly painless. But the stretch on to mile ten was anything but easy.
My legs and my hip were aching from the pressure of caring my body for so long. And with each step I ran, I started to become fearful that they would give out on me.
I had never exerted myself this much before, never been faced with such physical exhaustion with still more to go. I considered stopping briefly just to stretch, but I was worried that it would mess up what little rhythm I had going.
So, I kept on running.
Again, flashes of my past year’s struggles started to run through my mind. And I remembered that so much of what helped me come through the other side of them was self-love.
So like in the past year, I slowed myself down a little. I focused on the ground right before me, the present. And I started to repeat the mantra “you are strong.”
It got me through to mile 11.
Trusting my gut.
At mile 11, I was not sure what the right call for my body was anymore. I really hurt, but I still had that deep desire to finish the race without stopping, without walking.
My mantras were no longer working, and I was starting to feel demoralized, lonely, and angry. I wondered if I was capable of even finishing the race.
Again, I went back to my past struggles. And thought of how lonely, and depressed, and demoralized I have felt over the last few years. And I thought of all the dirt, the challenges that life throws at you.
And then I thought of how I made it through those things with all of the above tools I have mentioned: presence, mindfulness, meditation, mantras, etc. But what made me even seek out those tools and to actually practice them was something deeper.
Something deep within always pressing me to keep going, to keep seeking happiness despite the hurt and the pain. Something that said win this battle the healthy way, the way of accepting it and facing it head on….the harder way.
And I realized that it was the same desire deep within me willing me to continue running this race, and not walk even when I was not sure if my body could carry me any further.
So I dug deep, I trusted that deep willing to persevere. I trusted myself, and I decided to finish the race running.
Mile 12 did not pass by any easier, and my coach, who was at the finish line to cheer me on, commented that she could tell that I had run the whole thing as she saw me come around the bend by the grueling look on my face. And that while she was proud of me, she was not shocked because she knew I had “gut.”
I crossed the finish line with a painful and sluggish stride, with a reserve energy that I can only describe as having come deep from within the very pit of my gut.
The same energy telling me to persevere through life’s challenges and to continue to seek happiness even when it seems impossible.
I now think that “gut” is something we all posses, we just have to dig deep and trust it more often.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Assistant: Sarah Qureshi / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photos: Bib photo provided by author/ Runner photo by U.S. Navy via flickr