I’ve had people ask me in the past if my running obsession is linked to a need to feel “in control,” and I think I’ve probably alluded to or demonstrated numerous times that it is. I get weird satisfaction in crossing out a completed training run off of a training plan, and even weirder satisfaction when once all of the runs prescribed to me for a week have been crossed off. And honestly, some of the more accomplished-feeling moments of my life have been when I notice that a certain amount of work (i.e. training) I’ve put into something has resulted in a specific, desired outcome (i.e. a strong run, a fast race time, a PR, or all of the above). Qualifying for the Boston Marathon at the 2014 Detroit Free Press Marathon was one of these moments:Leading up to this moment, I followed my Hal Higdon program religiously, missing only one mid-week five-miler early in the training period and one full week later in the program when I was sick (only six runs total!). Moreover, uncharacteristic of me in most races, I ran a “smart” race in Detroit; I paced myself. Knowing that I needed to run below 8:12/mile to qualify for Boston (faster to achieve a time that would actually guarantee me an entry), I made it my goal to run around eight-minute miles the entire race, and managed to do precisely that (official average pace was 7:59) which felt like as much of an achievement as qualifying for Boston did. Detroit, in a nutshell, felt very controlled to me: I put in ___ amount of time and energy into working toward a specific, desired result, and I achieved that result.
This wasn’t so much the case for Boston, which I finally ran a few Monday’s ago. The whole “Boston” experience for me (encapsulated in my cheesy, but awesome hashtag #BostonMARIAthon) was way more about relinquishing control of everything than it was about feeling in control of anything .
This is effectively visualized in the two photos:
Photo #1: The last several weeks of my training program.
Both skulls represent weeks nearly entirely off running for different incidents. Skull number one was a fussy left Achilles/ankle. Nothing so terrible, but it hurt and compromised my running form enough that I knew I should back off for a few days (which ended up being nearly a week). During this week I told myself that the potential fitness I would gain by running on a prickly Achilles was not worth what I could potentially lose by not letting it heal (pun intended). I felt confident in my decision to ease off running for the week, but I was very antsy and voiced to anybody that would humor me how frustrated I was because I’d felt that the weeks leading up to this setback had gone “soOoOo well.” I’d reached a point where I was effortlessly settling into paces for easy-paced runs that had been paces I’d struggled to achieve for speed workouts in the past. I had also, unlike every other training period, been more committed to strength training and had noted a huge difference in the affect it was having on my running. A few weeks before that first skull, I’d run a 10K in Central Park at my typical 5K pace and still felt strong-ish during a thirteen-miler the next morning . All in all, I knew I wasn’t losing whatever fitness I’d gained in the first twelve weeks of my training (or in the months before that), but it’s still hard to accept pressing pause when it seems like momentum is in your favor.
Perhaps rejuvenated from my week off, and perhaps in a subconscious attempt to regain this momentum, my next week of training felt like my strongest yet. Having read somewhat obsessively about Boston’s course in the time I wasn’t running, I made every effort this week to add as many hills to my runs as possible, and to focus a lot on my quads and core during strength training (I’d been focusing on all of these things up until this point, too, but there’s nothing like a week off to make you worry that you haven’t been doing enough on the things you’ve been doing enough of). This week culminated in a twenty-one miler that started and ended on the Queensborough Bridge, with repeats of Central Park’s Harlem Hill in between. This run was my strongest yet, and my legs didn’t even feel too bad going into the next week. I high-fived myself for taking the week before off, and I started to feel confident not only in my ability to run Boston, but to race it.
Enter: skull face number two, which you can see is preceded by a circle with a red cross in the middle of it, representing my trip to the Emergency Room early that morning. Not to worry, it was not the Appendicitis I thought it was (went to the hospital thinking no Boston for sure, because surgery), but rather a large ovarian cyst that had ruptured during the first few minutes of my attempt at four miles on the treadmill that morning.
Taking the next several days off running wasn’t really up for debate. This meant starting my taper period over a week earlier than I normally would have, which I wasn’t thrilled about, but being too upset over that seemed trivial when I’d also been presented with the possibility that the “I” in #BostonMARIAthon might no longer be a thing. I could be hopeful that the combination of extra rest,every homeopathic remedy even semi-related to ovarian cysts, and the awesome combination of tylenol+motrin+bendryl (thank you to my sister, Alyssa, for prescribing this magical combo to me and to my friend, Sehaj, for bringing me all three in the middle of one night) would effectively combat and destroy my evil “little cysta” (as my Mom, very creatively, named it), but I was told that the monster just had to run its course (ha!) which could take up to six weeks. Boston was is four…
This is probably where the issue of control (or lack thereof) first began to surface. It was up to me to take care of myself, but I couldn’t will my body to heal faster than it was ready to (though I did practice some awesome imagination-based, cyst-zapping visualizations that I’m going to assume helped). The reality was that no matter how much I ran, how much strength training I did, how diligent I was in nursing mini injuries, things could happen—totally unrelated to running—that could negatively impact my opportunity to run this race that I’d hailed as the top goal of my marathon “career” thus far.
I scheduled a follow up appointment for April 5th, a little under two weeks out from Boston. Leading up to this date I had started to feel progressively better, and managed ten slow (run/walk) miles in place of my scheduled 20-miler that weekend. Also leading up to this date, I felt some of the tighter-wound goals (time goals, etc.) around my anticipated Boston experience begin to loosen as I told myself that I had accomplished a lot just by qualifying, that I would be able to qualify again if I didn’t run this year, and that, if my prayers were answered and I could run this year, I’d treat the race as a celebration of the opportunity it was rather than as an obstacle I needed to conquer*.
On the day of my follow up, less than two weeks before my race, the cyst was nowhere to be found, and I was given the go-ahead to race. I felt so relieved and invigorated by this news that I almost jumped off the table before the sonogram was over. Once again, Boston was the future reality I’d longed for it to be.
Now, all I could do was look forward…and at every article posted by every running magazine/blog that seemed to tell me all of the things that I should have done in preparation for Boston, but did not do or did not do enough. Even though I had technically been tapering for nearly two weeks before my scheduled taper, my mind was right on schedule in assuming its typical taper-inspired anxieties: I should have run more hills, I should have run more, period, I should have had at least ten less beers over the course of my training period, I should have slept more, I shouldn’t have gotten that stupid ovarian cyst, and so on. As the list spiraled from things I couldn’t control now to things that weren’t ever within my control to begin with, I began to combat them in the most proactive way I knew how: Google. Search by search, I Googled my way toward a more grounded, rational mindset—an optimistic one even. When “why it is perfectly okay to taper for five weeks before a marathon” and other such searches didn’t yield the exact results I needed, I decided to (try to) focus my energy more on what I could control moving forward rather than on trying to justify the past. I thought about how hard I’d worked to get to the point of even being able to cross the start line of Boston and told myself that crossing the finish line—at whatever pace—was just an additional opportunity. I thought about all of the support from family and friends I had in the almost-three years it took me to qualify for Boston who would be supporting me while I ran. Through some combination of these thoughts, I decided that my mantras for the race should focus not only on grit, but also on gratitude. And, wow, did I need both of these…
Photo #2: the last several miles of the race…Okay, I didn’t look like this the whole time, but I was actually thankful to see this photo as it perfectly illustrates how I looked and/or felt, on and off, for about the last ten miles of the race! It would be nice if I could end this entry along the lines of “and then, after letting go of all my destructive anxieties, trusting my training, and focusing on gratitude, I magically and effortlessly ran my fastest time and strongest race ever, and lived happily ever after, and so on,” but that wasn’t at all the case. But I can conclude, after what has now been over two weeks of reflecting, that although I might have finished in my slowest time yet, I crossed the finish line a stronger runner.
So here’s my Boston recap:
Exactly one week before the race, I woke up feeling like I might be coming down with a cold. I tried my best not to worry too much about this, and what that means is that I said out loud to almost anyone I talked to, and sometimes to myself, that “I wasn’t too worried about it,” even though I was a bit worried. I assured others (as a somewhat successful attempt to assure myself) that I had plenty of time (one week) to fight the cold even if it did surface and that it was probably just in my head (physically and/or mentally) and nothing that would really affect me anyway. I also combatted this potential cold with excessive amounts of Zinc (in the form of Zicam and lozenges), tea, Pedialtye, Vitamin C, and sleep, and, day by day, my symptoms seemed to lessen. Focus on what you can control, I told myself, and I spent the week before Boston doing exactly that. To be honest, I was as much concerned about killing my cold because of how it would affect my racing as I was concerned about how it would affect my weekend with my parents who had taken yet another weekend out of their lives to support me in a marathon. (I have a reputation in my family for, in the words of my sister, “not being very fun” before races and I wanted to disprove this at Boston.)
I arrived in Boston on Friday, three nights before the race, which gave me plenty of time to enjoy the city and my parents’ company. Feeling like I had nearly, if not completely, prevented my cold from surfacing, I felt pretty relaxed (unusual for me before races) those few days before. Looking back, perhaps some of the reason for this was tiredness from my looming cold, but I also think I was more relaxed because I had an underlying feeling that the race was really out of my hands at that point. This (the underlying feeling, not the imminent cold) is something I would like to try to take with me to future races.
You know how in slasher films, there seems to always be that moment where the killer seems just dead enough to walk away from, but the second the soon-to-be-victim character walks away, they suddenly turn back to see that the “dead” killer has noiselessly vanished only to turn forward again to see the same killer coming at them, full-force, with a knife? Well, my sore throat on Sunday was like ominous music that would underscore that scene;growing louder and louder until it suddenly goes silent, waiting (1, 2, 3…)for the killer to jump out of the darkness. All of this to say that I woke up the morning of Boston with a full-on chest cold.
I had a dream that night that I nonchalantly decided not to run the race and woke up at 4:30am (my alarm was set for 5am) in some pre-conscious state feeling as if not running was actually an option I’d consider. I don’t think a full five seconds went by before I flung myself out of bed thinking (and perhaps saying) something along the lines of “F that. Of course I’m running.”
The human mind and will can be very powerful; this is something running reminds me of repeatedly. However, the mind and will also have their limits. This is the case for running and for anything. I don’t mean this to sound negative and I definitely don’t mean it as any sort of argument against any “believe in yourself and anything is possible”affirmations. I just think it’s important, sometimes, to realize that we’re limited. (For example, Elphaba from Wicked might have never ended up defying gravity if weren’t for this realization…)
Anyway, I didn’t necessarily feel limited by my cold before the race or really during the first half of it. The feeling of relaxedness I mentioned earlier (which, again, might have had to do with having less energy than usual) stayed with me in the anticipatory moments leading up to the start of the race, through the gradual decent of the first six miles and up until just past the half marathon point (pictured below).I ran fast, but cautiously during the downhill beginning and felt both strong and confident giving myself permission to back off a little for (what I wanted to be) miles 10-20, where I would then summon the strength gained from my past quad and hill workouts to really race Heartbreak Hill and the last 10k. Sure, I had to use some of the wet paper towels they were handing out for people to cool down with to blow my nose a few times, but I didn’t feel as if my cold was really interfering too much otherwise.
Looking back I am so thankful that my parents surprised me at mile 9 , when I still looked and felt strong and spritely, rather than mile 14 (or 15, or 16, and so on). This later part is what I was referring to when I responded to anyone’s “congratulations” or “how’d it go” texts with a skull emoji and nothing else**. At about mile 14, I went from feeling strong and in control, and ready to run a few more comfortable miles before I raced to the finish line, to feeling uncertain as to whether or not I would make it to mile 15. I started to cough a bit, and then I started to cough a lot. Soon I was coughing to the point of not being able to breathe so well, which caused me to panic and breathe less well, and then start walking, and then start crying (as pictured above). This happened at least once per mile from that point on, causing me to (once again) toss out my strategy and any expectations pertaining to a certain finish time or race experience. The only goal was to finish the race and there were several points where I felt willing to relinquish this goal, too.
Every time I thought I had caught my breath enough to pick up the pace, I’d lose it again and have to walk to get it back. I felt frustrated and embarrassed as I watched my pace plummet from 8 minutes/mile to 11 minutes/miles, knowing that people were tracking me and watching it do so. I started to feel defensive, knowing that people would assume I was walking because I “hit the wall “when in reality, my legs felt okay, I just couldn’t breathe (I guess that is a wall too though). Having miles take so much longer than I was used to caused me to get even more anxious and frustrated. After years of working toward running Boston, I was in the middle of doing so and the point of being able to say I ran it seemed to be getting further and further away. (Obviously, this is not the case–it was getting closer because I was still moving forward even if I was doing so at a slower-than-desired pace.)
My Boston finish felt bittersweet. I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face. I felt proud, grateful, and relieved to finish, but I also felt uneasy about the race itself. I thought this had to do with my time being slower than I’d hoped for, but as more time passes I realize that what feels bitter from the race are those moments in which I remember feeling weak, defeated and frustrated for not being able to run the exact race I wanted to run rather than feeling grateful to be running the race I had dreamed for more than three years of running. I’d fixated on factors outside of my control beyond the point of being able to control them, which caused my mental state, at times,to be more of “I wish I wasn’t here” (i.e. in this sick, limited body) rather than “I am so thankful to be here” (i.e. in this awesome city, running this amazing race, surrounded by these supportive people, regardless of the outcome).
When I say I came out of Boston a stronger runner, I mean that I think my races will be at least mentally much stronger moving forward because I will be more aware of and willing to accept race day factors that are outside of my control. I can say I didn’t have a great race in Boston because I was sick, but if it weren’t that perhaps I would be saying I didn’t have a great race because it was hot, or because of the hills, or because ____ hurt, etc. The reality is that there are a lot of things that can go “wrong” no matter how hard you’ve worked for things to go right, and that’s where the grit and gratitude I mentioned earlier come into play–in being able to struggle gracefully through the things that limit you, and recognizing that you are strong both in spite of and because of these things.
*My parents and a few others can vouch for the fact that I did not handle the situation entirely as gracefully as the above implies, but I think they would at least commend my efforts to do so.
**Apologies to those text recipients.