What does triumph look like at mile 19 of a marathon?
I had been so happy out of the gate, running the first few miles by heart rate. Running without any music. In fresh shoes and new shorts that I knew would not chafe. Finally, at this race I had wanted to run since seeing Spirit Of The Marathon, standing on the start line while they blared Sweet Home, Chicago.
But, by mile 19 the bad voices had started and all they wanted was for me to stop for just a few seconds, to walk the water stops, to cease whatever I was doing. And normally, my strategies would be to turn the music up (but I had no music) or tell them to STFU (shut up!). But I had been reading Eat and Run and several Pema Chodron books. What Chodron and Scott Jurek have in common is their belief in staying here, in this moment, as you are, embracing it.
The other logic being that the struggle, the fight, the argument with yourself takes heart rate and energy which you should be channeling into the run. And so, this time I let the bad voices in. I welcomed them in. I said to them, “Hello, it’s nice to see you. You have as much space as you need right now to complain. And we have a little more than an hour to hang out together.” And for a little while they went silent.
Katie was everywhere on the course. Chicago is a big out, around and back loop that makes it easy to move inside of. We agreed before the race that I would run to the left side of the course so she could stay in the middle and I would see her. At thirteen miles I needed her. I had been counting the minutes to say hi, to tell her I love her. Besides, we had done a terrible job of accurately high-fiving before then, so I called to her to run with me for a minute. I was happy.
Letting the voices in takes away their power. They want to be knocking on the door, knocking you down, being the naysayers who are not allowed in the main room. Once they get in they are awkward and quiet and do not know what to do with the vast space. Each time they popped up I welcome them, thanked them for being there, ask them to stay. And at each mile marker I would say to myself, “20. You have earned the right to spend the next hour with yourself, in a state of honesty most people will never reach.”
But I was slowing down. So I tried to keep my feet moving, tried to go fast. Tried to take in the crowd’s energy, to expand into the moment, take in the city. I enjoyed it. And when there was dialogue in my head, it was all about form. "Quick feet, pump your arms, straighten out your left foot. Good good."
At mile 25 Katie jumped in and wanted to run. I had spent the last hour getting to know myself, making peace with the voices, knowing my mind. Sans music, no distractions, peering into the core of my being. What I thought I said was, “I have earned this last mile and want to finish, just me.” What Katie heard was something along the lines of “leave me the f’ alone.” Who knows what was actually said.
In the last mile a woman in front of me slowed to a walk. I had almost no interaction the whole race with anyone. But I put my hand on her back and said politely, “We only have 8 minutes more to do this. Don’t give away what you’ve earned.” And she started to run again, away from me. The same woman stopped again in front of me. This time I said, “Just six.” And she took off. After the race, she thanked me. This is not a solitary sport.
I crossed the finish line happy. I did the post race zombie walk, happy. I had met a part of myself and not labeled it bad or crazy. I welcomed this part of me. I didn’t look at my watch until an hour or so later. Then I was pissed. Then I saw that I was nine minutes behind my PR, all of it given up after the half, most of it after mile 19.
What does success look like? Is it time on the watch? The opportunity lost? I fretted about this the rest of my trip. Chicago is a great town. It is, maybe, the only American city I would live in the heart of. The marathon, honestly, is long stretches of flat and boring. Essentially, you do 8 miles out that way, turn, do 10 miles straight, turn, do 2 miles out and back, then 4 miles into the finish. Not so much the race, but I love the city.
Weeks later I have come to peace and found that you run the marathon you train for. I asked Katie not to wear me out this time, not to make me hate running. I didn’t eat my best leading up to this. I was pissed that the people who were supposed to run with me didn’t. I was lax on some workouts. I got the race I trained for.
So what does success look like? Well, it looks like you spent some time learning. It looks like you know what to do next, what you need to do if you want to improve. At mile 19 it looks like you are enjoying the moment, like you are here and now, and not off in some other place, dreaming. It looks like you care about those around you, that you love what you are creating, in your life, in your run, it looks like acceptance and compassion and ambition to do better.
Katie asks people all the time, “What type of race do you want to have? Do you want to kill it, to feel great, to have fun?” Set that up early and train to your intention. Success looks like knowing what you want, committing to what it takes to get there, and, then, chasing it down. I know now there is work to be done.