Last weekend I stepped to the starting line of a marathon for he first time in a few years. My recent absence had not been a choice, but rather the result of an injury that refused to heal. I have been physically active and healthy my whole life, but my Achilles’ heel turned out to be my right ankle. After injuring it at the end of a half marathon two and a half years ago, it had taken me longer than I ever expected to get back to this point.
At 6 am, the starting gun sounded and the people much faster than myself raced out of the corral. The sky was still dark and layered with thick clouds and the air was cool and a little humid. Other than the humidity, the conditions were ideal. Only about 5,000 runners actually lined up for the full marathon, an amount that makes for smooth running and limited congestion. I crossed the starting line at 6:03 am with my head down and my music on, looking to find my rhythm and get lost in the sea of footsteps. From the beginning of the race, I never quite felt right. My legs were heavy and my feet felt like bricks. My stride was awkward and my pacing was inconsistent. Even when you know what you are doing, have a plan, and know how to execute it things can go wrong.
With the marathon on Sunday morning, a whole gang of people from my office had come to Long Beach on Thursday to set up a booth at the Long Beach Health & Fitness Expo, which was also the packet pick-up event for the marathon. We set up our booth and we worked the expo from Thursday afternoon through Saturday evening, mostly on our feet and constantly moving. What rest I did get was appreciated, but it turns out that it was not enough. As soon as I got started on Sunday morning, I could tell that my legs were tired and 26 more miles was not going to improve that.
I am pretty sure that it was around the 9 mile mark that I started to doubt if I had enough in me to finish what I had started. I had already abandoned all of my goals for the race that had to do with finishing times and pacing. Today was not going to be the day to get a new PR (Personal Record). I wasn’t even sure if today was the day to get back to the finish line. It’s at a time like this that your brain becomes your worst enemy and outside inspiration can become your greatest hero. I started to send dire text messages to my fiancée Tiffany, probably looking for some form of approval to accept that it wasn’t my day, that I could “get ‘em next time.” Instead, I received affirmations of how inspirational I was, how proud she was of me, and that she knew I was going to get through it. Sometimes its easier to let yourself down than it is to let down those who believe in you.
I had a second wind.
Unfortunately, I only had that second wind until about mile 14, but it was enough. I was now convinced that I could finish, even if I had to walk the rest of the way and drag myself across the finish line, I was certain that I could do this. I continued to send regular texts to Tiffany, no longer looking for an excuse to quit, but instead looking for more inspiration to fuel myself to the finish. I even started posting messages to Facebook (at this point, I wasn’t really running all that fast!) and getting more inspiration from the messages that my friends and family sent me.
I started to bargain with myself. Get through this next segment and you can get a quick rest and a drink of water and another gel. Get over this next little hill and you can coast down the backside with little or no effort. It is true that running makes you talk to yourself. When I got to mile 17, I said “that’s it, only three more 5K’s to go before I’m done. I can do a 5K in my sleep!” It turns out that three 5K’s sounds a whole lot shorter than 9 more miles.
Its true that I was frustrated with the way my legs felt, I was disappointed that had allowed my legs to get so tired at the trade show right before the race. I kept thinking that I had wasted 6 months of training. In fact, I felt I had wasted the last 2 and a half years. Two and a half years of injury, physical therapy, re-injury, scheduled surgery, second opinion, canceled surgery, third opinion, experimental treatment, more physical therapy, recovery, and then 6 months of training.
But as I added all this up in my head between steady, aching steps, I realized that after everything I had been through in my life over the last two and a half years, the fact that I never gave up, that I never quit, the fact that I was now only a few miles away from another marathon finish line, that was all that mattered. When I got to the finish line Tiffany was waiting for me. I heard the announcer call my name. I got goosebumps. I crossed the finish line. I turned and walked to the fence and gave Tiffany a kiss through the wire. Then I got my finishers medal and my picture taken. After that, I found a shady spot on the grass to sit and rest and reflect a little.
Weeks before the race I had offered a few words of wisdom to someone who was preparing for their first marathon. It was something like “Don’t worry about your time. You don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have anyone to beat. Leave your ego at the door because there is no such thing as failure or disappointment when you cross the finish line.”
Looking back, I think that was actually some pretty good advice.