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What I Learned Running 20 Miles.

It seemed years away when I first got my training schedule. “Plenty of time before I even have to think about that” I told myself. Then again I was pretty preoccupied with worrying about all of those numbers in the middle-, 12, 14, 16, 18. But as we all know- the more you try to push something to the back of your mind the faster it seems to comes up. So before I knew it it was March, and suddenly I found myself watching the hours close in on my first 20 miler.

For some reason 20 miles just sounded like this absurd number to me. I mean to a normal person it IS absurd, right?! TWENTY MILES. That’s freaking far. Almost mythical. But if you’re training for a marathon, it’s what you do.

After a fitful night of sleep my alarm finally went off at the crack of dawn- quite literally since as luck would have it it was also Daylight Savings. “OH SHIT” was the first thought that popped into my head. I arrived at B.C. just as the sun was coming up. As I stood in the group waiting for the bus I hoped that people would just assume I was shivering from the cold, not from fear.

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“Rise and shine… it’s 20 mile time”

As soon as the bus door shut and we began to roll out of campus I felt my stomach drop. All I could do was stare out the window and force myself to take deep breaths. With every intersection that we drove through it wasn’t an “Are we there yet?” but a “WE’RE SERIOUSLY STILL NOT THERE YET?!” Twenty miles felt far even DRIVING (Which reminds me- someone slip me a sedative before the bus ride on April 20th?)

Somewhere between wanting the agony of the ride to end and wanting to stall for more time the bus pulled over to the side of the road. It reminded me of a scene in one of those movies where suddenly you see the main character emerging from a cloud of exhaust next to a corn field as a bus pulls away. Except that we were in Ashland Massachusetts, and the only way to get home was to run there.

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Thankful for the sound of a comforting footfall beside me for those first scary miles.

Despite the fact that I was an absolute shit show of nerves somehow my feet still knew what to do. And I noticed that with the more steps I took the more my breathing fell into a pattern, my hands got less clammy, my nervous chatter slowed down to my every day babble. The more the miles passed the more my nerves disappeared. My confidence grew.

And then this magical thing happened- Mile 10 hit (the halfway point) and I barely felt it. 10 miles is far too often my crashing point but for once, I felt strong. I started to get giddy. “Holy shit, I’m ACTUALLY doing this!”

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15.9 miles in and there’s still a smile on my face!

Naturally as the miles increased I became more tired, but I also kept getting more and more excited. Every mile down was another mile closer to this mythical number, this unreal goal. At 17 I squealed in delight that there was “Only a 5K left!” and when I heard Mile 19 chime on my Garmin, goosebumps flushed over my body. Good lord I’ve never been so exhausted, elated, and in shock in the very same moment. As I rounded the last few corners back to the gym it might have been my delusional state, but every person stopped and smiled at me as if they knew, they knew I was about to finish this incredible thing. Once I made it back inside I collapsed in a stiff, sweaty pile of happy tears. I just couldn’t believe I had done it.

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I checked my Garmin at least 10 times that day, just to make sure it still said the same mileage.

I know there’s a lot of technical details behind the concept of a long run. But more important than the time on my feet or fueling properly that day, somewhere in those twenty miles I learned how to push myself a little further. I learned how to be a little stronger, how to believe in myself a little more. I took that big scary goal and I did it. Less than a month and a half till Marathon Day and while I’m still scared shitless, there’s just a little more pep in my step (errr waddle, I’m still feeling those 20 miles).

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My reward for running 20 miles? Chunky Monkey pancakes & a Reese’s Pieces Milkshake at 1pm. No regrets. 🙂

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But what if I can?

It takes only a second after my alarm goes off for my brain to register what day it is. Sunday, long run day. Lying in bed I quickly calculate how many miles I have to run, a job which feels absolutely impossible when you’re still under the protection of warm covers. Before my brain goes to a bad place I’m up, changing into the clothes I laid out the night before. I usually panic that I’m going to be too cold or too warm and make a last minute change in wardrobe.You think by now I’d learn to stop second guessing my wardrobe decisions.

Downstairs I shove half an English Muffin in my mouth, the nerves in my stomach making  it hard to swallow. I’m tempted to throw the second half out but then I remember what it’s like to be starving mid run. I compulsively check my bag, because God forbid I only have one pair of running gloves to choose from 5 minutes before we head out.

Once inside the Rec Center people are chatty as they adjust their laces and turn on their watches. I’m usually pretty quiet, thinking about what the next few hours will be like, praying to the running gods that I don’t %&$! this one up. This morning is gray and cold (colder than it was supposed to be, which of course makes me worry that I didn’t dress appropriately). Despite the typical winter air – something feels different today.

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We pour into the street and in a flash, everyone passes me. I turn my head around to realize I’ve quickly become the last runner. Before I can throw myself into a fit and ruin the morning I push my earbuds in. “My race, my pace” I remind myself.

I run through streets that are still relatively quiet. Past the spots where our teams meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. I’m reminded of who I’m running for. After a while I find a rhythm. I make a pact with myself that I won’t think about how much further I have to run until I reach the halfway point. And for once, it actually works.

I make my way down the Cambridge side of the Charles River, then back up on the Boston side, the white tundra keeping my mind off the miles. I pass other runners and we give each other a friendly smile. I wonder if they’re training for Boston too. I wonder if they know I am.

I hit mile 10 and smile, remembering how once double digits were so daunting. Now I barely blink. Just past my 10 mile mark I reach a water stop and see the familiar faces I’ve been waiting for. They put a little energy back in my step. In my happiness I miss a turn and somewhere around 11.5 realize I’m off course. My instinct is of course to panic but I spot a State Police sign, and a friendly officer puts me back on track. A situation that normally would bring me to tears didn’t even phase me. I’m on a mission.

My watch beeps at mile 13 and I laugh manically. Half marathons are old news now too. My legs are heavy. I’m cold and tired, but I am so determined. 14, 15, 16.. bring it.

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Eventually the Rec Center comes into my line of vision, and I feel the sting of tears, from the cold wind and from pride. I tell myself I’ll be done before this song (which I’ve now heard 3 times) is over. I can’t believe I made it.

I hobble inside to find a janitor waiting to close up the room. My duffle bag now sits alone on a table next to a bunch of bananas, my consolation prize. One would think my face would be red with embarrassment that I am the last person back but in fact I’m beaming.

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There have been a lot of tough runs, days where I’ve thought “Why am I doing this?” and “What if I can’t?” But as I make the long trek back to my car carrying my bunch of bananas a little voice inside of me says“What if I can?”

Running tough.

At what point do you figure you’ve learned everything there is to know about running? Is there a certain amount of time that passes – or a specific milestone? In the last two and a half years I feel like I’ve learned a lot, even enough at times. At first it was the basics: put on a pair of shoes, head out the door, left, right, left. Then I started learned about paces, types of shoes, fueling, distance. You’re all set to go.

Ah except for this thing called mental toughness. Which it turns out- is not as simple as left, right, left. Mental toughness takes time to develop, mental toughness takes technique, practice, strength. I’ve seen a glimmer of it from time to time- when I finished Timberman completely on my own or just last week in that shit show of a triathlon.

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But more often that not lack of mental toughness gets the best of me. I actually really suck at it. It gets lost in my brain, overpowered by this nagging voice that says I can’t do it.

It reared it’s ugly head this weekend – somewhere between miles 8 and 13. That’s usually where the wall hits for me. There’s nothing worse than cruising along on a beautiful fall day, visions of a PR on the time clock in your head when suddenly – there it is. It has the effect of a migraine, coming on fast and furious and you pray that if you try not to think about it it will just go away. These miles get blurry, your legs get heavy, and it’s hard to remember much except the feeling of wanting to stop. Of reaching out to the person closest to you begging them to make IT stop.

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But the feeling that comes after that? It’s even worse, and it remains clear in your memory long after your feet stop moving. It’s the feeling of knowing you gave in, of disappointment, of regret. The feeling that you let the voice win again.

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Despite the mental battles I crossed the finish with just :34 seconds to spare. A PR by the skin of my teeth, but a PR nonetheless. I’m proud of that, I know that I put in some decent work out there. I just can’t help but wish I could go back in time and change those seconds and minutes I wasted. It could have been so much more than :34 seconds.

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And so I’ve answered my own question – there is so much more to learn. Mental toughness remains a mystery to me. I can’t grasp my brain around it. I’m hoping this break will help me figure out some motivations and methods to tackle it so that at some point I can jump far over that wall – and never look back.

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