Experienced runners say you learn a lot about yourself when you hit the infamous “wall” while running a marathon. In the weeks leading up to the Newport Marathon on Oct. 14, I tried to prepare mentally for this inevitability. I looked at the course map, imagined my exhaustion on the hill at mile 22, and pictured myself beginning to lose steam after perfectly executing my steady miles up until then. I could hear the songs on my playlist I’d planned for just that moment, rehearsed the various “psych up” speeches I was going to deliver inside my head, and believed I would discover the strength and determination to keep pace no matter what pain I’d be feeling at the time.
I expected to surprise myself, like I had in so many other breakthrough moments in my short running career. I ran my first road race ever – the Prize4Life 5K – a little less than a year ago, which I decided to run primarily because I’d been inspired by writing about Genzyme’s Boston Marathon runners for my job in Corporate Communications. I started running regularly in March of this year when one of these runners, Kai, convinced me to join Genzyme’s Reach the Beach relay team. I’d never run more than 3 miles before, but as I was basking in the excitement of a successful Rare Disease Day Relay (helping to orchestrate that event was a ‘marathon challenge’ in itself), I felt just crazy enough to sign up for a 24-hour, 200-mile relay in which I would run a total of about 17 miles – some of them at 4 a.m.
I distinctly remember my first 7-mile run, which I set out to do as part of my Reach the Beach training. I ran from where I was living at the time in the North End, along the Charles River to River Street, maybe about 4.5 miles. And my body was begging me to stop. I started walking for a little bit but told myself that I had to be able to run these types of distances. In the relay, other people would be counting on me being able to do so. With that thought at the forefront of my mind, I forced my legs to start running again. I ran across the bridge, my strides getting into a rhythm. And then all of a sudden, it happened: I was flying. A switch flipped in my brain, and I felt so happy and so alive that I thought I could run forever.
In that moment, I became a runner. There would be no turning back for me after experiencing that joy, no matter how many bad days or setbacks I might have. I talk about running the way some people talk about religious conversion.
Since then, running has returned me to that state of joy many times. Sometimes it’s a pure physiological “runner’s high” where endorphins and adrenaline flood my system, but many times the physical is also combined with a psychological, or even spiritual, “high” that comes from shattering my own expectations and breaking through limits that I didn’t think were possible for me to overcome; from learning that pain isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that sometimes it’s just part of becoming what I always hoped I could be; and from entering that place where the world around me fades away and all that’s left is the rhythm of one stride after another.
I’ve realized why running is such a natural fit for raising awareness about diseases and advocating for people living with them. Through running, I came to recognize what a gift it is to have a healthy, capable body that can become stronger, faster, more resilient. For much of my life, I defined myself as an intellectual or an aesthete, not an athlete, so I was content to encounter the depth of the human experience through literature, art, and music. I never realized how much of the human experience and the human spirit are interwoven with the physical. I had been, in a sense, squandering this gift of health by not regularly exploring and pushing beyond my physical capabilities.
I remember feeling that joy in some of my early morning runs with Genzyme Boston Marathon runners Andrew and Phil before work, when I first realized I could run faster than 10-minute miles for an extended period of time and when I first experienced the heart-pounding sensation of running intervals – short bursts of speed alternated with easy running. I felt it during the Providence Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in August when I found myself running a sub-8 minute pace at mile 10, relishing every step and blowing my time goal out of the water. And I felt it in the first week of my taper before the Newport Marathon, running 12 miles like the wind around the Charles River with a huge smile spreading uncontrollably across my face.
On the eve of my first marathon, I don’t think I was truly nervous. I’d done my training according to plan and, if past experience were any indication, race day would be my day. I knew I’d be entering the realm of the unknown once I ran farther than 20 miles, but I was optimistic that I’d perform well despite any tiredness and that I’d maybe even experience another joy-filled breakthrough.
In no scenario did I imagine collapsing on the grass just after mile 14.
It shouldn’t have happened, and I can’t explain why it did. It was a physiological rebellion that I’d only experienced once before, which at that time I’d attributed to an odd effect of jet lag. I felt that my body was shutting down, that it was quitting on me. It wasn’t like I couldn’t breathe or that my muscles had seized up or that I had gotten injured. It was more like when a phone is too cold and the screen slows to the point of unresponsiveness or the whole device shuts off. There should have been plenty of battery life left but it just malfunctioned and gave up.
Sitting next to the course as other marathoners ran by, I tried to suck down an energy gel while an onslaught of questions started whirling in my brain. Had this happened because I pushed myself too hard in the first half of the race? Was my time goal too ambitious for the beginner’s marathon training plan I’d followed? Was my body reacting strangely to the taper? Had I eaten too many, or too few, carbs in the days leading up to the marathon? Drank too much water and not enough Gatorade? Had something that didn’t sit right for breakfast? Was this a ‘mental’ failure—had I somehow convinced myself that I was going to choke? Was I thrown off by all the half-marathoners who had finished just a mile before? Was it because the course was hilly and windy, or because it rained a little bit? Maybe I had a neuroimmunological disease and this was the first time it was manifesting itself (when you think about rare diseases and MS as I much as I do because of working at Genzyme, I suppose it was inevitable that this question would get thrown into the mix).
Shortly before the marathon, someone asked me, “If you get halfway there and decide you’ve had enough, can you just stop and get the half-marathon medal?” I stared incredulously and stammered out a response, “I, uh, I guess I could, but I won’t.” That conversation came back to me and momentarily silenced all the questions raging in my mind. It didn’t matter why I was feeling this way; all that mattered was that I wasn’t going to stop. Quitting was not an option. Moving forward and getting to the finish line – the marathon finish line – was the only way out of this mess.
I staggered to my feet and walked a few steps until I could start running slowly. I took step after step, battling intense physical exhaustion and – worse yet – psychological discouragement. Almost everything I’ve accomplished in life has been because I quickly got to the front of the pack and stayed there, increasing my lead and drawing strength from repeated success. I don’t have a lot of experience with coming back from crushing disappointment or being the underdog who overcomes seemingly insurmountable challenges. This isn’t because I’m good at everything I do; it’s because I choose to care about and compete in areas where I know I can excel. I despise not living up to expectations – especially my own. So as much as the second half of the marathon was a physical challenge, it was far more a mental one. I had to find a reason to keep going despite knowing that I was not going to meet my time goal and ‘succeed’ by the standards I’d set for myself prior to the start of the race.
While I ran, I attempted to focus my mind only on one purpose: finishing. Any thoughts about how well (or not well) I was doing were shut down. As the 25 mph headwinds blew Newport sand into my eyes and glued it to the sweat drying on my legs, and as the length of 12 remaining miles stretched seemingly into eternity and the loneliness of the road ahead sank in, I thought to myself, “Of course it was the Greeks who invented the marathon!” The ancient Greeks loved stories like Oedipus gouging out his own eyes after making a fatal mistake, Sisyphus being condemned to endlessly roll a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down again, and Icarus who built beautiful wings out of wax flying too near the sun and tumbling back to earth as the wings melted around him. In contrast to the hero myths, these Greek stories seem to be about pain and failure with no redemption.
I’d choose pain over failure any day of the week. But when you already feel like you’re failing, it’s a struggle to endure pain just to fail a little bit less. I wish I could blame this type of destructive mental quicksand on the physical stress and delirium of the marathon, but the truth is that this is how I think. Not all the time but enough of the time for me to recognize the pattern. Struggling to find a reason for perseverance, I ended up walking a small amount almost every mile from mile 15 to mile 23. My legs started to cramp and turn to stone; they weren’t used to changing gaits repeatedly like this. Every time I transitioned back into a run after a brief bout of walking, it was a battle.
One of the songs on my marathon playlist, “Thrive” by Switchfoot, characterizes how I was feeling for most of the second half of the race:
I’m always close but I’m never enough
I’m always in line but I’m never in love
I get so down but I won’t give up
I get slowed down but I won’t give up
Been fighting things that I can’t see in
Like voices coming from the inside of me and
Like doing things I find hard to believe in
Am I myself or am I dreaming?
No I’m not all right
I know that I’m not right
Feel like I travel but I never arrive
I want to thrive not just survive
As I approached the last few miles, I decided I wasn’t going to walk anymore. I wanted to push myself instead of feeling like I was crawling toward the finish. Even after making this decision, I might still have succumbed to walking had I not seen the encouraging, hopeful circle of the Genzyme Running Team logo in front of me. Phil had waited to run the rest of the race with me.
He commented on how I was running a good pace, doing well, finishing strong. But I had spent the previous two hours trying to stem the tide of thoughts about whether or not I was “doing well,” and every fiber of my being was still bent around the goal of finishing, so I said, “Okay we can talk about that when I’ve actually made it. I can’t think right now.”
As we neared the finish line (which still seemed SO far even though it was less than a mile away), he reminded me to take it all in with pride. Oh yeah, I thought, I am, in fact, finishing my first marathon. Six months ago, I never would have believed I’d be doing this. Probably don’t want to miss this moment.
And I did feel proud when I crossed that finish line and got my medal and silver cape. Although I hadn’t met my expectations for the race, I did discover a new kind of strength I hadn’t known I possessed – or maybe I actually developed that strength right there on the course. I didn’t achieve the result I wanted according to the race clock, but what I did achieve was something far better for me personally. As experienced runners say, you can learn a lot about yourself while running 26.2 miles. I learned that even in my weakest moment, I can move forward, one step after another. I can look both pain and failure in the eye and say, “Stand aside, Greek tragedy. My story will conclude with redemption and triumph.”