Everyone who endeavors to run a marathon hears horror stories about “the wall,” the moment during a long race when a runner’s body experiences a level of physical exhaustion that is (nearly?) impossible to work through.
In my first marathon, I realized what a formidable opponent the wall can be. I ran a fantastically fun half marathon, hit the wall at mile 14, and had 12.2 miles of what would probably best be described as a Greek tragedy. To keep running (running/walking) when my body was sending me insistent signals that I had to stop, and when I was feeling a kind of exhaustion I’d never experienced before, was challenging. But I hardly remember how I felt physically because the mental battle was far worse.
I’d set a goal. I wasn’t going to meet that goal. How could I find the strength to keep going with the utmost certainty that I was going to fail?
I did finish that marathon. I finished it, not by having some brilliant epiphany, but by simply turning off that part of my brain that evaluates, analyzes, and judges. Instead, I focused all my mental energy on simply moving one foot in front of the other.
For those final miles, I wasn’t a slave to the tyrannical perfectionistic side of me – a side that I think lives in all of us in some capacity. I wasn’t completely free either, as I had to continually fight it and shut it down every time I had to walk, every time my pace slowed. But it didn’t win.
In the month leading up to this year’s Boston Marathon, I had a decision to make: Do I set an ambitious time goal, or do I just let myself enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime, emotion-filled experience?
I decided to go for it. To be all in. To crush it.
And shortly after making that decision, I realized: I am no longer afraid of the wall. Any time you decide to really push yourself, you risk finding your limits. In running, it means you risk hitting the wall.
That is a beautiful thing.
You can live your life safely, only setting goals you know you’ll accomplish. Or you can truly go “all in,” accepting that if you do find your limits today, you’ll have the opportunity and the strength to keep pushing them tomorrow.
There are many ways to win a marathon. In my previous blog post in this “mental taper” series, I told the story of Shalane Flanagan, who is admirably “all in,” single-mindedly focused on coming in first in the women’s division of the Boston Marathon. For others, crossing the finish line, regardless of time, is winning, and this is just as admirable. Phil recently wrote a post about his decision to make this marathon a “personal best” by high fiving every kid along the course and every student at Wellesley and BC, and taking it all in. That is a beautiful goal too.
As for me, the moment I looked “the wall” straight in the eye and was genuinely unafraid, I won my own laurel wreath. I’ve been running this marathon my entire life.
Even though I’ve decided to lay it all on the line and go after my time goal with reckless abandon, it’s possible that I could hit the wall and not make it. But what Phil wrote is true of me as well: If you see a time slower than what you would expect from me, it may still be a personal best.
I’ve already won the marathon, because I am not afraid of the wall.