This past January I decided to run a half marathon. This was a somewhat out-of-character decision. I had, up to that point, never really been a runner. Or even an athlete. At all. In 9th grade I joined the cross country team, let my dad buy me a fancy pair of shoes, and then quit after the first day of practice. I have only scored one soccer goal in my life, and it was for the other team. If someone were auditioning to play me in a movie, the character description would probably say, “quirky, angsty writer girl with a lot of feelings and not a single athletic bone in her entire body.” It would not say “lover of long-distance running.” Or at least it wouldn’t have four months ago.
So what compelled this impulsive departure from my own self-definition? Basically, I was out of my mind. This has been a pretty intense year. There have been many good things: an exciting new job opportunity, new friends, new city, romance. But there have also been a lot of challenges: homesickness for my life in seminary and in Austin, an unreasonably potent heartbreak, the [apparently universal] difficulties of a first year in ministry, vocational ambiguity, and—on top of all of that—my first Chicago winter.
Though I like to think I’m invincible, the truth is that, by mid-January, life was totally kicking my butt. I didn’t know what to do about it, but I knew I had to do something. I needed a goal. Something I could lose myself in. Something that would challenge me and pull me out of my expectations for myself. Something that I could control amidst the chaos. And also, something I could be a little bit unhealthy about without being self-destructive (I stubbornly avoided cross-training and engaged in some Thursday nights that made my Friday long-runs borderline masochistic). On a whim, I texted a friend who runs marathons and asked, “Do you think I could train for a half-marathon in 10 weeks?” He responded with a 12 week training program and told me to start at week 3. I took that as a yes.
I thought I was just learning how to run a half, but I got way more than I bargained for. Who knew just putting one foot in front of the other, mile after mile (that is, running), could teach you so much about just putting one foot in front of the other, day after day (that is, life)? Here’s a little of what I learned:
- About that control thing: I thought running would be the one thing in my life I could exercise complete control over and ensure my own success. I was an idiot. From my very first day, I began my runs with anxiousness about whether I would be able to accomplish what I set out to do. After all, I was constantly doing something I’d never done before in terms of distance, speed, and consistency. What was meant to be a comforting known factor became a daily lesson in facing fear, not knowing the outcome, and doing it anyway.
- Sometimes, impatience isn’t an option: I’ve said for years that patience isn’t one of my virtues. I’m sure many who know me would agree. But lately life has been teaching me that sometimes, you don’t really get a choice to skip ahead in the story. You only get to choose how cranky you are about it. In training for this race, each step tested my upper limit. I couldn’t run my race on day 1. Or even day 40. If I tried, I’d probably hurt myself before my real turn to race ever came. Instead, I had to take it as it came, and just achieve the goal that was immediately in front of me, trusting that eventually, it would get me to the finish line.
- Progress doesn’t always feel like it: Thirteen miles is a lot of miles. So is ten.( Especially on a treadmill.) It never goes by as quickly as I want it to. And sometimes, it feels like I’m not getting anywhere at all. This was also true with my training as a whole—even in my final weeks of training, sometimes it didn’t feel like I’d gotten any better. The ground I gained—both literally and figuratively—happened in such small increments that I was a little bit amazed when I finished my half at a dead sprint and beat my goal pace by 50 seconds per mile. Without even noticing it, I’d come farther than I’d even hoped.
- The unbearable isn’t always the end: In my second week of training, my long run was 6 miles on the treadmill. Halfway through my second mile, I got a cramp in my side that made it painful to breath and impossible to keep my back straight. For a mile and a half, I tried to work it out and breathe through it, before finally conceding that if it hadn’t gone away I would call it quits at 3 miles. I was frustrated by the pain and the sense of impending failure so early in my training. At 2.9 miles, I put my hands on the rails and bowed my head to breathe, when I lifted it up again—the cramp was totally gone. The rest of my six miles opened up to me like a gift and I ran them with ease after the painful first half.
- Failure isn’t always the end either: For the majority of my training, I operated under the philosophy that as long as I completed every run set before me, I was succeeding. Then I had a week where I was both sick and travelling, and my entire running schedule fell apart. By my own definition I had totally failed, and I worried that my half-marathon would be forfeit as a result. Except that the next week, I was back at it and my body got the break it needed. As someone who spends most of life hiding from the possibility of failure, it’s helpful to know that a whole hopeful world exists on the other side.
Honestly, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg as far as what I got from this first race experience, but it’s hard to put it all into words now. Somewhere along the way, running stopped being a curiosity experiment and just became a part of me. It feels like poetry and life and hope and I’m grateful that I stumbled upon it when I needed it the most. Now I’m training for my first full marathon and expect to learn many more lessons along the way!