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Project 3(ish)

One runner’s not-impossible-but-highly-unlikely quest to break 3 hours in the marathon.

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Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  She is also a former Fit Professional at Fleet Feet St. Louis.  Click here to read some of Amy's previous columns.  Click here to receive this Summer/Fall 2017 serial via The Fleet Feet Flyer, our email newsletter.

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Week 1 | Project 3(ish)

I don’t really think I can do it—break 3 hours in the marathon.

Before I go any further, we need to establish some ground rules. One ground rule, anyway: whatever I say here stays between you and me. As I mentioned, I don’t really think I can do it, and that’s why I’m not telling anybody. Why broadcast your failure when you can fail alone? You understand.

And, of course, there’s the issue of the jinx. I’m not superstitious, but I also don’t have unqualified trust in Sports in general. I think Sports is a good guy, but not necessarily the kind of guy you’d trust around portable valuables. He’s a fun time, but he’s also vindictive and easily offended. And few things offend him more than talking a big game.

Me: “I’m going to run such and such a time.”

Friend: “Awesome!”

Me: “Yeah, I ran such and such a time at This Race, so I have no doubt if training goes well and the weather cooperates, I’ll run such and such a time at That Race.”

Sports (whispering and waving the Magic Wand of Jinxes): “Oh, yeah? Let’s see how you do with stomach cramps and locked-up hip flexors.”

To be fair, talking a big game doesn’t endear you to anyone. Talking a big game removes any polite restrictions in the dispensation of judgment and nullifies any mollifying factors that would otherwise ease the severity of criticism—things like injury, illness, the loss of a limb, death, etc. Ain’t nobody care that you had pneumonia or that a volcano erupted during the race and you had to run an extra half-mile to skirt the molten lava. No, when you talk a big game, you’d better be ready to back it up.

I’m not telling anyone because I don’t want another “Dewey Defeats Truman” situation on my hands. This is a cloak-and-dagger operation.

It all started last November, the day after the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis. My training had been solid all summer. None of my big workouts had been spectacular, but they weren’t awful either. I had a good rhythm. I was eating, sleeping, and ticking off the miles like clockwork. Then, about 5 weeks out from race day, things started to disintegrate. Work increased. Stress increased. Sleep decreased. I started getting sick. I realized I couldn’t maintain my training intensity and stay healthy.

My first brilliant idea was to quit work so I could focus on running. But that would have left me destitute. I’m also still a good 30 years away from possible retirement. I nixed that plan.

Instead, I cut back on miles and missed workouts and lamented what could have been. Three days before the race, I considered not even making the trip. I was exhausted. I was disheartened. And I doubted my ability to run a race I could feel good about.

In the end, I did run. My plan was to run the first 16 miles at a conservative pace and then see what I could do in the last 10. My primary objective was damage control. Somehow, I ran a massive PR.

The next day, I fell hook, line, and sinker for the oldest scam in the marathon books.

Listen folks: don’t be seduced by the euphoria of a great race. Don’t be fooled. Because a great race will fool you. Always. No matter how many disastrous races you’ve run before. No matter how painful your training. No matter how traumatic the miles. The moment you cross the finish line of a great race, the race will turn on you. It will tell you that if you could train just a little bit harder, if you were just a little bit fitter, if the weather was just a little bit cooler or the course a little bit flatter, you could be faster. A world of personal records awaits you, it says, if only…

Don’t fall for it. Running a good race is like winning the lottery—except lottery winners retire and squander their fortunes on frivolities, like a good lottery winner should. But runners are greedy. Runners win the lottery and think, “Whoa! I just won the lottery! That means next time I can win an even bigger and better lottery!”

Of course, this makes no sense. That’s not how the lottery works. Don’t fall for it. Stop yourself. Run that great race and then cash out. Retire on top. Go to Things Remembered and frame your medal. Get your PR time engraved on the frame. But whatever you do, don’t use that great race as a building block to, oh, I don’t know, see if you can break 3 hours in the marathon.

Like I did.

I usually don’t talk about race times, but since this whole project is about a specific time—at least on a superficial level—I figured some perspective would help. I ran a 3:05:10 in Indianapolis. That means I need to shave just over 5 minutes off my personal best to break 3.

It gets worse.

I also decided that in the process of trying to break 3 hours in the marathon, it would be fun to reach a 100-mile week during training.

I know what you’re thinking. I was flimflammed.

I’m not saying I made a bad life decision. I’m just saying that 9 out of 10 decisions made the day after a marathon are suspect, at best, and should be viewed with appropriate distrust.

And yet, here I am.

In all seriousness, I’m excited about this challenge. While I may not be ready to break 3 hours in the marathon—I honestly don’t know if I can—I believe I am ready to try. I’ve spent the past decade running thousands upon thousands of miles. I’ve regularly averaged weekly mileage in the mid-80s, and I’ve hit 90 on multiple occasions. It’s been a long journey, and I know my body can hold up. What I don’t know is if it can break 3.

It’s a peculiar thing, tackling an enterprise in which failure is not only an option, but a high probability. It makes you rethink your definition of success. I don’t know how training will go. I don’t know the depth of the lows or the height of the highs I’ll experience as my body endures an ever-increasing workload. I don’t know if I’ll be able to hammer workouts or if I’ll feel sluggish for weeks on end or if I’ll experience burnout—physical or emotional. I don’t know what will happen on race day. Or if I’ll even get there. But I do know that success is not monopolized by a number on a clock.

Neither is this quest.

I’m a firm believer in going all in. I believe in wagering everything in Double Jeopardy, even if the category is something obscure, like “18th Century Opera.” And let’s be honest. We all have our 18th Century Operas.

The 3-hour marathon just happens to be mine. And I’m all in.

But whatever you do, don’t tell anyone.


Week 2 | The Rollercoaster and the Elephant

Day 14: My dearest: Supplies are dwindling. Morale is low. I fear all is lost. This may be the last time I write to you.

Day 15: Never mind. I actually feel great.

This is how it’s going to be.

One minute I am awash in self-doubt. The next, I am a beacon of confidence, radiating mettle and certainty that, yes, I can do this. Yes, this is a good idea!

Except it’s more of a 10-1 ratio of self-doubt to confidence. But you get the idea.

For the past month or so, my weekly mileage has hovered around the 80- to 85-mile mark. Before that, there was a dalliance with mileage in the 70s. Before that, a fling with the 60s. Before that, the 50s (but that was little more than a schoolgirl crush). Training has consisted of a steady and calculated climb to the mid-80s before the final, five-week push to 100.

The mid-80s is a hefty training load, certainly, and nothing to be sniffed at. But I’ve done it before. That’s why I was so worried when I felt tired and achy during the transition from 70-ish miles to 80-ish miles per week. Exhausted. Sluggish. Sore. Stiff. Or, as Jake (my training buddy and running coach of a decade now), puts it, “like ten pounds of crap in a five-pound bag.”

I’m not supposed to be hurting yet… I lamented. The hard stuff hasn’t even started!

And yet, there I was, mired in the embryonic stage of this summer-long quest, and I was questioning everything.  

What if the mileage is too much?

What if I get hurt?

What if I’m overtraining?

What if I have to throw in the towel?

What if I can’t hit tempo pace?

What if I’m slow?

What if I blow up in the race?

What if sub-3 is out of reach?

What if I’m being naïve?

What if everyone knows this is a dumb idea—everyone except me?

What if I’m fooling myself in thinking this is even possible?

C. S. Lewis once said, “We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.”

I’ve always loved this quote, but it assumes a new and unexpected mantle when you aren’t quite sure what it is, exactly, that you believe. Namely, if I don’t know if I can accomplish my goal, what am I supposed to remind myself to believe? Or, to put it another way, if the goal is so far away that there are multiple mini-goals that must first be reached, what am I supposed to trust?

The process, baby. The process.

Fear, doubt, and defeat come when we look too far ahead. Yes, it is good to set long-range, big picture, kiss-the-horizon goals. And yes, we must keep those goals always in mind, in hand, in a holster, even, ready for a quick draw should temptation—to quit, to mope, to worry, to give less than our best—strike. But if we focus only on the end goal and forget the process, we will become overwhelmed. 

The process prevents us from being steamrolled by our own dreams.

The marathon stands in stark contrast to a culture that worships comfort and instant gratification. The marathon says, “Whoa there, Nelly!” and “Hold your horses!” and many other cowboy exclamations intended to stop people in their tracks. The marathon reminds us that glory must be earned, that we have work to do, and that we’ll probably get a little dinged up along the way. The marathon admonishes our mollycoddled inner selves who want things to be quick, easy, and effortless, rejecting our disposable goals and instead demanding commitment and resolve.

Because the marathon, like all the best things in life—faith, wisdom, relationships, skills, experience, careers, and baked goods—is the opposite of a magic pill or get-rich-quick scheme. The marathon is built on the process.

Years ago, when I first started distance running, Jake (the ten-pounds-of-crap-in-a-five-pound-bag guy) gave me what has to be the most valuable nugget of training wisdom ever panned: “Do you know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” 

Whenever I feel unsteady in my resolve—which is oftener than I’d like to admit—I lean on this trustworthy proverb. And then I focus on the task at hand: that day, that mile, that step. 

Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.

Even though I hadn’t yet ventured into unknown territory with my 80-mile weeks, I was scared. I had taken my eyes off the bite in front of me and instead absorbed the enormity of the elephant in all his gargantuan and indigestible glory. If only I had reminded myself of the trustworthiness of the process, I would have realized the bite before me was really quite manageable after all.

Last week, I ran 85 miles. This week calls for 90. I’m glad to say I am feeling strong. In fact, at this very moment, I am as surprised by the pep in my legs as I was by the fatigue in them just a few days ago. Go figure. But don’t worry. I’m not under any illusions. Marathon training is, if nothing else, a rollercoaster. The fatigue and doubts will come soon enough. And they will dissipate soon enough. In the meantime, my job is to stay focused on the bite at hand. Day by day. Mile by mile. Step by step.

Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.


 

Week 3 | Pants and Tetris

Running is a revealing sport. No, I’m not talking about split shorts, 1-inch inseams, impromptu potty stops, or a year-round shirts-are-optional policy—although these daily improprieties do lend themselves to minor scandal.

We’re all friends here. Comrades in arms. Let’s be honest. No pretense. No artifice. How many times have you sat in the driver’s seat of your car contemplating the risks of changing your pants in full view of any passers-by who might happen along? And how many times have you thought to yourself, Why, there’s no one in sight! What are the odds that someone will walk by during the two seconds that I have no pants on? And then, of course, because the odds are so slim, you bet the farm that you can Houdini out of your work pants and into your running shorts without so much as wink from a bird.

But of course, you’re in the driver’s seat, and the steering wheel is a bit more obtrusive than you calculated and if you could just get your arm down or your ankle up or OH NO HERE COMES SOMEONE and she’s looking right at you and you’re stuck and you have no pants on.

So, you freeze. You pretend to examine something in your car—a very mysterious thing located somewhere near the center console—that requires great and unflinching focus. Because… ha ha ha… of course you’re wearing pants!

But “no-pants revealing” is not the kind of revealing I’m talking about. Running is revealing in that it exposes what we’re made of—the good, the bad, and the neglected. Running lifts the rugs and scoots the couch and finds flecks of character we didn’t know we had—or, perhaps, pretended we didn’t. Sometimes the flecks are gold. And sometimes they’re dust bunnies.

Woof.

One of the first dust bunnies to reveal itself during my little summer project is that I, in fact, struggle with time management.

I don’t want to say I am shocked by this revelation, but I had previously assumed that I was at least adept in the area of managing time. But the task of running 85 miles in 7 days or 90 miles in the next 7 days or 95 miles in the 7 days after that—a sequence the past 3 weeks have required—has exploited an impurity that previously I could hide with some gentle manipulation. Accidentally slept in? Why, a late night run on the treadmill never hurt anyone! Gut calling for a mutiny after last night’s McDonald’s French fries and chocolate shake? We’ll just scooch that tempo run to tomorrow! Forgot about that family BBQ you promised to attend? Today? The long run can wait until next week!

Ba-da-bing. Ba-da-boom. No big deal.

But running 95 miles in 7 days—for someone with a full-time job that is not, in fact, running—leaves little margin for error. In fact, it leaves about zero margin for error. One wrong move, one careless flip of an activity on the schedule matrix, and the opportunity is lost.

Guys, my life has become a Tetris game. And I’m bad at Tetris.

Like pieces falling in relentless succession and with increasing speed, time presses forward. It doesn’t care that you that you overslept, and that instead of having time for 12 miles this morning you had time for only 6 miles, and that you work until 6:15pm and then have to meet Tom for a birthday dinner at 7:30pm at a restaurant 30 minutes away, which means you won’t have time to run and shower before dinner, and that you won’t get home until 10:30pm, which wouldn’t be a big deal, except you have to wake up at 4:30 the next morning to run 16 miles before work, and you’re just not sure that you can function all day on 4 hours of sleep and, in fact, you know you cannot.

Did I mention that Tetris stresses me out?

I’ve always harbored a sneaking suspicion that I am a closet procrastinator. In the past, I’ve either been able to justify my procrastination (“Nobody’s perfect!”) or maneuver around it (“Hey, Alicia! Do you think we could meet up next Wednesday instead of Tuesday?”). But now my procrastination is on full cantankerous display, protesting the rigidity of schedule to which I have committed myself. Every mile and every minute counts. And the more pressing my schedule, the more ominous the deadlines and the more demanding the mileage, the more I want to do nothing but take naps and shop online.

Yesterday, I did not run all the miles I needed to run. I did, however, sleep for an hour in the middle of the afternoon. Now I am left with the consequences of my poor life choices: extra mileage in the upcoming days.

I know that I am flirting with disaster, and that I can court my procrastination or I can court my goal of hitting 100 miles a week, but I cannot court both. The two are mutually exclusive suitors. I also know I am lucky that, at least this week, I can atone for my mistakes and squeeze in the miles, if I am studious.

Over the years, many people have asked me how I find the time to run so much. The simple answer is that I don’t. We never have time for all the things we want to do. We have to make the time. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not. But at the end of the day, we make time for what we prioritize.

I am happy to report that I’m learning. The indulgence of procrastination is never worth the self-inflicted heavy lifting later on. Because, let me tell ya, if there’s one lesson this 95-mile week has taught me, it’s that the only thing harder than running 95 miles in 7 days is running 95 miles in 6.


 

Week 4 | Have To, Get To, and Inspiration

The good news: I had only 2 miles left of my 20-mile long run in Forest Park. The bad news: those 2 miles were up the Skinker Hill. The badder news: a slight indiscretion on my part (see: Week 3) resulted in a late morning start for my long run on a hot day. The smarter runners—the speedsters in split shorts, the seasoned training partners in pairs or trios, the merry groups of marathoners—had long since finished their runs, and I envisioned them, exhausted but content, gathered around stacks of pancakes and plates of fried eggs and cups of hot coffee—or iced, if that be their preference. The few remaining runners I did pass looked as miserable as I felt or, if they didn’t, looked as though it was their first time running at all, and they didn’t know that they should, indeed, be miserable at the moment.

Needless to say, with only 2 miles to go, hungry, sluggish, and a genuine fountain of sweat, I found myself uninspired.

As I began my ascent up Skinker, I heard the subtle but distinct clicking of a bike draw nearer to me from behind. Other than confirming that I was on the far right side of the path, I didn’t give it a second thought. A few seconds later, I could sense the front wheel was unusually near—or perhaps I saw the shadow, I forget which—and then it advanced into my peripheral vision. Within another second or two, the bike pulled even with me, revealing an older gentleman with a graying beard and a few sprigs of gray hair that peeked out from beneath his bike helmet.

“Tough hill!” he said, nodding his head in both salutation and acknowledgement of the climb.

“It is!” I said before adding, “I’ll race you!”

“I knew you would,” he replied with another nod of his head.

The race lasted all of 5 seconds before the front wheel of his bike charged forward again and the back wheel took its place parallel with my front foot—that is, whatever foot was leading at the time.

Up, up we climbed, and further and further he pulled away until the separation between us had grown so great that I knew I could not catch him. Still, in the spirit of the impromptu race, I continued running as hard as my tired legs would let me.

That’s when I heard, for the second time in my ascent, the subtle but distinct clicking of an approaching bike.

As before, the front wheel drew nearer, and then even, revealing another man navigating a bike, this one younger than the first. (The man, that is. I can’t speak for the bike.)

“Good job!” he said by way of salutation.

“I was racing that guy—” I huffed as I pointed ahead—“but I can’t keep up!”

“That,” he said, also huffing, “is my father. He’s 80 years old! I’m on a bike, and I can’t even catch him!”

My race with Unknown Cyclist, the Younger, lasted longer than my race with Unknown Cyclist, the Elder. Still, the invention of the wheel yet again proved its timeless virtue, and I was soon enough left behind. But I could see Unknown Cyclist, the Younger, and I used his specter as motivation to continue the race I had already lost twice.

When I finally reached the top of the hill, I saw the elder cyclist—not at all huffing, I might add—waiting for us. He had dismounted his bike, and he stood there calmly removing his cycling gloves. His son, who had not created such a large gap between us, was just pulling up to his dad. By the time I reached them, he, too, had dismounted—huffing quite a bit.

“Good work!” the older man said to me, nodding. “Good work!”

I held out my hand, and we congratulated each other with a quick fist bump as I passed. Then I continued running on my way, and they continued biking on theirs.

For the record, those last 2 miles of my run were the fastest of the 20. Uphill.

That was now almost two weeks ago, and I’ve thought of the encounter a dozen times since.

When you’re training for a marathon—or half marathon or 10K or whatever the case may be—you’re going to find that not every mile is particularly inspired. Mired in the daily routine of training, you may feel the miles are a form of self-inflicted drudgery. Many of these daily miles are nondescript and forgettable. They bleed together like the colors in a watercolor painting. Some are memorable for the wrong reasons: stomach cramps, knee pain, wind. Lots and lots of wind. And still others are memorable, but not necessarily inspiring.

Case in point: Today on my run, a stretch of trail around the 5-mile mark smelled precisely like canned green beans. Not fresh. Canned. (There’s a difference.) I have no idea why, but the smell was so strong and distinct, I looked about me for that very item. I believe I shall go to bed tonight thinking about that canned green beans smell. Still, it’s not exactly the type of memory to rouse you from bed in the morning.

[alarm sounds]

Ugh. I don’t feel like running. I’m so tir… wait a minute! Remember the other day when the trail smelled like canned green beans? Let’s do this!

When I am struggling for inspiration, I find that by reminding myself that I get to run instead of I have to run, I am abler to see—and more willing to accept—the daily inspiration the sport provides. Gratitude enables me to see what grumbling obscures.

Rolling out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to run before work, or postponing dinner a couple of hours to run before, is not easy. It is at those times, when I am least inclined to run, that I remind myself that running is a privilege. I think of days when I wasn’t able to run—due to sickness or injury or a busy work schedule—and have to swiftly transforms into get to. And get to leads to gratitude, and gratitude leads to inspiration. And inspiration is what transforms a sluggish final 2 miles into the fastest 2 miles of the whole 20. Uphill.

Unknown Cyclist, the Elder, along with his son, completely changed the final moments of my long run, and by doing so transformed my whole perception of the run. What may have been a forgettable run, or even worse, a negative run, became instead a run that I can return to for both motivation and confidence. I hammered those last 2 miles of my run when I didn’t think I had any energy left. And the memory of those two miles, of racing Unknown Cyclists, the Elder and Younger, will remain a nugget of confidence I can keep in my back pocket for inspiration the next time a tough run comes around.

And, yes, in case you were wondering, I’ll keep it next to the canned green beans.


Week 5 | Bruce Lee, Starship & Me

In one of the more surprising self-revelations of late, I discovered I am a huge Starship fan.

I am referring to, of course, Starship the band. You know. They sing “We Built This City” and “Sara” and, my personal favorite, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” 

Picture this: Saturday afternoon. I am in my car. Windows: down. Sunglasses: on. I switch to the “80s Smash Hits!” playlist I downloaded earlier in the week. I blast the volume.

Let 'em say we're crazy. I don't care about that…
Put your hand in my hand, baby, don't ever look back!

The bridge builds. The wind deafens me. (I am on the highway.) I turn the volume up more.

Let the world around us just fall apart…
Baby, we can make it if we're heart to heart!

Yes, we can build this thing together! I sing. Yes, we can stand this stormy weather! I cry. And then, still riding the post-long-run euphoria from my 20-miler that morning, I belt out,

Nothing's gonna stop us!
Nothing's gonna stop us… nooooow!

And in that moment I realize I had forgotten just how much I love the ‘80s.

Needless to say, in the midst of 95-mile weeks, I am an indiscriminate collector of inspiration. But if one must awake early to run every single morning, one may as well have a playlist to soften the blow. Who accompanies me to Forest Park long before the sun flirts with the horizon? Why, only George, Whitney, Daryl, John, and Fine Young—surnames Michael, Houston, Hall, Oates, and Cannibals, respectively. 

Imagine my delight then, when in the predawn darkness of a weekday morning, “Break My Stride” gamboled through my car’s speakers and serenaded me down Highway 40:

Ain't nothin' gonna break-a my stride!
Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no!
I got to keep on movin'!
Ain't nothin' gonna break-a my stride!
I'm running and I won't touch ground, oh no!
I got to keep on movin'!

This song is practically begging for appropriation by our sport! The vernacular is there! So is the rousing if not somewhat monomaniacal determination! Such electrifying lyrics coupled with the decade’s distinctly fabulous running apparel (see: old Runner’s World covers), will convince you, as they did me, that the ‘80s were made for runners!

This ideological breakthrough is what propelled me through last week’s miles. So, that’s where my life is at right now, in case you were wondering.

Amy rediscovers the '80s and also buys a Bruce Lee shirt.And while we’re on the topic of unexpected motivation, I have found another unforeseen muse: Bruce Lee.

I researched Lee for a story I wrote for the St. Louis Blues, and in my research I came across a bevy of Lee’s quotes, all of which struck me as extraordinarily apropos for my quest for the Holy Grail a sub-3-hour marathon. As I may have mentioned once or thrice before, I don’t know if I can break 3 hours in the marathon (and, in fact, I’ve had a handful of people tell me they think I cannot). But in the throes of a runner’s mid-life crisis (or whatever it was), I decided I may as well bet the farm and try.

As far as the doubters go, I can’t really blame them. I am one myself—at least, at times. I am ashamed to admit on how many occasions I’ve questioned the prudence of this project. What if I am only setting myself up to fail? I think. I ride the rollercoaster of good runs (I can do this!) and bad runs (I cannot do this!), and I feel afraid. Sometimes, usually when I am tired, I question the point of running all these miles at all. 

And then I read this spectacular Bruce Lee quote:

“If you always put a limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus. And you must not stay there. You must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”

And again,

“A goal is not always meant to be reached. It often serves simply as something to aim at.”

This. This is the point. I want to exceed my level. I don’t want merely to reach my potential. I want to overshoot it.

There is a time for reachable goals. Indeed, most of our goals should be theoretically attainable, lest we become prematurely discouraged. Likewise, our big goals must be broken down into bite-sized goals in order that we may take action. One mile at a time. One meal at a time. One conversation at a time. Whatever the case may be. But we must not confuse setting goals and setting limits.

We often say that running has shown us that we are stronger and can do more than we ever thought possible. (It is the ultimate runner’s cliché, is it not?) But what if we are stronger still? What if our abilities are greater than our minds can comprehend? How are we to find out?

“Don’t fear failure,” Lee once said. “Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

This is my great attempt. My quest is about more than running. It is about challenging a limit that, until now, I had assumed to be cold hard fact. It is about not committing the crime of aiming too low. It is a refusal to sell myself short.

We need outlandish goals. Outlandish goals protect us against capping our own potential. Whatever your great attempt is, own it. Let ‘em say you’re crazy. Don’t care about that. Put one foot in front of the other, baby, and don’t ever look back.

Because nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.


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