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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
I saw Sting last week. He was driving a gray Nissan Altima, and he turned left on Hampton. It was 6 a.m. on a Saturday, which made his appearance all the more surprising because I never would have pegged Sting as a morning person.
Traffic reporters can keep their tallies for ladders and mattresses, their rolls of car fires and sick cases. I have my Register of Doppelgangers I’ve Seen While Running. And as the miles increase, so do the sightings.
Over the years, I’ve spotted such celebrity doppelgangers as Nelson Mandela, Brendan Fraser, Richard Pryor, and Darryl Strawberry—except in the last case it wasn’t a doppelganger, but the actual Darryl Strawberry who happened to be in town for a golf tournament. (He asked if I had a good run.)
More recently, and to my utmost delight, I ran into Ernest Hemingway. He was exiting the MetroLink station in Clayton. His beard was white, his smile smug and crooked, and his suit white linen. He had slung over his left shoulder a canvas satchel. For a moment, I was transfixed in a literary swoon. In the few seconds it took me to approach and pass him, I decided he had to be an English professor. His aspect was too nuanced and definite to be anything else. And, thus, “Ernest Hemingway” was added to my catalog.
But doppelgangers alone don’t make up the community of innocent bystanders who add interest to the miles. For instance, there was the man who walked six dachshunds on six leashes down Lindell on one particularly fine Sunday. There was the Dancer Guy, who wears headphones and a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and unapologetically grooves and discos his way around Forest Park. (We slapped hands as I passed.) And then there was the lady I saw last week, standing outside a hair salon.
Covered neck to ankle in a black smock, silver foils exploding from her head in an outburst of parceled detonations, she was nothing short of an apparition. Presumably, she was smoking a cigarette. I say presumably because her back was turned towards me and a great amount of white smoke seemed to emanate from her skull. The vertical nature of the foils, along with the solemnity of the black gown, suggested she was trying to establish contact with another world. The startling quantity of smoke billowing from her figure further suggested that world was very far away.
But innocent bystanders can provide only so much inspiration. If you want real motivation, the kind of motivation that hinges on accountability and ends in unadulterated entertainment, you need a posse. Specifically, you need a running buddy posse.
I’ve been fortunate to have an almost constant coterie of running companions. The groups have changed with the personnel—people move out of town, get married, have babies, and are otherwise detained. But when one person leaves, somehow—almost magically—another appears. It’s almost as though the running deities know we need our running buddies to keep us going and make sure our supply never dwindles too low. I cannot tell you on how many mornings my running buddy is the single reality that keeps me from hitting snooze on my alarm.
This is my only chance to run today?
The house is on fire?
My next run will guarantee world peace?
My running buddy is waiting for me?
Time to get up!
As the miles stack up, I am increasingly grateful for those who shove me out of bed in the morning (metaphorically speaking). No, I don’t run with a running buddy every day, but for key runs, long runs, and you-have-to-wake-up-at-an-unholy-hour runs, a running buddy is an absolute treasure of motivation.
Last Wednesday, I had to run 16 miles before work. Jake, knowing my desperation for company, offered to join.
If you do Grant's Trail, he texted the afternoon before, I could get up early enough to drop the kids off at 7, meet you by 7:15, and run whatever you have left at that point.
And just like that, the nagging dread I had felt about logging the miles before work melted away. Sure, the alarm the next morning was still unwelcome, but at least I wasn’t alone in my misery.
In fact, as I realized the moment I started running, I wasn’t miserable at all.
The miles, as I mentioned, are stacking up. The most noticeable side effect of the heavy training load—other than feeling strong as an ox, as Jake puts it—is fatigue. No, not muscle fatigue, but sleepiness. The desire to sleep—namely, to sleep past my alarm—has been my greatest challenge as of late. Once I’m awake and running, I feel okay. But man, waking up is tough.
The other day, I fell asleep on the massage table. This would be nothing unusual except that it wasn’t a feel-good massage, the kind you see on commercials for beach-y vacations. This was a white-knuckle, work-out-the-knots, jump-off-the-table massage. And towards the end of the torture session, I fell asleep. While talking.
I’m not quite sure how it happened. All I remember is that she asked me about a pain in my hip, and then I was in a yard—somebody’s yard—and there was a swing or something, and I replied by crying out, “No! It’s the other tree!”
And then I woke up. And I looked at her. And she looked at me. And neither of us knew what was going on.
I discovered later that for a moment she thought I had suffered a stroke. I hadn’t. (Thank goodness.)
The moment I stepped out of the massage room, I knew what I had to do. If I were going to survive the week—and the 20-mile long run I had planned to cap it off—I needed my running buddies.
I’ve got 20 miles on Saturday, I texted. Who wants to join?
I never knew an Ace Hardware store could contain within its walls chockfull of two-by-fours and garden hoes so much sentimentality. Yet there it was, just as it had looked almost 10 years ago, when I had to make an emergency pit stop and Jake, who by consequence was forced to wait inside to avoid hypothermia (it was winter and well below freezing), experienced a hitherto undiscovered level of social discomfort in the fantastic combination of running tights and home improvement.
I remember the women’s bathroom in detail because of the urgency with which I had to use it and the intractable wooden door wedge that prevented me from doing so. After a panicked and self-conscious struggle, however, I was able to dislodge the wedge and close the door—to my great and literal relief. Jake, in the meantime, endured a silent struggle of his own.
“Never do that to me, again,” he said as we walked through the automatic doors and back into the cold morning air.
As it turns out, tights aren’t the pants of choice within the hardware store male demographic.
Recently, Jake and I returned to Grant’s Trail for a mid-week run. I had to run 16 miles. He would join me for 10.
“This is like old times!” I said as we began.
Grant’s Trail had been a regular route for us when we first started running together. It was the location of my first really strong progression run. My first true bathroom emergency. My first long run death march.
“I can’t believe we’ve been running together for almost 10 years!”
The trail sparked a tidal wave of memories and nostalgia. I had been a true novice when I started running with Jake, a baby runner whom he had taken under his wing and guided through the miles. He made my first training plans when I had no idea what I was doing. He ran my first track workouts with me when I had never before been on a track. He led the way during my first tempo runs when I didn’t even know what a tempo run was. He ran next to me, stride for stride, when I raced a marathon for the first time. He rode his bike alongside me when he was injured and I had a 20-mile long run scheduled. In the winter. In the rain. In the dark. He dissolved my dread of looming workouts and calmed my nerves before big races. He reminded me to trust my training and to trust myself. He was there when I ran my best. He was there when I ran my worst. And either way, he’d pat me on the back and say, “Good job, kid.” He reminded me that the best you can do is your best on that day, and what more could you want?
The miles passed beneath us, and I realized that everything was as we had left it. The Budweiser Clydesdales. The inexplicable numbered markers placed at random intervals along the path. The Marks-A-Lot factory that’s not really a Marks-A-Lot factory but Smells-A-Lot like one. And when my stomach began to cramp and a bathroom emergency was upon us, I was glad when we hopped off the trail and found ourselves in a strip mall parking lot standing before the only commercial establishment open at that early hour, Ace Hardware.
Per usual, our conversation was easy and familiar and unreserved. We recapped our week and talked about mutual friends. We jabbered on about training. We discussed news headlines that spanned from the amusing (“Thieves Steal $18 Million of Maple Syrup from the Global Strategic Maple Syrup Reserve”) to the thorny and controversial (“Anything That Has To Do With Politics”). And even though Jake planned on running 10 miles with me, he ran 13, because I overslept my alarm and managed only 3 before I met up with him.
“What’s another 1.5 miles?” he said as we blew past our turnaround point, effectively adding 3 miles to his run.
Last week, when I was in a bit of a slump and not certain how to handle my sluggish legs, I gave Jake a call.
“What I would do,” he said over the phone, after I had relayed my troubles, “is cut back my mileage over the next three days. You can still hit 100 miles next week. You’ve already hit 95 miles these past few weeks. It doesn’t matter if this week is 80 or even 70. It’s almost like a taper for your 100-mile week. Your body won’t forget how to handle the miles.”
“Okay. That sounds good.”
“And,” he said, “eat pasta and ice cream. It’s my special Slumpbuster Diet.”
“Yep. Whenever I’m in a slump, I load up on pasta and ice cream, and I feel better. Works every time.”
The Slumpbuster Diet, needless to say, was a success.
I spent this past weekend in Chicago. I was there for a wedding, and the timing for a cutback in mileage couldn’t have been better. I ate pasta (rehearsal dinner) and cake and ice cream (wedding reception). And I ran very little.
But on Monday, the first day of my 100-mile week, I was back in St. Louis. Once again, I overslept my alarm (this time deliberately).
Hey, I texted Jake at 9:15 a.m. I overslept. Wanna run at 10?
Caught me just in time, he texted back. Sure.
And so he delayed his own run from his house (convenient) for a hotter and more humid run from somewhere else with me (inconvenient).
Do you remember how I rediscovered ‘80s music a few weeks ago? Well, the other day, as I was blasting the “’80s Smash Hits!” playlist in my car, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” came on. You know the song…
Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down
Never gonna run around and desert you
Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye
Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you
Perhaps I was in a sentimental mood, but as I belted out the lyrics, I thought of Jake. I realized that he is the Rick Astley of running buddies. For the past 10 years, he’s been there for me, come rain, come shine, come hell or high water, come overslept alarms. I can say with 100 percent certainty that I would not be the runner I am today if not for Jake. I would not have the confidence I have. I certainly would not be attempting a 100-mile week.
I am humbled and almost overcome when I think about how much fullness and joy running has brought to my life—and how much Jake has done to make my love for running possible. How easy it would have been to quit. How much Jake sacrificed to make sure I never did.
Running is wonderful, but it is also tough. Yes, we can accomplish much on our own, but sometimes we need our Rick Astley Running Buddies to get us through the early mornings, the long run death marches, and the tough marathons. Sometimes we need our Rick Astley Running Buddies to give us a Slumpbuster Diet. Sometimes we need our Rick Astley Running Buddies for entertainment or encouragement or to stand guard if we happen to choose the shrubbery instead of Ace Hardware.
Find your Rick Astley Running Buddy. The miles—even the bad ones—will fly by. You’ll do more than you thought you could, and have more fun that you thought you would doing it. And, before you know it, you may just find yourself on Grant’s Trail, reminiscing about a bathroom in a hardware store, and saying, “I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.”
Jake, Seth, and I had run 20 feet—tops—when Seth declared,
“I have a chafed nipple.”
Thus began the final run of my first 100-mile week.
I think I expected a dash of gravitas on the occasion, a moment of somber reflection in acknowledgement of what I was about to accomplish. A few seconds of silence would pass, the sound of our steps keeping time in a profound significance not lost upon us, and then Jake would turn to me and say, “You know, kid, I’m proud of you.” I would smile, and the Hallmark memory would be complete.
Instead, I asked, “Which nipple?”
“The left one,” he replied. “Thanks for asking.”
I don’t know why I thought sentimentality would prevail. Ten years of data collection in the form of long runs, recovery runs, tempo runs, track workouts, and races had revealed many fascinating truths. Sentimentality and gravitas were not among them.
A year after I first started running with Jake, way back when I was still a neophyte, he returned to running 100-mile weeks for the second time in his career. I remember the time distinctly because the same run that catapulted him to the century mark flung my weary legs to fourscore for the first time in my own nascent running career. He had to run back-to-back 20-mile runs to polish off the feat, and I remember thinking, Never in a million years…
Regarding that thought: I believe society as a whole can now confidently assume if you think something will never happen in a million years, it will indeed happen within 10. Tops.
Running 100 miles in a week seemed foreign and impossible, even when I stood on my tiptoes to kiss 80. Heck, I remember when running 14 miles seemed impossible, much less running 14 miles a day.
I was 15 and it was Labor Day weekend. The Blue Angels were performing at the Spirit of St. Louis Airshow. My family and I had gathered at a friend’s house to watch the show. My dad’s friend Rick was late to the shindig. He had run 14 miles that morning and had fallen asleep on the couch post-run.
Fourteen miles? I thought. How does anyone run 14 miles? Is that even healthy?
I assumed only professional runners subjected their bodies to the tortures of half and full marathons. But here before me was a Regular Rick—neither skeletal nor Kenyan nor sponsored by Asics—who had just run 14 miles. I was floored.
You see, just a few years before that, I was a 13-year-old who, on a bright summer morning, couldn’t even run three miles with her dad. Instead, I stopped and cried after two and a half.
“C’mon!” my dad called to me after discovering I had dropped behind. “You can do it! Keep going!”
“I can’t!” I nearly wailed. My lungs hurt. My stomach hurt. I felt like I was going to throw up. Or pass out. Or both. Running with my dad had seemed like such a good idea, but now I was defeated. He was a runner. He had been a collegiate soccer player. He regularly ran three miles at a time. Sometimes he ran six. I thought I would never, ever be able to run as far or as fast as he did. The concept was unfathomable.
Little did I think that 11 years later, I would run my first 80-mile week, or that 9 years after that, I would run my first 100-mile week.
“So you deal in decades,” Jake said over the phone a few days after the run when I had called to confirm the years of his “glory days.”
“More or less,” I laughed before adding, “At least no one can accuse me of rushing things.”
Even though I had started running regularly after that comically disastrous run with my dad, I never considered myself a “runner” until I was in my early 20s, and even then, I did so hesitantly. Real runners were weird. Real runners wore short shorts. Real runners threw up. Real runners spoke of kilometers and, really, what American really knows how long a kilometer is?
Of course, I was wrong and right about real runners. We are weird, but earnest. Our shorts are short, but practical. Throwing up is a recreational hazard, but by no means a daily occurrence. And while I’m still not exactly sure how long a kilometer is, I can finagle a pretty accurate kilometers-to-miles conversion when dealing in units of five.
“Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own,” Charles Dickens wrote, “and from morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is but a succession of changes so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress.”
I’ve often said that the moment I asked Jake for marathon advice, I was thrown headfirst into the world of serious running. And I’ve often lauded the unaffected, unfiltered, and straightforward nature of the sport. I laugh at how quickly the sport rendered me uncouth and dissolved my adherence to social mores and pretense. I cringe at the roughness with which a race has cast me to the ground and exult in the suddenness with which a PR restores my faith. I am tossed about by the surges and fight reactionary tendencies engendered by passion. Running, after all, is humanity in unedited form.
But if the sport represents us in our first, unrefined attempts and expressions, each run is but a draft of a more articulate version of ourselves. Each run is a version that is cleaner, easier to understand. With each run, we trim the trite and unnecessary and that which does not move our stories forward. With each run, we learn to separate the truth from the dross, and so press on. These changes, of course, come slowly, over time and over miles. These changes come, as Dickens said, “so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress.”
Perhaps this is what I was thinking when Jake and Seth and I wrapped up our 10-mile run on Sunday. How had I become this person? How did the sport find me and shape me and change me? How did I get to be so lucky? Perhaps I was expecting to say something to this effect when I looked up after the last mile had passed beneath our feet.
Instead, I found myself looking up at Seth, who was walking from the Visitor’s Center in Forest Park to where Jake and I stood stretching on the grass. His shirt was stained—this time on the right side—by a distinct red line stretching from his chest to his stomach.
“Sorry, guys,” he said, pointing to his shirt. “I had a situation.”
“Hey! That’s your other nipple!” I observed.
“Yeah, at least it wasn’t your left nipple,” Jake chimed in.
“My left nipple is great,” Seth confirmed to the delight of all.
And so, without ceremony, my first Century Week came to an end.
“Hey, can you take our picture?” I asked Seth before we left. “I want to commemorate this moment.”
“Sure,” he replied. Then he looked down at his chest. “Just let me change my shirt first.”
Week 9 | Summer Running Support Group
[A small group of runners sit on folding chairs in a circle—except for Bob, who is stretching his hamstring. Beneath each chair is a water bottle. The runners chat in clusters—about the heat, about mileage, about the Whoop-De-Do Marathon in the fall, which they may or may not run. Suddenly, a minor skirmish breaks out when Sue chugs a sports drink and Mike, a patron of electrolyte tablets, rebukes her with fitter-than-thou piety. A foam roller is thrown. The kerfuffle is dissolved only when Carol reminds everyone that, in the end, they all want the same thing: hydration. Mike mumbles something about apostasy. The therapist enters the room. Quiet ensues.]
Therapist: Welcome! I am so glad you all could make it to our Summer Running Support Group!
[Mike glowers at Sue. Sue sniffs at Mike.]
Therapist [oblivious]: I hope you’ve all had a chance to introduce yourselves. Over the next few weeks, we will get to know each other better as we share our experiences, our struggles, and our personal victories in summer running. Now—[looking around and smiling expectantly]—who would like to start by sharing an issue?
Rick: I guess can.
Therapist: Wonderful! Thank you, Rick! What is one of your summer running struggles?
Rick: Well, It’s hot.
[Collective eye roll. Mike and Sue lock eyes and are momentarily reconciled by the mutual conclusion that Rick is a nitwit. Rick clears his throat and continues.]
Rick: Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe.
Sue: I find it helps if you slow down. Adjust your pace for the heat.
Mike: I push through it. Heat is speedwork in disguise. [Reconciliation voided.]
Bob [still stretching hamstring]: That’s not the saying. Hills. Hills are speedwork in disguise. Who said that? Somebody said that.
Marge: Everything is said by somebody.
Bob: No, no… somebody famous.
Mike: Heat is speedwork if you push through it.
Sue: You can’t just push through debilitating heat.
Marge: Or humidity.
Ed: You could run earlier.
Sue: Or slower.
Bob: Or Shorter! Frank Shorter!
Mike: Or push through it.
Therapist: Excellent, excellent! These are all valid solutions. Except for Mike’s, which, Mike, to be honest, I find impractical and potentially dangerous.
[Sue eyes Mike and triumphantly takes a sip of her sports drink.]
Therapist: Alrighty! Who else has a summer running struggle?
Ed [standing up]: My shoes get squishy. [He sits back down.]
Therapist: Don’t be ashamed, Ed! We’re all runners here! Your shoes are squishy… how so?
Ed: Well, I don’t consider myself a particularly heavy sweater, but 4 or 5 miles into every run, I can hear myself schlepping down the path like a bipedal kitchen sponge.
[Everyone cringes, except for Bob who seems to find the visual well within reach.]
Ed: Even worse, my shoes never dry out. I’ve been tying sopping laces for the past month.
Rick: Exactly! Wet shoes. Every day. Wet shoes.
Ed: And the stench! It’s something between a locker room and a petri dish. And a bowling alley. And an armpit.
Therapist: Ah, yes. Okay. Thank you for sharing, Ed. Anyone else?
Marge: I never stop sweating. Ever.
Bob: Neither do I.
[The group looks at Bob, whose leg has been perched on the folding table with the coffee and donuts. There is a suspicious sheen beneath his right calf.]
Marge: I towel off. Still sweaty. I change into dry clothes. Still sweaty. I take a shower—
Mike: Well, you have to take a cold sho—
Marge: —a cold shower. Still sweaty. I drive an hour in traffic. Show up to work. Still sweaty. I haven’t stopped sweating since the first week in June. I swear, even Old Man Winter would lose 10 pounds of water weight in this humidity.
Bob [finally sits down in the circle]: I broke 3 iPods with sweat.
Marge: I broke my phone.
Ed: Wait… do people still use iPods?
Sue: I bring a beach towel to sit on in my car post-run.
Marge: Trash bags. You’ve gotta use a layer of giant plastic trash bags, then the beach towel. Otherwise the sweat will soak right through.
Bob: I used beach towels for years. I had to sell my car.
Therapist: You sold your car because of sweat?
Bob: Well, technically, because of the smell of sweat.
Marge: Also: butt sweat.
Bob: The worst.
Marge: You sit down on some concrete steps after a run—to untie your shoelaces and whatnot—and when you stand up, there lies the shadow of Mr. Potato Head.
Therapist: It appears we’ve bonded over the topic of sweat! Sue, you look like you have something to share?
Sue: Tan lines.
[Sue pushes up her split shorts a half inch revealing a sharp line of demarcation. Soon, everyone is shifting hemlines and collars to show off tan lines—except Bob, who takes off his socks.]
Ed: Whoa. Your feet are so white they’re almost… translucent.
Rick: Like Casper the Ghost.
Ed: Is that what they call trench foot?
Mike: I don’t think that’s trench foot.
Bob [concerned]: Could it be trench foot?
Sue: I saw a movie about a guy with trench foot.
Therapist: Anyone else?
Carol: I’m always thirsty. It makes going to dinner a hassle. After the sixth or seventh water refill, servers just leave a pitcher on the table.
Sue: You should try sports drinks.
Mike [glaring]: Electrolyte tablets.
Therapist: Bugs? She should try bugs?
Rick: No. Electrolyte tablets. [Mike nods triumphantly.] But the bugs… legions of bugs.
Bob: Spiderwebs in the morning.
Rick: Gnats and horseflies at night.
Bob: I don’t even need protein shakes anymore.
[Rick grabs a donut.]
Ed: And chafing.
Therapist: Yes! Excellent, Ed!
Therapist: I see.
Therapist: I understand.
Therapist: Let’s just categorize the issue as “General Chafing.”
Bob: Ha! General Chafing.
Sue: What about having a red face for an hour post-run—
Marge: —caked in white salt.
Mike: That’s because you sweat more than just water. You sweat minerals.
[Bob stands up and grabs his hamstring.]
Sue [holding out her sports drink]: Here! Drink this!
Mike [shoving his water bottle into Bob’s contorted face]: No, no! Electrolytes!
Ed [whipping out a flask]: I’ve got pickle juice!
Marge [reaching into her purse and retrieving a large screw-cap bottle]: Salt tablets!
[A small skirmish develops. Finally Carol stands on one of the folding chairs and addresses the melee.]
Carol: Everyone! Everyone! Control yourselves! Remember: despite our differences—Mike, Sue—[she looks at each with parental significance]—we all want the same thing.
Therapist: That’s right. To suppo—
[The Summer Running Support Group collects itself and promptly abandons the circle to gather around the table for coffee and donuts—except for Bob, who is back to stretching his hamstring.]
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: I have to go to work—as a human being.”
Thus wrote Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in what is now known as Meditations. He goes on:
“What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
As I read these words, I am staring down the barrel of a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. It is night, but I anticipate the morning. I think of my down comforter, of my pillow, of my darkened room and the hum of the air conditioner. I think of how nice it would feel to hit snooze, flip my pillow to the cool side, turn my cheek to the crisp white cover, forgetting all about those silly miles, and fall… back… to… sleep.
“So you were born to feel ‘nice’?”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, Marcus. You’re getting a little personal now.
“So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?” he pursues. “Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?”
Even though 1,800 years have passed since Marcus Aurelius cast his thoughts upon a scroll, his words seem especially piercing.
Were you born to feel ‘nice’? This is the question I will ask myself when the dreaded alarm sounds.
Or when I begin my run, and my legs are sluggish.
Were you born to feel ‘nice’?
Or when it is hot. Very hot. And I hit a wall at mile 14 and think about calling it a day, even though I am supposed to run 16. When I tell myself that 14 is good enough, that 2 miles won’t make a difference, that I can account for the miles another day.
Were you born to feel ‘nice’?
Or when I am on the track and a long and daunting series of 400s mock me. I am intimidated by speedwork. Speedwork hurts.
Were you born to feel ‘nice’?
Or when I am on the start line of a marathon, and I am afraid—terrified, really—that I am in over my head. That I was too ambitious. That I overestimated my ability. That I will fail.
“So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?”
I don’t know! I cry. Maybe I wasn’t born to feel nice, but maybe I wasn’t born to hurt this much either. I don’t know if I can push myself to keep going.
And then Marcus Aurelius throws this dagger: “You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.”
I think perhaps the beauty of this last sentiment—aside from the fact that it equates challenging yourself with loving yourself—is the simple objectivity with which it frames a profound self-belief. It is you, talking to yourself, as if you are talking to someone else.
Multiple studies have revealed that most adults talk to themselves in some form of ongoing dialogue throughout the day. But one particular study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology parsed self-dialogue according to the two primary internal narratives: first person (“I”) and second person (“you”). Researchers at the University of Illinois, who conducted the study, made an astounding discovery: participants who used the word “you” in self-dialogue saw increased performance, bolstered motivation, and improved attitude over those who spoke to themselves in first person. In fact, mere exposure to the word “you” influenced participants’ attitudes towards goals that require self-regulation or performance.
One scientific explanation for this phenomenon is the sociogenetic or interpersonal nature of dialogue. Our everyday interaction with other people requires some form of social regulation. However, as we begin to internalize our dialogue and talk to ourselves, that social regulation becomes a form of self-regulation. We begin to integrate social interactions—such as parental concern or societal values—into our own self-systems. In other words, “I can do this” is the voice of one, while “You can do this” represents the voices of many.
And there is strength in numbers.
Marcus Aurelius knew the power of “you.” In fact, an alternate title to Meditations is To Himself. For all of his use of the second person, Marcus Aurelius was writing an elaborate note-to-self—a self who also happened to be the Emperor of Rome. But still.
If you truly love yourself, you will settle for nothing less than your greatest effort. If you truly love yourself, you will not impose limits on your ability. If you truly love yourself, you will crave lofty goals, you will claim them as your own and say, “Go get ‘em! I believe in you.” If you truly love yourself, you will challenge and encourage and cheer on yourself as you would challenge and encourage and cheer on someone else you love dearly.
Because you were not made simply “to feel nice.” You were made to do things and to experience them and to go to work as a human being.
It was winter. Snow packed the road and littered the shoulder with slushy, gray patches. The trees towered in black silhouettes, stark and plain. The world was silenced by the season. Nothing moved. No birds. No leaves. No cars. Everything was very still and very quiet.
I had been running—not very far, not even two miles—when, suddenly, I couldn’t go on. I missed him. It was all too much. It hurt too much. I stopped and I cried. Heavy, heavy sobs.
Even as I cried, I waited expectantly. I waited for something to happen, for somebody to make everything okay. Surely, someone could see how awful this was, that I was broken.
When I finally stopped crying, I felt nothing. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel relieved. I looked around. Nothing had changed. Everything was silent.
I wiped my face with the back of my glove and adjusted my balaclava. It was wet from tears. I stood on the side of the road, alone. I felt small and very cold.
Stopping hadn’t changed anything. Nature looked on, and for once it didn’t comfort. Nor did it understand. There was nothing left for me to do but keep running. And so I did.
Years have passed since that run, but I remember it as though it happened yesterday. Stopping hadn’t fixed things. I guess you could say nothing could have really fixed things at that moment. But as I kept going—that run, that day, the next day, the day after that—things slowly began to repair themselves.
Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This quote has taken on a new significance for me since that run when, well, hell was frozen over. I didn’t think I could keep going. But I could. And only in moving forward did healing begin.
As time passes and challenges ebb and flow from the serious to the less so, I’ve found myself applying this mantra to a broad spectrum of trials. For instance, today I repeated it to myself during a tempo run.
I know. Not quite the life crisis in the first example.
Months of high mileage have culminated in a decrease in volume (finally!) and an increase in intensity. The switch to speed has required an adjustment not only in physical fitness, but mental backbone. To make matters worse, I had to run this particular workout alone. On a treadmill.
I warmed up for 3 miles and then started the tempo: 4 miles at half marathon pace.
“I can do this,” I thought optimistically. “I’ve got this!”
One mile into the tempo, I was over it.
“You know,” I reasoned with myself. “I pushed the pace on my long run on Sunday. I don’t really need to do this tempo. Or maybe I can do one mile on, one mile off. Or maybe I can just skip.”
If you’re going through hell…
… keep going.
I knew the only way to put this tempo run behind me was to suffer through it. The only way to move forward in my training was to move forward in this run. And so, I kept running. Two miles. Three. Four. And then, just like that, it was over. As it turned out, hell wasn’t even four miles wide. It was two, tops. Somehow, as I kept going, the miles got easier. I fell into a groove. I was stronger in the last mile than I had been in the first.
The only way to survive hell, as Churchill said, is to keep going. Don’t stop. Stopping is dangerous not only because it prevents us from moving forward, but also because it can quickly become a habit. Once we fall into the pattern of succumbing to pain or fatigue, to the desire not to hurt anymore, we compromise our ability to persevere in the future. We grow accustomed to surrender. Quitting becomes routine.
When I kept running years ago, on that run full of snow and tears, I was training not only my body, but also my mind. I chose to keep going, and in doing so, reminded myself that I could keep going. And if I could keep going then, when it felt as though my whole world were collapsing around me, how much more could I keep going today, which threatened little more than minor discomfort?
So don’t stop. It doesn’t fix anything. Instead, keep moving forward. Push through the pain. You can do it. I promise. And in the end, you may just find that hell isn’t quite as wide as you thought.
One of the best running memories I have—heck, one of my best memories, period—is the day I broke 3:10 in the marathon. It took me eight years and almost as many marathons to do it, but after multiple blowups, meltdowns, and one trip to the medical tent, I finally (finally!) crossed the finish line in what had become for me the Holy Grail of a time.
I remember looking up at the clock and seeing that beautiful 0 in just the right place and thinking, Oh, my gosh! I did it! I was too tired to yell but fully capable of embracing the volunteer handing out finisher medals. I hugged her and laughed, and she hugged me back and laughed and told me congratulations a half dozen times. Then I turned around to find the man who had run with me from miles 23 to 26, when the 30-mph wind gusts blew against us and we buried our heads along an unending stretch of Forest Park Parkway. He had talked to me and told me stories and encouraged me to keep going. As soon as I saw him in the finish line hubbub, I realized he was indeed my best friend in the whole wide world. (I didn’t know his name, but still.) I gave him the same giant bear hug with which I had enveloped the volunteer lady. And then I celebrated with Jackie, my training buddy who had also run the race (and had finished far, far ahead of me). And then I celebrated with texts and I celebrated with phone calls and I celebrated at Mission Taco, where I ate a celebration burrito, and at Costco, where I bought a celebration beach towel and a 10-pound box of celebration Cheerios.
Breaking 3:10 in the marathon was a huge deal for me. I had never considered myself a particularly talented runner—at least, not in the “serious runner” kinda way. But I try hard. And running gives you more bang for your try-hard buck than any other sport. So even though I felt as though it had taken me forever to get there, I finally did it.
And then, a few months ago, I met someone who ran 3:10 in her very first marathon. Her. Very. First. Marathon.
Like me, she hadn’t considered herself a particularly talented runner—at least, not in the serious runner kinda way.
“Do you realize how amazing that is?” I nearly yelled after she told me. “People don’t just run 3:10 in their first marathon!”
I was awestruck and happy for her and—for the briefest of moments—disappointed in myself. It was a quick flash of discomfiture, one buried deep in the recesses of my emotion. But it was there.
Why did it take me so long to break 3:10? I wondered.
I remembered how excited I had been that day, and there was another flash—this time of embarrassment. I felt silly for having been so electrified and proud about doing something that someone else had done with relative ease.
Maybe it wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought…
And just like that, as I measured my path against that of another, I found my golden achievement ever so slightly tarnished.
Such is life lived on a scale.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve struggled with the “-er” syndrome. You know the one. It’s the blight of comparison. And it can wheedle its way into nearly every aspect of life. Trying to eat healthy? That person eats healthier. Studying in school? That person is smarter. Trying to tone up? That person is leaner. Trying to be fast? That person is faster. Trying to dress sharp? That person is snazzier.
But don’t be fooled. The “-er” syndrome is merely a mechanism of discontent. It is an inferiority complex driven by ambition and garnished with envy.
Mark Twain once said, “Comparison is the death of joy.” And I believe it. Comparison creates a mirage of failure in what should be an oasis of accomplishment. When we compare ourselves to others, we subconsciously devalue our own abilities and discredit our accomplishments. Why? Because comparison says that our value is contingent on how we stack up to everyone else, and that simply isn’t true.
We are each inherently valuable, and what we accomplish is inherently significant.
In the movie WarGames, a gem of the 1980s starring a teenage Matthew Broderick, a genius professor creates a supercomputer to simulate the outcome of potential nuclear war. This supercomputer, named Joshua, controls the United States’ nuclear missiles at NORAD.
Broderick, a high school upstart with a low GPA, is somehow still bright enough to hack into a super-secure government computer system by accident in an attempt to break into his school’s computer system to give his report card a cosmetic uplift. Having inadvertently discovered what he believes to be a new video game, he starts playing “Global Thermonuclear War” and decides, logically, to play as the Soviet Union. He begins firing missiles at the US, which the authorities at NORAD believe to be real. There are car chases and swarms of FBI agents and even a call to the President of the United States. Before long, young Broderick is at NORAD with a gaggle of other famous actors from the ‘80s. It’s all very exciting.
But the climax occurs when the supercomputer, named Joshua, seizes control of the nuclear warheads while playing Tic-Tac-Toe with the genius professor. (It’s a long story.) Eventually, Joshua switches to Global Thermonuclear War and prepares to launch the country’s store of nuclear missiles. Just when Joshua is about to blow the planet to smithereens, he learns the concept of futility and disarms the missiles.
A STRANGE GAME, he says and simul-types across a giant screen. THE ONLY WINNING MOVE IS NOT TO PLAY.
In other words, the supercomputer nearly started World War III trying to grasp the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, which every human being understood at the time. But he knew not to split the infinitive, so yay!
Why did I tell you all of this? Well, for one, the movie is awesome. And two, like Tic-Tac-Toe and Global Thermonuclear War, there are no winners in the game of comparison.
There will always be someone who is faster than you. There will always be someone who is slower than you. There will always be someone who can run farther than you. There will always be someone who cannot run as far. Or someone who cannot run at all. On any given day, someone will have a great run and someone will have a terrible one. At any given race, someone will run a personal best and someone will run a personal worst and someone won’t reach the finish and someone won’t even reach the start. And none of that has any bearing on the worth of what you accomplish—on that day or on any other day.
Don’t let comparison undersell your abilities or undercut your confidence. Don’t let comparison rob you of your joy. Your Holy Grail is your Holy Grail. So go get it.
And then hug a few strangers and celebrate.
As I plowed through the first mile of what would eventually be a less than stellar 5-mile tempo run, I wondered to what distant province Progress had fled. Because even though he had seemingly vanished like the Mylar blankets at a finish line, he was there a minute ago. He was there last Tuesday, when I was on the track with Jake and Jackie. And he was there the Sunday before that, when I had a 17-mile long run laced with 10 miles at race pace. And he was…
Okay, so those were the only two times we hung out. But I got used to having him around, quite frankly.
The 5-mile tempo ended eventually, as they always do, and as I ran my cool down I consoled myself with the canned sympathies I had spooned out so many times before.
It’s all based on effort.
Don’t get caught up in the numbers.
It’s super hot.
You’ve been under a lot of stress lately.
You’ve been staying up too late.
Of course, each of these reasons is completely valid and, when true in numbers, create quite a combo platter of vindication. Still. I missed Progress. I liked having him around. He validated my training. He reinforced the faith I had placed in the process. He was the buoy that kept me afloat when I felt as though I were about to drown in the miles.
The first day that Progress walked through the door—at least, since I started this training cycle—I did some math. I figured I began training in earnest at the beginning of April. Four months ago. Four months. That’s how long it took before I could perceive real, tangible Progress. Not only that, but there were multiple occasions on which I felt as though I was making zero headway and, in fact, regressing.
The first 6-8 weeks were the toughest. I felt sluggish as the mileage began to creep up. I couldn’t believe how much time I had to devote to running—and this was before the serious mileage kicked in. I was tired. Eventually, I began to feel stronger. My body adjusted to the relentless consistency—early alarms and two-a-days and mid-week long runs and weekend long runs over and over and over. I didn’t feel as tired as I had at the beginning, but I also didn’t exactly feel spry. I was just, you know, running. And running. And running.
For. Four. Months.
And then, he showed up. He introduced himself on Sunday during the pace run, but it was two days later, on Tuesday, that he plopped down on the couch and propped his feet on the coffee table.
Jake, Jackie, and I ran what we termed an “all-track” workout, which was actually a 2-mile warm-up followed by 3 by 2-miles at 5K pace followed by a 2-mile cool down. The “all-track” idea was Jake’s: his oldest son, who is 8, was hanging out with us that morning, and the track seemed like a logical way to keep everyone in sight.
We ran the warm-up during which, I admit, I didn’t feel great. I didn’t feel terrible either. I just felt… normal.
And then, somehow, we cruised the workout.
To be fair, it wasn’t much of a workout for Jake and Jackie. In fact, Jake called it a “taper tune-up” for Jackie, who will be racing a marathon up Pike’s Peak in a couple of days. But it was a heckuva workout for me. In the last 2-mile set, I was on pace to PR my 5K. And while hypotheticals don’t hold much water in this sport, I have no doubt that I could have. In other words, I had the opportunity to PR a 5K at the end of a 6-mile workout in the middle of a high mileage week.
It’s working! I exulted Dr. Frankenstein-style after we left the track and Progress and I headed to Starbucks for a celebratory coffee. It’s work-ing! Mwahahah!
Naturally, I assumed Progress was still in the passenger seat a couple of days ago when I readied myself for an 11-mile run: 4-mile warm-up followed by a 5-mile tempo followed by a 2-mile cool down.
Alright, buddy! I said to Progress as the warm-up came to an end. You ready? Let’s do this!
Needless to say, the workout was a near disaster. Progress, as it turned out, had skipped town after a hot minute, like those non-local, storm-chasing roofing companies you always hear about on the radio.
What happened? I lamented after (and during) the workout. I don’t understand. I crushed it last week.
It took all of a mile to trigger a nosedive from the high of my “all-track” workout with Jake and Jackie and to shatter the confidence I had accrued over the course of 4 months.
Progress is a rapscallion of a friend. He’s like a jack-in-the-box—just as surprising but slightly less terrifying. Even though the lid is closed tight and you can’t see him, you know he’s there. So you turn the handle—round and round and round and round for days and weeks and months on end—and then finally pop! Progress!
Of course, after that, you have to shove him back in the box and start all over.
Round and round and round and round...
But you keep going, because you know he’s there. And you know he’s going to show up when you least expect it.
I don’t know why Progress is so skittish. I feel like he could make things a lot easier by cooling it with the elusiveness shtick. Then again, Progress isn’t what makes us strong. Progress is the reward for being strong in his absence.
When Progress comes to visit, have fun. Take him out on the town. Hammer a few miles. Hang out with friends. And when he leaves—which he usually does without so much as a goodbye—remind yourself that he’s just a little squirrelly. He never really goes away. He just doesn’t like to stay in one place too long. But he’s faithful—as long as you are. Keep turning, and he’ll come back, probably when you least expect it.