Another Lesson

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I was only half paying attention to the announcer as he welcomed runners to the 2016 Boulder Rez Marathon. The words flowed through my ears without me really comprehending them. I felt like I was on auto pilot-just another marathon, no big deal. The usual reservoir fee was waived for race participants and I had parked my car in the dirt lot before walking up the crest of the hill to the starting area. I was able to catch a glimpse of the waking sun beginning to stretch thin rays over the horizon as I did so.

Now, in the starting corral, my mind wasn’t really on anything. I was neither excited for nor dreading the impending miles. The forecast for the day was to be sunny and warm but under pre-dawn skies, chill had sent my hands into the sleeves of my jacket seeking warmth. Just before the start, I noted how sparse the crowd of runners looked. It was a small race. There were other distances for this event, but they had later start times which left me surrounded only by those who were also going the 26.2 miles. Small races can be enjoyable with no weaving through crowds just to find your pace. Instead of running in large groups of similarly-paced runners, you ran only with your thoughts. A good or a bad thing depending on the thoughts.

The course was 4 laps-starting with a few miles out on a dirt road, wrapping around the reservoir before rounding back to where I currently stood in the starting chute. The air horn sounded, stark and cutting through the crisp air, pulling me from my thoughts and onto the first lap of the course. I found my pace almost immediately, each footfall steady and even on the dirt road. Now, as the miles started ticking along, the chilly temperature was a welcome feeling. I took in all the scenery on that first lap. The flat irons glowed a rich purple hue, lit brilliantly from the rising sun. The golden leaves on the trees dotting the course seemed to shimmer as they danced and swayed on the gentle breeze.

Lap one ended on target pace and lap two began the same way. At this point in the race I was enjoying the four-lap course. I wasn’t thinking about the race in terms of miles I had left to run, but instead in laps and as I made the turn to begin my third lap, I had just two laps to go and that sounded a lot better than 13 miles. I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment my outlook changed. It was so gradual at first that I don’t think I even noticed. A slow boil. By the time you realize it’s hot, you’re already on fire.

By the time I realized the race was no longer going well, it is already a disaster. The gentle hills began to feel a little steeper, a little longer. The once-welcome warmth of the sun began to feel a little oppressive, a little stifling. Instead of the scenery, I began to notice how to road looked endless. The fatigue in my body was getting to my mind, burying my positivity. Not just the miles I had run that morning, but the marathon I’d run 2 weeks prior, and the one a few weeks before that, and the one not long before that, the fact that I had given birth to my child a mere 6 months before this race….it was all catching up to me and I was losing my grasp on my pace. Suddenly, I was sick of running in circles.

I was surprised to see that the 4th and final lap started not too far off pace. Perhaps the race was not lost-with just a little extra push, I could make up the time, I’d be set! The immense, looming mountain on the course before me seemed to laugh off my attempted internal pep talk. I had run up a slight, barely noticeable hill at the beginning of the previous three laps, but this one seemed straight up and forever. It was over at that point. It’s amazing how quickly my mind turns on me. I thought to myself harshly “my 28th marathon, you’d think I’d be stronger than this!” My thoughts are more effective at beating me up than any course, pace or distance ever could.

At that point, while from the outside it may have appeared that I was running up a smooth, gentle incline, my mind was taking me straight up a never-ending mountain while simultaneously telling me how weak I was for not doing it faster. My shot at a pr had vanished and my desire to even finish the race at all was waning. I tried to better my mental situation, tried to assess how I felt-how I physically felt, not how my mind was convincing me I felt. Mile 20 is never a comfortable place, even on a good race day, so there was some fatigue and discomfort but overall was really not bad. But it didn’t matter. I just could not hold on to any positive focus.

I tried counting my steps in my head to give myself something else to focus on. In past races, the steady one-two-three-four of each step had been able to distract me long enough to slip out of the rough patch I was in. No such luck in this race. The one-two-three-four came out as f-u-c-k f-u-c-k. I was buried in the dark impossibleness and there was no escaping it. This was the wall. I didn’t care about finishing. In fact, I didn’t care about running at all; about any of the goals I had set for myself and been working towards. “No one cares.” I told myself. “No one gives a shit whether I run this marathon, or if I never run a mile again in my life!” So I told myself that I didn’t care either. And for a while, I felt like I really didn’t. My feet were lead. My pace was a crawl. And my thoughts were brutal. But the truth is, I do care. And even there, in the moment, slogging along, feeling miserable for/about myself and hating everything-I cared then too, because I didn’t quit. And no, probably no one really, truly cares whether or not I run this marathon, or the next, or if I ever run again, but I do.

I do an awful lot so I put my head down and kept putting one foot in front of the other until I crossed the damn finish line of my 28th marathon. Completing that distance is something in and of itself, and I had completed it, carrying all of my self-doubt with me around that final lap, in a time that, not long ago I would have called a PR. But I felt no sense of accomplishment upon finishing. I walked straight from where I crossed the line to where my car was parked, and I drove home. I felt defeated that I couldn’t do a better job silencing my inner doubts. I love the quote “I used to run with doubt, now she can’t keep up.” Like doubt is a competitor you can overcome or outrun. I wish I could always leave doubt in the dust as I run confidently towards my goals. But the truth is, even after all the miles I’ve run, all the goals I had deemed impossible yet reached anyways, sometimes doubt can keep up. Sometimes her voice is so loud, not even my headphones blasting can drown out her negative talk. When she speaks up, it doesn’t matter what my pace is-it isn’t fast enough. It doesn’t matter how far I’m running, it will never be far enough.

I set pretty absurd goals for my running-some are downright crazy, yet I accomplish them somehow. I work really hard to do that every mile I run. It is far easier for me to talk/write about my running disasters and not my triumphs, but I really feel I have accomplished a lot with my running. Paces that once were my goal for speed work are now my warm-up for the marathon. My goal PR crept up and up and I have shaved an hour and 47 minutes off my marathon best. But sometimes, my doubt can still match me stride for stride.

I’ll probably never be rid of her-not completely-but I can say that she runs with me less often and she’s quieter than she used to be. But even on those days that she is loud, the runs where my pace is difficult to attain or the races where, despite doing everything right, it all falls apart, I do have an advantage over her. I keep going anyways. While she sometimes can keep up, she never can for long.

Believing in myself has been and continues to be a learning process; one that is sometimes (often-times) more difficult than the running itself. I am endlessly grateful for the opportunity running continually gives me to practice believing in myself.

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