Running Marathons Made Me a Coward

"I don't know how you do it," my friend tells me at the finish of a muggy spring 5K in Texas. We're gasping for air, soaked in sweat, and looking desperately for some cold water to drink. Or even better, to pour over our heads.

"I don't know how you can run a marathon," he says.

"Marathons are way easier than this." The words fly right out of my mouth.

I didn't always feel this way. Like most recreational runners, I started with 5Ks. Signing up for my first marathon felt like the most courageous athletic move I'd ever made. At least, the most courageous one since signing up for my first half marathon. In fact, until that first half, signing up for anything longer than a 5K had been a physical and emotional feat for me.

But in 2014, in the middle of training for my fourth marathon, my Dallas Running Club pace leader introduced me to the marathon predictor calculator. If I could run twenty-six miles at a 9:00 pace, the calculator promised, I could certainly run three measly miles at an 8:00 pace. At that time, I'd never run an 8:00 mile without someone else pulling me along. And every time I had, I'd wanted to cry.

The scales had tipped. The shorter the race, the scarier it was.

But the challenge was offered, so the challenge was accepted.

A few months later, I ran my 5K PR (24:53). After the race, as I stood on my linguini legs and willed my breakfast to please stay down, I decided I'd proven I could do it and that was enough.

Over the following four years, I never tried to beat that PR. I barely ran any 5Ks at all. I could say it's because I got a new coach and started fresh with a new training method, but if I'm being honest, the real reason is that I was just trying to avoid what happens in my brain every time I run a 5K:

I think I might throw up.

It's only a mile more. A whole mile?

Only eight minutes. Eight whole minutes?

Why did I sign up for a 5K?

Has it been even a minute yet?

Am I going to get sick? Pee in my pants?

Why do I run?

I was being a coward.

So, at the end of 2017, when I decided I’d make 2018 my year of big dreams and big goals, I knew I needed to chase something bigger even than breaking 4:00 in the marathon—a goal I've had for years. I need to set my sights on something that would make my pulse take off twice as fast as my feet.

I told my coach I was ready to really race a 5K. Linguini legs and all.

We decided that April would be the month. I signed up for a 5K on the first Saturday and another on the last Saturday. And then I got to work.

We added more track workouts and speed intervals. We did a simulated 5K and some aggressive tempo runs. And on April 7th, for the first time in four years, I set out to give a short race my all. My coach set my pacing strategy: 8:20, 8:15, 8:10. My average pace would be 20 seconds faster than what I ran in my simulated race.

I'd requested a terrifying goal and I’d got one.

The morning of the race was cold and windy. I went through my entire pre-race routine of rolling, eating, and checking the weather a million times. But this time, I did something new:

I took out a pen and wrote COURAGE on my wrist.

And then I reminded myself that I'd crushed my last track workout, and I’d nailed a tempo run just one week earlier. I reminded myself that adrenaline make races feel easier than training runs.

"When I start to feel miserable," I told my husband in the car on the way to the race, "I'll focus on the person in front of me." I thought maybe he'd congratulate me for my wise strategy. Instead, he told me I was psyching myself out. That maybe instead of thinking everything to death, I should just go out and run.

He's wrong, I thought. My mental tenacity is my greatest strength.

But as I sat in the car beside him, staring at the road ahead in the pre-dawn light, I realized my husband was right. Yes, my brain is what makes me so strong in the marathon. But it's also what makes me such a coward in the 5K. The ramblings in my brain are what have kept me from racing 5Ks for four years.

What I needed that day was courage, which requires a lot of heart.

The course was an out-and-back at Dallas White Rock Lake. The first half was mostly downhill with tailwind; the second half, of course, mostly uphill with a headwind. My brain helped me strategize—instead of true negative splits, I gave a little more at the front to take advantage of the conditions. Toward the end of mile two, I caught up to the very tall man in front of me.

"I feel like a big sail out here," he gasped.

"I know, this is crazy." I hoped he could hear me over the unrelenting 20 mph wind. He and I ran together silently for a few minutes, the only two people on a lonely stretch of the course.

When he started to pull ahead, my brain started doing its thing. But this time, my heart told my brain to shut up.

I replaced the panicked ramblings with a single word: Courage. And then I let my heart lead, pushing and believing until I crossed the finish. I looked down at my watch. 8:18 average pace.

Three weeks later, on a beautiful day—no headwinds—I ran my second 5K at an 8:08 average pace.

Neither was a PR, but both exceeded my 5K goal for this year. Both got me awards—one age group and one masters. But most importantly, both gave me the chance to be courageous.

I'll always be a runner who prefers to lead with my brain. But I hope that now and then, I'll let my heart take the reins.

*For more from Stacey, you can follow her on Instagram.