I am a marathoner. That is something I thought I’d never say, and the range of emotions associated with those four words can be intense at times. This is that story. The story of the range of emotions – and sensations – that have pushed and pulled me through the last eight marathons and are driving me toward the bigger goal of the next six: The Abbott World Marathon Majors.
This story spans over the course of my first four marathons, as well as the time I spent training for them. Naturally, I experienced many more emotions than I could cover here, but I wanted to give insight as to how I grew in my first two years as a runner. I wanted to write about how my body progressed, how I got stronger. I wanted to tell the stories of the camaraderie and friendships running helped me develop. And, I will one day, but today the story is about the greatest gift I got from running: understanding how I feel. It may sound simple, but learning – and honing – that skill had been an amazing experience. If you can learn to do it, I highly recommend it.
So let’s start with one that usually happens with loss, and something I experienced for something I voluntarily signed up for….
It is 7:15 in the morning and the temperature is twenty-eight degrees. The date is October 7, 2012 and I am waiting in coral E about to start the Chicago Marathon and I am in total disbelief. Did I actually sign up to run a full marathon? It is so cold that I can’t remember if I even trained the past 6 months. I also feel like a baby, because the cold weather and over-hydration is making me have to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes (so I may as well wait at the port-a-potty because the lines are so long you need to wait, go, and get back into line). Of course there is somebody in line that is describing what we are all supposedly feeling… “You actually don’t need to go. It is just your nerves making your bladder active.”
“Whatever!!!!!!” I think, as a group of about 400 people, whom I know are thinking about killing this guy, collectively stare at him. I nervously keep moving around thinking that I should be warming up. I can see other runners going through what appear to be their pre-race routine. Some of them are stretching, doing sprints, laying on the grass while listening to music, or just chatting with others in their group. That is when my second emotion hits me like a ton of bricks – fear.
Fear brought on by ignorance. I am afraid because I am about to venture into the unknown. I don’t know how to prepare for a marathon before it starts because I have never done it before. It seems a little too early to get fully warmed-up, but who am I to know better. The race doesn’t begin for an hour, but everyone else must know what they are doing – so I’ll do what they are doing…Ahhhhhh!!!! Then, I take a deep breath, start to calm down and trust my training. I think to myself “I can do this”, I take a deep breathe and the fear begins to subside. This will not be the only time I will experience fear before, during, or after a race. Every time that I get into a corral I start to look at everyone getting ready to start. I then usually feel a tug on my heart and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This fear comes from the fact that I seem to forget that I have done this before, and I wonder to myself “What the hell am I getting myself into, again!”. Fortunately that goes away and I regroup before the race starts. But that monster will rear it’s ugly head again…
This story is going to jump around a bit, but I thought I would bring you from fear to joy. After enduring many emotions and physical tests, many of which I will discuss, I ran up the only hill in the Chicago Marathon – the hill on Roosevelt road. It is only about a 30 foot gain in elevation, but it comes right after passing the 26 mile marker. Everyone wonders how cruel the race designers are I am sure of it! At the top of the hill I make a left on to Columbus drive and I can see the finish line. The crowds are screaming for every single person that is going by them. Tears begin to fill my eyes and I feel like I am flying. I feel so much joy that I am enveloped in it – I was actually glowing (Maybe not, but I’d like to think so). Then I felt a sudden emptiness that was a punch in the gut. I bet from the “Joy” caption you didn’t think I was going to talk about emptiness, huh?
But, I felt empty. I ran my first marathon with the American Cancer Society so I could honor my mother, as well as raise money and awareness for this terrible disease. My mother died on Christmas Eve, 2011, not even one year before the race. She was followed shortly thereafter by her sister, who also died because of cancer – my mother was 58 and my aunt was 50. My mother was also my best friend, so besides losing a parent I also lost the person I probably spoke to the most. My emptiness came from wanting my best friend, my mother, to be at the finish line. The irony of the situation being that the person I wanted there the most was also the same person I was running to honor. My tears of joy became tears of sadness, which were brought on by emptiness. The joy finally returned as I spoke to all my friends and loved ones. They, too, wished that my mom could be there. But I remembered that not only was this to honor her, but to honor myself. That emptiness is one I hope to not experience again soon.
Humility and Honor
On April 4, 2013 I ran the Paris Marathon. It was an amazing race that brought about so many emotions, but humility is not one I felt during this race. Paris was merely the catalyst for me to want to run the race that would deliver this emotion tenfold – The Boston Marathon. I stayed in France after the race and vacationed a bit with my closest friend. It was an amazing time. We met up with a few friends of mine for many great meals. One of them was the evening of April 15, 2013. We were at a restaurant called Saturn. We were having a great bottle of wine, as well as wonderful conversation. My friend suddenly received a text alert saying there was a bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I was in disbelief, again. How was that possible? Then I began to worry about friends in my running group, as well as my online running group, Running Ahead DA. Was everyone alright? I suddenly couldn’t breathe. There was no information coming in yet. It had just happened and was still happening. I started getting texts from people I know asking if I was running that race and if I was OK. I was fine, but I didn’t know about my friends I told them. Over the coming days I learned that everyone that I know was safe. But a fury began to rise inside me. Up to this moment I ran my races for myself, as well as for my family, and for cancer awareness. Now I was pissed, and a bit scared. I was pissed because terrorism struck at a place where the is so much joy and perseverance. I was scared, because it could have happened at any race; a race where my friends, family and loved ones were. Then I got pissed off again. I did everything I possibly could to get in to the Boston Marathon the following year and it paid off. I spent a lot of time interviewing with the American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research Team – getting in to Boston is hard enough running, but try it for charity. I was accepted and I have now run with them 3 years in a row .
You’re probably wondering where the humility part comes in? I promise I will get there – many times.
April 18, 2014 I arrive in Boston. I get off the plane wearing a pullover from the Chicago Marathon, jeans, running shoes, and I am carrying my sports bag, because if they lose my luggage I am still going to have all I need to run this race. As I walk down the hall of the terminal I get asked, more than one time, if I was there to run the race. I told them all yes, and I was replied with “Thank you so much for coming back to Boston to run in our race. Good luck and God Speed”. That was my first dose of humility. It was also the first of many tears I would shed.
I checked into the W at Copley Square, by the way do not pronounce it COPE -LY. This is the hotel where all the elite runners were staying. It is also the home to Chris Heuisler, he is the Run Westin Concierge – how cool of a job is that. He is a also great resource for runners all over the United States (I wanted to mention Chris, because he spends much of his time inspiring runners all over). As I settle in I look on social media and I check in on my #GoLiver teammates. I notice that one of them, Jennifer Chen, said she was going to the Old South Church to pick up her scarf. I thought that maybe this was a Boston Marathon right-of-passage. After all it is the longest continuously running race in the world. The marathon shuts down the entire city. Everyone takes off of work, or plays hooky, so they can watch the early game of the Red Sox, and then watch the marathoners stroll by Fenway Park. So I was just thinking that getting a scarf was part of the pomp and circumstance of running this magnificent race. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I crossed the street from the hotel and passed the public library on the left, which also happened to be showing the “Shoe’s from the Marathon” exhibit. This was a touching display made in the Boston Commons after the bombing where people left their running shoes to honor the victims. They moved it indoors for the winter and built a beautiful exhibit to showcase the love. After I pass the library I see the church. April is daffodil time, and the colors of the Old South Church are blue, so this showcased the beautiful colors of the Boston Marathon. As I walk up to the church I can see parishioners outside with their arms covered in scarves of blue and yellow. At that point I guessed I should pick out a scarf and buy one. When I walked towards the entrance I was greeted by one of the parishioners with a “Welcome to Boston for the marathon this year”. He noticed I had my marathon passport that is used to get my bib hanging around my neck. He then held out his arms, which were covered in blue and yellow scarves of different designs, and he asked me to choose. I picked one that I thought suited me and I let him know my choice. I thought the next words out of his mouth were going to be the price. Instead, he put the scarf around my neck and gave me a hug. He then proceeded to tell me that this scarf is a one of a kind. He then showed me a tag at the end of the scarf that said “Made by the children of Sarah Gibbons Middle School, Westborough Massachusetts”. On the other side he showed me that it said it was made with love and courage and told me that all of you running on Monday just proves that love prevails over everything. This scarf was made by the Marathon Scarf Project of 2014. 33, 000 one-of-a-kind scarves, that were made all over the world, were handed out to the runners. This one was given to me with a hug, love, courage, and hope. This would be the second time I shed a tear in Boston. The second time I felt extreme humility. I also felt honored. Honored to be able to play a small part in helping the people of Boston move on with their lives. As I left the church I noticed two spots where people gathered on Boylston Street. These were the two places where the bombs killed Martin Richards, Krystle Campbell, and Lu Lingzi. There was also a marker for Sean Collier, the campus officer that tried to stop the brothers from escaping. There is no need to explain why this would be my next feeling of humility, as well as my continuation of tears.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” is blasting on loudspeakers all over Columbus Avenue, as 50,000 runners cross the starting line at the Chicago Marathon. After getting past the fear, my body freezing from standing still in the arctic temperature, as well as my disbelief, I am finally underway in my first marathon. Did I mention that Bruce Springsteen was my mom’s favorite musician? Well he is – how serendipitous! I feel the surge of adrenaline kick in as I cross the starting line and I turn on my GPS watch. I come out of the tunnel, which runs beneath the Fairmont Hotel, and the first wave of the crowd roars as they are cheering everyone on. At this moment I am so psyched I think my heart might stop. There may not be crying in baseball, but if 1.2 million people cheering for you doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then you might need an adjustment. I am psyched because the day is finally here. I am psyched because I actually made it this far already, so I can probably finish the race. I am also psyched because I set a long-term goal during one of the most difficult times in my life, and I am about to complete it. Something else to be psyched about: Did you know that marathons are one of the only sports that amateurs and pros get to perform at the same time, on the same course, and receive medals by the same people, while getting cheered on my the same crowds. That is definitely something to be psyched about.
If you happen to know anyone that run’s races, then you probably know that most are a pretty competitive bunch. We are people that focus on pushing our bodies to the limits, so we compete with ourselves. We push to get a personal record in whatever event we run, again we are competing with ourselves. Some of us try to be the best in our group, whether it be age or sex. Here we compete against others, but again, since we don’t know the results until the end we are competing with ourselves. Then, there is the almighty running competition/goal, which is getting a Boston Qualifying time at a race. For those of you that don’t know it is extremely difficult to do. For my age group I would need to run a marathon in 3:15 to qualify to register for Boston. That is sheer insanity!!! But it is done by many, and people take great pride in it – it is the mark of an extremely gifted runner. So why do I tell you all of these things? That is because some people have certain beliefs when it comes to running. Some of those people are more vocal than others. One such encounter was at the independent running store I used to frequent. I was telling one of the owners that I was running my first marathon for charity soon. I told him my training plan, and mentioned I would probably walk through the aid stations. The first words out of his mouth were “You’re not a real marathoner until you complete a race running the entire time”.
I was embarrassed. I didn’t think I could do that my first race, because I hadn’t run one yet. So I felt unworthy. I was hanging around with a group of accomplished runners, whom I was trying to learn from and get better, and I was being told that after all the work I planned to do I was still not going to be a marathoner in his eyes. For that moment, and some to follow, I lost sight of why I was doing the race. I was unworthy in his eyes, but why should I care. Regardless, it was what I felt. That feeling would pop up again when I told people I was registered for Boston. They first asked where I qualified. When I told them I got in with charity I was looked upon by some as someone that shouldn’t be there. I was told that Boston is a proving ground for people that are the best runners. Once again I felt unworthy to share the field of battle with a group I wanted desperately to fit in with at the time. But I was there for a good reason! I did qualify to be there. I earned my spot with time spent, not a time beaten. I wished my mother was alive and didn’t suffer from cancer. I wish instead of her being gone and putting in all that time to help find a cure I could run a 3:15 marathon and qualify. Goddammit I did deserve to be there. 15,000 other runners that are doing the same thing as me would agree. When I realized that I also realized that I was more than worthy to be there. And to the owner of the shop who thinks I am not a marathoner, I’ll have you know that the other 7 marathons I ran over the next two years were on shoes I didn’t buy from you.
Pain and depression
It’s a marathon, so pain is a part of it. But there are so many reasons that pain is a part of a race. Obviously your legs, feet, hips, knees, or some other part of your body is going to hurt because you are running 26.2 miles. But, for me I realized that it comes at different times of the race. This coincides a bit with depression. Running a race consumed my energy. At certain times of the race my fuel level gets depleted, so my brain can’t not fight off the feelings of pain. It’s akin to getting cranky when you are hungry, but in this case there is usually about 10 more miles to run. I do bring different types of fuel with me, but there is a lull in when it kicks in occasionally. So my brain has a difficult time overcoming the pain. The pain will be there, it is a known factor, so I can usually fight through it. But it is damn near impossible when my brain fights back at me when I am mentally drained. Hence, the depression. For a short while I feel depressed. I fight myself and I question how I am going to continue with the race. I also wonder why the hell I started it. It reminds me of Harry Potter when he had the horcrux around his neck. It is an albatross of negativity that won’t come off. When the energy started to re-enter my system I could feel myself begin to fight. My brain began to become my ally again. What seemed like hours of hell was probably only about 2 miles, but it was a worthy opponent that I had to squash. When my brain became my ally I began to be my own cheerleader. When I became my own cheerleader I could also fight through the pain. My next feeling was numbness. You can call it runner’s high, endorphin rush, whatever, but I felt no more pain. I only felt one with myself.
I know that being present isn’t really an emotion, but I feel it is important to mention as it is the canvas in which we feel our emotions. Being present, or mindfulness in the Buddhist sense, is something that is learned. Our lives are abuzz with so many things happening that most of us are rarely present in the moment-we aren’t mindful. We sometimes think about the future, or the past. This is caused by a myriad of things, like work, relationships, and the hustle of everyday life. But to truly be present in the moment is an amazing thing that I have come to find one of the most valuable things in my arsenal. Consequently it doesn’t mean that being mindful is all sunshine and daisies; quite the contrary. It means feeling whatever I feel at that moment. My first real experience with being present came in Boston 2014. While I was running around mile 18 I was going through my depressed feeling time of the race. It was hot that day, and the sun was directly overhead with no cloud in the sky. There was also no breeze, whatsoever. I was baking and miserable. This is when I began to wish the race was over. I was crashing and there was no end in sight. This went on for the rest of the race, even though I was energized I just wanted to be finished. Even with the massive crowds that were yelling my name, which was written on my shirt, I wanted it to be over. After passing the Citgo sign in downtown Boston those thoughts subsided. I ran another mile and turned right on Hereford, then a left on Boylston. Elation kicked in as I crossed the finish line and completed my first Boston Marathon. Then it suddenly dawned on me that the race was finished. I spent all that time wishing it was over, and now that it was I was deeply saddened. I just ran the best marathon in the world and now it is over. From that moment I have paid more attention to being mindful. It is a wonderful way to experience life. There is a great poem by Rumi called “The Guest House”. It is about being mindful, and allowing all of your emotions in as if they were guests. Here is a small excerpt:
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.”
So through my race I learned how to be present. This indeed was a gift. It may be an overused expression, but it really was a present.
In running there are lots of emotions. In marathons I have experienced many more than I have written about. Hopefully I will continue this story with more emotions, as I will definitely be running more races. I am currently embarking on running six marathons in 2016. I will be running Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York with a goal of raising 50,000 dollars. So I hope to let all the new emotions in to my guest house. I am grateful for running, because it has brought me in touch with myself on a physical, emotional, and a spiritual level. A level that I may have achieved at some point, but I know that it would have taken longer than 26.2 miles.