Monday, May 21, 2012

Life Lessons Learned: Ogden Marathon

Yesterday I ran the hardest race in my life.  It wasn't my slowest time and it wasn't a difficult course, but it was the toughest battle I've fought in a marathon yet.

Let me preface this by saying that the Ogden, UT marathon course is the most beautiful all-around race course a runner could hope for.  The first 8 miles are a gentle downhill, so you get a good, fast start without trashing your quads and with little perceived effort.  Miles 9-13 can be disheartening after such a pleasant beginning as the road turns from down to flat to rollers and you actually have to begin working to keep anywhere near your pace if you've gone out fast.  You find yourself on a quarter-mile uphill at mile 14.  With the reservoir to your left and mountainside on your right, and canyon walls looming ahead, it is a lovely place to see if you can remember to lift your head to look.  Miles 15-18 continue alongside the reservoir until you cross over it on a bridge and begin the descent down the narrow canyon road.    Green-treed canyon walls and a river on your right nestle you in the chute down to the final miles.  The road is a bit steep down, which has potential to be fun if you have any energy, motivation, and muscle strength left.  Out of the canyon around mile 22 you end up running on a footpath and through two dark (disconcerting) tunnels, and eventually out on to the city street.  Mile 25.  You can see the finish line a mile-point-two away.  People line the street, cheering you on with what they think are motivational cheers, "Just seven blocks more!".  But yesterday to me, that seven blocks might as well have been seven miles.

At the start: Cris and me,
one of our many times
in one of the many lines
to one of the many port-a-potties.
I ran this marathon two years ago.  I loved everything about it.  I ran this marathon yesterday.  I loved everything about it except the running part .

Unfortunately, the "running part" of a marathon is kind of what the whole thing is about.  What happened?  I can name probably ten variables that may or may not have ruined my race yesterday, all excuses or justifications.  I could've run this 4:02 marathon a good 20 minutes faster if only... What?  If only I had trained better, if I hadn't struggled all winter with chronic asthma and insomnia, if I hadn't been sick all last week, if I had fueled better, if I had hydrated better, if I had eaten more pre-race/if I had eaten less pre-race, if I had worn my lucky shirt, I had slept more than two hours the night before, if I had run less on the treadmill and more outside.  Yep, that's ten variables.  And I have even more, but I'll just leave it at that.

Some days you have it, some days you don't.  Some years are better than others.  I know that.  It was an off day, it's been an off year.

I think what bothers me most, though, is that I never found my runner's high.  I ran (and walked) 26.2 miles yesterday and only occasionally glimpsed on the periphery of my soul the thing that keeps me running: joy.  I nearly grasped it during the first 8 miles but it was elusive.  I thought I just had to be patient and then it'd kick in.  I saw it again around mile 15 but that didn't last.  There was a shadow of it at mile 24 but it melted.

The best part of the day?  The company of friends.
When you fall off a bike, you get back on.  When you have a bad race, you run again.  So although yesterday I kept telling myself it was my last race, and that I'd never run again, today I'm registering for another race in three weeks.  It might not be a marathon, it'll probably be a half, but I need to try something.  I need to show myself that the elusive part of my soul I couldn't ever hold on to yesterday is still there because that's a part of me I don't want to lose.  Not yet.

I drove down with three friends the night before.  Cris, Tonya and Jennica, all of whom have also struggled with various and debilitating issues this past "off" year.   With injuries and life stressors that nobody should have to carry, these ladies ran the marathon knowing it would be a battle.  All of them are incredibly fast.  We've all at least qualified for Boston: Tonya on this very course during her first marathon, Cris and Jen multiple times, and me?  Well, once when I got lucky on a race.  In my mind and maybe in their minds they were thinking we could do it again.

Jennica and Tonya at the start
I got my hopes up as I stayed with the 3:35 (3 hours, 35 minutes for finishing) pace group for the first half of the marathon.  My friends had taken off and were running ahead with the faster runners.  I was happy to shoot for a 3:35 and for that first half it was looking like a real possibility.  It wasn't hard to keep up, although I didn't ever feel like I was light and flying (that's one way to describe how I feel the runner's high).  But knowing my body and how it takes a long time to warm up, I wasn't too worried.  I kept waiting for the feeling to flood my body and set my legs free.  And I waited.  And waited.  Around mile 9 I began to suspect something might not be right - I should've switched into that "happy runner" zone by now.  I wasn't there.  I wasn't happy.  And I wasn't getting any happier.

I began to get discouraged as the pace group I was running with slowly edged ahead.  I was all alone with my playlist that wasn't motivating me one bit.  My fuel (gels) tasted horrible, my legs were getting heavier, and I just wanted to quit. I remember looking around at the occasional car and wondering how I could manage a little accident where the car hit me just barely enough to twist my ankle or something equally non-fatal but bad enough to justify the race officials taking me out of the race and driving me to the finish.  I didn't find a complying car, so I was stuck on the course as, by now, runner after runner began passing me.

It's usually been me, at this point, that begins to pass runners.  They become goals for me to reach and the race turns into a game.  Instead of being the hunter though, I was the hunted.  And I got caught time after time until it just didn't matter to me anymore that people were passing.  I remember thinking about something Jen had said the night before, that running can be a great time to pray.  I needed a spiritual experience like I needed air, so I prayed, "Oh, please, Father, get me out of here.  Or at least help me make it to the end."  Within a mile of pleading for help, I looked up and saw the mile 14 hill in front of me and my friend Tonya.  She ran the race on an injured, very painful foot.  It was two days before the race that she finally decided she'd try, despite the injury, so she knew it might be tough.  Seeing her ahead gave me someone to go to.  Thank you, Father.

I inched my way toward her, slowly closing the gap, focusing on reaching her instead of focusing on my own misery.  I needed her.  Running with her took me out of myself and we made it up the mile 14 hill together.  While I couldn't carry on a conversation, at least I could feel her strength and that kept me going.  I found some more energy, caught a fleeting glimpse of joy, and ran on ahead at mile 17 to the aid station (read: potty break).  There was rather a long wait as people tend to take their times in the potties sometimes, but finally a door opened and I was in and out in no time.  It was another mile or so before I saw Tonya up ahead.  And she was walking with an arm around Cris.  Cris was spent.  She has had the "weight of the world" (so to speak) bearing down on her, with moving and packing and dealing with so many things, that her body just said it was done.  I felt done, too.  I think we may have all felt somewhat beat before we even began - beat up, anyway, by things we can't control and that test our limits.

But she wasn't beat, she wasn't done.  None of us were.  Jen was up ahead somewhere, fighting her own battles as she somehow managed to run a 3:28 PR.   3:28!?  Amazing.  Cris, Tonya and I were struggling just as hard as everything screamed, "STOP!" Yet somehow we kept going.  I stayed with Cris and Tonya as we walked and jogged off and on for a few miles.  It really was akin to a spiritual experience as we mentally battled with the very loud body and mind that hollered NO! while a tiny little voice whispered, "Just try."

So we tried.  I knew we were at least pointing our bodies toward the finish, which was about all we could hope for right then.  Good grief, the Finish Line was still so far away and didn't seem to be getting one bit closer.

Around mile 21 I left Cris and Tonya to run ahead in search of another potty break.  Sometimes that's enough impetus to make a body run.  I ran, eyeing all the trees, boulders and bushes along the road in case the port-a-potty proved too far away.  When I finally found an aid station, I didn't stop.  I felt better, but more important was that the 4:00 pacer group had just passed me and I was not happy.  I did NOT want a four hour marathon.  So I kept running until I passed the 4:00 pacer.  I think I stopped for a drink at the next aid station because I later saw the 4 hour group ahead of me again!  How, when, what?  Somehow they leap frogged me and I hadn't even seen them pass.  So I did what any respectable runner should never do in a case like that: I stopped.  Dead in my tracks.  In my head I thought that my race was a failure anyway so why even try to do a sub-four, and I really thought it would be nice to run the last mile with Tonya and Cris.  And I was tired.  And I was bored.  And I was frustrated.  And my iPhone had run through all the songs on my playlist.  Why bother with the last mile, anyway?

I waited a few minutes, pleased with myself for presumably not caring about my race time, pleased that I didn't care I was almost done and was just standing there - as if by not doing anything, I was flaunting my independence and asserting my control, by golly! (Because everyone at the race really cared if I stood there or not, right?  Ugh.  After that much running, I think brains are functioning on the same level as if the person were seriously drunk.)  After another time-wasting battle, I finally listened to that whisper, "Just try."  I pointed my body toward the finish again, picked up my feet and went, running away from the part of me that nearly quit at mile 25.

That's when I heard the crowd cheering the finishers, "You're almost there!"  Or "You did it!" and I kind of believed them until I heard someone say, "Just seven more blocks!"

SEVEN MORE BLOCKS?  Are you kidding!?  I wanted to stop dead in my tracks again.  That was so far I just didn't know if I could do it.  But I knew I had to keep going.  I counted the stoplights down the last mile stretch, one, two, three... I had to not count anymore, it was too disheartening.  I saw the "FINISH" sign and wanted to cry because it looked so small and so far away.  I finally resorted to my emergency mind trick and imagined my family waiting at the Finish and made up a story in my head that I had to get there soon or I would miss them, knowing full well they were in Rexburg (I'd told Jeff and the kids to stay home this marathon so they could go to soccer games and stuff).  My little story, although I knew it was completely fictional, was enough to pull me to the finish.  And guess what?  I even sprinted the last two yards (wow, I usually sprint the last two miles) and passed someone at the finish (I know, bad form.  Sorry.).

I wanted to vomit.  I started to cry.  A race volunteer asked if I was okay.  Yes, I was okay.  I wasn't great, but I was okay.

I saw Jennica waiting there for us.  She'd been waiting for half an hour, poor thing.  She said something like, "You did it!" and I just cried again.  I was so miserably frustrated with my performance and my body that I was missing the miracle that had taken place:  I did it.  I finished.  It was incredibly difficult for so many reasons and so disappointing in so many ways, but I still did it.

Cris, me, Tonya - can you see tears?

I waited for Cris and Tonya at the finish (Jen was in the runner's corral and couldn't come back in).  I stood on my tip toes, trying to see over the finishers until I saw them.  They crossed the finish then stood there hugging.  Back from where I watched I again burst into tears, knowing what it took for them (for all of us) to get to this point.  I was so proud of them and of Jen for each accomplishing a great feat.

I'm still not proud of myself, but writing this has been therapeutic as I realize what it took for me to run that race.  Yes, it was the hardest race I've ever run.  It stripped away all my aspirations and confidence, left me not just naked but bare-boned and showed me exactly who and what I was.  I lost all pride and pretense, lost all hopes and dreams, and was left with nothing but my innermost part.  My worst race (on the best of all race courses, no less!) taught me the most poignant lessons.

Tonya, Jennica, Cris, Steph
The battles that are hardest fought are the ones within.  There are times, of course, when the best and hardest choice is to quit.  The real win comes when you know yourself and conquer your fears and choose to do the best you can.  Yesterday I swore I'd never run again.  Today I'm planning my next race.  (I have to admit, this certainly reminds me of childbirth!)

 Cheers to all you who do amazing things despite amazing odds in your own life's race.  People certainly are extraordinary.


  1. And you are still my hero. I think it is just harder to run when you get older, and you are older,....than me ;) Thanks for sharing the lessons.

  2. loved the details! i'm so glad cris, tonya, and jen were there to be moral support. you endured 4 hours of a tough race and will be running again in 3 weeks! yay! i know the next race will be better! you are tough mentally and physically; like you said, we all just have off days. well done, stephy!