Saturday, May 18, 2013

Earning my master's (Half marathon, reflection 1)

I have stood in front of people in more than one stadium in my life. In my old life, I was in a position that sometimes put me in front of crowds. It was cool enough, but today I ran into a stadium filled with people cheering for me, and it was cooler than anything I have ever known. Instantly I had a familiar sense—I was on a stadium floor and people were in the stands, and they were paying attention to me. I remembered that. But I wasn’t that person anymore. Now I am a nobody by choice. And I like it a lot. Today this nobody was somebody because I finished a half marathon. I worked my booty off for months, rarely in ideal conditions. From a .7 mile run where I came home hacking and couldn’t step all day, to 13.50 miles today, the half plus the extra from running in different parts of the road. All in about 6 months time. Today people cheered for me. They didn’t know me or what I stood for or if I was a nice person or not. They cheered because I did something not a lot of people do. They cheered because I finished. They won’t take the cheer back or decide I was unworthy of it because I didn’t do what they thought I should. There are things people can take away from you, and there are things they can’t take away from you. Today is mine forever.

I saw a sign on the half route in the part where the full marathon runners go. It said “Only 1% of people have run a marathon and you are one of them.” I have not run a marathon (big YET), and I don’t know if that stat is accurate, but I know it’s low. And it struck me because my friend Jonathan is finishing his dissertation and wrote it while training for his marathon. He made the parallels between the two, and how the stats for both are low.

Nationally, a decent number of people complete a bachelor’s degree—like 25% (and maybe that’s gone up). Then it’s less than 9% who earn a master’s and under 4% who earn a doctorate. I am in that group, and after seeing that sign and reflecting on Jon’s comments, I realized that races are analogous to degrees.

Anyone who is dedicated can do a 5K (let’s say an associates). The hard workers who are willing to invest do 10Ks (bachelor’s), then the ones who really want to work and prove some expertise in distance running do the half marathon (master's). And finally, there is the marathon, the doctorate in running. Ultra runners (people who regularly run distances beyond the marathon are like those who get multiple PhDs and keep studying). Now you all know I can’t stand it when people trivialize education, and I don’t mean to compare it exactly, only the concept. Today I earned my master’s degree.

I had so many thoughts on my run. I wished I could have taken notes. Some were the usual people-watching thoughts, like “really? You are waiting in line for the porta-potties at mile TWO? Why not just use the start ones and start the race late so the chip didn't time?” or “WHY are you taking a cell phone call in a half marathon and then walking to the side of the road to talk—this is a HALF MARATHON, lady!” And the famous “it’s the first mile, so why are you walking already? Don’t run so fast at the beginning so you can stay slow and steady.” And also there was an "illegal" stroller, double wide.

But then I had other thoughts. Deeper thoughts that weren’t so much about other people. I write this here in just a stream of consciousness process. There may be another entry or town on the half in coming days.

Today for me there was no option for failure. Failure would have not only been not finishing, but walking part of it. I don’t believe that it is for everyone. Some people have a goal to get through a course. Running is an individual sport and that makes it great, but for me it is about running. Walking would have sent me to tears and back to my room to sign up for the next half, even if it was two weeks away, to do it again, probably spooked. I was having dreams about this. I had to run this thing. It was for me, for my mind. My body could do what it wanted but my mind was winning this race. I set out to go slow. Not knowing how I would endure the distance, I decided the only goal I needed was to finish. If I pushed too hard and ended up walking, I would have failed to meet my goal, so my priority was to keep running, no matter what. I did go out too fast. Not extraordinarily fast, but faster than I needed to have negative splits. I ran too close to the center and so my time was even longer because my distance was longer. I was actually about 7 minutes faster than my time on the actual 13.1, so in my mind, that’s my PR to beat next, not the longer one.

Mile by mile it was easier than I expected. Not easy, necessarily, though the first 7 miles or so were relatively easy. But overall, I think I expected this to be so hard I could fail, crash and burn, I don’t know. And it wasn’t as hard as I had planned. Miles 10-12 were hard. Knowing we were headed back but having to detour through the campus of NDSU was hard. But at mile 12, my face lit up and that light didn’t go off. I was home free at mile 12 because we were headed back to the Fargodome and the rest was a breeze because of the crowds.

Speaking of which, let’s return to the crowds. Remember Boston? Who did we talk about the most? The fans—the crowds who cheer for and support the runners. The crowds in Fargo were nothing short of a giant cheerleading squad. They blew me away. And there as we turned into the Fargodome were scores of people from just before mile 13 to all the way to the finish, huge crowds cheering us on. Some would put their hand out to slap hands if we wanted to. They told us how close we were and yelled “way to finish strong.” I was beaming from ear-to-ear anyway and I know that made people smile. I did not look like I was dying—I looked like I was flying, perhaps slow but I was as blissful as a bluebird.

As I wrote a caption for a picture I noted that everyone was cheering for us. No one cared what we did or who we were. They were cheering because we were finishing. They were on our side. They cheered everyone running the race. It made me think of the spiritual connection, how that is how church is supposed to be, that corporate cheering, that it’s a race and we should be helping each other finish it, whether through cheering at the sidelines or working the medical tent (shout out to the Red Cross spray tent! At mile 11 you could run under a tent that was like a sprinkler over your head! I came through it almost giggling it felt so good!). One tent was called “Medical Drop Out.” It was at about mile 7 and I looked at that thing and said “not an option. Not at all.” But even if I had had to, no one in that whole crowd would have looked down on me. In a race when someone gets hurt you love them. Let the reader understand.

I have commented before on how much I love the racing community. I am a Christian, but it is my church. Oh, how sacrilegious that sounds! It’s not as bad as it seems.  The truth is, we have a secret in the running community, and when I race I see it. I think if I were competitive in racing I may not see it as clearly. The winners don’t always see what happens to the rest of the crowd.

I got to talk to a running legacy Dick Beardsley at the expo yesterday. We talked a lot about Boston because I was wearing my Boston shirt and, of course, he’s run it! His charity foundation gets 5 entries to Boston every year. Anyway, I was telling him it was my first half, and he was excited and said he has talked to others who are venturing into half marathons, and added some go straight to a half without other races, which he thinks isn’t the greatest (I agree), though if you want to run, RUN! But he was talking then about progressing to marathons, which I told him was absolutely on my list. He said that when you cross the finish line in a marathon you have this feeling that you can do anything. That you will suddenly try things you may not have tried before because you have this confidence. I understood immediately, even without understanding a full. Running has already done that for me. I love myself, my body, my mind, my success. I can do anything because I have overcome myself and run.

In 2005 I experienced a trauma, a literal one and a bad one. It was one of the worst times of my life. I was running then—though I think that helped contribute to the demise of my running. By 2006 I had quit regularly running, sans a few bouts here and there. I had registered for a half then—I guess it was October. I was going to train and go to Kentucky. I backed out. I had quit running before that. And so I never did the half, or even really trained hard. Today I got that back—and in a way  got part of the loss of 2005 back, and I have been all this year. Because I am stubborn, I have put myself in situations not as bad but with similar dynamics (no, not guy stuff!) and everything came to a head for me late last year with that and the election drama and a whole slew of things that happened at once.

And so I ran. I had gained weight since moving to KC, and already had before that. I hated my appearance worse than anything. I hated that I was losing control of everything. We talk a lot about how it’s bad to be “a control freak” and in the sense we say that it is, but there is a very positive and healthy side of control. We should control ourselves, our emotions, our health, our choices. And I was getting that all back.

About the time I started running, I started changing. I didn’t need the things I had depended on because I figured out I could do it. On January 1, almost on a whim, maybe because I had felt like such a failure as the awful 2012 closed out, I needed a goal. I randomly decided to run 500 miles in 2013 (sort of funny—I hit 382 today) and to sign up for a half marathon. I had been thinking about this, but I went on a hunt and wouldn’t let myself go to bed until I signed up. That night I had registered for Fargo—and my world became about training.

That sounds unhealthy but it was actually very healthy. I became disciplined overnight. Everything mattered, from what I ate, to how I slept, to my workout schedule. I had a goal—finally—and it was achievable if I worked at it. No one else in the whole world had a say in my success. No one could decide if I could run, or if I ran too much, or didn’t do enough, or wasn’t good enough or whatever.  That goal drove me like nothing I have ever seen in myself. I was done. And I was going to win.

I love running because it rewards work. In music we talk about how almost anyone can learn to sing decently. There are a few people who maybe are truly tone deaf, but most who even think they are can be taught to sing in an okay way, to carry a tune and blend in a choir (by choir, I mean real choir that uses actual music, not some random band that sings the same three notes in different progressions!). In running it’s the same. Anyone can run. Actually a lot of people who think they have “bad knees” actually can run when they try. Dick Beardsley has had several knee surgeries and still runs marathons. The right shoes, also, can cure half of the aches and pains.

Running hurts. It just does. You can’t persevere with running and avoid pain. The difference between other communities and running is that often we think pain is a sign of weakness or lack of trust in whatever our faith drives us to (God, in my case, but whatever people believe). In running we honor and respect pain. We learn when pain should stop us because it’s serious or when pain should teach us and help us move on because we are growing. And if we will run and learn and fight, we win.

See, all those people applauding and cheering me and 9,000 other people in those races, were cheering running. They were honoring the sport that says if you work, you succeed.

Today was a test for me in big ways. Could I run for over 13 miles? Even if I went slowly, could I actually keep my body in a running motion for that long? I had never done it before, but all the training plans said I could. My coach said I could. The wisdom of the running gurus said I could. Could I? Was I going to find out that working hard at something was going to reap an equal reward no one could take away? That’s why failure was not an option. I needed this to redeem the yuck, to get back the lost half in 2006, to get over the pain of 2012, and anything in between related. Never do I pass a runner without wanting to be running—but when I quit I passed them with a pang of pain. Now I pass them with “I am one of you.”

A day without running isn’t right to me. This summer will be altered a bit. I have swimming classes and ballet too—but most of it is to strengthen my core which is the main thing that has to happen for me to run a marathon.  Also, I have to stop being lazy about speed work. I have been content to go the distance and prove I can. Now I have; there is more. See, like life, there is always another step if you want to take it. Or you can coast on through the course at a distance long enough to wow people, but never letting on you aren’t learning anything new. The crowd will cheer anyway, but you will know if you earned it.

Today I did. I earned this. I cued an old song called "Runner" to play before mile 13, just before I took the headphones off so I could hear the crowd as we ran in. I heard "Runner" twice in the half, once when it came on and once when I turned it on. So many tears today, little busts of emotion at the whole journey:

Runner when the road is long
Feel like giving in but you're hanging on
Oh, runner, when the race is won
You will run into his arms

Although the Fargo Marathon has no religious affiliation, there is a verse that has been on the website and is on the back of our medals, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1.This is what running is to me, a reminder I can go on--and that I can do it without needing people to be this or that. I see God when I run; I find hope to continue to run the real race.

Running has taught me I am a winner, no matter what place I am in. It has taught me to persevere. It has taught me being nothing makes me everything more than being something made me anything.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing this Susan! You've got a great way of putting the truth of this community into words.