Adventures in the Oregon Wilderness and Urban Chicago
I’ve never believed that elite athletes have a particularly high pain threshold, at least, not any more so than the average runner. Rather, the mental difference is found in the willingness to suffer.
It is human nature to take the easy way out. It isn’t necessary to tell a child “Hey kid, take your hand off the stove, it’s burning you.” The body’s natural reaction to pain is avoidance. The child will yank his hand off the stove and likely never go near it again. One of our basic survival instincts is to pinpoint the stimulus that is causing us pain and retreat from that stimulus. Distance running flies in the face of this logic.
I fully anticipated being in agony during the final 10k of the Chicago Marathon. I not only anticipated it, I intended it. Runners must learn not to merely ignore the pain stimulus, but to embrace it.
Preparing for the pain of a marathon isn’t entirely possible. I can’t count how many times before Chicago that I was asked, “are you ready?” My answers ranged from “I think so”, to “I guess so” to “I hope so”. Standing on the starting line I realized that I wasn’t. I was not ready to race 26.2 miles, and neither were any of the 50,000 people behind me. I looked down at my legs. They were shaking. The announcer called out “30 seconds to go!” and in a brief moment of panic my mind flew far away from Chicago, back to a car ride in central Oregon.
In July, my sisters and I spent 4 days hiking 60 miles around the 3 Sisters Mountains in Oregon. We hiked 12-hour days, lived out of our backpacks, and filtered water from the tops of waterfalls. We struggled across snowfields at 7,500 feet, fought thousands of mosquitoes and scaled a vertical cliff that was nearly impossible, panting on our knees at the top while my younger sister said, “I think we just became women.”
On our way to our base camp at Devil’s Lake, we had a serious conversation in the car about what we were about to undertake. I had no idea if I was ready, and I told the others so. My older sister put one of her favorite quotes on the table.
“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.” –Hugh Laurie
10 seconds until the gun. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
The first 18 miles felt incredibly easy. Too easy. 5:45 miles were clicking off in perfect rhythm, I glided past the fuel stations, snagged my bottles with ease, tucked in behind my pacer, Willy, when the towering skyscrapers created a wind tunnel and jockeyed for position with the 5 or 6 other women trying to break 2:30. I told myself over and over “You’re just out for an 18 mile run with this guy, and then the race begins. Don’t over think it.”
As the miles passed beneath me, I was aware that our tight pack was losing bodies. One by one, women fell off the pace until it was only Clara Santucci (an American athlete with a personal best of 2:29) and 2 or 3 male runners hoping to crack the 2:30 barrier.
At the half marathon mark, I searched the crowd for Pete. I heard him before I saw him. “RELAX! RELAX!” he screamed.I found him, his signature baby blues wide with excitement and anxiety. I assured him that I was fine with a thumbs-up and a smile.
At mile 15, while I was still sitting on Willy’s shoulder the way I had sat on George’s shoulder during training, Clara fell back. I was baffled, she seemed to be holding up so well up until this point…and then I saw the clock. At first, I thought my math was 15 seconds off, but I quietly asked Willy, “What was that mile?” We had just split a 5:30. Willy apologized. Clara had backed off on purpose; she had sensed the shift in pace. I hadn't.
At 18 miles the pack was down to Willy, two other male runners and myself. Drafting behind the men as much as I could, I ran up on the heels of one of them just as he slid in front of me to cut the tangent. My feet clipped his heels and I stumbled. While I didn’t fall to the pavement, my legs buckled and that was the first moment that I sensed the strain of the race in my quads.
At 30K, Willy’s pacing duties were over and he stepped off the course. I hung with the remaining two men until mile 20 when they began to accelerate and I made the decision to keep the pace steady, as 10 kilometers is a long race in itself, not to mention at the end of a marathon. As the final half hour unfolded, I fought a worsening sensation in my quads and was concerned that at any moment, one or both of them might seize up.
With every passing minute I felt my quads grow weaker and weaker, begging me to stop, exerted far beyond what I’d asked them to do during practice. I gritted my teeth and pressed on through mile 22, 23 and 24, slowing a little every mile, praying to God that I’d be able to stay on my feet but knowing in my heart that I’d crawl across the finish line in 4 hours if that’s what it came to.
At mile 25, a runner came roaring past me like I was standing still. I had tunnel vision, focusing solely on the concrete in front of me, so it took me almost a minute to recognize the ponytail and realize that it was Clara with a burst of finishing speed that neither my heart nor my legs could match. In the end, she crossed the line some 20 seconds ahead of me in 6th place as the second American. I was seventh overall, third American, running 2:32:44; a 12-minute PR.
The first feeling to surge through my body was disappointment. I can break 2:30. In my mind, I am a sub 2:30 marathoner who simply hasn’t done it yet and I hate knowing that I have to wait months before I can take another shot at it. The second emotion was relief. It could have been a lot worse, and I just thank God that I didn’t let Zap or Reebok down or injure anything or crap my pants.
The marathon race is the end of a long journey that requires every ounce of your energy and more. I spent a month and a half at Zap before the race, surrounded by my running family. I watched my teammate win a national title, spent time in Paris with the Reebok crew, filmed an absurd mockumentary, made new friendships and strengthened existing ones. No matter how things ended up on race day, the journey changed me, grew me, and I am not who I was before.
Perhaps that is the biggest draw of the marathon. No matter who you are, how fast you’ve run or what you’ve overcome to reach the starting line, the marathon whittles away the unnecessary things in your life and forges you, mentally and physically, into the best version of yourself.