You Can Do Hard Things

Training for a Half Marathon

 

I could barely keep up with my younger sister. Each step was pained, harbored, slow. I was sucking air — audibly, wheezing across the finish line. I barely registered when a volunteer handed me a plastic cup of water.

This was only a 5k. To my left, the brightly adorned runners continued on — they were doing a half marathon. Despite having at least ten miles to go, their faces were the epitome of ease, their bodies moving fluidly and calmly.

Thirty minutes later I still hadn’t recovered from my mere three-mile effort, yet the half marathoners were looping back past the stadium. Their strides were powerful, sure. The entire movement radiated confidence: pumping, swirling, swimming, loping.

So many stories, so many colors, every possible variation of a human, all struggling towards the same goal: the finish line. They appeared to be the peak of ability, athleticism, and emotional and physical strength.

 

The event left me in a daze, enveloped in a dense cloud of inspiration. I couldn’t shake it off. I wanted to be able to accomplish a physical goal like this; I’m not exactly sure why. It forced questions into my head: What is the limit of a human? Why do we have these bodies if we don’t push them? Where do I belong?

The cloud followed me. I began to run more regularly; could I ever belong in that group? I didn’t believe it at first. Too painful, too weak. I couldn’t.

With regularity, however, I could hold my ground. I could push through the fog, the tunnel vision. I’d get in a stride, keep pounding through, and I couldn’t slow down. I’d coast on the feeling, the natural high, then summersault back down. But the feeling would linger even when my body had failed. Maybe I did have it in me. Maybe I could train for a half marathon… now.

 

“You want to WHAT?”

My friends were a little… surprised. Then supportive. Then more confident in my ability than I was.

 

My journey began. I spoke with family friends with running experience, read running blogs, created a training log, and signed up for a local half marathon.

 

Fresh motivation made the first weeks of two to three mile runs felt fluid. My training log was riddled with optimistic notes such as “felt pretty skippy” or “pretty swell jog today.”

Unfortunately, a half marathon isn’t two to three miles. I began to sprinkle in longer runs to build endurance. The first time I went five miles the thermostat read a convenient 5°F.  The cold forced the meek indoors leaving the running paths for me. I was free, completely anonymous shuffling in my cocoon of leggings, two shirts, a shell, gloves, and a wool hat. My logic was simple: if I could do 5 miles in the brutal cold, I was unstoppable.

My first seven-mile run proved me wrong; I sat paralyzed in my car afterward, legs pulsing with pain, feeling completely drained. How on earth would I be able to do that distance two times over in just a few months? Anxiety chewed at the edges.

I began to settle into training, getting a little too comfortable. I skipped days and counted minor efforts as major ones. I turned to running blogs and discovered the power of podcasts and playlists. My runs became more analytical with the help of run tracker apps, making me realize gaps in my training. Sure I was on track when it came to distance — with frequent breaks and grit I could complete the mileage — but my pace was lagging. I imagined my friends and family coming to watch me race, only to see me far behind the competition, floundering at an embarrassingly slow pace.

I set a smaller process goal for myself: speed. I began doing interval workouts, pushing myself longer before taking breaks on longer runs, and doing a few shorter runs at a faster speed. Digging deeper into my ability was challenging but reignited my drive. I’d be gasping, wheezing, head doing backflips, but then out of the corner of my eye I’d see that my interval was 10 seconds faster than it was two weeks ago. Electrifying.

 

I remember opening the email. It was March 30th. I was lying on my bed, staring with crushed understanding at my computer screen. Canceled. The thought of every hard run I endured, each early morning… for nothing? Every hour of training would have to be repeated if I wanted to run a half marathon in the future. The weight of it all paralyzed me in my bed.

I still had two months before the event would have taken place on June 7th. Did I want to keep training, keep putting in the time, even if I didn’t run the race?

I couldn’t decide. I took a few days off from running: procrastinating, processing. I analyzed my training plan and decided to condense the final two months into one. I didn’t want to keep training until June 7th, and I knew that I would be prepared to run it earlier — just two days ago I’d ran 9 miles with relative ease.

I trained for another month. At this point, I felt like a real runner. I’d exchange waves with other joggers I encountered on the trails,  and I discussed running strategies with friends. I felt part of something. I rode the highs, pushed through the lows, and slogged through the extra-lows. On days when I wasn’t feeling it I’d still run, digging deep until I could sail through the end.

 

April 24th. Half marathon day! I felt like I had a secret as I greeted my family and ate my breakfast; I hadn’t told anyone today’s significance in fear that I wouldn’t be able to complete the mileage. I twisted my hair into two braids, filled my drinkbelt with Gatorade, grabbed my headphones, and selected an absolutely killer playlist.

The first two miles were strong. I felt confident: I’d done the training, I had a plan, I knew what to do.

Mile five came and went uneventfully. I felt strong, steady, energized. I crossed the bridge into Vermont, running along the Connecticut River where I was met with bouts of fresh, crisp river air.

Mile seven. I still felt strong, but my legs were beginning to protest. I felt a deep cramp in both thighs as well as an abrupt tightness in my calf.

Mile ten brought elation. I was climbing back into New Hampshire, feeling tired and slightly weak but alive. It was at this point that I realized I was really going to do it. Only three miles stood between me and my goal.

I crashed hard. My pace slowed, each step became slightly pained. My breaths were short, shallow. No flow. Jolty, ragged, sloppy strides. But I wasn’t going to stop. I was so close. I was going to do it. I shuffled around my neighborhood, waiting for my watch to reach 13.1. I still had 1.5 miles left, then 0.7, then 0.4. I was barely moving forward. 0.2, then 0.02, then 0!

I stopped running immediately and bent over double, letting my lungs fill and release. My vision was blurred, but my mind was clear: I’d done it! Waves of dopamine shocked through my body. That crowd I’d watched run this mileage a few months ago? I was part of them. The energy I saw in their eyes? I felt it too.

 

In just a few months, I converted from someone who could barely finish a 5k to someone who could run a half marathon alone. Running this event was all about me. It was about shaping my identity, integrating into a new community, and following through with an out of reach goal. It was about doing something completely independently; I created my training plans, playlists, workouts… and then I did the running.

This process instilled a certain confidence within me: I am enough, I am strong, and I can overcome challenges by breaking them down into smaller parts. Confidence from completing this event rendered confidence in myself, which has completely changed my life.  The hours I spent jogging in silence forced me to become more comfortable with my thoughts, my quirks, my body, my person. I’m more comfortable going places alone, I am more confident in my style, and I know who I am.

 

Who knows, maybe a full marathon is in my future, but for now I’m all set.

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