As I crossed the finish line in Chicago this past Sunday after running 26.2 miles, my legs virtually locked up in complete and total exhaustion. I shuffled through the finishing chute collecting water, food, and my medal and I watched as other finishers struggled. A couple were placed in wheelchairs. One woman, her face pale and her eyes almost lifeless, was rushed away to an ambulance. The rest of us limped along, virtually silent. There were no audible cheers of joy or shouts of celebration. We were like zombies. I said to the girl next to me with a bit of a giggle, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” She was too tired to answer. While they couldn’t say it, I knew everyone was likely feeling the same combination of pain and total pride that I was experiencing.
“Why?” The thought has certainly crossed my mind other times before. Like during the final miles of the two previous marathons I had run earlier this year. And even at the start of this race when the nerves and excitement had me jittery with anticipation about what the next four hours would have in store for me. With over 45,000 runners, it took almost 15 minutes from the time the race started until I would even get up to the starting line. Here it was…finally! The moment for which I had been preparing for 18 weeks. It was well worth the wait.
I ran the first miles quickly, weaving between the tall buildings and over the Chicago River and soon began to discover that my tight legs weren’t going to make today’s run an easy one. My heart felt like it was racing and I was a little short of breath, probably from starting out at a faster pace than I had been used to. The crowds were plentiful and somehow coupled with the close quarters between runners, it made me feel surprisingly anxious, almost claustrophobic. I thought about the many miles ahead and the difficulty that lie before me. Yet the energy and excitement kept me moving north through the neighborhoods in which I spent a few years as a young “twenty-something”. With 8 to 10 miles down, we ran through “Boys Town” and then “Old Town” and I finally began to set my nerves aside.
After making our way back through the Loop and crossing the half way mark, my ankles that had suffered injury during my training felt tight and a bit achy. I knew the second half would be a fight. By mile 14 my legs were telling me to stop and walk for a bit. I convinced them to wait until mile 15. When I got there I persuaded them to keep going. At about this point I saw a man walking barefoot, well limping, holding his shoes with his head down in despair and his mouth grimacing in pain. “Why do we do this to ourselves?,” I again pondered.
Somewhere around mile 17 or 18 it became increasingly more difficult to continue. I told myself I could walk through the water stops. To me that felt acceptable and more respectable than walking at other places on the course. At the time I was questioning whether I could actually finish and was thinking I would have to walk the last six miles. Feeling nauseous (likely from the warmer weather) I couldn’t stomach any more Gatorade or gels but I knew if I didn’t hydrate I would certainly hit the wall. Walking those few water stops became my method for making it to the finish. I focused on getting to the next water stop instead of through 6 more miles.
The rest of the race is pretty blurry. I was just puffing along trying to make my brain tell my legs to shut up, or vice versa. After mile 22 or 23 I told myself there was no walking. Looking at my watch I could see that I still had a chance to meet my original goal of under 4 hours or at least come in a minute or two faster than my PR from Cleveland of 4:06. My legs were entirely cramped up at this point, but I kept running. It probably looked more like shuffling to the spectators watching me, but I was giving it everything I had. It was like I had the pedal to the metal but I had a flat tire. At about mile 24 my watch died so I really had no idea what speed I was actually going.
All around me people were walking, holding their hamstrings or pinching the cramp in their side. Others had stopped to stretch on the curb. Fans watching held signs saying things like “Pain is temporary, pride is forever.” and “Do Epic Shit.” They kept me going. The final mile seemed to last an eternity. I could see the tall buildings of the Loop up ahead, but it was as if I was running on a treadmill and not getting any closer to them. I skipped the last water stop and kept pressing on hoping that I might still beat 4:06. Not that it really mattered. All I really wanted to do at this point was finish and put that medal around my neck. I turned the corner and inched up the last little hill yelling an obscenity or two and into the park crossing the finish line unsure of my chip time, but pleased that I had persevered.
So “Why DO we do it?” One sign I saw on the course said, “You are all crazy.” Yeah, apparently. But all joking aside, I’ve been doing a lot of legitimate soul searching since Sunday after the pain I felt and saw in Chicago. Why do perfectly intelligent people decide to put themselves through the cramps, the blisters, the chafing, the drama and the misery of those last miles of a marathon? Why do we risk injury and for some, very sadly, even death, to run 26.2 miles? It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for my family and I know it’s a question that non-runners probably ask themselves when they witness our apparent idiocy. It’s a question that even we as runners ask ourselves on occasion. Here’s where I’ve come out.
I think we all run marathons for different reasons. For some, the answer might be as simple as, “Because I love to run.” But c’mon, who really LOVES running miles 20 to 24 of a marathon? For others, perhaps it’s an item they want to check off their bucket list. Still others want to “earn their stripes” as a runner; a badge of honor or perhaps they’re just curious to see what it feels like. And I suppose many runners want to do it simply for bragging rights. I can’t answer for everyone else. I can only tell you why I have run three marathons.
For me, the desire to run a marathon began about a year ago. Before then I was actually pretty vocal about the fact that I had absolutely NO interest in ever trying. Three years ago I could only run a few miles and wouldn’t have even considered that a marathon would be in my future. But last fall, after having completed a number of half marathons I began to finish 13.1 miles to discover I had more in me. I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment that came with finishing half marathons and I had the desire to see what else I might be capable of. After having watched my husband run a number of marathons (the 2014 New York Marathon in particular), I began to discover that I felt envious of him and the other runners. I watched women who looked a lot like me and thought, “If she can do it, so can I.” Sure, the idea of running that far scared the shit out of me, but the fact that something scared me made me want to conquer my fear. Running has unveiled a bit of a competitive streak in me, more like a lightning bolt. So, last winter after my husband and I had signed up to run the Big Sur Marathon again as a relay team, I told him I wanted to start the relay and run the whole race. Curiosity, the desire to see what I had in me and the drive to conquer something that scared me were my original motivators.
During training for Big Sur when I ran 15, 17 and 20 mile runs for the first time, is when I began asking the “Why do I do this to myself?” question. Running through single digit temps or on the treadmill for two hours caused me to do a lot of soul searching about my motivations and desires. I experienced a few “Why” moments again while running my second marathon in Cleveland three weeks after Big Sur and yet again while training this past summer through sweltering heat and being away from my kids on Saturday mornings to run for 3 hours to prepare for Chicago.
So after all this reflection, “Why do I run marathons?”
The question is always answered as soon I make it to the other side of “the impossible” to feel the complete satisfaction and total gratification of meeting a goal that seemed unattainable and unrealistic at one point. Some of it IS simply about my love of running; my own legs carrying me from one town to the next or from one end of a city to the other. In part, it is about my love of the outdoors and the open road. The desire to run a marathon starts as curiosity, uncertainty and fear. Then, like a drug, the high in those moments (well, hours) when you’re actually achieving it has you immediately hooked. The euphoria of conquering the “impossible” and tackling that fear keeps me coming back for more. I like how it feels to step out of my comfort zone, test my abilities and push my limits. It’s a good way to live life.
Most of all, for me, completing a marathon gives me something tangible to cling to during the rest of my days when I might question whether or not I’m able to achieve another goal. It helps give me the confidence to say, “I didn’t think I could run 26.2 miles and I did. I ran through doubt and pain and came out the other side. If I can do that, I can do THIS.” (Whatever “this” is.) Running marathons gives me confidence and faith in myself that I can persevere. It primes me for the challenges that life has in store for me. It’s like practicing for the pain life is going to throw your way. Are you going to stop and quit? Or are you going to keep running through it?
Sure, the last miles of a marathon are painful. The way I see it, a couple of hours of pain are worth a lifetime of knowing that I have, can and will set goals and come out the other side no matter what sort of obstacles I have to work through along the way. Do you have to run a marathon to teach yourself that? Of course not. But it sure is one pretty powerful lesson.
After three marathons in six months, I have proven to myself that I CAN do it. With the pride, confidence, contentment, self-awareness and humility that I have gained from those experiences in my back pocket, I’m ready to take on new challenges and tackle with zeal the biggest challenge of all, the marathon of every day life.
And while I think I’ll hang up my marathon hat for a bit and spend a little less time running on the road and little more time running after my kids, I know that marathons are also a little like child birth. While it’s happening and in the days after you might say, “I’m never doing that again.” Before long, you find yourself saying, “When can I do it again.”