20 Miles to “The Impossible”

BeforeThis past Saturday I ran 20 miles. The furthest I’ve ever run. I’m still in disbelief. A few short years ago I had never run more than a mile or two. If someone had told me back then that I’d be training for a marathon in 2015 I would have said, “Yeah right! No way could I accomplish running that many miles (or even 5 for that matter).” Honestly, I wouldn’t even have had any desire to try. Running wasn’t my thing. In my 10 Reasons Why I Run post I shared the story about how I began running and how it transitioned into running half marathons. This winter I decided I was ready for more.

And so began the training for my first marathon. I spent the winter running through snow and bitter temperatures. When it was dangerously cold I moved inside where I logged 10 and 11 mile runs on the treadmill. Some might consider that a form of torture. At times it seemed impossible that I would be able to fit in proper marathon training in between the responsibilities of my real job as a stay home mom. So far this year our household has been wrought with illness including the stomach flu, ear infections, colds, coughs and even pneumonia. Somehow I made it through to tell the story and was able to get in enough running to make it to the climax of my training, 20 miles.

Today, I’m documenting here this longest run of mine so I can look back and remember the experience. Perhaps someone else might gain something too. Remember, I am no expert. Just an average mom and an average runner, trying to overcome the odds to fit in something for myself that makes me a happier person and a better parent.

SATURDAY, APRIL 4TH, 2015

I set out early, about 8:00 am, on my favorite course which happens to be right out my doorstep and up my own street. I began with excitement in my veins, doubts in my head, butterflies in my belly and the “F” word on my lips. The air was cool (about 30 degrees) and the skies were gray. A small dusting of snow rested on the ground like it was frosted cereal and occasionally a gust of wind blew snowflakes into my face.

I started off through the woods, past creeks and over bridges. Passing the first mile I realized I had begun too quickly. No way could I sustain my normal 8 minute pace for all 20 miles. I told myself to slow down so that I wouldn’t hit the wall at mile 15. Feeling good, I ran through the first four or five miles without much thought. I was singing, smiling and enjoying the moment. It’s funny how when I set out to run more than 10 miles the first few seem easy. Yet sometimes when I plan to run just 4 or 5 total, they seem so much harder. I reached the bottom of the biggest incline on the course, celebrated finishing 5 miles (the first quarter of the run) then powered to the top of the hill raising my arms to the sky and punching the air like I was Rocky.

Gates MillsThe clouds had begun to clear revealing a bright blue sky, my favorite music kept me singing out loud and I felt like I could run forever. As I came down the other side of the big hill I caught my first glimpse of the Chagrin River on my right. It was raging from the heavy rain that fell over night. It’s energy was contagious. I followed it’s path another couple of miles glancing up at the rocky cliffs surrounding it. Navigating the curvy roads with no shoulder here was tricky. One careless car even sent me rushing off the road right into a big puddle. With wet shoes, I passed mile seven and crossed over the picturesque bridge in Gates Mills. This was the furthest point I’d ever run to on this road. “Three more to go until my half way point,” I thought.

I continued to feel great until about mile nine when I kept looking at my watch hoping my turn around would come sooner. I began to feel really far from home and started to doubt whether I would actually be able to make it all the way back. Soon my watch beeped and blinked “10 Miles, 9:20.” I did a U-turn to begin the trek back and gave myself a mental pat on the back.

I started to notice my legs and knees were beginning to feel sore and tired. I tried to refocus my attention on something else, so I started to think about how badly I needed to find a bathroom. It was the perfect distraction. The location of the Gates Mills library couldn’t have been more perfect. At about 13 miles I popped in and used it as a chance to quickly refill my water bottles and stretch my legs for a few seconds.

Chagrin River I set back out with seven miles to go. That didn’t seem like a lot compared to the 13 I’d already run, but envisioning all the road that lie between me and home seemed overwhelming. I set my sights on completing the next two miles bringing me to 15, three quarters of the way through the run. Before climbing to the summit of that tallest hill once again, I stopped for a moment to admire the river glistening in the sun. “Come on Ashley,” I said out loud.

With five miles left my feet were throbbing from my bunions and calluses. My knees were sore and my quadriceps were beginning to cramp up. Running down some small slopes exacerbated the pain. I reached a low, flat spot we call “death valley” because in the summer it gets really hot. Just when I needed it most I saw a familiar car approaching. My in-laws had come to check on me with all three of my kids in the back seat. They turned around and drove alongside me for a bit asking if I could make it home. The kids’ smiling faces helped me perk up and carried me through the next mile.

Horse FarmI reached the top of the hill bringing me out of the valley and to one of my favorite spots, the horse farm where I always look forward to seeing the animals grazing. I paused long enough to capture a photo and then waved good-bye to the horses.

“Four more miles” I thought. I ate my last gel and reminded myself to stay hydrated. I realized I must have dropped one of my water bottles somewhere along the way. The road ahead was very familiar. I run here often. I tried to forget about the 16 miles I had already run and pretended I was just out for a short 4 miler on any given weekday. There was no fooling the pain I felt in my body. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Soon I had three miles left. Normally three miles is easy for me, but this was the three miles that would bring me from 17 miles (the furthest I’d run until now) to 20 miles. My mind was telling me that seemed impossible. But again, I told myself, “Three miles is nothing on any other day. You’ve come this far. You’ve got this.”

I felt like a snail. I turned on my standby playlist with all my favorite songs that motivate me the most. As much as I wanted to walk, I kept running. With two miles left it felt like there were knives scraping the balls of my feet. My knees were throbbing and my legs were tight and firey. With just a mile and a half or so left, I stopped to walk for about 20 yards, but somehow walking was not easier. I began running again and soon was just one mile from home. I wasn’t sure whether to celebrate or cry. I kept going. As cars passed me, my once enthusiastic wave or smile to say “thank you” were no longer present. I began counting electrical poles and setting short goals like the pine tree ten feet ahead or the next road sign. With a half mile to go I knew I could do it. Soon I could see my neighbors’ driveway and then my own. I climbed the last hill with pain in my body, tears in my eyes, words of praise on my lips and pride and gratitude in my soul.

This morning’s journey that began with excitement, doubt and butterflies ended with praise, pride and gratitude. It took a little more than three hours, but it was really a journey over three years. Three years of hard work, dedication and self discovery. Three years ago my goal was to complete two or three miles, then 5.25 in my first race, then my first 10K. I accomplished “the impossible” when I ran my first half marathon in the fall of 2013. On Saturday I accomplished “the impossible” again as I completed my longest run to date.

I am confident that I will meet my goal on April 26th and finish the Big Sur Marathon. But if I don’t, it’s ok. Because in so many ways, I have already met my goal. I don’t need a finish line and a medal to prove anything. I have already proven to MYSELF that no matter how difficult the challenge in life, even one that seems impossible to me, I can persevere. I am capable of more than even I thought possible. Through pain, doubt, and tears, I’ve run. I’ve conquered steep hills, frigid temperatures and uncomfortable distances. If I can get through those struggles, I’m prepared to power through any challenge life throws at me. Through running that idea has transcended the way I live my life. It helps me live life to the fullest, not afraid to try new things or take on new challenges. This average mother of three who can’t manage to get the laundry folded, has managed to conquer her fear and accomplish something she never thought possible. I discovered a love of something I had never even tried until I was 35, causing me to broaden my horizons. I began running in 2012 to help me LOSE baby weight. Back then I didn’t realize that running is actually more about what you GAIN; confidence, faith, love, happiness, strength, focus, and so much more.

YOU too are capable of more than you realize. YOU can do anything you set your mind to. Whether your goal is a half marathon, a 5K or just running down your street and back, you can do it! Whether it’s an athletic goal, a career goal or a personal goal, you can accomplish virtually anything you can dream. But you will never know if you never try.