The marathon is a tricky thing. Filled with moments of euphoria which can quickly turn into thoughts of despair and failure and back again, it is a challenge of physical endurance, to be sure, but most of all, a brutal test of the mind and heart. As of today, I have finished 23 of them, each with its own story of the emotional roller coaster that is the marathon.
It might seem that a serial marathoner might have a routine down, from training to racing, but the truth is, the nature of the marathon is anything but routine. While I have figured out by now which workouts may best prepare me for race day, a multitude of unpredictable, uncontrollable factors can foil even the best laid plans. Never mind the self doubt and incessant round of “what ifs”: Did I train enough? What if it’s windy? What if I fall? What if my knee flares up? And most of all: What if I don’t finish? Yes, it’s true: before each and every marathon, I still actually wonder if I will be able to finish.
Today’s Riga Marathon was no different. I worried about my training (I trained as much as a could, despite being the busiest at work that I have ever been); I worried about the weather (55 degrees Fahrenheit, cloudy, with some light rain in the last two miles… in other words, perfect running weather); I worried about my knee (it ached, but it was tolerable); and I worried about whether I would finish (I did).
While I know that I should replace those worries with positive thoughts (What if I feel great from the very first step? What if I have the best race of my life? What if today is the day that I finally- finally!- qualify for Boston?), old habits die hard. Those who know me know my glass-half-empty side quite well, just as they know I would always tell any other nervous runner, Of course you’ll finish! and mean it.
Today’s race started out well. Marvelously, in fact. I did feel great from the very first step. I did feel the grueling speed workouts I had done in the previous weeks working their magic. And for 13 miles, I really did feel that today just might be the day that I would finally qualify for Boston. Despite my efforts to slow down and avoid starting too quickly, my body settled in to a very comfortable 8:13 mile pace and I felt like I could have held it forever. Until suddenly I couldn’t.
At some point around mile 14, my stomach started to feel queasy and every step felt harder and harder. With each passing mile, my split times crept up, until I was barely hanging on to a sub-9:00 mile. And then it became sub-10:00. And then… well, you get the idea. My friend and running partner had jumped into the race with me at around mile 15 to keep me going, giving words of encouragement along the way. She knew I was struggling, and she never judged me; she just kept me moving forward. When my nagging piriformis started sending shooting pain up and down my leg and back, she stopped and massaged it for me. Only a true friend would do that! And then she kept me moving again.
As I made my way closer to the finish line, one step at a time, forcing down GU and sport drink that seemed to be at war with my stomach, and stopping to dry heave when I needed to, I wondered again – like so many other times in the past – why I do this, and swearing – also like so many other times in the past – that I will never run another marathon ever again. Ever. For real this time.
I saw many familiar, cheering faces along the course – colleagues and friends, neighbors, the parents of one of my favorite students, and of course, my sweet M. and Frieda, which lifted my spirits tremendously, even though I know my face didn’t show it. They pulled me through today, and as the skies opened up during those last two miles and the rain began to fall, I gathered my strength and pushed forward. I felt so grateful to have so much support, even though it was a rough day. I crossed the finish line in 4:06:25. Not my best, but certainly not my worst.
I was a bit out of sorts after finishing, and vaguely remember collecting my medal and white rose – a very sweet and very Latvian gesture, presented to all women finishers – before finding M. and a few friends. They helped me get my bearings and make my way to the apartment of a friend who lives near the finish line and had generously offered his home as a marathon staging and recovery area. He even made me some great ginger tea, which helped warm me up and calm my stomach. We stayed there until I felt well enough to walk the mile and a half back home.
Just six hours have passed since I finished the race today, and as you probably guessed, I’m already thinking about my next marathon. That lie that I always tell myself after finishing the punishing race that toys with my physical strength and mental toughness is just that: a fable. Or, if we really want to be honest about it, bullshit.
And this is why:
When I was in the seventh grade, Dr. Bentley was my social studies teacher. He was a quirky fellow. I’ll never forget the day he gave me a zero on a quiz because he caught me talking to a classmate – not about the quiz – after he had explicitly said that anyone who talks during the quiz would receive a zero (my classmate also got a zero, and I still feel badly about it). I’ll also never forget that he introduced us to Langston Hughes and made us all memorize the poem Dreams.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
I still know the poem by heart to this day, and it is one that I often use when teaching my own students. Just like in Dr. Bentley’s class, some of my students roll their eyes at the thought of memorizing a poem, but for most of them, Dreams is a poem that inspires. It inspired me all those years ago in that stuffy classroom, and continues to do so today. I keep it close in my mind to remind me of a dream I have been holding fast for the last 18 years: to line up at the start of the Boston Marathon one of these years, whether I qualify by seconds or minutes, whether I’m 38 or 88.
That dream is sometimes the single thing that motivates me to lace up my shoes for a hard or a long workout, when my genuine love for running is not quite enough. It reminds me that even in my glass-half-empty world, we do have control of our own happiness. Without our dreams (and great friends and family to support us in reaching for them), life really is a barren field, frozen with snow.
And what happens when we achieve those dreams? Just like a race, the next one is always on the horizon.
Thank you for reading!