When I set out to train for my first marathon last summer, I found a 20-week program that seemed reasonable enough (I mean, as reasonable as planning to run for 26.2 miles can be). It called for two short runs, one medium-distance run, and one long run each week. I decided upfront that four runs each week felt a bit ambitious for my schedule, but I committed to a modified Goldilocks plan with one short, one medium, and one long run each week that I plugged into my calendar from late June until November 12.
The beginning of a training program is nice because the mileage is pretty low at first. Sidenote: this is how they suck you in to this ridiculous undertaking. Endorphins are seductive tricksters. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! But, pretty quickly, the mileage on the long run days started to ramp up and I hit my first double-digit mile training day around week six.
I don’t know why, but I had a big mental block around hitting double digits; ten miles suddenly seemed a whole lot farther than nine. When preparing for a half-marathon, reaching the double-digit mark happens near the end of your training cycle and it’s a sign that you’re at the home stretch. When 26.2 is the finish line, ten miles meant things were just getting started, and that scared the Gu out of me. I looked a little closer at the training schedule and realized there were twelve (TWELVE!) double-digit runs I was supposed to complete, and only one of those earned me a medal and a banana. I had heard about the dirty dozen, but this was my very own daunting dozen.
I panicked. My brain was swirling with negative thoughts. I started to talk myself out of it. This is ridiculous. There is no way I am going to be able to make those long runs happen. I was naïve when I signed up. This was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.
Then, I remembered that I’m the type of person who reaches out for support when she needs it and I called in the reserves. I told my kids I was feeling nervous about my long runs and that they could help me feel more brave by making a paper chain with each link representing one of the distances on my training plan. Each time I finished one of the double-digit runs, I would get to take a strip of paper down so I could see my progress. My older son, Noah, who was 8 at the time, had the idea of writing messages on them, and I was so touched by his suggestion. We got to work on this project (let’s be clear that my mom was visiting so she was actually organizing this arts and crafts activity) and I noticed I was feeling a little lighter already. Instead of keeping the fear to myself and letting it fester, I was being honest about it, and finding productive and constructive strategies to work through it with the support of others.
I checked in on their progress a few minutes later. Micah, aged 5 at the time, needed some help transcribing his message so I wrote down what he wanted to say: "Go, Mommy, go!” and “I love you, Mommy!” I looked over at Noah and he was giggling while hiding his work from me with one of his arms. I grabbed the strip that he was working on. It said, “Stop, Mommy, stop” and “You suck, Mommy!” (I mean, come on, that’s pretty funny.) After we laughed for a bit, he started over and came up with some more encouraging messages like, “Hurry up so you can have Gatorade!”
After the kids finished writing out their messages, they helped me hang up the chain. I decided to put it over my bedroom door so that it would be a constant reminder. It felt empowering to transform my anxiety into something so tangible, manageable, and even playful.
As the weeks went on and my mileage increased, I found myself still feeling nervous about the long runs, but strangely excited for the ritual of tearing off a link after I was done. I was chipping away at the big, scary distances one step at a time (literally!) and it was gratifying to see the chain get shorter each week. I felt so proud to be able to show my kids - and prove to myself - that so much is possible when we don't let fear hold us back.
Just a few months later, the daunting dozen had been whittled down to one single, solitary paper loop. It suddenly didn’t look or feel so daunting anymore. In fact, it looked kind of measly and insignificant as I did the final check of my gear and packed up my suitcase for Richmond. The big event was still in front of me, but I knew I had already conquered the hardest part before I even arrived at the starting line.
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