Check out Part 1 if you missed it!
I signed up for the National Women’s Half-Marathon in late-January 2022 without much fanfare. It wasn’t a secret, but I found myself not making a big deal out of it as I went about downloading a 12-week training program for beginners and mapping out my weekly schedule. I released the expectation that I would complete every run that the plan called for during the week (a new approach for me as a recovering rule follower), but promised myself that I would not shortchange my long runs on the weekends. As my mileage increased, I purchased my favorite flavors of Gu Energy Gel (Sea Salt Chocolate and Campfire S'mores!) and found my old hydropack in the basement storage closet. I shifted my run/walk intervals to 75:45 seconds and discovered new trails around my neighborhood. As I moved into April and hit 8, 9, and 10 miles, it started to become more real. The day before the event, I picked up my race bib, charged my Garmin watch, laid out my clothes, and put the Advil bottle on the bathroom counter as a reminder for the morning.
On May 1st, the day of the race, I woke up at 4:58 am before my 5:00 alarm even had a chance to buzz. I was already feeling anxious and didn’t want to exacerbate things by rushing. I gave myself plenty of time to eat breakfast, have a cup of coffee, down a large glass of water with a Nuun electrolyte tablet, drive downtown, and find a parking spot. By 6:15 am, I was following the throng of women dressed in exercise clothes feeling fairly confident I was heading in the right direction. I paused in front of the Lincoln Memorial and took in the Washington Monument during a breathtaking sunrise.
After a trip to the port-a-potty (a time-honored pre-run ritual), a lot of stretching, another trip to the port-a-potty (just in case), and more stretching, I moved to the starting corral. The person lined up right in front of me turned around while they were stretching and I saw they were sporting bib #1111. My lucky number. My dad was sending me a message and I felt comforted by this awareness. Even though this would be my first half-marathon since he passed away, I smiled knowing he was with me. Before I knew it, we were off.
My strategy was to stay consistent with my run/walk intervals and not come out of the gate too quickly. As this was my fourth half-marathon, I knew better than to make that rookie mistake. The thick crowd at the starting line quickly thinned and I fell into a comfortable stride with Pandora’s 80s Cardio Rock playing through my headphones. At the first mile marker, I noticed my time was about 2 minutes ahead of my typical training pace. Huh, that’s interesting, I thought, the first mile is usually my slowest. I kept chugging along, but now with a little more pep in my step.
As I moved into mile 2, I thought about the audiobook Atomic Habits by James Clear which I had just started listening to the day before. When it comes to behavior modification, he explains that people often make the mistake of going for drastic overhauls when really the secret is to make small, incremental shifts that accumulate to make a significant change over time. I started asking myself if I could give just a little more each interval. Run just 1% faster. Walk just 1% quicker. Push just 1% farther. When I hit mile 3, I noticed that my 5K time would be way ahead of schedule. Huh, maybe this guy is onto something.
Around mile 4, I saw a recreational runner (not someone in the race) wearing a Brown University shirt jogging on the sidewalk moving in my direction. Given how rarely my alma mater is represented in the wild, I took that as another sign. My dad was with me. I picked up my pace.
As the miles started adding up, I found myself saying gratitudes at every mile marker. I’m grateful that my hip isn’t hurting. I’m grateful for the volunteers passing out water. I’m grateful that my husband is so supportive. I'm grateful it's not too hot. I’m grateful that my body is able to do this.
The course included a long stretch that was out-and-back so I started to see the faster runners coming towards me around mile 5. I noticed that my fellow participants came in all shapes and sizes, ages and shades. There were folks running in packs and others on their own. There were parents pushing strollers and parents-to-be who wore shirts saying they were running for two. There were people wearing sandals, tutus, and full-on costumes (shoutout to the banana who ran 13.1 miles!). Someone shouted, “Go Marissa!” as I passed the Kennedy Center (I later realized it was a fellow runner from the Moms Run This Town Facebook group). I found a little more energy to forge ahead.
As I approached the 10K marker, a distance that felt significant in its own right, but meant I still had more than half of the half-marathon to go, I started losing momentum. I had already run 6.2 miles and wasn’t even 50% done. I found my positive mindset start to dip. This was a bad idea. This is never going to end. I can’t do this.
Then, I thought about the clients I coach and the members of my LEAD group who inspire me by pushing through their own fears, limitations, and areas of discomfort to create meaningful change in their lives. I reminded myself to trust the process and take solace in the knowledge that I had everything I needed. I concentrated on keeping my breathing steady, sipping water from my pack frequently, and treating myself to a Gu packet or a few Honey Stinger energy chews every couple of miles. I said a few extra gratitudes and kept moving.
I fell into a groove and tried to make eye contact with the runners who continued to scroll past me on the other side of the road. I knew the turnaround must be coming soon and there would be Gatorade at mile 8. I saw the same guy wearing the Brown University shirt run past me again on the right. What are the chances of that happening an hour apart in this big city with dozens of running paths? My dad was sending me a message. You can do this.
I hit the turn from the long out-and-back stretch around mile 8.5 and felt a little spark of hope reignite. For the first time, I saw the runners who were behind me. I was near the end, but certainly not the last of the bunch. I smiled at everyone as we crossed paths. I side-eyed the sweeper van (AKA the struggle bus) and tried to pick up my speed just 1%.
Around mile 9, I started thinking about the fact that there was something different about what I was experiencing this time around. This was my fourth half-marathon, but it somehow felt new. I noticed that I could actually feel my legs, lungs, and heart surge every time I asked myself if I could dig a little deeper and push a little harder. My eyes welled up any time I saw a runner pass by their cheering squad or when I saw spectators dotting the sidewalks with motivating posters about brunch or beer. I was also acutely aware of the chaffing that was happening on my left underarm where a strap from my hydropack was rubbing against my wet skin in the one spot I must have neglected to slather with the Vaseline stick. These physical sensations were so heightened because I often feel as though I am outside of my body, like an outsider looking in, something I’ve written about in previous blog posts. Fragmented and disassociated. Numb and detached.
Now I was feeling everything intensely. Exhilarated and inspired. Connected and whole.
Hitting double-digit miles was a big mental victory and meant that there was *only* the equivalent of a 5K to go. I was getting closer. I was almost there. I recalled one of the lessons from Atomic Habits about aligning practices with identity. For example, instead of saying, “I write,” saying, “I am a writer” will yield more positive results. You are a runner, I thought. I am a runner.
My positive self-talk took a steep nose dive around mile 11. I knew I should have done longer training runs. Even though the longest distance the plan had called for was 10, I should have done more. How could I think I could just come out here and run 13+ miles without that extra preparation? I am at my heaviest weight ever and it was unreasonable to expect I could run a half-marathon. This was a horrible idea. Why did I think I could do this?
And, then I, once again, found myself thinking about my dad. He was ridiculously competitive and relentless in all of his pursuits. In fact, one of the most memorable lines from my brother’s speech at the funeral was, “He had the heart of an athlete and the body of a Lifshen.” With this champion spirit combined with ox-like stubbornness, he successfully endured two bouts of lymphoma and two stem cell transplants (one from his own stem cells and then one from an anonymous donor four years later). He wasn’t going to let cancer win. He would have a chemo treatment in the morning and be at work by the afternoon. His body was ravaged by the most severe case of graft vs. host disease the doctors had ever seen, but he obstinately and miraculously fought his way through that too. If he could do that, I could certainly push through this. I asked him to send me strength.
As I slowed down to chug two cups of Gatorade at mile 12, it was clear that my tank was almost empty. Not only was I aware of a gigantic blister that was actively developing on my left foot (or maybe I was growing a new toe?), but I was quickly losing steam. I couldn’t consistently keep to my 75:45 run/walk intervals anymore. Every step felt hard and I was feeling a little loopy. I decided (well, my body decided for me) to walk when I needed to and run when I could. My pace dropped and I pretended not to care. Run to the stop sign. You can do this. Walk to that telephone pole. You’re almost there. Run to that street corner. Your body is freaking amazing. Walk to that orange cone. Your body created, carried, and delivered two babies. Your body can do this too. Run to that tree. I am a runner. Walk to that street lamp. I am grateful for my body. Run to the fire hydrant. Just give 1% more and you’ll finish 1% sooner.
I continued this way until I hit mile 13 and then I started to see the finish line. My self-talk got louder and more intense (with a lot more swear words) as I willed my legs to keep pushing.
Just keep running. You can stop soon. Leave it all out on the course. Go 1% further. Just finish.
You are a runner.
I AM A RUNNER.
I AM A F&^%ING RUNNER!!
I collected my medal from the peppy volunteer standing just past the finish line and didn’t even have enough energy to put it over my head. It just swung in my hand as I kept my momentum moving in the direction of my car. I wanted so badly to sit, but knew it would be too hard to get up so I just slowly shuffled along the sidewalk grabbing a bottle of water along the way. I didn’t call my husband or post a picture on social media. I wanted to soak it all in myself before sharing it with anyone else.
As I approached my car, the enormity of what I had just done finally hit me and I burst into tears. When I fished my phone out of my pocket to text my husband that I was heading home, I finally took a look at the statistics on my Garmin app. Although I technically didn’t have a goal time I was shooting for, I finished about 15 minutes earlier than I had predicted based on my training times. I swiped through the various dashboards to check out my other stats. One of the screens showed I was at my maximum heart rate for 1:11:11 of the race. I gasped out loud and started to cry. My lucky number again. There was no way I could have made it up. My dad had been with me from start to finish.
In retrospect, signing up for the race was a little bit about losing weight, but not really. It was kind of about proving I could accomplish the physical challenge, but that wasn’t really the priMary thing. It was sort of about reclaiming myself, but not totally. It was about all of those things and none of them. This wasn’t about a comeback; it was about redefining my relationship with myself. Not pining for the good ole’ days of yesteryear that I wanted to return to, but about accepting and embracing where I am in my life right now. For the first time, I felt like I was approaching running not from a deficit-based mindset to prove my worth, fill a void, or serve as a distraction, but from a place of openness, confidence, and gratitude. Mind, body, and spirit integrated and firing on all cylinders which enabled me to feel whole, complete, and strong.
But, if I'm really going to be honest, do you know what feels even better than completing a half-marathon when your mind, body, and spirit are in alignment?
A post-race massage!
If you (or someone you know) could benefit from working with a certified coach and trained facilitator who will provide customized, holistic, and tireless support as you or your team identify and take action towards your goals, please reach out to One Eleven Leadership to set up a complimentary consultation.