To Be A Runner Part 3; Crossing the Finish Line (A 3 part Series)

Honestly, it was kind of that bad. But something about it still felt so good. I’d entered into the love/hate relationship with running that many know so well.

I didn’t wake up one morning with the thought that I should run 13.1 miles – or even 3.1 miles. I’ve been lucky to meet others along the way who’s excitement rubbed off on me, and who’s enthusiasm made me believe that going that distance just might be possible. In 2011 I met New Boyfriend, a key player in this series of events, and someone who has lived the polar opposite of my experience (me: quitting without really trying, caught up in perfectionism, sheer terror of PE class at school). If he had a memoir the title would be:

“Skateboarding/Hockey Playing SuperYouth, Turned Semi-Pro – Soccer Player and Class 5 White Water Kayaking Instructor, Skins Up Highest Peaks of the World and Telemark Skis Down Carrying 90lb Black Lab. Finishes Event by Circumnavigating Great Lakes on a Stand Up Paddleboard”

Before we dated, I schemed to hook him up with a coworker whom I had heard played adult rec soccer – and still another that snowboarded and lived for Crossfit (These would have been horribly misguided – but I was athletically naive and just thought all “exercisy”-types were the same). He certainly had me intrigued…I didn’t really want to just hand him over to anyone else… but believed we had little in common. I was impressed yet intimidated and figured instead of humiliate myself trying to keep up, I’d just find him a nice, sporty date and strike him as an option.

In a twist of fate, and a story for another time (involving a Supervan, 2 dogs and a snowstorm) we began dating and skiing together. New Boyfriend eventually talked me into “going for a run”. Here’s what he didn’t take into consideration – I’d tried before, and I knew I couldn’t run. A few times, I had jogged around my neighborhood, which may have added up to a mile….OK, truthfully I might not actually have jogged. Occasionally, friends would drag me out on their 4 mile route, until they realized we’d be there all day if we went my pace – 1/4 mile at a time – walk, jog, walk, jog, walk, jog, give up.

And yet….Infatuation ruled my brain, so when New Boyfriend said “Let’s go for a run” my limbic system cheerfully spoke up “Yeah, sure! Let’s run!” Inside, though, I was fuming and tears threatened to leak from my eyes. I don’t WANT to run. I CAN’T run. I’ve tried before. Desperate to look good in front of him, there was no way I’d decline, but I believed a million percent that I couldn’t do it. The loop was 2.6 miles- a hilly trail around a lake. Two point six miles…I’d have a shin splints, side cramps, and certainly a heart attack before the first hill. Yet I plugged in my headphones, grabbed the dog leash and told my legs to start jogging. New Boyfriend pulled ahead at first, but to my surprise, slowed his stride. “Is this pace ok for you?” he asked. “Um, sure. I think so.” Breathing a bit hard between words. He noticed after a while that I was limping, just a little. “Stop and stretch” he said “Here, sip some water.” Stretch? I thought. But wait, are we even really “going for a run” if we stop to walk or break? “We have all day” He said. “Just enjoy it, don’t kill yourself.” And so I stretched. I sipped. I breathed. And I finished a 2.6 mile jog in under 30 minutes, to my complete astonishment. “See?” He said “I knew you could do it, it wasn’t that bad.” Honestly, it was kind of that bad. But something about it still felt so good. I’d entered into the love/hate relationship with running that many know so well.

 

Jogging 2.6miles turned into running a 5k, which then progressed to my first 10k. The “Have a heart run” in Mt. Vernon was flat and long and hot and miserable. I wanted to quit, I wanted to die. I wanted to tell that stupid New Boyfriend who said “You can do it” to take his van and go back where he came from. But then a miracle happened – I crossed the finish line in one piece.

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First 10K Ever, all by myself!

Someone handed me a cup of water, someone else placed a finisher’s medal in my hand. Strangers were clapping and smiling and the whole world seemed to celebrate with me. I felt something like love for myself. Plus, I got a sweet free T-shirt.

 

Eventually, the phrase “half marathon” crept into my thoughts. I wanted that finish line feeling again, and I wanted to go farther to get it. Over the last 6 years I’ve crossed many finish lines and now boast a drawer full of “swag” shirts. Despite semi consistent training, and fairly frequent running, my pace has not improved. I place in the bottom 1/4 of most runs. But I finish feeling great and still stop, stretch, sip, and breathe.

Many runners feel that stopping for breaks equals failure – that if they walk or stop to stretch they didn’t perform well (and if you’re considering time the ultimate judge, then they’re right). These generally aren’t friends I run with often as their goal is to win or at least compete seriously with themselves. Finish times and PRs aren’t my judge. My version of running happy involves a lot of self care and a good amount of grace.

Of course, there have been growing pains along the way. While training for my very first half, (Bellingham Bay – September 2012 – pouring rain, sideways wind, didn’t sleep the night before, ran it alone, and freaking finished like a champ!!) I learned the hard way the importance of calories and fuel. Believing that I couldn’t “afford” to drink calories, the very first time I ever completed 12 miles was on a treadmill, Vitamin Water Zero at hand. The next 24 hours I suffered cramping, vomiting, shaking – signs of dehydration and lactic acid buildup. Never again. Calories are my friend, and I’m a big fan of Gu and Arbonne Phytosport to replace electrolytes and take in BCAAs.

One race specifically made me consider quitting for good. The Portland Half 2015. At mile 6 my stomach turned, by mile 8 I’d told my running partner to go on without me, and by mile 11 I was merely walking in between bathroom stops. Barely crawling over the finish line, I was green in the face – and I know this thanks to the well placed photographer who captured the special moment. I’m sure my family thinks I was hungover that day – but I WASN’T. I SWEAR. At the time I thought my lack of training caused me to gas out early and my running days were over. That night my brother called to say my nephew had the same symptoms, proving it to be a virus and giving me the courage to believe I’d run another day.

Despite 13 miles of gastroenteritis, where instead of celebrating I spent post race fun puking in the rosebushes and sleeping off sickness in the back of a Subaru, running usually feels pretty great. Even when my body is sweating, burning, aching and I’m swearing at the mile markers. Even then. Because the finish line happy place is coming.

Father’s Day Sunday this year I ran the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Seattle for the 3rd time. It’s one of my favorites. Bands playing live music on the sidewalk about every 1- 2 miles make for a fun distraction, and serve up motivation to keep going. Prior to the race, I ran into a couple of coworkers. One in particular doesn’t know it, but she was an inspiration for my very first half. She would come to work lean and healthy, with a smile on her face. “I’m training for a half” She’d say “Got to get in a long run this week!”. Though it wasn’t clear yet to me what I was yearning for, something inside wanted whatever was making her glow.

This year she was smiling just as big at the starting corral, her daughter by her side. Next to her, another co-worker explained this was her first big event and admitted to being a bit nervous. She’d been to a couple 5Ks, and had run 10miles or so on her own a few times to prep. Looking at the oatmeal I was eating, she said “I’d puke right now if I ate that. Could barely choke down a banana this morning.” Her face betraying anxiety and nerves. “I get it” I said.  “My first few events I couldn’t eat a thing. I couldn’t sleep or eat and my stomach did summersaults for the first 3 miles. But now, here’s how I look at it:  I run with friends a few times a week – today it’s just a lot more friends and a longer run. My advice: stretch when you need to. Walk when you need to. Drink water, breathe. Enjoy the scenery. Be nice to yourself. Be kind and forgiving. It’s only a race if you make it one.”

For some, adrenaline and competition fuel the need to run farther, faster, more often. . Periodically the thought sneaks in that maybe I should train “for real”.  But running is something I can do without any judgment at all, without any worry of being the best. And that’s a gift I don’t want to tarnish with a finish line expectation.

On 3 separate occasions, I’ve had the honor of running alongside 3 different friends, holding their hand across the finish line of their very first half marathon. For a full year, my dearest friend and I ran a “5k every month”, which turned into a half marathon finale and I consider one of my happiest years yet. There’s nothing like being a cheerleader for a friend, being the one to say “You can do it, I believe in you”.

 

Running increases endorphins – seratonin and dopamine – that gives us the feeling we call “happy” or “rewarding”. Running can be an outlet for pent up resentments and frustrations. It can be solitary time spent listening to nature, music or an audio book, or a time of connection, talking with a friend (now that I’ve built up enough endurance to talk and jog at the same time). Running justifies eating dessert guilt free every night, sometimes twice, and hopefully will help keep my heart and lungs in action for a long time to come. Physical fitness is one of the main components in my treatment plan, motivating me to remain sober.

Reflecting back on The Rock and Roll this year and what I said to my friend at the starting line, I realize the transformation in how I viewed sports, (or any new venture) as a kid vs. how I view them now. What I’ve learned through New Boyfriend’s simple encouraging words, and now via mindfulness, recovery, & personal development is:

Self care wins over self criticism. Compassion matters, not competition.

Breathe. Stretch. Drink water. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to those around you. Step out of the way, don’t trample on others. Run when you can, walk when you need to. Enjoy the scenery. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

These rules will never win me a 1st place trophy. But for now, this is how I show up and try again. I can try, I can fail, I can laugh at and even love myself a little. Bellingham Bay, September 2017 –  I’m coming for you. Anyone else ever thought, even for a second, that just maybe you want to run a half marathon? I encourage you to try, being kind to yourself all along the way. And hey, there’s room on the pavement right next to me – I promise to go at your pace, never leave you behind. It would be a privilege to cross the finish line with you.

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