My Boston Marathon: the triumph is in the journey
In his book, How Bad do You Want It?, author Matt Fitzgerald summarizes the professional triathlon career of Siri Lindy who won the world championship in 2001:
“It’s not that Siri needed to bear the title of world champion to love herself; she had already transformed into the person she wanted to be through her total commitment to a dream. Paradoxically, it may seem, Siri had to let go of that dream and find contentment in the moment-to-moment process of chasing it in order to complete the personal transformation that was her deeper ambition, and yet it was this very act of letting go that enabled her to fulfill the outward dream. Crossing the finish line first was merely symbolic of the journey’s end.”
For Siri Lindy her pursuit of that world champion title was a pursuit of self-acceptance, an effort to reconcile feelings of inadequacy that had dogged her since childhood, writes Fitzgerald.
When I picked up Fitzgerald’s book a week before Boston I had little expectation that I’d finish it. In fact, I haven’t read a book of my own choosing completely through in over a year (I have on the other hand, read aloud to my 6 year old daughter almost every American Girl book available at our local library). But this book I couldn’t put down. And when I came to this excerpt describing Siri’s relentless pursuit of personal excellence, the world around me came to a standstill and I hung on the every descriptive word. I read it once, twice, three times through. And on the final reading I inserted my own name:
“It’s not that [Sarah] needed to [run the Boston Marathon] to love herself; she had already transformed into the person she wanted to be through her total commitment to a dream. Paradoxically, it may seem, [Sarah] had to let go of that dream and find contentment in the moment-to-moment process of chasing it in order to complete the personal transformation that was her deeper ambition, and yet it was this very act of letting go that enabled her to fulfill the outward dream. Crossing the finish line first was merely symbolic of the journey’s end.”
For the better part of my adult life, running the Boston Marathon as a qualified runner has been a singular goal of mine. In fact, you could say it is the reason I started running. I became a runner for the sole purpose of running a marathon and my intention was to run Boston. It wasn’t until I learned about the qualifying times, that I realized I would have to run another marathon first before checking Boston off my list.
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Interlaced with my desire to run Boston is my struggle with anorexia and bulimia. When “marathon” made it onto the list of things I wanted to do in my lifetime, that life was looking a little “iffy.” Anorexic and severely underweight, I’d been in the hospital and was under the watchful eye of the staff at a local eating disorder clinic. It was during that time I vowed to myself to be “healthy enough” to run a marathon. To me running a marathon was the pinnacle of health, if I could run that far then for sure I would have beaten the addiction that plagued me. And that marathon had to be Boston.
There was something about the challenge of qualifying that served as a motivating hurdle, as if someone said “you can’t do this” and I was bound and determined to prove them wrong. Plenty of my caregivers had already told me I’d never beat anorexia: “You will always struggle,” they said. Within a few weeks of receiving treatment at the eating disorder clinic I’d gained nearly ten pounds. The doctors were immensely pleased with my progress and I was given the OK to run. I had proved them wrong, at least on the outside. But inside, I’d done very little to deal with the underlying factors contributing to my disorder: the feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Which is why I struggled for nine more years with bulimia, before finally finding freedom.
And in those nine years I tried to qualify for Boston twice, then gave up and swore off running for several years, then tried again three more times with no luck.
My qualifying marathon was an experience I’ll never forget. Prior to the 2014 Sugarloaf Marathon I’d completely let go of the idea of trying to qualify, my goal was not a number on the clock instead it was a “feeling.” I wanted to cross the finish line feeling “triumphant,” and I knew in order to do so I had to train like I never had before. And I did. I logged more miles, hit an all time weekly mileage high of 71 miles, and PR’d in shorter distances along the way. When I finally toed the line at the Sugarloaf Marathon I was there not for Boston, I was there for me.
That day I ran so in control, so confident, so completely within myself and transcending myself at the same time. If there were doubts I dismissed them, nothing stopped me that day, not even the beets and broccoli that landed me in the porto potty twice along the route. The girl who ran that race was everything I had always wanted to be: confident, self-assured...free.
In the days leading up to Monday’s Boston Marathon, I thought about the significance of this race for me: running for the first time as a qualified runner. Running my Boston. It would be the symbolic endpoint to my journey, not just in running but in my recovery from an eating disorder. It meant so much. Too much perhaps.
I tried to relax about the outcome, to let go of the finish times I had in my head. I wanted to run relaxed, confident and free like I had in my qualifying marathon. I tried everything in my power to not think about the outcome, to imagine overcoming difficulty during the race instead of fantasizing about the finish. But you cannot fool the body. Despite my best efforts I was anything but relaxed. On Friday when I drove into the city to pick up my bib the tension manifested itself in extreme anxiety driving through the city’s traffic. I hate city driving. I can’t do this. I just want to go home. Maybe city marathons are not my thing.
On Saturday and Sunday, I did my best to soak up the experience of being in Boston for the marathon. It’s amazing how the whole city celebrates the race and the streets are ruled by jacket-clad runners proudly displaying their piece of Boston.
When Monday finally rolled around I felt more than ready. I’ve never been more grateful to share an experience with someone as I was to spend that morning with my Stonyfield Teammate, Sandra. If she was nervous she didn’t seem like it and that helped take my mind off what we were about to do. In the Athlete’s Village we occupied ourselves with silly conversation and jokes about porta-potties that only runners would think funny. Just before leaving the village to make our way to our “first” corrall [the lines are Disney World-esq as you’re shuttled from one area to the next, as you wait your turn. Except instead of getting your picture snapped with Elsa you’re about to run 26.2 miles], I told Sandra that my throat felt tight. Almost like I was getting sick, but not quite. That feeling was just the onset of a more intense tightness to come.
Walking to our corral the sun felt HOT. Too hot. I had adjusted my pacing expectations and my “secret” time goals. I let go of the idea of running sub 3:20 and settled on aiming for what felt good. I knew my first few miles were going to be slow, simply because of the crowds and I had vowed not to weave too much, but to take openings when they were there. After the three mile mark I’d settle into a 7:50 or 8 min pace. Hold it there until mile 16 and then give my all out effort in the last ten miles.
Wave four was sent off with a flourish and all the excitement you’d expect from the beginning of any big event, yet we were the last ones, there were nearly 20,000 runners ahead of us. I hugged Sandra and we wished each other luck, if all went well for each of us we wouldn’t see each other again until we were back in New Hampshire.
I started to shuffle and moved across the start line. My legs felt eager to run, I maneuvered around the people beside me careful not to clip heels, but banging elbows in the process. I decided to stick to the right hand side of the street. That’s where the shade was and would be for most of the race. When a pocket opened up I surged ahead to take it, gently easing around runners.
We passed the first mile marker and I glanced down at my watch: 1.34 miles. My watch was way off and I hadn’t even heard to mile beep. I switched the screen so I could see instantaneous pace and it seemed to be hovering around the 8-8:30 range. That’s OK, I thought. Patience.
I forgot my watch for the next few miles as my focus shifted on simply trying to stay upright. There were so many people. For the next few miles the crowds didn’t relent. Cheering people pressed in on either side of the street, and at each little bridge the hordes of runners bottle-necked slowing the pace to a shuffle. Elbows banged again, my ankle rolled a few times as I stepped on unseen uneven patches in the road.
When we reached mile four the runners on the road had thinned out. I could finally run without putting too much thought into it. My stride settled into its familiar rhythm and for the first time I took a deep breath. Except the breath wasn’t a deep restorative and calming breath, it was shallow and forced.
“I don’t feel right.” I said to myself in a whisper. “I feel tired.” The paces that had felt like holding back at Eastern States now felt like a tempo effort. The anticipation of the Boston Marathon had run its course and left me feeling spent before the race had even started.
I’ve overcome obstacles in races before, I’ve set PR’s on hot and humid days. I laughed off a wonky stomach that tried to sideline me with multiple pit stops during my fastest marathon. And I just ran a strong 20 mile race despite being severely dehydrated. I knew that Monday’s race would have obstacles of its own: namely the weather. I had a plan to stay hydrated, to beat the heat by dumping water over my head from the very beginning. I was ready for the weather, but what I wasn’t ready for was the obstacles created by my own mind: the pressure for this race to be the most meaningful race of my life.
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As mile five approached I turned my watch to display overall time, the only other mile split I would see before Wednesday when I finally plugged my watch in to retrieve the data, would be mile 21. I breathed as deeply as I could and shifted my focus to enjoying the crowd, I started to high-five every kid along the course, taking special care to high five the little girls who looked to be about Sophia’s age and the little boys who seemed to be the size of Jack. I took comfort in the feel of those little hands and thought of my own kids at home, probably glued to the TV and asking if they could see Mommy.
The 10K mark passed and I checked my split, I was slower than I expected but my mind couldn’t manage the math. So I focused on effort. Somewhere around mile nine someone screamed my name, there was a surge of adrenaline and my breathing and heart rate seemed to escalate. I needed to calm down and relax, but the more I thought about it and tried to relax the tighter the feeling in my chest became and the shallower my breathing.
I stuck to my hydration and fueling plan alternating water and gatorade at every water stop and taking my GU every 45 minutes. At every water stop I dumped water on my head and with the breeze that blew almost constantly during the race I stayed surprisingly cool.
When I passed the half-marathon mark in 1:47 I was feeling OK, I’d accepted that today wasn’t going to be my day. I’d given up on trying to see mile splits since I kept missing them and I decided not to try to do the math which isn’t my strong suit, much less when running a marathon. But 1:47? That was discouraging. It was so far off of where I thought I would be.
I broke the remaining miles down. Three miles to 16 and if you feel good you can start to push. Then the hills, you’re strong on the hills.
Mile 16 came and went and I tackled the Newton hills with relative ease, it felt good to be in familiar territory: hills are my thing. I got a surge of confidence as I seemed to glide easily past slower runners struggling on the hills.
I came down the hill after mile 17, the point at which I thought I would surge in the race, and I had nothing left. There was no picking up the pace, there was no unleashing of held-back effort. There was just the daunting prospect of nine more punishing miles. At that point, whatever hope I’d been holding onto that tightness in my chest and shallow breathing would go away, diminished, crushed like the millions of gatorade cups underfoot.
Just make it to 20. I told myself. I came down the hill in mile 19 and my body started to feel really off. Like I’ve never felt before, my abs were sore and I felt like my insides had come unhinged and my pelvic floor felt weaker than it had a week after labor and delivery. The jostling of running downhill was too much and I started to walk. This isn’t right. I began to wonder if the tightness in my chest and shallow breathing were signs of something else? Was I pregnant? Am I overtrained? Did I run to hard at Eastern States? Do I have mono? Or a really bad virus? Maybe I’m really sick and I don’t know it? Maybe I’m having heart problems? I imagined myself stopping for the med tent and finding out that something irreversibly bad was going on. I speculated the worst and my irrational fears grew as only they can in the mind of someone who has run 19 miles in unrelenting sun and heat. I tried to breath deep and laugh off the anxiety that seemed to be building inside. And then I imagined taking a pregnancy test and finding it positive. And that thought got me walking. What the heck!? That’s 99% impossible. I cannot be pregnant.
I texted my husband. I was so ready to quit. I almost wanted an excuse to quit.
I started to run again knowing that a huge group of Six03 Endurance members were going to be around mile 20. I saw them and they saw me. They cheered my name and I made a beeline for high-fives, which turned into hugs. “I’m having a rough time,” I said. “You got this! Go Sarah!” came the words of encouragement I needed to keep going.
I checked my phone. Mark had responded to my text. It was exactly what I needed to see.
I picked up the pace determined to tackle Heartbreak Hill like I knew I could. I had to. You can’t quit Boston. As much as I wanted to walk of the course and stop and just be done, I wanted that finishers medal. Even if my irrational fears were realized and I collapsed at the finish line and was carried away to the med tent to be told I was pregnant and overtrained and had an unknown virus and inexplicable heart issues, I needed to finish. I mustered up whatever energy and determination were still in me and willed myself up Heartbreak. And just when I was near the top I spotted her. It was Sandra. She had caught up to me. I called out her name, she didn’t hear me.
I sped up pulling along side her and grabbed her hand.
“I’m having a rough time,” I said. As if unloading my own suffering and discouragement would free me to run faster.
“This heat is killer,” she said. “I’ve let go of all my goals.”
“Me too. Me too. We can do this together. We can finish,” I said.
We ran side by side down the back of Heartbreak Hill, Sandra a few steps ahead of me. The jostling of my insides had returned on the downhill. I wanted to so badly to stay with her. Let her pull you along. Stay with her, I thought. But I just couldn’t match her stride. I watched as she kept her pace, pumping her arm in the air and rallying the crowd to cheer as she ran down the street. I had to let her go. My watched beeped and I glanced at my split for mile 21: 11:24. Wow. I thought. I knew I was having a tough time, I couldn’t believe how far off the pace I was.
The mile 22 marker loomed ahead. Four miles to go. Just run one more mile and then it’s a 3 mile run down to the high school, I told myself. Equating the distance to one of my daily runs at home. In those final miles I knew I would finish. I knew that I would cross the line. I would get there. It just wasn’t what I had pictured.
I caught a glimpse of the CITGO sign somewhere between mile 23 and 24. It was a ways off, but I knew I was close to the end. The cheering crowds were louder than they had been all day, but it did nothing to lift my spirits. One foot in front of the other. I felt painfully sluggish. No amount of willpower could get my legs to turn over any faster. I slogged on.
Somewhere between Mile 24 and Mile 25 I switched my watch back to view my pace it hovered around 8:40. Maybe I wasn’t running as bad as I thought? Mile 25 passed and I missed the split on my watch again. But I kept checking my pace. I can at least push for a mile. C’mon Sarah. I pressed ahead, tried to get up on my toes and increase my cadence. One mile. A few strides and I glanced down at my watch, looking for the precious feedback I needed to tell me that my increased effort was translating to a faster pace. My watch was blank.
At some point mile 25 my watch had died. The fully charged battery up and quit. And so did I. Who cares, I thought. And I gave up that final push and settled back to the same shuffling pace with which I had started the marathon. It won’t make a difference. I was all out of fight.
As Hereford Street approached I glanced up, the white tree blossoms looked stunning against the backdrop of the clear blue sky. It’s spring. And then it was back to the road. Here we go. Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston. I turned the infamous corner and tried to take in everything around me: the swath of afternoon light between the tall buildings, the cheering friends and family that lined the streets eager to catch a glimpse of their loved ones and then, as I turned the final corner the blue-bannered finish line.
This is it. This is what you wanted Sarah. I felt strangely numb. It was not the moment of personal triumph I had imagined. Perhaps it was the disappointment of not running the race I had trained for? The moment fell flat not because of any disappointment I felt, but because I didn’t need that finish line anymore. That pinnacle of personal achievement, that triumphant moment that I wanted my Boston to be-- it had already happened. It happened in the moment when I chose to leave bulimia behind and vowed to be the girl I was made to be and not the empty shell of life I had become. It happened in the moment when I decided to take up running again after giving up on it for a few years. It happened in the moment when I dedicated myself to training for a marathon harder than I’ve ever trained before. That moment of personal triumph wasn’t when I finally finished Boston, it was that day when I let go of Boston and decided to run for me.
[Tweet "It's the journey that transforms us into who we want to be #run "]
Like Siri Lindy, I’ve discovered myself in the journey. And while I wanted Monday’s Boston Marathon to be the pinnacle of that journey, I’ve already transformed into the person I so desperately wanted to be: confident, self-assured...free.
My hands raised, smiling right at the cameras overhead I crossed the iconic blue and yellow finish line of the Boston Marathon. And then my chest tightened in one final spasm and my throat closed with a choke of emotion. I wanted to cry. I wanted to collapse and stop, to see my husband and melt into his arms. But I kept walking, ushered by the volunteers, “Straight ahead to the medals. Keep walking!”
Someone put a medal over my head and I walked on. My chest still felt tight. “I think I need to go to the med tent,” I told a volunteer. “Ok,” she said. “We’ll get you there.” I was wheeled to the med tent where they checked my blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels. They were all normal. I didn’t have some odd virus or heart condition, I wasn’t dehydrated and I’m not pregnant (checked that one as soon as we got home).
After checking myself out of the med tent, I was reunited with my husband. Back at the hotel I showered and then we made the 90 minute drive home back to our excited kiddos. “You got a medal?!” Three-year old Jack exclaimed. “Like Wreck it Ralph?” How could I not smile. In their eyes I had won! My hubby did bedtime duty while I scarfed down the most unglamourous post-race dinner of leftover pasta from a Ziplock bag and the remains of what I think was my mom’s Greek salad.
It wasn’t until Tuesday night that I finally had my post-race beer. Later that night all the emotion that I’d held in at the finish line came gushing out in a flood of tears. My husband listened and held me as I sobbed about being a “failure” and not making my “training worth it.” He let me vent, but was quick to set me straight. “You finished when you wanted to quit. That is a victory.”
There’s been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to quit life. Dark moments back when I struggled with bulimia and I would imagine driving off the road into a tree hoping to bring an end to my tortured journey. But if there’s one thing that I’ve been consistently good at in life it’s being relentless in the face of adversity. That’s what’s gotten me to this point, and that’s what got me across the finish line of my Boston Marathon.
I am so incredibly grateful to Stonyfield for giving me the opportunity to represent them and run as a member of Team Stonyfield. I'm so honored you chose me and cannot express enough my gratitude for this experience.
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