I was snuggled in my window seat, overlooking a sea of white clouds. Flying across the country is not a new experience for me, but on this flight towards San Antonio, my mission was unlike any other. To run a marathon. Except that even running 26.2 miles, one after the other, was not new to me. This 4th, crazy attempt – only six weeks after my last marathon – was personal. I was in search of a personal best marathon. But not in the way you might think.
My marathon evolution
In 2001, I took to the start line at the Marine Corps Marathon determined to prove my oncologist wrong. The words “You will never run a – spoken to me so very long ago to describe chemotherapy induced lung damage – served to guide me – very slowly – through the streets of Washington DC and over the 14 Street bridge before the sweeper bus picked up stragglers.
In 2002, I was determined to improve upon my newbie experience. Faster and stronger, I needed to prove that crossing the finish line was not a fluke. Shaving eight minutes off my time – I accomplished what I had set out to achieve and then promptly shelved any future marathon dreams.
Except of course that I had only quieted the marathon whisperer that nudged me every now and then. “Don’t you want to see what you could accomplish now” it challenged me. In 2013, I fell prey to the voices – and recommitted myself for a third go at this seemingly crazy endeavor. The truth was that I had been taking my own health for granted, and though I could “wing” a half marathon (albeit not well), I could not just show up for 26.2. I would need to push myself to new levels and rise above the sedentarism that took hold when I transitioned from teaching to working as a writer from my home office where I sat for more hours than I slept.
The only problem with my plan is that my hip and IT Band were not on board. While I was hustling to make a career as a freelance writer and blogger, I ignored my core strength and was running on weak glutes and muscles that held me up in name only. And so, my marathon dreams were deferred, replaced by physical therapy, sports chiropractic treatments and Pilates.
When I was able to start running again, I looked towards the fall marathon as my everything. My entire life was focused on training that would lead me towards my goals. In October 2014, I thought I was ready to complete my mission to speed my way towards the uphill Marine Corps Marathon finish line at the Iwo Jima Memorial, faster than I had in the past – in under five hours. Not only did I want a personal best, but stepping over the start line was my way of taking control of my health again, after having taken it for granted for too many years. Because seriously, as a cancer survivor -how could I not be taking care of myself?
In search of a personal best
Except that something happened during the race. Armed with a strong training season that started by hiking the mountains overlooking Kootenay Lake in British Columbia and ended with weekly long runs along the C&O Canal outside of Washington DC – I had high hopes. But even with an arsenal of great runs as a foundation, my time goal started to slip around the 14-mile marker as a pace group passed me. Watching the purple 5:00 hour pacers move further and further away, my heart sank. Instead of re-igniting what was left of my energy and determination, a crack was revealed in my armor. Like a slow drip, any confidence and pride in how far I had come, leaked out onto the course.
Yes, I finished the race. With a time of 5 hours and 32 minutes on the clock, a Marine placed the finisher medal around my neck with a deep “Congratulations Ma’am.” But I was anything but proud. Anything but excited. Having held back tears for the last mile of the race, the water works now gushed out – and my heart was sad. I had allowed myself to give up. Instead of fighting for my goal with all of my being, I let the voices of dissent undo my inner warrior.
Actually, lets be honest. There was no inner warrior that day.
What I realized afterwards was that my real marathon goal was not to finish in under five hours. It was to finish knowing that I gave it my ALL. Proud and strong, a personal best meant crossing the finish line as if I had exerted every last drop of energy, without any regrets. And yes, fine….I still saw a clock in my dream finish, but a sub five finish would merely be icing on the cake. I wanted to finish like a champion whose heart is about to burst with pride.
Running a Redemption Marathon
And so…in December 2014, I tied up my laces again, for what can only be described as a redemption marathon. Except that for this run, the six weeks of training between the two marathons took on a new focus. Yes, I still ran three or four times each week. I went long and dutifully got in speedwork. But also? I learned to meditate (well, to say that I learned might be an exaggeration. I am a work in progress.) I learned to visualize. I learned to use positive affirmations or mantras to steady my mind.
So on a partly sunny and chilly by Texas standards day – I took my place in corral 19 of the Rock’n’Roll San Antonio marathon. My plan was to start with the five hour pace group and run the race of my life – where I would “lay it all on the line” with the best effort that I could muster. More than anything I wanted to know that I had given it my absolute all.
At mile 12 I saw my parents along the side of the course. “Your paces have been incredible!” my dad cheered. Incredible. The word made my heart sing because not only was my speed on target with my dream finish, but I felt incredible – physically and emotionally. As I ran on, the words “incredible, inspirational, committed, determined” were on repeat in my brain as I focused on my breathing. With each step, I enjoyed the rush of being proud of myself –something that sadly I do not feel often enough. Even though my mile splits had slowed, my pace at the 20-mile marker was still on target for a finish of epic proportions.
The trick about a marathon – is that you really never know what will happen. Feeling a sharp cramp in my left quadricep, I was suddenly confronted with two options. I could push – hard – and hope that the cramp would work itself out while I pursued the clock. Or, I could walk it out for a bit to see if I could work through the cramp and then run-walk to the finish line in what would still be a personal best time. I had to make a choice. The decision to play it smart was not defeat in my mind. I was not giving up like I had done six weeks before. My resolve to finish in control of my own race felt empowering – like I was choosing to honor myself instead of the numbers on the clock. This time, when the young volunteer placed the heavy metal around my neck – the tears leaking from my eyes were ones of pure joy.
I had chosen ME over a race clock. And that? That makes for a pretty epic personal best marathon.
As I subjected my legs to an ice bath for recovery, the power of my four marathon finishes overwhelmed me. Not only had I proven my oncologist wrong – four times – but I had turned my mantra of “once a survivor, always a survivor” into reality.
*Photographs courtesy of my dad. Because he is awesome. 🙂