Warning: This is a l-o-n-g post. Kind of a Part 2 to this post. And kind of the post I have been avoiding writing.
The sky was uncharacteristically dark for a mid-September morning. Steel gray clouds concealed the sunrise, blanketing the streets in darkness. I squinted, scanned the sea of runners gathered in front of me, and searched for a sign marking the entrance to corral A. Once I located it, I quickly kissed my husband good-bye.
“Good luck, Honey!” he said as he wrapped his arms around me for a final hug.
“Don’t forget to find me on the course,” I replied. He had explicit instructions to meet me at mile 6, and then every two to three miles thereafter.
I hastily walked across the rain soaked lawn, entered the corral, and wove my way through the horde of runners who were either jogging in place, or anxiously bouncing from one foot to the other, or talking strategy with fellow runners.
I looked up, and spotted a sign that said “3:45 Finish”, and I thought to myself, “Why not?”
I realized that three hours forty-five minutes was an aggressive goal, but I also knew I could back off that pace and still finish in under four hours (which was my “real” goal…you know..the one that I publicly acknowledged.) I made my way to a spot void of runners, just behind the man holding the sign. I glanced at my Garmin and realized I still had 5 minutes before the race would start.
I tried to focus. My mind started doing the math. Finishing in 3 hours, 45 minutes meant running eight and a half minute miles, while finishing in 4 hours meant I could run a little over 9 minute miles.
I figured that sticking with this pacing group would push me at the beginning of my run, and it would be okay if I needed to slow down later. Ideally, I wanted to run nine minute miles, as anything over 4 hours was simply not going to be acceptable.
At no time, during this thought process did it ever occur to me to simply listen to my body, and run a pace that felt right. I was on a mission. I would not be denied. I had accomplished this last year, and anything less was failure.
I smiled as I thought back to the day just one year ago. I had been on top of the world. Not only had I finished my fourth marathon, but I had PR’d by 8 minutes, and I had qualified for Boston. The memory of that day, filled me with pride.
I had felt really good during the race. Nothing hurt. “The Wall” never materialized. My husband greeted me at mile 25; only a mile from the finish.
“Honey, you are going to finish in under 4 hours!” he yelled, as he met my pace and kept me company.
I couldn’t believe it! My heart felt about ready to burst from the reality that I was going to PR! The fatigue that had begun to invade my body at mile 22 suddenly was forgotten.
Vivid memories of running that final .2 mile down picturesque Lakeshore Drive filled my mind. I had wound my way along the shoreline of Lake Winnebago, taking in the beauty of the sailboats as they navigated into the open water. As I had passed through Kimberly Point, I gazed up at the Neenah Lighthouse, and thought about how blessed I was. 26 miles will do that to you.
As I rounded the final bend, and entered Riverside Park, crowds of onlookers lined the streets and filled the stands, cheering for the runners as they approached the finish line. I took in the moment, much like I took in the moment of each of my childrens’ births. I knew I wanted to remember this feeling forever.
I caught site of the finish line and the time clock. 3:53! I couldn’t believe it. My emotions got the best of me. I felt my throat constrict, and tears of pride and joy welled up in my eyes. I was totally overwhelmed.
“I’m going to do it!” I thought with pride. “I’m actually going to finish in under 4 hours!”
And then, the starter’s horn blasted, jolting me back into the present.
I soon found myself shuffling toward the start line with thousands of other runners. I crossed over the electronic mat, struggling to locate my Garmin hidden beneath my long sleeve shirt. Once I found it, I clicked the start button, signaling that my race had begun. Nervous excitement filled my body.
As loose and relaxed as I tried to be, I could not get rid of the butterflies that were fluttering around my belly as I began. You see, my knee had been giving me trouble for months. Although I had taken time off of running, and diligently followed my prescribed course of physical therapy, I still couldn’t run without pain. So after three months, I resorted to a cortisone shot.
While it did not completely erase the pain, it allowed me to resume my running. I had missed the first four weeks of the training program, and couldn’t do the speed workouts at the pace I wanted to, but I was able to get the miles in.
However, the reality was, my knee still hurt, and while I had completed several 20 mile training runs, I was unsure of how my knee would feel at mile 21.
I tried to relax. For the first mile. I eavesdropped on the conversations of other runners, enjoying the camaraderie.
“Hey…do you know why a marathon is 26.2 miles?” one runner asked.
His running buddy replied, “No, why is a marathon 26.2 miles?”
“‘cuz 26.3 would be insane!”
I laughed along with the people who were within hearing distance of the jokester.
I felt sluggish, but I was not concerned. I was running at a pace that was not natural for me, and the first three miles of a run never feel that great for me, no matter how long the race. I tried settling in. I knew I could back off at anytime. I smiled to myself as a symphony of chirps emitted from the watches of runners surrounding me as we reached the one mile marker. Predictable.
As I passed the 5 mile mark I realized I hadn’t even thought about my knee. I felt a glimmer of optimism. Painfree. Not even a twinge. At this point, I wasn’t even concerned that my body was feeling heavy and slow. Again, I attributed it to a too fast pace, which I felt I could counteract by just slowing down.
My husband met me at mile 6, providing me with my homemade Energy Bite (much needed fuel for my body). This past summer I had finally learned the importance of fueling my body during long runs. I knew it was crucial to take in nutrients and calories every 3 miles or so. This strategy had allowed me keep a strong pace on training runs. I was hopeful that I would feel a burst of energy shortly.
Somewhere around mile 8, I gave in to a slower pace. The burst of energy I had anticipated was not forthcoming. With mild disappointment, I realized I needed to ease up. I slowed down my pace and watched as the 3:45 pace group disappeared out of sight. I found myself running alone. I looked back and was grateful that the 3:55 pace group was nowhere to be seen.
Despite the fact that I was running at a slower pace, I wasn’t feeling any stronger, My body felt like it had already run 20 miles. Not good.
“What the heck?” I mumbled to myself with great frustration “Why today?”
I struggled to make it to the halfway mark (13.1 miles) in under 2 hours. I realized the only way I would meet my goal of finishing in under 4 hours would be to run a negative split. In other words, I would have to run the second half of the marathon faster than what I ran the first half. Shortly after this realization, the 4:00 pace group passed me. Disappointment hit me like a brick to the head. I couldn’t escape the negative thoughts running through my mind.
As I approached the 16 mile mark, I could see volunteers gathered on either side of the road. Some were holding cups and yelling, “Gatorade!”, while others were holding identical cups and yelling, “Water!” Still others were holding big bowls of banana halves, and orange slices.
And then I saw my supportive husband, riding his bike, and holding a sickly sweet energy bite wrapped in a kleenex. My mind struggled for the right answer. My magical little energy bite which had never let me down on a training run? A banana? The thought of eating anything sent my insides churning. I could feel the bile rising in my throat.
“You need to eat something!” I reasoned with myself.
My gaze shifted between my husband with the kleenex and the woman holding the bowl of bananas. The bananas won. If for no other reason than I would have an excuse to walk. I needed to peel my banana, before I could eat it. I gave in.
I slowed my already slow pace, grabbed a banana from the bowl, mumbled “Thank you,” and veered off to the side of the road where I allowed myself to walk.
“How are you feeling? my husband hesitantly asked as he pedaled up beside me.
“This sucks,” I told him, without meeting his eyes.
I walked on silently. A cardboard box garbage can was 20 feet ahead of me. The banana skin needed to go in the garbage. I certainly didn’t want to be a litter bug.
I finished my banana, and flung the skin into the garbage can…and missed.
“You have GOT to be kidding me, “ I grumbled as I rolled my eyes.
“If you keep walking, it will take you forever to finish,” I reasoned with myself. I started to jog
And then, just when I thought the day could not get any worse. It happened. A slight twinge appeared in my left knee, and within a half of a mile, escalated into a sharp, stabbing pain. I changed my stride, favoring my right leg, in an attempt to lessen the pain. Never a good idea, by the way. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for my right hip to join in the revolt.
Mile 18. Another aid station. Another banana. Another opportunity to walk. Another conversation with myself. The pain subsided when I walked.
“I don’t want to do this,” I thought. “Just walk the rest of the way,”
It was cold and windy and misting. Not a beautiful day for a run.
And then, in the midst of my pity party, I thought about how I felt last fall when I broke my elbow and wasn’t allowed to run for months. I thought about how disappointed I felt last spring when my knee pain forced me to miss running in a half marathon. I thought about a friend who had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I thought about a lot of things. And with all of this thinking, I had distracted myself long enough to reach mile 20.
“6.2 to go. Anybody could run 6.2,” I told myself. This was a game I frequently played with myself on long runs.
I had run that thousands of times. At this point I made a decision. I would not quit. I wouldn’t even walk through aid stations. I thought about all the times I had told my children, “Pain is temporary, pride is forever!” I knew I had to keep on pushing. I had just demonstrated to myself that by crawling inside my mind, I could make the miles go by. I was not going to let pain win.
I looked at my Garmin and saw my time. Disappointment came rushing back. I was five minutes away from last year’s finish time, with three miles left to go. Simply finishing was not my goal, as it had been in every other marathon I had run. I wanted to run well. I wanted, no I needed to finish in under 4 hours. And I wasn’t going to be able to. I was angry with myself.
If only I hadn’t walked through that aid station. If only I hadn’t pushed my pace. If only my knee didn’t hurt.
I pushed on, my anger driving me.
Mile 24 brought me into home territory.
I began to anticipate the end of the race. Despite the fact that my body was screaming for me to stop (and my knee was the loudest), my mind kept fighting back.
“You need to do this,” I demanded of myself. “You have run this route hundreds of times.”
I ran with anger and disappointment.
As I ran over the bridge, linking Doty Island to my hometown, I was greeted with “Way to go, Mrs. Hovie,” and “Looking good, Karen!” I smiled weakly refusing to make eye contact. My personal disappointment outweighed the enthusiasm the crowd was sharing with me.
The final .5 of the race is inarguably the most beautiful of the entire race. Exquisite mansions line the Wisconsin Avenue. Tall, broad oaks, on the cusp of full brilliant color, form a canopy over the narrow road that winds along the shore. A beautiful lighthouse graces the land marking the entrance of Neenah’s harbor. But I wasn’t having any of it. Last year I was enamored by the beauty. This year I was only aware of my failure.
I rounded the final curve, and the finish line came into view. I could hear the crowd cheering, as the announcer congratulated the runners by name as they crossed the finish line. I, however, fixated on only one thing: the clock and its announcement of my failure. I prayed that the announcer would skip over my name, and I could disappear into the crowd unnoticed.
But then I heard it. “Karen Hovie from Neenah!”
“Where was he last year when I totally kicked butt?” I angrily mumbled to myself.
I crossed over the finish line and hit the “stop” button on my Garmin. I couldn’t bare to look at the time. A mylar blanket was quickly draped around my shoulders, much like a queen’s cape. As I shuffled through the finish gate, I ducked my head as a finisher’s medal is placed around my neck.
The step that takes me from the street to the curb is physically painful, but not nearly as painful as my disappointment. I force myself to keep walking; I just want to go home, take a shower, and forget about the day. I make my way to a table stacked high with t-shirts, receive my finisher’s shirt, and wind my way through the park. The lawn is trampled, and there is mud everywhere.
Exhausted runners stand in line at the food tent. But the sight of the cookies, and the smell of the roast beef sandwiches turns my stomach, and I briefly wonder if I’ll make it through the area without throwing up. I reluctantly grab a bottle of water. I search for my husband so he can take me home, and see him hurrying over to me.
At the last minute, I have him take a picture of me, with my t-shirt and medal.
It has now been over two months since the marathon. And I’ve been waiting. I know that all stories worth sharing have some kind of moral or lesson learned. So I’ve been waiting for that moral or lesson to be revealed to me.
But I’m not really sure there is one. I mean sure, one could dig deep and say when I was faced with adversity, and I wanted to quit, I didn’t. I fought through the pain and finished. But I’m not really feeling that.
Or maybe the lesson I need to learn is that this was just one race, and it doesn’t define me as a runner, or as a person.
Or maybe there isn’t a lesson to be learned.
Or, maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the end of the story. So for now, I’ll just add this:
and keep it all in perspective.