Thursday, June 3, 2010

A few days later: reflections on marathoning

Have you seen the marathon video yet?

5 days later, here is how I feel.  My second marathon experience has pretty much sunk in.  I have let almost all of the bad memories go about how hard it was for me and replaced them with the afterglow of the accomplishment.  I'm actually left with mostly pride and good vibes from the whole experience.  This phenomena, of forgetting the pain, focusing on the glory, and revising my memories, inserting joy where there actually wasn't any, is something I've experienced both as a marathoner and a postpartum mama.

It's almost a cliche to talk about the "never again" mentality you have when getting to the end of a marathon, but I definitely had it.  One of the first things I was able to utter to Sam after I stopped crying was: "that wasn't any fun at all."  I could also nicely sum up the experience by borrowing the title of Heather Armstrong's autobiography:  It Sucked and Then I Cried.

But as it happens, while Sam was driving us home to Maine, I could feel everything shifting within the first hour.  I could barely walk, and I was still sticky and salty with sweat, and my hair was all disheveled and I had cryptic writing and numbers on my arms, a blistered toe and a bruised back.  I looked like I had really been through something traumatic. I had.  And yet, with my medal around my neck (Sam actually had to gently suggest that I take it off before I limped into the gas station), I could feel the worst moments being deleted from my mind.  I said:  "It's happening:  I'm starting to feel like that was all actually a lot of fun after all."

What is that all about?

It was fun because I beat it.  If I had run 26.1 miles and collapsed, it would not have been fun.  But I crossed over.  I guess I have to dip back into the cliche jar here:   I had gone to my lowest physical and mental state only to climb out and survive.  I had been to the dark side, and come back into the light.

It never occurred to me that I would find my 2nd marathon harder in many ways than my first.   My experience in Vermont was more similar to what other people had told me to expect on my first marathon, that it would be really, really hard, and then I would hit a huge wall and wish for death after mile 20.  Ah, yes.  The death wish!  So that's what people were talking about.

I feel like I need to walk a fine line here.  In some ways, I want to tell you how bad I really felt during those last few miles, how bleak the world looked, and what kind of primal breathing and moaning I was doing.   On the other hand, if I describe it in language that is too strong, I risk sounding overdramatic at best and psychotic at worst when I tell you that I indeed will run another marathon.  If I could get a fresh pair of legs, I would even be willing to try it again this weekend.

I want to do it again and feel differently. I'm not a fast runner and I never will be, but I'm in the best shape of my life, and I trained perfectly for this marathon, and still, it felt harder than it should have.  I want people to look at me running in a marathon and think:  "Look how strong she is!"  Instead, I looked mostly unhappy.  Don't try to tell me otherwise.  I've seen the photos.  Do you wonder why I would work so hard at something that I'm not actually good at?  I honestly don't have an answer for you.   It's not a reason, it's a feeling, a need even.  Right now, you are either nodding along with me or you are not.   

A friend and former marathoner sent me this quote in an email that gave me some good perspective.

"No, I don't like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don't like work, - no man does - but I like what is in the work, - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not for others -what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means." Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Mantras (the numbers are the miles that had hills)

I survived the last hour of that marathon for myself, not for others, and I can't find the words to explain how it felt.  Except for Suzanne, who was in a similar state that I was in, so I don't think she actually saw me anyway, I was alone out there.  I can show you the video of me soldiering by at mile 26, and I can show you my medal (would you like to see my medal?), but I can't adequately tell you what it means to me to be sitting here today after having been there. 

All I have wanted to do since getting home is debrief and process and look at photos and talk to my girls.  I didn't think I could feel closer to my running friends.  We have such camaraderie; in my mind, we have taken the whole "we can do anything together" connection to a new level.  The fact of the matter is, if these girls showed up at my house tomorrow and said:  "We all decided that we are going to get our PhDs in Organic Chemistry... you in?"  I'd just shrug my shoulders and roll up my sleeves and ask them when we would start.   I would register for any race with them.  Yes, I would even jump off a bridge if we somehow agreed that would be a good idea.   We're already set to climb Mt. Katahdin and run 4 more races together over the next 4 months.  There has been talk of other marathons, relays, long-distance trail runs and triathlons in our future.    Just to highlight my point:  When I asked Christine if she wanted to do a triathlon with me, she said:  "I'm terrified of water.  It gives me full on panic attacks, and I can't swim at all.  But yes!  I'll do it!"  Their attitudes are contagious, and together we are absolutely greater than the sum of our parts. 

Finally, I remembered several small anecdotes from the race that I left out of my marathon report.

1.  I had just read a blurb in Runner's World about a guy who loves to run near lakes or oceans because he draws strength and energy from the water.  I had that in mind on marathon day, and I was waiting for my first glimpse of the lake so I could feel the surge of power.  When I came onto the bike path at mile 12, I was struggling, and I saw the lake.  Nothing.  I turned my head toward the water and thought:  "Well?  Come on Lake Champlain!  What've you got for me?"  I got nothing, but it was pretty.

2.  At the top of mile 18?  (or 19?  20?)  There was a woman with a sign that said:  "NO MORE HILLS!"  I looked right at her and said:  "Do you promise?"  She said earnestly:  "I promise."  If I had either a personality or enough energy to lift my arms, I would have hugged her. 

3.   I saw one woman at mile 14 taken away by medics in a golf cart.  I saw three more people being carted off the course on stretchers and put into ambulances between miles 18 and 21.

4. I saw a woman running with a shirt that said on the back:  "Good morning, fellow nut jobs!"  I just laughed and said:  "Good morning!" 

5.  Being in a marathon crowd for the weekend actually really messes with your perspective on what an accomplishment it is to run 26.2 miles.  I know that only 1% of the population will ever try a marathon, but at races, I look around at everyone and no one seems to feel like I do.  I feel like a little kid who got in over my head, wiping tears and wishing for my mommy.   I know enough to know that running a marathon isn't easy for anyone, but standing around in a park with 4000 smiling runners who all just did what I thought was nearly impossible is just kind of odd.

My body feels great.  I'm so busy at work this week that I might not have had time to run anyway, but I do feel ready to get back out there and stretch my legs a bit.  I don't know what's next in terms of training, but I will definitely let you know. 

Thank you all so much for the comments, emails, love and support.  I have loved sharing this whole journey with you, and writing about it has forced me and allowed me to understand it all so much more clearly.  That is to say, I still don't know exactly why I run marathons, but you guys seem to think it is a worthwhile thing to do.  So, bless you.


Jennifer said...

Ok, that post REALLY made me cry. I can't stop. You put into words so eloquently how I feel. I love you girls truly so much, and can't wait for our next adventure together.

SoulSister said...

Thanks for sharing this experience so honestly and openly! I think so many passages and challenges in life contain great brightness and deep shadows...and being there for both is REAL. XOXOX

Sarah said...

EMILIE! You are SO AWESOME~~~~!! I am thrilled for you and so excited for your impression of #2.
I am going to repost something I put on your FB page a few weeks back because I TOTALLY KNOW HOW YOU FEEL (about it sucked and i cried.) And I totally know how you feel about wanting to do it again. It's like a disease :)
SO here you go:
" I have been thinking about your blog post about battling mental demons while long distance running and I have some personal insights that I literally just realized while driving. My recap: I think the mental demons are the whole reason WHY I long distance run. I mean, I love the being in great shape thing, but I actually look forward to the time during the run when my mind starts to break down, when i feel like I can't do it anymore, etc etc. I know that my body can pretty much for sure get through anything, but the mind, well. That's another story. If i didn't get to that place, though, i wouldn't have the satisfaction and the gratitude for coming to the other side. And that feeling- the "coming out the other side of a hard mental/physical breakdown" feeling is indescribable joy. (Incidentally, this is also why I love having babies with no drugs or interventions).Call me a masochist, but it's why I run.!!! PS. It's also the reason I cry at the finish line. X0"

LOVE YOU SO MUCH Em. You are amazing and a total inspiration.

Ali said...

So well written! I feel very similarly about running and the drive to run. It's nice to know others feel the same way.

Cat said...

The book Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is a real eye opener about the human spirit. His point, I thought, was that the hopeful/meaning-filled mind makes a huge difference in whether the body will continue to endure the unbelievable. Then, once past the stress you feel such elation it is equally unbelievable. Highly recommend that book! Beautiful, tear-jerker, and yes, centered around his experience at a concentration camp and the psychology of it.

Kirsten said...

My favorite blog post about running ever.

Jess said...

I haven't even begun training for my marathon yet (it's in November) but my first Half is this Sunday. And I feel like everything you've written sums up long runs pretty nicely. A lot of it is mental. A lot of it is painful. And sometimes I believe I'm a masochist for putting myself through even 13.1 miles. But it has to be done. I have to prove to myself, for myself, that I can do it.

I am SO proud of you for finishing. I cried while watching your video, mostly because I feel like I can relate with the mental game, with the wanting to give up (but not), with the god my legs are dying, my whole body wants to collapse kind of feeling.

I am super, SUPER proud of you. You did it.

TB Rambo said...

Nice post! I'm laughing as when you were describing the things you'd seen on the course, I saw (and said) the same things. The "good morning, nutjobs" tshirts were the best and what I needed when I saw them towards the end of the race.

Congratulations on your 2nd marathon finish. Now...about that PhD in Chemistry...haha!

Truman Soloist said...

...running 26.2 miles is right at the very edge of what is possible for me physically and mentally.

Food for thought: