Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Half the marathon, all the fun

As late as Saturday evening, I still didn’t feel certain that I could run 13 uninterrupted miles, even though it was less than twelve hours until the start time of the first half-marathon for which I’d ever registered.

I was fairly confident. I’d set my sights on a half-marathon back in November, and for the past eight months, I’d been doing weekly runs of 10-12 miles, along with daily runs of about 2-4 miles. I was within spitting distance of that 13.1-mile mark; I just had never actually done the entire distance.

“The problem,” I told my friend Nicole, herself a distance runner who only recently started competing in half-marathons, “is that when I finish these ten- or eleven-mile runs, I always feel okay. But I never feel like, ‘Gee, I really feel like going another mile or two. Or three.’ I’m just really glad it’s done.”

Nicole assured me I needn’t worry. “You just take your longest comfortable distance,” she told me. “Then you add another mile for the confidence that wearing a race bib gives you, and another mile on top of that for the boost from the spectators.” If she was right, that would put be right up close to the 13.1-mile mark, and knowing it was an oceanside course made me think that by 12.5 miles, I’d be able to see the finish line. Surely once I could see it, I could reach it.

All of this sounded plausible to me. Sure, I could probably run 13.1 miles. Probably. But I couldn’t possibly know for sure until I tried.

So on Sunday morning, I tried, and I’m very happy to say I succeeded. I didn’t run it fast or particularly skillfully. In fact, out of a field of 2,189 runners, I came in 2,007. “I prefer to think of it as 182 runners still behind me when I finished,” I told my sister.

But even as I said it, I knew that was the wrong attitude. It shouldn’t matter that there were nearly 200 people who ran the course slower than I did. It shouldn’t even matter that there was anyone who ran the course slower than I did. It should matter only that I finished.

And even that, as I often remind myself, doesn’t matter all that much in the greater picture. Running may be good for you physically, but it’s also, to some degree, frivolous. I’ve maintained a daily running streak of more than 2,500 days – next month I’ll hit the seven-year mark – but as I often say when people congratulate me for that, there are far more worthwhile things I could try to do every day.

Yet even frivolity may have its purpose. I’ve run only about a half-dozen races in my life – a mix of 5k’s, 10k’s, and five-milers until Sunday's longer route – and one thing each race has in common is that once it begins, I feel a sense of liberation from all other cares. For the duration of the time I’m running, I give myself permission to think only about the run. Not work assignments; not family issues; not national or international political conflict. Just putting one foot in front of another, that most primal of actions.

Sunday was no exception; it just lasted longer. For more than two hours – okay, I’ll admit it: two hours and 39 minutes – running was all that mattered. Yes, that’s frivolous, but it’s also healing. The rest was waiting for me. I had plenty of opportunities on Monday to catch up on work and family and national headlines. Sunday morning, it was just me and the race course. And the blue sky and the sun. And the cheering spectators. And the sparkling ocean. And all the oxygen I needed, in the air around me every time I breathed in.

As the race ended, I almost wished I wasn’t quite at the finish line yet. Miles 9 through 12 had become a little bit arduous, but the final mile melted away. I almost felt like I hadn’t savored it quite enough before it ended.

Frivolous. Yes, that’s true. But also magnificent. And I was so very happy to have reached this personal goal.

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