Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Twists and Turns - Life Lessons from Running My First Marathon - The St. Jude Memphis

"You must expect great things from yourself before you do them." ~ Michael Jordan
Nothing anyone tells you will prepare you for the grueling experience that is your first marathon. Nothing anyone tells you will prepare you for the elation you feel as you near, then cross the finish line of your first marathon. And yet, without the cautions, encouragements and support from friends, family and your running community the journey would not be as sweet, or even attainable in many cases.

The journey of anyone's first marathon begins in that instant when one dreams of accomplishing the impossible, of breaking through crazy unheard-of barriers, when a normally sane person embraces a childlike optimism born from a refusal to believe in impossibilities.

I am lucky enough to be part of one of those running communities mentioned above - Fleet Feet, St. Louis. There are kick-off meetings for these races, for the half marathon and marathon training seasons. The vibe in these meetings is electric, the people in the room ebullient with only possibilities.
"The optimism and positivity in this room is infectious," I thought to myself as I entered the venue where the most recent gathering was being held. "These people actually think they can run 26.2 miles!"
And many of them had broken the barrier, multiple times. For many of us, this would be our first foray into the unknown.

For me, the journey began halfway through our graduation run almost a year prior, a training experience for half-marathoners, a 12-mile get it in your head you can do this (13.1 miles) run from St. Louis Forest Park to the Gateway Arch and back. There we all were, my half-marathon training group at Broadway and Market Street in downtown St. Louis when one of the more childlike optimistic among us said, "Ya know, I think we can run a marathon!"

Remember, we were just north (or west) of 6 miles at that point. Suddenly my running partners turned into lemmings, jumping off the "we can do a marathon" cliff one by one in a mindless euphoric agreement to run 20 more miles than we had run that day, and 13 more miles than many of had ever run in our lifetimes.

My reaction was, "Wait a minute Baba Looey. I think it's the endorphins kicking in. We feel great because we've only run six miles which is 20 less than a marathon, plus another point-2. You might want to think about this."

Eventually, obviously, I was coerced into sipping, then drinking and soon during the next training session face down in the Kool-Aid I would become a marathoner-in-training.

This is not the time nor the place to discuss the training involved in attaining the only two goals for my journey - getting to the start line uninjured and making it, triumphantly, joyously (hopefully) to the finish line. I will tell you it was the longest training season of all my Fleet Feet compadres. The race itself took place on December 3rd. The training began in June. By the time I had arrived at my assigned starting corral for the Memphis St. Jude most of my training partners had run their races weeks or months before. Many of them, graciously, had continued a modified training schedule on our long Saturday runs to motivate the approximately ten of us who had chosen the last race of the season as our goal race. Which leads me to my first lesson learned.

You can do this marathon thing alone, I know people have done it, but I wouldn't advise or suggest it. You'll be missing a massive chunk of the magic.

Each Saturday morning I would gather with approximately 200 of my closest friends for the week's long, slow run. Teams would convene as designated according to experience, ability and goals after a thorough vetting via a questionnaire by the running club. The phrase we're all in this together is a poor descriptor of the vibe that develops within a collection of amateur athletes who start by running eight, then nine, then ten, then 12, 15 miles and more along with three or four training runs during the course of the week. We became truly a band of brothers and sisters, we happy few. One is seldom on his or her game each week, injuries come and go, you're either feeling it or you're not. It was the team, the community that kept me going each week. the encouragement from each feeding the ups and downs of the other. Negative thoughts were quickly squelched with humor ("Always with the negative waves Moriarty."), or a more direct quiet approach of ignoring the messenger and moving along to enjoy the day, the scenery, the camaraderie. Soon any negative-thinking Moriarty would get the message.

Running in packs also has its advantages of experience. Not all of us were running our first rodeo. Some of my team had run, two, three, ten, 25, even 35 marathons - there is a cadre of marathoners who are striving to run a marathon in each state. If, and only if you admit others just might know more than you about training, and if you learn from their experience, will you make it to the start line without your hips, knees and ankles feeling as though they had been massaged by a jackhammer.

Marathon training teaches humilité. We would often run "out and backs" when the course or trail we were traversing didn't allow us enough mileage to do the full ten, 15 or 21 miles without repeating some of the course. One morning as we approached the turn around I noticed the advanced, elite marathoners passing us, their sleek forms zipping by like trains passing on adjacent tracks.

As we proceeded I quipped, "We're getting closer to the half way point."

"How can you tell?" asked one of my running buddies.

"The runners are beginning to look more and more like me!"


The race, the marathon, is a microcosm of life.

Take the race one mile at a time is what I had been told. Don't look at what mile 22 might bring at mile 7. I didn't fully grasp what this meant exactly until I would feel each tweak, each twinge come and go, and realized I COULD go on. As I passed each of the thousands of the Memphians out on the course to cheer us along our way I realized there was a world of people who had my back, who felt what I was doing was important (The last I had heard this race raised almost $10 million for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.) Near mile 5 is the inspiration point for the Memphis St. Jude Marathon as we passed through the hospital complex, where as many of the doctors, nurses and administrators as the hospital could spare and as many of the families, and patients who were able and well enough to brave the piercing December cold and rain on this day were stationed. This jolt of hope and courage I knew would take me through the next ten or 5 or 10 miles (if the emotions I felt didn't drop me to my knees) but I would need to find something more to dig deep into to carry me through.

This I did by letting go of control. I just decided I couldn't do this alone. I decided to let the race take me, to embrace the journey.

During months of training I had learned to run my race, but also to draw upon the strength of my teammates and other runners. At mile 11 or so the marathon group parted company with those of our team who were there to run the half. They had already run their marathon, or marathons for some, that year. The 12 or so teammates had dwindled to 6. We from St. Louis were spread 1, 2, 3, 1, sometimes within sight of each other, sometimes not, the two consisting of me and my running partner who each of us had run our first half marathon together some 18 months before. During the course of the last 15 miles the conversations between us went something like this:
"You go ahead, I'm done."
"No, you go ahead."
"You got this. Go on."
Finally I said, "We're finishing this together Tom."

At some point during a marathon, even with teammates, friends, family members by your side you need a miracle to get you through. And you need to seek, see and embrace the miracles. This is as true in life as it is in marathons. The miracles can come at any stage along the way and you have to hold fast to these, let them carry you through the early, mid and late stages.

My first miracle came in the form of an angel from Alaska.

As we parted company from our half marathoners a woman named Mary joined Tom and me. She was exuberant, mildly talkative and pulled us as we pushed her through the last 15 miles. This woman from the great northland whom we had never met and and I may never see again kept us going and laughing. She would pull up "lame" with just a quarter mile to go.
"You're not quitting on us now!" I yelled at her as I grabbed her arm.
She would finish true to form a few steps ahead of us.

I've already mentioned the Memphians who braved a steady rain for hours - I had thought it was just a drizzle. These angels would appear on their lawns, outside their churches, out of nowhere in sparsely populated areas along the route. The citizens of Memphis embrace St. Jude, the race weekend, what the hospital does for the kids and what it means to the city. And on that day they were embracing me. [They also have a sick sense of humor. At around the 21-22 mile mark they started saying, "You're almost there." ... Very funny!!!!]

Angels manifested themselves in the form of our Fleet Feet half marathon teammates who had changed into dry clothes to cheer us on not once, but three times along the way. One of them would appear miraculously 6 or 7 times along the way. I lost count at some point.

But the true miracle happened at the mile 20 water station. I knew I had only 6.2 miles to go and was concentrating on "staying in" mile 20 and not even looking, yet, to mile 21. As I approached the volunteers to decide if I needed water, or Gatorade, or both, I couldn't believe my eyes.

"Katie!" I screamed. Through the mist I could see our daughter 100 yards ahead, holding a cup of water, beaming her beaming smile. She and her fiancé had travelled the 380 miles from Springfield Illinois just to be at that mile marker to cheer us on.

"I'm gonna cry," I said.

"Don't cry dad," she laughed. "Keep running!"
The next week she called me to make sure I knew I wasn't hallucinating, imagining her at mile 20, taking an imaginary cup of water from an imaginary person - the girl has her dad's sense of humor I am happy to say.
I would tell her that her appearance got me to mile 24. It actually had a lot to do with pulling through the entire way along the 26.2 .

Crossing the finish line was everything I thought it would be and more. Many of the runners did victory dances, jumps, even pirouettes. Me, my celebration was a simple, small double fist pump - I had accomplished what months before I thought to be impossible. I wasn't the first to finish, or even close to being at the the top of my age bracket, but I had left it all on the field. Tom and I had accomplished a goal of negative splits, which means getting a bit faster in pace as the day would progress. It took us a little under five and a half hours to finish.

The marathon became everything I had been told it would be, but nothing I could have been prepared for. I had to experience it for myself, live it and look back on each mile afterward in disbelief. Running 26.2 miles has become an integral, integrated part of my life journey to breathe, trust, laugh, seek, hope, love and see all that life has to offer.

I know it's a bit deep and weepy but for me, that five and one-half hours on the streets of Memphis Tennessee encapsulated every bit of what I believe life can be if optimism overcomes negativity, if what is possible becomes reality rather than an unrealized dream.

My spring training begins this weekend. My goal race for May is the Flying Pig marathon in Porkopolis - Cincinnati. I am now totally immersed in the Kool-Aid and couldn't be happier. Maybe I'll see you there.

And as we say on the road ... you got this!

. . . keep coming back
"Only when your consciousness is totally focused on the moment you are in can you receive whatever gift, lesson or delight that moment has to offer." ~ Barbara de Angelis