6 Life Lessons I Learned From Running Marathons
I have been running my entire adult life. I ran my way from my first marriage, back into college, and right into a divorce. I ran my way into graduate school and by the time I finished, I’d run in at least twelve states, the District of Columbia, the US Virgin Islands and Canada. I ran my way through my first couple of jobs, and a second marriage and divorce. At that point I estimate I’d run in another eleven states and six other countries. Not until I entered my first race, 10 years ago, did I consider myself a “real” runner. Read on to the see the lessons I’ve learned and how you can apply them to your life.
Lesson 1. Don’t sell yourself short.
If you run, you’re a runner. You don’t have to wait for the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to be something. If you write, you’re a writer. If you get all A’s, you’re an excellent student. If you tell the truth, you’re an honest person. Once you name something, it becomes more real and meaningful. It helps you do things you never thought possible.
One night during my training, I dreamt I forgot my running shoes. I started thinking about packing extra clothing and shoes for the marathon. It’s not like I ever needed a second pair of shoes for any race I’d ever run. Yet suddenly I expected a wardrobe malfunction. For the first time I made a packing list which calmed me down.
Lesson 2. Honor your inner obsessive.
I realized I was developing that weird obsessiveness that most athletes and high performers have. They engage in what many call rituals, though I prefer the term routines, which makes them seem less like preparation for an exorcism and more like getting ready for work. You get up, turn on NPR, make coffee, inhale some, shower, etc. It’s your normal, non-eccentric morning routine. For the marathon, I established epic eating and hydrating routines. Routines, lists and schedules help us get it done. If you find some that work, stick with them.
Nine weeks before the big day, I started calling it “my” marathon. Around that time I perused the marathon website and printed out the course. I began to tell people, “I’m running a marathon in September.” I bought my plane ticket and reserved a hotel room at the marathon rate. I did not pay the marathon fee until three weeks later. Finally, I was owning it and could really engage in the necessary mental preparation.
Lesson 3. Commit to your goal wholeheartedly.
Your commitment to your goal will keep you sane under adverse conditions. In addition to my day job, there were a lot of other things going on while I was running 35-50 miles a week to train. When I was doing my training runs, nothing else mattered. It’s the same whether you’re writing a book, studying for your law boards or starting a new business. Committing completely to your goal will keep you focused.
One Saturday I agreed to run with a buddy who was unexpectedly available. I’d gone to a yoga class the previous night, something I don’t normally do before a long run. Because I live in a humid, subtropical clime, in summer I have to amp up my hydration the day before a long run; I hadn’t done that nor had I eaten enough carbs or protein. My buddy brought a much taller, faster male buddy. So I ran harder than I’d planned, even though I was going to run six miles farther than they were. I was pretty wasted by the end, because running at someone else’s pace was not part of the plan.
Lesson 4. Make a plan and stick to it.
After I set my goal and committed to it, I paid a coach to design a training program for me, given my very strong desire to both finish and avoid injury. Following that plan only made sense. Athletes pass up parties with booze (if they’re smart), knowing the toll it will take on their endurance and hydration for days. When you’re working on a huge project at work, you can’t veer off into something else that looks interesting and still meet your deadline. If you give presentations or teach from notes, you don’t decide one day that you’ll just wing it. I needed the intention to stick to my plan, even if it meant a lot of solo runs, in order to prepare for the marathon and emerge unscathed.
Driving home from the half-marathon I ran for training, the rains, which had been present all week, returned. I was so pleased to have had a rain-free run that the pelting rain didn’t bother me in the least. I was also delighted about the opportunity to stop for an excellent breakfast at one of my favorite Atlanta restaurants. At the full marathon, the porta potty line was so long I had time to make a couple of friends. The start time was rapidly approaching and I was the only one running the full marathon, so my new friends let me cut ahead of them. They wished me luck, as did the many runners I encountered during my training runs. All of these small positives felt great, and helped offset my doubts and worries, suggesting the next lesson.
Lesson 5. Be mindful, be your best self, and enjoy the little things.
Talking to people and being present for them in that moment is part of the supportive experience of being in the running community, or any community. No matter how challenging the goal you’re working toward, try to make the space to enjoy the small things that give you pleasure. These things all create inner space which, like flow, gives you that extra energy to feel joyful and to get where you’re going.
On marathon day, I experienced a couple of obstacles. I made the mistake of messing with my watch after the gun went off. I wound up turning the thing off, had trouble turning it back on and was dangerously close to tears, worrying that I would not be able to pace myself without it. Then there was the wall: that feeling you’ve reached the point of no return, that you cannot take another step, read another article, study another minute or make another call. I had to rely on my training which means doing the things I’d done in the past to get the job done. It’s like giving a talk when your power point isn’t working. You have to dig deep to pull it out.
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