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Things I've Learned from Running

This past Sunday I completed my 10th half marathon. I expected it to be an unpleasant slogfest due to the fact that my training runs had been inconsistent and, in the two weeks leading up to race, significantly slowed by a poorly timed but well-intentioned blood donation. (Apparently, it takes 1-3 weeks for your blood volume to get back to normal. #themoreyouknow #thelessyouwanttodiewhenyourun).

Luckily, my red blood cells made a strong comeback AND the weather cooperated. While the previous week had seen temperatures in the nineties and humidity--actually I can’t even talk about the humidity because it was too traumatic--Sunday was a cool 55 degrees and dry. On the flat course, I was able to get my second fastest half marathon time of 2:04:50. (My Personal Record is 2:02:44)

I have learned a lot from running that applies to other areas of my life, and I thought I’d try to put all these lessons in one place for the benefit of...mostly me so I can remember them. Here goes:

1. Run YOUR race- The first thing I learned when I decided to take up running is that I had been trying to go too fast. I had been trying to keep up with a running partner that could run much faster than I could. Whatever it says about my running partner, as soon as I started running by myself and paying attention to how my body felt, I was much more comfortable. Even now, when the last few miles of a race feel really terrible, I can trace it back to starting too fast. My best races have actually been my slowest starts, when I blocked out everyone around me and just focused on finding MY groove, whether that meant lagging behind my pace group for a couple miles or jumping ahead when I started to lock into my pace.

2. Pay attention to your body- My four months of marathon training were physically the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Something hurt every day. I remember the toughest run in my training plan was a 16-mile long run that was supposed to be 1 mile slow, 12 miles steady, and then the last 3 miles as fast as I could go. I think it took me a half hour after that run before my breathing got back to normal.

But the best part of marathon training was what I learned about what my body could do, and how much more aware I became of my physical well-being. The long runs where I wanted to throw up taught me what dehydration feels like. Once I got used to what it feels like to be fully hydrated all the time, I realized how much of my life I had been living at least slightly dehydrated. Now, any time I’m feeling a little sluggish, unfocused, or generally blah, the first thing I do is gulp 16 ounces of water. The runs that were inexplicably hard taught me the importance of sleep. I remember my neighbor, who had also done some distance running, gave me the advice that when a run feels bad and you don’t know why, it might be just a general need for sleep. There were some days when my long runs were followed by an even longer nap, and since then I’ve never begrudged myself an afternoon snooze if I felt like I needed it. I may never actually win a race, but I am now a champion napper.

3. Get to the uncomfortable place, and STAY THERE- Even though I have been running for several years now, a lot of the time it still doesn’t feel good. But that’s because I’m usually trying to get faster and stronger. And whether it is a tempo run or the last fast interval, if I’m training well there is a point that I get to where part of my brain says, “I want to stop.” And then I have two choices: 1. Stop. 2. Grow. I know from experience that the place where I want to stop is the place that will make me stronger and faster. So the longer I can stay in that uncomfortable place, the stronger and faster I am getting. That’s not to say I never stop. After 10 half marathons, I have a pretty good sense of how much I can push my body. Sometimes I’m extra tired from a long week, or I didn’t hydrate well, or something just hurts. But as long as some added factor isn’t preventing me from working, I know it’s just a decision I have to make to last as long as I can in that uncomfortable place if I want to get better. And the added bonus is that, every time I keep going when I really want to stop, my brain learns that I can do hard things. So the next time I am confronted with an obstacle, whether physical or mental, I know from experience that I am capable of surmounting it.

4. You can always go another mile and a half- When I am on a long run, I spend a lot of time doing mental math. “Let’s see, I just got to the 3.5 mile mark, and I’m doing 10 miles today, so that means I just have to repeat what I just did one more time, then do… six-sevenths of that again, and I’ll be done! Or something.” When the miles feel really long, I just keep dividing it into smaller increments. “Get to the stop sign. Now get to the intersection. To that tree. Hydrant. Crosswalk. Gas station. Turn the corner. Down the hill. Home.” On that torturous 16-mile training run, I was literally counting my steps in groups of 7 for the last half hour. After I developed this habit of subdividing in my marathon training, I found myself unconsciously, or sometimes consciously, applying it to other tasks like writing report cards (“Just gotta get to the letter M” “Just gotta finish third period classes”), cleaning the bathroom (“this square foot, now this square foot”), and whatever else I had to do that was tedious or unpleasant. And slowly but surely, bit by bit, the job gets done. In all my races, I’ve always been able to sprint the last quarter mile to the finish. Because I know I can do that, I also know I can at least jog the quarter mile before that. So that means I always have a half mile left in the tank. And if I have a half mile left, I can probably do a mile. And to get to that point, all I have to do is run a half mile…

5. Cheer for strangers- I once read somewhere that if you need your faith in humanity restored, you should go to the finish line of a marathon. Of course, it’s exciting when the winners cross, but a much more powerful scene takes place 3, 4, even 5 hours later when the last finishers are crossing, willed forward by their personal goals to be sure, but also the crowd of strangers that has stayed to cheer them on. Whenever I am in a race and starting to fade, nothing picks me up like a stranger on the side of the road calling out encouragement. There are jokes in the running community about how everything that race spectators tell you is a lie: “You’re looking strong,” “You’re doing great,” “You’re almost there,” when your feet are barely lifting off the ground, your lungs are burning, and you are most definitely NOT almost there. But I get teary-eyed just the same when a random stranger claps his hands, smiles at me, and tells me I’m awesome. Imagine if we all treated strangers like they are in the middle of a marathon and all they need to keep going is a little smile and encouragement from us?

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