Good lord, I am so glad I decided to run the Army Ten Miler this morning. I’d signed up last spring in the midst of my training, before summer hit and killed my motivation to run.
I thought about withdrawing. In this economy I have this phobia — paranoia, really — that firms will google my name and see an embarrassing time and realize that I fail their high-speed thresholds.
Only this morning, when my alarm blared at six, did I decide to run. I made myself some black beans – figured I’d finish the run last, so any ambient wind propulsion wouldn’t bother anyone behind me – with salsa and dragged out my still-unsoiled running shoes. I was far from ready. But I was going.
This race represented a host of “firsts” for me. This was the first race I’d be running solo. For the first time, I complied w/ race rules and left my “prohibited” iPod at home. Suffice to say ten miles is more than my total miles run since June, and I decided to go for it after all only because I needed to get my butt kicked.
It worked. I metro-ed down to the Pentagon, ambled towards the starting line, and stood around vogueing in my Gators shirt. Indeed, the Gator Nation is everywhere; after a few minutes an older, fitter alum chatted me up and blessedly began the Theme Party portion of the morning.
The ATM Theme Party started the morning off right. What could be more refreshing at an exhausted moment than blurting out a “hooah” to keep your chin up? More hilarious than a series of “don’t ask, don’t tell” jokes as 30,000 runners shuffled boobs-to-back, packed like sardines through our nation’s capital? More satisfying eye candy than a 68% military turn-out, largely shirtless and gleaming despite the chill? I should have known this race would be a great one.
What made the ATM so satisfying was the fact that the “firsts” I experienced were different than the ones for which I’d been prepared. I typically plan to run with friends and tend to re-discover at the first hundred meters that I pace myself better alone than with a partner. Today I knew it would be impossible to find my friends, so I was braced to start alone. In fact, this turned out to be the very first race where I shared every step with a partner.
Similarly I braced myself for the wall I anticipated absent the hit of Johnny Cash I typically save for the ¾ mark. I worried I’d get bored and focus on the pain. Instead I found myself loving the various brass bands scattered throughout the course. My partner and I chatted for the entire race, a fantastic two-hour conversation. We sang my much-needed Johnny Cash together at the 8 mile mark, and then, to my delight, he mentioned that the Johnny Cash/June Carter union is his favorite relationship model.
Relationship models! A topic near and dear to my heart. I decided to run the race because there’s no quit in me, and here I am enjoying not only the swift kick in the pants I needed, but also an angel to keep me going and entertained while I clear my foggy head.
The race satisfied because it was pure psychology. I’ve been running short, sparse distances, but never practicing at psychological perseverance that frankly for me is the point of training. I run because it reminds me that optimism rests on framing the issue (“I love to run hills! Cold wind in my face is invigorating!”). It’s easy to quit. It’s harder to decide to go, and harder still to act on that decision. When I say I’m “out of shape” I don’t mean my calves have shrunk; I mean I’m rusty on practicing willpower.
This morning I ran with Scott for nine and three-quarter miles, and midway across the sunny Memorial Bridge I burst out: You go ahead, friend! Save yourself! I’ve hit a wall, and I’m done for the day! And my favorite older, fitter alum turns to me and sternly says: I have enjoyed this morning with you, Kat, but if you quit now and ruin my time I will be so ticked off.
So this was the lesson. You psyche yourself up for the doldrums in the middle, for the parts where it gets boring. But those are not the hard parts. The hard part comes when you lose track of the finish line — of the goal. When your faith slips for a moment in your own ability to finish. For a second that last quarter mile loomed larger in my mind than the previous nine and three-quarter miles, and I knew, on my untrained legs and back, that I could walk and not be ashamed.
And in fact that’s the point. You plan your race and race your plan. Everything, everything comes down to realizing that it’s as simple as putting mind over matter.
I ran – run, really – to clear my head. Halfway through the course I learned that it’s not about “clearing” – it’s as simple as: I need to put my head down, focus on the most urgent tasks first, finish my homework, and realize that everything will fall into place.
The world will keep turning whether or not I decide to run a race. There’s something oddly comforting about realizing that as one in a huge crowd, the difference between running or not running is entirely personal for me. It’s hard to jump off a cliff into a painful, humiliating ten-mile chute, but it was simple. Straightforward. Inspiring, to find this enormous, temporary, real community, and inspiring to find something to intensely personal for myself.
Every activity comes with a lesson; this morning’s run counted for many. But my takeaway goes little further than to reinforce that oft-repeated motto: mind over matter.
I realize that ten miles is no spectacular accomplishment. My brother, an ultramarathoner, delights in setting and shattering the bar for freshly-intense feats. Had I prepared mentally for the run I would likely have breezed through as a training run (and an expensive t-shirt!) on my way to the next distance.
Instead, this was an opportunity to probe my own perseverance. My physical strength was a nonstarter, so every step rested entirely on willpower. Today I needed Scott’s external pressure – and thank God it came! – to keep me on task. Having passed that assisted finish line, I recall that I can trust my feet and my brain. I appreciate the help, but I am freshly confident that I am strong enough. It was exciting to learn that I can do it.
I love that I found that series of deep, bracing breaths I needed. Hooah!