Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pushing through the Pain.....Why I run marathons

I hate this picture....

There is certainly nothing flattering about it. It was taken by a race photographer hidden somewhere along the marathon course. At first glance I dismissed it as yet another bad picture of me and normally I would have deleted it. Who needs another unflattering pictures of themselves, right? I certainly don't need proof that my hips are wider than I'd like them to be or that my "girls" jiggle when I run or that my hair turns into a nappy, matted fro every time I run long distances. So why am I posting this picture to my blog?

I'm posting it because when I looked closer at this picture I noticed something familiar about the expression on my face. I'd seen this face before. When I searched my memory it didn't take long for me to realize that I made this same face when I was looking at images of me while in childbirth. It's then that I realized..... this is my face of pain.

Pain has a lot to do with why I run marathons. Not because I enjoy pain but because I enjoy the feeling of conquering pain and silencing that voice inside me that would say "I can't" and crying out in response, "Yes I can..... and I will!" The day before this marathon I bought a new running shirt at the health and fitness expo in Seattle. On the front it says "marathon girl" on the back it says: "Marathon- a concept by which we measure pain". Pain is what it's all about and how I deal with pain.
I talk to myself when I run. Not all the time, but when I'm alone and when I'm hurting and it starts to get hard, I give myself pep talks. Frequently I'll utter phrases under my breath as I'm grunting up a hill or finishing the last few miles of a long training run, "you go girl", "faster", "you can do it", "don't stop, keep going." It's so cheesy, I know, but somehow it makes me feel stronger and keeps me going.

So why do I run marathons? It wasn't until this last one that I really started pondering this question. Halfway through the course there was a race volunteer directing the runners to the right or left depending on which race they were running (the half or the full). Standing on a platform he chimed down cheerfully to the oncoming runners, "Half Marathoners to the left, crazy people to the right!" So, I thought, am I crazy for doing this? And can there really be that many crazy people in the world? There were thousands of people running alongside me in this race alone.

I don't know if marathon runners are crazy or not and I don't know why other people keep coming back to do it again and again. One marathon a year is enough for me. But still, why do I go through the weeks of training, pay good money and put my body through that unnatural physical exertion? I can't speak for anyone else but I want to blog about why I do it.

Usually when people ask me why I run marathons I tell them I do it to stay in shape. Which is partially true. In recent years I've found an increased loss of motivation to work out and stay in shape. Not because I don't love the feeling I get when I exercise but because it's become harder to find the time to exercise amidst all the other things going on in my day. I'm also just so dang tired in the morning that sleeping in frequently seems like the more desirable alternative. I didn't use to be like this. I was the type person that was at the gym by 5am working out for 1-2 hours M-F rarely missing a day. I was the type that loathed the thought of a friend or coworker asking me to be their "workout partner". They'll only slow me down if I let them run with me. This was my selfish (early twenties) train of thought. Well, that was all before I had kids. As I started having babies, nursing, being pregnant over and over again I started losing that personal motivation to get my butt out of bed and go for a run. Part of that may have something to do with getting up several times a night to nurse, but still that's not an excuse. I remember clearly the day my milk came in just days after giving birth to my first child. I'd prided myself on eating so healthy throughout my pregnancy. Not one bite of chocolate, cookies, ice-cream-Nothing. I think I had a total of 6 TCBY frozen yogurts during my whole pregnancy and that was only because it was Aaron and I's tradition to go there after our childbirth class on Tuesday nights. So naturally, I thought that the weight I'd gained during my pregnancy would just slide right off after that baby was born. Well, it didn't. And on that day (after my milk had come in and I was totally engorged) I decided to be brave and get some of my pre-pregnancy clothes out and try them on. What was I thinking? The first thing I grabbed were my baggy overalls (yeah, that was the style back then). To my naive surprise I found that the snap at the top was not even coming close to reaching the button at the other end. I was so confused. I loosened the strap, attached the button then went to gaze upon my reflection in my full length mirror. I took one look at myself and how ridiculous I looked and I started to cry. That was the first time I remember looking in the mirror and actually crying because of the way that I looked. This was the beginning of many cries over the next 5 years that saw me through 4 pregnancies and 4 subsequent post pregnancy body's with all their glorious lumps, bumps and ridiculously large utters (uh, I mean breasts). After every birth it was the same thing. Sunday mornings before church was like a closet explosion. Everything I owned ended up on my bed. Only after trying it on, looking in the mirror, groaning, crying and self-loathing. Nothing fit. Nothing looked good. "How can anything flatter a body that is as disproportioned as this!" I moaned. Soon I found myself getting really depressed that I wasn't like my friend (and many others) who just seemed to bounce right back into their skinny jeans only weeks after having a baby.
I realized then that it was going to take me longer and I'd have to work harder if I wanted to be happy with what I saw in the mirror. But I also learned (4 painful times) to work hard, keep going and don't give up. Very slowly I climbed back out of that self loathing pit of despair, lost the weight and returned each time (before getting pregnant again) to a place where (after 24 hours of fasting on Sunday evening) I could go in the bathroom, suck in my stomach, look in the mirror and be moderately happy with my shape. So, back to the marathon thing. I was and still am so tired all the time. I would much rather choose to sleep in than to get up and work out. I think anyone can relate to that. But when I sign up for races and pay money in advance to run marathons I find the motivation to do it when it's hard because now I have something to work out for. Lifting weights, running & biking is done with a purpose-to get my body ready for the race. So after that lengthy explanation-that's one reason why I do it. To give purpose to my workouts. Because now that I'm a Mom, I NEED that motivation.

Okay, that was a really a long rant but I'm still glad I put that in there. Now I can blab about the bigger more important reason for why I do it.

I really run marathons to prove something to myself. I do it to prove to myself that I can do hard things. To feel pain and yet push myself past that pain to meet my personal goals. It doesn't usually start hitting me until the last few miles. My body begins to break down, everything starts to hurt. The fatigue starts setting in along with the self doubt. Can I make my goal?..... Will I finish in time?..... I've worked so hard to give up......Don't stop, keep can do it. Every time I start a marathon I see it as a metaphor for my life. The experience has many parallels to mortality and I reflect upon them again and again fueling my life's ambitions with every breath, every step along that 26.2 mile course. And then when I reach the end and run past that finish line knowing I've done my best I get that amazing feeling that's almost euphoric. Some people call it a "runners high". And when you've experienced it, you just know it. It's a feeling of exhilaration, peace and contentment. I don't just get it on marathons. I get it after any long, hard run where I've really pushed myself and met my goal. You're so happy to be done and that feeling of exhaustion mixed with accomplishment rushes through your body and fills you with peace.

In this last marathon I had a surprisingly spiritual experience that moved me to tears. At first I was reluctant to share this because I feel like I'll never be able to adequately describe the experience without making it seem trivial. It was a so powerful and moved me so emotionally that I had to force myself to get a grip and breath because I was starting to hyperventilate and thought I might pass out. It all started around mile 11. We were just entering the tunnel on Interstate-90 just after crossing the floating bridge. The tunnel was dark and dimly lit with those orange artificial lights. The sea of people was beginning to thin out by now but still there were runners surrounding you everywhere. As we moved through the long tunnel the sound in the air changed. The soft patter of hundreds of footsteps echoed softly in everyone's ears. Then people began cheering, hooting and hollering as they ran. It was so exciting to be there to hear our voices echo as our cheers rang out through the tunnel. Then after a mile or so people quieted down and we all fell back into our quiet running rhythm. Not long after that I could hear the faint and distant sound of a band playing U2-like music. The more we ran the closer the sound became and we all instinctively knew that the band was playing music at the end of the tunnel. I knew that we just had to make it to the music and we could get out of this dark, hot, humid place. It was in that moment that I was overcome with the spirit. My heart started to pound in my chest and I had this overwhelming feeling that this was like mortality. Coming here to earth, running the race of life. We all want to finish, we all want to get to the end. That music we hear at the end of the tunnel is so sweet and we hear the echo ringing out closer and closer as we progress further and further into the tunnel. There were no water stops in the tunnel, it was every man for himself. We were all tired, hot, and pushing ourselves to keep moving. In that moment I felt such a strength of spirit come over me. This is like life, I thought. Don't give up, keep going, be victorious against the pain and darkness. Fueled with this thought I started running faster and harder. It was like an adrenaline rush. Then as I was running past people I was suddenly consumed with a deep concern and love for my fellow runners, my spiritual brothers and sisters in this race of life. I didn't just want to get to the end, I wanted to help them and wished I could somehow, some way hold their hand and pull them along. Running nearly shoulder to shoulder I felt a pain in my heart as I realized that some of them won't make it. They'll get discouraged and give up. They'll walk or stop to sit down along the edge. They'll fall to the wayside as they watch the other runners pass them by. Don't they hear the music? I thought. Listen! We're almost there. I cried for them and I prayed in my heart for all those people in life that give up and can't go on. I want to help them, I don't want to leave them, I love them so much. I want to finish together. This is when I had to get a grip on myself because I was nearly sobbing as I ran.
And then when we finally could see the band, the other end of the tunnel came into view and our eyes were blinded by the sunlight that pierced the dark ugliness of that concrete tunnel. As I moved out of that tunnel and into the glorious sunlight the feeling slowly subsided and I was left with an experience that I know I'll never forget. It still moves me to tears as I reflect upon it now.

Running marathons is hard, and so is life. It requires a lot of preparation & training to run a good race and it takes a great deal of strength and perseverance to get to the end. One woman on the marathon had this written on the back of her shirt: "Courage to start and Faith to finish". I love that as it applies to so much more than running a race. I love running marathons because it reminds me again and again that I can overcome the hard things in my life. And testifies to me that the strength of your spirit can overcome the weakness in your flesh. The words of one of my favorite songs that I run to says...... "that, that don't kill me, can only make me stronger." I know this to be true. The trials and struggles we go through in life can only make us stronger, round out our rough edges and refine our spirits. But these struggles don't usually come easy. When I'm running and I see a hill ahead of me (and there are some seriously big ones out by my house) at first they seem so daunting, so intimidating. But as I begin I put my head down and focus on the pavement in front of me. I take small, quick steps and I keep going and don't stop. Not even when I get to the top. I keep going pushing through that pain, pacing myself to finish strong.

And when in a marathon I finish strong I have a smile on my face as I sprint past the cheering crowds and cross that finish line. A rush of euphoria fills my body and with it a sense of accomplishment knowing that I didn't just do it, but I did my best, and I did it well.