A few days ago, I ran in what was my sixth official race...and the fourth time that I have done this particular local event here in my hometown.
This year, however, was the first time that I did not run the half-marathon event. Instead, I ran the two-person relay with my friend, Gina. This was due to a variety of reasons including an injury (mine), not loving the current course, gearing up for another half mara in a few weeks in Vegas, etc. But, none of these reasons could keep us from participating in the race in some way and the relay was the best of both worlds.
Yet...somehow it felt a bit like cheating -- knowing we have done the the full 13.1 before, but chose this time to halve that distance. However, as relay participants, we got all the swag associated with the event, got to share the road with thousands of other runners -- some competitive, some walkers, and even some friends and family. It was too good to pass up.
So, once again, a group of us were out there excited, cold and nervous at the meet-up point -- snapping pics, stretching and running off to the porta-potties every few minutes. For some, it was the first time (and that's always exciting -- to be that person and to watch that person soak it all in), and for others it was a bit more "old hat."
However, for me, even though I don't exactly get the same sort of butterflies that come from "the unknown" of the race, I still get that thrill shot of adrenaline as I find my corral and cue up my play list and work through my final stretching routine.
The cry of joy that goes up from the mass of people when the gun goes off is indescribable. I've been in such large groups of runners before that we've literally walked for several minutes until there was enough space to break into a jog -- usually before you actually hit the start line and your shoe chip starts to mark your time.
That Sunday, I was solo at the start line -- being in a different corral than my walker friends and my faster runner friends. That was okay. I have learned over my "career" as a runner, that being on my own is alright...and actually many times, it's preferable when it's a performance situation.
Because for me, once that gun goes off and the adrenaline courses through a runner's body, it's natural to shoot out of that start gate and burn the first two miles at a faster than normal clip. But when you have 13.1 to run, the subsequent 11.1 miles after those speedy first two can be pretty tough. And when you run with other people, you can often find yourself running their pace and find yourself in the same situation -- out of breath and hurting.
So, I've learned to reign in that adrenaline and pace myself. And if that means that I have to pull back and run my pace alone, that's what I do. It's what experience has taught me.
I run my own race.
When I'm out there on the course, it's me...well, against me. And most often, I'm my toughest competitor, my very own loud-mouth angry coach, and my worst critic.
You see, we runners are quick to make allowance for other runners...to be supportive...to encourage prudence when dealing with injuries, and to remind others that's more about the process than the official finish time.
But when it comes to ourselves, we rarely allow for the same amount of grace.
Last year, I'll just be completely honest and say I went a little crazy. Our church had formed an official team to train and run in last year's version of this race. It was going to be My Year. I was neither pregnant (like the first season), nor post-partum (like the second), and I was actually down to a pretty decent fighting weight. I found that I was faster and stronger than ever before and getting more so every week.
You see, we runners are always concerned about our time. It's how we judge our performance and our progress. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having a method of measuring your achievement. However, for me (and for a few others), the desire to be better, faster, stronger led to a downward spiral of injury, mental and emotional drama and trauma and in the end -- running in a race that was both painful to the body and to the spirit.
When I crossed that finish line last year -- limping and almost ready to cry at the pain in my shin (I would find out later that I had a stress fracture in my tibia) -- I felt defeated and not really victorious. I counted the cost of what I didn't achieve -- what had been so promising and shimmering in front of me only weeks before had turned into a distant fantasy.
And yes, that lasted for awhile (and lingers some still), but when you meet up with your other teammates and swap stories and clink finisher's medals and snap photos, you kinda get it.
It's about finishing what you started.
You may not finish the way you had hoped. You may not finish "well," but we finish.
I've seen runners cross the line and then fall over like a ton of bricks and get hauled off to the medical tent -- or worse to the hospital. I've seen runners cross the line with all sorts of tape, braces, sleeves and more just to get them to a banner that says, "The Finish Line."
I've also seen runners passed out on the sidelines or limping and weeping as they push their body to do what their mind is determining.
It's completely crazy.
But, it's also completely amazing and inspiring.
Crazy injury stuff aside, I've never been more astounded at the human spirit and yes, my own sheer will when it comes to overcoming pain and discomfort.
There are so many things in this life we cannot (and can never) control. Half the time I cannot even seem to control my hand cramming junk food in my mouth. So, it pleases me to no end that I can compel my 38-year-old body to bounce up and down in a forward motion for miles and miles and miles until I tell it to stop.
And I think this is the crux of it...why we find it so hard to stop, quit, not cross that final line.
We find that we crave being able to command movement, excellence, grit, determination, endurance, one more mile....
I know all of that...I have felt all of that...I feel all of that....
...that Sunday as the gun went off and the cry went up from the crowd (which I joined in), it became so much more. I felt...alive! Unstoppable. Blessed. Inspired. Determined.
Every shape, size, nationality, age and ability was out in force and it was a sea of beauty. I wanted to laugh out loud for the wonder of it all.
And when I turned a corner as U2's, Beautiful Day started to play and I started down the gentle slope down Friant Ave towards the yellowed foothills and marveled at cottony white clouds on a bruised sky that would later bring more rain, I felt it.
And as the first competitive runner came racing back on the opposite side of the street (me at mile 3, him probably mile 10), I let all of that competition stuff go. I had myriad thoughts assailing me in that moment,
"I am alive!
I'm out here.
I'm a part of something bigger.
I am running.
I am a runner."
It's these moments that you hold on to when a few miles later, you hit that wall of exhaustion and your GU or Shot Bloks don't seem to be kicking in and you want to just lay down and sleep for days.
Running and training for these various race events has made me stronger in every way possible.
My body is stronger for it -- my quads have steel rods in them...no really!
My mind is stronger -- knowing I can force my body to do what it rebels against
My spirit is stronger -- I've had some "Come to Jesus" moments out there on the road you wouldn't believe
But it's so much more than all of that.
It's training for my very soul.
Because now I know...it's not about getting that medal (although nice) or getting that "money shot" finisher's photo, or even necessarily crossing that line.
It's lacing up those shoes day in and day out and especially when I don't want to. It's running that extra bit when my lungs tell me they can't go another step. It's soldiering on when the pain comes, and yes, it's taking a much-needed break when a time of rest is needed.
But all runners know that when they cannot run, they dream of running. They see people running on the street and they get envious. They cannot wait to get out there and run again.
Because we have a purpose.
We have a goal.
We have a prize in mind.
And the majority of the time, the prize is the process.
That's why I love these verses written by the Apostle Paul from Philippians 3:
Pressing toward the Goal
12I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. 13No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.
Through running I feel like I know a bit more about how to do this...to forget last season and start fresh with this one. To "press on" when everything in me but that tiny voice in my soul screams for me to stop.
Because it's like this...
So, yes, when my feet protest every step, when my iPod runs out of battery in the midst of my power song during that last mile, after I've run out of water and most of my sanity....
...I keep going.
And I run my own race.