Last month I was in the Windy City for the Chicago Marathon. I probably don’t need to tell you that I was not a participant. I’m on record noting that if you ever see me running, I’m probably being chased by someone with an ax. No, I was there as part of the cheer squad for my dear friend Lori, who was running her eighth marathon at the age of 56. Yes, eighth. I’m not sure she’s actually human but more on that later.
I did recently complete a marathon of sorts – a figurative one – and I’m here to tell you that marathons are hard as hell. Mine began in January when I was fired from a job – scratch, calling – that I loved. Yeah, Happy New Year to me. My departure was manipulated by a toxic subordinate who didn’t like me being the boss of him. He was able to intimidate just enough people into believing his fiction was fact and that was that – 11 years obliterated without any opportunity to share my truth.
Some courses are harder than others.
My friend Lori knows this. She was a long distance runner in high school and in her 20’s she decided to run a marathon to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials. That plan was upended by a knee injury and surgery. But that was nothing compared to a colon cancer diagnosis at the age of 36. She had surgery and chemo and was back running about a week after she completed her treatments. And she’s never stopped.
I’m fascinated by the idea of someone choosing to do something so incredibly difficult so I recently “interviewed” Lori – peppering her with all of my questions about marathons in my search for understanding. Lori is a good sport in all manner of ways and I think she enjoyed the brief respite from her very big job as a controller at a local credit union. Oh yeah, Lori is really smart, too, in addition to being a very good runner.
Mostly, I just wanted to know why. As in why in the hell would you want to run a marathon? As much as I love sports, this is right up there with cricket and curling for one that I just do not get. The course is 26.2 miles – often including hills placed at truly sadistic locations – like really near the finish line. Sometimes you have to run in less than ideal conditions, too. Last year, Lori ran the Boston Marathon in a driving cold rain and 20 mph winds. Good times.
And let’s face it, humans really weren’t built to run that many miles and doing so can do some really nasty things to your body – cramping, bleeding and blisters to name a few – in places I never knew you could experience those things. Seriously, bleeding nipples is a thing for marathoners. I can’t even.
I certainly didn’t choose my marathon – most of us never do. I suppose if you live in this world long enough, you’re going to find yourself in at least a few major tests of endurance – divorce, illness and death to name a few. Having experienced all of the above, I can tell you that losing a job, while no walk in the park, is not in the same league as those beasts.
Lori told me it’s the challenge of pushing yourself, reaching your limit and then finding a way to go further that continues to inspire her to run. She explained that there’s a saying among marathoners that anyone can train to run the first 20 miles but it’s the last 6.2 that are really tough. I’ll have to take her word on that. She said that even on good days there are times when you don’t feel like you can make it and that’s when your mental toughness carries you. “Mentally you have to prepare yourself to run through the pain,” she said.
I get that. Several times in the past nine months, I felt like I had reached my limit. I couldn’t take “it” anymore – the anger, the disappointment, the unfairness of what happened to me. I felt overwhelmed with the idea of starting over. I wanted to just quit – again, not literally – but to wave the metaphorical white flag.
I can’t say that I ran through my pain. Some days I felt like a zombie just stumbling through my day. But eventually, I did start to breathe through my pain. I don’t meditate – I always mean to start – but I did make a conscious decision to not fight my pain anymore. I knew I needed to fully embrace it before I could move on.
I reread a lot of wisdom from the brilliant Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, teacher and author. Chodron is all about using what seems like poison as medicine to discover our inner strength and transform ourselves. Yes, it’s a more Zen version of the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Here’s a snippet of the Gospel according to Pema:
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Lori told me that she breaks a marathon into four six-mile sections so that it’s more manageable. That leaves 2.2 miles remaining to navigate and then she breaks that down in terms of time instead of distance – i.e. 15 minutes to go, 5 minutes to go and so on. She said that’s when you start having conversations in your head. You tell yourself things like “keep your head up” and “relax” with the key being to keep your thoughts positive and encouraging. I smiled when she said, “If you can’t tell, running a marathon can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one.” Those runners with the bleeding nipples would probably disagree.
I was beginning to feel like I was listening to Yoda, Marathon Master. And I was wishing I had had this conversation with Lori several months ago but marathons are solitary journeys for the most part. This I know for certain.
Lori is a classic introvert (understatement) so you won’t find her chatting during a race but I asked her if the spectators affect her at all. She explained that while you might not always be conscious of everything going on around you, you do become aware of people cheering and that can really give you a lift during rough patches. This happened to her a few years ago during the New York Marathon when she was coming off the bridge from Queens and entering Manhattan on 1st Avenue. She recalled, “There is no noise on the bridge but the sound of your feet hitting the pavement and then you come off the bridge and there are thousands of people cheering. It’s pretty amazing.”
I know I was lifted on some tough days by the kindness of many folks who reached out to me in surprising ways – a text, an email, a phone call or the best – an old school card and note. And sometimes these “cheers” came from delightfully unexpected sources – like Jeri, an editor at my local newspaper who hired me to write a monthly column several years ago.
He sent me a silly card of a beagle riding a bike with tassels dangling from the handlebars, blowing in the wind. He told me I was like the beagle in the photo – with some wondrous ways to go in this world. He made me laugh and got me over a hill or two.
My course didn’t have a finite ending so I had to navigate it day by day. Unlike Lori’s marathons, the first part was the hardest for me. I was so angry and disappointed in some people who I had respected and even loved. Those were wounds that did not heal quickly. The middle of my journey was about acceptance and slowly beginning to look forward instead of the rear view mirror. And this last stretch has been about fully embracing a unique opportunity to truly seek the creative life that I have longed for.
Lori says that when she gets near the end of a marathon, she just tries to relax and “stop all the chatter that is going on in your brain.” She tries to go further into herself and push through to the finish line.
I hear less and less of that chatter in my brain every day and on my best days I can hear the lovely Mary Oliver poem that my pal Jeri reminded me of in his note way back in that dark month of March. It’s called Phillip’s Birthday.
to a friend that I care for deeply,
something that I loved.
It was only a small
extremely shapely bone
that came from the ear
of a whale.
It hurt a little
to give it away.
The next morning
I went out, as usual,
and there, in the harbor,
was a swan.
I don’t know
what he or she was doing there,
but the beauty of it
was a gift.
Do you see what I mean?
You give and you are given.
I may never understand marathons but I get this equation down to my bone marrow.
You give and you are given.
And as my inspiring friend Lori knows so well, you just keep going.