One day I will run 26.2 miles and the time across the clock will read that or faster. I know that day will be soon. Not because that time is close to my personal best, but because I know what I am capable of. I know it in my body.
Last weekend I started a race, and 13.1 miles later the clock read 3:10:56. Average pace 14:34. Fifth to last in my age group. A personal worst. Or at least that’s what the record shows.
The half marathon has always been difficult for me. Too fast and too far. I hit a plateau with the half a few months ago, but since then I have thrown down two 10-mile races averaging my goal pace for the half. I know it in my body what half marathon time I am capable of.
The gun went off. I ran past the first mile marker. But I wasn’t in control. The control I had learned on the track—the one place this season that has pushed me to run faster than ever—was nowhere to be found. A pace that I felt comfortable in, that I knew all too well, took my breath away. It took my stride away. By mile 6, I was running one minute per mile slower than my goal pace.
At mile 7, I walked off the course. I took off my bib and used a spectator’s phone to call my coach. My second DNF.
My first DNF was in the marathon two years ago, due to a physical injury. The symptoms that led me to walk off the course, however, were exactly the same. Shortness of breath, heavy feet, legs that felt like bricks, profuse sweating all within the first few miles. The injury itself happened two weeks before the race, but I started anyway hoping that it wasn’t true.
But you can’t cheat running. It’s too honest. It knows how to expose your weaknesses and leave you completely vulnerable.
This DNF was not a physical injury. It was a mental one. The injury itself happened a few weeks before the race, but I started anyway hoping that it wasn’t true. I have spent the last few weeks of training ignoring the signs that I am getting faster and instead dwelling on all the reasons why I shouldn’t be.
With my crumpled bib in my hand, I could barely even jog the six miles back toward the starting line. My mental injury was lingering. My mind and my heart were still throbbing. It is not at all surprising that I couldn’t even hold my recovery run pace over the last six miles. I was completely vulnerable.
When I got to my coach at mile 12, we went to just past mile 25 of the full marathon course to watch one of our teammates. I sat on the curb continuing to feel sorry for myself. As my teammate came through, he and another one of my teammates jumped in to run with her. I’m not sure why, but as I saw the three of them, my instincts kicked in. I knew I had to run to her. I jumped off the curb and joined them.
My coach and other teammate peeled off toward the finish line chute, but I knew I had to stay with her. I knew I had to run with her all the way to the finish. Not in my body, but in my mind. And then something ironic happened. For the first time that morning, my feet were light, and my breathing was normal. I was in control.
And with the crumpled bib still in my hand, I finally crossed the finish line for the half in 3:10:56.
After she finished, my teammate had to be taken to the medical tent. She thanked me for staying with her. And then she said something to me that many people this season who have been trying to help with my mental injury have already said: “I have never in my life known someone who can be standing still and then bust out at the speed like you do. It’s unbelievable. You need to trust yourself because you’re amazing.”
And this time I heard it. I was so proud of myself for the way I handled my first DNF. Because I didn’t let my body control my mind. The problem was that I tried to redeem myself with personal records. And with that declaration, my body once again started controlling my mind. If the run was slow, I was weak. If the run was fast, I was strong.
The problem with that line of thinking is that it puts the run in charge. Not me. The problem is that there are so many reasons I shouldn’t run fast. I don’t have the genetics, I didn’t grow up playing sports or being athletic, I have terrible form and mechanics, and I don’t exactly have the body composition that makes me look like a “runner.” I shouldn’t run fast, but I do. And when I asked my coach why, he said it was because of my mind.
This mental injury has also reared its ugly head in graduate school. I have been ignoring the signs that I am becoming a scholar and that my work is becoming something I can truly be proud of. Instead, I am dwelling on the things that I do not do and focusing only on the material aspects that dictate success. A few days before this half marathon, I taught a class for which I am the teaching assistant. I left the session feeling like it was a disaster.
Yet the next day, my professor sent me an e-mail telling me how impressed he was. Furthermore, even if I did look solely at the material aspects of my experience in graduate school, I could still claim success. But I don’t claim it. Instead, I let my mental injury control my perspective. I let the run control the parts of my mind outside of running. There are many reasons I shouldn’t do well in graduate school. But I do.
I ran a 3:10 half marathon because I have been ignoring what I am capable of. In my mind. I stopped working out the only muscle that can make any pace feel comfortable.
But I love the full marathon distance. You can’t cheat running, and you definitely can’t cheat 26.2 miles. Focus, self-control, determination, perseverance, and training are the only things that can pace a marathon. Those things I can do. Because they have little to do with speed and everything to do with my mind. The speed is a small bonus.
That is why I love being in a doctoral program. Focus, self-control, determination, perseverance, and training are the only things that can finish a dissertation. Those things I can do. Because they have little to do with intelligence and everything to do with my mind.
This personal worst just gave me more ammunition for a full marathon. Something to fuel the last three miles when my legs are burning. Something to beat the crap out of whatever doubt tries to get in my mind on race day. Because it will. But this time I’m ready to battle it for 26.2 miles. And for less time than 3:10:56. I know what I’m capable of. I know it in my mind, and I know that is all I need.