The first half of the New Jersey Marathon began with a crisp pace and a sound feeling of confidence, as I mentioned in my prior blog entry. This aura of confidence, however, began to weaken as the half marathon point arrived.
As I crossed the mile 14 marker, I began to feel the energy oozing from my legs. It felt as if the car I was driving sprung a rather substantial leak in the gas tank, and there I was behind the wheel watching the fuel gauge go from full to empty. I’m no physiological mechanic; I don’t have the know-how to repair the leak in my fuel storage. As the driver of this damaged vehicle, all I could do was cross my fingers and hope that I had enough unleaded in the well to get me to my destination.
When the realization hit me between miles 14 and 15 that the fuel was running out fast, I really went into full Watch Warrior mode. I began the inward Mental Math: current pace per mile, number of miles left, the possible need to mix in running and walking toward the end, the cramping I was beginning to suffer in my calves, and the one variable that always comes into play during any 26.2 mile race I run: The Tool Factor.
I began inwardly talking to myself, attempting to figure out what pace I needed to maintain in order to finish in 5 hours….or 5:15….or 5:20….
Me (spoken inwardly – I think): “I’m between miles 16 and 17 right now. Three hours and five minutes down. OK – let’s get to mile 20 by 3:50. So I need to maintain a pace of…”
The Tool (never missing an opportunity to make a difficult situation even more unmanageable): “….HEY! What the heck are you doing? Seriously – you’re attempting math while you’re running? HA…HA…HA…”
(That laugh. That horrible, shrieking laugh that courses up my spine and turns a grin into a frown. That tiny 4-inch Tool sounded like a cross between Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear and the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Just like nails on a chalkboard, the sarcastic laughter echoed in my head. It made the math feel like Calculus.)
Me: “…so hit mile 20 by 3:50 gives me 70 minutes for the final….”
As I continued to attempt to work out the numbers in my head, The Tool decided to begin singing show tunes, just to screw with my focus…
The Tool: “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day….”
Me: “…..mile 20….gives me….an hour to get the last 10k done? Wait….no….”
The Tool (the singing only getting louder and more annoying in my ears): “How do ya solve a problem like Maria!”
Me: “…wait. I got this. I can hold an 11 minute pace. What am I running at now?”
The Tool: “DEAR OFFICER CRUPKEY…CRUP YOU!”
Who would have ever thought that the lyrics from West Side Story would EVER come into play during a marathon? Well..they did. And The Tool was able to turn Tony Award-winning music into the equivalent of mental waterboarding. The Tool had broken me with the most unexpected tactic: the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Steven Sondheim. Unreal. As much as I hated the little 4-inch schmuck – I had to give him credit for creativity. By mile 18, I was broken.
Broken. It’s a horrible-sounding word, isn’t it? I’ve heard the term in running a few times – just enough to fear it. Let me describe what the feeling of being broken is like.
Picture yourself running a marathon. It’s a perfect day weather-wise. You’ve trained well, so your legs are ready. You know the pace per mile that you are comfortable with. You’ve properly fueled and you’re well hydrated. All systems are go. The gun sounds. Off you go. Alongside you are a couple of people that seem to have the same pace as you. You don’t feel like running alone, so you link up with them and begin chatting as you log your miles. By mile 10 you realize “WOW! I’m 6 minutes ahead of my schedule! AWESOME!” Now you’re half way home, and you realize again “WOW! I just PR’d the half marathon by 9 full minutes!” Life is goooood, right? Well…MAYBE. Now you’re 16 miles into the race, when you realize that your breathing is becoming a bit more difficult to keep under control. The breaths are coming harder and faster than you’d like. And your legs. Hmmm. They are beginning to feel a little squishy. (That’s a term I just made up. Yes. Squishy legs – meaning the juice that you had in your legs at the beginning of this endeavor have been drained by the faster-than-planned pace that you pushed for the past 2-3 hours). Now your body sends the messages to your brain:
Lungs: “Hey – this was easier in training runs. Why the heck is it so difficult today?”
Legs: “Lactic acid sucks. That’s just an FYI.”
Shoulders: “I’ve been swinging these arms back and forth for the past 3 hours. When the heck is my coffee break?”
Your brain hears all these messages coming in, loud and clear. All it wants to do is shut all these complaining body parts up. The brain is like a librarian – all he wants is QUIET. So what does the brain do? He starts contemplating the possible ways to get what he wants: SILENCE. This is where the first phase of the marathon mind game comes into play: the negative thoughts cascade through the runner’s head in order to make the pain – the noise – stop.
“Look – at that tree over there, begin walking.”
“This hurts. You should have begun walking at that tree back there. Now – see that manhole cover? That’s where you’ll stop running.”
“Look. You got to listen to me. I’m your brain. STOP RUNNING OR ELSE.”
You fight off these negative messages and press on, knowing that you are pushing limits that you never confronted before. The messages get stronger.
“Look – you have to go to work tomorrow. Ease up.”
“There will be other Sundays. Shut it down. Now.”
…and then, there is that moment that the brain tosses out that one reasonable-sounding suggestion which, when combined with the pain you currently are experiencing, sounds too good to ignore:
“OK – just walk for a minute. Catch your breath. Slow down. Gather yourself. Right…..now.”
And you listen. You stop running at your current pace and begin to walk – just for a moment. You don’t realize it yet – but you are now broken. And it’s an incredibly difficult thing to recover from being broken. At that moment, you made the race much more difficult for yourself.
Once you’re broken, the ability to recover and keep fighting against the road becomes the only challenge that matters. The importance of obtaining a personal record loses its luster. I know. That’s what always happens to me. And here – in New Jersey – it happened once more.
I struggled through the next 3-4 miles, hitting mile 21 at approximately four hours and a couple of minutes. At this point in the race, I was running on vapors. And then….in front of me…like a mirage…
There he was.
As a mater of fact – 2 Elvii.
Dressed in white jump suits and rocking the huge Vegas glasses, two identical Elvii appeared in front of me. I thought I was hallucinating. So I did the only reasonable thing when faced with this sort of thing….
Me: “Long live the King!!!!”
Elvii (in unison): “…The King loves ya baby!”
You ever see one of those movies where the hero sweeps in at the last moment to save the day and foil the villain’s evil plans? Well that’s the only way I can properly describe this moment. The Tool suddenly disappeared from my shoulder and the pain that I felt in my legs took a back seat to this scene.
I spent the final 5-6 miles in a slow yet incredibly fun waddle with the King(s). Every car that went by honked. Every spectator cheered for the Elvii – and the energy was just the magic elixir I required. The three of us laughed constantly as the final miles went by. I have absolutely no idea what my time was – and I really didn’t care. The pain was forgotten. Running the last 5 miles with two Elvis impersonators was absolutely hysterical. I crossed the finish line with them, wished them well and thanked them for a race that I won’t soon forget.
My mom and my daughter were waiting for me at the finish line. I placed the medal around my daughter’s neck, and told her just how much I loved her, and how proud I was of her. Then I reminded her of one important thing: there is no challenge you cannot overcome. Sometimes it just takes sheer will. Sometimes it takes tons of preparation and dedication. But you have everything you need within you to conquer any challenge you face, as long as you do not surrender to your fears. All it takes is all you’ve got.
There is nothing sweeter in this world than getting a spontaneous hug from your kid. It’s like taking a shot of pure adrenaline.
During the ride home, I thought about the day. I started strong. I felt great. I lost my momentum and appeared to burn out early. I fought the road for as long as I could before I broke. Even though the course broke me, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. And then: The Elvii. I may not have been fast today – but I fought hard, and The Tool lost this round.
Two marathons in a week. I was fried. I was elated. I felt beaten up, yet stronger than ever. Five down. Just seven more to go. Almost half way there.
If you’d like some information on The Dream Team Project or would like to make a donation to their amazing cause, please stop by the website: www.wdwradio.com/the-dream-team-project I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I really believe in what The Dream Team Project stands for. It raises money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, helping to grant the wishes of children suffering from life-threatening illnesses. Being s former wish-granter for the NYC Chapter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, I can tell you first-hand just how much of an impact this organization makes in the lives of children. Please consider donating to this worthy cause. Thanks!
…and if you’d like a bit more information on the WDW Radio Running Team, please check out the Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/WDW-Radio-Running-Team/163606410344409