Friday, December 20, 2019

Mile by Mile: Life Lessons Learned Through Marathon Running

On Thanksgiving morning, I participated in my run club’s Tofurky Trot.  That’s right, Tofurky.  Last year, there was a discussion on the various area turkey trots (you know, those Thanksgiving morning community road races), and one of the vegans in the group joked that she had a Tofurky run at her house.  In typical Libertyville Running Club tradition, it happened.  Twice:

Anyway, I was running (well, trotting because we were chatting too much to consider ourselves racing) with two friends.  I’m working on growing my chemistry tutoring business, and the question of how that was going…..lead to AP exams and college choices and life in general and how we can apply our perspective about running to life. 


When you run a major marathon, you have to focus on your race.  The only thing that matters is when the chip on your shoe or race bib hits the mats, so worrying about how fast the people around you are going is anethma.  They might be pacing for a faster race.  You might see them in five miles, hitting a wall because they went out too fast.  They might have shown up late and ended up starting in the back instead of the super-speedy corral they were assigned.  You might have passed them earlier in the race because they stopped to use a porta potty.  Basically, you have no clue what their chip and pacing is saying, so there is no point in comparing yourself to them.

That’s true in life.  We spend so much of high school and college worrying about gpa and test scores and class rank, comparing ourselves to our peers.  My dentist had a son in my high school class, and when I would go for a cleaning, I would always be with the dental hygienist who also had a son in my class.  Both parents were very interested in my class rank, my ACT, what colleges I was interested in attending, and so on.  Their sons were great guys, but I’m a member of Mensa genius who was so smart as a 3 year old that I started kindergarten a year early *and* was in the gifted program *and* by high school, so ambitious about college that I fought for every extra credit point and A+.  I felt pressure, but it was so awkward to be in the dentist’s chair, having to point out that I’m a better student than their sons.  Especially when both of them had a lot of gifts that have made them successful today.  Just not being in the top 1% of their high school graduating class. 

With those comparisons, we stop running our life, our “race,” and try to keep up with everyone else.  However, when you ask someone 20 years later, they often regret the decisions that were influenced by external pressures, whether they be academic or romantic or financial.  Be you.  Run your own race.  Do your thing the way you need to do it.

That 2015 Chicago was looong!

Unless you are Eliud Kipchoge, a marathon is long.  Three hours is considered a “fast” time, and some people will be out there for seven or eight hours.  A lot can happen in an hour, never mind eight, and one of the mantras in marathon running is “just put one foot ahead of the other.”  I definitely had to say that to myself throughout both Chicago and New York this year, as I didn’t know how long my body would last. 

When I came home, I realized I would have to apply that mantra to life.  I had quit my job.  I had broken up with my boyfriend of four years.  My house was a cacophony of stuff my ex had accumulated, stressing me to the point where my brain couldn’t figure out how to do things like make dinner or brush my teeth without an anxiety attack.  The focus on the trip and the marathon had taken some of the pressure off these things, but now I had to face reality.  A giant, scary, overwhelming reality.

Instead of being caught up in the place I found myself, I just needed to put one foot ahead of the other.  I had to figure out what was stressing me out the most, what the smallest step I could take to alleviate that stress, and then accomplishing that step.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  It has been all about finding success in forward progress, no matter how small, and cherishing the stress relief associated with it. 

We get so caught up in not being “there” yet that instead of focusing on that next little step, we stop and quit.  Just keep moving forward.  Keep learning, growing, progressing, trying.  You are getting closer.


In the course of a race that lasts hours, even for the fastest in the world, a lot can happen.  The weather is often unpredictable and inconsistent.  The meal you ate the night before suddenly doesn’t agree with you.  The start is earlier or later than your normal training times, so you have to modify your nutrition plan.  You have to be able to roll with the punches and adjust, rather than pining over what didn’t go right.  That was my New York experience in a nutshell, having to make decisions and game plans on the fly as my body wasn’t reacting as I expected. 

There are days when you get up early and make a perfect bullet journal page….just to have something happen that causes it to fly out the window.  For me, that’s like setting up an ornate domino show, and having something knock the whole thing down before you get a chance finish the design.  I’m back to square one and the first domino.  I really have to stop, breathe, regroup, and figure out how to go forward now that the plan is gone. 

Life constantly doesn’t go as planned, and most of the time, we don’t get to start over again.  We get stuck at that point, not knowing how to get back on track to a rigid set of ideas and rules of what we want, rather than looking at where we are and retooling.  Be adaptable to changes, especially changes that are outside of your control.    


Running a marathon is an all-day, if not all-weekend event.  You have spent months thinking about this weekend, planning this weekend, purchasing items (and often travel) for this weekend, so it makes sense that there’s also a sense of anxiety that something won’t go as planned.  Even the most veteran marathon runners feel those nerves, and back in 2015, I let those nerves get the better of me in Chicago.  My head started to control my body, and my body started to shut down.  I did set an 8 min PR, but it would be three years until I would have the experience to quiet the nerves and crush Chicago.

There are plenty of people who let their nerves get in the way of success.  The college student so afraid of public speaking that they cannot give the presentation required for their degree.  The job seeker so afraid a job won’t be perfect enough that their non verbal behavior blows an interview.  The person who walks away instead of having a difficult conversation.  The woman at the bar who notices an attractive man, but is too nervous of making a fool of herself to approach him and say hello.    
We often think that our anxieties and nerves are a weakness to suppress, wallowing in self-pity over our failures.  Accept those nerves as part of being human.  Learn how to overcome them. 

Wait, there's something new here!

Another mantra of marathon running is “don’t change anything on race day.”  The idea is that if you figured out what worked in training, race day is not the time to try something new.  While yes, a major change on race day can cause a lot of problems, great runners are willing to take those risks in hopes of going beyond what they think they can do.  In New York, I tried compression socks for the first time on race day, and it probably was the smartest thing I could have done.  I also try to keep my nutrition plan flexible, risking that whatever is on course might not agree with me, over becoming overly dependent on a specific product schedule.

It’s the perfect metaphor for life.  Many people get stuck in this plan of how life should be that they fear the risks they could take to achieve greater goals.  We stay in jobs we don’t love, with people we don’t love, doing things we don’t love because it’s safe.  It’s easy.  It’s predictable.  We create a bubble around us where nothing is difficult or challenging or scary, to the point where they cannot tolerate anything that changes their universe.

However, that rigid adherence to what is planned and familiar keeps us from growing and improving, which comes from taking risks and failing.  The runners who are so quick to tell me they have every detail about their marathon planned are often the ones who struggle improving their time.  And in life, the people who stay in their comfortable bubble often ruminate about how they wish their lives were different, even as I see them actively reject anything unfamiliar.  Break your bubble.  Try new things.  Meet new people.  Challenge yourself.  Fail.  Learn from failure.  Grow. 


Finally, it’s not about one race.  Your first marathon is usually the most exciting.  Everything is new and different and adventurous.  Your time will be your personal best, since it is your first.  The process naturally gets you in shape, and you see your speed and endurance improve.  Your confidence builds, and you become ready to tackle greater things in your life.  (Did you see Brittany Runs a Marathon?)  Life is good!

That initial improvement comes from starting with nothing.  Eventually, you’ll plateau, have a setback, or fight injury.  Running isn’t fun.  You’re slower.  It hurts.  Your friends on Strava seem to be flying past you in their own quests to run PRs.  Many runners hit this point and quit, but the ones who figure out the challenge, make the changes, and reboot can go further and faster.
My largest challenge is my head.  I used to feel so slow that I would be bored to tears during training, and that would translate to going out too fast at the start of the race, to fight that boredom.  By mile 15, I was spent, walking, and even more slow and bored as the race could not go fast enough.  I decided to take a couple years off of racing marathons, but continuing with the training.  Slowly, I improved to the point where those 22 mile training runs seemed easy—and suddenly, so did my marathons.  I’ve gone from a consistent 5:30 finisher to a consistent 5 hour finisher, breaking 5 hours twice.  It took years, four years, of slow progress, setbacks, and challenges to get to this place.

I’m in the same spot in my life.  I know where I’m going, but it doesn’t seem to be moving fast enough to get there.  I feel like I’m plodding along, keeping my head afloat, and every ounce of forward momentum turns to a setback.  I know I’m being challenged, and I need to keep retooling and practicing and failing and learning and growing.  I need to accept that this process could take years, or even a decade, so I need to celebrate every step forward and overcome every setback.  Just like I believe I’m capable of being a faster marathoner, I am capable of living the life of my dreams.
We get so focused on success that we get demoralized and derailed by the first glimmer of imperfection, that first challenge or obstacle.  However, it’s the failure that causes improvement.  Don’t allow setbacks to hold you back.  Identify the roadblocks on your path and figure out how to overcome them.

Breakthrough, and first sub-5!

So runners, what say you?  What life lessons have you learned from running marathons, 5k’s or ultras?  What do you want to pass along to others?