Three years ago, I started running, but didn't really consider myself a "runner." I ran casually, just once or twice a week and didn't have any lofty goals like completing a marathon. I wasn't even thinking about doing a 5K—no thanks! Running challenged my body (it was hard) and my mind (it was boring). Yet somehow, I made myself get outside 3-4 days a week to run. In day, night, rain, shine, snow and heat, I hit the pavement and ran, pushing myself to do something that I actually kind of hated. It took a full year of mind-numbing torture before something clicked in my body and my brain and I began to actually enjoy myself. From there, I worked on going farther and faster. In my second year of running, I ran a 5K. Over the next few months, I slowly progressed and completed 10K (6.2 miles), 15K (9.3 miles), and 10.6-mile races. What I haven't told many people is that I set a new goal for myself in 2011 (my third year as a runner): to complete my first half marathon (13.1 miles).
Last weekend, I lined up with about dozens of SparkPeople members for the race in Pittsburgh. I had trained hard. I was physically ready. This was going to be easy.
Or so I thought. Saturday's race was the toughest course and most daunting physical challenge I've ever faced.
My body was physically prepared for the distance, as I had been training for months and had even run the full 13.1 miles a couple weeks prior without any problems. But on this 20-degree morning, I was hungry, slightly sleep deprived from traveling, and extremely nervous. I really like to push myself, and I had set an aggressive goal pace for this race. For me, it wasn't enough to just do the distance. I wanted to do the distance and do it well.
I can honestly say that only about the first 5 miles of that race were easy. The final eight miles were agonizing. Fatigue burned through my muscles with every step. The incline of the course was relentless and made me feel exhausted. I was not having fun. I was not enjoying any part of this. I began thinking to myself, "Why am I even doing this?" I wanted to stop. I wanted to walk. I wanted to quit. I didn't think I had it in me.
It's difficult to will yourself to do something that's terrifying or challenging. We've all faced challenges like that in many areas of our lives—maybe even in your own fitness or weight-loss program. We want to be the best, but we don't want to try and fall short. We have high expectations for ourselves and then beat ourselves up if we don't meet our aggressive goals. It's human nature to fear failure, run away from pain, and want to give up when things get tough.
In my mind, completing the race wasn't enough of an accomplishment. I would be a failure if I stopped to walk or if I didn't cross the finish under a certain time. How messed up is that line of thinking? Could I not be a "winner" just by training for and attempting a race that such a small amount of the population ever attempts? Could I not be successful if my body was so tired that I had to walk? Would I be any less of a runner if I ran slower?
I was about 3 miles from the finish when I stopped mentally beating myself up. I was still exhausted and the finish line seemed days away, but my outlook had changed. I allowed myself to let go. I gave myself permission to slow down and coast to the finish. I mentally prepared myself for NOT reaching my goal time, and reminded myself what an accomplishment it was to even finish, no matter how long it took.
As I approached the finish line, there were the other SparkPeople members cheering for me. I tried to give it all that I had left, even though I felt like I was barely moving. I finished, and to my delight, I actually met my goal time after all. I was happy about that, but what I was most pleased about was the fact that I never gave up. I was a long way out of my comfort zone, and that scared me. I didn't want to fail. What I learned is that you never fail when you try. You just have to try. There's honor in that, no matter what goal you're working toward.
A big shout out to all of the SparkPeople members who completed various 5K, 8.1-mile, 13.1-mile and even 30K distances along with me. Some walked, some ran, many completed their first race or their first race at a new distance. Congratulations to all who participated, and thanks to those who cheered me on—and stayed at the course (it was in the 20s!) to root for the last Sparkers to cross the finish. You all inspire me!
When was the last time you got out of your comfort zone? How do you keep yourself going when the going gets tough?