At 5:30 am last Sunday, my best friend Niki and I threw a jaunty wave at Mickey Mouse as he encouraged us to have a great run. Six hours and six minutes later, we limp-ran across the finish line of our first marathon, both burying our grimaces and tears behind exhausted joy at the promise of sturdy benches and waterfalls of Biofreeze for our aching muscles.
In the first weeks I trained for the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, I decided to conquer this latest challenge with aplomb. People on the internet spout rainbows and puppies about the meditative benefits of exercise, and just before I signed up, the brilliant guy behind The Oatmeal comics published a six-part comic entitled “The terrible and wonderful reasons I run long distances.” His comic prefaced my decision to run. The entire marathon plan sounded aces to me and I whiled away the low-mileage runs in those early weeks listening to the sound of my footsteps and waiting for the promised life-altering epiphanies.
Then my scheduled training runs were longer and enthusiasm for running a marathon wore thin—I berated myself into putting on my running shoes each day. The promised nirvana of meditative clarity eluded me and I regretted the commitment before every long run. I couldn’t let my friend down, so I continued, but for weeks the only delight I felt came during the brief periods of runners-euphoria just after a run.
In the early days of training, I knew it would be hard but I thought: I got this.
Months later, I adjusted my thought: Just cross the finish line.
Lance Armstrong finished his first marathon saying “That was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done.” Yep. Agreed. Holy crap, I agree. I asked myself why I agreed to do it in the first place since I am a reluctant runner at best (pretty much only in the face of imminent danger).
And I’ve had many, many (seriously—many) hours to come to a conclusion during my training runs. I ran for the same reason I left to travel back in 2008. And for the same reason I joined a 10-day silent Vipassana Meditation course.
I ran to push myself against a personal wall—”the wall” as it’s called and running—and force myself to the other side.
Travel memoirs speak to the transformative power of traveling, and back in 2008 when I was in a transition in my life, I thought, “That. I want that.” I was not a traveler before I left, so I knew a solo year on the road was a challenge, and I wanted to measure myself against this lofty ambition and see what came out the other side. Vipassana was a similar challenge—I had scarcely meditated a day in my life before I signed myself into a 10-day silent retreat that I likened to solitary confinement in the days after I finished it.
For most of us, life rarely forces us to test ourselves, we choose our physical challenges. Primo Levi wrote,
And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head…
Early last year, I shared how lost I felt after years on the road with no real plan going forward. I flirted with depression, family things had gone horribly the preceding fall, and my failures echoed loud in my head. An underlying decision in signing up for the marathon in July was to once again meet this wall, this strong resistance, and to remind myself that I am strong enough to come out on the other side of the down times, the sad times, and the failures.
And in the way of lessons, many hitched a ride in the months leading up to that 26.2 mile run (42.2 kilometers) to confront me on the other side of the finish line.
Looking back now, my favorite run was 17 miles spent running through crisp, late-fall sunshine in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It was the run I resisted most, I delayed the run two weeks because I just couldn’t fathom what I would do for five hours (it sounded terrible). But I surprised myself. I loved the process. I felt strong on the other side of it. I spent nearly five hours thinking about my footfalls and willing myself through the fatigue and shooting pains in my knee. It took four months of training to realize that the rainbows and puppies were a metaphor for the mental quieting that comes from running long distances. I like solitude and I’m content with my own company more than most people I know. It’s what’s made these years on the road successful. Give me a book, or even silent hours writing, and I’m happy. On those long runs, though, I discovered a new form of solitude. The meditative quality lied within the hours of escape—an absolute void—from the litany of thoughts we all cycle through: work, bills, health, travel, friends, life, family. Focus transforms into an elemental refrain of footfalls, breath, and focus on propelling forward, overcoming pain and fatigue, and finishing. Nothing else exists. Nothing else existed for me on that run.
The runners high was brief, though, and a good run did not magically ease everything after it. Running just existed in my life. I ran on days I hated it all, on rainy days, and days when I doubted my decision. I ran to uphold a promise to a friend. And on race day, I was proud of myself for showing up every single week for six months and pushing to reach this moment. I once again thought: I got this.
At mile 21 though, my emotions tanked and my body broke down. I wanted to quit. I begged my best friend to run ahead without me—I didn’t care if I made it, I just wanted to sit down and cry. Instead, Niki linked our arms, maintained our pace (we did a 3:1 run-walk pace the entire race) and we continued running. As we passed mile 25 (nearly six hours into the run), I turned to her, tear-stains still visible on my cheeks, and admitted that I would not have made it without her.
I don’t often ask for help. In fact I never do. It’s a personal thing, asking for help makes me uncomfortable. And perhaps another lesson in this marathon—if I’m going to read into it, and let’s read into it—is that no great things are achieved alone. I am still learning each day that it’s okay to lean on my friends. The test in this marathon was against myself: could I will through the fatigue, the pain, and the doubt to finish. Needing help did not make the achievement less, it made it sweeter on the other side to come through it with my friend.
Though I had no intention of setting goals and resolutions in the new year, this year I take with me lessons from this marathon. Lessons in patience, perseverance, and friendship. And a reminder that “the wall” may hit in any aspect of life, but I can push ahead.
And on a different note, a few reader emails wondered if my long stint in the US (I’ve been stateside since I returned from Panama in July) means I am done traveling—nope. Africa is just weeks away and soon you will see heaps of safari photos and stories of the grassroots projects I hunt down across the continent this spring. This marathon is one of the reasons I stuck around this long, Niki and I have not lived in the same city since I left LA in 2008, and this was a fun way for us to keep in contact and reconnect across the distance.
The other reason is the National Geographic event in two weeks in DC. If you’re in the DC area, tickets are on sale and you can come hear myself and three other Travelers of the Year talk travel.