July 31, 2011

Practice NOT quitting

Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most,
define us.
~ Deena Kastor, 2004 Olympic Marathon Bronze Medalist.

I am getting back to the thick of marathon training, and the long runs on the weekend are up to 15 miles. I will eventually run a couple of 20 milers before race day, but when the training distance gets past 13 miles, it feels like things are getting serious.

This will be my 10th marathon. This running thing started six years ago, more or less with a dare. But I have carried on for some reason, and the marathon continues to beckon me. Many people have asked why I run these long distances, usually with a shake of the head indicating that they think I am a little crazy.

It is a valid question, and I don't have a pat answer. I don't LOVE running. I don't roll out of bed wishing to hit the streets. To be fair, I don't roll out of bed wanting to anything but roll back in. But I do enjoy running, in the moment, and all that it does for me. It keeps me in better shape, and it helps clear my cluttered brain like little else can.

And I enjoy the challenge it brings. Though our bodies were built to run, they are not tasked to run anymore. That is unless we chose to. And I chose to. I want to keep that inborn ability polished, even if I am not required to run down my dinner. I want to keep this body of mine fit and moving forward into old age. I want to slow down by choice, not because I have to.

And even after five years, running is still a challenge. I believe it was Greg LaMond who said about biking (though it is the same for running), "It never gets easier, you just go faster." The first mile is still difficult, and it has only become easier from habit. Each successive mile takes the same effort it used to, I am just moving faster these days.

But why marathons? I could get the mental and fitness benefits by running much shorter distances. I have enjoyed running 5ks again, and running for pure speed has been great, but there is something about the marathon that continues to draw me in.

As Dick Beardsley says in The Spirit of the Marathon "When you cross that finish line, no matter how slow, no matter how fast, it will change...your life...forever." I have seen many finish lines, and I can vouch for the transformation you feel once you cross it. Running 26.2 miles is an amazing accomplishment, and once you conquer it, you feel like you can do anything.

But why go back time and again? Once you have conquered the distance, you know you can do it, and the high will never be the same as it was the first time.Why train for months, with the increasing miles and time commitment it takes? I will say that I am starting to question it myself. But I heard a phrase recently that helps explain it.

A big part of training is preparing your body to endure the 26.2 miles, but there is a mental side to it as well. Three, four, five hours or more is a long time to be out on the road, endlessly putting one foot in front of the other. The months of miles leading up to race day conditions your brain to move back and forth between focus and distraction.

During the race, your body will tell you to quit. At times it will flat out scream at you to pull over and stop. But  something in your brain knows there is something more to give. Some untapped resource hidden away in a dark corner. But you don't know for sure that it is there unless you press on to find it. And that is part of what all this training does. It gives you practice at NOT quitting when the going gets tough.

And keeping the act of not quitting polished, well that serves you again and again. And that is one of the reasons I run.