I need to write this down while I still remember it so clearly, because I am afraid very much that I will forget and think only about the time that I came to at the end of this race (4:27) and not everything else.
Today's marathon was not by any objective measure a success. And I knew that it wouldn't be. I knew I was going into the race with an injury and overtired. I knew from the first mile that I wouldn't be making my goal time of 7:30/mile. I knew by mile 3 that I wouldn't even be making my back-up goal time of 7:45. At mile 8, the woman from my neighborhood I had beat by 10 minutes at our last match-up passed me. At mile 9, my sister-in-law passed me. By mile 10, I knew I wouldn't even make my previous PR time of 8:20/mile. Yet I continued to run. Past the mile 13.1 point, where I could have quit and taken a bus down to the end of the course.
I continued to run up the hill at mile 14 when my pace dropped below 10:00 per mile and I felt so nauseated and crampy that I knew at any moment I would have to stop. When my legs started cramping at mile 19, I began the slow walk down the canyon as I realized that my finishing time would probably be close to my first marathon time, when I hadn't run more than 6 miles in training. And yet I kept going.
Men and women who seemed too overweight to be running a marathon passed me. A woman who seemed too old to be running a marathon passed me. A woman who was six inches shorter than I was (and I am very short) passed me. A man who was in the walk-run stage of his marathon passed me and looked back to ask if I was OK. I told him I was fine. I kept walking. I knew that I would finish the marathon in time to get a medal, to be an official finisher and somehow that still mattered to me. A woman with the strangest gait I had ever seen, a kind of hopping, swirling step, passed me. I got more and more nauseated as I went, and still I kept going. My husband, who I have beaten in nearly ever race we have run together, passed me with apologies.
I had a long time as I walked those last 6 miles to think about why I was still walking. Yes, in some ways, I was able to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the race more. I had a long time to stare at the lush trees of spring in the Utah desert, the beautiful waterfall over the precipice down to the river. I wondered several times how nice it would feel if I were to simply walk over to the water's edge and climb in, or dip a toe in. But I didn't. I kept walking.
Spectators called out encouragement. "Good job," they called to me. "You're almost there. Keep going," they said. I smiled and waved back at them, embarrassed that they felt obliged to share their energy for me, who was beyond help. I began to pass people who had finished and were coming back the other way to encourage their friends on. And I realized that I had finally found the reason that I kept going. You see, I had come to the end of myself and it was a very important moment for me.
All my life, I think I have spent boundless, frantic energy, making myself a resume of impossible accomplishments. I spent a year in a German Gymnasium in high school, then returned home to jump right back in with my fellow students, and outdoing all of them. I took classes during lunch, double scheduled a class during swimming, piling up grades and test scores and made myself into a candidate worthy of the best universities in the country. Then I finished a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in two years time total, and went to my field's most prestigious graduate school, Princeton University, with a perfect score on the Verbal portion of the GRE. I graduated the first in my entering class (in chronology) and I was the only female graduate student in the history of the German Department there to have a baby and continue work on a dissertation.
When I decided to be a writer instead of a professor, I frantically wrote 3-5,000 words a day, a novel every month for years until I had my first book accepted for publication. I kept writing at the same pace, convinced that this was the way to prove to everyone that I was the "best" at writing, as well. I had five children in the space of 8 years. I cooked, cleaned, and kept the books for the family. I sometimes did yard work, too. And then I started triathlon and marathons, winning first place medals right and left and feeling that this, too, was proof of my value as a person.
And today, as I ran this marathon doomed to be a failure, I stared at myself in the face and saw that I do not have to be the best. It was a moment of letting go of the frantic need to please, to excel, to surpass. I could just be me. I had made myself a goal and I wasn't able to reach it. I was doing my utmost, and still it wasn't enough. And I had to accept that. As I walked to the finish line, I had a good look at this person who thought it was all this list of accomplishments that made her worthy and I wanted to laugh at her, sadly, with gentle pity. All around me were people who were doing the same thing I was. I wasn't better than they were. This marathon was an equalizer. Their time might be faster or slower than mine, but the marathon was a microcosm of life, and it turns out that you don't measure the value of a person in the way that I have been trying to do it for so long.
On the way home from the marathon, I asked my husband what he had learned about himself during this race. He said, "I learned that I couldn't keep my pace up." No, I said. That's about running. What did you learn about yourself? He said, "I learned that I kept running even still." That's still about running, I said. He gave me a blank stare and I remembered my first marathon, when all I had been able to keep in my mind was the goal of finishing. Yeah, that's the way that it is, I thought. And then I told him what I had learned about myself and got choked up over it, just as I had during that long walk down the canyon. I was naked before his eyes and before the world.
Just me. No resume at all.
"I think that I would never trade what I learned today for the best PR imaginable," I said. He seemed surprised.
But here I am in my office, staring at the finisher's medal from this race, amidst all my first place medals, and I know that this one will have pride of place. This medal is the one that reminds me of the day I came to the end of myself, and maybe, the beginning.
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