This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here.
“So, why, mortal men, do you pursue happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within? Error and ignorance derange you…as long as you are in command of yourself, you will possess what you would never wish to lose, and what Fortune can never withdraw from you.” -Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
The marathon doesn’t truly get interesting until around the 35K mark. If you trained sensibly, there was never any question in your mind that you would make it to this point. Strength, form, pacing, and fuelling, all the external physical factors that make a runner, have carried you.
Suddenly you have only a short distance remaining, one that is almost laughable in its smallness to you who have made 30 kilometres a mere formality. Nonetheless, as if almost on cue, the entire dynamics of the race have changed. Looking around, you see that more and more runners have stopped to walk. You see that their form has become a bit more hunched and you know that yours has as well. The distance markers that were plotted throughout the course to mark the passing of each kilometre seem to take longer to appear.
Physically, you have reached your capacity. You trudge along constantly repeating the mantra, “Almost there. Just finish.” You might take a glance over your shoulder or to the other side of the course to see runners still completing the “out” of an “out and back” portion of the course. You, or at least I, wonder if I were in their position, with so much time already elapsed, with the the majority of runners having already crossed the finish line, and yet with so much distance and time to go, whether or not I would have the strength to continue.
The intangibles now propel you. In the course of your training, you’ve built character as well as fitness. You’ve become quite adept at suffering and have accepted discomfort as a constant companion. More importantly, you’ve learned not to quit in the face of these malevolent forces. You have grit. You have desires that are stronger than anything that may deter you.
If you shed tears along the way, if you look somewhat foolish, if failure feels imminent at points, that’s fine. Such is the price you pay for your ambition. We often find ourselves dangerously addicted to comfort because we are so fearful of these things. It is why perhaps we refrain from setting goals that are out of the ordinary because such aspirations mean a commitment to constant setbacks and failures. Indeed, you will shed what feels like a million tears and look foolish a million times before you experience one triumph.
I did shed tears. I looked foolish. Failure seemed to lurk over my shoulder every second of those last seven kilometres. All I could pledge was that tears, foolishness, and doubt were acceptable if I could get there. So I continued and I finished. Three years of work amounted to a few hours of running so that I could say “I did it.”
And I did do it. In superb weather conditions and in the company of family and friends, I found the finish line of my first marathon. Tired, sore, and emotionally overwhelmed, I had no moment as I had on previous occasions of regret or feeling like I should have never done this. From the second I hit that finish line, I knew I would be back.
My decision to run a marathon came about in a slightly unorthodox manner. Whereas many will decide to tackle the exalted 42.2 after having already conquered shorter distances, and in this case 30K constitutes shorter, and found that the marathon was the next logical step, I made a commitment to the distance when I had only just began taking running seriously and before I could comfortably complete 5K without having to stop and walk.
My decision had less to do with athletcism and more to do with ownership. When I use the word ownership, I mean to have something that is purely your own and cannot be taken away by external circumstance. I mean to have set out to accomplish something that wasn’t entirely necessary and was done for its own sake and without incentive, something that was done to show that it could be done and that I possessed all the characteristics to make it happen.
Whether rightly or wrongly, it came from a place of feeling defeated. In twenty-three years, all that I had done was done because I was supposed to do it. Very little had sprung from a place of pure passion and was therefore not pursued with any real passion or dedication. I had demonstrated competence, but never strength or excellence. I had pieces of paper to prove that competence and by most standard measurements I had a decent share of successes.
These achievements, however, were external. I had them because I met someone else’s standards, sometimes minimally, and really and truly they could be taken away or not granted in the first place. I needed to build something that was entirely my own, something that would be solely the product of my choosing and my action. I needed a challenge and the opportunity to create for myself something that was beyond the whim of others. I wanted to prove that I was strong and capable beyond reproach.
Somehow I settled on the marathon. Until this day, I can’t quite pinpoint why I chose this particular endeavour. It just clicked and I decided that while knowing nothing about running, I would make the distance at some point in the future.
This starting from scratch is why that brief moment of triumph at the finish line was the product of three long years. I needed that time to make every single mistake in the book and experience every possible failure available to a runner. I wore the wrong clothes and chaffed like hell. I fuelled poorly and bonked. I started too fast and had to quit certain runs. I used poor technique and hurt myself. Every single failure presented a golden opportunity to continue.
I was not judged by the standards of others in this journey because it was not in anyone else’s interest that I accomplished this goal. Running a marathon was not something I had to do, but something I wanted to do. In this sense, it was my truest test of character yet. It was a vision that sprung from my own mind, as it has for millions of others, and one that I saw through to the end. It was not granted or given to me. Every success along the way came down strictly to my actions.
Perhaps I won’t always run, though for now I hope I will. The fact is that running is extremely physical, despite the constant refrain that it is just as much mental. My body may change and is subject to external factors such as age, genetics, and physical harm from outside sources.
My ecstacy in this achievement, however, is not tied to what my body did. What I own is what I mustered in those final seven kilometres, a happiness and pride that I drew from within and is therefore mine so long as I live. After twenty-six years and just as many miles, I have a joy of my own making and one that I cannot lose.
It is not an accomplishment that I sought because I could boast about it and bask in admiration from others because those things are fickle and when you are glued to fickle things, disappointment is constant. I relentlessly dragged myself toward that finish line, and not just on the day of the race, because regardless of how the world shifts, I could be, and now am, contented with what I know what lies within me and eager to build upon it.