Posted by: draknor | October 3, 2011

Pain & Memory

Yesterday, I finished my 3rd marathon (and my 4th long-distance race overall). I set a personal PR of 4:22 (almost 20 minutes off my previous PR from 2007)!

This morning, what surprised me most wasn’t the tightness, the discomfort, or the difficulty walking — it was the fact that I really didn’t remember this aftermath from my previous marathons as vividly as what I was feeling now.  I’m sure I felt it then — I was at least as well trained as I’d ever been, especially considering I just set a PR.  You’d think with something so uncomfortable, so torturous, that I’d remember what it’d feel like!  But you know what? I don’t.  And it’s probably that fact that I don’t that let me sign up for this marathon.  And it’s that same fact that means, although I swear I’ll never run another marathon, at sometime in the future I’ll probably sign up for another one.

Why?

My girlfriend asked me why I do it — why have I run marathons?  The first one you can explain away by curiosity, or machismo — wanting to “prove myself”.  But the second one?  The 32-mile ultra-marathon? Or now my third marathon? How do I explain those?

Here was my experience yesterday… My friend & I woke up at 6:30 am, got dressed in our running gear, and were dropped off at the starting point by my friend’s roommate.  We went through our individual warm-up routines, psyched ourselves up, and joined the other 10,000+ (?) runners at the starting gate.  There were so many runners (and we were near the tail of the pack), that it was almost 10 minutes from the official start at 8:00 am until we actually crossed the start line.  From there, we took off running, passing people left & right, weaving in & out & around other runners.  We started off at a brisk pace and ran approximately 9:15 min/miles at least through the halfway point at 13.1 miles.  Somewhere around mile 15 my friend dropped behind due to leg cramps, and by mile 18 I had lost my mojo.  The first half of the marathon I was full of life, full of energy — hootin’ & hollerin’ & high-fivin’ spectators.  By mile 18 it was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  It was like I was a completely different person… and I still had 8+ miles to go!  It was disheartening, draining.

But here’s the kicker — its all mental!  Sure, my feet hurt with every step, my hamstrings were tight as a steel cable & my hips wanted to revolt, but it was all discomfort — not an acute pain (ie not injury).  And to be honest, I don’t know that I felt that much worse physically by the time I hit mile 26 as when I crossed mile 18.  Now, obviously there’s something physical going on — its not ALL in my head.  As I’ve been learning with my hypothyroidism, what’s going on in the body can have a tremendous impact on what happens in the brain.  But it’s still going on in the brain.  And therefore (by my logic anyway), I should have the ability to overcome it.  After all, if I can’t overcome discomfort and “things I don’t like”, how am I ever going to grow? How am I ever going to get better?

So while I was very excited by my performance in the first half, the second half left a lot to be desired.  I didn’t really start feeling hope again until about mile 24.  I never really doubted that I would finish — that was a given (in the absence of acute injury, and maybe not even then!) — but the mental game was lost.  While I knew I couldn’t quit, I’d be lying if I said the thought never crossed my mind.  I thought I lot about just walking the rest of it.  I watched the 4:15 pace runner go past at an aid station, and just watched him fade off into the distance.  I kept looking over my shoulder to see if the 4:30 pace runner was catching up, telling myself that if he (or she) did, that I’d have to keep up — I wanted to beat 4:30.  But the truth is, I don’t know if I could have made myself keep up.  From mile 20-24 my pace had dropped to nearly 12:00 min/miles, and I was probably walking a good fraction of each of those miles.  Except for one — I ran the entire length of mile 22 (eg until the mile 23 marker).  Somehow I made myself do that. I’m sure that dropped my average quite significantly.

Mile 23 passed, and I had what was a hair over a 5k left (3.2 vs 3.1 miles).  The first 5k of the race I finished in 29:15.  I don’t have a split for the final 5k, but the final 2.2 miles I completed in 23:23 (and that was with an all-out, everything-I’ve-got “sprint” for the last .2 miles).  I still couldn’t bring myself to raise my energy and feel “good” about being so close. Not until mile 24 — only 2.2 miles left at that point, and then I started to have hope, started to feel like maybe, just maybe — this race would soon be over.  And I crossed mile 25 marker… and I still couldn’t bring myself to keep running.  I had made a consolation effort though — if I was going to walk, I was at least going to walk fast, with long strides.  So that helped my time, and a bit of my spirit.  I wasn’t completely giving up, even if I couldn’t keep going as strongly.

I rounded the final bend and started running for the last time — around the bend, down the hill, crossed mile marker 26 and saw the finish banner ahead at the bottom of the hill. The street was lined with people cheering us on, and my final ritual kicked in: Finish strong & fast.  I’ve done some things right over the years, and that’s one of them — developing the ritual of always finishing strong & fast. Doesn’t matter what it takes, I give it my all & push as hard as a I can at the end.  Push I did — it was nowhere near an actual sprinting speed considering my depleted physical condition at that point, but I was passing people left & right yet again, just as I had started.  I flew down the hill and charged on towards the finish line, telling myself I can die once I cross it!  My heart rate monitor proved my effort — I peaked my heart rate at 187 beats per minute in my final effort!  And I crossed at 4:22:05.

And the pain & struggle & intensity of that last push is already fading from my memory. I remember doing it, I remember crossing the finish out of breath, totally depleted, and receiving my medal and my heat shield and my water and my banana and collapsing on the grass until the world stopped spinning… but the burning, the pounding, the sheer effort it took?  That feeling is already fading.

My hamstrings are so tight today that every time I get up or sit down it’s a monumental effort.  My calves, my knees, my quads — all are in the repair phase.  But you know what?  These feelings, too, will fade.  I’ll remember being stiff & sore for a few days, and sort of ambling or hobbling about.  But I won’t really remember what this feels like.

And that’s what will let me sign up for another one… maybe in a year, maybe two years, maybe five years.

And that’s what will let me grow, so next time maybe its mile 20 before I lose my mojo… but keep on pushing on and maybe beat 4:15.

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