“Make sure your own worst enemy doesn’t live between your two ears.” - Laird Hamilton
Last weekend’s Philadelphia Marathon was not my first, not my fastest, and almost certainly not my last. Compared what I or others have run in the past, there was nothing extraordinary on paper about my sub 4-hour run. Yet in my mind, my marathon represented a feat of accomplishment unparalleled to any race in the past. After a nearly 2.5 year hiatus from racing, my comeback at Philly marked the completion of my transformation from a competitive collegiate athlete to a happy, healthy recreational runner with a strong, sustainable relationship with the practice.
In the days leading up to the Philadelphia Marathon, my memories of collegiate running played on repeat in my head. I relived a vicious cycle of images that I thought I could forever lock away after finishing my racing career. The unending body chills I felt on each starting line with only a singlet covering my total 2 millimeters of body fat, the constant comparison of myself to others and to myself, the pervasive sense of self-doubt, the blinding self-discipline, the gnawing, nervous knots in my stomach that seemed to stay present long after each race ended, the eating disorder that controlled my every action but would undoubtedly make me faster, my self-sacrificing obedience to the sport and those who had seemingly mastered it, the constant agony running my heart out yet never quite being fast enough – all of which led to a hard-hitting case of burnout.
I ran my first marathon as an act of defiance, quitting track in my last semester of college to train for a Boston-qualifying time in an environment that was more autonomous and less restrictive. Half a year later, I ran Boston by relying on every ounce of college fitness to muscle through it, hitting the wall at Heartbreak Hill and just barely squeaking by with a time that didn’t make me cringe. After my lackluster second marathon, my body and mind needed to be propelled in a totally new direction. Thus, I set running on the back burner and dove headfirst into yoga teacher training.
Yoga taught me to honor my body rather than fight through pain and to find my edge rather than pushing beyond it. I found it liberating to know that I didn’t have to run a single mile let alone seventy per week to be a respectable human being. Yet somehow, even when I gave myself permission to stop, I kept running. Without doing so intentionally, I began applying the messages from yoga to my morning runs to turn them into my own moving meditation.
Nonetheless, while shivering on the starting line at Philly, that sense of meditation had flown far out from my mind. Suddenly, I had no choice but to compare myself to others once more as I looked around to find a spot where I belonged. Even before the gun went off, I had to choose a finishing time. I scanned the crowd to judge my competitors’ pace, and thankfully – before propelling myself too far into self-doubt – found a woman carrying a 4-hour finish time sign. Based on my training pace, I knew that I could finish comfortably under 4 hours so I glued myself to the pacer’s side.
As the start to our wave sounded, 2.5 years of unused adrenaline kicked in and I left the pacer in dust. I was alone in the crowd, once again second-guessing where I belonged or if I even did. The friends who I traveled to the race to would undoubtedly leave the race happy – one was sure to PR, another was racing the distance for the first time, and the third was coaching the second to her personal victory. And there I was somewhere in the middle of our pack running without a purpose. Should I have set a time goal? Should I have trained harder? Should I have even signed up for this?
As I rounded the corner of downtown Philly to enter South Street at mile 4, my existential questioning began to slow to a halt. I cruised a donut shop lined by crowds waving “Donut stop!” signs, a cheery entry of a coffee roastery, a fiddler boy sitting on a roof who played the Rocky theme song, DJ nodding his head to club beats so loud that they vibrated into my soul, and scantily clad mannequins in a sex shop. The man on my left said to his running buddy, “This is a great area of Philly at 10 pm when you’re plastered!” and I realized this must be the “rough neighborhood’ that we pass through before the zoo. I meandered around another bend to see a break in the fan section occupied by a church choir that belted gospel lyrics in harmony. An involuntary smile lit up my face, and a question popped into my mind: How much of this would I have missed if I had been running with the goal-oriented tunnel vision that had typified my running career?
Suddenly, I was flooded with a warm wave of memories from my running days: the 5k races I watched as a girl, gleefully cheering on my mother, the family Sunday long runs during my adolescence, the Halloween costume run that I organized with my best friends, the sense of belonging to a team who would be there years after the races ended, the use of running as my sight-seeing vehicle during my world travels, the stability that my morning runs provide even when my world is scattered, the fact of running being supremely my own and yet a shared sensation with those closest to me…
The best memories from running have nothing to do with time, but everything to do with feeling. As I passed a crowed of dancing face-painted creatures in onesies, I vowed to myself to let this race be ruled by experience over pace, to let it be about the journey rather than the destination, to let savoring every step fully present be enough in my own eyes, and to let no voices other than my own self-acceptance matter in my head.