Henceforth, let it be known that at 9:00 antemeridian on Saturday, September 26th in this, the 2015th year of our Lord, I catapulted my gelatinous form across the New Jersey tundra – atop pavement, through thick forests, past unicorn-costumes and over miniature boulders, to ultimately cross the finish line in a bona fide half marathon called Beat the Blerch.
I would have told you sooner but I’ve only just now recovered. Praise be. And Happy Lollipop Tuesday!
As longtime followers know, I began this journey all the way back at this blog’s inception with a 365 post-a-day challenge. Then I moved on to a 365 workout challenge that culminated in a 10K . Then, after being fitter and healthier than I ever was in my lifetime, I immediately regressed into a blogless, sedentary, retreating version of myself. I devolved, and recoiled into solitude in what will now be referred to as The Days of Shame.
I have only recently re-emerged. Ever so slowly, I’ve been rebuilding the hot mess that has been the year of 2015 and told myself that even if everything goes to hell, I would accomplish one, solitary thing with certainty. And so, I lunged toward that which sounded the most awful and unattainable: a half marathon.
I don’t like running. I never have. I don’t think anyone truly enjoys it. In particular, distance running. Distance running means battling the weather, your personal calendar, chafing, eating schedules, constant full-body soreness, and pooping.
They don’t really tell you that. I mean, I guess they do if you know to Google but I consulted several training schedules when race planning and not a single one mentioned the enormous urge for spontaneous pooing in the middle of a run or directly thereafter.
It turns out that if you don’t fuel properly, you can be prone to defecation thanks to the immediate rush of blood back to your digestive system. That’s what gels and energy drinks and all of those weird looking items in the sports and fitness aisles are for. That’s why wiry, solid distance runners often have supply belts around their wastes. It’s to fend off the poops.
The day that I completed my first seven mile run, I went directly to the bathroom to make it my forever home. I wondered if I might find a long enough break between lower body activity to gather some basic tenants of survival so that I could simply stay there the night. After what felt like hours, I finally gave all I had to the sewer gods and attempted to stand up. I required the use of all supporting apparatuses in my bathroom – towel racks, sides of the bathtub, the top of the toilet lid, the sink edge – to do so because merely hours before I had finished running seven full miles with my God-given jelly stilts.
No, I don’t like running.
Life went on in that fashion – working, running, popping energy gels, meticulously planned poo schedules, and a lack of social life – throughout the training period. From April until September I consistently rearranged my life to make enough time to gallop across the Pittsburgh pasturage.
Eventually, details about the race course were sent to participants and I learned a vital piece of information: the half marathon was a trail run.
For the uninitiated, there is a staggering difference between a legitimate “trail run” and running on pavement or flat terrain. One ought not attempt the former when only training on the latter. But I didn’t want to run on trails – just running was hard enough. So I simply carried on. Until the Day of Reckoning.
The race began on pavement just after sunrise with dew sparkling on the fields nearby. I encouraged myself with the reminder that it was advertised as a blend of trail and pavement and that perhaps it was more the latter than the former. I trained for this, I told myself. I’ve got this. I’ll go slow, and I will prevail. After all, it’s a half marathon based on a hilarious digital cartoon. The Oatmeal knows his readers are mostly human puddings, right? I’ve got this. It will be fine.
Dave (who had been my coach throughout training) was serving as text coach and social media trumpet. My phone was full of people encouraging me in my endeavor. If I needed to remember how much shame was in my failure, I only needed to pop open an app or my text threads to see well wishes from those I would swiftly disappoint. The possibility of failure was palpable. I had to get this done.
The first few miles went well, actually. They were flat and predictable and I had trained my brain by this time to think of them as merely a warmup (a task that seemed Herculean to me only months before). The real worry started to set in around mile 4. The race took a turn into a state forest, and I remembered that I, in fact, hadn’t trained for this. I was running lightly jogging directly into the belly of the beast.
I told myself to just take it mile by mile and that if I could only weather the elevation changes, I would eventually crest the horizon to victory. But the path was steep and skinny and full of rocks and roots. People were falling and getting cut up, and the longer I ran, the more my ankles felt like someone was thwacking them with a dozen tiny ball-peen hammers.
People were passing me in steady waves and the trail was so itty bitty that there was no way for them to go around me unless I moved off to the side or sometimes just stopped altogether. Hills and roots and rocks required balancing acts and such careful placement of my feet that, when approaching mile 9, I was simply too tired to execute. I instead resolved to run everything that I could safely run and walk the parts that would surely send me rolling down a hillside.
At the 9th mile marker, a blistery wind shook the trees throughout the forest and I swear to the wood nymphs that only the ones near me thwacked heavy nuts down on my head. I was in a nut storm. A frustrating, humiliating, kill-me-I-quit-this-is-moronic-why-am-I-doing-this-it-hurts nut storm. I hated everything. The earth. The nuts. The wind. The other runners. My pants. I told myself I would just sign up for another marathon on a flat, predictable surface. I called Dave on a slight ripple of cell reception to regale him with my failure. He said gentle and understanding things, woven in with subtle reminders that I should do what I could. And that I could probably actually do it if I just mustered my musterness. I said something like thanks but no thanks and sorry I let him down and that I would see him if I managed to not sink into the dredges of Mother Earth and die there in an obscure New Jersey state forest.
Then I started to feel pretty bad. Mostly because he was just so gosh darn nice about it all. And because my phone was full of people who thought I could do it. And because I blogged about how I would and I knew I’d have to come back after it all and write something. And because deep down inside me was chubby 8th grade Jackie, who was always next to last in the soccer team long runs. Suddenly, I wanted to run so hard that my inner thighs would furiously chafe and catch fire and all my jiggle would burn up into the sky and be left there ever after.
I carried on.
I honed in on this fellow who looked quite fit. The reality was that if he was in my neck of the woods this late in the game, he probably trained on cheesy poofs and good intentions. But I pegged him for my imaginary competition because he kept passing me and then falling behind me for the last quarter of the race. He also had a sweatband. I was tired of looking at the back of his head and its stupid sweatband that magically stayed in place and I was tired of my pathetic, whining, failure of a disposition. I needed a mission and I had one: I just had to beat Sweatband.
I picked up my pace to something I thought sustainable and worked to just make it to the next mile marker. Once I made it to 10, I told myself the last three miles were basically a cool down and that all I had to do was ride it out. I loaded up on Nutella at the last aid station, dammit. I could do this. I probably wouldn’t even have to poop right after it.
And so I carried on. Across skinny, boulder-laiden trails, up glute-busting hills, and past people who looked like they might have trained. As I barreled down a hill in the 13th mile, an early finisher appeared in the clearing, yelling to all the slow motors that we were almost there and the finish line was just through the trees. I was just behind Sweatband.
The greeter gave him life – he lunged forward and increased his pace. Apparently he had trained to finish strong. That’s a thing they tell you to practice. I could see why.
I pushed off my heels and picked up the pace to match him. As I rounded the bend into the clearing, I saw a bench of finishers that included the friend I had signed up for the race with. I hadn’t seen him since the start. He wasn’t sweating anymore, and he looked like he had a renewed taste for life, so I knew he’d been finished for quite some time. He got up off the bench and began to run beside me, encouraging me. A wave of excitement rose up in me as I searched frantically for the finish with my eyes. I started going into a dead sprint and surged past Headband. My friend kept pace with me, smiling and cheering. My gaze flitted across the field – where in the holy hell was the finish line!? WILL THIS EVER END? WILL I DIE HERE?! I yelled to my friend in desperation to reveal the location of my resting ground. I spotted it in the distance – about a quarter mile away.
You might think a quarter of a mile is nothing when compared to thirteen, but let me tell you: when your ankles are beat to hell, you smell like an adolescent boy’s week-old gym shorts, your sports bra is carrying a pound of water weight, and you’re standing on a sliver of morale that’s been beaten down by nut storms and passed by waves of superior humans, 1,320 feet feels like a lifetime. I knew I couldn’t sustain my sprint that long, so I backed off to a pace I could keep until closer to the finish. My friend’s enthusiasm faded and he promised to meet me at the end. Headband chugged ahead.
I pushed on for the final leg, sprinted into high gear when I was truly at the end, and finished just behind my targeted stranger. The loudspeakers rattled “Congratulations, Jackie!” and someone stationed at the finish line to read off finishers’ names gave me a big hearty smile. A volunteer handed me a medal. My friend handed me a banana and a jug of Mimosa disguised as Tropicana. I downed half of it and stretched. Someone emerged from the horizon dressed as The Abominable Snowman for a photo opportunity. It was a confusing time.
It took me some time to accept that I didn’t run the entire race. And that I didn’t properly train, and that if I had perhaps I could have done the entire course without walking, or breaking down and wanting to give up. I rewound to every missed training run, every clipped completion, and every day I told myself I could just move today’s run to tomorrow. And then I decided to pack up all of that and throw it all away because regardless of how I got to the finish line, I got there. And doing thirteen miles in any fashion is a gargantuan accomplishment for a jelly-laden lady of leisure such as myself. I had a medal, dammit. And I had bussed, taken a train, a taxi, and another bus to get to a place to run thirteen miles. I was going out to get the best pizza I could find and to go home a fat, happy hero.
When they tell you that if you’re going to run, you need to run for yourself, they’re not kidding. Nothing else is going to get you through such a difficult and rigorous task. Wanting to be skinny isn’t enough to get you through your Mile 9, and I’ll be damned if I ever experienced the rumored “runner’s high.”
When you truly challenge yourself, you need to be doing it for you. And you need a good strong support group who will cheer you on, meet you at the finish line, and even tell you it’s okay to stop when you need to. Nothing else really gets you there.
Except maybe some energy gels.
And the truth about pooping.
Hey: thanks for the support, Interwebz. I couldn’t have crossed the finish without your possible impending shame.
Jackalope, out. ♣