Monday, June 24, 2013

My Better Self

A few posts ago, I wrote on the subject of self-acceptance, even when the self I need to accept is a sad, whiny mess. Today as I reflect back on my performance at Saturday’s Grandma’s Marathon, I’m grateful to have developed this skill, because if ever there were a race when I needed to pull up stakes, let go, and “embrace the suck,” this was it.

Don’t fret. This isn’t going to be a gory account of a terrible race. While it was a terrible race, objectively speaking, and I ran one of my slowest finish times in years, it was nonetheless one of my best marathons to date. When I think, talk, and write about it now several days later, I feel only a deep fondness for the experience. I’ll start by showing you this image that my husband captured of me around Mile 9, when I was still smiling and my posture was upright.

That's me in the middle. All smiles.

Things got pretty ugly very shortly after that photo was taken, and I’d like to just pretend that this is how I would have looked in the late-mile photos, as well. Fortunately, Marc now has spectated enough of these things to know with one quick glance whether he should be taking my photo, or whether he needs to jump out onto the course and run along for a few hundred yards and give me a pep talk. So, blessedly, there are no late-mile photos this time around.

Grandma’s is a fantastic course that deserves of all of the accolades that it receives. Although a relatively small field (just over 7,000 were registered for the full marathon, another 7,500 for the half), it is a favorite among many, myself now included. First of all, the entire town of Duluth, Minnesota, gets utterly swept up in Grandma’s fever. The spirit of the staff at our hotel was like nothing I have ever seen, and at just about every shop, bar, or restaurant we entered the entire weekend, I was asked by friendly workers about whether I was running, or how my race went. The course just couldn’t be better, starting in the charming town of Two Harbors, and running along the shore of Lake Superior on paved trails and city roads through some beautiful neighborhoods filled with spirited neighbors out on their lawns, cheering the entire way. This is a city of about 90,000 people, and I’d swear that most of them were out there on Saturday morning. The route is very comfortable, with rolling hills and only one incline of any consequence: the famed Lemon Drop Hill at Mile 22, which was lined with screaming, hilarious spectators who made it a piece of cake.

Okay, “a piece of cake” may be a bit of a minimization, a memory now sweetened by the haze of my great overall experience of Grandma’s Marathon. Absolutely nothing about this race was a piece of cake for me. For reasons that I still don’t understand – and that I will now try to get figured out – I trained poorly. Although I knew that I had put in all of the miles I needed to be ready for the 26.2 distance, I also knew that I wasn’t strong enough to have a good race. I knew going in that this one wasn’t going to go well, but I had really underestimated just how not well.

I was only about six miles into the race when I began to feel the familiar exhaustion that had plagued me throughout my training. I hunkered down and tried to comfort myself by thinking about the difficult 20-mile training run I had done in Kona in May. I had struggled through and conquered that beast of a run under much more challenging conditions, and that was the distance I had to go. I can do this. Unfortunately, the optimism had faded by Mile 11, when my hip flexors began to seize up on me. My stride shortened and my pace slowed dramatically. I am not even to the halfway point. I’ve only run one other marathon that I thought I might not finish, several years ago in Estes Park, Colorado, where the effects of the 8,000+ feet of elevation were devastating. And on Saturday morning, for about an hour in the middle miles of the race, I was again engaged in fierce combat with myself, struggling to stay on the course. The pain in my hips was just at the edge of what I can bear – I knew I wasn’t injured, and that I wasn’t causing any harm by continuing, but it was nonetheless brutal. I was chafing in the moisture, and could feel blisters forming from my wet socks. (Right, right. I promised no gore. I’ll stop there.) I can’t do this. And then somewhere around the Mile 18 point, while deep in a thoughtful conversation with myself (Why am I doing this?), it hit me: this is exactly why I do this. There is a part of me that believes that the eight miles left to go are physically impossible, but there’s another part of me in there somewhere that’s going to dig deep and find it. That second part is going to win.

It was an unusually cold and wet day, with temperatures in the 40s throughout the race, dense fog, and light rain that kept us soaking wet. Under better circumstances, these temperatures would have been a godsend, but because I was running with so much pain, my pace was so slow that I just couldn’t warm up. By the time I finished, my jaws were clenched from the cold, I couldn’t speak, and I had almost no use of my hands from the numbness and shivering. When the race volunteer handed me my medal and congratulated me, I burst into tears of exhaustion, pain, and frustration, causing a medic to rush over to me and ask if I needed assistance. I assured him that I was okay, thanked him for his help as coherently as I could, and stumbled my way to the gear check so that I could get out of my wet clothes.

Poor Marc. Our reunion after the finish was unpleasant, to put it mildly. I was barely verbal, and inconsolable. Even after changing into my dry sweatshirt, I was shaking from the cold and in so much pain that I couldn’t bear to partake in any of the post-race festivities. (You know I’m feeling badly when I skip the free beer.) I stumbled like a zombie to the car, and after a few minutes of being off of my feet with the heater blasting on us (let’s not forget that Marc was out in that cold damp air for many hours, too, without the benefit of being warmed by the running), I slowly came back to life. Along with the feeling in my extremities, so too returned my perspective. It was probably my worst race ever, but a couple of hours later, it no longer mattered. I had done battle with my weaker self, and won.

My better self still knows
That meaning comes and goes
What is it made?
I do not know
But meaning comes and it goes
~Tennis, "My Better Self"


  1. I can totally relate to how you felt going into this race! You put all the miles in yet your training was subpar and you felt physically exhausted. That is exactly how I went into Boston! But then add the weather on top of that!? You are a trooper, Amy! Wow! I'm so sorry this race was so difficult. Marathons are hard enough in perfect conditions.

    I'm so glad you have such a great spectator and supporter in Marc. It's great that you can still see all of the good in this race despite your experience. Again, that's how I felt about Boston. It was my hardest and (in some ways) worst race but I still have only positive things to say about it.

    Lastly, I love Tennis. Great lyric at the end there. :) Congrats on another marathon finish!

    So... what's next?

    1. Tee hee! My response is usually "Don't ask me, I'm not going to think about racing for at least a month!" But this time I do actually have something booked: next month is my pack burro race in Colorado. So stay tuned for some crazy-ass fun! ;-) It's just 5-6 miles of trail running, but should be plenty strenuous since a) it's at 8,000 feet, and b) I will be running with a donkey on a 15' lead. Nothing I'll train for, just a fun adventure. So I will let myself have a full mental and physical recovery after the marathon.

      And yes - when I think back to your report post-Boston, I think I'm now feeling a lot like you were, Kate. I think just by virtue of it being a race I've wanted to run for so long, I was going to love it no matter what. (Although I'm glad that the thunderstorms and tornadoes that were being forecasted didn't materialize and test that theory.)

  2. Congratulations on finishing the race! It stinks when you feel you have trained well but the weather just makes it a bad race =/ this one is on my list of races I want to run in my lifetime though!

    PS - the burro race sounds pretty cool!

    1. You'll get no complaints from me. Cold wet weather notwithstanding, Grandma's is awesome, and I hope you do get to tick it off of your list! It's one of the rare races that I would absolutely do again.

      Stay tuned for tales (tails?) from the burro trail!

  3. Congrats on pushing through and finishing! It was tough, but you did it! The self in our heads can often times be our worst enemies!

    1. Thank you! And yes, you said it!! Conquering the physical challenge of the marathon is only half the battle. (Maybe less?!) And I love it for that. =)

  4. Congrats on your marathon whether it was peachy keen rainbows and happy kitties or just subpar. You are looking at the silver lining and that's tough all on its own. Toast to you!

    1. Cheers to that! Thanks so much. On a cold gray day like that one, basically running through a cloud, I suppose I was bound to find the silver lining!