You can die from running a half-marathon. A quick Google search results in roughly 72 million hits about super-healthy folks dropping dead from the exertion of running. Maybe they weren’t all healthy but many of them were in the best shape of their lives.
Welcome to race week jitters. The race day countdown is at three. My running plan strongly discourages any last-minute attempts at getting just one more training run in. I’ve discarded any last-minute hopes of ditching a few more pounds or somehow improving my time by a few more minutes. The momentum from my eleven-mile run is a distant memory. Instead, I’m full of fear.
Running logic says if you can run eleven miles one weekend, then the next step in training is 13.1 miles. There is absolutely no reason I cannot or will not cross the finish line. Except logic has taken a backseat to fear. All I can picture is getting to mile eleven, only to have my body give out on me. I visualize myself seeing the eleven-mile marker and then collapsing from exhaustion.
In addition to the fear of dying, there is also the fear of failing. Maybe I’ll run too fast in the beginning, only to find my tank empty at mile twelve. What if I trip on the transition from gravel to pavement? Or I discover that Powerade is not my thing and my stomach can’t tolerate it. What if I get leg cramps? Or my heart stops? Or I can’t make it to one of the porta-potties dotted along the course? I’m not sure where this fear is coming from but it is front and center.
Let’s recap for a moment. Fifteen weeks prior, I was not a runner. Now, without a single race under my belt, I’m going to run the WhistleStop Half-Marathon through the fall forests of Bayfield and Ashland counties on an old railroad bed for a piece of metal. I’ve completely lost my mind.
These nagging thoughts consume me over the next 48 hours. I’m a competitive person by nature and a planner by trade so these what-if scenarios are not entirely unfamiliar thoughts to me. I like to know what I’m up against and do my best to prepare for the worst.
But here’s the thing: I’m acutely aware that I don’t know what I don’t know. I turn to my finisher friends online and ask the question: “How did you know you wouldn’t die during your first race?”
More than one responded: “I didn’t.” If nothing else, at least my friends are honest. The “I didn’t” and “you’re crazy” responses were also followed by what I needed more than anything — encouragement.
Fitness guru Fred Devito once said, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” It is one of the many running memes you will see if you ever search online for encouragement. It’s also a sentiment many of my friends echoed, testifying that one of the greatest senses of accomplishments they ever experienced was crossing that finish line for the first time.
To push yourself past the seven-mile wall requires you to dig deep and achieve something you weren’t a hundred percent sure you could finish. It was in those moments, that they discovered they were capable of so much more than they ever dreamed of. They experienced the empowerment that accompanies that discovery.
My training transformation moved me from “you’re crazy” to “you’re an inspiration.” Me. The fat girl. An inspiration to a friend who could likely outrun and outpace me in a heartbeat. They see me as an inspiration. Regardless of what happens next, I am different.
Still, I allow myself to dwell on the fear. I verify my emergency contact information. I remind my husband that if he gets a call from an unknown number during the race, he better answer, especially if it’s from a 715-area code.
The race calendar ticks down to one day. Today is the day I pick up my packet. Today is the day I aim to win a carbo-loading competition. Today is the day I shift from “I can’t” and “what if I can?” to “I will” and hopefully “I did!” I allow myself to believe that all of the mosquito bites, sweat-drenched, early Saturday morning runs weren’t for nothing. They had a purpose — and that purpose was to prepare me for this moment.
I’m a hardcore Finlander. My blonde hair does not come from a bottle and my big bones (but not the padding) are a product of my ancestors. I am made to thrive in tough, brutal conditions. What many folks don’t know, though, is there’s something else that comes with being a Fin. Sisu.
There is no adequate English translation for this sentiment. It’s an inner strength, drawn from will, determination, perseverance, and the ability to act rationally in the face of adversity. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. That’s the closest approximation to a translation I can make. For me, the best synonym that comes to mind is “grit.”
Today, my Sisu is alive and well. I’ve prepared for this moment. I’m afraid. Sure, I lack confidence. I fear the unknown. But I dig deeper. I remind myself that I don’t quit and I will be fine. If I honestly believed I was going to die, would I line up for this race? Absolutely not. Truth be told, if I make it to mile eleven it will take an act of God — or a very strong security team — to drag me off that course before I get my medal.
I carbo-load. Oatmeal and a banana for breakfast. Rice Krispie bars and pretzels as snacks. Grilled chicken sandwich for lunch, and more pretzels. So many pretzels. I finish work a bit early so that I can head over the expo and pick up my race packet. Things are getting very real.
I walk into the Brettings Civic Center and my heart drops. I’ve entered a world of twig-like people looking sleek in their compression pants and sporting fancy running shoes. Everywhere I look I see lean muscle-machines. At least it feels that way. I wade through the sea of spandex and line up in the half-marathon line.
“Are you in line for 5k pick-up?” a woman casually asks.
“No!” I exclaim. My head starts reeling. Am I that out of place? Why would she think that? Who am I kidding?
“Do you know where the line is? This is my first race and I’m a bit lost.”
Oh. So maybe her question wasn’t about me but instead just another fellow runner trying to wade her way through the chaos that comes with packet pickup. I point out the sign for the 5k and wish her well. I suddenly find myself at the front of my line. It’s time.
“Here you go. Enjoy the race!”
I wander outside and look down at the manila envelope in my hand. Inside are the keys to the kingdom. The badge of honor I’ll pin to my Under Armour shirt to grant me access to run this race. The tag that’ll inform race course volunteers what finisher shirt I get when I cross the finish line. The badge that’ll capture my first personal record. I feel the tears welling up inside of me. Anxiety, fear, doubt, but more than anything, an overwhelming sense of wonder that I made it this far.
I drive home. My husband is prepping French bread to accompany our spaghetti dinner. The friend who was partially responsible for inspiring my journey is also running WhistleStop. He and a buddy come over for dinner, as well. Together we carbo-load and talk tangents. Let me rephrase that. They talk tangents. The last time I talked tangents was high school geometry. I’m perplexed. At first I think he’s kidding. But, as he draws out the last quarter mile of the race and the number of ninety-degree turns in it, I realize he’s serious. He’s concerned about the effect it’ll have on his time and the strategy he’s entertaining to ensure the shortest distance. My two guests ultimately place in the top five in their division. But right now, he’s actually worried. My friend, the runner who has completed dozens of races, is nervous?!
Our fears are drastically different. His concerns can be measured in seconds and might be considered a bit more strategy-based than fear-based. I, on the other hand, am now realizing the two of us are lining up in the same spot. I recognize that if I line up incorrectly, I may get run over by these folks who are banking their wins in seconds, not hours.
“So, how do you know where to line up?”
“Fast folks up front. Slow folks in back. In the middle, you just ask around for people’s finish times. Find your people and you’ll be good.”
Sounds simple, right? Don’t kid yourself. Years later I’ll make the rookie mistake of lining up in the back of a race in Door County. The race starts on a narrow trail within a state park. It was probably five minutes to start time and I was in the zone. My earbuds were in and the only direction I was looking was forward. I thought most folks were lined up. It turns out that many of the folks who were hanging out when I lined up weren’t spectators, as I thought. They were bundled-up runners. In that five minutes, they shed their clothes and lined up behind me, (unbeknownst to me). When the gun went off, I started casually walking and I could feel this force behind me. I turned my head and all I could see was a sea of runners. I could feel their energy pressing urgently at my back. A polite runner would have stepped out of the way. I was afraid and the tree-lined course and line of spectators left me nowhere to move aside. I ran as fast as I could. It wasn’t fast enough. I felt the humiliation burn as folks weaved their way around me. Somehow, I survived.
I digress, though. We finish our dinner and wish each other well. Just one more sleep until race day. I pull out all of my race packet goodies. I verify I have enough safety pins. I double- and triple-check my race outfit. I set three alarms. I drink more water. I stretch. I go to the bathroom a lot. The combination of race day jitters and gallons of water in my bladder results in no sleep. The alarms are pointless. As the clock hits midnight, it’s race day. I’ve made it.
Beth Probst is author of It Could be Worse: A Girlfriend’s Guide for Runners who Detest Running, available at local bookstores and online at bookbaby.com. Follow her running (and life adventures) at circletouradventures.com.
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