A View from the Top
A Recollection of Pain
. . . . but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance produces character; and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us . . .” Romans 5:3-5
Who was rejoicing in my suffering? Surely not me. Hope? Yes, I had hope, the thing that I was hoping for was to see the finish line. Perseverance and character building were the furthest things from my mind. Hope was looming rather large. Unfortunately, it was being crowded out by pain. And that pain was a large part of the experience of racing the Boston Mini Marathon a few weeks ago. But there was more, too.
I hadn’t raced in nearly 20 months, not since the Black Mountain Marathon and the Blue Ridge Mountains ripped me a new one in February, 2011. You can train from now until the cows come home, but if you don’t race, and I mean red lining it racing, then you forget. You forget about the pain. Whether it be the sharp searing pain of a 10K, or the grind you up and spit you out in several hours persistent pain of an ultra. You simply cannot imagine it.Training hard just doesn’t get it done. Training long doesn’t get it done either. That may get you physically ready, but mind training, that is what this is really all about in the final analysis.
Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical. (Yogi Berra)
I intended to start out slow and lollygag around for a few miles, kind of just get comfortable and think about maybe bringing it home a little faster sometime after the turn around at 6.55 miles or thereabouts, but I have never been very good at maintaining my composure (read: “ego”) when a woman (or a man, I suspect, but I haven’t seen that one yet) in a pink tutu goes striding by in deep conversation with her BFF. Whoa Nelly, time to throw the planned training run right out the window. See you later, Sally . . . and soon she was history. So were some others.
It is difficult for me to slow it down once I sense that I have taken the bit in my mouth. The first time this really happened was as a sophomore in high school, running in a cross country regional meet. There were about 400 runners and the top 8 automatically qualified for the state meet to be held a few weeks later, regardless of whether your team made the state finals. The race was run at the Garrett Mountain Reservation, in northern New Jersey, where I grew up. It was a tough course and the last half mile was a brutal uphill. Better yet, the trail in that last half mile was in the shape of a long horse shoe, so you could see, and more importantly on this day, clearly count every runner who was in front of you. I busted out of the forest trail and into the horse shoe (as we called it) and started counting…10…11…12…I was running 13th. I could see every one ahead of me who I had to pass to make the magical 8th spot. There were other runners and parents and coaches screaming at us, the place was a madhouse and we all could see exactly where we were and precisely where we needed to be. Then it became a blur, that is all I can remember from so long ago, there was no longer any sound, just a shared sea of pain and suffering.
I counted down as I passed runners and counted up as runners passed me in the all out charge to the finish. It was impossible to keep track of how many were in front of me. We raced to the finish line in those days, there was no such thing as chip timing. You ran to and through the finish line, but your place was determined by the popsickle stick that you grabbed out of the hand of the race official standing at the line. If you were running even with someone you grabbed for the stick and did not dive for the finish line. There was often more than a little “bumping” going on, wholesale shoving the other guy out of the way was sometimes the way it was. I recall grabbing the stick and falling, rolling and then crawling on all fours out of the side of the finishing chute. I remember laying on the ground, heaving for air like a dying carp out of water, slowly asphyxiating and waiting to die. Wanting to die, too.
The popsickle stick said “7.”
But I made a promise that day, to never do that to myself again. I didn’t make the promise consciously, but the deal was struck. And while I raced a lot in years to come, when things got a bit too dicey, I usually found a way to back off the gas. But runners’ memories are weak.
You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming. (Frank Shorter).
And so, I took up redlining again. Not always, not necessarily often, but from time to time, and I have other memories of crawling away from finish lines, having the dry heaves after a race, or perhaps the not so “dry” heaves too. Doesn’t a little vomit after a tough run or race denote an honest effort? I think so. And those are among the best memories too. Now, but not immediately then, only later.
So, back to Boston, Georgia. The miles are passing but not fast enough for me any more. I forgot totally what this felt like. Or maybe I had made myself forget. But I am getting a crash course in pain at the moment. Older, but not necessarily wiser. Passing folks and getting passed by others, but passing more than not. Trying to take pleasure in the pain but failing miserably.
Someone once said that “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” That is such bullcrap. If you race up to your ability and the shape you are in, you suffer. Period. I am suffering. And looking for that finish line. And I am not even to the turn around. But I am smirking through the pain. Those many who lacked good pacing judgment or who overestimated the shape they were really in, or those who couldn’t stomach the pain, were dropping back and were soon a relatively distant memory. Just as I was for some others, who dropped me like a bad habit.
After the turn around I took a silent but solemn pledge to put the hammer down, really down, at Mile 7. When I got to Mile 7, I decided that I would put the hammer down at Mile 8. When I got to Mile 8, hammering it at Mile 9 seemed like a much better idea (rationalize, rationalize, rationalize). It wasn’t like I wasn’t, because I was, but I imagined that there just might be another gear in there, somewhere. There was, but as it turned out that it was a lower gear and not a higher one. But I was running negative splits and the return trip is more uphill in my view, so the effort was an honest one.
Out of the silver mirage he ran. The sky burned and under him, the paving was like a black mirror reflecting sun-fire. Sweat sprayed his skin with each foot strike so that he ran in a hot mist of his own creation. With each slap on the softened asphalt, his soles absorbed heat that rose through his arches and ankles and the stems of his shins. It was a carnival of pain, but he loved each stride because running distilled him to his essence and the heat hastened this distillation. (James Tabor, The Runner).
It was a carnival of pain alright by the time I reached Mile 10. But at some point in this run, like most honestly difficult efforts, another place can be reached. You have to push through the pain to get there, plain and simple. Most times I lack the fortitude and the persistence. Guts.
Yeah, fine, fine, fine, I said, and so my husband and his buddies left me, and all I know is that when it started to get painful—because I’d heard all these stories about marathons—all I know is that the harder it got, the harder I was going to run. (Patti Catalano, My Most Unforgettable Marathon And What I Learned From It).
And so it went in Boston, of the last 3.1 miles, I remember little or nothing. Sometimes you can reach that “other” place. Don’t think, just run. I am thankful for the many people with whom I shared the road that day, ahead of or behind me. It was too long in coming back to race, but I may just hang around a while longer, if you don’t mind.
That someone was right, the pain is inevitable, but the suffering is optional. If not optional, well, at least mostly short term. Frank Shorter is right. And I will continue to hope to not remember, for the next time.