|NYC Half Marathon. Andy (front) is having way more fun than I am.|
If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times: the marathon doesn’t owe you anything. You can put in countless hours of work over days and weeks and months. You can eat the right things, do the right exercises, run the right paces, train on the right terrain, hire the right coach, get the right sleep, buy the right gear, choose the right course. . . . You still aren’t guaranteed squat. And that’s scary enough under normal circumstances, but this time, I feel like I’ve invested so much more. I’ve tried incredibly hard to do All The Right Things. I cut way down on desserts and alcohol, and I focused on eating nutritious food both before and after workouts. I prioritized sleep. I passed up very tempting vacations with very good friends. I vigilantly performed strength sessions twice a week, committed to “recovery” activities* at least once if not twice a day, kept a hand-written training journal, and actually stretched. Give yourself the best shot, I kept telling myself as I shelled out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for preventative physical therapy (when my foot started hurting) and for acupuncture (to manage ongoing lower back issues). Just get to the starting line.
Now the starting line is almost here, and I’m scared of the pain that I know is coming. Scared of the Big Feelings that await me if I fail.
About a year ago, in an episode of the Ali on the Run podcast, the host (Ali Feller) talked about being scared to fail at something she really, really cared about. She was scared because, according to her, she had never failed at anything she wanted that badly before. At the time I thought, Huh, I don’t think I’ve ever failed at anything important to me, either. But the thought nagged at me, until eventually, I remembered something.
When I was in high school, I wanted very badly to go to Governor’s School. Governor’s School is a summer program where the best and brightest students in the state of Pennsylvania go off to a college campus and study their “specialty field” with other equally gifted students. A friend of mine (who is now a professional Broadway musician) had gotten into the Governor’s School for the Arts in music, and when we visited her that summer, I immediately knew I had to attend. Everyone seemed so smart, and the campus was so beautiful, and the activities all looked so fun, and the performances were so amazing. It just seemed like a mecca for creativity and advancement—a place where the best went to become even better. And within my high school, I was arguably the best creative writer. At the very least, I was the most decorated. Plus, I had never failed at anything. I would apply, and I would get in, and I would have the best summer of my life.
The spring of my sophomore year, I received my first rejection letter. Just one piece of paper, folded into crisp thirds inside a standard envelope. It was a form letter. I was lucky they had even bothered to insert my name. In my junior year, I received a second, identical letter. Seniors were not allowed to apply.
The reality was crushing. My writing wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough. And all this time, I had thought I was great. People had told me I was great, talented, special. But these canned, impersonal letters showed me that I was living in a very, very small pond. I couldn't even beat out students in the paltry state of Pennsylvania. It was devastating.
The only tiny consolation I had was that no one else knew about my failure. I think I might have told my parents and maybe my best friend that I had applied to Governor’s School, but I honestly don’t remember telling them I’d been rejected. I kept those rejection letters in my top dresser drawer, where no one would ever see them, and eventually they were smothered in socks and threadbare T-shirts, and I put the whole thing behind me—so far behind me, that I forgot about the event entirely. Until now.
Now I’m older and, if not wiser, certainly more realistic. I don’t have the luxury of assuming I’ll succeed, because I know better. I know what those Big Feelings are like, and how heartbreaking it is to come up short.
Yet as I was spending all the hours doing All The Things, I couldn’t help but imagine the other types of Big Feelings, too. The kind where if everything clicks, and my legs feel fresh, and the weather stays cool, and my stomach cooperates, and I have runners I can hang with, and my brain shuts up, I will get to mile 26.19 and look up at the clock and . . . cry? Or maybe I will smile. Maybe I’ll give a fist pump, or I could fall dramatically to the ground. I’m a writer—I’ve come up with a lot of scenarios. The important thing is that this moment will be one of the very few when I feel complete, genuine pride.
However, there are no guarantees; that’s the gamble we take with Big Goals. So in the last few days before this race, my job is to find pride in what I’ve done to get this far and to express gratitude for those who have helped me along the way. This time last year, I was just returning to running after three months off. I am so grateful to have stayed “in the game” since then, and proud of the patience and persistence it’s taken to rebuild fitness. I have a ton of people to thank, but the short list includes my coach J. Lakritz; my PT A. McGinnis; my acupuncturist S. Park; my “unofficial” teammates (Justin’s Joggers and beyond!); my ever-supportive fiancé; and the many friends who are always in my corner, no matter if I’m running fast, slow, or not at all.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a season recap without some highlights, so here are just a few:
Biggest Change: Joining Distance Project NYC. Historically, all of my sporting endeavors have been as part of a team, and there’s a reason for that. I like to contribute to something larger than myself. I like rooting for others and having them root for me. So by “running unattached” for the last two years, I’ve missed out on that camaraderie. However, being teamless also been good for me, because the lack of structure and built-in running partners has forced me to broaden my running circle . . . and ultimately led me to help start DPNYC, where I’ve met even more accomplished, speedy, enthusiastic women.
Toughest Run: Long run, in Guadeloupe. I had envisioned running along flat sandy beaches. Instead I wound up on unevenly paved, extremely narrow residential roads that were literally built into the sides of cliffs (and not the pretty “ocean view” sides, either). Also it was 80 degrees and humid, and I drank zero water throughout the entire run. (Yes, this does make me an idiot.) In the last half mile, I proceeded to trip, skin my knees, and tear my shorts. What’s the French word for “fury”?
Most Helpful Tool: Believe Training Journal. There is something about writing by hand that affects me in a way typing never will. The prompts in this journal and the routine of writing in it helped me to mentally focus each week-long block of training and (I think!) grow as an athlete.
Favorite Race: Gridiron 4 miler. I ran this race early in the season and it went better than expected. I took a risk by approaching it with a “go out hard and hang on” attitude (not my preferred racing style!), but I still managed to finish hard and pass other women. Can’t ask for more than that.