At 21, I completed my first marathon. Like many first-timers, I had little to no idea what I was doing. What started as a run fueled by extremely unrealistic expectations quickly morphed into a near crawl kept alive by aspiration. I could have cared less. At that time, I was oblivious to this world of “runners”.
It was my 3rd year at university. I didn’t have a running group. I had no “training plan”. My only strategy was to run a little longer each week. I didn’t know that periodicals like Runner’s World existed. My interest derived from curiosity and excitement, not competition. My chief concern was the competition I was going to be having against myself. I wanted to see if I could endure every last inch of 26.2 miles.
On November 7, 2010, I lined up at the Fresno Two Cities Marathon. Upon arrival, I was taken aback at the amount of people signed up for the race. Where and when are all of these people running? I had never seen any of them. Regardless, not only was everybody lined up, but all looked like they knew what they were doing. I felt like I did not.
The energy was infectious. I blazed through my first 10K. Rookie mistake. I thought I had a chance at qualifying for the Boston Marathon; another rookie mistake. I was stoked. Perfect weather, legs are feeling good. That changed quickly. Any ideas of Boston grandeur dissipated quickly and my stride deteriorated after the 16th mile. Every step forward hurt more and more.
Then, the intensity ratcheted up to a new level at around mile 20. Almost instantaneously, I was introduced to “the wall”. It hit hard. Despite my best attempts at forcing the pain aside, it just stuck around and infiltrated my mind. I had difficulty tolerating such extraordinary discomfort. Up to this point in my life, I had never felt anything like this. My physical state deteriorated at a faster rate than my dawdling pace. Perhaps, even more concerning was that every last fiber of resolve I thought I had in me was now withering away.
Soon, the crowds increased.
The cheering intensified.
Perhaps my ride on the struggle bus is coming to an end?
Many a spectator hollered, “You’re almost there!”
Gee, thanks. It sure doesn’t seem that way.
How much does “almost there” really mean? At this point, their definition of “almost there” was much different than mine.
I know spectators meant well and their support helped, but I wasn’t thinking rationally. This isn’t a plea for forgiveness either, just the matter of the situation. There were no positive thoughts floating around. No good vibes. None.
I had officially stepped into a new territory that I’d never felt before in my life: a world of pain.
Still though, I kept going. Earlier in the race, I noticed some elderly folks participating in the marathon. I grew eager to see how long they would last. Well, now, THEY were blowing by me. Hubris really is the silent killer. Apparently, “Almost there” didn’t equate to “there”. The only way I would get through it was by taking one step at a time.
I turned what appeared to be the final corner.
There it was, the iconic arena that is Woodward Park.
I glanced around. To my left, there stood my parents, family friends, and others. I felt like I was floating and clicking off sub-6 minute miles. I wasn’t. The pictures confirmed otherwise. I looked at the clock: Four hours and some change.
It’s finally over.
No more almosts!
Immediately after crossing the finish, I was adorned the finisher’s medal etched inscribed with the race and date. Out of nowhere, this wave of emotions washed over me: relief, joy, exhaustion, excitement, ecstasy, and unrelenting discomfort.
In an attempt to exit the finishers village, I tried to play it cool like I knew what I was doing. The medic was watching. She saw me. Perhaps, it was the staggered cadence, pale face, and slurred speech that was a dead giveaway. I don’t know. She asked me politely to take a seat and drink some water.
No, I’m good.
I did my best to fight it. It didn’t work. My hobble only intensified. Nevertheless, I submitted to the overwhelming exhaustion and took a seat. Finally, a logical thought! Heeding her advice might be a solid life decision. She then wrapped me in one of those stylish aluminum blankets. I was super fired up over the aluminum blanket because now, it felt like I had finished a marathon.
After exiting the finishing chute, I saw family and friends. They shared nothing but encouragement. I rolled around on the grass in a pitiful attempt to find the smallest semblance of comfort.
The sweat had all but dried up on my shirt. I got really cold really fast. Fortunately, my Dad’s friend, Kadalak (a 2:28 marathoner in his day), knew the post-race protocol. He came equipped with a sweatshirt for me. That stuck with me, as I have packed a sweatshirt at the finish line of every single long-distance race I’ve done.
At this point, the primary objective turned to pizza and beer. Walking was an unforeseen struggle. My Dad sat me down on his bike and pushed me along to the car. And to think that I tried to play it cool earlier…
Beer had never tasted so satisfying as it did in that moment. The collective joy was now emanating around our corner table.
Satisfied, I swore I would never put myself through anything like that again. One and done. It wasn’t “fun”. I earned my regalia.
After lunch, we parted ways and it started raining. This made turning a nap from an idea into a reality the least challenging task of the day.
I woke up from that nap and the Oakland Raiders - my favorite team in any sport - were on television. They were in overtime with the Kansas City Chiefs. I was so stoked that I could have cared less who won the game. In my struggle to move, I watched. My favorite player, Sebastian Janikowski, had an opportunity to win the game. The Polish Cannon lived up to his name and smashed it through the uprights. I smiled and thought to myself: How can it get better than this?
The next week was surreal. I remember feeling a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I walked into my Ancient Chinese Civilization course the next morning.
Some friends asked about it. I said the usual stuff. It was hard. I hit the wall. I’m never doing that again… The week wore on and I remained on cloud nine. Literally. It was like a high that no drug could provide. Friends and family called to see how it went. By Thursday, it went from “brutal” to “incredible!”
It was surreal. The euphoria was different than anything I had experienced before. Kevin Eslinger , swimming coach and ultra-endurance athlete once paddled 120 miles from Santa Barbara to Ocean Beach (San Diego). He coined this post-performance bliss as “The Hollow Glow”
What follows these profound moments is a Hollow Glow. Hollow in the sense that you’ve just enlarged the space that you live in, by doing something that you’ve done beyond any previous experience. At the same time, there is the glow. It might just feel like you’re walking a couple inches higher off of the ground. You feel like you aren’t touching the ground for however long that glow lasts. To me, this is a sign that we all have this proclivity to literally grow as much as we can. When you do something that produces this, it doesn’t take too long before you start looking at what the next target may or may not be"
- Kevin Eslinger
1. The beauty isn’t necessarily the challenge; it’s how far one is willing to stretch his or herself to meet the challenge. That’s where the edges lie.
a. Everybody’s edge is different, thus, everybody’s challenges require varied degrees and frequencies.
b. 26.2 is really an arbitrary number. On that day, it wasn’t. This was a goal that required preparation and was sustained by purpose. It took every step of that distance to uncover a place deep inside of me that I didn’t know existed. Such an intense experience lays a foundation for new discoveries. There’s nothing arbitrary about that.
2. The result is only one variable of many. That’s not to say it doesn’t bear any weight, but quantifying success shouldn’t be solely limited to the outcome. Focusing only on the results limits one’s propensity to learn afterwards. Other variables to consider might be: self-talk strategies, nutrition, hydration, sodium intake, pre-race routine (week before, day before, morning of), pace allocation…
3. I still am unsure of what this post-race euphoria can be attributed to:
a. Is it the movement?
b. Is it the distance?
c. The time?
d. The preparation?
e. All of that energy coming together?
f. Or is it the simple act of challenging oneself?
g. I’d like to believe it’s a collection of all of the above.
4. Never underestimate the incalculable value that a challenge might yield. Really, I had no idea how influential that day would be in my life. I got way more than I bargained for on that day.
5. How might I be undermining growth for other areas of my life?
6. Participating in these challenges is a privilege because it’s voluntary. Others aren’t so fortunate, as the challenges many face aren’t by choice. It’s a 21st luxury, so choose wisely.