On lifelong fitness and the relativity of achievement

One of the goals I set for myself when I signed up for the NYC Marathon was to learn to run properly so that I could develop a healthy habit that would, ideally, last a lifetime. This was one of the smartest moves I could have made. The last couple of weeks, I have continued running, slowly, surely, and have surprised myself at the leaps I have made in my personal fitness. It's so exciting to have faster paces, and personal continuous-running records  but by Saturday evening, I was feeling a good amount of discomfort in my knee and knew I was overdoing it. I missed having coaches to talk to about my training, both the aches and pains as well as the fitness breakthroughs.  It felt counter-intuitive to remind myself that I was still very much a beginner - hadn't I just done a marathon? - and that I wasn't invincible and needed to make slow, steady increases, not large (exciting) jumps. It was hard to go back to two and three mile runs when I had been logging 12+ miles every Saturday morning, but I realized that there are so many layers to the enjoyment of running. There is the physical benefit of it, which almost always gets me out of bed in the mornings; I always feel so much more awake and capable after a morning run, even if it's only two miles. And then there is the exhilaration of pushing yourself past your capabilities. But more than anything, I've been reminding myself that I'm not out there for that run as much as to develop lifelong habits that will keep my body and mind healthy for decades to come, and pushing myself to the point of potential injury does nothing to further that goal. It's a difficult balance to find - how do you find a way to push yourself but still take care of your body?

Another goal I am gearing up for in 2012 is to complete the NYRR 9+1 program to guarantee myself an entry in the 2013 NYC Marathon. Yes, that's right, I'm already excited to do it again! I want to get enough conditioning under my belt so that, instead of hitting the proverbial wall, I can challenge myself to keep going with a smile on my face. In short, I want to enjoy the experience. I'm so excited to have these NYRR races to keep my focus, but I have been concerned that it could get repetitive, and that I could get frustrated if I have a string of great races and then, for whatever reasons, don't. But so many aspects of the race can be great without any sort of focus on the time - even the most difficult struggles can be the most rewarding. And just as I was able to do for many parts of my marathon training, I think it will be a tremendous opportunity to challenge myself mentally as well as physically. I have dealt with so many fears in the past six months, some of which I have written here. That has been, and continues to be, one of my biggest struggles. I held so much fear for the unknown what-ifs that sometimes I would become paralyzed or even retreat to escape the hold that those fears had over me. One of my biggest fears was disappointment: disappointing others and myself. The biggest irony was that, through all of my worrying and fear about failure and disappointment, I would often become consumed by it, and lose sight of my goals. It has only been recently when I have been able to give my goals the attention that they deserve - no more and no less - and develop the confidence in myself to keep working towards then despite nagging doubts, that I have been able to make significant strides forward. On one hand, this might seem fairly depressing - why work for something at all if it is going to cause you so much difficulty? For me, this question can be answered by the beauty and value of each difficulty we encounter:

"When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon, there is a great struggle. If you were to cut open the cocoon in order to spare the new butterfly this struggle, it would never thrive. The struggle to get out is needed to build the wing muscles. Without the struggle, the butterfly will never fly." 


The Journey to the center of Manhattan

It was 4:35 am when my alarm woke me up on November 6th, and I stumbled out of bed, flicked on the bathroom lights, and stood, dazed, for a few moments before it hit me: today I would run a marathon. The next time I would stand in this spot and look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I would see the reflection of a marathoner. Twenty-five to five was far too early for these kind of thoughts, so they just stayed in my head and directed my final steps of preparation. "Nothing new on race day," I thought to myself as I made my toast and almond butter, the same thing I had eaten every morning for the past five months. I pulled on my shirt with my race number already attached, and then it began to sink in. Today I would run a marathon.

My mind was a steady blur as I boarded the bus for Staten Island. Crossing through New Jersey seemed to take forever, and I stared out the window at the world going about their typical Sunday morning. The sun began to peek above the Statue of Liberty's silhouette as she stood in the harbor, an epic reminder of the journey still to come.

We finally arrived in Staten Island and joined up with the other 46,000 or so runners making their way to the starting villages. Huddled masses, indeed. After what felt like endless walking, showing our numbers, and more walking, my group of fellow sojourners and I sat down in our village to wait for the start. And wait for the second start. And wait some more. Finally, the third and last wave of runners was called to find their corrals. This was it....after more shuffling. Soon, the race officials began shuffling the throngs of runners closer and closer to the Verrazano Bridge and as I approached, I could hear "New York, New York" blaring from the speakers. Only a few minutes of shuffling more, and then I was there. At the starting line of the New York City Marathon. And a moment later, my race began.

The Verrazano Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in North America, and also the starting point of the New York City Marathon. It also means that the entire first mile of the race is spent going uphill, and after 10 minutes of marathoning, you start to wonder if your conditioning is going to last you another (what you hope to be) 5 hours and 50 minutes (if you're me and have a goal time of going under 6 hours). At least, that's what was going through my mind. As soon as we were off the bridge, there were crowds of people lining the streets holding signs and yelling "Welcome to Brooklyn!!!!!"

Brooklyn is often described as one giant block party, and with good reason. I made my way down streets lined with people having cookouts, sitting on lawn chairs, blasting stereos, and offering the runners water and encouragement. I kept hearing people cheer "GO EMILY!" as they read my name off the front of my shirt, and felt a solidarity with this city like never before. I felt strong and was keeping a comfortable, steady pace. I can only describe the miles in Brooklyn as a 50,000-person surprise party. The energy was unbelievable, and the groups of cheering spectators grew larger and larger as we got closer to downtown. I couldn't believe I was there, in the thick of it - these people were out cheering for me.

Once I hit about mile 9 or 10, the cheering crowds died off a bit, and I kept thinking "get me the hell out of Brooklyn." I kept my eyes out for two friends who lived along the course and spotted them around mile 12, waving and hugging then getting back on the road. The Pulaski Bridge marks the halfway point in the race. As it came into my sights, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and nerves - I felt like I had been running for hours (and I had - three, to be exact) and I was only halfway?! I had been keeping a fairly steady pace and hit the halfway point at 2:59 - right where I needed to be, but with no room for error and my body starting to feel the effects of three hours of running. Not to be too discouraged though - I had friends waiting for me in Queens with signs and excitement, which was just the boost I needed to make it through my third borough at a steady clip and push through the Queensborough Bridge. I was so excited to run up First Avenue after watching the runners back in 2007, and the crowds didn't disappoint. As I came to the bottom of the Queensborough Bridge, spectators had huge signs that said "10 more miles to go!" Ten miles - piece of cake, right?

About halfway up First Avenue, my legs started to feel a little heavy. And my stomach started it's long aria of discontent. And I kept pushing forward, through mile 17, and 18, until all I could think was "I just want to sit down." I was so tired physically and mentally, and by mile 19, I started walking. As I kept walking through Manhattan, I looked down at my watch and realized that although I was walking, I wasn't losing any speed. I had figured that I would hit a wall at some point and so had incorporated quite a bit of walking into my training. And so I pushed on, up and over the Willis Avenue Bridge, into the Bronx.

Most people think the Bronx leg of the marathon is the most difficult borough, and with good reason. If you're going to hit a wall, it's hitting you full force at that point. The crowds are much thinner, and there are a couple of jaunty little hills to keep you on your toes (literally and metaphorically). But personally, I have the best memories of the Bronx. Between miles 20 and 21 I found a part of myself that was stronger and gutsier than I had imagined. I had been on my feet for nearly five hours. I had an hour to go. Every joint in each of my legs was ready to just sit down. And yet, every step I took was the furthest I had ever gone.

The next five miles were a blur as I willed myself to keep going. I would run for a bit, then walk, and my body ached as I made my way down Fifth Avenue, through Central Park to 59th Street and down to Columbus Circle. I powered through every bit of energy that I had until the entrance back into the park got closer and closer, until I was back in the park and coming up on the 26 mile marker. Just one more turn, one more hill, and I would cross the finish line. And so I ran. I ran back into the park, over the hills, like I had done so many times before. I pushed forward as hard as I could. And then I saw the finish line. It came into sight, then closer and closer until I was crossing it myself.

I had finished a marathon: 26.2 miles in 5 hours and 58 minutes. Words and emotions failed me at that moment, but looking back now, over a week later, I find myself getting choked up as I comprehend what I have accomplished. My journey to the center of Manhattan was finished.


Notes from a Marathon

I am a marathoner. It feels amazing.

I'm still processing a lot of the emotions and excitement of the day, and am a little in awe of this unbelievable accomplishment. I did it.

Thank you to everyone for all of your incredible support.


On Running a Marathon

In just about 72 hours, that's what I'll be doing. I'm ridiculously excited and after re-reading some of my older blog posts, have realized just how far I've come. Not just physically, but mentally - I have tackled so many things that scared me in the last five or so months, sometimes it's hard to believe. And I've been fortunate to have an unbelievable amount of support from family and friends throughout this process. Thinking back a year ago, or even six months ago, the challenge of running this thing was daunting and overwhelming! Running a marathon seemed like a crazy, impossible feat! And it is! But one of the downsides of all the months of hard work is the realization that your goal is attainable - barring any sort of catastrophe, it's going to happen. The transformation from taking on this enormous task and wondering how the heck you'll accomplishment to getting to the point where you can and will finish takes a huge amount of time and energy. And it seems just a little less special and amazing - if I can do it, what's stopping anyone else from doing it, too?

The answer to that is nothing. Anyone who wants to make the time and commitment to train for a marathon can run it. But making the sacrifices and pouring everything you can into the commitment to that goal - that is what makes it truly special. Knowing that you have had the courage to stand up to unknowns and pit yourself against each challenge that comes up along the way without a guaranteed outcome has chipped away at the impossibility at the task at front of you until all of a sudden, it looks reasonable. One of my first blog entries referenced a quote by Henry David Thoreau that said "if you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them." I so vividly remember what compelled me to write that entry - I had just signed up with Team in Training to try to secure a marathon spot. I had built my castle in the air, and was giddy with excitement. Looking back, I think about each day that laid a foundation: each practice, whether it was in the 98 degree heat, the morning of a hurricane, in a torrential downpour, or the beginning of a freak October snowstorm, about all the aches and pains, and runs on sore and tired legs, all of the runs where I felt amazing, and all of the runs where I felt terrible or had to cut it short. I thought of the disappointment and frustration I felt at so many times. And I thought about how, each time, I got back up and faced my fears and frustrations, and what a scary, uncomfortable feeling that was. That's a bit how I feel now, the last few days leading up to race day. But I know I will be able to handle it - I know I can get through it. And I know that when I cross the finish line, I will have done so with courage of which I didn't realize I was capable, and resolve that I didn't know existed.