It’s March 9th. On April 9th, I will run my very first half marathon. That is, I hope I will run my very first half marathon. I know that (Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise) I will cross the Start Line, and I know I will cross the Finish Line. What happens in between is anyone’s guess.

It’s been two months since I began training for this race. In that time, I’ve learned many things, and I’m struggling with many more. At this critical juncture, I think it’s time to record a few of those lessons here.

  1. The Stats Don’t Really Matter. In many ways, training for this half marathon has reminded me of writing my dissertation for my PhD. One of the things you learn pretty quickly, is that the end result is not actually as critical as the process itself. My committee barely glanced at my finished dissertation (and I certainly never gave it a second thought once it was completed). They didn’t judge my readiness for my PhD through the finished 264 pages. They determined my abilities based on the four years prior. The conferences I attended. The countless drafts I submitted. The many (many!) rabbit holes I pursued to no real avail. I’m slowly coming to understand that this half marathon will be the same way. How fast I’m able to finish. Whether or not I’ll have to walk a few miles. Where I place in the pack. How well I’m able to pace myself. Only other runners will be interested in those details. I will be interested in those details. Everybody else will just care that I finish. My dissertation is not worthy of publication. But that doesn’t matter. I have my PhD. That’s the accomplishment. Everything else is just statistics. (You think anyone cared when this guy finished the Boston Marathon dead last, and in 20 hours? Hell no! He finished the Boston Marathon. End of story.)
  2. I’m Constantly Disappointing Myself. Running is an almost entirely self-motivated sport. There’s no team. No coach. No fans in the bleachers. It’s you. It’s your head. Your thoughts. Maybe some music. A road. The air. Therefore, it’s not surprising that runners are considered something of a psychological mystery. Because of the release of endorphins that comes with any physical activity, running eventually feels good, but the good feelings—the high—are very temporary and only last a short time. Getting your brain to release that dopamine is a long process. And a painful one. And it’s all on you. The runner has to be willing to undergo hours of self-inflicted torture for twenty minutes of satisfaction. And research has shown that runners often self-identify as intelligent, motivated, excited by challenges and risks, and highly critical (Who has two thumbs and fits all those personality traits to a T? This girl!). The majority of my training these last few months, therefore, has involved me analyzing, assessing, and finding fault with every aspect of my running. I slept in and missed my cross training session. I had to walk after that last hill. I couldn’t make the distance I wanted to. I didn’t eat right before a run, and was stymied by horrible cramps. My running is all on me, so when something goes wrong (and it frequently does) I have no one else to blame. So I blame me. A lot.
  3. I’m Constantly Impressed with Myself. All that being said, my training is truly paying off. I’m improving. Quite a lot. Every day when I go out for a run, I can feel how much stronger I’ve become in just two months. How my stride has changed. How my breathing has slowed. How my pace has increased. That’s perhaps the best and most surprising part of this process: the improvement in my pace. I didn’t even care about pace when I began training. I wanted the distance. I wanted to be able to say that I can run—run!!—13 whole miles. I never thought I would get faster in the meantime, but I have. When I first started back into running after a nearly 4-year hiatus, I was thrilled when I completed my first outside mile in 11:57, three seconds faster than I could run on the treadmill. Today, a 12-minute mile would feel like crawling for me. The last three times I’ve run my routine “maintenance” miles, I’ve completed them in an average of 9:30 per mile (some splits faster, some slower, but pretty consistent for a newbie). I regularly can now look down at my watch, and amaze myself with a PR that I never seem to be anticipating. I realized just last week that I’ll likely run this race as a “middle of the pack” runner. That makes me proud. I’m only 4’11”. I have 25” inseam. I’m pear shaped. But I’m moving. I’m not breaking any records, but I’m taking a body that falls solidly on the left side of the bell curve and pushing its capabilities right into the center. That’s kind of awesome. Kind of really awesome.
  4. I’m Not Doing this Alone. Running is solitary. Being a runner isn’t. Being a runner who is also a stay-at-home-parent of two small children with a spouse who works 70 hours a week requires a community. Though I try to get my runs finished in the mornings before my husband leaves for work, often, that plan fails. Training through all of January and February, there were plenty of mornings where roads were slick, sidewalks weren’t cleared off, visibility was minimal. For me, safety always comes first. Even if that means sacrificing a run. If conditions are bad, or in any way dangerous I just won’t go out. (I hate running in the dark. Even though I live in a quiet neighborhood, I am required to run on several streets without sidewalks, and I don’t want to be running on the same street as a sleepy sanitation worker who might be reaching for his coffee instead of looking for short moms in reflective tights.) Plans don’t always work out. So I’ve needed other people. A lot. On the weekends, my husband goes into work an hour and a half late, so I can get in a long run after sunrise. During the week, my mother-in-law watches my girls for a few hours so I can slip out to the YMCA (when the weather is cold) or down to my favorite trail, and still have time for a shower. My neighbor and I exchange babysitting. I’ll watch her boys when she has a doctor’s appointment, and she gets my girls when I need to wait until the afternoon for a run. Friends have emailed me, texted me, and told me that I’m doing a great job. I’ve asked for (and received!) Facebook messages of encouragement from both runners and non-runners. People have actually walked up to me, and told me that following my updates on my running has inspired them to try running. To try walking. To try Zumba. To try. I’ve even had neighbors roll down their windows and wave and cheer as they drive past me. All of this has made my training possible. I couldn’t have made the progress I’ve made without all of you. My community.
  5. I’m Still Totally, Completely, Unbelievably, Shaking-Down-to-My-Boots Terrified. I mean, seriously. 13.1 miles?? What the hell was I thinking? What am I thinking? And it hurts. (I’m starting to have IT pain in my left knee. That shit is uncomfortable as hell!) And it’s hard. Really hard. Why am I doing this thing that’s really, really, really, ridiculously hard? For a medal? For the bragging rights? I mean, really, Rachel, why?

The truth is, I have no idea why I’m doing this. It all just seems like an extended experiment in pain tolerance most of the time. But I do know what my mantra has been (what it’s been ever since I started my PhD, actually). John F. Kennedy, when he announced to the world that America would send a man to the Moon within a decade, gave one of the most inspiring speeches in the history of American politics. And I think about that speech every time I run. Every time I realize that it’s hard. Every time I want to quit. JFK talked about the whys too. Why go to the Moon? Why explore beyond our atmosphere? Why spend the money, and risk the lives, and tap the brain power? His response:

 “We . . . do . . . [these] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Because they are hard.

I want to do hard things. (That’s what she said.) I’d rather fail doing something difficult, something challenging, something impossible, then float along on a cloud of a million easy successes. I want to reach, and stretch, and pull all less-than-five-feet of me to the farthest distances I can, both figurative and literal. I want to do this.

And right now, at this moment, I think that I can.

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