You seem to start with an impossible goal – adrenaline and the promise of future efforts electrify the tips of your fingers as they type in the registration information and sign up for a challenge you’ve never attempted before – never thought of attempting before. The thought on its own is not overwhelming while it’s still weeks out but the training is, because there is not enough time and you need to play the numbers game of where do I fit these big runs in before the day? How long do I give myself to recover? And every time you put those running shoes on and go outside you ask yourself why you’re doing this and can you just go home and be warm and comfortable again? You can’t. Not when that won’t get you to the finish line. Training is brutal, and fun, and overwhelmingly challenging but oddly comfortably so.
The big day, though – nothing quite compares. Nothing prepares you for that except maybe having been there before, but even then there’d still be so much new, so much excitement. So many people. Your nerves feel like they’ve blossomed through the top of your skin, laying raw and vulnerable on it in what mixes to be fear and anticipation and excitement and just that crazy will to prove yourself, so crazy you laugh at yourself for being there in that moment.
Then you start to run, and your thought process stops and focuses only on dodging the hundreds of people immediately surrounding you in a bright sea of colors and goals, and for a second there you’re a machine. You then, however, settle into a pace, and your brain keeps screaming “we’re here doing this!” and your legs already feel like jello but maybe just because you’re nervous and step step step you go, arms firmly at the side and head held up high to try and see where you’re going (but maybe to look more confident and feel that way, too). It’s the sort of indescribable feeling you wish you could put in a jar and hand over for other people to feel so they understand what your madness is about.
The huge numbers ahead don’t yet intimidate, though they loom dark in the horizon like a distant storm being blown your way. Your aches come and go, and they always come. It’s a matter of telling yourself you acknowledge that bit of pain, bow your head lightly in recognition and then proceed to ignore it because it simply does not matter. It is not part of the equation. You find comfort in some odd little things like another runner’s funny tshirt, the dog barking on the front porch you pass quickly and how beautiful of a day it is, shiny golden and alive with noise and cheer and steps.
You begin to see poetry and remember history; in your mind you honor the fact that you are there and doing what many are not fortunate to be able to do and you feel this jolt of power run through you and your pace picks up because your heartbeat does too – there’s a little more impact from your feet on the asphalt as if you’re literally trying to leave your mark on that race, on that day. Your mind races faster than your muscles, thousands of miles away from that moment only to come back and close in on you, remembering again that you’re not even halfway there and maybe you should stop-
Racing gives you the highest highs and lowest lows in perhaps a way that daily tasks never do because you are your own opponent, thinking these thoughts as you glide by the course. If anything works the hardest for this goal it is your brain, providing feedback to your muscles and tendons and ligaments and veins and also saying maybe you should stop running now this hurts and no you have to keep going pick it up and you’re happy then you’re sad, you’re thriving and then you’re hurting… but you are an anchored ship and you are ready for the waves; you’re there to take on the rough waters because if you wanted it easy you’d have stayed safely in the harbor. You know the lows are just a mind trick. And then you take another step, another step, and a few more-
And the breeze on your face feels like a caress while the sun beaming down on your tired skin feels like the righteous punisher, illuminating the road in front of you like a tease while your body feels too hot and too achy and so many others are already done but you just have to keep on running as if your life depends on it because it does, because what you’re doing right there is the raw you, vulnerable and suffering but enjoying and making this adrenaline run through your blood vessels. And this is it; this is one of the too rare moments where you feel so alive you want to cry but you smile at strangers and shout encouraging words because you are on fire in so many different ways. You are burning up with feelings and determination, burning your energy as if it was an infinite source because oddly you find it in that cup of cold water, in that compliment another fellow runner gave you, in one of your favorite songs playing exactly as you started running by. As if it was meant to be. Exactly in the right place, every step of the way.
The journey is tough but if you just keep going, if you just keep running, you find out enough about yourself to know you are going to make it. Even if you have to crawl, you will pass that finish line – your body is a machine and you’re the programmer, it is a tool and you are the forger, the operator. You own yourself and you owe it to yourself, because then you pass mile 22 and mile 23 and your smile grows bigger, you think you may be a little delirious or just slap happy but you are just so close and you promise your body/machine you’ll be gentle to it afterwards because you’re so proud of how well it’s done even through the most painful minutes and hours and then you pass mile 24 and you can’t wait to see people’s faces before or after hugging the ground where you don’t have to be on your tired legs anymore; mile 25 and tears come to your eyes when relief floods you and then gets overpowered by adrenaline and happiness and pride and thirst when you cross mile marker 26 and you see the finish line…
And every bit of you hurts. And yet you’re pure bliss, putting that medal around your neck and smiling so big it’s barely registering because in your head you’re saying we made it. We made it. And you say “we” due to the fact that you almost felt like you were out of your body for the past few hours and you’re finally one again, the runner, the winner, the endurer. And you feel the breeze again, and the sun beating down on you, but you sit down and everything might as well not have happened because you feel all right.
PS: Your challenge doesn’t have to be a marathon.